In my research for the 18thC Slasher WiP I’m co-writing, now titled REDSTONE; OR, THE ‘BLOODY BEACH’ MURDERS, I came across a case of a cannibal gang reported in the Reading Mercury under the Foreign Affairs section. This article is the extended version of the report that came out in July 1782, detailing the execution of 13 people for murder and cannibalism. This more sensational report came out in August, but was printed in the paper in October, presumably taking into account the time it took letters to reach Reading, England, from Buda(pest), Hungary at this time.
CWs for sexual assault/rape, murder, infanticide, patricide, cannibalism, graphic descriptions: read on with caution.
The full report reads:
Wednesday’s Post. Foreign Affairs. Buda (capital of Hungary) Aug. 7.Wednesday’s Post: Foreign Affairs: Reading Mercury (Reading, England) Monday, Oct. 7, 1782, Issue 1080. Punctuation preserved from the original in my transcription.
In our last letters we mentioned, that at Frauenmarckt [Women’s Market], on the 21st of last month, thirteen villains had been executed, who for upwards of twelve years past assassinated on the highways, and fed upon the flesh of the unfortunate people they had murdered. The whole of that article wants additions. It is very true that only thirteen have been executed at Frauenmarckt : but, both in that place and other parts of Hungary, 40 have already been put to death, both men and women, all cannibals, all devouring the flesh of the unhappy people who had fallen into their hands ; and near 120 more wait the same just fate, in the different prisons of Hungary. These monsters have declared, that at a wedding, which they were celebrating amongst themselves in a subterraneous place, upwards of 50 feet deep from the surface of the ground, in the midst of a dark thick wood, they had first abused, one after another, three pretty young country girls, whom they had carried off ; that they had afterwards cut their throats, then roasted, then devoured them with glee ; and that the bride, as well as the other women of the gang, had all fed upon them. They declared that, of all human flesh, the best is neither under, nor above the age of 15 or 16 years ; they have eat the flesh [sic] of 84 different persons in the space of 21 years, during which they have exercised their horrible depredations. They assure that the bones of their dead carcases, which they burnt, made the best charcoal in the world. Some of these wretches have been hanged, some broke on the wheel, some quartered, some burnt, according to the rank they held among themselves, their age, and their manner, either free, or forced, by which they had aggregated together. Their Captain was taken in the following manner :— A soldier of the Provost Marshall’s Court, knowing partly the situation of the haunt of these cannibals, went to the Judges of Frauenmarckt, and promised to deliver up to them the chief of the gang, if he was assisted by some peasants. They were given him : He armed them and himself with sabres and pistols, and they pushed on into the forest. They had not marched two hours before they espied three men, one of whom was richly dressed, and wore a cap a la pandoure, loaded with gold lace and jewels, and perceiving them also, fired a pistol, which happily missed them ; his two comrades fled at the sight of the peasants, without even firing ; the peasants did the same, while the soldier, who had bravely seised [sic] the robber by the throat, brought him to the ground, and was disarming him. His two comrades, seeing nobody left there but the soldier, turned back. He was then in great danger, but he had the strength to keep the villain down , with his knee upon his throat, while with his right hand he fired off a pistol, which brought one of the men to the ground ; at the sight of which the other took to his heels. The soldier then called out, as well as he could, after the peasants, who happily were still within hearing, and appeared again, but dropping in one by one ; the robber was bound, and carried to Frauenmarckt, where he was committed to prison. He had his pockets full of gold, and the ornaments of his cap alone were worth above 6000 florins. It is assured the soldier will be handsomely rewarded.
This story was circulating in various newspapers that autumn; the month before (September 1782) it was carried by Parker’s General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer (London), 30 Sept 1782, Issue 1850, but I found it in the Reading Mercury first and liked the drop cap it used, so that’s the screengrab I’ve shared!
The Public Advertiser had the following printed in its 15091 Issue, Wednesday 09 Oct 1782, subheading Extract of a Letter from Vienna, Sept. 18.:
Full Transcript of the above image:
Extract of a Letter from Vienna, Sept. 18.Capitalisation and punctuation of the original has been preserved in my transcription.
Our Papers have lately mentioned the destruction of a Gang of Robbers which had been formed in Hungary, and who, like true Cannibals, feasted on the Flesh of the unfortunate Victims whom they had assassinated. The following is the Manner by which the public Papers say those Villains were discovered : Two young Fellows, who had been apprehended for Theft, were just going to receive the corporal Punishment they deserved, when the Judge, while he was pronouncing their Sentence, observed, in the Countenance of one of them, some Marks of Emotion so extraordinary, that he suspected them to be guilty of a much greater Crime than that for which they had been tried. He re-examined them, and drawing, with an Air of Severity, a Paper from his Pocket, he intimidated them, by saying he knew of a great deal more against them, and that if they did not confess immediately, he would put them to the Torture. These Menaces made such an Impression on them, that they confessed a great Number of Murders and other inconceivable Crimes. They said, that the Gang they belonged to was very numerous ; that they used to eat the Flesh of those whom they put to Death ; that they roasted others alive, and that they had Musicians among them whose Instruments were used to deafen the Shrieks of those whom they were murdering. Upon this Information some Troops were sent to the Place, who seized 281 of the Gang, the greatest Part of whom have already been executed.
In this letter, the number of the gang has massively increased from 120 to 281, and the tale of the capture of the gang leader by the soldier is not told – the credit instead goes to the shrewd judge for forcing a confession from two petty thieves he deemed too emotional for the crime they were accused of and presumed (correctly) they were guilty of something far worse. The language here and emphasis on Marks of Emotion shown by one of the thieves feels as though it’s drawn from a Gothic novel, as does the ploy to exact a confession. The additional details of the musicians using their music to cover the shrieks of the victims is a particularly colourful one, and ties into the subterranean wedding imagery of the first report.
But wait. There’s more.
The London Post covered this in Jan 11, 1783:
Full Transcript of the above image:
There have been already put to death in Hungary 45 Cannibals ; 150 more are still in prison, among whom, we are assured, are fathers who have had the barbarity to cut the throats of their wives when pregnant, and devour the children in the womb ; and sons who have massacred, roasted, and eaten their fathers and mothers. The Emperor who cannot be persuaded that there are such ferocious characters in the world, has just written to the Judges of Hungary to suspend all further execution of these horrid wretches, and that his Imperial Majesty will send to the spot, a commission to examine the proceedings against them.Punctuation and Capitalisation of the original preserved in the transcription.
This feels like it’s getting a bit out of hand at this point. The number has fluctuated again in this report, now saying that 150 people were imprisoned, allegedly, and 45 executed, which doesn’t quite reach the 281 figure of the previous articles. This story now positions the gang as interconnected through familial bonds and instead of killing strangers, details the horrific murders of one another in the closest bonds of 18th century ‘nuclear’ family. [I know that’s probably not the right term for the time, but that’s the closest one I can find to describe it! Let me know if there’s a better one in the comments, as family structures have too much nuance in the 17th and 18thC s for ‘traditional’ to be used here, which also renders concepts of ‘nuclear’ more complex than married couples and parents!]
Apparently afraid of a witch-hunt (so to speak) taking place, the Emperor, Joseph II, (1741–1790) ordered a stay of executions until a full investigation had taken place, since he found these details too bizarre to countenance being real.
Joseph II was his mother’s co-regent until her death in 1780 and pushed for both educational and religious toleration reforms. When he became sole ruler after her death, he made some sweeping reforms such as the abolition of serfdom, the end of press censorship, limiting the power of the Catholic Church, and issued an Edict of Toleration that allowed minorities such as Protestants, Greek Orthodox and Jews greater religious and social freedoms.
This was not the Holy Roman Empire’s first rodeo re: potential mass hysteria. When Joseph II’s mother Marie Theresa (1717-1780) had been a young girl, the ‘Vampire Controversy’ had broken out in East Prussia. In 1721, an increase of reports of vampire attacks spread from this region and caused mass hysteria in Eastern and Central Europe, with multiple graves being dug up and corpses desecrated.
As Empress, Marie Theresa was, like her son, a supporter of educational reform across the Empire, and this was likely one of the reasons why.
Witch hunts also persevered throughout the Empire until the mid-1750s, and the last person to receive a sentence of capital punishment for witchcraft was Jakub Polák, a shepherd of the South Bohemian patrimonial small town of Jistebnice. He was sentenced in 1755 but Empress Marie Theresa personally intervened and he received a milder punishment in 1756. [Peter Kreuz, ‘Witch Hunts in Eastern Central Europe’, in The Routledge History of Witchcraft, ed. Johannes Bellinger, p. 172] Prior to this, the last execution for practicing magic in the Kingdom of Bohemia was one Jakub Trávníček, who was killed in 1749 in the South Bohemian patrimonial town of Milevsko (Mühlhausen). [ibid.]
Joseph II was co-regent with his mother at this time, and so this discovery of a new ‘Gang of Cannibals’ with estimates of their number ranging roughly from 200-300 people was something he could contextualise within the framework of previous concerns. Following 45 executions, he acted quickly to prevent more, in case it turned out that this, like other situations that had arisen in living memory, was the result of wild exaggeration and fear rather than fact.
While the British papers do not conflate cannibalism with witchcraft, there is potential for the two to be connected in the popular imagination of contemporary Hungary. Witches and their cannibal tendencies have a long-standing tradition going back to at least the tenth century.
The eleventh-century Burchard, Bishop of Worms (c.950/965 – August 20, 1025) wrote the following in his Decretum, based on earlier canon law texts, like the tenth-century Episcopi, written c.906 by Regino, formerly abbot of Prüm. Burchard condemned women who “maintain and firmly believe” that:
in the silence of the quiet night, when you have settled down in bed, and your husband lies in your bosom, you are able, while still in your body, to go out through the closed doors and travel through the spaces of the world, together with others who are similarly deceived; and that without visible weapons, you kill people who have been baptized and redeemed by Christ’s blood, and together cook and devour their flesh; and that where the heart was, you put straw or wood or something of the sort; and that after eating these people, you bring them alive again and grant them a brief spell of life? If you have believed this, you shall do penance on bread and water for fifty days, and likewise in each of the seven years following.Filotas, Pagan, 315. Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (London: Pimlico, 1993), 165, my emphasis.
The cannibalistic element of witch’s sabbaths extended to snatching and eating babies, too, according to John of Salisbury (writing a century later). The question of shamanistic cannibalism has been discussed in Wilby, Emma. “Burchard’s strigae, the Witches’ Sabbath, and Shamanistic Cannibalism in Early Modern Europe.” Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, vol. 8 no. 1, 2013, pp. 18-49. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mrw.2013.0010.
While this is not reported to be shamanistic but rather just good old-fashioned eating people for fun and nourishment, in much the same vein as the survival cannibalism of the 1340s Grampians gang in Scotland or the Bean clan of James VI/I’s reign, it might be worth thinking about the undertones of magic and demonisation at play in the popular imagination at this time too, which may account for the arrest of so many people. The involvement of the women of the gang and the bride at the wedding feast, as reported in the first of the newspaper cuttings above, might carry over allusions to and persistent popular fears of witchcraft even though people were not sentenced for this anymore.
The report on the Emperor’s personal intervention was reprinted in London’s Morning Chronicle, Weds Jan 15, 1783, and the Public Advertiser that same day, followed by the Gazeteer and New Daily Advertiser the following day, and the Whitehall Evening Post.
After that, the case seems to be dropped from the news and I cannot find the results of the Emperor’s investigation or whether anyone else was executed after the initial 45 (?), but that’s also because I don’t have access to the source material from Hungary and Germany where records of the writs and court cases may still exist in archives, and I’m pretty sure this will have been written about by scholars in languages other than English!
I really can’t find much else on this case in English, but if you’re reading this and thinking, hold up this sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the folktale The Robber Bridegroom collected in Germany by the Brothers Grimm.
Linda Kraus Worley has written on the connections between this tale and Gothic Horror literature in her article, ‘The Horror! Gothic Horror Literature and Fairy Tales: The Case of «Der Räuberbräutigam»’, Colloquia Germanica, Vol. 42, No. 1, Themenheft: The German Gothic (2009), pp. 67-80.
Kraus Worley argues that the editorial changes made to the collected version(s) of the tale between 1810 and 1857 show that it was edited to become more in line with the Gothic genre, and that this was a conscious choice made regarding the motifs, plot and language. She also notes that some folklorists read the tale as a ‘true’ folktale, or based on a real robber gang.
I had a look for folklore surrounding the caves in Hungary, and I would LOVE to visit some of these as long as I don’t have to squeeze through tight spaces, but I didn’t have much luck! If anyone knows more about this story, let me know! I don’t have Hungarian so I can’t search in that language, and my German is very rusty and not great.
The story does read like the correspondent is reading too many Shudder Novels, and in my head canon version of the chief’s capture, the soldier is totally exaggerating and the peasants did an awful lot of work for no compensation. I just have Zapp Branigan (Futurama character) in my head for some reason.
I’m also really struck by the fact this sounds like something I’ve already drawn inspiration from, but it’s brand new information for me.
That was so involved I thought I’d write it up again in some semblance of order so Part 2 of 2 is just going to be the order of events as the papers reported they happened, from beginning to end. That will be posted next!