Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/December 1898/Superstition and Crime

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By Prof. E. P. EVANS.

IN January, 1898, an elderly woman came in great anxiety to a priest of the Church of St. Ursula, in Munich, Bavaria, and complained that the devil haunted her house at night and frightened her by making a great noise. In explanation of this unseasonable and undesirable visit from the lower world she stated that a joint-stock company had been formed in Berlin, with a branch in Munich, for the purpose of discovering hidden treasures, and that in order to attain this object a human sacrifice must be made to the devil, and that she had been selected as the victim. A woman, whose husband was a stockholder in the aforesaid company, had kindly communicated to her this information, so that she might be prepared and have time to set her house in order. Satan, however, grew impatient of the promised sacrifice, and began to look after her. The priest sent one of his younger assistants at the altar to read appropriate prayers in the haunted house, and thus exorcise the evil spirit. We can hardly suppose that his reverence believed in the reality of the reported apparition, and yet he could not assert its impossibility by calling in question the existence of the devil or the actuality of diabolical agencies in human affairs without undermining the foundations of the ecclesiastical system, of which he was an acknowledged supporter. Such a declaration would "take away our hope," as the Scotchman said of the denial of a literal hell-fire and the doctrine of eternal punishment. It was for the same reason that the great body of the Catholic clergy, from Pope Leo XIII and the highest dignitaries of the church down to the humblest country vicar, so easily fell into the snares laid by Leo Taxil and accepted the signature of the devil Bitru as genuine, and his revelations concerning the pact of the freemasons with Satan as authentic. It is certainly somewhat startling to meet with such a case of gross superstition as the above-mentioned in one of the seats of modern science and centers of European civilization. In rural districts, remote from the influences of intellectual culture, however, instances of this kind are of quite frequent occurrence, and often result in the commission of crime. Human sacrifices to Satan are still by no means uncommon in many parts of Russia, and are supposed to be effective in warding off famine and in staying the ravages of pestilence. Even in Germany and other countries of western Europe the belief in their prophylactic virtue is remarkably prevalent, and would be often put into practice were it not for the stricter administration of justice and the greater terror of the law.

In October, 1889, the criminal court in the governmental province of Archangelsk, in northern Russia, sentenced a Samoyede, Jefrern Pyrerka, to fifteen years' imprisonment with hard labor for the murder of a maiden named Ssavaney. His sole defense was that an unusually severe winter with a heavy fall of snow had produced a famine followed by scurvy, of which all his children had died. He therefore made an image of the devil out of wood, smeared its lips with fat, and set it up on a hillock. He then attempted to lasso one of his companions, Andrey Tabarey, and had already thrown the noose round his neck, when the energetic wife of the intended victim intervened and rescued her husband. Shortly afterward he succeeded in strangling the girl and offering her as a sacrifice to his idol. In the province of Novgorod, known as "the darkest Russia," it is a general custom among the country people to sacrifice some animal, usually a black cat, a black cock, or a black dog, by burying it alive, in order to check the spread of cholera. In the village of Kamenka, a peasant, whose son had died of this disease, interred with the body eight live tomcats. The immolation of dumb animals, however, is deemed less efficacious than that of human beings. On one occasion, when the cholera was raging severely, a deputation of peasants waited upon their parson, stating that they had determined to bury him alive in order to appease the demon of the plague. He escaped this horrible death only by apparently acceding to their wishes and craving a few days' respite in order to prepare for such a solemn ceremony; meanwhile he took the measures necessary to secure his safety and thwarted the purpose of his loving parishioners. In Okopovitchi, a village of the same province, the peasants succeeded in enticing an aged woman, Lucia Manjkov, into the cemetery, where they thrust her alive into the grave containing the bodies of those who had died of the epidemic, and quickly covered her up. When brought to trial they proved that they had acted on the advice of a military surgeon, Kosakovitch, who was therefore regarded as the chief culprit, and sentenced to be knout ed by the hangman, and then to undergo twelve years' penal servitude in Siberia. We are indebted for these instances of barbarous superstition to the researches of Augustus Löwenstimm, associate jurisconsult in the department of justice at St. Petersburg, who has derived them from thoroughly authentic and mostly official sources. He reports several occurrences of a similar kind during the epidemics of cholera in 1831, 1855, and 1872. Indeed, it is very difficult to abolish such pagan practices so long as the clergy foster the notion that animal sacrifices are expiatory and propitiatory in their effects. In some parts of the province of Vologda it is still customary on the day dedicated to the prophet Elias (July 20th in the Greek calendar) to offer up bullocks, he-goats, or other quadrupeds within the precincts of the church. The animal is driven into the courtyard surrounding the sacred edifice and there slaughtered; the flesh is boiled in a large kettle, one half of it being kept by the peasants who provide the sacrifice, while the other half is distributed among the priests and sacristans.[1]

The belief that the walls of dams, bridges, aqueducts, and buildings are rendered preternaturally strong by immuring a living human being within them still prevails in many countries of Christendom, and there is hardly an old castle in Europe that has not a legend of this sort connected with it. Usually a child is supposed to be selected for this purpose, and the roving bands of gypsies are popularly accused of furnishing the infant victims. The custom of depositing gold coins or other precious objects in the foundation stones of important public edifices is doubtless a survival of the ancient superstition.[2] Löwenstimm mentions a curious superstition of pagan origin still practiced in portions of Russia, and known as "korovya smertj" (cow-death) and "opachivaniye" (plowing roundabout). If pestilence or murrain prevails in a village, an old woman of repute as a seeress or fortune-teller enters the confines of the village at midnight and beats a pan. Thereupon all the women of the place assemble in haste, armed with divers domestic utensils—frying-pans, pokers, tongs, shovels, scythes, and cudgels. After shutting the cattle in their stalls, and warning the men not to leave their houses, a procession is formed. The seeress takes off her dress and pronounces a curse upon Death. She is then hitched to a plow, together with a bevy of virgins and a misshapen woman, if such a one can be found, and a continuous and closed furrow is drawn round the village three times. When the procession starts, the image of some saint suitable to the occasion, that of St. Blasius, for example, in the case of murrain, is borne in front of it; this is followed by the seeress, clad only in a shift, with disheveled hair and riding on a broomstick; after her come women and maidens drawing the plow, and behind them the rest of the crowd, shrieking and making a fearful din. They kill every animal they meet, and if a man is so unfortunate as to fall in with them he is mercilessly beaten, and usually put to death. In the eyes of these raging women he is not a human being, but Death himself in the form of a were-wolf, who seeks to cross their path and thus break the charm and destroy the healing virtue of the furrow. The ceremony varies in different places, and generally ends by burying alive a cat, cock, or dog. . In some districts the whole population of the village, both men and women, take part in the procession, and are often attended by the clergy with sacred images and consecrated banners. During the prevalence of the pest in the province of Podolia, in 1738, the inhabitants of the village of Gummenez, while marching in procession through the fields, met Michael Matkovskij, a nobleman of a neighboring village, who was looking for his stray horses. The strange man, wandering about with an eager look and a bridle in his hand, was regarded as the incarnate pestilence, and was therefore seized and most brutally beaten and left lying half naked and half dead on the ground. At length he recovered his senses and succeeded with

great difficulty in reaching his home. No sooner was it known that he was still alive than the peasants rushed into his house, dragged him to their village, subjected him to terrible tortures, and finally burned him. A curious feature of these remedial rites is the mixture of paganism and Christianity which characterizes them; and it is an unquestionable though almost incredible fact that their atoning efficacy is often quite as firmly believed in by the village priests of the Russian Church as by the most ignorant members of their flock. In the autumn of 1894 some Russian peasants in the district of Kazan slew one of their own number as a sacrifice to the gods of the Votiaks, a Finnish race dwelling on the Volga, Viatka, and Kama Rivers. Even orthodox Christians of the Greek Church, although regarding these gods as devils, fear and seek to propitiate them, especially in times of public distress.

Still more widely diffused is the practice of infanticide as the sequence of superstition. The belief that dwarfs or gnomes, dwelling in the inner parts of the earth, carry off beautiful newborn babes and leave their own deformed offspring in their stead is not confined to any one people, but is current alike in Germanic, Celtic, Romanic, and Slavic countries, and causes a misshapen child to be looked upon with suspicion and subjected to cruel tortures and even killed. The supposed changeling is often severely beaten with juniper rods and the scourging attended with incantations, so as to compel the wicked fairies to reclaim their deformed bantling and restore the stolen child. If the castigation proves ineffective, more summary measures are frequently taken, and the supposititious suckling is thrown out of the window on a dunghill or immersed in boiling water. In 1877, in the city of New York, an Irish immigrant and his wife burned their child to death under the delusion that they were ridding themselves of a changeling. Cases of this kind are quite common in Ireland, where the victims are sometimes adults.[3] Not long since Magoney, an Irish peasant, had a sickly child, which the most careful nurture failed to restore to health and strength. The parents, therefore, became convinced that a changeling had been imposed upon them, and when the boy was four years old they resolved to have recourse to boiling water, in which he was kept, notwithstanding his shrieks and protestations that he was not an elf, but their own Johnny Magoney, until death released him from his torments.

Wilhelm Mannhardt, the celebrated writer on folklore, states that when, in 1850, he was in Löblau, a village of West Prussia, he saw a man brutally maltreating a boy on the street. On inquiry he found that the lad had done nothing worthy of blame, but that his only fault was an exceptionally large head. This cranial peculiarity, offensively conspicuous in what seems to have been a narrow-headed family, was reason enough for the parents to disown their offspring, and to treat him as the counterfeit of a child foisted in by the fairies. At Hadersleben, a considerable market town of North Silesia, the wife of a farmer, in 1883, gave birth to a puny infant, which the parents at once assumed to be a changeling. In order to defeat the evil designs of the elves and to compel the restoration of their own child, they held the newborn over a bed of live coals on the hearth until it was covered with blisters and died in intense agony. In East Prussia, the Mazurs, a Polish race, whose only notable contribution to modern civilization and the gayety of nations is the mazurka, take precautionary measures by placing a book (usually the Bible, although any book will do) under the head of the newborn babe, so as to prevent the devil from spiriting it away and substituting for it one of his own hellish brood, thus unwittingly furnishing a marvelous illustration of the beneficent influence of the printing press and the magic power of literature. The Estnian inhabitants of the island of Oesel in Livonia refrain from kindling a fire in the house while the rite of baptism is being celebrated, lest the light of the flames should render it easier for Satan surreptitiously to exchange an imp for the infant. After the sacred ceremony has been performed there is supposed to be no danger of such a substitution.

One of the most incredible instances of this extremely silly and surprisingly persistent superstition occurred in 1871 at Biskunizy, a village of Prussian Posen, where a laborer, named Bekker, had by industry and frugality gradually acquired a competence and been able to buy a house of his own, in which he led a happy domestic life with his wife and five children, of whom he was very fond. After fourteen years of unbroken felicity the wife's elder sister, Marianne Chernyāk, came from Poland to pay them a visit. This woman was a crackbrained devotee, who spent half her time in going to mass and the other half in backbiting her neighbors. She also claimed that she could detect at once whether a person is in league with Satan, and could cast out devils. The villagers came to look upon her as a witch, and avoided all association with her, especially as her aberrations manifested themselves in exceedingly malevolent and mischievous forms. Unfortunately, she acquired complete ascendency over her younger sister, who accepted her absurd pretensions as real. On November 19, 1871, Marianne, after returning from confession, went to bed, but at midnight Mrs. Bekker, who slept with her youngest child, a boy about a year old, was awakened by a fearful shriek and lit the lamp. Thereupon the sister rushed into the room, crying: "The demons have stolen your child and put a changeling in your bed: beat him, beat him, if you wish to have your child again!" Under the influence of this suggestion, which seemed to be almost hypnotic in its character, the bewildered mother began to beat the boy. The aunt now seized him and swung him to and fro, as if she would fling him out of the window, at the same time calling out to Satan: "There! you have him; take your brat!" She then gave him back to his mother with the words: "Throw him to the ground, drub him, beat him to death; otherwise you will never recover your child." This advice was followed, and the boy severely strapped with a heavy girdle as he lay on the floor. Meanwhile Bekker, hearing the noise, got up and at first tried to intervene for the protection of his son, but was easily convinced by his wife that she was doing the right thing, and persuaded to aid her in discomfiting the devil by beating the boy with a juniper stick. The process of exorcism, thus renewed with increased vigor, soon proved fatal. At this juncture, as the son of the aunt, a lad of five years, threw himself down with loud lamentations beside the dead body of his little cousin, his mother cried out: "Beat him; he is not my child! Why should we spare him? We shall get other children! Thereupon he, too, was maltreated in the same manner until he expired. The aunt then declared that the devil had crept into the stovepipe, and went to work to demolish the stove, but, when she was prevented from doing so, fled into the garden, where she was found the next morning by the school-teacher. By this time Bekker and his wife seem to have come to their senses, and were sitting by the corpses of the murdered children, weeping and praying, as the neighbors entered the house. The trial, which took place at Ostrov in January, 1872, led to the introduction of conflicting expert testimony concerning the mental soundness of the accused, and the matter was finally referred to a commission of psychiaters in Berlin, who decided that Bekker and his wife were not suffering from mental disease, and therefore not irresponsible, but that the aunt was subject to periodical insanity to such a degree as not to be accountable for her actions. Curiously enough, the jurors remained uninfluenced by this testimony, and pronounced her guilty of the crime laid to her charge, and in accordance with this verdict the court sentenced her to three years' imprisonment with hard labor. The jurors even went so far as to declare that she herself did not believe in the existence of elf children or satanic changelings, but made use of this popular superstition for her own selfish purposes, and that she guilefully denounced her own boy as an imp in order to get rid of him. In this verdict, or rather in the considerations urged in support of it, it is easy to perceive the effects of strong local prejudice against the accused, who had the reputation of being a lazy, malicious, and crafty person, and was therefore denied the extenuation of honest self-deception. Indeed, in such cases it is always more or less difficult to determine where sincere delusion ceases and conscious swindling begins. Just at this point the annals of superstition present many puzzling problems, the solution of which is of special interest as well as of great practical importance not only to the psychologist and psychiater, but also to the legislator and jurisprudent, who have to do with the enactment and administration of criminal laws.

In the penal codes of the most civilized nations the agency of superstition as a factor in the promotion of crime is almost wholly ignored, and, as this was not the case in former times, the omission would seem to assume that the general diffusion of knowledge in our enlightened age had rendered all such specifications obsolete and superfluous. Only in the Russian penal code, especially in the sections Ulosheniye and Ustav on felonies and frauds, as cited by Löwenstimm, do we find a distinct recognition and designation of various forms of superstition as incentives to crime. Thus, in paragraph 1469 of the first of these sections, the murder of "monstrous births or misshapen sucklings" as changelings is expressly mentioned, and the penalty prescribed; and in other clauses of the code punishments are imposed for the desecration of graves and mutilation of corpses, in order to procure talismans or to prevent the dead from revisiting the earth as vampires, and for various offenses emanating from the belief in sorcery and diabolical possession. The practice of opening graves and mutilating dead bodies is quite common, and arises in general from the notion that persons who die impenitent and without extreme unction, including suicides and victims to delirium tremens, apoplexy, and other forms of sudden death, as well as schismatics, sorcerers, and witches, come forth from their graves and wander about as vampires, sucking the blood of individuals during sleep and inflicting misery upon entire communities by producing drought, famine, and pestilence. The means employed to prevent this dangerous metamorphosis, or at least to compel the vampire to remain in the grave, differ in different countries. In Russia the deceased is buried with his face downward, and an ashen stake driven through his back, while in Poland and East Prussia the corpse is wrapped up in a fish net and covered with poppies, owing, doubtless, to the soporific qualities of this plant. Preventive measures of this kind are often taken with the consent and co-operation of the clergy and local authorities. Thus, in 1849, at Mariensee, near Dantzig, in West Prussia, a peasant's wife came to the Catholic priest of the parish and complained that an old woman named Welm, recently deceased, appeared in her house and beat and otherwise tormented her child. The priest seems to have accepted the truth of her statement, since he ordered the corpse to be disinterred, decapitated, reburied at a cross-road, and covered with poppies. In 1851, during the prevalence of cholera in Ukraine, in the governmental province of Kiev, the peasants of Possady attributed the epidemic to a deceased sacristan and his wife, who were supposed to roam about at night as vampires and kill people by sucking their blood. In order to stay the ravages of the scourge the corpses of this couple were exhumed, their heads cut off and burned, and ashen stakes driven through their backs into the ground. In 1892 a peasant woman in the Russian province of Kovno hanged herself in a wood near the village of Somenishki. The priest refused her Christian burial because she had committed suicide, and was therefore given over to the devil. In order that she might rest quietly in her grave and not be changed into a vampire, her sons severed her head from her body and laid it at her feet. In thus refusing to perform religious funeral rites the priest obeyed the canons of the church and also the laws of the Russian Empire. Until quite recently a corner of unconsecrated ground next to the wall of the Russian cemetery was reserved as a sort of carrion pit for the corpses of self-murderers, and it is expressly prescribed in the Svod Sakonov[4] that they "shall be dragged to such place of infamy by the knacker, and there covered with earth." This treatment of a felo-de-se by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities directly fosters popular superstition by tending to confirm the notion that there is something uncanny, eldritch, demoniacal, and preternaturally malignant inherent in his mortal remains, a notion still further strengthened by a most unjust paragraph (1472) in the Russian code, which declares the last will and testament of a suicide to have no legal validity. Drought, too, as well as pestilence, is ascribed to the evil agency of vampires, which "milk the clouds," and hinder the falling of the dew. In 1887 the South Russian province of Cherson began to suffer from drought soon after a peasant had hanged himself in the village of Ivanovka, the inhabitants of which, assuming a causative connection between the aridity and the self-homicide, poured water on the grave while uttering the following words: "I sprinkle, I pour; may God send a shower, bring on a little rainfall, and relieve us from misery!" As this invocation failed to produce the desired effect, the body was taken up and inhumed again in a gorge outside of the village. In some districts the corpse is disinterred, beaten on the head, and drenched with water poured through a sieve; in others it is burned. The records of the criminal courts in West Prussia during the last half century contain numerous instances of the violation of graves from superstitious motives. Thus in March, 1896, a peasant died in the village of Penkuhl; soon afterward his son was taken ill of a lingering disease, which the remedies prescribed by the country doctor failed to relieve. It did not take long for the "wise women" of the village to convince him that his father was a "nine-killer," and would soon draw after him into the grave nine of his next of kin. The sole means of depriving him of this fatal power would be to disinter him and sever his head from his body. In accordance with this advice the young man dug up the corpse by night and decapitated it with a spade. In this case the accused, if tried in court, might honestly declare that he acted in self-defense; indeed, he might plead in justification of his conduct that he thereby preserved not only his own life, but also the lives of eight of his nearest and dearest relations, and that he should be commended rather than condemned for what he had done. It is the possibility and sincerity of this plea that render it so difficult to deal with such offenses judicially and justly. Here is needed what Tennyson calls

"The intuitive decision of a bright
And thorough-edged intellect, to part
Error from crime."

Quite different, however, from a moral point of view, is the opening-of graves in quest of medicaments, and especially of talismans, which are supposed to bring good luck to the possessor or to enable him to practice sorcery and to commit crime with impunity. In ancient times, and even in the middle ages, physicians sometimes prescribed parts of the human body as medicine, and in Franconia, North Bavaria, a peasant now occasionally enters an apothecary's shop and asks for "Armensünderfett," poor sinner's fat, obtained from the bodies of executed malefactors and prized as a powerful specific. The culprit was tried first for murder and then for lard, and thus made doubly conducive to the safety and sanitation of the community. Formerly many persons went diligently to public executions for the purpose of procuring a piece of the criminal as a healing salve, but since the hangman or headsman has generally ceased to perform his fearful functions in the presence of a promiscuous crowd, such loathsome remedies for disease are sought in churchyards.

In May, 1865, a Polish peasant in Wyssokopiz, near Warsaw, discovered that the grave of his recently deceased wife had been opened and the corpse mutilated. Information was given to the police, and a shepherd's pipe, found in the churchyard, led to the detection of the culprit in the person of the communal shepherd, a man twenty-six years old, who on examination confessed that he, with the aid of two accomplices, had committed the disgustful deed. His object, he said, was to procure a tooth and the liver of a dead person. He intended to pulverize the tooth and after mixing it with snuff to give it to his brother-in-law in order to poison him. On perceiving, however, that the body was that of a woman, he did not take the tooth, because it would have no power to kill a man; but he cut out the liver for the purpose of burying it in a field where the sheep were pastured, and thus causing the death of the entire flock in case he should be superseded by another shepherd, which he feared might happen. All three were condemned to hard labor in Siberia.

It is a quite prevalent notion that if any part of a corpse is concealed in a house, the inmates will have the corresponding bodily organs affected by disease and gradually paralyzed. A drastic example of this superstition occurrred in May, 1875, at Schwetz, a provincial town of West Prussia, where a woman named Albertine Mayevski became the mother of a male child, which died soon after its birth. The father, to whom she was betrothed, refused to marry her, and to punish him for this breach of promise she disinterred the body of her babe, cut off its right hand at the wrist and the genitals, and hid them in the chimney of the house of her faithless lover, hoping thereby to cause the hand, with which he had pledged his vow, to wither away, and to render him impotent. All this she freely confessed when brought to trial, and was sentenced to two months' imprisonment. But such relics of the tomb are used, on the principle of similia similibus, not only for inflicting injury, but also for bringing luck. Thus members of the "light-fingered craft" carry with them the finger of a corpse in order to enhance their skill, success, and safety in thievery; if the finger belonged to an adroit thief or a condemned criminal its talismanic virtue is all the greater. It is also believed that a purse in which a finger joint is kept will contain an inexhaustible supply of money. The finger of a murdered man is greatly prized by burglars because it is supposed to possess a magic power in opening locks. The records of criminal courts prove that these absurd notions are generally entertained by common malefactors in East Prussia, Thuringia, Silesia, Bohemia, and Poland. A candle made of fat obtained from the human body is very frequently used by thieves on account of its supposed soporific power, since with such a taper, known in Germany as Diebslicht or Schlummerlicht (sloom-light in provincial English), they are confident of being able to throw all the inmates of the house into a deep sleep, and thus rummage the rooms at will and with perfect impunity. The danger of detection is also forestalled by laying a dead man's hand on a window sill; and in order to make assurance doubly sure, both preservatives are usually employed. Hence the proverbial saying, "He sleeps as though a dead hand had been carried round him." The desire to procure material for such candles often leads to the commission of crime. An Austrian jurist, Dr. Gross, in his manual for inquisitorial judges (Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter), and the folklorists Mannhardt and Jakushkin, give numerous instances of this kind, and there is no doubt that the many mysterious murders and ghastly mutilations, especially of women and children, so horrifying to the public and puzzling to the police, are due to the same cause. In most cases the prosecuting attorneys and judges are unable to discover the read motives of such bloody and brutal deeds because they are ignorant of the popular superstitions in which they have their origin, and, for lack of any better explanation, attribute them to mere brutishness, wantonness, homicidal mania, and other vague and unintelligible impulses, whereas in reality they spring from a supremely selfish but exceedingly definite purpose, are perpetrated deliberately, and with the normal exercise of the mental faculties, and can not be mitigated even by the extenuating plea of sudden passion. Crimes of this sort are of common occurrence not only in the semibarbarous provinces of Russia, but also in Austria and Germany, justly reckoned among the most civilized countries of Christendom. On January 1, 1865, the house of a man named Peck, near Elbing in West Prussia, was entered during the absence of the family by a burglar, Gottfried Dallian, who killed the maid-servant, Catharina Zernickel, and ransacked the premises in search of money and other objects of value. Before carrying off his spoils he cut a large piece of flesh out of the body of the murdered girl in order to make candles for his protection on future occasions of this sort. The talismanic light, which he kept in a tin tube, did not prevent him from being caught in the act of committing another burglary about six weeks later. During the trial, which resulted in his condemnation to death, he confessed that he had eaten some of the maid-servant's flesh in order to appease his conscience. This disgusting method of alleviating the "compunctious visitings of Nature" would seem to confirm the suggestion of a writer in the Russkiya Wjedomosti (Russian News, 1888, No. 359) that the thieves' candle is a survival of primitive cannibalism, distinct traces of which he also discovers in a Russian folk song which runs as follows: "I bake a cake out of the hands and feet, out of the silly head I form a goblet, out of the eyes I cast drinking glasses, out of the blood I brew an intoxicating beer, and out of the fat I mold a candle." It is certainly very queer to find such stuff constituting the theme of popular song within the confines of Christian civilization at the present day, a grewsome stuff more suitable as the staple of Othello's tales

"—of the cannibals that each other eat,
The anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders."

In the burglary just mentioned the murder and mutilation of the maid were incidental to the robbery, and probably an afterthought, but there are on record numerous instances of persons being waylaid and killed for the sole purpose of making candles out of their adipose tissue. No longer ago than November 15, 1896, two peasants were convicted of this crime in Korotoyak, a city on the Don in South Russia. Their victim was a boy twelve years of age, whom they strangled and eviscerated in order to make candles from the fat of the caul and entrails. It would be superfluous and tedious to cite additional examples of this outrageous offense against humanity and common sense, for, like the devils that entered into the Gadarene swine, their name is Legion.

A still more disgusting and dangerous superstition is the notion that supernatural powers are acquired by eating the heart of an unborn babe of the male sex, just as a savage imagines that by eating the heart of a brave foe he can become indued with his valor. The modern European cannibal believes that by eating nine hearts, or parts of them, he can make himself invisible and even fly through the air. He can thus commit crime without detection, and defy all efforts to arrest or imprison him, releasing himself with ease from fetters, and passing through stone walls. This horrible practice has been known for ages, and is still by no means uncommon. In the first half of the fifteenth century the notorious marshal of France, Gilles de Laval, Baron of Rayz, is said to have murdered in his castle near Nantes one hundred and fifty women in order to get possession of unborn babes. He was then supposed to have committed these atrocities from lewd motives, and was also accused of worshiping Satan. A mixed commission of civilians and ecclesiastics, appointed to examine into the matter, found him guilty and condemned him to be strangled and burned on October 25, 1440. In 1429, when he was thirty-three years of age, he had fought the English at Orleans by the side of Joan of Arc, and it was probably the desire to acquire supernatural powers in emulation of the maid that led him to perpetrate a succession of inhuman butcheries extending over a period of fourteen years, the real object of which seems to have been imperfectly understood by the tribunal which sentenced him to death.[5] Löwenstimm cites several instances of this crime. Thus, in 1577 a man was put to the rack in Bamberg, North Bavaria, for murdering and disemboweling three pregnant women. In the seventeenth century a band of robbers, whose chief was known as "King Daniel," created intense consternation among the inhabitants of Ermeland in East Prussia. For a long time these freebooters roved and spoiled with impunity, but were finally arrested and executed. They confessed that they had killed fourteen women, but, as the unborn infants proved to be female, their hearts were devoid of talismanic virtue. Indeed, they attributed their capture to this unfortunate and unforseeable circumstance, and posed as persons worthy of commiseration on account of their ill luck. One of the strangest features of this cruel and incredible superstition is its persistency in an age of superior enlightenment. Dr. Gross records two cases of comparatively recent occurrence in the very centers of modern civilization: one in 1879, near Hamburg, where a woman, great with child, was killed and cut open by a Swede named Andersen, and another of like character ten years later in Simmering, near Vienna.

An ordeal very commonly practiced in the middle ages to determine the guilt or innocence of any one accused of theft was to give him a piece of consecrated cheese, which, if he were guilty, it would be impossible for him to swallow. Hence arose the popular phrase, "It sticks in his throat." Thus Macbeth says, after he had "done the deed":

"But wherefore could not I pronounce amen?
I had most need of blessing, and amen
Stuck in my throat."

Wuttke states that this custom still prevails in the Prussian province of Brandenburg, where a person suspected of larceny is made to swallow a piece of Dutch cheese on which certain magical letters and signs are scratched. His failure to do so is regarded as conclusive evidence of his guilt. Various other means of making inquest for the detection of crime are in vogue, some of them merely silly, and others mercilessly savage. Thus a mirror is laid for three successive nights in the grave of a dead man. It is placed there in the name of God, and taken out in the name of Satan. It is believed that by looking into such a mirror the person of the thief can be clearly seen. A bull belonging to a peasant not far from Perm, on the Kama, died suddenly. The owner declared that the death of the animal was due to witchcraft, and demanded that all the women of the village should be made to creep through a horse collar in order to discover the hag who had wrought the mischief. This plan was approved by his neighbors, and, although their wives protested against being subjected to the degrading and for corpulent women extremely difficult and even dangerous test, they finally submitted to it rather than remain under the suspicion of practicing the black art. This performance, which is unquestionably a relic of Uralian-Finnish paganism, took place on March 16, 1896. The following instance may serve as an example of the ruthless barbarity to which such delusions often lead: In December, 1874, a South Russian peasant in the vicinity of Cherson missed one hundred rubles and went to a weird woman in order to learn what had become of them. She consulted her cards and declared that the money had been stolen by a certain Marfa Artynov. The man was greatly astonished at this response, because the accused was a highly respected teacher of young children, and had the reputation of being thoroughly honest. Nevertheless, his credulity got the better of his common sense, and with the aid of his neighbors he seized Marfa and carried her to the churchyard, where he bound her to a cross and began to torture her, beating her with a knout, suspending her by her hands, and twisting and tearing her neck and tongue with a pincers. To her cries and entreaties her tormentors coolly replied, "If you are really innocent, what we are doing can cause you no pain!" Many of the persons who offer their services as clairvoyants and seers to a credulous and confiding public, and whose utterances are accepted as oracles, are professional swindlers. Thus a young lady moving in the higher circles of society in Vienna had a valuable set of diamonds stolen. By the advice of a trusted lackey she consulted a woman, who was reputed to have the power of divination, and who informed her, contrary to the strong suspicions of the police, that the theft had been committed, not by any member of the household, but by a stranger. The young lady was so firmly persuaded of the truth of this statement that, although urged by the court to prosecute the lackey, she refused to do so. The evidence against him, however, was so strong that he was finally tried and condemned. The pythoness, who had endeavored to exculpate him, proved to be his aunt and accomplice.

A queer phase of superstition, which in many parts of Europe seriously interferes with the administration of justice, manifests itself in the various means of avoiding the evil consequences of perjury, at least so far as to soothe the pangs of conscience and to avert the divine anger. This immunity is secured in some provinces of Austria by carrying on one's person a bit of consecrated wafer, a piece of bone from the skeleton of a child, or the eyes of a hoopoe, holding a ducat or seven small pebbles in the mouth, pressing the left hand firmly against the side, crooking the second finger, or pulling off a button from the trousers while in the act of swearing, or spitting immediately after taking an oath. The Russian province of Viatka is settled by a people of Finnish origin, the majority of whom have been baptized and call themselves orthodox Christians, while the remainder are still nominally as well as really heathen. When they take an oath it is administered by a pope or priest, and a Russian jurist, J. W. Mjeshtshaninov, describes the method employed by them to forswear themselves with safety. When called upon to take an oath, the witness raises the right hand with the index finger extended; he then lays the left hand in the palm of the right hand with the index finger pointing downward, and by a crisscross combination of the other fingers, which probably works as a charm, the whole body is converted into a conductor, so that the oath entering through the index finger of the right hand passes through the index finger of the left hand into the earth like an electric current. The witness thus feels himself discharged of the binding influence of the oath, and may give false testimony without laying perjury upon his soul.

The superstitions which encourage ignorant people to commit crime are handed down from generation to generation, and have in most cases a purely local character. In other words, the charms and sorceries and other magical arts employed to produce the same results differ in different places, and unless the judges are familiar with these various forms of superstition they will be unable to understand the exact nature of the offenses with which they have to deal, and their efforts to detect and punish violations of the law will be greatly hampered and sometimes completely thwarted.

The subject here discussed has not only a speculative interest for ethnographers and students of folklore, but also, as already indicated, a practical importance for criminal lawyers and courts of justice in the Old World and even in the United States. The tide of immigration that has recently set in from the east and south of Europe has brought to our shores an immense number of persons strongly infected with the delusions which we have attempted to describe. Acts which would seem at first sight to have their origin in impulses of cruelty and brutality are found on closer investigation to be due to crass ignorance and credulity, and, although the ultimate motives are usually utterly selfish, there are rare instances in which the perpetrators of such deeds are thoroughly disinterested and altruistic, and do the most revolting things, not from greed of gain, but solely for the public good. In cases of this kind the most effective preventive of wrongdoing is not judicial punishment but intellectual enlightenment.

  1. Löwenstimm's studies, printed originally in the Journal of the Ministry of Justice in St. Petersburg, have been made accessible to a larger class of readers by being collected and translated into German in a volume entitled Aberglaube und Strafrecht (Berlin: Rade, 1897), with an introduction by Prof. Joseph Kohler, of the University of Berlin.
  2. As the Siberian Railway approached the northern boundaries of the Chinese Empire and surveys were made for its extension through Manchuria to the sea, great excitement was produced in Pekin by the rumor that the Russian minister had applied to the Empress of China for two thousand children to be buried in the roadbed under the rails in order to strengthen it Some years ago, in rebuilding a large bridge, which had been swept away several times by inundations in the Yarkand, eight children, purchased from poor people at a high price, were immured alive in the foundations. As the new bridge was firmly constructed out of excellent materials, it has hitherto withstood the force of the strongest floods, a result which the Chinese attribute, not to the solid masonry, but to the propitiation of the river god by an offering of infants.
  3. See the case of Bridget Cleary, reported in Appletons' Popular Science Monthly for November, 1895, p. 86. We may add that her husband, Michael Cleary, was tried for murder and sentenced to twenty years' penal servitude.
  4. General Code, vol. xiii, edition of 1892, cited by Löwenstimm.
  5. A full account of the trial is given in a Latin manuscript preserved in the city archives of Nantes.