Lore is a bi-weekly podcast (now also a TV show and book series) about dark historical tales. Each episode explores the mysterious creatures, tragic events, and unusual places that fill the pages of history. Because sometimes the truth is more frightening than fiction.

Episode 223: Worlds Collide

Episode 223: Worlds Collide

Mon, 13 Mar 2023 05:01

©2023 Aaron Mahnke. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2023 Aaron Mahnke and Grim & Mild

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The trouble turned out to be a simple lack of focus. Well, to be more precise, the mistake was all about where they had put their focus. Egyptologists had been uncovering the tombs of Pharaohs there since the late 1700s, and they'd made one big discovery after another. But each tomb also bore the distinctive and frustrating efforts of ancient tomb robbers. And you know what, that was life in the Valley of the Kings. Honestly, to put a few dozen royal tombs all in the same small area, and then just expect them to stay untouched for thousands of years was a bit optimistic. Sure, there was still a lot that archaeologists could learn from the leftovers, but it wasn't what they had dreamed of. And like I said, they were focused, but it wouldn't be until 1922 when they would realize their focus on the obvious had caused them to miss something spectacular. Because that was the year that they uncovered the tomb by which all others would forever be judged, a small, forechambered burial site at the bottom of a narrow set of stairs, belonging to a young Pharaoh known to the world over as King Tut. The folks before Howard Carter missed it because the entrance had been filled in with the debris from ancient construction and countless floods, but ultimately they missed it because it wasn't where they thought they should be looking. There were more visible things to pursue, and that kept them from noticing something better. Sometimes it pays to explore the shadows that few others have paid attention to, to go against the flow, to look for the outliers, because as the story of the famous young Pharaoh's tomb has shown us, it's often in the exceptions that we make the most surprising discoveries. I'm Aaron Mankey, and this is lore. In order to explore the unfamiliar, we have to start with what we already know, and trust me we know a lot about this topic already, as usual though the best place to begin is with a bit of context. Almost 400 years ago, all the way back in 1542, England passed its first anti-witchcraft act, making just about anything that smelled of witchcraft punishable as a crime. But the trouble actually started 25 years earlier in Germany, because that was when something massive happened in the world of Christians throughout Europe. People split from the Catholic Church, out of protest to what they viewed as major theological problems. They protested, and then they tried to reform how that church was run, and that's why the movement was called the Protestant Reformation. Easy enough, right? But what it also did was create competition. Before 1517 there was just one show in town, but all of a sudden there was a new player, and that created a rivalry. For churches across Europe, their new challenge became proving that they were the most pious and fervent church around, to attract parishioners and their tides. And what better way to make yourself look more holy than the competition, than by pointing your finger at something you don't like, and calling it evil? Throw in an act of parliament declaring witchcraft to be illegal, and you had all the ingredients necessary for a tragic social movement. Who suffered the most? Well, in the stories we usually hear about, that would be women. Here are some stats to help make that more clear. In England, for example, in the 170 years between 1552 and 1722, there were 456 people tried for witchcraft. Of them, 89% were women. Up in Scotland, who had a much more passionate approach to witchcraft crimes, that same period saw almost four times the number of people tried in court, 1733 to be exact, and how many were women? 86%. And you have to stop and think about the way that sort of focus changed the way people used a word like, witch. If I asked you to drive over to your local Halloween store in October, and buy me a witch costume, what would you bring back? A long black wig, a pointy hat, and the mask designed to look like an old woman. Not a man. One of the best ways to see the stereotype in action is to look at one of the earliest trials in England after that first anti-witchcraft law was passed. It started in February of 1582, when a woman named Grace Thurlow paid a visit to the local justice of the piece, a guy named Brian Darcy, and Grace had a crime to report. It seems that Grace had been having a hard winter. First, her infant child had fallen out of its crib and tragically died of a broken neck. And then immediately after that, Grace had come down with what was recorded as a lameness in her legs. Now you're probably wondering where the crime was, right? And I'm right there with you. Grace had experienced some horrible things. Yes, but life is sometimes like that for no other reason than, well, being life. But for Grace, there was a criminal at the center of those events. Her neighbor, Ursula Kemp. Once Grace had accused Ursula of being a witch, things started to roll pretty fast. Justice Brian Darcy started to ask around, and sure enough, a lot of other people in town believe that Ursula was a witch as well. They even interrogated Ursula's eight-year-old son, Thomas, who gave him a great story about his mom was feeding evil spirits by letting them drink her blood. And Ursula confessed pretty quickly. This was early enough in the days of England's witchcraft trials that most historians think that she was being optimistic about her odds. And rather than deny the charges outright and let things get nasty, she opted to give them what they wanted, thinking that it would result in a more lenient sentence. But sadly, that wasn't the case. In March of 1582, Ursula Kemp was found guilty of witchcraft and then hanged for her crime. And her tragic story gives us the cookie cutter that will get used for more than a century. A marginalized person with no power or clout in her community, accused of having a familiar spirit, who was led to believe that confessing is the best way out. But all patterns have a flaw. They can be broken. And however much Ursula Kemp's story sounds like every single other witch trial you have ever heard of before, there were exceptions to the rule. Most people just haven't heard of them before. So pull up a chair and lend me your ear, because it's time to explore some forgotten shadows. There was more to the world than just England. Sure, they were a major player on the international stage, but in that post-1580 world of witch trials, they were far from the only show in town. In the German town of Trier, a wave of witch trials occupied the community for 12 years, beginning in 1581. By the time it was over, 368 people had been executed. But what was unusual about the demographics of those victims is that over a third of them were prominent, powerful men, like judges, college deans, and even priests. In Normandy, there was a 100-year period, beginning in 1564, that saw 59 people accused of witchcraft, and close to 50% of them were men. In fact, there was something else odd about the folks accused there. Most of them were shepherds, and their magic seemed to be centered around stolen communion elements of bread and wine. And in places like Ukraine, Finland, and Russia, the numbers were even higher, with over 80% of the people accused of witchcraft being men. Russia alone had over 500 witch trials in the 17th century, and of the 15% who were executed, only 25% were women. And while stats and percentages and all that are good, the better path to take is a simple question. Why? Well, it comes down to Russia's historically isolated culture. That reformation I mentioned a few moments ago, it didn't impact Russia in the same way that it did other places. Their moral stance on magic was more in line with the Middle Ages, meaning that cases had a lot less to do with theology, and a whole lot more to do with the secular laws that they broke. Because of that, Russian witchcraft accusations were almost always the result of some social power struggle, leaders in the community battling for superiority, and in a patriarchal society that meant that those struggles usually involved men, not women. And these stories played out in very different ways, compared to the trials in England or Scotland. Take the biggest and most deadly trial in the 17th century in Russia, which took place in a town northeast of Moscow called Luke. It started on December 6th of 1656, when a church service was disrupted by a woman having an unusual seizure. Her name was Tatiana, and her symptoms were frightening to most of the community. More chilling was how her conditions seemed to spread to others, so and after that first disruption, women all over town were having seizures of their own. They called the affliction Klikashestvo, which loosely translated means Shrieker or Spirit Possession. Think of it like the sort of demon possession stories you've seen in Hollywood horror films like The Exorcist, but as a result of some nefarious person making it happen to others, and there were three known ways to cure someone of this condition. First, exorcism. Makes sense, right? It was possession, after all, but because of that, a second option was the direct intervention of the saints, but probably a bit less dependable, though. And that led to the third method for ending it, the same which who started it could just as easily turn it off. For the next two years, more and more people fell victim to this supernatural plague. There were a couple of men who showed signs of the illness, but at least 33 women made up the majority. But remember, these were the victims, the targets, if you will. Clearly what the authorities were really looking for was the person responsible, and soon enough their suspicions led them to a prominent healer in the community. Tareska Malakurov. A man. Soon after Malakurov was formally accused, the authorities in Moscow sent a special investigator to dig deeper into the case. He was a terrifying man named Ivan, although not the Ivan the Terrible. Just, well, I think you get it. And his methods involved interviewing all sorts of people and suggesting to them that Malakurov could be their attacker. Just about all of them, if you can believe it, just nodded in agreement. So Malakurov was arrested and tortured, three times, in fact. First, he confessed nothing more than being a healer, but soon graduated to admitting that some of his healing involved basic magic. Before finally admitting, thanks to the pain of hot metal pincers, to being the criminal they were looking for. He also did that thing that happened in most witch trials, where the person in charge asked for more names of other witches, and wanting the pain of torture to stop, he identified a whole bunch of random townsfolk as his accomplices. Interesting side note, three of the others that he accused were also town healers, and all of them bizarrely seemed to focus mostly on healing hernias. I have no idea what significance that adds, but it's interesting nonetheless. On July 27th of 1658, Malakurov and two others were beheaded for their crimes. Ivan the investigator then wrote up his report and sent it back to Moscow, claiming that the problem had been solved, and the criminals had been executed. But he stuck around in Luke for a while, you know, just in case. A little while later, after believing the problem had been solved, yet another woman fell ill with the same symptoms as the others. This time though, the community knew what pointing the finger might mean for them, so they kept their mouth shut. There were no more confessions or executions. Ever again. There's magic, and then there's old magic. That was the conflict brewing in Iceland about a thousand years ago. Two worlds were slowly colliding, and as so often as the case, the wreckage would be measured in human lives. Iceland had always had magic as part of their culture. After the Scandinavian settled the island back in the late 800s, they planted their own beliefs and practices in their new soil. It was already ancient stuff, even then, tied to the Norse gods like Odin and Freya, but it was magic outside the filters that we might use today. For so long we've heard terms like Black Magic, or Dark Arts, words that clearly draw a moral line that separates good from evil, but the magic of Iceland had no association with the Christian devil. Well, until the year 999 that is. That was the year Christianity arrived on Iceland's shores, and when it did the transformation that had already taken place all over Europe and elsewhere began to spread, but unlike those other places, it was a change that moved at a glacial pace. Honestly, it was so slow and took place at only the highest levels of society that there was this big divide for a very long time between the everyday people's opinion of witchcraft and that's of the authorities. So when a witch trial took place in Iceland, it was something different. It wasn't the theological battle between the Catholic and the Protestant churches that you'd find in England, nor was it the criminal felony trials of Russia. It was a showdown between the Old World and the New. Oh, and one other detail that you probably saw coming, most practitioners of Old World Magic in Iceland, or men, they performed the rituals, they owned the books of magic, they wrote and read the runes. Magic was the world of men. Men like Jan Rookvildson, who was accused in 1625 of killing several horses in the village and making a young boy definitely ill. In most cases at that time, Jan would probably have gotten out alive, but the local bailiff was a guy who had moved to Iceland after living in Copenhagen for years, and he brought all of those European devil-centered notions of witchcraft with him. The result was a search of Jan's house, where papers covered in hand-drawn ruins were discovered, a form of magic known as Galderar, and despite Jan's brother's insistence that it was just benign low-level stuff, old country magic, the court didn't see it that way, so Jan Rookvildson was burned at the stake as a witch. 30 years later, in 1655, another Icelandic village had their own showdown between the Old and the New. That was where a father-son team got into a bit of trouble with the local minister, and I need to apologize up front here because almost all of the key players in this story are also named Jan. Jan Jansson and his father, also Jan Jansson, lived in a town called Issa Fjorder, and both men were well respected, both of them even sang in the choir. But that didn't mean that they didn't ruffle feathers from time to time, and one day in church, the younger Jansson apparently punched a woman, which led to a lecture from the minister, Reverend Jan Magnusson. Now Magnusson had never been the healthiest of guys, but a few weeks after the incident he noticed new ailments. He felt pressed to his bed at night by an invisible force, and noticed the sensation of needles being stabbed into his feet and legs. Today we would probably see his afflictions as sleep paralysis, but in his eyes it was something darker. So Magnusson made a complaint to the local sheriff, telling him that the Jansons were tormenting him with witchcraft. It didn't help that one night around that same time, the elder Jansson got drunk and ranted to some friends that he had sent an evil spirit to bother the minister. Adding everything up, the sheriff felt the evidence was clear. The Jansons were practicing witchcraft, and needed to be dealt with. Their punishment was easy enough though. All they had to do was swear an oath that they hadn't colluded with the devil, which they gladly complied with. But Magnusson claimed that the night terrors continued, so the father and son were thrown in jail, and there they sat for seven long months before finally caving in and giving a formal confession. They claimed to own a book of spells, which they had used to kill cattle and poison the beer in town. They also said that they had created a type of ruin known as Fretranir, which roughly translated were fart spells, which caused their targets to be overcome with uncontrollable fits of flatchelence. And today we might laugh, but back then it was serious business, at least in concept, so the Jansons were tried and convicted before being burned at the stake on April 10th of 1656, and then their possessions were gathered up and awarded to Magnusson, and the matter was considered to be done and dusted. Except, those night terrors returned, and now that Magnusson didn't have the Jansons meant to blame, he leveled his accusations against the younger Jans sister. But she turned out to be a fighter, not only had she lost her brother and father, but she'd lost her inheritance, and she didn't want to stand by and lose her own life as well. So she counter sued Magnusson for wrongful persecution, and won, and her reward for that victory in court, all of her family's possessions were stripped from Magnusson's hands, and given back to her. I think we can all agree that there are a lot of witch trial stories out there. Over the eight years that I've been making this show, we have covered a lot of them, and while they tend to have the same tones and basic shape, there's always something special and important about each one. And yet they've missed out on something that we've been blind to for a very long time, that the stereotypical, powerless, often outcast and marginalized woman was not the only witch people knew about. Right there among them, to different degrees depending on the country you visited, were male witches who suffered the same prejudices and punishments as the rest. Honestly, I wish it could all be as fun and entertaining as fart spells and punching church ladies, but considering how many lives were lost, none of it is really humorous. Witch hunts happened, and it was deadly for thousands of people across Europe. And the impact of that panic can still be felt today, through the typical connotation that most people associate with that one powerful word. Witch. One of the most famous books about witchcraft was published way back in 1486, almost a century before witch trials really took off in England and Scotland. It was penned by a German guy named Heinrich Krammer, and is known as the Malia Smellifakarum, the hammer of witches. Confessions pulled out of victims on threat of torture? That's a recommendation from the Malia Smellifakarum. So it was the shift from felony charges to church-driven claims of heresy, and of course the sexist focus on women. Back in 2009, though, a new English translation of the book was published, and in it a major change was made. The Latin word in the original document that had been translated to English in 1928 as witches was given a new look. Modern scholars believe a better interpretation would be sorcerers, given the context at the time that the book was written. It's a change that certainly takes the focus off of women and makes witchcraft a more unbiased crime. If only our approach to history and the stories of witch trials that it contains could be as neutral. There are few topics in folklore that are as hotly debated and deeply studied as witch trials, and it is a concept that has followed Europeans across oceans and mountains like a dark stain left by every footstep along the way. And to truly understand the tragedy of it all, we have to remember all of the victims, not just the ones that we've been told about. But there's one more powerful figure at the center of witch trial folklore who can't be ignored, and if you stick around through this brief sponsor break, I'll tell you all about him. This episode of lore was made possible by Bombas. Are you ready to get active? Think Bombas, the better basics that take sweat wicking, blister preventing, friction-free movement seriously. Bombas are designed for every activity, running, golfing, yoga, you name it, and made with performance and comfort innovations like soft, breathable materials. 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Go to Bombas.com-lure and use code lore for 20% off your first purchase. That's B-O-M, B-A-S, dot com-slash-lure, and use code lore at checkout. And finally, this episode was made possible by the good people over at stamps.com. Stamps.com lets you print your own postage and shipping labels right from your home or office. It's ready to go in minutes so you can get back to running your business sooner. Stamps.com is a stress free solution for every small business. Use stamps.com to print postage wherever you do business. All you need is a computer and a printer. They even send you a free scale so you'll have everything you need to get started. Stamps.com automatically tells you your cheapest and fastest shipping options and gives you access to rates you literally can't find anywhere else, like up to 88% off USPS and UPS. And if you need a package pickup, you can easily schedule it through your stamps.com dashboard. Set your business up for success when you get started with stamps.com today. Sign up with promo code lore for a special offer that includes a four week trial plus free postage and a free digital scale. And no long term commitments or contracts. Just go to stamps.com, click on the microphone at the top of the homepage and enter the code lore that stamps.com offer code lore. When it comes to missing the outliers because of a focus on the obvious, the American public isn't innocent because the Salem Witchcraft Panic of 1692 happened here on our shores in places we still live in and talk about today, it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. That's been one of my hopes over the years on this show that I might help people look beyond the obvious and catch a glimpse of similar stories far away. But today, after doing so much of that, I wanted to bring it back home, back to the granddaddy of all American folklore tragedies, the Salem Witch Trails. Don't worry, I'm not going to rehash the entire events for you, but I do want to explore these statistics that we've gotten used to today. Of the 19 people executed by hanging in Salem, 14 of them were women. That's 74%, right on track with similar trials back in England. Oh, and I also want to point out something else. Most of England's historic Witch Trails took place in the county of Essex on the eastern side of the country, and most of America's Witch Trails took place in a county in Massachusetts, also called, you guessed it, Essex. Weird, right? Anyway, of the 25 people who died as a result of the Salem Trials, 19 were hanged and five died in jail, which leaves one execution that folks tend to forget, that of a man named Giles Corey. Giles was a local farmer who had been born back in England in 1611, but he and his first wife Margaret left for the colonies and arrived at the city of Salem in the late 1650s, and then, out to the farming community just outside of town, known then as Salem Village. Today, it's the town of Danvers, something that gets overlooked by people who are obsessed with the name Salem. Margaret Corey passed away in 1664, and soon after Giles married for a second time. Then in 1684, she too passed away, and in 1690, he married again to an old widow named Martha. In a lot of ways, Giles and Martha were still newly wedged when the Witchcraft panic blew in just two years later. But other events in life had left Giles Corey with a bit of a reputation. In 1675, for example, he beat one of his farmhands with a stick, and the young man, Jacob Goodell, actually died from the injuries. Giles managed to get out of court without anything more severe than a fine, and the rumor was that he managed that by bribing the magistrates. After that, folks didn't look at him the same, and it's easy to see why. Throw in his reputation for being a cranky old man who was beyond stubborn and a bit scandalous, and it would have been better for old Giles Corey to lay low during the Witchcraft panic. Instead, he and Martha attended the trials at the meeting house to see the spectacle for themselves. Martha, though, wasn't buying it. She was a lot more skeptical than Giles was, and at some point just decided to stop attending, and that was not interpreted well by those in charge. On March 21 of 1692, Martha was arrested as a suspected witch, and Giles, who really did believe the story's being told, threw her under the bus. It was only later, after he tried to recant his testimony and save her, that he got accused as well, and arrested. That was April 18th. After that, he and Martha sat in jail for months, all the way up to September, when he was finally dragged out and put on trial. And while I won't get into the little details of that trial, let's just say that his cranky attitude and stubborn nature didn't serve him very well in that moment. Specifically, Giles Corey decided that he wasn't going to let them turn him into another one of their spectacles. There was a common English law at the time, known as standing mute, which essentially allowed someone accused of a crime to keep their mouth shut. No answering questions, no defensive testimonies, nothing, just silence. And of course, that's the option that stubborn old Giles Corey decided to take. The court's response? He was sentenced to a method of torture known as penifortadue, which is French for strong and hard punishment, and the way the English interpreted the notions of strong and hard, involves something horrific. Basically, those who were sentenced to that fate were stripped naked and laid on the ground outside, with a wide board over their body. Then in slow increments, large stones would be set upon the board, building up over time to become an unbearable weight. The hope was that Giles Corey would eventually confess. That was the nature of the torture method, after all, time to think and reflect, or at the very least, to give in to the pain and beg for relief. But not Giles Corey. His torture began on September 18th of 1692 and lasted a full two days. With each passing hour, the pressure on his body became more and more intense, but through it all, he refused to confess to something he didn't do. There is even a legend about the town sheriff, George Corwin, using his walking stick to push Corey's bulging tongue back into his mouth. And his final words, on September 19th, Giles Corey reportedly uttered the simple phrase, more weight. Maybe it was a plea to end his suffering for good, or maybe it was an act of defiance from an infamously stubborn old man. Regardless, he goes down as the only person ever to be pressed to death by court order in the history of the United States. Three days after his death, it was his widow Martha's turn to die, executed for Altacy by hanging. She was 72 years old. This episode of lore was written and produced by me, Aaron Manke, with research by Jenner Rose Nethercott and music by Chad Lawson. lore is much more than just a podcast. There's a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime Video. Check them both out if you want more lore in your life. Information about all of that and more is available over at lorepodcast.com. And for fans of video content, lore is also on YouTube. Each new episode is released alongside the podcast, but in talking head style video formats. Be sure to subscribe and leave a comment. Then you can also follow the show on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to search for lore podcast, all one word, and then click that follow button. And when you do, say hi. I like it when people say hi. And as always, thanks for listening.