Archive for the ‘Rumours and panics’ Category

A ChInese prisoner is interrogated by a magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley's The Punishments of China (1901).

A Chinese prisoner – wearing the long pigtail, or queue, that was mandated for all indigenous subjects of the Celestial Empire – is interrogated by a Qing magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley’s voyeuristic classic The Punishments of China (1901).

China, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was the largest nation in the world – and also, by a distance, the most prosperous. Under the rule of a strong emperor, Hungli, and a well-established family (the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty), the Middle Kingdom was by then half-way through the longest period of calm in its long history. It had grown larger, richer and more cultured, its borders reaching roughly their modern extent. But it had also grown vastly more crowded; political stability, and the introduction of new crops from the Americas, led to a doubling of the population to around 300 million.  At its peak, this growth was accelerating at an annual rate in excess of 13%.

This meant trouble, for it meant that wealth was far from evenly distributed. China remained a country of great contrasts: its ruling classes rich beyond the dreams of avarice, its peasants scraping a bare living from the soil. For those living at the bottom of the  food chain – both metaphorically and literally – starvation was a constant possibility, one that grew ever more starkly real the further one travelled from the rich agricultural floodplains around the Yangtze River. By the late 1760s, many peasants were forced to turn to begging to survive, wandering miles from their homes to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers. Tens of thousands of such forced migrations led inevitably to conflict. They also led to one of the strangest outbreaks of panic and rumour known to history.

China under the Manchus, showing the growth of empire between 1644 and 1800. the soulstealing panic took place along the country's eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing.

China under the Manchus, showing the empire’s growth between 1644 and 1800. The soulstealing panic took place along the country’s eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing. Click to view in larger resolution.

Among the hundreds of victims of this panic was an itinerant beggar by the name of Chang-ssu, who came from  the province of Shantung. Chang-ssu travelled in company with his 11-year-old son, and between them the pair made an insecure living by singing a romantic folk song, ‘Lotus petals fall,’ to crowds of peasants whom they drummed up in their wanderings from village to village. By the end of July 1768, the two beggars had got as far as the gates of Hsu-chou, a city about 200 miles south of their home, when – at least according to Chang-ssu’s later confession – they were accosted by a tall man whom they did not know. The stranger asked them what they did for a living and, on hearing that they begged, he offered them employment – 500 cash for every peasant pigtail they could clip. (The cash was the imperial currency at the time; 500 cash was worth approximately half an ounce of silver.) The stranger refused to tell Chang-ssu and his son what he wanted the hair for, but he did offer them some help: a pair of scissors and a small packet of powder which, he explained, was a “stupefying drug.” Sprinkle the powder on the head of a victim and he would fall to the ground insensible. Then his pigtail – or queue – could easily be clipped.

The work sounded easy enough, and Chang-ssu accepted the commission – so he said. He and the stranger parted, making arrangements to meet up again later on the border with a neighbouring province, and father and son continued on their way, making for the city of Su-chou. In the course of their journey, at a village named Chao, they tried the stupefying powder on a local labourer. Gratifyingly, the man collapsed; Chang-ssu took out his scissors, snipped off the end of the man’s queue, and tucked scissors and the hair in his travelling pack. The beggars did not get far, however. Only a mile or two outside the village they were overtaken by a group of constables, arrested and hauled off to the county jail – suspected, they were told, of the vile crime of soulstealing.  (more…)

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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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“If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret,” said Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore, “you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.”

That awful secret was once the talk of Europe. From perhaps the 1840s until 1905, the Earl’s ancestral seat at Glamis Castle, in the Scottish lowlands, was home to a “mystery of mysteries”—an enigma that involved a hidden room, a secret passage, solemn initiations, scandal, and shadowy figures glimpsed by night on castle battlements.

The conundrum engaged two generations of high society until, soon after 1900, the secret itself was lost. One version of the story holds that it was so terrible that the 13th Earl’s heir flatly refused to have it revealed to him. Yet the mystery of Glamis (pronounced “Glarms”) remains, kept alive by its association with royalty (the heir was grandfather to Elizabeth II) and by the fact that at least some members of the Bowes-Lyon family insisted it was real.

This celebrated historical mystery seems to be largely forgotten now, but as late as the 1970s it was chilling new generations as a staple of numerous ghost books. Come to think of it, paperback compilations of old ghost stories seem to have gone the way of the dodo as well, but those crumbly Armada books used to frighten me when I was young. Anyway, you can read the unexpurgated story over at Past Imperfect.

[This is a fully revised, expanded and updated account of a mystery first discussed here, featuring the fruits of much subsequent research.]

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Chupatty movement“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present,” wrote Dr Gilbert Hadow in a letter to his sister at home in Britain dated March 1857. “No one seems to know the meaning of it… It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called ‘the chupatty movement.'” [Hibbert p.59]

The “movement” that Dr Hadow was describing was a remarkable example of rumour gone wild. It consisted of the distribution of many thousands of chapatis – unleavened Indian breads – which were passed from hand to hand and from village to village throughout the mofussil (interior) of the Subcontinent. That these chapatis really existed is beyond doubt; what made their distribution truly bizarre and inexplicable was that nobody knew for sure what they were for. Most Indians thought they were the work of the British, who – through the medium of the East India Company – had ruled over large portions of the country for almost exactly a century (and were, according to one well-known prophecy, due to be unseated at that century’s end). The British, who at least knew that they had nothing to do with the mysterious transmission, guessed they were a piece of mischief-making on the part of the Indians, though opinion was divided as to whether the breads came from the east, near Calcutta (Kolkata), from the north, in the province of Oude (Avadh), or from Indore, in centre of the country. Extensive enquiries into the meaning of the breads produced plenty of theories but few firm facts; even the runners and watchmen who baked them and actually carried them from village to village “did not know why they had to run through the night with chupatties in their turbans,” although they took them just the same [Hibbert p.60].

The chupatty movement first came to British attention early in February 1857. One of the first officials to encounter it was Mark Thornhill, who was the magistrate in the little Indian town of Mathura, near Agra. Thornhill came into his office one morning to find four “dirty little cakes of the coarsest flour, about the size and thickness of a biscuit” lying on his desk. These had – he was informed – been brought in by one of his Indian policemen, who had received them from a puzzled village chowkidar (watchman). And where had the chowkidar got them? “A man had come out of the jungle with them, and given them to the watchman with instructions to make four like them and to take these to the watchman in the next village, who was to be told to do the same.” [Thornhill p.2]

Thornhill carefully examined the chapatis in his office. There was nothing at all unusual about them. They bore no message, and were identical to the breads cooked in every home in India, which formed (and still form) a staple part of the locals’ diet. Yet the magistrate’s discreet enquiries soon revealed that many hundreds of chapatis were passing through his district, and through other parts of India as well – everywhere from the Narmada river in the south to the border with Nepal several hundred miles to the north. The breads formed, in short, what amounted to a culinary chain letter, and it was one that was spreading with such spectacular rapidity that Thornhill’s boss George Harvey, in Agra, calculated that a wave of chapatis was advancing across his province at the rate of somewhere between 100 and 200 miles a night. [Wagner p.63]

Location of chupatties 1857This discovery was particularly disconcerting, since the chapatis were moving vastly more swiftly than the fastest British mails could manage, and urgent enquiries were made as to the source and the meaning of the “movement”. This yielded the information that the distribution of breads was far more widespread than anyone in Agra had yet realised [left, in red; download image to see at full size], and that the Indians who received them generally took them as some sort of a sign. Beyond that, however, opinions remained divided.

From the North-West Provinces:

I have the honour to inform you that a signal has passed through numbers of the villages in this district, the purport of which has not yet transpired…

A Chowkeydar, on receiving one of these cakes, has had five or six more prepared, and thus they have passed from village to village… An idea has been industriously circulated that the Government has given the order.

[W. Ford, magistrate, Goorgaon, to Simon Fraser, Commissioner, Delhi, in Kaye p.632]

From Delhi:

I did hear of the circumstance. Some people said that it was a propitiatory observance to avert some impending calamity; others, that they were circulated by the Government to signify that the population throughout the country would be compelled to use the same food as the Christians, and thus be deprived of their religion; while others again said that the chupatties were circulated to make it known that Government was determined to force Christianity on the country by interfering with their food, and intimation of it was thus given that they might be prepared to resist the attempt.

Q. Is the sending of such articles about the country a custom among the Hindoos or Mussulmans; and would the meaning be at once understood without any accompanying explanation?

A. No, it is not by any means a custom; I am 50 years old, and never heard of such a thing before.

[Evidence of Jat Mall, news-writer [summariser of court news] to the Lieutenant Governor of Agra, “Trial of the King of Delhi,” Parliamentary Papers, 1859, 1st Session p.74]

From Nimach, near Bombay:

At the time they appeared in Nimar, they were everywhere brought from the direction of Indore. That city was at the time afflicted with a severe visitation of cholera, and numbers of the inhabitants died daily. It was at the time understood by the people of Nimar, and is still believed, that the cakes of wheat were dispatched from Indore after the performance over them of incantations that would ensure the pestilence accompanying them. The cakes did not come straight from North to South, for they were received at Bujenggbur, more than half-way between Indore and Gwalior, on the 9th of February, but had been distributed at Mundlaiser on the 12th of January.

[Richard Harte Keatinge, VC, in Kaye pp.572-3]

From Delhi:

It was alluded to [in the native newspapers], and it was supposed to portend some coming disturbance, and was, moreover, understood as implying an invitation to the whole population of the country to unite for some secret objective afterwards to be disclosed.

[Evidence of Chuni Lal, news-writer,  “Trial of the King of Delhi,” Parliamentary Papers, 1859, 1st Session pp.83-4.]

From Oude:

Some time in February 1857, a curious occurrence took place. A Chowkeydar ran up to another village with two chupatties. He ordered his fellow-official to make ten more, and give two to each of the five nearest village Chowkeydars with the same instructions. In a few hours the whole country was in a stir, from Chowkeydars flying around with these cakes. The  signal spread in all directions with wonderful celerity. The magistrates tried to stop it, but, in spite of all they could do, it passed along to the borders of the Punjab. There is reason to believe that this was originated by some intriguers of the old Court of Lucknow.

[Ireland p.23]

From Delhi:

Nobody can tell what was the object of the distribution of the chupatties. It is not known who first projected the plan. All the people in the palace wondered what it could mean. I had no conversation with the King on the subject; but others talked in his presence about it, wondering what could be the object.

[Statement of Hakin Ahsan Ullah, confidential physician to the King of Delhi, in Kaye p.636]

Numerous explanations were considered. A few suggested that the chapatis might conceal “seditious letters” that “were in this manner forwarded from village to village, read by the village chief, again crusted over with flour, and sent on in the shape of a chupatty, to be broken by the next recipient,” [Kaye p.572]  but examination of the breads revealed no hidden messages. Some of the more knowledgeable British officials linked the spread of the chapatis to outbreaks of cholera in central India – seeing the distribution of breads as a prophylactic – adding that, since incidence of the disease was associated with the movement of the Company’s armies, “there was a widespread belief that the British were in fact responsible for the disease.” [Wagner p.61]  Another official suggested that the chupatty movement had been initiated somewhere in central India by dyers, anxious that their dyes “were not clearing properly,” or were the product of some spellwork aimed at protecting crops against hail. [Davenport p.441]

All in all, the British were extremely spooked by the spread of the chapatis. Vital though their Indian empire was to them, they controlled the Subcontinent with a comparative handful of men – about 100,000 in all, less than half of whom were soldiers, ruling over a population of 250 million – and they were all too aware of just how inadequate these numbers would be in the event of any serious rebellion. That, combined with a definite decline in the number of British officers who properly understood India, spoke Indian languages fluently, or had any real sympathy for the people whom they ruled, meant that the colonial hierarchy remained perpetually jittery with some reason. Tall tales, panic and misapprehension spread readily in such a climate, and plenty of people felt a certain disquiet in the early months of 1857:

“Lotus flowers and bits of goats’ flesh, so it was rumoured, were being passed from hand to hand, as well as chupatties. Symbols of unknown significance were chalked on the walls of towns; protective charms were on sale everywhere; an ominous slogan, Sub lal hogea hai (‘Everything has become red’) was being whispered…”

[Barter p.ix]

It is no surprise that, faced with such a plethora of portents, “the British regarded with deep suspicion, bordering on paranoia, any type of communication in India which they could not understand.” [Wagner p.63]  The colonial administration well understood that rumours, however unfounded, could have serious consequences in an India in which rulers and ruled regarded each other with mutual suspicion, and there were plenty of notably more dangerous urban legends about. One popular story, widely believed, suggested that the British were attempting the mass conversion of their subjects to Christianity by adultering their flour with bone meal from cows and pigs, which was forbidden to Hindus and Moslems respectively. Once defiled, the theory went, men who had consumed the forbidden meal would be shunned by their co-religionists and would be easier to bring into the Christian fold [Kaye p.634], or could then be sent as soldiers overseas (crossing the “black water” being forbidden to Hindus of high caste).  And, historically, much the same thing had happened before in times of trouble. Coconuts had passed at great speed from village to village in central India in 1818, at a time when the mofussil was being ravaged by large bands of merciless looters known as the Pindaris. [Malcolm, II, 217-18; Dodd p.36]  Most worryingly of all, some very similar rumours had once been recorded far to the south, in the Madras Presidency in 1806, at the time of a serious outbreak of mutiny among Indian soldiers stationed at Vellore:

Among other wild fables, which took firm hold of the popular mind, was one to the effect that the Company’s officers had collected all the newly-manufactured salt, had divided it into two great heaps,  and over one had sprinkled the blood of hogs, and over the other the blood of cows; that they had then sent it to be sold throughout the country of the pollution and desecration of the Mahommedans and Hindoos, that all might be brought to one caste and to one religion like the English.

[Kaye p.224]

Seen from this perspective, it is not surprising that one of the many subsidiary rumours that accompanied the chupatty movement was that the breads were being carried and distributed “by the hands of the very lowest caste men that can be found; and the natives say that it is intended by Government to force or bribe the headmen to eat the, and thus loose their caste.” [“Trial of the King of Delhi,” Parliamentary Papers, 1859, 1st Session p.100]  The consumption of food supplied by the British was, it was commonly believed, to be “considered as a token that they should likewise be compelled to embrace one faith, or, as they termed it, ‘One food and one faith.'” [Roy p.232]

By the time of the chupatty movement, no more than a handful of aged India hands could remember such long-ago events as the Vellore Mutiny. But those who did would not have been surprised by what happened next, for some very similar beliefs were spreading in the early months of 1857. According to this rumour, which spread like wildfire among the sepoys (Indian soldiers) stationed at cantonments throughout the north of the country, the British had come up with yet another diabolical contrivance for breaking their caste and defiling their bodies: the greased cartridge.

Greased cartridge from the Indian Mutiny, 1857It was certainly no secret that the Company’s armies had been making preparations for the introduction of a new sort of ammunition for a new model of Enfield rifle. To be loaded, this cartridge [right], had to be torn open so that the powder it contained could be poured down the barrel of the muzzle-loading gun; because the soldier’s hands were full, this was done with the teeth. Then the bullet had to be rammed down the rifled barrel of the muzzle-loading gun [below]. To facilitate its passage, the cartridges were greased with tallow, which, in the UK, was made of beef and pork fat. The greased cartridges thus posed precisely the same threat to observant sepoys as would flour adulterated with the blood of pigs and cows, and though the problem was recognised by the British at an early stage, and not a single greased cartridge was ever actually issued to any Indian troops, fear that the Company was plotting to defile them took hold among the men of many Indian regiments and resulted in the outbreak of rebellion in the cantonment of Meerut in April 1857.

Sepoys load with cartridgesThe revolt of 1857, which the British call the Indian Mutiny but many Indians prefer to think of as the First War of Independence, was the defining event in British imperial history. It came as a greater shock than the loss of the American colonies, and prompted reprisals far more hysterical and vicious than those visited on rebellious subjects elsewhere in the Empire. In one sense, this was not surprising; since India had a large and settled British population, there were more women and children around for the rebels to kill. In another, however, the appalling atrocities visited by the Company’s armies on the people of northern India were far from justified, since the British were themselves proved to be just as prone to rumours and panics as their Indian subjects. Wild stories circulated freely in the panic-stricken atmosphere of 1857, and there were enough real massacres and murders to make almost anything seem possible. Thus it was widely reported, and believed, that Mrs Charlotte Chambers – a heavily-pregnant officer’s wife stationed at Meerut – had had her clothes set on fire by a howling mob of rebels before she was shot, and was stabbed, and had her baby cut out of her belly by a butcher and held up to her “before her dimming eyes,” after which her hands were thrust into her abdomen in place of the murdered foetus. [Ward p.507&n; letter from James Johnston to his mother, 1857] Subsequent investigation eventually suggested that none of this was true, and that the unfortunate Mrs Chambers, though certainly killed, died instantly, and “did not suffer any protracted pain, torture or indignity” [Ward p.675; Women of History], but this revelation was not widely circulated, and in any case came far too late to save the thousands of entirely blameless Indians who found themselves caught up in the hysterical aftermath of the rebellion and who were flogged, or blown from cannon, or forced to clean bloodied paving stones using only their tongues before being summarily hanged.

By the time the British came to examine the causes of the rebellion in 1858 and 1859, therefore, the chupatty movement had assumed a fresh significance. It was generally believed, in retrospect, that the circulation of the breads had been a warning of trouble ahead, and that the wave of chapatis must have been set in motion by a cunning group of determined conspirators who had begun plotting the rising months, if not years, in advance. The rapid spread of disorder in 1857 – when regiment after regiment had mutinied, and revolts against British rule had sprung up throughout most of northern and central India – made it almost impossible to believe that the rebellion could have been spontaneous (as most modern historians concede), and considerable effort was made to chronicle the movement and trace the spread of the anomalous chapatis.

The real irony is that all this effort actually supplied historians with evidence that the chupatty movement had nothing at all to do with the outbreak of disorder some months later – and that the circulation of the breads early in 1857 was nothing more than a strange coincidence. Kim Wagner, who has made the most recent study of the phenomenon, concludes that the movement had its origins in Indore, a princely state still nominally independent of British rule, and that it began as an attempt to ward off the ravages of cholera:

The geographic circulation of the chapattis was not systematic or exponential; their transmission was erratically linear and different ‘currents’ moved at different speeds. Some currents simply ran cold, while others moved in parallel, or paused before continuing. Thus, long after the chapattis reached their northern-most point of Meerut, there was another northwards distribution from Cawnpore to Fattehgarh, which was widely reported in the newspapers… The circulation took place along well-established routes of transmission, which followed the main trade and pilgrimage routes between the bigger cities.

At some point the chapattis passed beyond the limits of their meaningful transmission and simply continued through the country as a “blank” message. This allowed different meanings an interpretations to be attributed to them, and the chapattis became an index of people’s thoughts and worries.

[Wagner pp.65, 67]

Furthermore, the superstitious impulse that still encourages the transmission of chain-letters clearly applied in 1857:

Although the original specific meaning of the chapattis had been lost early in the distribution, the dire consequences of breaking the chain of transmission remained, and thus ensured their successful circulation over an immense area. In the event, the chapattis were not ‘harbingers of a coming storm.’ They were what people made them into, and the significance attributed to them was a symptom of the pervasive distrust and general consternation amongst the Indian population during the early months of 1857.

[Ibid p.69]

Seen from a distance of 150 years, the chupatty movement can appear a quaint anomaly, a strange and colourful rumour of interest mostly to historians and psychologists. To me, however, the bloody results of the mutual incomprehension that existed between the British and ‘native’ communities in India are a potent reminder that mistrust and panic can have very serious consequences. They did in France in 1307, at the time of the destruction of the Templars, and in Salem in 1692, at the time of the witch trials. In South Africa, in 1856, the spread of rumours concerning a series of visions experienced by a Xhosa girl named Nonqawuse resulted in the slaughter of most of the Xhosa’s cattle, and the subsequent death by starvation of around 40,000 people. [J.B. Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nonqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1989)]

These are deep waters that we trawl in, and dangerous ones, too.


Richard Barter. The Siege of Delhi. Mutiny Memoirs of an Old Officer (London: Folio Society, 1984)

John Davenport. The Historical Class Book. Or Readings in Modern History (London: Relfe Brothers, 1861)

George Dodd. The History of the Indian Revolt (London: W&R Chambers, 1859)

Troy Downs. ‘Host of Midian: the chapati circulation and the Indian Revolt of 1857-58.’ Studies in History 16 (2000)

Christopher Hibbert. The Great Mutiny: India 1857 (London: Penguin, 1978)

House of Commons. “Proceedings of the Trial of Badahur Shah.” In Accounts and Papers, East Indies, Session 3 February-19 April 1859, Parliamentary Papers XVIII of 1859

William Wotherspoon Ireland. History of the Siege of Delhi, by an Officer Who Served There (Edinburgh: A&C Black, 1861)

John Kaye. History of the Sepoy War in India, 1857-58 (London, 3 vols.: WH Allen, 1864)

John Malcolm. A Memoir of Central India (London, 2 vos.: Parbury, Allen, 1832

Tapti Roy. The Politics of a Popular Uprising: Bundelkhand in 1857 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Mark Thornhill. The Personal Adventures and Experiences of a Magistrate During the Rise, Progression and Suppression of the Indian Mutiny (London: John Murray, 1884)

Kim A. Wagner. The Great Fear of 1857: Rumours, Conspiracies and the Making of the Indian Uprising (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010)

Andrew Ward. Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (London: John Murray, 2004)

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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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Gavrilo Princip arrested, 28 June 1914, SarajevoIt’s hard to think of another event in the troubled twentieth century that had quite the shattering impact of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand [below] at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. The Archduke was heir to the throne of the tottering Austro-Hungarian empire; his killers – a motley band of amateurish students – were Serbian nationalists (or possibly Yugoslav nationalists; historians remain divided on the topic) who wanted to turn Austrian Bosnia into a part of a new Slav state. The guns and bombs they used to kill the Archduke, meanwhile, were supplied by the infamous Colonel Apis, head of Serbian military intelligence. All this was quite enough to provoke Austria-Hungary into declaring war on Serbia, after which, with the awful inevitability that AJP Taylor famously described as ‘war by timetable’, Europe slid inexorably into the horrors of the First World War as the rival Great Powers began to mobilise and counter-mobilise against each other.

Archduke Franz FerdinandTo say that all this is well-known is a bit of an understatement. Seen from the Fortean perspective, however, the events of that day in Sarajevo have interesting aspects that often go unremarked. The appalling combination of implausible circumstance that resulted in assassination is one; Franz Ferdinand had survived an earlier attempt to kill him on the fateful day, emerging unscathed from the explosion of a bomb that bounced off the folded hood of the his convertible and exploded under a car following behind him in his motorcade. That bomb injured several members of the Imperial entourage, and these men were taken to hospital. It was Franz Ferdinand’s impulsive decision, later in the day, to visit the wounded in hospital – a decision none of his assassins could possibly have predicted – that took him directly past the spot where Gavrilo Princip, the man who actually killed him, had decided pretty much at random to position himself. It was chauffeur Leopold Lojka’s unfamiliarity with the new route that led him to take a wrong turning and, confused, pull to a halt just six feet from Princip himself. For the Archduke to be presented, as a stationary target, to the one man in a crowd of thousands still determined to kill him was a remarkable example of sheer bad luck, but, even then, the odds still favoured Franz Ferdinand’s survival. Princip (seen in the photo at the head of this entry being manhandled away just after the shooting) was so hemmed in by the crowd that he was unable to pull out and prime the bomb he was carrying. Instead, he was forced to resort to his pistol, but failed to actually aim it. According to his own later testimony, Princip confessed: “Where I aimed I do not know,” adding that he had raised his gun “against the automobile without aiming. I even turned my head as I shot.” Even allowing for the point-blank range, it is pretty striking, given these circumstances, that the killer fired just two bullets, and yet one struck Franz Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie – who was sitting alongside him – while the other hit the heir to the throne. It is absolutely astonishing that both rounds proved almost immediately fatal. Sophie was hit in the stomach, and her husband in the neck, the bullet severing his jugular vein. There was nothing any doctor could have done to save either of them. [David James Smith, One Morning in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914 (London, 2008) pp.182-3, 187-90]

The assassination proved so momentous that it is not surprising that there were plenty of people ready to say, afterwards, that they had seen it coming. One of them, according to an imperial aide, was the fortune teller who had, with spooky prescience, apparently told the Archduke that “he would one day let loose a world war.” That story has an after-the-fact tang for me (who, before July 1914, spoke in terms of a “world war”? A European war, perhaps.) Yet it seems pretty well established that Franz Ferdinand himself had premonitions of an early end. In the account of one relative, he had told told some friends the month before his death that “I know I shall soon be murdered.” A third source has the doomed man “extremely depressed and full of forebodings” a few days before the assassination took place. [Smith, op.cit. pp.161-2]

Franz  Ferdinand as a hunterAccording to yet another story, moreover, Franz Ferdinand had every reason to suppose that he was bound to die. This legend, not found in the history books but preserved as an oral tradition among Austria’s huntsmen, records that, in 1913, the heavily-armed Archduke had shot a rare white stag, and that it was widely believed of any hunter who killed such an animal “that he or a member of his family shall die within a year.” [The Times, 2 November 2006] There is nothing inherently implausible in this legend – or at least not in the idea that Franz Ferdinand might have mown down a rare animal without thinking twice about it. The Archduke was a committed and indiscriminate huntsman [seen with a day’s bag at right], whose personal record, when in pursuit of small game, was 2,140 kills in a day [Roberta Feuerlicht, The Desperate Act: the Assassination at Sarajevo (New York, 1968) pp.36-7] and who, according to the records he meticulously compiled in his own game book, had been responsible for the deaths of a grand total of 272,439 animals during his lifetime, the majority of which had been loyally driven straight towards his overheating guns by a large assembly of beaters. [Smith, op.cit. pp.69-70]

Of all the tall tales that attached themselves to Franz Ferdinand after his death, however, the best-known and most widely circulated concerns the car in which he was driven to his death. This vehicle – a  Gräf und Stift double phaeton, built by the Gräf brothers of Vienna (who had been bicycle manufacturers only a few year earlier) – had been made in 1910 and was owned not by the Austro-Hungarian state but by Count Franz von Harrach, “an officer of the Austrian army transport corps” who apparently loaned it to the Archduke for his day in Sarajevo. [Smith, op.cit. pp.169-70] According to this legend, Von Harrach’s vehicle was so cursed by either [a] its involvement in the awful events of June 1914 or [b] its gaudy blood-red paint job (see below) that pretty much every subsequent owner met a hideous, Final Destination sort of end.

The story of the cursed death car did not begin to do the rounds until decades after Franz Ferdinand’s blood-drenched death. It dates, so far as I have been able to establish, only to the 1950s, when it was popularised in Frank Edwards’s spooky potboiler Stranger Than Science (1959). This is not, as many Forteans will realise,  a terribly encouraging discovery. Edwards, a regular contributor to Fate who wrote a series of books along very similar lines (sensational recountings of paranormal staples across one or two pages of purple prose) rarely offered his readers anything so persuasive as an actual source. He was a wholly unreliable author, prone to exaggeration and untroubled by outright invention, and in the course of his career he was responsible for putting even more vivid flights of fantasy into print than Peter Haining. To make matters worse, as pointed out by the rather more reliable snopes, Edwards wrote up the story of the jinxed Gräf und Stift at pretty much the same time that the rather similar tale of James Dean’s cursed Porsche Spyder had begun to do the rounds in the United States.

Not that Edwards can be held solely responsible for the popularity of the death car legend. In the decades since he wrote, the basic tale has accumulated additional detail, as urban legends tend to do, so that by the time it made its appearance in full flower in that beacon of sober news reporting the Weekly World News (28 April 1981), the Austrian limo was being blamed for quite a bit more than just one solitary death:

Haunted auto claimed the lives of 20 million people

By Rob Robbins

When visitors to the Vienna museum asked attendant Karl Brunner if they could climb into the infamous “haunted car” that was one of his prize exhibits, the old man always refused.

He said the huge vehicle had been involved in 20 million deaths and was looking for more victims.

Asked to explain, the old man proudly told the story:

The six-passenger open touring car had been custom-built for royalty. And originally it had been a vivid blood red.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand had wanted something that would impress the public when he and his wife, he lively Duchess of Hohenburg, toured the tiny Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.

There were reasons for putting on a brave show.

Europe seethed with political unrest, and the Archduke’s goodwill trip could be hazardous.

The royal couple entered Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and at once they found that the blood red car made a splendid target.

A young fanatic armed with a pistol had leaped onto the running board of the car. Laughing in the faces of the Archduke and Duchess, he fired shot after shot into their bodies. That double assassination was the spark that touched off the first World War, with its casualty list of 20 million – a war the red car had helped to start.

After the Armistice, the newly appointed Governor of Yugoslavia had the car restored to first-class condition.

But after four accidents and the loss of his right arm, he felt the vehicle should be destroyed. His friend Dr Srikis disagreed. Scoffing at the notion that a car could be cursed, he drove it happily for six months – till the overturned vehicle was found on the highway with the doctor’s crushed body beneath it.

Another doctor became the next owner, but when his superstitious patients began to desert him, he hastily sold it to a Swiss race driver.

In a road race in the Dolomites, the car threw him over a stone wall and he died of a broken neck.

A well-to-do farmer acquired the car,  which stalled one day on the road to market.

While another farmer was towing it for repairs, the vehicle suddenly growled into full power and knocked the tow-car aside in a careening rush down the  highway.

Both farmers were killed.

Tiber Hirschfield, the last private owner, decided that all the old car needed was a less sinister paint job. He had it repainted in a cheerful blue shade and invited five friends to accompany him to a wedding.

Hirschfield and four of his guests died in a gruesome head-on collision.

By this time the government had had enough. They shipped the rebuilt car to the museum.

But one afternoon Allied bombers reduced the museum to smoking rubble.

Nothing was found of Karl Brunner and the haunted vehicle. Nothing, that is, but a pair of dismembered hands clutching a fragment of steering wheel.

Well, it’s a nice story – and thFranz<br  /> Ferdinand's Graf und Stift, Heeresgeschichtliche Musuem, Viennae wonderful suggestive detail in the last para, that Brunner had finally succumbed to the temptation to climb behind the wheel himself, and in doing so drawn a 1,000lb bomb onto his head, is a pretty neat touch. But it’s also certifiable rubbish. To begin with, many of the details are plain wrong. Princip did not leap onto the running board of the Gräf und Stift, and certainly didn’t pump “bullet after bullet” into his victims. Nor did Yugoslavia have a “governor” after 1918 – it became a kingdom.

OK, Franz Ferdinand’s touring car did make it to a Vienna musuem – the military museum there, as a matter of fact. But it wasn’t destroyed by bombing in the war, and it’s still on display today [left] – indeed it’s one of the museum’s main attractions. The car is not painted blood red, you’ll notice, nor “a cheerful blue shade”, and, rather more significantly, it displays no sign of any damage caused by a long series of ghastly road accidents and head-on collisions, but certainly does still bear the scars of the bombs and the bullets of 28 June [below right]. That seems pretty odd for a vehicle that must, at the very least, have undergone top-to-tail reconstruction work on three occasions for the death car legend to be true. There’s no evidence whatsoever, in short, that the vehicle ever suffered through the bloody experiences attributed to it by Frank Edwards and those who copied him – and though I can find no indication that anyone has ever done a full-fledged reinvestigation of Edwards’s original tale, it’s also certainly true that there’s no sign in any of the more reputable corners of my library, or on the internet, of any Tiber Hirschfield, nor of a “Simon Mantharides,” a bloodily-deceased diamond merchant who crops up in several versions of the tale, nor of a dead Vienna museum curator named Karl Brunner; all of these names can be found solely in recountings of the legend itself.

Franz Ferdinand's Gräf und Stift with bullet holes and number  plateWhat looks like a much more solid bit of history crops up in a generally pretty well-informed discussion of the car on the Axis History Forum. This contends that the Gräf und Stift that Franz Ferdinand was driving in when he met his death never returned to private hands after that day at Sarajevo – a fact that we do know continues to irk the descendants of its original owner, Franz von Harrach, who still have the car’s registration documents, and who believe that the Austrian government has no right to display the vehicle (now valued at about £4 million) in its military museum. [The Guardian, 16 November 2002] Acording to the account pieced together on that Forum, the limo was sent straight to the museum in Vienna after the assassination, and it has been there ever since.

I’m pretty sure that Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches Museum could solve this little conundrum quickly enough just by consulting its accession records, but, in closing, I want to draw attention to an even more astounding coincidence concerning the Franz Ferdinand death limo – one that is considerably better evidenced than the cursed car nonsense. This tiny piece of history went completely unremarked on for the best part of a century, until a British visitor named Brian Presland called at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum. It was Presland who seems to have first drawn the staff’s attention to the remarkable detail contained in the Gräf und Stift’s license plate, which reads – as can be seen in the old photo above and the current image below – AIII 118. That number, Presland pointed out, is capable of a quite astonishing interpretation [bottom]. It can be taken to read A (for Armistice) 11-11-18 – which means that the death car has always carried with it a prediction, not of the dreadful day of Sarajevo that in a real sense marked the beginning of the First World War, but of 11 November 1918: Armistice Day, the day that the war ended. [Southampton Echo, 12 November 2004]

Franz Ferdinand death carThis coincidence is so incredible that I initially suspected that it might be a hoax – that perhaps the Gräf und Stift had been fitted with the plate restrospectively. A couple of things suggest that this is not the case, however. First, the pregnant meaning of the intitial ‘A’ applies only in English – the German for ‘armistice’ is ‘Waffenstillstand,’ a satisfyingly Teutonic-sounding mouthful that literally translates as ‘arms standstill’. And Austria-Hungary did not surrender on the same day as its German allies anyway – it had been knocked out of the war a week earlier, on 4 November 1918. So the number plate is a little bit less spooky in its native country, and – so far as I can make it out – it also contains not five number ‘1’s but three capital ‘I’s and two numbers. Perhaps, then, it’s not quite so perplexing that the museum director buttonholed by Brian Presland freely admitted that he had worked in the place for 20 years without spotting the plate’s significance.

Number  plate close upMore importantly, however, a contemporary photo of the fateful limousine, taken just as it turned into the road where Gavrilo Princip was waiting for it, some 30 seconds before Franz Ferdinand’s death, shows the car bearing what looks very much like the same number plate as it does today. You’re going to have to take my word for this, to an extent – the plate is visible, just about, in the good quality copy of the image that appears in the photo sections of Smith’s One Morning in Sarajevo, and I have been able to read it with a magnifying glass. But my attempts to scan this tiny detail in high definition have been mostly unsuccessful, as you can see from the equivocal result at left. I’m satisfied, though, and while I don’t pretend that this is anything but a quite incredible coincidence, it certainly is incredible, one of the most jaw-dropping I’ve ever come across.

And it resonates. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what that bullet-headed old stag-murderer Franz Ferdinand might have made of it, had he had any imagination at all.

Armistice plate interpreted

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BasiliskFew creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk: a crested snake, hatched from a cock’s egg, that was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example above comes from a German bestiary, but the earliest description that we have was given by Pliny the Elder, who described the basilisk in his pioneering Natural History (79AD) – the 37 volumes of which he completed shortly before being suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly nonetheless. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny wrote, “but advances loftily and upright” – a description that accords with the popular notion that the basilisk is the king of serpents – and “kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits rocks, such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was native to Libya, it was said, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.

Pliny is not the only ancient author to mention the basilisk. The Roman poet Lucan, writing only a few years later, described another characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster – the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to its venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair.

The basilisk was popular in medieval bestiaries, and it was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. According to Jan Bondeson, who wrote extensively on the subject in an essay published in his The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999) pp.161-92, the monster was

the subject of a lengthy discourse in the early-thirteenth-century bestiary of Pierre de Beauvais. An aged cock, which had lost its virility, would sometimes lay a small, abnormal egg. If this egg is laid in a dunghill and hatched by a toad, a misshapen creature, with the upper body of a rooster, bat-like wings, and the tail of a snake will come forth. Once hatched, the young basilisk creeps down to a cellar or a deep well to wait for some unsuspecting man to come by, and be overcome by its noxious vapours.

The king of snakes also crops up occasionally in the chronicles of the period, and it is in these accounts that we are mostly interested here. Among the principal cases we might note the following:

• In the ninth century, during the pontificate of Leo IV (847-55), a basilisk concealed itself under an arch near the temple of Lucia in Rome. The creature’s odour caused a devastating plague, but the Pope slew the creature with his prayers. Julius Scaliger (1484-1558), Exercitations.

• In 1202, in Vienna, a mysterious outbreak of fainting fits was traced to a basilisk that had hidden in a well. The creature, which fortunately for the hunters was already dead when they found it, was recovered and a sandstone statue erected to commemorate the hunt. Bondeson, 172.

•  According to the Dutch scholar Levinus Lemnius (1505-68), “in the city of Zierikzee – on Schouwen Duiveland island in Zeeland – and in the territory of this island, two aged roosters… incubated their eggs… flogging them they were driven away with difficulty from that job, and so, since the citizens conceived the conviction that from an egg of this kind a basilisk would emerge, they crushed the eggs and strangled the roosters.”

• In Basle, in 1474, another old cock was discovered laying an egg; the bird was captured, tried, convicted of an unnatural act, and burned alive before a crowd of several thousand people. Just before its execution, the mob prevailed upon the executioner to cut the rooster open, and three more eggs, in various stages of development, were discovered in its abdomen. EP Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (London: William Heinemann, 1906) p.269.

• At the royal castle at Copenhagen, in 1651, a servant sent to collect eggs from the hen coops observed an old cockerel in the act of laying. On the orders of the Danish king, Frederick III, its egg was retrieved and closely watched for several days, but no basilisk emerged; the egg eventually found its way into the royal Cabinet of Curiosities. Bondeson pp.175-6.

• When the parish church of Renwick, Cumbria, was torn down in 1733, a huge, bat-winged creature, supposed to have been a basilisk, angrily flapped at the workmen. One of them, a man named John Tallantire, killed it with a tree branch, earning him and his descendants exemption from the fees due to the manor. George Eberhardt, Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology (Santa Barbara [CA]: ABC Clio, 2002) p.82.

By far the best known of all such accounts, however, is the strange tale of the Warsaw basilisk of 1587, which one quite often sees cited as the only instance of an historically-verifiable encounter with a monster of this sort. Bondeson (pp.173-4) gives one of the fullest accounts of this interesting and celebrated incident:

The 5-year-old daughter of a knifesmith named Machaeropaeus had disappeared in a mysterious way, together with another little girl. The wife of Machaeropaeus went looking for them, along with the nursemaid. When the nursemaid looked into the underground cellar of a house that had fallen into ruins 30 years earlier, she observed the children lying motionless down there, without responding to the shouting of the two women. When the maid was too hoarse to shout anymore, she courageously went down the stairs to find out what had happened to the children. Before the eyes of her mistress, she sank to the floor beside them, and did not move. The wife of Machaeropaeus wisely did not follow her into the cellar, but ran back to spread the word about this strange and mysterious business. The rumour spread like wildfire throughout Warsaw. Many people thought the air felt unusually thick to breathe and suspected that a basilisk was hiding in the cellar. Confronted with this deadly threat to the city of Warsaw, the senate was called into an emergency meeting. An old man named Benedictus, a former chief physician to the king, was consulted, since he was known to possess much knowledge about various arcane subjects. The bodies were pulled out of the cellar with long poles that had iron hooks at the end, and Benedictus examined them closely. They presented a horrid appearance, being swollen like drums and with much-discoloured skin; the eyes “protruded from the sockets like the halves of hen’s eggs.” Benedictus, who had seen many things during his fifty years as a physician, at once pronounced the state of the corpses an infallible sign that they had been poisoned by a basilisk. When asked by the desperate senators how such a formidable beast could be destroyed, the knowledgeable old physician recommended that a man descend into the cellar to seize the basilisk with a rake and bring it out into the light. To protect his own life, this man had to wear a dress of leather, furnished with a covering of mirrors, facing in all directions.

Benedicus did not, however, volunteer to try out this plan himself. He did not feel quite prepared to do so, he said, owing to age and infirmity. The senate called on the burghers, the military, and police but found no man of sufficient courage to seek out and destroy the basilisk within its lair. A Silesian convict named Johann Faurer, who had been sentenced to death for robbery, was at length persuaded to make the attempt, on the grounds that he be given a complete pardon if he survived his encounter with the loathsome beast. Faurer was dressed in creaking black leather covered with a mass of tinkling mirrors, and his eyes were protected with large eyeglasses. Armed with a sturdy rake in his right hand and a blazing torch in his left, he must have presented a singular aspect when venturing forth into the cellar. He was cheered on by at least two thousand people who had gathered to seethe basilisk being beaten to death. After searching the cellar for more than an hour, Faurer finally saw the basilisk, lurking in a niche of the wall. Old Benedictus shouted instructions to him: he was to seize it with his rake and carry it out into the broad daylight. The brave Johann Faurer accomplished this, and the populace ran away like rabbits when he appeared in his strange outfit, gripping the neck of the writhing basilisk with the rake. Dr Benedictus was the only one who dared examine the strange animal further, since he believed that the sun’s rays rendered its poison less effective. He declared that it really was a basilisk; it had the head of a cock, the eyes of a toad, a crest like a crown, a warty and scaly skin “covered all over with the hue of venomous animals,” and a curved tail, bent over behind its body. The strange and inexplicable tale of the basilisk of Warsaw ends here: none of the writers chronicling this strange occurrence detailed the ultimate fate of the deformed animal caught in the cellar. It would seem unlikely, however, that it was invited to the city hall for a meal of cakes and ale; the versatile Dr Benedictus probably knew of some infallible way to dispose of the monster.

Strange and unbelievable stuff, one thinks – not least because, even setting aside the Warsaw basilisk itself, there are quite a few odd things about this account. For one thing, Renaissance-era knifesellers were invariably impoverished artisans – and what sort of artisan could afford a nursemaid? Come to think of it, moreover, whoever heard of a knifeseller with a name like Machaeropaeus? It’s certainly no Polish name, though it is certainly appropriate: it’s derived from the Latin “machaerus”, and thence from the Greek “μάχαιρα”, and it means a person with a sword.

Now, the only sort of person likely to be mooching around central Europe with a Latin monicker in the late 16th century was a humanist – one of the new breed of university-educated, classically influenced scholars who flourished in the period, rejected the stifling influence of the church, and sought to model themselves on the intellectual giants of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanists played a vital part in the Renaissance and the academic reawakening that followed it; they communicated in the scholars” lingua franca, Latin, and proudly adopted Latin names. So whoever the mysterious Polish knifeseller lurking on the margins of this story may have been, we can be reasonably confident that he himself was not a humanist, and not named Machaeropaeus. It follows that his tale has been refracted through a humanist lens, and most likely put into print by a humanist.

Bondeson, a reliable and careful writer, unusually gives no source for his account of the Warsaw basilisk, and my own research has traced the story only back as far as the mid-1880s, when it appeared in the first volume of Edmund Goldsmid’s compilation Un-natural History [Goldsmid, Un-Natural History, or Myths of Ancient Science: Being a Collection of Curious Tracts on the Basilisk, Unicorn, Phoenix, Behemoth or Leviathan, Dragon, Giant Spider, Tarantula, Chameleons, Satyrs, Homines Caudait, &c… Now First Translated from the Latin and Edited… Edinburgh, 4 vols.: privately printed, 1886. I, 23]. This is a rare work, and I’m certainly not qualified to judge its scholarship, though there’s no obvious reason to doubt that Goldsmid (a Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Scottish Society of Antiquaries) should be regarded as a reliable source. According to the Un-Natural History, anyway, the Warsaw basilisk was chronicled by one George Caspard Kirchmayer – actually Georg Kaspar Kirchmayer (1635-1700), who was ‘Professor of Eloquence’ (Rhetoric) at the University of Wittenberg – in his pamphlet On the Basilisk (1691). Goldsmid translates this work and so gives us a few additional details – the implements used to recover their bodies were “fire-hooks”, and Benedictus, in addition to being the King’s physician, was his Chamberlain as well. As for Faurer, the convict, “his whole body was covered with leather, his eyelids fastened down on the pupils [and his suit was] a mass of mirrors from head to foot.”

Kirchmayer, in turn, gives another source for his information on the Warsaw case. He says he took his information from an older work by “D. Mosanus, Cassellanus and John Pincier” called “Guesses, bk.iii, 23”. The Latin names are a bit of a giveaway here; the mysterious Guesses turns out to be, as predicted, a humanist text, but it is not – a fair bit of trial and error and some extensive searching of European library catalogues reveals – a volume titled Conectio (‘Guesses’). The account appears, rather, in book three of Riddles, by Johann Pincier (or, to give it its full and proper title, Aenigmata, liber tertius, cum solutionibus in quibus res memorata dignae continenturAenigmatum, libri tres, cum solutionibus in quibus res memorata  dignae continentur, published by one Christopher Corvini in Herborn, a German town north of Frankfurt, in 1605.)

The authors named by Kirchmayer can also be identified. There were two Johann Pinciers, father and son, the elder of whom was pastor of the town of Wetter, in Hesse-Kassel, and the younger professor of medicine at Herborn – then also part of the domains of the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel – and later in neighbouring Marburg. Since Aenigmatum was published in Herborn, it seems it was the younger of the two Pinciers who was actually the author of the book and hence of the original account of the Warsaw story, which – a copy of his work in the Dutch National Library in The Hague reveals – appeared on pp.306-07 of the book (above). Pincier’s close connection with Hesse-Kassel, meanwhile, is confirmed by his dedication of the whole volume to Moritz the Learned (1572-1632), the famously scholarly reigning Landgrave of the principality at the time Aenigmatum was published.

The identity of Kirchmayer’s “D. Mosanus” is more of a puzzle. He certainly wasn’t the co-author of Aenigmatum, and exactly how his name came to be connected to the tale of the Warsaw basilisk is something of a mystery, but – taking Hesse-Kassel as a clue – it’s possible to identify him as Jakob Mosanus (1564-1616), another German doctor-scholar of the period – the “D.” standing not for a Christian name but for Dominus, or Gentleman – who was personal physician to Moritz the Learned himself. This Mosanus was born in Kassel, and this explains the appearance of the word “Cassellanus” in Kirchmayer’s book – it’s not a reference to a third author, as I at first supposed, but simply an identifier for Mosanus. And, whether or not the good doctor wrote on the basilisk, it’s well worth noting that he was – rather intriguingly – both a noted alchemist and a suspected Rosicrucian.

The latter connection suggests that Mosanus would certainly have been interested in basilisks; basilisk powder, a substance supposedly made from the ground carcass of the king of snakes, was greatly coveted by alchemists, who believed it was possible to make ‘Spanish gold’ by treating copper with a mix of human blood, vinegar and the stuff (Ursula Klein & EC Spary, Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009, p.45). I conclude, therefore, that the two men identified by Kirchmayer as his authorities for the Warsaw tale both enjoyed the patronage of Moritz the Learned, may perhaps have been collaborators, and were certainly close enough in time and place to the Warsaw of King Stefan I to have sourced their story solidly. In the close-knit humanist community of the late sixteenth century it’s entirely possible that one or both of them actually knew Benedictus – another Latin name, you’ll note – the remarkably learned Polish physician who is central to the tale.

Does this mean that there is anything at all to the story? Perhaps yes, perhaps no – but I would certainly be interested to know a good deal more.

[Update (29 March 2010): My grateful thanks to Dr Henk Looijesteijn, of Amsterdam, whom regular readers of this blog will recall assisting with the folklore of bottomless lakes a few weeks ago. Henk not only supplied identification of Aenigmatum, but also sent me a copy of the section devoted to the basilisk.

He adds that, so far as he was able to tell from the tightly-bound copy of the book in the National Library, Pincier’s account of the Warsaw basilisk was considerably less detailed than that given by Kirchmayer. ‘Maybe,’ Henk continues, Kirchmayer

also relied on something written by Mosanus, but I have not come across a title by Mosanus which looks as though it might contain the story of the basilisk.

It may well be that Mosanus functioned as Pincier’s authority, but never actually wrote anything down. He may have been an eyewitness, or come to know of the story in some other way, but he was certainly still alive when Pincier published his book.

I have also consulted my own modest library concerning the basilisk, and note that Leander Petzoldt’s Kleines Lexicon der Dämonen und Elementargeister (Munich 1990) discussed the creature on pp.29-31. The only historic incident that Petzoldt mentions is the Basle case from 1474, but he adds some detail. The old cock was aged 11 years, and was decapitated and burned, with his egg, on 4 August 1474. A possible explanation for this case is found in Jacqueline Simpson’s British Dragons (Wordsworth, 2001) pp.45-7. Simpson mentions an interesting theory about so-called egg-laying cock, suggesting they were in reality hens suffering from a hormone imbalance, which it seems is not uncommon and causes them to develop male features, such as growing a comb, taking to crowing, fighting off cocks, and trying to tread on other hens. She still lays eggs, but these are, of course, infertile. An intriguing theory, I think, which may explain the Basle, Zierikzee and Copenhagen cases. It does not explain the Warsaw case, of course.]

[Afterword: There is another Polish account of a basilisk in Warsaw. See here for further details. Meanwhile, here – for those who fancy giving it a try – are the instructions for producing basilisk powder. Source: Klein & Spary p.45.]

Instructions for producig basilisk powder. From Klein & Spary,  Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe

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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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Bottles of human fat recovered by Peruvian police in the Pistachos murder caseA deeply strange serial murder case from Peru – involving the apparent butchering of 60 or more people in the mountainous Huánuco region so that their bodies could be rendered for their fat – rang a distant bell when I turned to it. According to the BBC, the gang of killers (four of whom were caught in possession of bottles of the stuff [right], and who were allegedly realising $15,000 per litre for it from a cabal of European cosmetics manufacturers) have been nicknamed ‘The Pistachos“after an ancient Peruvian legend of killers who attack people on lonely roads and murder them for their fat.”

I first mentioned the pistachos (more properly pishtacos) years ago in a 1989 Fortean Times news item (FT51:9 – and see also FT93:16), though back then they were described as child abductors and there was no mention of human fat at all. The legend is actually very well-known in Peru and throughout much of South America, but it seems to have been new to some of the journalists who wrote up the murder case, several of who explained that the word is used nowadays to refer to any murderer for hire. One Portuguese journalist went so far as to define ‘pistachos‘ as “vampires who feed on fat.” This strikes me as a very modern adulteration of what is a far more interesting and ancient legend. “Pishtaco” actually derives from the Quechua word “pishtay”, meaning to shred or cut into strips, and Alberto Tauro del Pino, in his magisterial Enciclopedia Ilustrada del Perú (Lima: 6 volumes, Editorial Peisa, 1987) v.5, defines it to mean a bandit whose occupation is robbing lone women or men. The pishtaco‘s modus operandi, Tauro del Pino adds, is to strangle his victims, after which he eats their meat and sells their fat. The mutilated victims are either buried, sometimes still alive, to fertilize the soil, or disposed of by being interred in the foundations of buildings.

It seems possible this latter detail is another more modern addition to a centuries-old story capable of multiple interpretations; my own first guess was that the pishtacos may have had their origins in a combination of old fertility rites and the sort of desperate measures resorted to in order to stay alive in horribly impoverished areas during times of dearth and drought. That idea is supported by some scholars, but other interpretations are possible. Antonio Gonzalez Montes, of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, prints a variant story in which the fat obtained from the pishtacos‘ victims is used to lubricate machinery and keep it working, while the American anthropologist Mary Weismantel, in her Cholas and Pishtacos: Stories of Race and Sex in the Andes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), notes that such stories “often begin with the dangerous moment when a stranger appears on Indian land” and tells another tale in which the killers are Francsican monks, hooded and robed, and the fat they take is used to grease church bells – apparently so as to improve their tone.

For most of Weismantel’s informants, the pishtaco was “a foreigner” with a big overcoat “that undoubtedly concealed knives and guns”, blue eyes, long hair and “enormous boots.” Other writers suggest that successful pishtacos wear clothes made from the skins of their victims and can also be identified by the peculiar, western devices that they use – cars and cameras, tape recorders, MP3 players and so on. They are voracious, preferring human flesh when it can be got, drinking large quantities of milk, and are notorious rapists. On occasion they allow their female victims live in order to give birth to pishtacquitos, who grow up to accompany their father on his travels.

Guamon Poma sorceror and the devilThe most comprehensive book on the subject, a compilation of folklore published in Spanish by Juan Ansión as Pishtacos: De Verdugos a Sacaojos (Lima: Tarea, 1989), argues that the genesis of the legend goes back several centuries, and may pre-date the Spanish conquest. The sixteenth century Peruvian chronicler Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, who wrote on the appalling treatment meted out to South America’s indigenous peoples (and drew – he was a remarkable artist [his depiction of a wizard consorting with the devil can be seen left]), describes a variety of sorcerer who mixed human fat with gold and feathers to cast spells. On the other hand,  Catharine Stimpson of New York University, who contributes an introduction to Weismantel’s book, points out that

the exact representation of the pishtaco has varied over time. Its origin may have been the practice of colonizing Spanish soldiers who took Indian fat to help heal their wounds. In the eighteenth century, the pishtaco appeared as a priest with a knife, and then evolved into a man on horseback or in a powerful car. During the economic crisis of the 1980s, when rural residents immigrated to urban centers, the pishtaco reappeared as the sacojos, white medical technicians in dark suits who steal and dismember children.

This ties in well not only with the common modern legend of the organ-snatcher but with other bits of commentary; it is mentioned, for example, that the pishtaco‘s purpose has evolved over the years, so that now their main aim is to sell fat to the government, which exports it to help write down the enormous foreign loans that burden the country. Looked at from this perspective, the legend might be seen as a creation of an indigenous people who see themselves, almost literally, as cogs in their conquerors’ machine (the fat, Gonzalez Montes says, is required to ensure there is no interruption to “the rhythm and continuity of the production process”), though perhaps fear of the changes to traditional peasant life wrought by industrialisation also played its part.

Anyway, since the term has become so debased of late, and with relatively little information about the pishtacos readily available, it seems worth repeating my original FT article here, if only for the purpose of comparison. Here, then, is the legend of the pishtacos as it appeared in print two decades ago, at a time when Peru was far more troubled than it is today:

Bogeymen Haunt Peru

The word is out in the remote hamlets of the Peruvian Andes: the pistachos are back. Pistachos are folk-devils, white-skinned men dressed in broad-brimmed hats, greatcoats and riding boots who steal children from the streets at night. As described by the local Indians, they greatly resemble the picture of the stereotypical Spanish landowner.

What is interesting about the recent spate of pistacho stories is their location: the bogeymen have come down out of the mountains and sightings have been reported in several major Peruvian cities. An innocent man was beaten to death in Ayacucho, and our source, the Independent of 29 Dec 1987, mentions that the son of a British diplomat narrowly escaped lynching, in some indeterminate place, at some time or another.

Anthropologists suggest that the current endemic unrest in Peru – where a bloody state of near-war exists between the authorities and Maoist ‘Shining Path’ guerillas – may account for the return of the pistachos. Others say that the Army puts such stories about in the hope that outsiders in a community may be attacked… but there is yet a third hypothesis, which suggests that the Shining Path are behind the tales, which are spread to encourage people to attack the army foot soldiers who are the only (mortal) figures to be been after dark in most Peruvian towns.

A footnote [November 22]

Widespread press coverage of the Peruvian murder gang and its activities over the past two days has thrown up some interesting additional information. For one thing, according to the gang members detained by the local police, their group has been in existence for a surprisingly long time. The pishtacos’ leader, Hilario Cudeña, 56 – who some reports state has been arrested, but most seem to agree remains at large – is said to have been involved in the fat trade for the past three decades. Equally intriguing is the widespread disbelief in the scientific community that there can be any sort of market in human fat. For one thing, the rendering methods described by the captured gang members are so lo-tech that the product (which might theoretically have some applications in filling and plumping products) would be dangerously impure. (The pishtacos, we learn, worked “by removing the head, arms, legs and organs, then suspending the bodies above candles to allow the fat to drip down into tubs”.) For another, our increasingly obese society produces such vast quantities of surplus First World fat, extracted via liposuction, that it’s hard to imagine that there could be demand for relatively tiny quantities of South American product; indeed, the gallons of fat extracted from patients every day is thrown away precisely because there is no viable use for it, and – and, as The Independent points out – “given the cosmetic surgery industry’s reputation for spotting new business opportunities, if they could make $6 a gallon on it, never mind $60,000, they would be unlikely to pass it up.” Thirdly, doctors who do implant fat in human bodies use cells extracted from the patients in order to avoid problems with immune response – think lip-plumping collagen injections made with fat extracted from the patient’s buttocks. Finally, it strikes me that if this gang of pishtacos have been at work in Peru since the late 1970s, their activities long predate the development of modern fat-implanting plastic surgery technologies, rendering it highly questionable whether the motive for the killings – originally at least – had anything to do with supplying the demands of cosmetic surgeons.

All this, I suspect, leaves open the distinct possibility that (assuming the Peruvian police have the story straight at all) these modern pishtacos did not acquire their nickname from a mere coincidental resemblance to beings from an old Andean legend. It seems considerably more likely that Peru’s new fat-stealers have spent the past 30 years or so quite consciously apeing the bogeymen’s reputed modus operandi, for reasons that are no doubt horrifying, but which at present still elude us.

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Pearson’s Weekly, a British magazine popular during the early years of last century, ran a peculiarly interesting article on ‘Mysterious people who have worn masks’ some time in the latter half of 1903. I picked up a reprint in New Zealand’s Christchurch Star, 24 November 1903, and the story leads with a fascinating account of a contemporary urban terror in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. The city was then – thanks to the June 1903 disembowelling of its unfortunate king, Aleksandar I – in the midst of one of its frequent bouts of extreme political instability, and the Serbian bogeyman had some extraordinary features. He was tall and slim and interested in children, in a manner entirely typical of his breed, but was much more violent than most, being rumoured to bloodily murder the offspring of the ruling classes, while leaving the children of poor families unscathed. Still more peculiarly, his victims’ “mangled bodies” were supposed to turn up by the roadside “drained of every drop of blood,” suggesting definite links to the still-strong local vampire tradition – for which see Paul Barber’s excellent Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore And Reality (Yale University Press, 1988). The article describes the monster as a “vlkoslak”, which it defines as “a Servian word [meaning] indifferently either a vampire or a were-wolf.”

My instinct is that this long-forgotten scare might have a good deal to teach us about bogey figures in general and the vampire traditions of the Balkans, and would certainly repay further research.

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