Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe/Chapter XI

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Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XI: Robbers' Dens

ROBBERS' DENS

The name of the outlaw, Humphrey Kynaston, who, with his horse, lived in the face of a precipice, is not likely speedily to be forgotten in Shropshire; his exploits are still matter of tradition, and the scenes of his adventures are yet pointed out.

Humphrey was the son of Sir Roger Kynaston, of Hordley, near Ellesmere. The family derived from Wales and from the princes of Powys. Their arms were argent, a lion rampant sable.

Sir Roger Kynaston had zealously embraced the side of the York faction. King Henry VI. had attempted to make peace by holding a conference in London, when the Lord Mayor at the head of five thousand armed citizens kept peace between the rival parties. Henry proposed an agreement, which was accepted, and then the King, with representatives of both sides, went in solemn procession to S. Paul's. To the great joy of the spectators, the Yorkist and Lancastrian leaders walked before him arm in arm, Richard, Duke of York, leading by the hand the queen, the real head of her husband's party.

But the pacification had been superficial. The Yorkists were determined to win the crown from the feeble head of Henry. At their head was the Earl of Warwick, and the King had hoped to get him out of the way by making him Governor of Calais. But strife broke out again six months after the apparent reconciliation at S. Paul's. The Earl of Salisbury was the first to move; but he had no sooner put himself in march from Yorkshire to join the Duke of York at Ludlow, than Lord Audley, with 7000 men, attempted to intercept him. They met at Blore Heath, in Staffordshire. Audley was drawn into a snare, and slain by Sir Roger Kynaston with his own hand; along with him fell 2000 of his followers. Thenceforth the Kynastons assumed, not only the Audley arms and the motto, "Blore Heath," but the rising sun of York as their crest.

Wild Humphrey was the son of Sir Roger Kynaston, by his wife the Lady Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Gray, Earl of Tankerville, and Lord of Powys. He was the second son, and not expecting to succeed to the family estates, was given the constableship of the castle of Middle, which had at one time belonged to the Lords le Strange, but which had lapsed to the Crown.

He sadly neglected his duties, and allowed the castle to fall into disrepair, almost into ruin. This was not altogether his own fault. The castle was of importance as guarding the marches against the Welsh, always ready, at the least provocation, to make raids into England. The office of constable was honorary rather than remunerative, a poor recompense for the services rendered by Sir Roger to the Yorkist cause. Humphrey was expected to keep up the castle out of his own resources, and he was without private means. It was true that with the accession of the House of Tudor, danger from the Welsh was less imminent: but Henry VII. was a parsimonious monarch, careful mainly to recover for the exchequer the sums of which it had been depleted in the Wars of the Roses.

As Humphrey was short of money, he took to robbery. The Wars of the Roses had produced anarchy in the land, and every man's hand was against his fellow, if that fellow had something of which he might be despoiled.

The story is told that one day Wild Humphrey rode to the manor-house of the Lloyds of Aston, and requested a draught of wine. With ready hospitality a silver beaker was brought forth swimming with the juice of the grape. Humphrey, who was mounted, drained it to the last drop, then, striking spurs into his horse, galloped away, carrying the silver vessel with him. As has been said of Robin Hood, so it was told of the Shropshire freebooter, that he robbed the rich and befriended the poor. On one occasion he stopped the steward of a gentleman and plundered him of the rents just received. The Lord of the Manor sent him a message that he had been a forbearing landlord, but now he absolutely must put the screw upon his tenants to make up for his loss. Kynaston at once waylaid another gentleman's steward, and paid the first back to the last penny with the proceeds of the second robbery.

His depredations at length became so intolerable that he was outlawed in the eighth year of Henry VII. As this year began on the 22nd August 1490, and did not end till the 21st of August 1491, it is not quite certain in which year of our reckoning he was placed under ban.

He was now obliged to fly from the dilapidated castle of Middle, and seek himself out a place of refuge. This he found or made for himself in the face of the cliff of Ness.

This is a hill of new red sandstone, near Bass Church, that forms an abrupt scarp towards the south. The top commands a superb view of the Shropshire plain, with the Breiden Hills rising out of them, and the Long Mynd to the south. The western horizon is walled up by the Welsh mountains. Formerly the head and slopes of Ness Cliff were open down, but have been enclosed and planted of late years by Earl Brownlow, so that it is not easy to realise what the appearance was when Wild Humphrey took up his abode in the rock.

In the cliff, that is reached by a rapid ascent, and which rises above the slope some 70 feet, he cut a flight of steps in the side of a buttress that projects, till he reached the main face of the crag, about half-way up. Then he scooped out a doorway, next excavated two chambers, one to serve as a stable for his horse, the other for a habitation for himself. In the latter he formed a hearth, and bored a hole upwards in a slanting direction, till he reached daylight, and this served as chimney. Beside his door he cut a circular orifice to act as window. The doorway was closed by a stout door sustained in place by a massive bar, the socket holes to receive which remain.

In the pier between the stable and his own apartment, he cut two recesses, probably to receive a lamp. Between these a later hand has engraved the initials H.K., and the date 1564. As Humphrey died in 1534, this was, of course, none of his doing.

At the foot of the cliff near the first step is a trough or manger cut in the living rock, apparently to receive water, but as no water exudes from the rock, it must have served for the oats or other corn given to his horse. It is traditionally said that Wild Humphrey's horse pastured in proximity to the Ness. When Humphrey saw danger, and when the shades of evening fell, he whistled; whereupon the beast ran like a cat up the narrow steps in the face of the rock, and entered its stable. Once there, Kynaston was master of the situation, for only one man at a time could mount the stair, and this was commanded by his window, through which with a pike he could transfix or throw down an intruder.

Where now stands the National School at the foot of the hill was at that time a meadow, to the grass of which his horse was partial.

The farmer to whom the meadow belonged naturally enough objected, and collected a number of men who linked themselves together with ropes and surrounded the field. The horse took no notice but continued browsing. The ring gradually contracted on him. Kynaston saw the proceeding from his eyrie, and uttered a shrill whistle. At once the gallant steed pricked up his ears, snorted, ran, leaped clean over the head of a man, and scrambled up the stair in the cliff, to his master's shelter. On another occasion a thief, thinking it no harm to rob a felon, succeeded in leaping on the horse's back. But the beast, feeling that some one was astride of him other than Wild Humphrey, ran to the cliff, and the rider, frightened at the prospect of being carried up the rock side and into the power of the desperate outlaw, was but too thankful to throw himself off and get away with a broken arm.

Humphrey had two wives, both Welsh girls, whom he carried off, but married. Gough, in his history of Middle, says: "Humphrey Kynaston had two wives, but both of soe mean birth that they could not claim to any coat of arms." By the first he had a son, Edward, who died young. By the second he had three sons, Edward, Robert, and Roger. If tradition may be trusted he proved so brutal and so bad a husband that his second wife left and returned to her kinsfolk in Wales. His son Edward was heir to the last Lord Powys, and continued the succession. Humphrey's elder brother died without lawful issue, and the honours and estates of the family devolved on Edward, upon his father's death in 1534.

Now the laws relating to the marriage of Englishmen with Welsh women were still in force. The English Parliament, in 1401, had passed a series of the most oppressive and cruel ordinances ever enacted against any people; prohibiting marriage between English and Welsh, and disfranchising and disqualifying any Englishman from holding or inheriting property, if he had married a Welsh woman, and closing all schools and learned professions to the Welsh. These infamous laws had been re-enforced by Parliament in 1413, and were not repealed when Henry VII. came to the throne, as might have been anticipated. But Henry granted the Welsh a charter, which rendered the administration less rigorous. These tyrannous laws were not repealed till 1536. Now, the fact that Humphrey's marriage with Welsh women stood against him in no way justified his treatment of his wives.

Deserted by his second wife, Wild Humphrey was assisted by his mother, who came to Ruyton, in the neighbourhood, and carried him food on Sunday, a day of civil freedom.

On one occasion when he had been committing his usual depredations, on the further side of the Severn, the Under Sheriff at the head of a posse rode to arrest him, and for this purpose removed several planks of Montford Bridge, by which he was expected to return, and then laid in wait till he arrived. In due course Humphrey Kynaston rode to the Severn Bridge and prepared to cross. Thereupon the posse comitatus rose and took possession of the bridge end believing that they had him entrapped. But the outlaw spurred his horse, which leaped the gap, and he escaped. A farmer, who had been looking on, so the legend tells, called out, "Kynaston, I will give thee ten cows and a bull for thy horse." "Get thee first the bull and cows that can do such a feat," shouted the outlaw in reply, "and then we will effect the exchange."

The leap of Kynaston's horse was measured and marked out on Knockin Heath, and cut in the turf, with the letters H.K. at each end.

The accession of a Welsh prince to the crown was in reality a fortunate thing for the Kynastons, especially for Wild Humphrey; for ever since the rising of Owen Glendower, an Englishman who had married a Welsh woman was, as already said, legally disqualified from holding any office of trust, and from acquiring or inheriting land in England. Consequently Humphrey's issue by his Welsh wife might have been debarred from representing the family but for the accession of Henry VII. As it turned out, since his elder brother left no issue, the son of Humphrey eventually inherited the family estates of the Kynastons.

Two and a half or three years after his outlawry, Humphrey was pardoned, 30th May 1493. The pardon is still extant, and is in the possession of Mr. Kynaston, of Hardwick Hall and Hordley, the present representative of the family. The direct line from Wild Humphrey expired in 1740.

It is somewhat noticeable that in all the successive generations there was no further outbreak of the wild blood. The Kynastons descending from the outlaw, who was the terror of the countryside, were orderly country gentlemen, who did their duty and pursued harmless pleasures. Perhaps Wild Humphrey was rather a product of his lawless times, of the terrible disorders of the Wars of the Roses, and of the cruel law that blasted him and his issue, on account of his Welsh marriages, than a freebooter out of sporting propensities.

Tradition says that his continued misconduct and ill-treatment of his wife kept her estranged from him. But on his deathbed he had one single desire, and that was to see her and obtain her pardon. He stoutly refused to be visited by any leech; and only reluctantly agreed to allow a "wise woman," who lived at Welsh Felton, near the scene of his old exploits at Ness Cliff, to visit him and prescribe herbs.

On her arrival, however, his humour had changed, and he impatiently turned away, saying, "I'll have none of your medicines. I want naught but my Elizabeth, my poor wronged wife."

"And she is here," answered the wise woman, throwing off her hood.

Humphrey turned and laid his head on her bosom, and without another word, but with his eyes on her face, breathed his last.

Is the story true or ben trovato? Who can say! It reposes on tradition.

Ness Cliff, the rock, in the face of which Humphrey Kynaston lived four hundred years ago, remains, with his cave, his flight of steps, up which ran his faithful horse, his stable, and the feeding trough, and the hearth on which burned Wild Humphrey's fire, very much as he left it. Only one feature is changed. There, from his rock, his eye ranged over the rolling woodland and open champagne country for miles so that he could see and prepare against the enemy who ventured to approach his stronghold; now it is buried in larch and Austrian pine plantations, so that nothing is visible from the cave, save their green boughs. It seems strange that for so many years he can have been suffered to continue his depredations without an attempt being made to surround his rock and keep him imprisoned therein till he was starved into surrender. But the explanation is probably this. He had made friends among the peasantry of the neighbourhood, whom he never molested, and to whom he showed many kindnesses; and they rewarded him by giving him timely warning of the approach of those bent on his capture, and thus enabled him to mount his horse, gallop away, and conceal himself elsewhere. Yet this only partly explains the mystery. If the cave were deserted, why did not the sheriff and his posse comitatus destroy the steps leading up into it, and thus render a retreat into it impossible? The only conclusion at which one can arrive is that the custodians of the law in the fifteenth century were half-hearted in the discharge of their duty, that there was a secret admiration for the wild outlaw in their hearts, and that they were reluctant to see the scion of a brave and ancient house brought to the gallows.

Some men have become predatory animals, and as such seek out lairs as would the beasts of prey.

The Chinaman possesses an instinctive reversion to old subterranean life. Wherever he goes, wherever he succeeds in forming a "China-town," he begins to burrow and undermine the houses in which he and his fellow-countrymen live, and a labyrinth of passages and chambers is constructed, communicating with the several dwellings, so that a criminal Chinaman can rarely be trapped in the native quarter by the police. When San Francisco was burnt, the ground under the Chinese town was found to be honeycombed with runs and lurking-holes to an astounding extent.

When David had to escape from the pursuit of Saul, he fled first of all to Gath, but being recognised there, he made his way to the cave of Adullam. "And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him, and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men."[1] In a word, he became the head of a party of freebooters, who laid the neighbourhood under contribution.

The Palestine surveyors have identified the cave of Adullam with one now called by the peasants Aid-el-Ma. It lies in a round hill about 500 feet high, pierced with a number of caverns; the hill itself being isolated by several valleys and marked by ancient ruins, tombs, and quarryings. "A cave which completes the identification exists in the hill. It is not necessary to suppose that the one used by David was of great size, for such spacious recesses are avoided by the peasantry even now, from their dampness and tendency to cause fever. Their darkness, moreover, needs many lights, and they are disliked from the numbers of scorpions and bats frequenting them. The caves used as human habitations, at least in summer, are generally about twenty or thirty paces across, lighted by the sun, and comparatively dry. I have often seen such places with their roofs blackened by smoke: families lodging in one, goats, cattle, and sheep, stabled in another, and grain or straw stored in a third. At Adullam are two such caves in the northern slope of the hill, and another further south, while the opposite sides of the tributary valley are lined with rows of caves, all smoke- blackened, and mostly inhabited, or used as pens for flocks and herds.

"The cave on the south of the hill itself was tenanted by a single family when the surveyors visited it, just as it might have been by David and his immediate friends, while his followers housed themselves in those near at hand."[2]

The haunts of the bandits in the times of Herod must have been very much like those in Dordogne. They were high up in the face of precipices in Galilee, and he was able only to subdue these gangs of freebooters by letting his soldiers down in baskets from the top of the cliffs, with machines for forcing entrance.[3]

Stanley says[4]: "Like all limestone formations, the hills of Palestine abound in caves. In these innumerable rents, and cavities, and holes, we see the shelter of the people of the land in those terrible visitations, as when 'Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in a cave.' Or as when 'in the days of Uzziah, King of Judah, they fled before the earthquake to the ravine of the mountains;' to the rocky fissures, safer, even though themselves rent by the convulsions, than the habitations of man. We see in them, also, the hiding-places which served sometimes for the defence of robbers and insurgents, sometimes for the refuge of those of whom 'the world was not worthy;' the prototypes of the catacombs of the early Christians, of the caverns of the Vaudois and the Covenanters. The cave of the five kings at Makkedah; the 'caves, and dens, and strongholds, and 'rocks,' and 'pits,' and 'holes' in which the Israelites took shelter from the Midianites in the time of Gideon, from the Philistines in the time of Saul; the cleft of the cliff Etam, into which Samson went down to escape the vengeance of his enemies; the caves of David at Adullam and at Maon, and of Saul at Engedi; the cave in which Obadiah hid the prophets of the Lord; the caves of the robber hordes above the plain of Gennesareth; the sepulchral caves of the Gadarene demoniacs; the cave of Jotopata, where Josephus and his countrymen concealed themselves in their last struggle, continue from first to last what has been called the cave-life of the Israelite nation."

The vast grotto of Lombrive in Ariège has been already mentioned. It became a den of a band of murderous brigands at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A detachment of soldiers was sent to dislodge them in 1802; to reach the great hall access is had by crawling through a narrow passage, and here the robbers murdered as many as 146 of the soldiers, taking them one after another as they emerged from the passage, and cutting their throats.[5] The passage now bears the name of that of Du Crime.

The Surtshellir in Iceland has attracted a great deal of attention, perhaps because it is so different from other caves, being formed in the lava. Its origin is very easily explained. At a great eruption of lava from a neighbouring crater, the crust hardened rapidly whilst the viscid current below continued to flow, and this latter flowed on till it also became rigid, and left a great gap between it and the original crust. I visited it in 1860. It has several branches, and in it lie pools perpetually frozen. There are gaps here and there in the roof through which rays of light penetrate, and also snow that heaps itself on the floor. In one side-chamber is a great accumulation of sheep- bones. In the thirteenth century a band of twenty-four robbers took up their abode in this cavern, and made excursions in all directions around, robbing farmhouses, and driving away sheep. When this had gone on for some time the bonders united and succeeded in surrounding the gang, and killing eighteen of them. The six who escaped fled to the snow mountains, and were never heard of again. Now the strange thing is, how could the men live through a winter in this horrible cavern with a floor of ice in many places, and with a temperature below freezing even in summer? Fuel they could not procure, as there are but black sandy moors around that grow nothing but dwarf willow, and that is so scarce as to be inefficient for their purpose. They must have supplied themselves with light and heat by the tallow of the sheep they killed, run into a lamp. This is the only heating fuel used at present by the Icelanders, apart from the animal heat they give out in the closely sealed common room they occupy as sleeping quarters as well as dining-room and workshop. It may be vastly pleasant in theory to live at other people's expense, but it has its drawbacks, and in this instance le jeu ne valait pas la chandelle.

In Pitscottie's "Chronicles of Scotland," and in Holinshed's "Scottish Chronicle," at the end of the reign of James II. there is a story of a brigand who is said to have lived in a den called Feruiden, or Ferride's Den, in Angus, who was burnt along with his wife and family for cannibalism, the youngest daughter alone was spared as she was but a twelvemonth old. But when she grew up she was convicted of the same crime, and was condemned to be burnt or buried alive.

I have given elsewhere a very full account of the cave—a den of robbers beside which that to which Gil Blas was carried was a paradise —La Crouzate on the Causse de Gramat in the Department of Lot. I will therefore here mention it but superficially. At the entrance are notches in the rock, showing that at one time it was closed by a door. A rapid descent is suddenly brought to a standstill by an opening in the floor of a veritable oubliette, and this opening is crossed only by a bridge of poles, the hand helping to maintain the balance by pressing against the wall of rock on the right hand. Then comes a second hollow, but not so serious, and then a third that can only be descended by a ladder. This opens into a hall in the midst of which yawns a horrible chasm, across which lies a rough bridge of poles that give access to some small chambers beyond, which had formerly been tenanted by the brigands who had their lair in this cavern. Notches in the walls of the well show that across it were laid poles that sustained a pulley, by means of which a bucket could be let down to the well 265 feet, for water. My cousin, Mr. George Young, actually found remains of the crane employed for the purpose at the bottom of the well. About the year 1864, M. Delpons, prefect of the Department of Lot, observing a huge block of limestone lying in a field near La Crouzate, had it raised, and discovered beneath it twelve skeletons ranged in a circle, their feet inwards, and an iron chain linking them together; probably the remains of the bandits who made of La Crouzate their den, whence they issued to rob in the neighbourhood. According to the local tradition, the peasants of the surrounding country paid a poll-tax for every sheep and ox they possessed so as to raise a levée which should sweep the Causse of these marauders, and it was due to this effort that the band was captured and every member of it hung to the branches of the walnut tree beneath which lies the broad stone.

At Gargas, near Montzéjeau, in Hautes Pyrenées, is a prehistoric cavern of considerable extent. In it have been found sealed up in stalagmite the remains of primitive man. Now the significant fact exists that just ten years before the outbreak of the French Revolution this cave was inhabited by Blaise Ferrage, a stone-mason, who at the age of twenty- two deliberately threw aside his trade and retired into the grotto, whence he sallied forth to seize, murder, and eat children and young girls. Men also he shot, strangled, or stabbed, and dragged to his lair, there to devour their carcases.

For three years this monster terrorized the countryside. The number of his victims was innumerable. As last he was caught and broken on the wheel in December 1782. There is no evidence that the naked prehistoric men who had inhabited the cave of Gargas were cannibals.

That the outlaw and he who has dropped out of the ranks of ordered social life, and he who seeks to prey on civilised society should naturally, instinctively, make the cave his home, is what we might expect. He is reverting to the habits of early man whose hand was against every man.

In the "Two Gentlemen of Verona," the outlaws are presented as living in a cave. The robbers in "Gil Blas" had their lair also in one.

One of the finest and most pathetic of Icelandic Sagas is the history of Grettir the Outlaw, who was born in 997, and killed by his enemies in 1031. He spent nineteen years in outlawry in Iceland, and outlawry there in that terrible climate, with no house to cover his head, would seem an ordeal impossible for human endurance. Between the autumn of 1022 and the spring of 1024, that is to say during two winters, he lived in a cave in the west of the island. A steep shale slide was below a cliff, and above this a hollow in the rock. He built up the mouth of the cave, and hung grey wadmal before the entrance, so that none below could notice anything peculiar, or any one living there. Whatever fuel he wanted, all he had to eat, everything he needed, had to be carried up this slippery ascent by him. Down the shale slide he went when short of provisions, and over the marshes to this or that farm and demanded or carried off, sometimes a sheep, sometimes curds, dried fish—in a word what he required.

In the summer of 1862 a very similar lair which Grettir inhabited a little later in the east of Iceland was explored by a farmer living near. This is his description of it: "The lair stands in the upper part of a slip of stones beneath some sheer rocks. It is built up of stones, straight as a line, four and three-quarter ells long and ten inches wide, and is within the walls seven-eighths of an ell deep. Half of it is roofed over with flat stones; small splinters of stone are wedged in between these to fill up the joints, and these are so firmly fixed that they could not be removed without tools. One stone in the south wall is so large that it would require six men to move it. The north wall is beginning to give way. On the outside the walls are overgrown with black lichen and grey moss."

A chapman spending the winter in a farm hard by, named Gisli the Dandy, heard that a price of nine marks of silver was placed on the head of Grettir. "Let me but catch him," said he, "and I will dress his skin for him."

The outlaw heard of this threat, and one day looking down from his rock he saw a man with two attendants riding along the highway. His kirtle was scarlet, and his helmet and shield flashed in the sun. It occurred to Grettir that this must be the dandy, and he at once ran down the slide of stones, clapped his hand on a bundle of clothes behind the saddle, and said, "This I am going to take." Gisli, for it was he, got off his horse, and called on his men to attack Grettir. But the latter soon perceived that the chapman kept behind his servants, and never risked himself where the blows fell; so he put the two thralls aside and went direct upon the merchant, who turned and took to his heels. Grettir pursued him, and Gisli, in his fear, threw aside his shield, then away went his helmet, and lastly a heavy purse of silver attached to his girdle. Presently the flying man came to a bed of old lava full of cracks. He leaped the fissures and reached a river that flowed beyond. There he halted, unable to make up his mind to risk a plunge into it, and that allowed Grettir to run in on him and throw him down.

"Keep my saddle-bags and what I have thrown away," pleaded the fallen man, "only spare my life." "There must be a little skin-dressing done first," answered Grettir. Then he took a good handful of birch rods from the wood, pulled Gisli's clothes up over his head, and laid the twigs against his back in none of the gentlest fashion. Gisli danced and skipped about, but Grettir had him by his garments twisted about his head, and contrived to flog till the fellow threw himself down on the ground screaming. Then Grettir let go, and went quietly back to his lair, picking up as he went the purse and the belt, the shield, casque, and whatsoever else Gisli had thrown away. Also he retained the contents of his saddle-bags.[6]

At Dunterton, on the Devon side of the Tamar, is a headland of rock and wood projecting above the river, and in this is a cave. In or about 1780 there was a man, the terror of the neighbourhood, who lived in this cave, but that he was there was unknown. He was wont to "burgle" the houses of the gentry round, and his favourite method of proceeding was to get on the roof and descend the chimneys, which in those days were wide. In my hall chimney was, till I removed it, an apparatus fitted with sharp spikes upward to impale the burglar should he attempt to get into the house that way. In the house of a neighbouring squire a funnel was made into which he might drop, and from which he could not escape. He was finally discovered by Colonel Kelly, when drawing the wood with his hounds; as the cave was held to be the den of the ogre, it was looked upon with fear, and was also long the lair of smugglers.

Perhaps the latest cave-dwelling criminal was Carl Friedrich Masch, who before his execution confessed to having committed twelve murders and to having attempted several more. This man carried on this warfare against society from 1856 to 1864, that is to say for eight years, in Prussia. His presence in the district was always suspected rather than ascertained, by the numerous cases of arson, burglary, and robbery, as well as by murders and murderous attacks. One of his worst crimes was the butchery of a whole family, a miller, his wife, three children, aged respectively twelve, ten, and five, and a young servant-maid in 1861. In vain were large rewards offered for the capture of Masch; if he had confederates they were not bribed to betray him, and the police were powerless to trace him. Even soldiers were called out to search the forests, but all in vain, and he was not captured till 1864 when he was arrested when tipsy in the street of Frankfurt on the Oder, and then it was not till some hours later that it was discovered he had but just committed a fresh murder.

In March 1858 a miller named Ebel went into the Pyritz forest near Soldin, along with his servant-man to fetch away firewood he had purchased. After having laden his wagon he sent it home under the conduct of his man, and remained behind among the trees. He looked about among the bushes to find a suitable branch that he could cut to serve as a walking-stick. Whilst thus engaged he came on some rising ground overgrown with young birch, and on the slope of the hill not more than 200 paces from the much-frequented highroad he noticed a spot where the snow was beaten hard, as if it had been the lair of a wild beast. To get a better sight of this, Ebel parted the bushes and came closer. Then he was aware of a patch of dried leaves uncovered by snow. Unable to account for this, he stirred the leaves with his recently cut stick, and to his surprise saw them slide down into the earth as into a funnel. More puzzled than ever he began to examine the locality, when he noticed that the ground under his feet sounded hollow, and that there was hard by a second and larger hole. As he stood staring at this, suddenly a cudgel appeared followed by the white face of a man with black hair and beard and dark piercing eyes, rising out of the ground. For a moment Ebel stood paralysed with terror, and then, as the man was heaving himself to the surface, he beat a hasty retreat.

When he reported what he had seen to the forester and some wood- cutters, he was at first not believed, but he insisted that they should accompany him to the spot. They did so, and this is what they found: a board, covered with earth, but with a hole in the midst, through which a couple of fingers could be thrust so as to bring it from below into position, had been used to cover the entrance to an underground habitation. Jumping into a pit, a passage was seen about five feet high, in which a stove had been placed, and the hole the miller had seen, into which the leaves had fallen, was the chimney. Further on was a chamber seven feet long by seven feet broad, and five feet high, that had clearly served as a dwelling for some considerable time. It was full of clothing, linen, an axe, a hammer, a bunch of keys, and an assortment of burglar's tools. The roof was supported by posts and transverse beams, and from them hung legs of pork, bacon, and sausages. There was also a cellar well stocked with wine and brandy, and even champagne. A bed was fashioned of birch boughs and fir branches and hay. The boughs protected from the damp of the soil. Great quantities of bones of pigs, sheep, geese, and other poultry were found buried in the sides of the passage and about on the surface.

The forester reported to the police what he had seen. A good many of the articles found were reclaimed by peasants who had been robbed; but the denizen of the cave-dwelling had vanished, and returned no more. At the same time, attacks on persons and property ceased in that neighbourhood, but began in the neighbourhood of Berlin. But in the spring of 1859 they were renewed in the district of Soldin. The military were ordered to manoeuvre, surround, and traverse the woods, and search every moor. All was in vain, not a trace of the perpetrator of these crimes could be found, and no sooner were the soldiers withdrawn than a taverner and his young wife were discovered in their little inn, with their heads beaten in, and their throats cut, and the man's watch and his money taken. This was followed by the murder of a peasant girl, on the highroad, as she was returning from saying farewell to her lover who had to leave his village for military service. Next came the slaughter of the miller and his family. Renewed efforts to trace the murderer were made and were equally fruitless.

A toll-keeper was fired at in his bed and severely wounded. The would- be assassin had drawn a cart into position, placed boards on it, raised an erection on the boards to support himself so as to be able to take aim at the sleeping man through the window. He could see where he was, as a light burned in the room. He was prevented breaking into the house and murdering the wife and child by the approach of passengers. A farmer was shot at and also badly hurt when returning from market, and only saved from being killed and robbed by his horse taking fright and galloping out of reach.

A further hiding-place of Masch was discovered by accident, as was the first, in May 1861, in the neighbourhood of Warsin. It was more roomy than the first, constructed with more art, was also underground, and contained innumerable objects that had been stolen; amongst others a little library of books that Masch could read in the long winter evenings to pass away the time.

When after eight years of this sort of life, he was finally arrested, he was brought to confess his crimes. And one portion of his narrative concerned his place of concealment in the winter of 1858-59, before he had dug out his subterranean abode at Warsin, and after the discovery of his den at Pyritz.

That was also spent underground, but not in a cave of his construction. I will give the account in his own words.

"The winter came on and I had no money and no place of refuge against the cold. It was only when a hard frost set in that I found an asylum in the culvert constructed to carry off the water from the Bermling lake. The canal consists of a stone-built tunnel, the entrance to which is closed by closely-set iron stancheons. But accustomed as I was, like a cat, to contract and wriggle through narrow spaces, I succeeded in forcing my way in and I formed my lair on the solid ice. Before a fall of snow I provided myself with food, wine, brandy, clothing, and bedding, but I was constrained to spend many weeks in my hiding-place lest I should betray it by my footprints in the snow. My abode there was terribly irksome, for the culvert was not lofty enough to allow one to stand upright in it, and I was constrained to wriggle about in it, crawling or thrusting myself along with hands and feet. I had indeed covered my legs with leather wound about them, but my limbs became stiff. Sitting on the ice was almost as uncomfortable as lying on it. An upright position when seated became unendurable with my legs stretched out straight before me. Accordingly I hacked a hole through the ice into the frozen mud, and thrust my legs down into it. But my blood chilled in them, and my legs would have been frozen in, had I not withdrawn them and stretched them out as before, well enveloped. Moreover I could not sit with my back leaning against the ice-cold stone walls, and the air in the tunnel was dense and foggy. As soon as the ground was clear of snow I escaped from my horrible prison, and enjoyed myself in the open, but for safety had to retreat to it again. On one occasion I narrowly escaped discovery. The owner of the estate hard by and his son were out one day with their hounds. These latter rushed to the entrance of the culvert and began snuffing about at it. Their masters observed this, and made the brutes enter the tunnel. I crouched, my loaded gun in my hand, and peered betwixt the iron bars. If one of the hounds had come near me, I would have shot it. Happily the beasts did not venture far in, probably on account of the heavy vapour they had lost the scent. They withdrew, and I remained in my cellar-dwelling till the spring. When the ice melted and the mud became soft, I had to quit my winter quarters. I had suffered so unspeakably that I resolved without more ado to excavate for myself a new habitation underground which in comparison with the culvert seemed a paradise to me."[7]

Masch was executed on 18th July 1864.

A picturesque walk through the woods near Wiesbaden on the Taunus road leads to the Leichtweishöhle, a cave under a mass of fallen rock, in the Nerothal. The cave measures 100 feet in length, and at its entrance and exit are now set up portraits of the former occupant of this retreat and his mistress. Within, in a side chamber, is the bedroom of the robber, and his bed, that was covered with dry moss. In the midst of the cave is a round, massive stone table, and under its foot is a pit excavated to receive his money and other valuables. The cave, now accessible, is an object of many a pleasant excursion from Wiesbaden; over a century ago it was in a dense and pathless forest, the intricacies of which were unknown.

Henry Antony Leichtweiss was born in 1730 at Ohrn, and was the son of a forester in the service of the Duke of Nassau. He was put apprentice to a man who was at once a baker and a besom-maker, and he learned both professions with readiness. Being a well-built, handsome youth, he managed to get engaged as courier in a noble family, and in the situation made many journeys and learned to know the world, and also to lay by some money. In September 1757 he married the daughter of the magistrate (Schultheiss) of Dotzheim, and he obtained appointment under him as scrivener. By his wife he had seven children. On the death of his father-in-law, and the appointment of a new magistrate, the aspect of his affairs changed. He was detected in attempts to appropriate trust-money to his own use, and was dismissed his office. He sank deeper and deeper, and was arrested and imprisoned at last for theft. On leaving Wiesbaden, where he had been confined, he returned to Dotzheim, but there no one would have anything to say to him, and his own wife refused to receive him into her house.

Leichtweiss now gave himself up to a vagabond life, and as he had of old been associated with the chase, he turned to poaching as a resource. The wide stretch of forests of the Taunus, well stocked with game, and the proximity to such markets as Frankfort and Mainz, offered him a prospect of doing a good business in this line. He managed to induce a wench to associate herself with him, and he dug out a cave of which the description has already been given, in which he made his headquarters, and where he lived and carried on his depredations unmolested for seven years. The spot was so secret and the confusion of rocks there was so great, that he trusted never to be discovered. The main danger lay in smoke betraying him when his fire was lighted, or of his track bring followed in the snow during the winter. But, as already said, for seven years he remained undiscovered, although the keepers of the Duke were well aware that the game in the forests was being shot down and disposed of in the town, and although villagers declared that he had stayed and robbed them. These allegations were, however, never proved. When he was at last captured, he was tried and sentenced to be placed in the stocks at Wiesbaden in the market. Two days after he hung himself in prison.

In the chapter on Souterrains I have spoken of the Adersbach and Wickelsdorf rock labyrinths, without mentioning that they have served as a haunt for robbers. I will now deal with them from this point of view. Take a piece of veined marble, and suppose all the white veins of felspar washed clear, leaving the block cleft in every direction from top to bottom, and all the cleavages converging to one point and through that one point only, on the Wickelsdorf side, is access to be had to the labyrinth. But then conceive of the block thus fissured towering three hundred feet or more sheer up, and having narrow rifts as the passages by which the interior may be penetrated. In the eleventh century sixty knights of the army of Boleslas III., when the latter was driven back by the Emperor Henry II., took refuge in the neighbourhood of Trauterau, and built there a castle, and subsisted on robbery. The captain was a Pole named Nislaf. As they prospered and multiplied, Nislaf divided his company, and placed one portion under Hans Breslauer, who said to his men, "We have a treasure-house in these rocks, only unhappily it is empty. We must pillage the merchants and travellers, and fill it." Nislaf's party fell out with one another, and one, named Alt, led off the discontented and built a fortress, the remains of which may be traced at the highest point above the Adersbach labyrinth. One day the crowing of a cock betrayed where Nislaf had his abode, and troops were sent from Prague to clear the country. Most of the bandits were captured and executed.

In the early part of the nineteenth century a notorious ruffian at the head of a gang lurked in this neighbourhood. His name was Babinsky.

One evening, in the autumn of 1839, a carriage drew up at the outskirts of the Dobrusch forest. A couple of ladies descended from it at the door of a tavern, and asked the Jewish landlady if they could be accommodated with supper and a bed. "We are afraid to proceed," said one of the ladies, "for fear of Babinsky." "Babinsky," answered the hostess, "has never shown his face here."

The ladies were shown into a plain apartment, but were made uneasy by seeing a number of ferocious looking men in the passage and bar. "Who are these?" asked the lady. "Only packmen," replied the landlady. After supper the two ladies were shown into a large bedroom in which at one side was an old-fashioned wardrobe. When left alone they examined this article of furniture, and perceived an unpleasant odour issuing from it. By some means or other they succeeded in forcing open the door, when they perceived that at the bottom of the wardrobe was a trap-door. This they raised, and to their dismay discovered a well or vault, out of which the unpleasant odour issued. They now set fire to some newspaper, and threw it down the hole, and to their unspeakable horror saw by the flames a half-naked corpse. The ladies closed the trap and considered. It was clear that they were in a murderous den, probably controlled by Babinsky. The youngest lady, who had most presence of mind and courage, descended the stairs, opened the guest-room, and said to her coachman, "Hans, it is now half-past nine. This is the hour at which Captain Feldegg, my brother-in-law, promised to start at the head of a military escort to conduct us through the forest. We will leave as soon as you can harness the horses to save him the trouble of coming on so far as this."

Hans finished his glass of wine and rose. The men in the guest-room looked at one another. Before half-an-hour had elapsed the carriage rolled away, and next morning the police were communicated with. It need hardly be said the ladies met with no escort.

A few days later a middle-aged, ragged fellow, with a grinding organ, arrived at the inn, and called for a glass. In the guest-room were the "packmen," and some equally wild-looking girls. The grinding organ was put in requisition, and to its strains they danced till past midnight, when Babinsky himself entered and the dancing ceased. The organ-grinder had so ingratiated himself into the favour of the robbers, that they resolved on retaining him as the musician of the band. He was conveyed across country till they reached some such a rocky retreat as that of Wickelsdorf or Adersbach, and there spent three weeks, only allowed to accompany the band when they were going to have a frolic. On these occasions they betook themselves to the resort agreed on, by twos and threes. One day as some of them passed along a road, they saw a blind beggar in the hedge, asking for alms. Some cast him coppers, and the organ-grinder slipped into his hand a kreutzer, wrapped in a bit of paper.

That night the tavern was surrounded by the military, and the whole gang, along with Babinsky, was captured. This was on 15th October 1839. The organ-grinder was the Prague detective Hoche.

The trial dragged on for several years; some of the robbers were executed, some sentenced to ten, others to twenty years of imprisonment. No evidence was produced that actually convicted Babinsky of having committed, or been privy to the murders, and he was sentenced to penal servitude for life.

I was rambling in Bohemia and tracing the Riesen Gebirge in 1886. On reaching home I read what follows from the Vienna Correspondent of the Standard. "At the little market town of Leitomischl in Bohemia," at the foot of the continuation of the Giant Mountains I had been exploring, "an innkeeper and his wife and son have just been arrested by the police on a charge of having, during the last twenty-five years, murdered no fewer than eleven persons. The victims were all travellers who had put up for a night at his house, and who had shown that they were in possession of ready cash. For a considerable time the suspicions of the police had been aroused by the sudden disappearance of various visitors staying at this inn. Among the latest cases was a cattle dealer who, after visiting the market, was returning home with the proceeds of the sale of a herd of cattle, and a young baron who had won a large sum in a public lottery. After putting up at the inn in question, these men, like others before them, were never heard of again. The very last case was that of the sudden disappearance of a lady, who was undoubtedly murdered and robbed by the arrested persons."

I did in fact find the inns in Bohemia, in certain places infested, but not with bandits and cut-throats.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. 1 Sam. xxii. 1-2
  2. Geikie (C.), "The Holy Land and the Bible," Lond. 1887, i. p. 108.
  3. Josephus, "Antiq.," xiv. 6.
  4. "Sinai and Palestine," 1856, pp. 148-149.
  5. "Spelunca," Paris, 1905, t. vi. p. 169.
  6. "Grettir Saga," Copenh. 1859. "Grettir the Outlaw," Lond. 1890.
  7. Der neue Pitaval, Leipzig; neue Serie, ii. 1867, pp. 104-105.