Now we’ve delved into the sources and a bit of context, here’s a version of this story rewritten from the British newspaper reports! This is not the story “as it happened”, and I’m also not really interested in whether this was hysteria or not, this is just my own version of the story as a more readable account. I’ve also included my own musings, inferences, extrapolations and theories, which should be taken with a pinch of salt.
[Note the British reports don’t mention ethnicity of the gang, but an article that came out in The County magazine Nov. 1787 which claimed they were Roma, or that this was the claim of German newspapers, and that in Hungary there was already a presumption that the Roma were cannibals. That article also claims around 100 people were executed for cannibalism in 1782-83 but we also know Joseph II ordered a stay of executions when they got to 45, while 100+ were still imprisoned, so I’m not sure if this is the case or a misunderstanding/inflated figures.
This is not what was reported in the British papers, as we’ve seen in the previous post, so this connection doesn’t feature in the previous post or in my attempt to chronologically piece the story together from the letters and dramatic sensationalist reporting, below. The reason that the British papers don’t identify the gang as Roma is possibly that Hungary is sufficiently Other in the British imagination as it is, and contemporary reports also include stories of survival cannibalism in Russia, so cannibalism is something that the British public can imagine happening in the forests of Eastern Europe already, by the Hungarians themselves. Lots of layers of xenophobia/racism in play here…]
For more information on Early Modern constructions of race and Roma history, see A Bit Lit 14 with Dr Sydnee Wagner, and Dr Wagner’s talk on Race, Romani and the Gothic.
The Cannibal Gang
Once upon a time in a deep, dark wood, somewhere in Hungary, a gang around 150+ strong roamed the territory and based themselves in a subterranean lair, 50ft below the ground. They lay in wait for people on the roads, killed them outright or sexually assaulted them before killing them, and then butchered and roasted them to eat. Sometimes they roasted people alive, and musicians among them played their instruments to mask the sound of the screams.
Some were forced into the gang, others went of their free will, others were born into it, and together they killed and ate around 84 people over a 21 year period. The cannibal feasts would have ensured the bonding to the rest of them of those conscripted against their will, as once that act had been committed, they were as guilty as all the others in the eyes of the law.
Given the relatively small number of cannibalised victims for such a large gang over a 21 year period, it seems likely that it wasn’t a daily staple but for special occasions and bonding feasts, or that the gang members fluctuated over this period with not all the members active at the same time, but a core group with adherents and satellite members who were involved seasonally or for a certain period of time and then dropped off, e.g. working with other gangs at certain times within a loose criminal network.
The core group of the gang were probably related by blood and marriage, and were just as ruthless towards one another as they were to the strangers they murdered and robbed. At least one, but why not several, was some kind of Bluebeard/Mr Fox figure who cut the throats of his wives to eat his unborn babies from the womb like an extreme Hungarian Cronos/Saturn, while other men killed and ate their own parents for Reasons (hostile takeover, ritual, just for fun, hazing challenge, who knows). But their preferred meat for taste were girls around 15/16 years old.
On one occasion there was a wedding in the cave-lair, and for this, three pretty young country girls were captured, abused, and butchered for the wedding feast; they were devoured with glee by all present including the women of the gang and the bride herself.
Finally, in the summer of 1782, two thieves were caught and put on trial. One of them exhibited signs of great emotional turmoil while being sentenced, and the Judge decided this was a man with a guiltier conscience than originally thought. He pretended to have information of a greater crime against the pair, pulling out a random paper from his pocket that allegedly proved this, and threatened them with torture if they didn’t confess.
To the Judge’s surprise and horror, they confessed not just to murder, but to being part of a gang that roasted and ate the flesh of their victims. Troops were dispatched and initially 13 people were arrested and executed at Frauenmarckt.
The Captain of the gang evaded capture in that initial sweep, but a soldier approached the Judge and requested he be given some peasants to arm and take with him into the forest because he knew where the Captain might be hiding out, but like, really vaguely. So his plan is to go into the forest and head for the really vague sort of area and scout about for a bit and see if he can find him.
The soldier armed a couple of peasants with sabres and pistols and went off into the forest. Just under 2 hours later, they came upon the Captain of the gang with two of his loyal men just sort of… hanging about? [There’s not a single part of the Soldier’s story that I don’t have trouble with, to be honest, it just sounds so made up?]. The Captain was incredibly conspicuous in the dark forest by the incredible, bejewelled, gold lace cap he wore, worth 6000 florins alone. While he and his men were villainously jingling their pockets full of gold in the middle of the forest for no reason, the brave Soldier fired off a shot and everyone – all of his well-armed peasants (more than 2) and both (2) the rough tough cannibal killers – legged it in different directions. The Captain obviously didn’t and shot at the Soldier but missed, so the Soldier wrestled him to the ground and managed to get his knee on the Captain’s throat so he could reload his pistol/light the other pistol and shoot the returning Villainous Rogues, dropping one of them. Fortunately, the Soldier’s useless but heavily armed peasants were still within hearing range and he yelled at them to come back so they could help/witness him taking all the credit, and they returned to secure the Captain while the remaining gang member ran off again.
The Soldier delivered the Captain to the judges, his pockets still full of gold that he was just carrying about in the forest for no reason, and was handsomely rewarded while the peasants presumably got nothing but a cursory ‘well done/no thanks to you, lads’ and were sent back to wherever they came from.
I’m going to pause right there because I’m calling shenanigans. In my totally made-up head canon version, this is clearly a classic double-cross. The Provost Marshall is obviously being paid off by these guys, and the Soldier of the Provost Marshall’s court is aware of a pre-arranged meeting with the Captain for this purpose. Off goes the Soldier with his peasants to capture the gang, the peasants do all the work and he takes all the credit. That’s also a good story.
Back to the source material. Following the capture of the Captain there is a further spate of confessions and another sweep of the forest, which meant that hundreds of people – estimates ranged between 120-281 – were imprisoned across Hungary wherever there was space to hold them.
The number of executions for murder and cannibalism reached 45. All sorts of stories are reported now, and they reach the ears of the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, himself, and he can’t believe that such ruffians exist in the world, so he orders a stay on executions and sends his own investigators to the spot to see if what they are saying is true.
[At this point, of course, we would begin the grimdark Gothic Horror novel/film/series, with the investigator as the protagonist, coming from the Enlightened Urban Centre into the wilds of the deep dark superstitious forest to explore the subterranean systems of nature and the human mind, etc. Elements might include the corruption of ‘civilised’ officials, shamanistic cannibalism, witchcraft – capital punishment for which crime has been suspended by this point – and come up against all sorts of horrifying antisemitic, antiziganist, anti-pagan prejudice, rhetoric and responses. The whole thing is very dark and disturbing, featuring themes of generational trauma and abuse, sexual assault/gender-based violence, etc.]
And that seems to be the story? It’s absolutely wild, and I think I’m on Team Joseph II in questioning whether this ever happened or it’s a Crucible situation with some really over the top confessions and the same kind of hysteria surrounding witch hunts and werewolf trials.
For those interested, there’s an actual ‘Unwittingly Bonded into a Villainous Family via a Cannibal Feast’ scene in Eldritch Girls Just Want To Have Fun, co-written with Ezra Arndt, followed by the same character having hallucinations in an Orthodox Church where he perceives the Eucharist wafers as actual flesh of the actual Christ-child, so he feels thrown from one cannibal feast to another and doesn’t know what’s real or whether one cancels out the other, or which feast he would prefer to partake of. That bubblegum splatterpunk/eldritchcore book, with all its religious trauma, gruesome murder, Europop references and bisexual angst, is probably coming out in 2023 now but you can add it to GoodReads while you wait.