The cold hand – he knew his partner’s touch |

The cold hand – he knew his partner’s touch

Through the years I have spent countless hours in many libraries researching and studying the California Gold Rush era. During which time I encountered dozens of folk tales. Some have been told and retold. However, from time to time I happily discovered a few which were unfamiliar to me. Some of those seemed quite implausible while others rang true. Here’s one of my favorites; you decide.

From Ireland and Cornwall and Italy came the many stalwarts who worked underground in Nevada County’s seemingly inexhaustible gold mines. From Ireland and Cornwall and Italy they came and worked underground and harbored pet superstitions.

Principal among the superstitious were the Cornishmen, the Cousin Jacks who brought with them knowledge of the Tommyknockers, the little people who lived in the depths of the mines. It was the Tommyknocker’s inquisitive nocturnal timber-tapping that made sure the wooden bracing was safe and sound for next day’s work. There were no cave-ins where these little fellows were on the job.

It was the Cornishman who insisted that if a miner’s wife broke her needle while mending her husband’s coveralls, it was a sign of good luck; it meant the man would outlive the mended garment. He would also frown deeply at anyone who carried a knife underground.

However, it remained for an Irishman to give rise to the oft-repeated yarn of “spirits in the earth!”

In the late-1860s, there came from Killarney John J. Kelly, a hard-working miner in his late 20s who liked his job “right fine, thank you.” His best friend, another Son of Erin with whom he had crossed the Atlantic and the continent and who had been his partner, was killed in a mining accident. Kelly took this tragedy in stride, after all he was sure that he had been born lucky.

One day Kelly was working in the Regal Blue, a mine whose main shaft sloped gently downward as it followed the gold bearing quartz vein deep underground. A person could walk easily down to where the men dug the ore. Iron rails lined the center of the sloping tunnel. Here mules hauled small, ore-filled carts to the surface.

One of Kelly’s daily responsibilities was to make sure the magazine where the dynamite was kept was locked before he came to the surface at the end of the shift.

The room was small and instead of a latch on the outside, a hole had been cut in the door to allow a man to reach in and raise or lower an iron bar that served as a lock. One night Kelly automatically reach in through the hole to make certain the bar was in place when it happened.

With a terrifying, high pitched scream, he dropped his lunch pail and, scrambling and falling down, raced full speed up the incline to daylight. He trembled as he panted, “My partner! my dead partner Sean. He shook hands with me!”

None of the miners doubted Kelly, they all believed; they knew about spirits, ghosts and strange underground happenings. When Kelly drew his pay and quit, they all nodded that he was right, he should not continue underground. If a man’s dead partner came back to shake his hand, it most surely was a warning that must be heeded.

Later, much later came the explanation. Two of Kelly’s friends were in the storeroom when he reached in to check the latch, They had, they said, a bucket of water and when they saw his groping arm, one of them dipped his own hand quickly into the water, brought it out and dripping and shook Kelly’s hand.

Kelly was later told the story but refused to believe it. “Those two, those two are the biggest liars I’ve ever met or had the misfortune of working with,” he said. “Wouldn’t a man know his own partner’s handshake, now wouldn’t he?” A man indeed would know his own partner’s handshake they all agreed.

Kelly stuck to his resolve as long as he lived. He had shaken the cold hand of his dead partner and never again went underground!


BOB WYCKOFF is a retired Nevada County newspaper editor and author of local history. His latest work, “The Way It Was, Looking Back at Nevada County,” published by The Union, is available at The Union’s office, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley. You may contact him at: or P.O. Box 216, Nevada City, CA 95959.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User