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An engraving–probably made from a contemporary artist’s sketch–shows the eight Haitian “voodoo” devotees found guilty in February 1864 of the murder and cannibalism of a 12-year-old child. From Harper’s Weekly

It was a Saturday, market day in Port-au-Prince, and the chance to meet friends, gossip and shop had drawn large crowds to the Haitian capital. Sophisticated, French-educated members of the urban ruling class crammed into the market square beside illiterate farmers, a generation removed from slavery, who had walked in from the surrounding villages for a rare day out.

The whole of the country had assembled, and it was for this reason that Fabre Geffrard had chosen February 13, 1864, as the date for eight high-profile executions. Haiti’s reformist president wished to make an example of these four men and four women: because they had been found guilty of a hideous crime—abducting, murdering and cannibalizing a 12-year-old girl. And also because they represented everything Geffrard hoped to leave behind him as he molded his country into a modern nation: the backwardness of its hinterlands, its African past and, above all, its folk religion.

President Fabre Geffrard, whose efforts to reform Haiti ended in disappointment when he was accused of corruption and forced to flee the country by a violent coup.

Call that religion what you will—voodoo, vaudaux, vandaux, vodou (the last of these is generally preferred today)—Haiti’s history had long been intertwined with it. It had arrived in slave ships centuries earlier and flourished in backwoods maroon villages and in plantations that Christian priests never visited. In 1791, it was generally believed, a secret vodou ceremony had provided the spark for the violent uprising that liberated the country from its French masters: the single example of a successful slave rebellion in the history of the New World.

Outside Haiti, though, vodou was perceived as primitive and sanguinary. It was nothing but “West African superstition [and] serpent worship,” wrote the British traveler Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard, who walked across the Haitian interior in 1899, and believers indulged in “their rites and their orgies with practical impunity.” For visiting Westerners of this sort, vodou’s popularity, in itself, was proof that the “black republic” could not claim to be civilized.
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The Topkapi seen from across the Golden Horn

Ottoman executioners were never noted for their mercy; just ask the teenage Sultan Osman II, who in May 1622 suffered an excruciating death, “by compression of the testicles,” at the hands of a wrestler-cum-assassin by the name of Pehlivan. There was reason for this ruthlessness, however; for much of its history (the most successful bit, in fact), the Turkish empire flourished thanks, at least in part, to the staggering violence it meted out to the highest and mightiest members of society.

Osman II: death by crushed testicles

Seen from this perspective, it might actually be argued that the Ottomans’ decline set in early in the 17th century, precisely at the point at which they abandoned the policy of ritually murdering vast swathes of the royal family whenever a sultan died, and substituted the dangerously decadent western notion of simply giving the job to the first-born son instead. Before that time, the Ottoman succession had been governed by the “law of fratricide” drawn up by Mehmed II in the middle of the fifteenth century, and under the terms of this remarkable piece of legislation, whichever member of the Ottoman dynasty succeeded in seizing the throne on the death of the old sultan was not merely permitted, but enjoined, to murder all his brothers (together with any inconvenient uncles and cousins) in order to reduce the risk of subsequent rebellion and civil war. Although it was not invariably applied, Mehmed’s law certainly resulted in the deaths of at least 80 members of the House of Osman over a period of 150 years. These victims included all 19 siblings of Sultan Mehmed III – some of whom were still infants at the breast, but all of whom were strangled with silk handkerchiefs immediately after their brother’s accession in 1595.

For all its deficiencies, the law of fratricide at least had the effect of ensuring that the most ruthless of the available princes generally ascended to the throne, and this was more than could be said of its replacement, the policy of locking up unwanted siblings in the kafes (literally “the cage”), a suite of rooms located deep within the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. There imprisoned members of the Ottoman royal family were kept until they were needed, sometimes several decades later, consoled in the meantime by barren concubines and permitted only a strictly limited range of recreations, the chief among which was macramé. This, subsequent history amply demonstrated, was far from ideal preparation for the pressures of ruling one of the greatest empires that the world has ever known. [Alderson pp.30-1; Lybyer p.94; Tezcan p.42]

For many years, the Topkapi itself paid mute testimony to the grand extent of Ottoman ruthlessness. In order to enter the palace, visitors had first to pass through the Imperial Gate, on either side of which were two niches where the heads of recently executed criminals were always on display. Inside the gate stood the First Court, through which all visitors to the inner portions of the palace had to pass. This court was open to all the Sultan’s subjects, and it seethed with an indescribable mass of humanity. Any Turkish subject had the right to petition for redress of his grievances, and several hundred agitated citizens usually surrounded the kiosks at which harassed scribes took down their complaints. Elsewhere within the same court stood numerous armouries and magazines, the buildings of the imperial mint, and stables for 3,000 horses. The focal point, however, was a pair of “example stones” positioned directly outside the Central Gate that led through to the Second Court. These “stones” were actually marble pillars on which were placed the severed heads of notables who had somehow offended the Sultan, stuffed with cotton if they had once been viziers, or with straw if they had been lesser men. Reminders of the sporadic mass executions ordered by the Sultan were occasionally piled up by the Central Gate as additional warnings: severed noses, ears, and tongues. [Miller p.163]

Selim the Grim

Capital punishment, then, was a common occurrence in the Ottoman Empire, so much so that there was a Fountain of Execution in the First Court where the chief executioner and his assistant went to wash their hands after decapitating their victims – ritual strangulation being reserved for members of the royal family and their most senior officials. This fountain “was the most feared symbol of the arbitrary power of life and death of the sultans over their subjects, and was hated and feared accordingly,” and it was used with particular frequency during the reign of Sultan Selim I – “Selim the Grim” (1512-20) – who, in a reign of eight short years, got through seven Grand Viziers and ordered 30,000 lesser executions. So perilous was the position of Vizier in those dark days that the holders of that office were said not to leave their homes in the morning without first tucking their wills inside their robes; for centuries afterwards, one of the most common curses uttered in the Ottoman Empire was “Mays’t thou be Vizier to Sultan Selim!” [Miller pp.162-3]

A bostsanci - Turkish gardener-cum-executioner

Given the considerable demands of the executioner’s job, it seems remarkable that the Turks employed no specialist headsman to tackle the endless round of loppings, but they did not. The job of executioner, rather unusually, was held instead by the Sultan’s bostancı basha, or head gardener, the Ottoman corps of gardeners being a sort of 5,000 strong bodyguard who, aside from cultivating the Sultan’s paradise gardens, doubled up as customs inspectors and policemen. It was the royal gardeners who sewed condemned women into weighted sacks and dropped them into the Bosphorus – another Sultan, Ibrahim the Mad (1640-48), once had all 280 of the women in his harem executed in this way simply so he could have the pleasure of selecting their successors – and the tread of an approaching group of red-skull-capped bostancıs, wearing their traditional uniform of muslin breeches and shirts cut low to expose muscular chests and arms, heralded death by decapitation for many thousands of Ottoman subjects down the years.

When very senior officials were sentenced to death, they would be dealt with by the bostancı basha in person, but – at least towards the end of the sultans’ rule – execution was not the inevitable result of a death sentence. Instead, the condemned man and the bostancı basha took part together in what was surely one of the most peculiar customs known to history: a race held between the head gardener and his anticipated victim, the result of which was, quite literally, a matter of life or death for the trembling Grand Vizier or Chief Eunuch required to undertake it.

How this custom came about remains unknown. From the end of the eighteenth century, however, accounts of the bizarre race began to emerge from the seraglio, and these seem reasonably consistent in their details. Death sentences passed within the walls of the Topkapi were generally delivered to the head gardener at the Central Gate [Miller p.163], and Godfrey Goodwin describes the next part of the Ottomans’ remarkable ritual thus:

It was the bostancibaşi‘s duty to summon any notable… When the vezir or other unfortunate miscreant arrived, he well knew why he had been summoned, but he had to bite his lip through the courtesies of hospitality before, at long last, being handed a cup of sherbet. If it were white, he sighed with relief, but if it were red he was in despair, because red was the colour of death.

[Goodwin p.197]

Plan of the Topkapi and outer palace

For most of the bostancıs’ victims, sentence was carried out immediately after the serving of the fatal sherbet by a group of five muscular young janisseries – members of the Sultan’s elite infantry. For a Grand Vizier, however, there was still a chance, for as soon as sentence of death had been passed, it was the practice to allow the condemned man to run as fast as he was able the 300 metres or so from the palace, through the gardens, and down to the Fish Market Gate on the southern side of the palace complex, overlooking the Bosphorus, which was the appointed place of execution. [On the plan above – which you can view in higher resolution by double clicking on it – the Central Gate is number 109 and the Fish Market Gate number 115.]

If the deposed Vizier reached the Fish Market Gate before the head gardener, his sentence was commuted to mere banishment. If, on the other hand, the condemned man found the bostanci basha waiting for him at the gate, he was summarily executed and his body hurled into the sea. The last man to save his neck by winning this life-or-death race was the Grand Vizier Hacı Salih Pasha in November 1822. [D’Ohsson III, 357ff; Von Hammer II, 33-4, 415-16; Miller pp.140, 145]   Hacı – whose predecessor had lasted a mere nine days in office before his own execution – not only survived his death sentence, but was so widely esteemed for winning his race that he went on to be appointed Governor General of the province of Damascus. [Gershoni et al. p.195]

Sources

Anthony Alderson. The Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

Joseph, Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall. Des Osmanischen Reichs: Staatsverfassung und Staatsverwaltung. Vienna, 2 vols.: Zwenter Theil, 1815.

I. Gershoni et al, Histories of the Modern Middle East: New Directions. Boulder [CO]: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.

Geoffrey Goodwin. Topkapi Palace: an Illustrated Guide to its Life and Personalities. London: Saqi Books, 1999.

Albert Lybyer. The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 1913.

Barnette Miller. Beyond the Sublime Porte: the Grand Seraglio of Stambul. New Haven [CT]: Yale University Press, 1928.

Ignatius Mouradgea D’Ohsson. Tableau Général de l’Empire Ottoman. Paris, 3 vols., 1787-1820.

Baki Tezcan. The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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Satanic ritualIt’s thirty years now, more or less, since I first began writing for Fortean Times, and in all that time I doubt we covered a more shocking or more important story than the great Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of 1989-1991.

It’s hard, actually, to convey to those who did not live through those years just how widespread – and how widely accepted – allegations of SRA were. Cases actually began well before 1989, and ran past 1991, and they were reported from across the English-speaking world, most often from the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK. I know of no reliable overview of the entire panic, but it certainly involved, at minimum, well over a hundred individual episodes and must have affected several thousand families in all. What’s most remarkable, looking back, is just how outlandish many of the allegations were. High-profile cases typically included suggestions that large gangs of well-organised, hereditary Satanists were abducting, abusing and murdering dozens, if not hundreds, of young children. Sometimes it was alleged that the abusers were using pre-schools to identify and groom their targets; in the UK, most of the cases involved families who were supposedly assaulting their own children. There were numerous allegations that the rituals included sacrifice – that is, murder – as well as abuse.

The numbers that were bandied about were frankly astounding – cults were taking 60,000 children a year, some said – and several of the cases were astonishingly complex. The most notorious, the McMartin Pre-School episode, in the US, which ran from 1984 to 1989, turned into the longest and most expensive criminal case in the country’s history up to that point. For all this, though, very little, if any, physical evidence was ever produced that so much as a single person had actually suffered at the hands of any Satanic group. There were no bodies, no traces, and though believers produced various elaborate theories to explain this – there were even outlandish suggestions that women were being kept as “brood mares” to produce babies whose births would never be registered – the police were, in the UK at least, admirably sceptical that anything was actually going on. The panic was, rather, driven almost entirely by social workers, a significant proportion of them evangelical Christians, working from what were clearly (even at the time) wildly dubious lists of “Satanic indicators” produced in the United States, but also circulated in the other territories to which the panic spread.

FT gave the scare extensive coverage, and we listed and did our best to cover the key UK cases: Kent, Rochdale, the Orkneys, Nottingham. It wasn’t easy. Several of these incidents were as poorly handled by the press as they were by the authorities, and thanks to various gagging orders it was hard, then and now, to uncover details, or even to know where a case of SRA ended and one of “ordinary” abuse began – not that any abuse is ordinary, of course. A number of key cases went virtually unreported – the Kent affair, which started the ball rolling here, for one; there were also similar incidents in Congleton and Liverpool that attracted practically no coverage. And there were many more that never got even that – in her book Speak of the Devil, Professor Jean La Fontaine, an anthropologist engaged by the Department of Health to produce the definitive report on the whole episode, lists a total of 84 incidents in England and Wales alone. Not all of these involved specifically Satanic allegations, but there were several that did and yet – generally for legal reasons – remained entirely unknown to the general public.

Byron RogersWhat I want to do now is take a look at one of these lost cases – an episode so lost, in fact, that it does not feature even in La Fontaine’s analysis. It took place in Pembroke, in the far west of Wales, in 1991, and it’s remarkable in at least two ways. Firstly, it resulted in a trial and in actual convictions; so far as I know, the only other UK case to go so far was the Nottingham affair, which was in important respects far from typical. Nottingham is still held up, though, by those who continue to promote belief in SRA, as “proof” – an example of an episode in which there was “real evidence”, and a jury to convince, and a judge passing sentence. In this respect, Pembroke has a very great deal to tell us about the nature and reliability of the sort of evidence that convinces courts – and it’s clear, to me at least, that simply obtaining a conviction in a case of supposed SRA does not mean that Satanic Ritual Abuse is real. Secondly, the Pembroke affair was covered, a few years later, by my favourite British journalist, the intelligent and thoughtful Byron Rogers [above left]. Rogers was not only born just up the road, in Carmarthen – and is thus ideally qualified to get under the skin of a West Wales community – but also possesses the rare ability to write eloquently and with insight about those living at the margins of our society. This is some skill – one seen at its most profoundly developed in the imperishable works of Joseph Mitchell, the American writer widely (and in my opinion correctly) regarded as the greatest colour journalist of them all. From this perspective I highly recommend Rogers’s touching and important article The Last Tramp, or any of his several books of collected essays – The Last Human Cannonball, or An Audience with an Elephant, or The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail, all of which contain a good deal of great interest to Forteans. But first, let’s follow him to Pembroke and to the depressing details of what remains (thanks to the Children’s Act) as “a story without names”. Those familiar with other SRA cases will recognise some features of the story – the broken homes, neglected council estate and families living on the edge of the law. But Pembroke was different, too, and in important ways, not least because, as Rogers astutely observes, it is a “large community”:”To live in a city is to live in a village of your friends and colleagues. To live in a town in west Wales is to know more people, and to know more about them, than you ever will again, because this is the noisiest, and most censorious, society on earth. If you stole a wheelbarrow, the whole town would know.” The whole case turns on this point, because, as Rogers asks, is it really credible “that for four years a conspiracy was in progress to abuse children and to practise Satanic rites in just such a community”?

First, the details of the case. Then, a rare opportunity to hear the voices of some of the accused commenting on the evidence against them.

It all began in May 1991. A local boy of nine, already in care for a year, suddenly accused his father of sexually abusing him. The boy, subsequently the main accuser in the case, was a disturbed child from a broken home, and had been put into voluntary care by his mother, who felt unable to cope with him. Nobody had ever paid the child much heed. But then, after prolonged counselling by social workers, he was the centre of attention. The social workers were to set up a Child Sexual Abuse Therapy Group, which, to one defence solicitor, was ‘a combine harvester awaiting its first harvest.’

The boy described orgies in barns, in which men in gowns fired shotguns into the roof to ensure the silence of children who were being abused.  Goats were ritually slaughtered in the local cemetery. The boy went on to accuse his mother, then other local adults, and how many he named is not known, for the judge was to tell the jury, ‘If everyone had been charged, the case would have gone on for ever.’

The first arrest came in August 1991, when the Pembroke police detained the boy’s father, “a well known local man who drove around town in a tractor and trailer.” His three remaining children, meanwhile, were taken into care. The man was a well-known and successful womaniser, which led some to wonder why he would have needed to prey on children, though of course there are plenty of examples of similar men who had similar success, but became criminals nonetheless – Ted Bundy springs immediately to mind. Whatever the truth, the charges did not stick on this occasion; the man was freed after a month on remand, and none of the several other adults the child had accused were even arrested. Of course, social services were not bound by any of this; the man’s children remained in care.

It was not until the summer of 1992 that there were any further developments. Then a 14-year-old girl, who had run away from home, accused her father of rape. He admitted the offence and received a seven-year sentence – a significant escalation, as it happened, because the girl was a member of one of the other families, living on the same council estate, who had been accused but not charged in 1991. The fact that there were real offences happening, Rogers points out, “would have a considerable effect on the [SRA] trial, because, brought out of gaol, [the rapist] was placed in the middle of the dock among defendants some of whom said they had never seen him before. He pleaded his innocence of being part of any paedophile ring, but the jury saw every day in court a self-confessed child abuser and the prosecution made much of his being there.” But some of the girl’s other allegations struck many locals as less credible than the admitted charge of rape. “Interviewed for the second case by social workers, she now began to talk about orgies, and named adults; but her orgies – unlike those described by the boy – had a marine setting. She mentioned beaches and caves, even on a February night… The one defendant credited with practical experience of al fresco sexual activity would later say, ‘February in west Wales? Don’t they know that would freeze the…'”

Things began to move relatively quickly after that. Other children from the same group of families were questioned, and began to make their own allegations; a total of 18, from nine families, were taken into care. There were 13 more arrests, two of them of women. They included a couple of farmers, one of them 80 years old and so decrepit that “he had to buy a new hearing aid just to hear the charges against him,” another an Englishman who had only recently moved to the area – something of a high risk recruit to a gang of Satanic abusers, one would think. In the end, 12 people stood trial, in January 1994, but the proceedings were held in camera and hence went unreported.

The trial, Rogers writes, did not go smoothly, despite some fairly typical pressure applied on the part of the social workers involved in the case to keep their witnesses onside:

Within four months, the twelve in the dock had dwindled to seven, as the judge directed the jury that some defendants had no case to answer. The two adults expected to be prosecution witnesses, the former wife and the girlfriend of the man first accused, also recanted statements in which they had named people. The girlfriend said she had only named them because social workers had said she would otherwise never see her children again. ‘I knew what they wanted me to say – I just added on and on, but none of it was true.’

A teenage boy also recanted, claiming he, too, had been pressured into giving a version of events by social workers. The prosecution case thus rested on the evidence of six children speaking over a video-link, and it was hard for the defendants to establish an alibi, for no dates or times were given. There was much medical evidence, bitterly contested, but there was no corroborative evidence, no forensic testimony.

Week after week, month after month, the jury (one of them with a T-shirt inscribed “We’re Only Here For The Beer”) heard all of this.

‘I kept waiting for someone to say, “Hang on…”, but nobody did,’ said one defendant. “I think I’d have found myself guilty in I’d heard all that stuff.”

What’s most significant, certainly, is that mention of rituals, and devil-worship, were consistently played down. The authorities recognised that such details were likely to encourage scepticism in the jury. Instead, the case was tried as one involving a relatively straightforward paedophile ring – something very different, but very likely indeed to persuade the jurors that things were serious, and that there were hideous risks in finding the accused not guilty if there were, in fact, abusing children. To make matters worse, the prosecution had amassed such a vast body of testimony – more than was typically seen in a major fraud trial, according to the defence – that, in the words of one solicitor involved in the case,  the jurors “were lost by day three. In the end they didn’t know what was going on. They heard months of evidence so complicated that, as far as they were concerned, they might have been asked to decide on whether there were black holes in space.” Seen from that perspective, it is not very surprising that there were six convictions. One man, the first accused, received a sentence of 15 years. The other sentences were less severe, but still considerable. All in all the judge ordered terms of confinement totalling 53 years, or an average of nearly nine years for each convicted prisoner. In jail, none of the men confessed. In fact, they not only maintained their innocence, but refused to submit to court-mandated counselling. That meant no open prison, no home leave, no parole.

Far from everybody was satisfied by the evidence in the case, however. One woman, whose husband had been found guilty and sent down for seven years, fought a court order obtained by social services which allowed them to take her children permanently into care. She won, the judge in the Family Division of the High Court throwing out the case against her husband. The civil verdict was admitted, after much legal manoeuvring, when the criminal one came to appeal, and the husband saw his verdict overturned. It was OJ Simpson in reverse.

Not even this case, though, turned out to have a happy ending. The marriage broke down, and two of the three children in the case went to live with the wife. The third and youngest stayed with the husband, his (or her) supposed abuser. This man had had his house searched for “gowns, wigs, cloaks and guns”. The police took away a clown mask that he had purchased at a street market for his daughter. He later gave Rogers a tour of the barns and sheds involved in the case, which were said to have been the headquarters of the Pembroke Satanists. These spots, incidentally, had not been shown to the jury, on the judge’s orders.

‘Right, this is the first one.’ It is 50 yards from his house and is a small, corrugated-iron shed in the grounds of a small-holding. The shed is full of rusting machinery and old clothes, a mess that had built up over many years. ‘They said there were 30 people in there shouting and squealing and letting off guns. Can you see any holes in the roof? It was supposed to be like a colander, the boy said, but they crawled all over it and didn’t find a single hole. Now look at that house on the corner. How far away would you say that is? Ten yards? And there’s a window at the side. Didn’t they hear what was going on?’

He drove me through a town to a council estate. There was a graveyard on our left. ‘That’s where they were pouring goats’ blood on the gravestones, but they never found any.’ We turned into the council estate. ‘ That’s the garage where they were supposed to be spinning a bottle to see who would go with who. See the size of it? If you dropped a hammer, the neighbours would hear.’

We were driving through the lanes. ‘See those mud flats? They were doing something down there… Ah, here we are.’ It was another shed that, like most of those I was shown, looked as though it was about to fall down. ‘They’re supposed to have brought a Land Rover full of kids to that. But see how close that house is? Did nobody hear anything? And these lanes were supposed to have 30 or 40 people walking along them. Nobody saw them. If you or I saw 40 people in a lane, we’d never forget it.’

We drove out of Pembroke to the farm that was mentioned in some scenarios. ‘There were 40 children screaming in a trailer pulled by a tractor. Now wait.’ He had slowed, for on the Cleddau Bridge there is a tollbooth where you pay to cross. ‘Odd nobody in that noticed 40 screaming children.’

In jail, on remand, the man encountered another prisoner. “This chap asked me what I was in for. I said I’d been charged with being part of a paedophile ring. ‘Whereabouts?’ he asked. ‘Pembroke,’ I said. ‘Good God,’ he said. ‘And me.’ I’d never met him before.”

Rogers spoke to one of the defence lawyers. He had been concerned at first at the seriousness of the charges against his client, but after reviewing the evidence came to the conclusion that it was worthless – worse, ludicrous. Of course, the jury had not been convinced of that, but still…

‘I read about a barn at harvest time in which 20 to 30 people, in capes and balaclavas, were having an orgy, with children in a pit being made to eat excrement and a fire blazing on the floor. I was brought up on a farm, they were terrified of fires in barns. Where was the smoke going? And how could a barn be empty in the middle of harvest?

‘I was being asked to take seriously the idea that convoys of cars had rushed through the countryside and that all those children had just gone to school on Monday morning. Had nobody noticed anything, no teachers, no GPs? At the end of the first file I thought the prosecution were insane. As for the social workers, I thought they needed help.

‘There was also one thing nobody mentioned. They talked about orgies on beaches in summer. In Pembroke in summer every bed and breakfast is full. For God’s sake, where were all the tourists when all this was going on? When the trial judge refused to let the jury see the locations, one of the defence solicitors made a video of them. Do you know the greatest problem he faced? It was that wherever he filmed, people kept straying into shot.’

The judge, in the solicitor’s view, was too inexperienced to run the case successfully – “Mr Justice Kay… he took everything so seriously. It was probably his first case of this nature, and he lacked the experience a Family Court judge could bring.”  The defendants, this man believed, paid the price for this.

‘Some of the children had genuinely  come to believe that they had been abused. I don’t know. What I do know is that vulnerable children suddenly found all this interest being taken in them. As for the nine-year-old boy [the original accuser], he was out on his own, a highly manipulative boy, capable of telling a QC to ‘F— off’ when he did not like a line of questioning.

‘But I also remember a 12-year-old insisting that nothing at all had happened. The prosecuting counsel, Gerard Elias QC, grilled him for two hours, to the point where the boy could not remember his own age, but he could not be shaken. Elias kept asking him about naughty videos and in the end he said yes, he had seen one. It had the comedian Chubby Brown in it… It was like attending a Beckett play, except that when the curtain came down, people were ruined.’

For Byron Rogers, the most revealing evidence of all never featured in the case – it came in the form of the reaction of the neighbours of the convicted men. Convicted paedophiles, as the reporter observes, are not generally welcomed back into their communities, but these men were.

“All I’ve got to say is that he’s back in the darts team,” said a man who had worked with the convicted paedophile who had shown Rogers around the estate.

‘Now, I don’t know if you or your readers realise the significance of that. Pub darts teams are made up of big, hairy-arsed drinkers. Something like this would be guaranteed to rile them up, especially after a shed-full of beer. And nobody has ever said anything to him... It’s just “How’s it going, then?” Something stinks about this case, mate, and people know it… Around here everyone believes that it’s a load of bollocks.’

Not everyone. To members of the county’s Social Services department the accused were ‘formidable and frightening, even in the dock.’ To the chief constable of the investigating police force the inquiry was ‘a model of perfection’. But the local MP has ‘serious reservations’ about the case and wants to see it referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

For odd things keep surfacing. In gaol with [one of the defendants, a seaman] was a man, also convicted of being part of the ring, whose son, then 11, initially testified against him but then in court denied there had been any abuse. He said he had been pressurised into giving evidence by social workers. Nevertheless, a condition of the subsequent care order was that he should not see his father. This year [1999] the boy went to court to get the condition overturned, and now visits his father, who is still serving an 11-year sentence. ‘That was an eye-opener,’ said the seaman.

The seaman, who had been absent at sea for most the time and claimed not to know any of the other defendants,  now doesn’t see either of the two sons who persisted in accusing him. “Nor do I want to ever again.”

‘I go to see my parole officer every Friday and I used to be asked about my offending behaviour. They’ve stopped doing that now. I just get asked, “Everything all right, any problems, how do you feel?” How do I feel? I’ve no job, I’m skint, and I have a record.’

And every Friday night, said a man who has all the time in the world on his hands, he played darts.

Source: Byron Rogers, ‘The child snatchers’. In The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail: Travels to the Wilder Reaches of Wales (London: Aurum Press, 2003) pp.227-242.

Afterword: There’s now an update on the case and its aftermath available here.

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Spring-heeled Jack cut such a fearsome figure in his prime that it is no surprise that he has been blamed, over the years, for causing a number of fatalities. On at least one occasion he is supposed to have actually murdered his victim, but in most cases he is said to have polished them off using that old bogeyman’s stand-by, the ability to frighten an unfortunate witness to death.

The most notorious of Jack’s killings, of course, is his alleged murder of a 13-year-old London prostitute named Maria Davis. She is said, by a good number of secondary sources, to have been flung into the foetid waters of Folly Ditch, in Jacob’s Island, in November 1845 and left there to drown. The Davis killing is, however, a fake; it was first mentioned by the notoriously unreliable Peter Haining in his The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring-heeled Jack, pp.84-5, and an examination of the surviving London coroner’s records and death certificates shows that no such incident ever occurred. Haining is also the source for at least three other cases in which Jack was allegedly blamed for a mysterious death – the discovery of a man found dead by a roadside in Surrey in 1848 ‘with claw marks across his face and body’; the murder of a ‘pretty young girl’ in Hertford seven years later whose breasts were scratched and whose legs were covered with burn marks; and the demise of an ‘old woman’ whose body was discovered by the side of a road in Middlesex in 1863 ‘with such fear written across herface that she could only have been frightened to death by a terrifying attacker.’ [Ibid pp.85-6]

Haining’s reputation in matters of accuracy has sunk so low that it seems almost superfluous to point out that he provides no sources to back any of these statements, either, and not one of these three cases has ever been reported anywhere else. As it happens, however, the archives do hold records of at least one case in which Jack actually was found guilty – by a coroner’s court – of frightening a victim to death. The story was reported in the Liverpool Mercury of 15 November 1887, at the tail end of what had been a considerable Spring-heeled Jack scare on Merseyside. Here it is:

Child frightened to death.–Last night, Mr. S. Brighouse held an inquest at Churchtown, Southport, on the body of Jane Halsall, seven years of age, daughter of Peter Halsall, gardener, Mill-lane. The father said the deceased met him last Wednesday as he was returning from work and told him that the children with whom she played said the Liverpool ghost, “Springheeled Jack,” was coming to Southport. She afterwards repeated the statement to her mother, who tried to allay the child’s fears by telling her that the ghost was “dead and buried.” During the night the child became seriously ill, and when Dr Hawksley was summoned the next night he found her unconscious, in which state she remained until her death. About six hours before the deceased expired she was heard to say, “The ghost is coming.” The cause of death was certified to be congestion of the brain, due to fright.– The Coroner remarked that whoever personated the ghost was a mean and despicable fellow. When he learned that he had caused this child’s death he would no doubt feel it very much. It was such a monstrous thing that a man should have the power to strike terror into children and timid people in this way, that he hoped the delinquent would be caught and be the recipient of severe punishment if the law could reach him.– The jury concurred in these remarks, and returned a verdict of “Death by Fright.”

It would not do, of course, to take this story at face value. “Congestion of the brain” was one of those imprecise blanket terms common throughout the nineteenth century, and was used to describe a bewildering variety of conditions, among them strokes and brain haemorrhages. Neither seems likely to have killed a seven year old child, but meningitis was also often referred to in this way, and (judging from the scanty description of Jane Halsall’s symptoms) it was most likely this that actually killed the unfortunate girl.

Wrong though the coroner’s jury may have been, however, there is no gainsaying its verdict. The plain fact is that Spring-heeled Jack really was judged, at least once, and found guilty in a court of law.

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HammersmithLate on the evening of 3 January 1804, a bricklayer by the name of Thomas Millwood left his home in Hammersmith, to the west of London. He was smartly dressed in the sort of clothes favoured by men in his trade: “linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him.” Unfortunately for Millwood, though, those clothes proved to be the death of him. At 10.30pm, while he was walking alone down Black-lion-lane, he was confronted and shot dead by a customs officer called Francis Smith – thus setting in motion one of the strangest, best-remembered and most influential cases in British legal history.

The Millwood murder is of interest to us because Smith’s motive for killing him was decidedly peculiar. Hammersmith, then a village on the outskirts of London, had been terrorised for more than a month by reports that some sort of malignant ghost or spirit was haunting the graveyard of St Paul’s chapel-of-ease. Today this cemetery stands in the shadow of the A4 flyover and right next to the busy four-lane Hammersmith roundabout, but 200 years ago it was considerably more isolated. St Paul’s was then still surrounded by fields, and the paths that ran past the graveyard were unpaved and unlit. It’s not difficult to see how, in the depths of winter (the Hammersmith ghost scare ran from December 1803 to January 1804), frightening stories could readily circulate, nor why several local men took it upon themselves to patrol the darkened streets in the hope of encountering and ‘laying’ the ghost. Milwood, in his all-white clothes, had been mistaken for the apparition twice earlier that same day. It was his bad luck that the third time the same mistake was made, the man facing him was not just nervous but armed with a shotgun.

Smith, when he realised his mistake, was horrified. He gave himself up immediately and was swiftly charged with murder and tried at the Old Bailey less than a week later. There, though, the prisoner’s hurried surrender and obvious contrition stood him in good stead. The prosecution accepted Smith’s version of events, and the jury was plainly anxious to show mercy; instead of finding the customs man guilty of murder, they returned a verdict of manslaughter instead. It was left to the judge to explain that such a verdict was not possible, and that the prerogative of mercy lay not with the jury, but the crown. Smith was promptly found guilty of murder, sentenced to death, then reprieved that same evening by the king. In the end he served only six months in jail.

The Hammersmith Ghost case featured prominently in the Newgate Calendar, and full transcripts of Smith’s murder trial can nowadays be found online at the exemplary Proceedings of the Old Bailey site, which covers pretty much every case heard in Britain’s senior court between 1674 and 1913. It seemed even then to be a peculiarly important case, and over the years it became celebrated for the influence it had on framing acceptable defences for murder; even today it crops up frequently in legal text books and in university law lectures. It is not, however, nearly so unique as writers on the subject have tended to assume. In the course of my own research into the ghost story, I have prodded around in search of some comparable cases and been startled to discover that a considerable number had been reported from all over the world. Upon reflection, though, is it really a surprise? Belief in supernatural powers, after all, has been endemic for millennia, in all countries and in all cultures. Is the Hammersmith Ghost case really that different, at root, from witch burnings, or even the activities of the Inquisition?

What turns out to be really interesting is the wide variety of ways in which a rainbow of beliefs interfaced with the law. From the fairy traditions of Ireland to tales of shape-shifting sorcerors in Africa, there turn out to be dozens of similar-but-different cases in which outlandish superstition was the best defence for murder. Here, summarised all too briefly, are a few of the cases I’ve collected over the years.

1826 Belief in the existence of changelings remained strong in rural Ireland in the nineteenth century. According to folklore, these sickly infant fairies were frequently exchanged for healthy human infants under cover of darkness, and the human child was taken away to be brought up by its abductors. It could only be recovered if the changeling was put in such peril that its fairy parents would return to rescue it.

A case of murder arising from these beliefs was tried at Tralee Assizes in July 1826, and reported in the London Morning Post, where it was seen by the folklorist Thomas Crofton Crocker (Crocker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (London, 1828) I, vii-ix):

Ann Roche, an old woman of very advanced age, was indicted for the murder of Michael Leahy, a young child, by drowning him in the Flesk. This case… turned out to be a homicide committed under the delusion of the grossest superstition. The child, though four years old, could neither stand, walk, or speak – it was thought to be a fairy stuck…

Upon cross-examination the witness said that it was not done with intent to kill the child, but to cure it – to put the fairy out of it.

Verdict – not guilty.

c.1850 A similar account, also from Ireland and published in 1852, noted that ‘About a year ago a man in the county of Kerry roasted his child to death, under the impression that it was a fairy. He was not brought to trial, as the Crown prosecutor mercifully looked upon him as insane.’ (WR Wilde, Irish Popular Superstitions (Dublin, 1852) p.28.) The author of this brief note, Sir William Wilde, was Oscar Wilde’s father.

1875 John Hayward, an agricultural labourer from Long Compton in Warwickshire, stabbed an elderly fellow villager named Ann Tennant to death with a pitchfork on 15 September ‘under the delusion of witchcraft.’ The particulars of this case were that Tennant, who was 79, and Hayward, who was about 30, had both lived in Long Compton all their lives. Hayward, who was thought to be ‘weak minded’, and who certainly had been drinking on the afternoon of the murder, told Superintendent James Thompson of the Shipton-on-Stour police that he believed Tennant to be

the leader of a pack of witches who resided in Long Compton, and that she had bewitched him all day and prevented him from working. He said that he meant to kill her and would do the same to the other witches. He said he could see the witches in a glass of water he was given.

An inquest, held in the local pub two days later, recorded a verdict of willful murder and Hayward was sent for trial at the Warwick assizes, where his case came up on 15 December 1875. He was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, but sentenced to be confined during Her Majesty’s pleasure. Little provision was made for mentally ill prisoners in those days, and when Hayward died some months later he was still in Warwick jail. This case was extensively covered by the local Stratford on Avon Herald, and more recently has been reinvestigated by a couple of genealogists who separately discovered that Tennant was their great-grandmother.

Swift Runner, windigo murderer1878 A number of Native Canadian tribes firmly believed in the existence of the windigo or wendigo, a sort of vampiric spirit capable of appearing in human guise to ‘annoy and trouble’ their peoples, and in some cases to possess them with what is termed ‘wendigo psychosis,’ the compulsion to attack and eat other humans. The windigo was held in such terror that, over the years, several innocent men, women and children have been killed by assailants who firmly believed that their victims were possessed, and a smaller number killed by people who were themselves in the grip of the psychosis.

Instances of murder involving the windigo supposedly date all the way back to 1741, though the evidence that actually survives from that early date strikes me as extremely murky (below). Nonetheless, the best-known, and certainly the most spectacular, of these cases involved a Cree by the name of Swift Runner (left), who – apparently convinced he had been possessed by a windigo – killed and ate his wife, mother, brother and six of his own children over the winter of 1878-79. The case has been studied by Nathan Carlson, an Alberta anthropologist who described the windigo (an Anglicised form of the native ‘witiko’) as ‘the consummate predator of humanity – an owl-eyed monster with large claws, matted hair, a naked emaciated body and a heart made of solid ice.’ According to Carlson, the windigo is an unstoppable terror. ‘The more it eats, the hungrier it gets,’ he says, ‘so it just keeps eating.’ The Canadian belief is that, once possessed by such a spirit, the unfortunate victim becomes wild-eyed, ravenous and possessed of superhuman strength.

1741 windigo caseSwift Runner first came to the attention of the Canadian authorities in the spring of 1879, when he turned up alone at a Catholic mission station in St Albert. He told the priests there that he was the only member of his family to survive the severe winter, but his condition – the Cree weighed in at a hefty 200lbs – aroused suspicions, as did the ‘screaming fits’ and night terrors that Swift Runner experienced. When the police visited  the family campground near Edmonton, they found a site littered with bits of human flesh, hair, and bones that had been snapped in two so that the marrow could be sucked out. Swift Runner then confessed that he had shot and bludgeoned the other members of his family. He was tried, found guilty of murder, and hanged at Fort Saskatchewan in December 1879.

1884 In another Irish fairy changeling case, ‘Ellen Cushion and Anastatia Rourke were arrested at Clonmel on Saturday charged with cruelly ill-treating a child three years old named Philip Dillon. The prisoners were taken before the mayor, where evidence was given showing that neighbours fancied that the boy, who had not the use of his limbs, was a changeling left by fairies in exchange for their original child. While the mother was absent, the prisoners entered her house and placed the lad naked on a hot shovel under the impression that this would break the charm. The poor little thing is severely burned, and is in a precarious position.’ Daily Telegraph, 19 May 1884. CS Kenny, in Outlines of Criminal Law (London, 18th edn., 1962) p.54, mentions what seems to be the same case (he dates it to 1880) and states that a woman was ‘convicted and sentenced’ for the crime.

1887 In Empress v Hayat (Panjab record 1862-1919, no.11 of 1888), the prisoner, an Indian villager, ‘entertained a belief that a stooping child whom he caught sight of in the early gloaming was a spirit or demon, the child being in a place which the prisoner and his fellow villagers deemed haunted.’ He beat the infant to death before discovering his mistake, and, while acquitted on a charge of murder, was convicted under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, section 304A, which allowed for sentences of up to two years’ imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter.

1888 On 30 January, Joanna Doyle, aged 45, was admitted to Kilkenny Asylum after murdering her son Patsy with a hatchet. Doyle was described as ‘a wild fierce Kerry peasant, scarcely able to speak English intelligibly,’ and her 13-year-old son variously as an ‘imbecile’ or an ‘epileptic idiot.’ The mother insisted that Patsy had been ‘not my son, he was a devil, a bad fairy.’ Belief that the boy was a changeling was apparently widespread in the neighbourhood; Doyle’s daughter Mary, 18, told the Medical Superintendent of the Dublin hospital where her mother was eventually sent that ‘I was not shocked when I heard my mother kill him, as I had heard people say he was a fairy, and I believed them.’ Journal of Mental Science v.34 n.148 (January 1889) pp.535-9.

1894 The Swift Runner tragedy is the only one known in which a man committed murder believing himself to be possessed by a windigo. More common are ‘windigo execution’ cases, in which potential victims convince themselves they are in danger from one of the vampiric spirits and kill the ‘possessed’ man in what they conceive as self-defence. Several examples of such killings exist in Canadian records. In a number of cases, those who believed they were turning windigo were reported to ‘go into convulsions, made terrifying animal sounds, and beg their captors to kill them before they started eating people.’  In Regina v. Machekequonabe (28 Ont. 309), a Canadian Indian of the Sabaskong tribe was tried at the Rat Portage (now Kenora, Ontario) assizes on the charge of killing his foster father. The facts, as reported in the Winnipeg Free Press, 7 December 1896, were that

The band in which the trouble occurred was thoroughly pagan, possessed of a firm belief in the power of the Wendigoes, or evil spirits, to appear in the form of a human being to annoy and trouble the  tribe. For some time prior to the murder the Indians on the Sabaskong reserve were seized with the idea that a Wendigo was exercising an evil influence on their band and damaging their property They hid away their canoes, but apparently to no purpose. At length they decided to place armed sentries on the watch in order to capture the evil spirit. This watch was sustained continuously for eight days, the prisoner and the murdered man participating in the watch. On the eighth night the prisoner was on guard when he saw a mysterious figure flitting from one spot to another, with its blanket streaming behind it in a peculiar manner. He at once challenged, but received no reply; he challenged again, and yet again, and still receiving no answer he fired at what he was firmly convinced was the Wendigo. In the yell that followed the prisoner recognised the voice of his foster father, who for some reason or another had left his post and was probably hastening back to it. Mr Justice Rose charged the jury and declared the case to be without parallel in the history of law. Under his advice the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, and the prisoner was sentenced to six months’ hard labor pending the result of a reference of the case to his brother judges.

Rose’s sentence was later upheld by the Court of Appeal. [My thanks to John Adcock for locating the Free Press clip.]

The Cleary fireplace in which Bridget Cleary was burned1895 Regina v. Michael Cleary (National Archives, Dublin, Convict Records Misc. 1619/10) concerned the killing of a young Irish woman named Bridget Cleary, who lived in Clonmel, not far from Waterford. When Cleary fell ill with what was perhaps TB, or possibly pneumonia, her husband Michael and her other relatives became convinced that she had actually been abducted by fairies and a sickly changeling left in her place. They attempted to force her to drink a folk remedy – herbs boiled in milk – designed to force the changeling to flee, and then doused her with three or four pints of urine, another folk remedy supposed to rescue the victims of fairies; when she resisted, they dragged her over to the kitchen fire (left) and held her over it while they continued to question her; supposedly this, too, was part of the cure. Cleary’s questioning was severe and prolonged, in part quite possibly because her husband also suspected her of having a lover, but also because it began late in the evening and family believed that Bridget would be ‘lost forever’ if she was not recovered from the fairies by midnight. Eventually she began to answer questions more coherently, and the family congratulated themselves that their intercession had worked. Cleary had been severely burned, however, and died a few days later of her injuries. Her husband was subsequently tried and found guilty of manslaughter, and eight friends and neighbours were found guilty of wounding. Michael Cleary received a sentence of 20 years’ penal servitude, apparently because the judge in his case ‘was by no means convinced that all the talk of fairies was not a cloak for ordinary murder [and] he felt the evidence more consistent with murder than manslaughter.’ He served 15 years and, on his release, emigrated to Canada. The Bridget Cleary case was the subject of an excellent book by Angela Bourke, which places it firmly in the context of Irish folk belief of the late nineteenth century.

1906 A Cree shaman known as Jack Fiddler (his real name was Zhauwunogeezhigo-Gaubow, ‘he who stands in the southern sky’), who was headman of the Sucker people of Sandy Lake in northwestern Ontario, was a noted windigo fighter who claimed to have defeated 13 of the monsters during his lifetime. It was not until 1907, when Fiddler was about 70 years old, that the RCMP realised exactly what this meant; the shaman was arrested for the murder of his daughter-in-law, Wahsakapeequay, who had been brought to the Sucker encampment ‘very sick’ and there strangled by Fiddler and his brother, Pesequan.

Jack Fiddler seems to have impressed everyone who met him. ‘He is a quiet dignified man who has lived his life with a clear conscience,’ the Methodist missionary Joseph Lousley said, and the local police superintendent recommended mercy. Before the case could come to trial, however, Fiddler escaped from the constable guarding him and made off into the tundra, where he hanged himself. Pesequan was tried and found guilty by a jury that had been instructed by the magistrate: ‘What the law forbids, no pagan belief can justify.’ Despite the jury’s recommendation for mercy, he was sentenced to hang, but died of consumption on 1 September 1909, three days before an appeal overturned the capital sentence. Dictionary of Canadian Biography vol.XIII (1901-10). A book by a member of Fiddler’s family has been published on this case: Thomas Fiddler and JR Stephens, Killing the Shaman (Ontario, 1985).

1926 In Wayram Singh v. Emperor (AIR 1926 Lah554: 28 Cri LJ 39), the defendant was a man living in what is now Pakistan whose three children had all died young. It was suggested to his wife that she could safeguard the lives of any future infants by bathing on the tomb of one of her dead children. Singh’s wife took off her clothes and sat on the tomb while her husband poured water over her. As he did so, a figure appeared in the dark that the bereaved parents took to be a ghost. Singh beat the figure to death and was charged with murder, but acquitted on the grounds that if ‘he believed in good faith at the time of the assault that the object of his assault was not a living human being but a ghost or some object other than a living human being, he is not guilty of murder.’

1936 In the case of Sudan Government v Ngerabaya Jellab (unreported), the accused killed a neighbour named Tugu because he suspected him of murdering two of his brothers and a daughter by witchcraft. ‘When I killed Tugu,’ Jellab said, ‘I did not kill him for the purpose of revenge only. I was afraid of him and afraid for my own life and the lives of my family and dependents. It might be my turn next.’ In court, Jellab claimed that his relatives ‘had died as a result of magical spells cast by the deceased. The accused was tried for and convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment even though his belief that the deceased possessed supernatural powers was shared by the rest of the tribe to which he belonged.’

1942 In Bonda Kui v. Emperor (Patna High Court 1942, 43 Cri LJ 787)), the accused, described as a ‘superstitious woman’ aged 50, was in her house in north-east India, accompanied only by a niece, when in the middle of the night she saw ‘a form, apparently a human form, dancing absolutely naked with a broomstick and a torn mat around the waist.’ Taking this bizarre apparition to be ‘an evil spirit or a thing which eats up human beings,’ Bonda Kui threw off her own clothes and attacked the figure with an axe. Having succeeded in hacking it to death, she told her niece she had killed ‘an evil spirit or witch,’ but, on investigation, the figure turned out to be that of her sister-in-law. What the sister-in-law was doing dancing naked in the middle of the night is not explained in the legal summary of the case, but we do know that Bonda Kui was protected by the Indian Penal Code, section 79, which stated: ‘Nothing is an offence which is done by any person with reason of a mistake of fact [who] in good faith believes himself to be justified by law in doing it.’ She was acquitted.

1959 In Sudan Government v. Abdullah Mukhtar Nur (Sudan Law Journal & Reports, 1959), the defendant, a 20-year-old farmer, was charged with murder after inadvertently killing an old woman. As in the Hammersmith case, stories had been circulating in Nur’s village that there was a ghost in the area. One evening, while searching for a missing cow, Nur encountered a tall figure dressed entirely in black and carrying a stick. He challenged the figure, and, receiving no reply, took it for the ghost and beat it with his own stick until it fell to the ground. It was only later that Nur discovered he had assaulted an elderly woman, who had died of her wounds. When the case came to trial, the President of the court ordered an acquittal on the grounds that ‘the accused acted in good faith and in the honest belief that he killed the ghost without any intention of killing a human being.’

It is interesting to speculate quite where all this leaves us in legal terms. Certainly it seems that under English criminal law a defendant who killed in the sincere belief that he was confronted with some supernatural menace would be unlikely to be convicted of murder. Whether he was sentenced for manslaughter, or acquitted, would seem to depend largely on the scale and imminence of the supposed threat – the law is highly unlikely to show mercy in cases of premeditated murder no matter what the killer himself believed – and the leniency with which a court would deal with cases with supernatural elements would almost certainly be based on its assessment of the ‘reasonableness’ of the belief. ‘If the belief is shared by the community,’ one lawyer concludes, ‘or even a section of the community to which the accused belongs, there is a strong presumption that such belief is reasonable.’

Plenty of related topics would repay further investigation. For example, in the southern Annang region of Nigeria, between 1945 and 1948, the police, press and politicians were all caught up in the investigation of a supposed ‘Man-Leopard Society’, said at the time to be the ‘biggest, strangest murder hunt in the world’. Almost two hundred men, women and children died in what appeared to be ordinary leopard killings, but were suspected to be the work of shape-shifting African sorcerers who had the ability to turn themselves into wild animals. (Similar apparently ritual killings had been reported from Sierra Leone since the 1860s and occurred in Liberia during the years 1930-1940 and 1944-1946, and these were attributed to a similar ‘Leopard Society’; eventually the head of a Christian mission in the country was arrested and tried for the Liberian killings.) The Nigerian Man-Leopard murders also resulted in a trial; an anonymous letter published in the Nigerian Eastern Mail, 10 March 1945, implicated a head court messenger who was arrested, tried and eventually executed in March 1946. According to another source, the unravelling of the case resulted in a total of no fewer than 95 murder convictions, of which only 16 ended in reprieves. For further reading on this subject, see David Pratten, The Man-Leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria (University of Indiana Press, 2008); Pratten, ‘The district clerk and the “man-leopard murders”: mediating law and authority in colonial Nigeria’, in Benjamin N. Lawrance et al, Intermediaries, interpreters, and clerks: African employees in the making of colonial Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006); and L.O. Aremu, “Criminal Responsibility for Homicide in Nigeria and Supernatural Beliefs,” International & Comparative Law Quarterly (1980), 29 : 112-131

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Richard Honeck (1877-1976), an American murderer, served what is believed to be the longest gaol sentence ever to terminate in a prisoner’s release. Jailed in 1899 for the killing of a former school friend, Honeck was paroled from Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois on 20 December 1963, having served 64 years and one month of his life sentence. In the decades between his conviction and the time his case came to public notice again in August 1963, he received only a single letter – a four-line note from his brother in June 1904 – and two visitors: a friend in 1904, and a newspaper reporter in 1963.

My recent stumble across mention of this oddity in Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky’s incomparable The People’s Almanac (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p.1341, inspired a brief flurry of research in the online archives of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune the magnificent repositories of which are now fully keyword searchable from their first issues to the present day. A quarter of an hour’s work was enough to flesh out a story easily bizarre enough to make the pages of FT – a good example of just how quickly researchers can move in this digital age.

Honeck, a telegraph operator and son of a wealthy dealer in farm equipment, was 22 years old when he was arrested in Chicago in September 1899 for the killing of Walter F. Koeller. He and another man, Herman Hundhausen, had gone to Koeller’s room armed with an eight-inch bowie knife, a sixteen-inch bowie knife, a silver-plated case knife, a .44 caliber revolver, a .38 caliber revolver, a .22 caliber revolver, a club, and two belts of cartridges. They also carried a getaway kit: two satchels filled with dime novels, obscene etchings, and clothes from which the names had been cut (New York Times, 4+5 September 1899).

Koeller, who was later found by the police sitting in a chair stabbed in the back, had testified for the prosecution some years earlier when Honeck and Hundhausen were charged with setting a number of fires in their home town, Hermann, Missouri (New York Times, 5 September 1899). According to a confession made by Hundhausen, the two men had sworn revenge and had planned Koeller’s murder in considerable detail. Honeck, Hundhausen said, had stabbed the dead man with the eight inch bowie knife (Ibid and Chicago Tribune, 5 September, 22+25 October, 5 November 1899).

It was left to a latter-day Associated Press reporter, the memorably-named Bob Poos, to shine a spotlight on Honeck’s case in 1963 after seeing a reference to it in the Menard prison newspaper. Poos noted that after his initial article was published in the paper, the aged murderer received a mailbag of 2,000 letters, including a proposal of marriage from a woman in Germany, offers of employment, and gifts of money in sums ranging from $5 down to 25 cents. Honeck, who was permitted under prison rules to answer one letter per week, observed: “It’ll take a long time to deal with these.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 August and 27 October 1963)

Before and after: Richard Honeck c.1900 and c.1960Honeck spent the first years of his sentence in Joliet Prison, where in 1912 he stabbed the assistant warden with a hand-crafted knife. He served 28 days in solitary confinement for that infraction, but had a clean record after moving to Menard, where he worked for 35 years in the prison bakery. “I guess I’d have to be pretty careful if I got paroled,” the old lag concluded when interviewed by Poos. “There must be an awful lot of traffic now, and people, compared with what I remember.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 August 1963).

The New York Times and Chicago Tribune are two of nearly a dozen major American newspapers whose full or partial archives are now available online – others include the Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Constitution, Washington Post, Daily Oklahoman, Dallas Morning News, and Boston Globe. All these archives are made available via pay sites, understandably enough given the considerable cost of digitisation, and typically give a brief preview of their articles, in the form of a headline, wordcount and the first 50 or so words of the piece in question. Pricing for individual articles can be relatively steep – usually $3.95 a pop – but be aware that much better deals are available. Most papers offer packages of 10, 25 or 50 articles, and these lower the unit cost considerably. It’s also well worth knowing that, while the majority of the titles mentioned above are sold only via a sometimes fiddly paysite operated by a company called ProQuest, the New York Times archive, which is the most valuable of all, is available at a far lower cost to subscribers to the online edition of the newspaper. Purchasing a monthly sub from the NYT’s own website entitles subscribers to download up to 100 articles a month from the archive at no extra cost, which – since the subscription cost is $7.95 – means the cost per clipping drops to a mere 8 cents, a vast saving on the Pro Quest price.

Richard Hineck, murderer, with his niece Clara Orth, December  1963[Updates (June 2009 and April 2010)]: My thanks to a reader who points out that Honeck’s death was reported by the St Petersburg Times for 30 December 1976. He had gone to live in Oregon with a niece, Mrs Clara Orth, after his release, and spent the last five years of his long life in a nursing home in that fair state.

Further articles concerning the Honeck case have been appearing online since I first wrote; the pair of mugshots above, showing Honeck at the start and the end of his incredible sentence, come from a clipping published in the Park City Daily News, 20 December 1963. In this clipping, Bob Poos follows up his original reports on the case and describes the 84-year-old, just-released murderer as “sprightly” and – in passages that perhaps smell slightly of reporters’ prose – delighting in the marvels of the modern world. “The old man,” Poos wrote, “was visibly amazed at the progress that had passed him by while he sat behind prison bars. During the car trip from Chester to St Louis [where he caught a plane to San Francisco to meet his niece], Honeck said, ‘Why, we must be going 35 miles an hour.’ The driver, Warden Ross Randolph, answered, ‘Actually, Richard, we’re going 65.’ Later, on the jet, Honeck remarked, ‘I travelled faster in that car today than I ever had in my life, and now we’re going almost 10 times that fast – and six miles up in the air, too.'”

Clara Orth – the daughter of Honeck’s sister, seen above left showing her uncle a scrapbook filled with clippings about him – was profiled, too, in a wire report published in somewhat different versions by the St Petersburg Evening Independent of 27 December 1963 and the Tuscaloosa News of 1 January 1964. She had quit her job to care for Honeck, it was reported, and sold her one-bedroom trailer home and bought another trailer with two bedrooms for them. Orth had some family memories to recount as well. Her mother had died a couple of years after Honeck went to jail, and her widowed father sent her to Hermann to live with her grandfather, Honeck’s father, and an aunt. In six years in Missouri, Orth recalled, “Uncle Richard’s father and sister never once mentioned him.”

Interviewed again at the time of Honeck’s death, Orth said that her uncle had slowly become senile and had to be placed in care. “He wasn’t bitter,” she added. “He decided long ago that if he had to be in prison that he would make the best of it. Since he got out he’s had a glorious time.”

[Afterword (29 August 2010): Further research suggests that the time served by Richard Honeck has since been exceeded in at least two known cases in the US alone.

Paul Geidel, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1911, served 68 years and 245 days in various New York state prisons. He was released on May 7, 1980, at the age of 86. Geidel’s case differed from Honeck’s in several key respects. Firstly, he was initially sentenced not to life imprisonment but to twenty years to life, but later declared insane, being incarcerated not in a prison but in a hospital for the criminally insane. Secondly, Geidel was offered parole at an earlier date than was Honeck – in 1974, when he had served only 62 years. Geidel had become institutionalized and declined release, voluntarily choosing to remain confined for an additional six years.

William Heirens, the “Lipstick Killer,” confessed to three murders in the aftermath of World War II, and was convicted, sentenced to three life terms, and sent to prison on 5 September 1946. He exceeded Honeck’s record of time served in August 2010, and remains incarcerated. If he survives, Heirens – who was born in 1928 – will become America’s longest serving prisoner, beating the record set by Geidel, on 9 May 2015.]

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