Wayland D. Hand, curator of what is believed the largest assemblage of American superstitions, folk remedies and lingering myths ever placed under a single roof, has died at 79.
Hand, professor emeritus of German and folklore at UCLA and collator of the “Encyclopedia of American Popular Beliefs and Superstitions"--most of which he had jotted down on 3x5-inch cards throughout his life--died Thursday of an apparent heart attack at an airport in Pittsburgh on his way to the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society.
He was a collector of oddities who labored in a setting of scholars. But his work became so well known that he was accepted as an esteemed academic even though his specialties ranged from ancient cures for warts to the medicinal values of chicken soup.
Until his long-dreamed-of Archive of American Folk Medicine opened in 1984, most of his scholarship had been hidden in basement offices. Near one of those closet-like settings was this sign: “Nothing is too wonderful to be true.”
It summed up what Hand called folklore’s role in “our understanding of culture.”
Physically, he resembled Mr. Chips but spoke like the protector of parables that he was.
“People like to believe things like that ‘if you sneeze four times in a row you will die.’ Hence the expression ‘God bless you.’ ”
Or, he continued, “if you put your husband’s hand in a pail of water while he is sleeping he will tell all.”
“It’s not whether they’re true or false,” Hand would say of the folklore fantasies. “But people want to believe in something. . . . “
Hand credited the Irish, Germans and British and rural Americana as the prime perpetuators of myth in our time. The Irish believed that a sudden warm breeze signaled the passing of a ghost; the Germans that giving a woman yellow flowers meant that the giver was jealous; the British of avoiding cracks in sidewalks.
Then there were the American versions:
“In Iowa maybe 20 or 30 years ago,” he said in 1985, “they had the notion that the first person to leave the cemetery after a funeral would be the next person to die. So people would stand around until someone less familiar with the superstition left first.”
Hand was a native of New Zealand who earned a doctoral degree from the University of Chicago and came to UCLA as a professor of Germanic languages in 1937, later becoming head of the department.
In 1944, he was asked by the North Carolina Folklore Society to edit a volume of their work and from that grew his prize-winning dictionary “Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina” and eventually the 40-year, half-million item collection that became the American encyclopedia of myth.
Notes and random sayings would come to his office where he established 30 major categories, ranging from amulets to weather. They were then broken down into hundreds of subclassifications and placed on cards and filed away for eventual publication.
Many were from the South, such as these two from Kentucky and Tennessee:
“If one burns sassafras wood, a man and a woman will live together and fight all their lives.” And, “the number of white spots on your fingernails represents the number of lies you have told.”
Hand retired in 1974 but continued to research the encyclopedia while also serving as president of the American Folklore Society and as a member of the board of the New American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
Survived by his wife, Celeste, two daughters and a son, Hand said he was often asked if he himself was superstitious.
He did not answer directly but instead recalled one year when fire hazards were high and he was living in a dangerous area in the San Fernando Valley: “I came across a saying that calico cats protect houses from fire. I felt considerably better that we happened to have a calico cat.”