The devil made him do it, he said. Or, rather, Tokoloshe, an evil spirit in Zulu folklore.
Msomi had not been successful in earning a living at witch-doctoring, so he consulted an experienced colleague for advice. According to Msomi, the man introduced him to Tokoloshe and said, “Get me the blood of 15 people.”
Over the next year and a half, Msomi stalked KwaZulu Natal, slaughtering victims as the demon pointed them out, and collecting their blood in bottles. He would attack them with a knife, hatchet or knobkierie after luring them to an isolated area.
The first victim was a young girl. To prove to the demon just how dedicated and obedient he was, Msomi hacked his victim to death in front of his girlfriend. Tokoloshe was delighted, but the girlfriend was horrified. She went straight to the cops and had Msomi arrested. Then he escaped from custody … with Tokoloshe’s help, he said.
Msomi followed up on his first act by slaying five children. In April 1955, he was linked to multiple murders and arrested again, but again he escaped and picked up where he’d left off.
Serial killers seldom stop killing of their own accord, but that is exactly what happened with Elifasi Msomi. Having collected the blood of his fifteenth young victim, he said that Tokoloshe thanked him for his service, then bathed with him in the river before they parted company.
Without Tokoloshe to help him anymore, Msomi soon came to police attention again when he was arrested for petty theft. In custody once more, he freely confessed to the murders and led authorities to some bodies, but he said he wasn’t responsible for his actions and was only following Tokoloshe’s orders.
There was, however, the problematic fact that he had raped some of his victims and robbed others; Tokoloshe hadn’t requested THAT. At the trial, two psychologists testified that Msomi was very intelligent and got sexual pleasure by causing pain to other people.
Such was the reputation of the witch doctor’s power of channeling the Tokoloshe that prison officials granted permission to a deputation of tribal chiefs and elders to view Msomi after he had been hanged on February 10, 1956. These men were thus able to return to their respective tribes and proclaim that the witch doctor was really dead and that Tokoloshe had left him to seek out another host body.
Savannah’s Wright Square got its haunt (and concomitant reputation as “the hanging square”) on this date in 1735 when domestic servant Alice Riley was executed for murdering her vicious master William Wise.
The Irish import with a truly misfortunate indenture to a tyrannical farmer with a predilection for using his fists, Riley and a fellow-servant named Richard White snapped at the abuse one day the previous March and stuffed Wise’s head in a bucket of water until he drowned.
As best this writer can discern, much of what else is said on various Riley biographies appears to be embroidery and conjecture; the circumstances invite the most lurid of inferences but we don’t really know much about the relationships among the two killers and their victim.
Whatever the case, other Savannah grandees thought little enough of Wise — but they also all had help of their own who ought not get any funny ideas from the example. The couple was tracked down and prosecuted, although Alice extended her lease on life by pleading her belly. A few weeks after delivering a little boy whom she named James, Alice Riley was hauled to Wright Square (then known as Percival Square) and publicly hanged as she protested her innocence and begged to see her child. The gibbet brandished her remains at passing servants there for three full days.
Although they finally took down the corpse, her spirit has never been at peace. Riley’s specter allegedly still appears around Wright Square as a frantic woman who accosts passersby about her lost child.
The “Werewolf of Dole” was a scavenging hermit resident on the outskirts of that Burgundian town when a little girl was strangled and partially eaten in October of 1572. Townsfolk feared a maneating wolf but a subsequent pattern of attacks would point at something even more frightful.
And a sure way to conflate the two was through a figure like Garnier (English Wikipedia entry | French), who, in a starving winter, monstrously ate the flesh of his victims. He would later confess — we can only guess through what combination of disordered mind and torturer’s suggestion — that as he foraged one day, wracked by hunger, a phantom appeared to him and offered him an ointment that would confer the lifesaving hunting prowess of the wolf.
Like any opportunistic carnivore, the loup-garou Garnier knew enough to prey upon the weakest.
Shortly after slaying that first victim, Garnier grabbed another little girl and was in the process of a bestial hands-and-teeth attack when some villagers came upon the scene. Garnier fled, but at least some of these accidental witnesses were convinced that they had seen a wolf attack — for what man tears into his still-dying quarry with his bare teeth?
Then again, as observed by Sabine Baring-Gould* — whose The Book of Were-Wolves makes for a goosefleshing Halloween read — there would even post-Garnier in 1573 be an edict promulgated against what Parlement suspected was continuing werewolfery in the vicinity, directing all and sundry “to assemble with pikes, halberts, arquebuses, and sticks, to chase and to pursue the said were-wolf in every place where they may find or seize him; to tie and to kill, without incurring any pains or penalties.” Lycanthropy is stirring deep within this society, authorities, onlookers and offender(s?) all suggestible to one another.
Garnier killed a little boy later that same November, perhaps his most gruesome as he not only cannibalized the fresh corpse but tore off the child’s leg to save for later.
His fourth known victim was his last and resulted in his capture when he was again surprised on the scene. (This time, the witnesses saw only the man — not the wolf.)
His trial, which was for all its fantastic content notably a secular one, was a monument to the fear that must have gripped Dole while children vanished only to turn up as carrion: some fifty witnesses were summoned, many to make connections between Gilles Garnier and canis lupus that one would strain to credit as speculative but were probably quite sincere. Everyone knew there was a werewolf, and then everyone knew Gilles Garnier was that werewolf.
Like the French peasantry, posterity has seen in Garnier what it hopes or expects to see. Do we witness the grim and commonplace effects of torture upon a bystander being scapegoated for the natural incursions of wolves? The predations of a “normal” serial killer refracted through his society’s superstitions? A mentally ill man truly convinced (as with the wendigo psychosis) of his own beastliness? An entirely false confession reflecting Garnier’s own complicity in the same evolving myth that captivated his neighbors?
From whatever cause this shape-shifting may arise, it is very certain by the common consent of all antiquity and all history, by the testimony of learned men, by experience and first-hand witness, that werewolfism which involves some change of form from man to animal is a very real and very terrible thing. (The Werewolf)
If you prefer your rending human flesh in podcast form, Stuff You Missed In History Class covered this story in a (graphic) Halloween episode.
If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.
Werewolves could likewise be rolled up via the familiar machinations of the witch-hunter. In John the Wolf’s case, he was accused out of the trial against Henry Gardinn of having used their transmogrifying beast personas to devour a child in Limburg. Gardinn burned in 1605; John was able to flee to Heusden but was recognized in 1607 and returned to Maastricht for the inevitable.
Though John tried claiming that Henry’s indictment had been to revenge himself for an altercation between the two, torture soon changed The Wolf’s story and placed he, Gardinn, and a third companion into a forest coven with a devil-avatar with whom they danced and feasted on human flesh.
After execution, his remains were exhibited on a pole surmounted by a wooden illustration of a werewolf.
It is well known that the Cordeliers or Franciscans and the Jacobins or Dominicans have detested each other ever since they were founded. They were divided on several points of theology as well as being financial rivals. Their chief quarrel turned on the state of Mary before her birth. The Franciscans argued that Mary had not sinned in her mother’s womb, while the Dominicans were of the opposite opinion. There never was, perhaps, a more ridiculous question, and yet it was this very matter which made these two religious orders quite irreconcilable.
A Franciscan, preaching at Frankfurt in 1503 on the immaculate conception of Mary, happened to see a Dominican called Vigan come into his church. “I thank the Holy Virgin,” he exclaimed “for not having permitted me to belong to a sect which dishonours her and her son.” Vigan eplied that this was a falsehood. The Franciscan then came down from the pulpit, carrying an iron crucifix, and struck the Dominican such a violent blow that he almost killed him, after which he went on to finish his sermon on the Virgin.*
The Dominicans held a meeting to plan their revenge, and, in the hope of heaping greater humiliation on the Franciscans, they resolved to perform miracles. After several fruitless attempts they finally found a favourable opportunity in Berne.
One of their monks was confessor to a simple-minded young tailor named Jetzer, who was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and to Saint Barbara. This imbecile seemed to them to be an excellent subject for miracles. His confessor convinced him that the Virgin and Saint Barbara expressly commanded him to become a Dominican and to give all his money to the order. Jetzer obeyed and too the habit. When his vocation had been well tested, four Dominicans, whose names appear in the subsequent trial, disguised themselves on several occasions as best they could, one as an angel, another as a soul in purgatory, a third as the Virgin Mary and the fourth as Saint Barbara. At the end of these apparitions, which it would be too tedious to describe in detail, the Virgin finally revealed to Jetzer that she was born in original sin; that she would have been damned if her son, who was not yet on this earth, had not taken care to regenerate her immediately after she was born; that the Franciscans were impious and had grievously offended her son by claiming that his mother had been conceived without mortal sin, and that she charged him to announce this to all the servants of God and Mary in Berne.
Jetzer did not fail to do this. Mary appeared again, accompanied by two robust and vigorous angels. She thanked him and said that she had come to imprint upon him the holy stigmata of her son as proof of his mission and as a reward. The two angels tied Jetzer up and the Virgin drove nails into his hands and feet. The next day Brother Jetzer was exhibited on the altar for all to see, freshly bleeding from the heavenly favours he had received. The devout flocked to kiss his wounds. He performed as many miracles as he wanted, but the apparitions still continued. Finally Jetzer recognised the voice of the sub-prior beneath the mask he wore. He cried out and threatened to reveal everything. He followed the sub-prior into his cell, where he found his confessor and the two angels, who were entertaining some girls.
The monks, now that they were unmasked, had only one course open to them, which was to poison Jetzer. They sprinkled a communion wafer with some corrosive which had such a foul taste that Jetzer could not swallow it. He fled from the church crying out against the sacrilegious poisoners. The trial lasted for two years and came before the bishop of Lausanne because at that time laymen were not allowed to judge monks. The bishop sided with the Dominicans. He decided that the apparitions were real and that Jetzer was an imposter; he was even so cruel as to sentence the poor man to torture. But later the Dominicans imprudently degraded Jetzer, stripping him of his monk’s habit. This meant that Jetzer was now a layman again and his case could therefore be heard by the Council of Berne. As a consequence of his testimony the long catalogue of crimes was confirmed. When the ecclesiastical judges were called in from Rome, they were compelled to deliver up the criminals to the secular authorities. The guilty were burnt at the Marsilly gate on 31 May 1509. Records of the trial are now in the archives of Berne and have been printed on several occasions.
The fourteenth panel (click for the full glorious graphic novel) of a woodcut series illustrating the progress of the hoax. (Via).
* The Dominican Wigand Wirt, who denounced the Immaculate Conception so vociferously that he was summoned to Rome in 1507 to answer for it.
Taking up his proper residence at the estate’s noble Belvoir Castle, lord and lady Manners had two noble sons and the consequent prospect of a robust progeniture to carry on the Rutland title, father to manful son onward into trackless posterity.
Belvoir Castle was then “a continuall Pallace of entertainment, and a daily receptacle for all sorts both rich and poore, especially such auncient people as neighboured the same,” noted a pamphlet of the time.** “Amongst whom one Ioane [Joan] Flower, with her Daughters Margaret and Philip were not onely relieved at the first from thence, but quickly entertained as Char-women, and Margaret admitted as a continuall dweller in the Castle, looking both to the poultrey abroad and the wash-house within dores.”
Someone having detected this clan of hags pilfering from His Lordship, the Flower family was soon dismissed: a reckless show of rectitude by parents who would soon have cause to regret it.
Joan Flower, the mother, “was a monstrous malicious woman, full of oathes, curses, and imprecations irreligious … her eyes were fiery and hollow, her speech fell and envious, her demeanour strange and exotic.” Folk who knew her had come to understand — how could they not? — that her curses had the power to bend infernal servants to her spiteful will; her daughters were likewise suspected of necromantic potency all their own.
Together, they were formidable enemies when roused — and they promptly avenged their dismissal by enchanting the Rutland heir Henry, who fell ill and died in September 1613. (The rest of his family got sick on this occasion, too.) Five years later, they enspelled Henry’s younger brother Francis and sent him to an early grave too.
Under such compelling affliction, the family could not long remain ignorant of the Flowers sorceresses’ enmity, and denounced them to authorities. They were arrested around Christmas of 1618.
The mother-witch soon died in prison under God’s own torture, for she
called for Bread and Butter, and wished it might never goe through her if she were guilty of that whereupon shee was examined; so mumbling it in her mouth, never spake more wordes after that, but fell downe and dyed as shee was carryed to Lincolne Gaole, with a horrible excruciation of soule and body.
As though more evidence were needed, both of Joan’s daughters also admitted turning their occult powers against the little heirs, part of a horrific pattern of infernal connivance:
that the late mother kept a feline familiar named Rutterkin, and Joan malevolently stroked the cat with a glove stolen from Henry while uttering incantations that the boy might never thrive
that similar treatment was meted out using Rutterkin and a glove discarded by Francis
that Margaret kept two evil familiars whom she profanely suckled — “the white sucked under her left breast, and the blacke spotted within the inward parts of her secrets”
that Philip “heard her mother often curse the Earle and his Lady, and thereupon would boyle feathers and blood together, using many Devillish speeches and strange gestures”
that Margaret “saith, That her mother, and shee, and her sister agreed together to bewitch the Earle and his Lady, that they might have no more children”
While the mother was beyond the reach of the law, both daughters were duly condemned for murder on the evidence of their own confessions, and “executed accordingly, about the 11 of March, to the terror of all the beholders, and example of such dissolute and abominable Creatures.”
Even so, their horrid magic outlived them. The Earl and the Duchess were never again able to conceive; their only surviving child was a daughter, Katherine, who would carry the rich inheritance that should have been her brothers’ into a marriage with King James’s favorite.†
“Two sons, both which dyed in their infancy by wicked practise & sorcerye”: Inscription on a Manners family memorial at Bottesford. (cc) image by J. Hannan-Briggs.
* 1618 by the local reckoning, since the new year at this time began on March 25. It’s 1619 as we would see it retrospectively in view of a January 1 calendar rollover.
** The wonderful discoverie of the witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Ioan Flower neere Bever Castle: executed at Lincolne, March 11, 1618
† Some scurrilous wags of the present day have suggested that said favorite cunningly poisoned off the brothers himself so that he could get his hands on Katherine’s huge tracts of land.
Oliver Cromwell famously called his victory in the last battle of the English Civil War “a crowning mercy” … but it was anything but for royalist nobleman James Stanley, who was beheaded a few weeks afterwards, on this date in 1651.
He had fought the cavalier side in the 1640s and made his name notorious with the storming of Bolton that resulted in the Bolton Massacre. Weeks later, he was present when royalist fortunes went pear-shaped in the north at the Battle of Marston Moor.
It’s even said that Stanley’s ghost haunts the pub.
* Stanley was also the Lord of Mann (i.e., of the Isle of Man), and the efforts of Stanley’s wife to negotiate surrender of the royalist island in exchange for her husband’s safety triggered the rebellion of Illiam Dhone.
Barbara Zdunk was executed on this date in 1811 in the Prussian city Rößel (today the Polish city Reszel).
Zdunk is the chronologically latest candidate for the elusive distinction of “the last witch execution in Europe”. Devastating fires that hit Reszel in 1806 and 1807 activated her neighbors’ suspicions of Zdunk witchery; however, enlightened Prussia had dispensed with its witch-burning laws long before the books in the 19th century so Zdunk must have been formally prosecuted simply as an arsonist — whatever the actuating superstitions behind that charge. The idea was that she caused the conflagration by torching the house of her faithless fiance.
Reszel Castle, the 14th century citadel whose dungeon entombed Ms. Zdunk for a couple of years prior to her execution, is today an atmospheric hotel, allegedly haunted by spirit of its famous former inhabitant.
Two hundred years ago today, Lancaster Castle hosted a quintuple hanging, starring career thief George Lyon.
At age 54, Lyon could be considered a throwback: he openly styled himself “The King of Robbers”, inspiring a sarcastic hack “to congratulate the inhabitants of Wigan and the neighbourhood, and indeed the country at large, on the conviction of George Lyon.” (This notice ran in a number of publications at the time.) He was basically a well-known crook and authorities were thrilled to get one of his fellows to turn Crown’s Evidence on him and make a charge stick.
He had eleven indictments including a stickup of the Liverpool mail, and on this basis has been described as the last highwayman executed at Lancaster — but in the main his methods less romantic and more straightforward. The crime that hanged them — for Lyon died along with two confederates, plus two other unconnected men — was taking advantage of the access a house-painting hire afforded them to just loot the joint.
Lyon did make sure to class it up for his hang-day, however, in a natty black suit and jockey boots to be on point for some 5,000 Lancastrians who reportedly crowded the banks of the castle moat to gawp.
Lyon’s wife arranged to take the body — saving the old footpad from a posthumous anatomization — and buried it in Upholland in the grave of their daughter, Nanny Lyon. (The stone can still be seen to this date: it does not mention George.) It’s been alleged that his spirit has been spooking the place in the 200 years since, including at the venerable White Lion Pub, adjacent to Nanny and George’s final resting place.
Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, April 29, 1815