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  • Writer's pictureAmelia

Why a Wolf-Finder?

Witch hunts make sense

The kind of sense, admittedly, that starts from people being generally awful, then passes through several layers of spite, xenophobia, human greed and othering before it ends up curled into a ball, under a blanket, screaming: “Why can’t people just be nice to each other?” But still it’s sense of a kind.

The thing is that we know about witch hunts.

They actually happened.

We hear enough about them, in films, plays, novels, and occasionally even actual history books, that we can, to some degree, understand them. The same way that we understand earthquakes, volcanoes, and Insert Hilariously Mundane Sport Of Choice taking over the television for a week or so, ever year*.

We see and recognise their echoes in modern life: in the way people will turn on this celebrity or that; in politicised attacks on one group or another***; in the search, any time something goes wrong, for a scapegoat, for somebody to blame.

Oddly enough, the people who claim to be targeted by witch hunts almost never actually are.

Still, real or not, when they claim to be being witch-hunted we know what they mean. We can, for a given level of understanding, understand.

So why write, instead about a werewolf hunt?

Why a wolf-finder instead of a witch-finder?

Well for one thing, I thought the idea of someone taking up werewolf hunting on a technicality was funny. But the other reason is: because it happened.

I’m not saying that werewolves really roamed the land, stealing sheep and biting people on the bottom, but werewolf trials absolutely did take place.

Not so much in Britain — our werewolves tend to be a bit more wolf-y and a bit less were**** but elsewhere in Europe they were, if not so common as witch hunts, still rather more widespread than you might like to imagine. Sometimes, the werewolf accusation was just part of the standard witch hunt. That’s how it went for poor David Wellman of Lemgo in Lippe.

In 1642 he began to receive a series of anonymous letters accusing him of being a sorcerer and a werewolf. The letters, much like anonymous letters today, were full of swearing and insults as they went into details of his alleged exploits. These were accompanied by frankly, if unintentionally, adorable pictures of the supposed werewolf often helpfully labelled “were wolf” so we would know it was him.

Wellman did not find the letters adorable.

He, as anyone now would have done, attempted to find and prosecute the anonymous letter writer.

It didn't go well.

Although Wellman had his suspicions as to the source of the letters he was unable to prove his case in court and the trial ended without a verdict.

Some years later, in 1654, and again in 1669, Wellman himself was to stand trial.

His charges? Being a sorcerer and a werewolf.

If people weren’t sure who’d sent the letters before that point, I’m guessing they got an inkling then.

Sadly for Wellman, at the second trial he was found guilty and executed.

It seems that sending hurtful, hateful letters full of hideous accusations was, to that long ago court, a significantly less serious matter than receiving them.

One of the anonymous letters received by David Wellman. I cannot tell you what it says, because it is in German, besides being very old and hard to read in general. However there is an adorable little wolf drawn in the middle of the page, with the word "War Wulf" in helpfully clear letters under his little stick feet.
Just look at that little wolfy!

Sometimes the witch aspect seems to have been added on to the werewolf part.

Such is the case of Peter Stumpp who, in 1589, was put on trial for crimes that…

Look, I don’t usually include trigger warnings in my blog posts because I don’t usually need to, but, honestly, if anything you might see in the average grimdark, video-nasty, banned-films-week horror film might trip a wire or two in your head, then stop reading now, scroll down a bit, and I’ll put in a picture or something when it’s safe to start reading again.


Seriously, I’m not kidding here. This stuff makes Blood On Satan's Claw look tame.

Are they gone?

Right, assuming that everyone here is able to safely and comfortably handle the next bit, I'll go on.

Stumpp, however you spell him, was put on trial for rape, murder, cannibalism, incest, and cattle mutilation.

The last part is where the werewolf comes in.

It’s also where the story begins.

From 1569 to 1589 the town of Bedburg was beset with a series of attacks on their cattle.

These were originally thought to be the work of a wolf, but were upgraded to werewolf in the 1580s due to a story fairly familiar to anyone who has read about a witch-trial or two.

You know the drill: a hunter or woodsman is out walking on his own; he sees a hare or another animal crossing his path; he shoots but only manages to wound a leg or a paw, and the next day some lonely old woman with insufficient calcium in her diet is seen to be limping a little.

Clearly she’s a witch.

The Bedburg variation is just like that, except for “hare” read “werewolf”, for “crossed his path” read “attacked a village girl who was then saved from peril by a divinely sent cattle stampede******”, and for “shot at and missed” read “hacked his paw off”.

And there, the next day, so the story goes, was Peter Stumpp missing a hand*******.

Stump was taken, was tried, and eventually confessed to committing a hideous battery of crimes including: multiple murders of children, one of them his own son; rape of young women — among them his own daughter and his sister; violent attacks; cannibalism both of his victims and of unborn foetuses supposedly ripped from their mothers’ wombs; and the original cattle mutilations.

And he probably really did it.

It’s a little uncertain, because his confession was extracted under torture, and everyone knows what a reliable method that isn’t.

If you’re remembering my last blog post, and thinking “I wouldn’t break under that,” you are probably, toasted cheese notwithstanding, wrong, but it doesn’t matter much because Stumpp’s questioners didn’t stop at sleep deprivation and proto-waterboarding. They had pincers.

And hot irons.

And a rack.

Despite his confession being extracted under torture, the evidence suggests that Stumpp really was guilty, of most of the crimes, at least.

The cases of cattle mutilation, for example, rather than being invented for the purpose, started two decades before he was put on trial, and seem to have ended after his execution.

The violent attacks seem similarly to have been real violent attacks, and the murders real murders. Indeed, one of the original pieces of evidence against Stumpp being the killer was the fact that his son had been one of the victims.

Said attacks also appear to have ended once Stumpp had been taken prisoner.

So, while he may have embellished his story under torture, it is possible, indeed probable that he really did commit the majority of crimes of which he was accused.

Just not the bits about being a werewolf.

Werewolf or not, he was found guilty and, in October 1589, executed by breaking on the wheel.

His head was then set on a pike, as a warning to other werewolves, and his body burned.

He didn’t burn alone.

His “mistress” Katherine, and his daughter Sybil, were also found guilty, in Katherine’s case of being a “she-wolf” complicit in his crimes, and in Sybil’s, though she herself had been a victim of his attacks, of “harbouring” her father by living in his house.

They were both flayed and strangled before being burned alongside Stumpp, proving that there was more than one monster in the town of Bedburg, and not all of them ended on the pyre.

It’s easy to see why people would want to believe in a werewolf rather than a human murderer.

It can be hard, in a case as horrifying as the crimes of Peter Stumpp, to believe that a real human being can be capable of such a thing.

We see this every time a particularly awful murder comes to light: “There must be something wrong with them,” we cry, unable to face the idea that a sane, healthy, "normal" human being could have done the things that they appear to have done.

Never mind that such cries are horribly ableist: the important thing is that it can’t have been somebody like me.

So, in a time when people were willing to believe in werewolves, it was easier to believe the attacker was a werewolf, than that a human could commit such crimes.

Nicholas Damont was another case in point.

Known as the Werewolf of Chalons, or, in the manner of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Tailor of Chalons, he was executed for the sexual abuse, murder, and cannibalism of children.

And also of being a werewolf.

The accusations against him seem to have taken two different paths: on one of which he was said to have stalked his victims through the forest in the form of a wolf; while on the other he simply lured them to his tailor shop, there submitting them to sexual abuse before slitting their throats and later eating them.

It seems likely that the former accusation is a fabrication, something added to turn a real-life tale of murder and sexual violence against children into something more palatable.

It’s hard to be certain, however, as his confessions were supposedly so monstrous that the court ordered every copy destroyed.

What we do know is that he, according to reports of the day, did confess, and that human bones were supposedly found in the basement of his shop.

How his confession was extracted, what he said, and whether, indeed he was truly guilty of the crimes are all impossible to say at such a remove as this.

The story itself is so strange and so grisly that it is often thought to be merely a local legend.

It seems, though, that at least part of it was true, as, werewolf or not, Damont was executed for his crimes: burned at the stake in 1598.

Ok, that’s enough of the grisly stuff.

Here’s a nice picture of my mushroom lamp to let everyone know it’s safe to come back

A mushroom, or more accurately spotted toadstool  shaped candle lamp. It is painted with a red and white spotted cap, and has a window cut in the front, along with various decorative holes for the candle light to shine out of. On top is what I always see as another mushroom, perhaps providing a dormer window to the "house" but in fact it is supposed to be a gnome.
It's ok! You can come back now.

Now let’s have a nicer story for a change. Given the treatment of the variously accused “werewolves” it seems unlikely that anyone would actively want to face trial as a werewolf. Such was the case though of Thiess of Kaltenbrun: the Hound of God. He was quite emphatic about it, in fact, perhaps aware of what might happen if such suspicions were allowed to fester. Just look at poor David Wellman, after all.

So Thiess took the opportunity, when called to give information on another matter, to insist that he be tried for being a werewolf.

Exactly what he was originally in court over I’ve found it a little hard to tell. Some sources suggest he was just there to give evidence in someone else’s trial. Others suggest he was there on charges of heresy, of church avoidance, or of using folk magic — there’s that witchcraft connection again — but whatever he was supposed to be doing, it paled in contrast to the story Thiess told.

He didn’t deny that he was a werewolf: he confirmed it.

According to Thiess he, along with companions he took care not to identify, was in the habit of turning into a wolf in order to travel to Hell and fight the Devil for the grain, animals, and other produce stolen by witches over the past year. These they would bring up back up with them, returning them Earth, so that the harvest would be bountiful.

He didn’t stop there: he talked about the wolves eating sheep (cooked and with salt: they were werewolves, not barbarians), and of himself in particular travelling to Hell to break the nose of a farmer who had “made a deal with the devil”, but the message in general was thus: Thiess was indeed a werewolf, and a good thing he was, too.

You wouldn’t want witches stealing your crops, now, would you?

It was a very good thing, by Thiess’ account, that there was a werewolf like him around, willing to fight the devil to protect your farms.

 The story seems to have worked.

While Thiess was beaten and cast out for his other crimes — whatever those were — on the charge of being a werewolf, he got off scot free.

Perhaps because the court judged it just the ramblings of a rather strange old man, or perhaps because it’s hard to execute a man when his response to “Are you a werewolf?” is: “Yes I am. You’re welcome!”

Whether that would work on the Wolf-Finder General, though, is another question entirely.

You’ll have to wait till June to decide.

*Given that television-on-demand is now, as they no longer say, “a thing” this is probably not a problem any more. In which case I fear I am showing my age again. Sorry, I needed it for a metaphor**.

Then I dropped the metaphor, but I couldn’t find a better joke.

Yes, this was originally meant to be a joke.

Horrifying, isn’t it?

**Something, something, which-sport-did-you-think-of, something else, stereotyping, witch-hunts, ta-dah!

You can see why I dropped it.

***Often with no regard for whether a person actually belongs to said group or not.

The most famous parallel, of course, is McCarthyism, as demonstrated in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play that will probably still be haunting literature students when the sun goes out of commission and the world goes pffft.

Here’s a tip: if your literature teacher starts a class by handing everyone a slip of paper and tells you you’re supposed to work out who has the slip with “witch” written on it...

There Is No Witch.


Why do they still try that?

****Meaning “man”.

You probably already knew that, didn’t you?

*****alternatively Stumpf, Stub, Stubb, Stubbe, Stübbe, or Stube. His last name seems to be have been spelled in various ways by various people, possibly because it was an appellation rather than a family name, possibly because, like Shakespeare, he couldn’t make his mind up.

******I am not making this up. The people of Bedburg might have.

*******Was he missing a hand before the crimes took place?

I cannot tell, nor can I find any other name for him except for variations on the theme of “Stump”.

Fortunately I am not actually an historian, so this shouldn’t haunt my dreams at night.

It probably will anyway. (Seriously, I'm not an historian: do not take anything I've said here as gospel, or even as apocrypha, and if you want to know more, for goodness' sakes seek out some serious studies, not a silly blog by the silly writer of some supremely silly books)

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