IT IS a well-known tradition near Magdeburg, that when a man who is a thief by inheritance,--that is to say, whose father and grandfather and great-grandfather before him, three generations of his family, have been thieves; or whose mother has committed a theft, or been possessed with an intense longing to steal something at the time immediately preceding his birth; it is the tradition that if such a man should be hanged, at the foot of the gallows whereon his last breath was exhaled will spring up a plant of hideous form known as the Alraun or Gallows Mannikin. It is an unsightly object to look at, and has broad, dark green leaves, with a single yellow flower. The plant, however, has great power, and whosoever is its possessor never more knows what it is to want money.
It is a feat full of the greatest danger to obtain it. If not taken up from the root, clean out of the soil, it is altogether valueless, and he who makes the experiment wantonly risks his life. The moment the earth is struck with the spade, the bitterest cries and shrieks burst forth from it, and while the roots are being laid bare demons are heard to howl in horrid concert. When the preparatory work is done, and when the hand of the daring man is laid on the stem to pluck forth his prize, then is it as if all the fiends of hell were let loose upon him, such shrieking, such howling, such clanging of chains, such crashing of thunder, and such flashing of forked lightning assail him on every side. If his heart fail him but for one moment his life is forfeit. Many a bold heart engaged in this trial has ceased to beat under the fatal tree; many a brave man's body has been found mangled and torn to pieces on that accursed spot.
There is, however, happily, only one day in the month, the first Friday, on which this plant appears, and on the night of that day only may it be plucked from its hiding-place. The way it is done is this. Whoso seeks to win it fasts all day. At sundown he sets forth on his fearful adventure, taking with him a coal-black hound, which has not a single fleck of white on its whole body, and which he has compelled likewise to fast for four-and-twenty hours previously. At midnight he takes his stand under the gallows, and there stuffs his ears with wool or wax, so that he may hear nothing. As the dread hour arrives, he stoops down and makes three crosses over the Alraun, and then commences to dig for the roots in a perfect circle around it. When he has laid it entirely bare, so that it only holds to the ground by the points of its roots, he calls the hound to him, and ties the plant to its tail. He then shows the dog some meat, which he flings to a short distance from the spot. Ravenous with hunger, the hound springs after it, dragging the plant up by the root, but before he can reach the tempting morsel he is struck dead as by some invisible hand.
The adventurer, who all the while stood by the plant to aid in its uprooting should the strength of the animal prove insufficient, then rushes forward, and, detaching it from the body of the dead hound, grasps it firmly in both hands. He then wraps it up carefully in a silken cloth, first, however, washing it well in red wine, and then bears it homeward. The hound is buried in the spot whence the Alraun has been extracted.
On reaching home the man deposits his treasure in a strong chest, with three locks, and only visits it every first Friday in the month, or, rather, after the new moon. On these occasions he again washes it with red wine, and enfolds it afresh in a clean silken cloth of white and red colours.
If he has any question to ask, or any request to make, he then puts the one or proffers the other. If he wish to know of things in the future, the Alraun will tell him truly, but he will only get one answer in the moon, and nothing else will be done for him by the plant. If he desire to obtain some substantial favour, he has it performed for him on making his request, but then the Alraun will answer no inquiries as to the future until the next day of visitation shall arrive.
Whoso has this wonder of the world in his possession can never take harm from his foes, and never sustain any loss. If he be poor, he at once becomes rich. If his marriage be unblest by offspring, he at once has children.
If a piece of gold be laid beside the Alraun at night, it is found to be doubled in the morning, and so on for any sum whatsoever, but never has it been known to be increased more than two pieces for each one.
On the demise of the owner only a youngest son can inherit the Alraun. To inherit it effectually he must place a loaf of white bread and a piece of money in the coffin of his father, to be buried along with his corpse. If he fail to do so, then is the possession, like many others of great name in the world, of no value to him. Should, however, the youngest son fail before the father, then the Alraun rightfully belongs to the eldest, but he must also place bread and money in the coffin of his brother, as well as in that of his father, to inherit it to any purpose.