Archive for the ‘Supernatural’ Category

A photo sometimes said to depict members of Chiloé’s murderous society of warlocks—founded, so they claimed, in 1786 and destroyed by the great trial of 1880-81.

A photo sometimes said to depict members of Chiloé’s murderous society of warlocks—founded, so they claimed, in 1786 and destroyed by the great trial of 1880-81.

When the Sect needs a new Invunche, the Council of the Cave orders a Member to steal a boy child from six months to a year old. The Deformer, a permanent resident of the Cave, starts work at once. He disjoints the arms and legs and the hands and feet. Then begins the delicate task of altering the position of the head. Day after day, and for hours at a stretch, he twists the head with a tourniquet until it has rotated through an angle of 180, that is until the child can look straight down the line of its own vertebrae.

There remains one last operation, for which another specialist is needed. At full moon, the child is laid on a work-bench, lashed down with its head covered in a bag. The specialist cuts a deep incision under the right shoulder blade. Into the hole he inserts the right arm and sews up the wound with thread taken from the neck of a ewe. When it has healed the Invunche is complete.

The world’s last great witch trial took place as recently as 1880. It was held on the remote Chilean island of Chiloé, and featured remarkable allegations of mass murder, child mutilation and sorcery, all committed in the name of a strange sort of alternative government known as La Provincia Recta – ‘The Righteous Province’ – a sect of warlocks, based in a hidden cave and given to flying about the island wearing magical waistcoats stitched from the flayed skin of the recently deceased.

The native Chilotes believed these warlocks had real powers. Bruce Chatwin, in In Patagonia, wrote a memorable description of their rites and rituals. (And fans of Swamp Thing era Alan Moore will spot the source of one of his more disturbing plots.) But – truly unusual though the story is, was it ever rooted in reality? This week’s Smithsonian essay explores the evidence. But it’s not for the faint-hearted.

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Black Dog - not to scaleFor reasons that ought to become in clear in about a month, I’ve acquired a bit of an interest recently in Pierre Van Paassen, a Dutch-born Canadian journalist who enjoyed a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent during the 1920s and the 1930s. Van Paassen (1895-1968) [below], who wrote for the New York Evening World and the Toronto Star, led a pretty action-packed life, getting himself thrown into Dachau concentration camp – and later out of Germany – for criticising Adolf Hitler back in 1933, and going on to cover the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and the Spanish Civil War before giving it all up to become a Unitarian minister. That need not concern us here, however. What does is that, long before any of this happened, in the spring of 1929, Van Paassen was living in France when he experienced – or said he experienced – a particularly peculiar series of encounters with a ghostly black dog. These events, so Van Paassen tells us in his autobiography, Days of Our Years (1939) pp.248-51, were corroborated by at least three other witnesses – one of them a priest – and also resulted in the death of a “police dog.” And, just to top things off, the priest eventually identified the source of all the trouble as a teenage girl living in the same property, thus suggesting the black dog case had some sort of links to the poltergeist phenomenon.

Pierre Van PaassenVan Paassen’s case, in short, is such a rich and complex one that one reads it wishing it was just a little better evidenced. None of the other witnesses, sadly, gave an independent deposition; in fact, neither they nor the girl at the centre of the case are fully named, and, more worryingly, the village where the strange events supposedly took place appears not to exist. Which is unfortunate, especially since Van Paassen himself failed to report the incident for well over a decade. In the final analysis, we only have Van P’s word that anything untoward ever took place, and we don’t know nearly enough about his background to understand how well read he was, for instance, in the folklore of the black dog, never mind how reliably he retold the case in an autobiography that was, after all, primarily intended as an entertainment. What we do know – and I’ll be returning to this point in a future post – is that he was an unreliable witness, prone to dramatisation and a sucker for a good conspiracy theory. So, not quite the ideal witness, then.

For all this, the appearance of so many varied and distinct motifs, in a case from a country scarcely known for its black dog lore, which at least claims to combine multiple witnesses with physical evidence, and which features the testimony of that ne plus ultra of “reliable sources,” a Catholic priest, makes Van Paassen’s tale an intriguing one, to say the least. Since it seems to have been pretty much forgotten, I paraphrase the details here from the pages of his autobiography. Further analysis, for once, I leave to others.

In the spring of 1929, Van Plaassen had taken lodgings in a private house in Bourg-en-Foret, France. One night he was startled to see a large black dog pass him on the stairs, and even more perplexed when the animal reached the landing and promptly disappeared. Van Plaassen searched the entire house, but could find no trace of the dog, and eventually concluded that it had been a stray that had somehow wandered in, then found its own way out again.

Van Plaassen did not mention the encounter to anyone before, a few days later, he left on a trip. When he returned, he noticed that the other members of the household seemed greatly upset. His enquiries soon revealed that, during his absence, several other people had also seen the dog, and always on the stairs. His curiosity now thoroughly piqued, Van Plaassen decided to wait up late in the hope of encountering the “animal” again, and he invited a neighbour, a Monsieur Grevecoeur, and his young son to join him as corroboarting witnesses.

Sure enough, the black dog appeared at the head of the stairs again that night. Grevecoeur whistled to it, and the dog wagged its tail in friendly fashion. As the trio began to mount the stairs towards it, however, the animal began to fade from sight, vanishing before they could reach it.

A few evenings later, Van Paassen decided to watch again, this time accompanied by his own two “police dogs” – perhaps a pair of German Shepherds. Yet again the ghostly animal materialised, and this time the dog came part way down the stairs before it disappeared. A moment later, so Van Plaassen writes, he saw his dogs seemingly engaged in a deadly tussle with an invisible adversary. “This,” he says, “led to a horrible scene. The dogs pricked up their ears at the first noise on the floor above and leaped for the door. The sound of pattering feet was coming downstairs as usual, but I saw nothing. What my dogs saw I do not know, but their hair stood on end and they retreated growling back into my room, baring their fangs and snarling. Presently they howled as if they were in excruciating pain and were snapping and biting in all directions, as if they were fighting some fierce enemy. I had never seen them in such mortal panic. I could not come to their aid, for I saw nothing to strike with the cudgel I held in my hand. Then one of my dogs yelled as if he were in his death-throes, fell on the floor and died.” Examination of the animal’s body failed to reveal any external signs of injury.

The death of the “police dog” was too much for Van Plaassen’s landlord, who summoned a priest to advise them. This man, named by Van Plaassen as the septuagenarian [= learned, wise] Abbé de la Roudaire, arrived and stood watch with the journalist next night. Once again the black dog appeared, but this time the priest stepped towards it. The beast gave a low growl and faded from sight once more, but the Abbé had apparently seen enough. He summonded the landlord and asked if any young girls were employed as servants in the house. The owner admitted that one was, and asked the Abbe if he thought there might be some connection between the young girl and the strange apparition. Shrugging his shoulders, the Abbé de la Roudaire agreed that there was sometimes an “affinity” between young people and various types of strange phenomena. The servant girl was dismissed – we’re not told on what grounds, and left to conclude that an employment tribunal might have proved interesting. Whatever the circumstances, though, the Abbé proved correct in his analysis. After the girl’s ejection from he household, the ghostly black dog was never seen again.

Some black dog literature:

Janet and Colin Bord, Alien Animals (London: Granada, 1980)

Theo Brown,  ‘The Black Dog.’ Folk-Lore v.69 (1958).

Simon Burchell, Phantom Black Dogs in Pre-Hispanic Mexico (Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 2007).

Ethel Rudkin, ‘The Black Dog.’ Folk-Lore v.49 (1938).

Bob Trubshaw, ‘Black dogs: guardians of the corpse way,’ Mercian Mysteries, August 1994.

___________, Explore Phantom Black Dogs (Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 2005).

David Waldron & Christopher Reeve, Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Case Study in Local Folklore (Bungay: Hidden Publishing, 2010).

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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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