Archive for the ‘Rumours and panics’ Category

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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GlamisGlamis Castle, in Scotland, is a famous place: a picture-postcard tourist destination, birthplace of the late-lamented Queen Mother Gawd Bless ‘Er™, and – not incidentally for the purposes of this blog – notoriously the most haunted ‘house’ in Britain. Any number of spook stories are associated with the castle, from tales of ghosts materializing in visitors’ bedrooms to the legend of the infamous Earl Beardie, the so-called “Tiger Earl” – a fifteenth century Earl of Crawford whose soul is said to have been claimed by the devil while he unrepentantly played cards at Glamis upon the Sabbath day.

Best known by far, however, is the strange story of the Monster of Glamis, which (thanks in large part to its vague royal associations) has some claim to be ranked among the more pervasive legends of the twentieth century. In its evolved form (and it took some time to evolve, as we will see), this legend relates how, in the early nineteenth century, the wife of the then heir to the Earl of Strathmore gave birth in the castle to an boy who was so hideously deformed that the family took the decision to lock the child away in a secret room, denying him the chance to succeed to the earldom. Malformed though he was, however, the hideous infant proved to be surprisingly long-lived. Supposedly he survived well into the twentieth century, dying only in the 1920s, and knowledge of his existence became the dark secret of the Strathmore family, passed down from father to son just before the boy came of age at 21. Aside from the present Earl and his son, the only other person privy to the secret was supposedly the family’s chief factor – the manager of the Glamis estate.

Several facts are usually adduced in support of the Monster’s existence. The malformed child is generally said to have been the first son of Thomas, Lord Glamis, who was the eldest son of the 11th Earl. Thomas married, in 1820, to a Hertfordshire girl named Mary Carpenter, and both Douglas’s Scots Peerage and Cockayne’s Complete Peerage state that the couple had a child, a boy, who was born and died on in October 1821. Next year they had another son, who they called Ben, then a third, named Claude, in 1824. So in the couple’s mysterious first son (whose existence was first ferreted out and made much of by the journalist Paul Bloomfield, who published an article on the Monster in The Queen magazine for December 1964) there is at least a candidate for the man who was the Monster, though certainly no proof that the boy survived, or was in any way disabled.

As for what happened next, I can do no better than to quote from the book in which first read the story of the Monster – Jacynth Hope-Simpson’s Who Knows?, a work for children (though a superior one) first published in 1974:

Ben became earl of the death of his grandfather in 1846. He married, but insisted on ‘refraining from parenthood,’ and for this or some other reason he and his wife separated. She died at the age of 28; according to her nephew’s wife of a ‘broken heart,’ but according to her sister of peritonitis. Ben died childless in 1865, so his brother Claude became the thirteenth Earl of Strathmore. He was, by all accounts, a kind, conscientious man, who was married with five children. From the day of his succession, three very strange things happened.

The first was a startling change in the new Earl himself, thought to date from his having been told the secret of Glamis. Apparently, not being an eldest son, he had not heard it before. He said to his wife that they had often joked about it together, but now, ‘I have been into the room, I have heard the secret, and if you wish to please me you will never mention the subject again.’ A famous gossip, Augustus Hare, who visited the house, commented on how happy and lively the family were. ‘Only Lord Strathmore himself had ever a sad look.’

The second happening was that a workman ‘became alarmed’ at something he saw along a passage near the chapel. The Earl was summoned from Edinburgh by telegram, and closely questioned the workman. ‘He and his family were subsidized and induced to emigrate.’ The third occurrence was a violent outbreak of haunting…

It is, perhaps, inevitable that stories like this should grow up in such a place, but now, in the 1860s, it was suddenly claimed that these phantoms had reappeared, almost as if they were trying the frighten the new owners away. The Bishop of Brechin heard of the haunting and offered to hold a service of exorcism. According to Augustus Hare, the Earl was deeply grateful, but said that ‘in his unfortunate position no-one could help him.’

[Source: Simpson, pp.143-46]
Simpson goes on to tell the story of the mysteriously briefly-lived Strathmore heir born in 1821 and suggests that – since the child’s parents were cousins (well, first cousins once removed) – the child may have suffered from some sort of genetic defect. Exactly what this might have entailed is the rankest speculation, naturally – Peter Underwood, the popular ghost writer, suggested in several of his books that the Monster had atrophied arms and legs, no neck, and resembled nothing so much as “an enormous flabby egg”, and Hope-Simpson’s book contained a lurid artist’s impression [below] apparently based on that description. Whatever the truth, “the next question,” she writes,
arises in 1876. The heir, who was later to be the father of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, came of age and asked his father not to ‘initiate’ him into the family secret. Was it because he had seen the effect on his father, and did not feel he could not bear the burden himself? Or was it a way of announcing to anybody around Glamis who may have suspected the truth that the secret no longer existed: in other words, that the heir had died, and the Earl of Strathmore was truly the earl in his own right at last?

Not everybody agrees with this. It has even been suggested that the hidden-away heir lived on to an immense age, and did not die until the early 1920s. Because of this refusal to hear the secret, nobody now knows how to enter the secret room, for all who once knew are dead.

[Simpson pp.148-49]

Monster of Glamis

Thus the basic Glamis story, though there are various elaborations on it. The best known of these, certainly, relates that a party of houseguests at the castle once decided to make a search for its famous hidden room. Waiting until the Earl was absent, shooting, they took towels and hung one from each window in the building, then went outside to inspect their handiwork. A single window (some versions of the tale say four) was found to be unadorned. This story certainly goes back to the middle of Victoria’s reign, and a variant on it can be found in the New York Times for 17 April 1882. Another anecdote concerns a loyal retainer, Andrew Ralston, whom various legal records confirm was indeed the factor of the Glamis estate for many decades in the middle nineteenth century [cf. Scottish Law Review and Sheriff Court Reports‎ for 1889, p.267]. Ralston, so this version of the legend goes, was initiated into the mystery, saw whatever there was to be seen, and was so discomfited by the experience that he refused thenceforth ever to spend a night in the castle again. On one occasion, after a heavy fall of snow, he is said to have refused an invitation to take a bed there and instead roused the servants and had them clear a path to his house, more than a mile away [Peter Underwood, Hauntings (1977) p.115]. It was also Ralston who – so it is said – was badgered into discussing Glamis’s secret with Frances, Countess of Strathmore, who was the 13th Earl’s wife and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The Countess – again according to legend – begged Ralston to reveal the secret to her, but the factor rebuffed her, saying “very gravely”: “It is fortunate that you do not know it and can never know it, for if you did know you would not be a happy woman.” This addition to the story was current as early as the late 1860s, and seems first to have  been made by public by AMW Stirling in her autobiography Life’s Little Day (1924) p.326. Stirling attributes the Ralston story to an aunt who stayed at the castle in 1870 “and returned full of the mysteries, which she said had greatly increased since the decease of the previous owner in 1865.” The same account, mostly forgotten, was dug out and repackaged by the author Helen Cathcart in her 1965 biography of the Queen Mother.

Now, mention of Helen Cathcart brings us on to a noteworthy aspect of the Glamis story. Keen-eyed readers will have spotted that we seem to know an awful lot about a deadly secret said to have been vouchsafed only to a tight-knit group of people – a secret not known even to the Lyons family, who supplied the Earls of Glamis, after the 13th Earl expired in 1904. Where, then, did the tale of the Monster come from? Who told the story first, and why?

The answer to this question, oddly, is that the source was almost certainly members of the Lyons clan itself. James Wentworth-Day, the author who first put the full tale into circulation in his The Queen Mother’s Family Story (1967), states that he had his information from “a member of the Queen Mother’s family” [Wentworth-Day pp.133-36], and a number of writers have speculated that his informant was actually the Queen Mother herself. Wentworth-Day’s material is certainly dramatic, and his picture of the Monster is quite detailed: “His chest an enormous barrel, hairy as a doormat, his head ran straight into his shoulders and his arms and legs were toylike.” The question of quite where his informant obtained his or her information, however, remains unaddressed. If the 14th Earl really made certain that he never learned the secret, he could hardly have passed it to his son, who was the Queen Mother’s father. Knowledge of Glamis’s terrible secret should have died out long before Wentworth-Day’s sources could have learned of it, for it is hard to imagine one of the family’s factors – loyal servants, but servants just the same – forcing it back onto an unwilling lord.

There remains, also, a second puzzle, for though any number of sources touch on Glamis’s celebrated ‘secret’, those published during Victoria’s reign only rarely hint at the existence of a Monster. The mystery that was spoken of in hushed terms during the nineteenth century was generally a different one, for though the existence of a hidden room with the castle walls was widely rumoured, even then, it was then believed to conceal not a living creature, but rather the grisly evidence of an ancient crime. According to this now mostly forgotten portion of the legend, a large party of Ogilvies, members of a rival clan, once sought sanctuary from their enemies at Glamis, only to be betrayed and murdered there. In this version of the castle’s story, the fugitive Ogilvies were shown into the hidden chamber, then barricaded in and left to starve. Their skeletons, still scattered on the floor, were the secret that the Lyons family was so anxious to conceal.

Several versions of the Ogilvy story were published during Victoria’s reign – in T.F. Thistleton Dyer’s Strange Pages From Family Papers (1900) pp.98-103, for instance, and in Chambers’s Journal for 1898, pp.627-8 – and similar accounts can still occasionally be found today. On the whole, though, one’s impression is that the Glamis saga is one in which an existing legend has transmuted,over a period of years, into another, and the date when this change happened is the greatest clue to what occurred. For if the Ogilvy account was prevalent throughout the nineteenth century, it was apparently replaced quite early in the twentieth by the Monster story, and this shift coincides quite nicely with the death of Earl Claude – supposedly the last Lyons initiate – and the succession of his son, who never knew the family secret.

There seems no doubt that there was a good deal of confusion, and a great deal of gossip, concerning the precise particulars of the Glamis “mystery”, especially late in the nineteenth century, and this certainly suggests that the potential existed for old stories to be perverted and new ones conjured up purely for the purposes of entertainment. Lord Ernest Hamilton, who stayed at Glamis as a schoolboy during the early 1870s, makes this unexpected facet of the problem quite explicit in a book of memoirs, Old Days and New (1923) p.248, in which he states that for “years after” the “delightful visits” he made there as a boy

the slightest allusion to my visit in the drawing-room or dining-room would instantly surround me with a bevy of gaping, palpitating open-mouthed maidens who eyed me with a sort of reverential awe which was quite gratifying to my youthful vanity. “Had I seen the ghost?” “Did Lord Strathmore wear a terrified, hunted look?” “Was it true that none of the family smiled except on Tuesdays?” etc. etc.

Hamilton insists that he never gave in to the temptation to embroider his experiences (“It was, I cannot deny, with a certain feeling of regret that I was forced to deprive these poor maidens of all these pleasing fantasies”), but it does not seem too unlikely that other visitors to Glamis encountered the same high levels of interest in their experiences there, and yielded to very similar pleadings.

Is it possible, then, that the story of the Monster, with all its baroque elements so redolent of fiction (ghastly creatures concealed in hidden rooms being a feature of dozens of well-known books, from The Mysteries of Udolpho to Jane Eyre) was simply an invention, conjured up in the imaginations of the castle’s visitors or by members of the Lyons family as they conjectured what their long-forgotten ‘secret’ might have been? The Queen Mother, after all, was an infamous gossip, and one source that I uncovered in the course of my research strongly suggests that the latter solution to the Glamis saga deserves a closer look. In the autumn of 1905 – very soon, in other words, after the death of the 13th Earl – the Lyons’s played host to another Scottish noble: David Lindsay, the urbane Earl of Crawford. And Crawford – who very fortunately kept a detailed diary – not only noted the “phenomenal ignorance” that his hosts displayed of even quite recent family history, but also observed the delight that the Lyons’s took in spinning supernatural tales, “inventing stories to suit the idiosyncrasies of each guest.” His diary for that visit records:

Crawford Diary 1

And the mystery of the hidden room at Glamis? After a few hours with the Lyons family, Crawford thought he knew the answer to that puzzle too.

Crawford diary 2

[Source: The Crawford Papers: The Journals of David Lindsay, Twenty-Seventh Earl of Crawford… during the years 1892-1940 (Manchester University Press, 1984) pp.86-87]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict – not guilty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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