On Halloween in 1589, the “Werewolf of Bedburg” was put to a horrible death for a supposed slew of crimes committed in lupine form in the environs of the German city of Cologne.
Our knowledge of the strange case of Peter Stubbe comes primarily from a single surviving account, and with many of the potential supplementary sources lost to the ravages of time and war, interpretations are inevitably speculative.
Stubbe reportedly confessed under (or facing) torture to having practiced witchcraft and claimed to have received a magic belt from the infernal powers enabling him to transform into a wolf. The doomed man owned, during the quarter-century riot of sin that ensued this youthful acquisition, to rape, murder, cannibalism, incest, filicide, slaughtering livestock and keeping a succubus in his bed. (Authorities were unable to recover this potent belt, and sighed that Satan must have reclaimed it.)
For these crimes, he was broken on the wheel, beheaded, then burnt — the latter punishment shared with his daughter and his mistress, apparently implicated as accessories.
Was there a real wolf terrorizing the vicinity? Was Stubbe an actual murderer with a supernatural cover story? Was he nursing a genuine delusion of lycanthropy? Did he back the wrong faith as strife over Protestantism rent Germany? Or was he just unluckily caught up in an instance of demonic hysteria?
Whatever the individual circumstances of Stubbe’s death might have been, it occurred during a surge of panic over the venerable superstition of were-beasts and shapeshifters (particularly pronounced in France) coeval with Europe’s crises of religious and political authority on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War.
Yet this troubled period bore the germ of a modernity whose pervasive social changes would upend, among other things, the idea of a real werewolf. As the sixteenth century closed, both medical and theological understandings of “werewolfism” increasingly located it in the realm of the psychological instead of the supernatural.
Within a few years of Stubbe’s torture, werewolves had left the hands of magistrates for those of doctors … bound eventually for the pens of screenwriters with Halloween fare in mind.