Herbert Hoover and the Tommyknockers: Mythic Gnomes of the Mine Shafts

By Thomas F. Schwartz

If there is any public recognition of the word “Tommyknocker” it is probably a reference to the 1987 Stephen King novel The Tommyknockers or spin off ABC miniseries with Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger.  The Stephen King novel’s use of “Tommyknocker” has nothing to do with the ancient mythic gnome that was widely known by miners.  Depending on the cultural context, Tommyknockers could be beneficial spirits or evil spirits.  Traditionally, miners who heard sounds before a shaft would collapse often attributed it to a “Tommyknocker.”  Certain cultures interpreted these sounds as coming from the spirits of dead miners, warning their brethren of the impending danger so they might escape death.  Other cultures saw the sounds as actually causing the mine collapse, imputing an evil motive to these spirits.  Generally, the more favorable view won the day as stories of Tommyknockers continued to flourish among the oral traditions of miners.

It was a little more than a year before his death that Herbert Hoover weighed in on the subject of Tommyknockers.  Joseph L. Milliken, who was leading the local organizing committee for the Grass Valley-Nevada City, California 4th of July celebration committee, asked Hoover if he had ever come across the term.  Wanting to use the term as the theme of the 1963 celebration, Milliken could not find any information about Tommyknockers at the public library.  He decided to go to one of the world’s leading mining engineers as a last resort.  Milliken also knew that Hoover got his start in the Grass Valley Reward gold mine working the ten hour evening shift, seven days a week at two dollars a day.  Hoover did not disappoint.  “The tommyknockers,” Hoover wrote, “were the gnomes who for centuries had given benevolent aid to the hard rock miners, mostly by warning of rock falls and water breaks.  They were associated with fairies, generally, and we all believe in fairies.  They have a long record with the happiness of miners.  About fifty years ago, Mrs. Hoover and I translated a book written in Latin about mining matters of four hundred years ago.  It describes the benevolent character of these gnomes, and their knocks to warn the miners.  I had occasion to meet the mining gnomes in person in a Russian Mine, somewhere about 1908.  The Russian miners so believed in them that they cast life-size figures of them in the machine shops and placed them in needed spots around and in the mines.  To prove my belief in their efficacy, I brought one of them home, although he weighs many pounds.  He still guards the entrance of my apartment in the Waldorf-Astoria.”

Statue that Hoover brought back from Russia, it guarded the entrance to his Waldorf Astoria apartment.

It took two attempts to get a photograph of Hoover’s Tommyknocker, or as Hoover put it “the photo of my door man,” to Milliken.  On the second effort Hoover wrote, “I do not know whether your search yielded a picture of a tommyknocker, but finally, here is a photograph of mine.  And I have recent reason to believe in his protective efficacy (at least he holds the door shut at times).”   Hoover’s “door man” remained a friendly mythic gnome protecting against evil spirits entering his residence at Suite 31-A, Waldorf Towers.



3 thoughts on “Herbert Hoover and the Tommyknockers: Mythic Gnomes of the Mine Shafts

  1. They like to play tricks on miners too!
    Working night shift at the old Gooseberry Mine near Reno one night I was running a trammer down about a mile of drift to check on some drillers. On the return trip, my trammer derailed on a piece of 3 x 6 about 12″ long. Oddly, when I left the shaft station, there was no wood on the trammer, and the derailment happened in an untimbered section of the drift. No wood anywhere within 100 yards.
    Once I was back on the tracks again, I put a cookie in a crack in the rock, and never had anything happen in that drift again!
    Leave them cookies, part of a sandwich, or a piece of candy, and they will take care of you.

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