A Bit of a Werewolf Tale: Historical Werewolves – by Doug Ward
Werewolves these days are something most people think of as just a subplot from a vampire horror movie. That was not always the case. The very first series of Witch trials in Europe that ran from 1428 to 1447 were held in Valais, now part of Switzerland. At least 367 people, both men and women, were executed in the trials. Many of those cases involved accusations of lycanthropy and cannibalism. As the witch panic grew, so did the fear of werewolves.
One of the most famous historical werewolf cases is the 1589 case of Peter Stumpp, sometimes known as Peter Stube “The Werewolf of Bedburg”. The crimes Stumpp was accused of sound like those of a modern day cannibalistic serial killer, but under torture he confessed to making a pact with the devil and being given a belt that allowed him to assume the form of a wolf. He was put on a rack, his flesh ripped from his body, his legs broken so he could not ‘return from the grave’ and then beheaded. The town erected a pole with a picture of a wolf and a torture wheel on it. They then put Peter’s head atop the pole as a warning to other ‘werewolves’.
By the 1600’s the idea of witches making a pact with Satan to be able to turn into a wolf, cat, or other animal was well established. ‘Werewolves’ were hauled into the witch trials on a regular basis. One of the more famous ‘witch hunter’ inquisitors, Henri Boguet, wrote in his book Discours des Sorciers about his encounters with the Gandillon family who he claims “walked on all fours and howled like wolves. Their eyes turned red and gleaming; their hair sprouted; their teeth became long and sharp; their fingernails turned horny and claw-like.” Boguet over his lifetime sentenced over 600 people to death. A good number of them he claimed were werewolves.
The belief in lycanthropy was strong among the general public, but by 1653 some demonlologist/witch hunters were starting to view lycanthropy as a form of mental illness. A pastor in Vaud published a book of demonology that in part argued “lycanthropy is a form of melancholia, purely illusory, and has nothing to do with witchcraft.”
The werewolf trials and convictions were far from over, but a change did seem to be coming. A few convicted ‘werewolves’ were locked to be ‘rehabilitated’ as opposed to the usual tortured, then beheaded or burned at the stake.
That brief look into the history of werewolves in the witch trials was primarily to establish how serious the idea of a shape shifting, supernatural, cannibalistic creature was taken at one point in time.
As a cryptozoologist I tend to look more into sightings that are less supernatural and more likely to be an unknown animal of some sort… the standard ‘Hairy Bipedal Cryptid’ misidentified as a werewolf. I do not completely discount the possibility of the supernatural in my own studies. I simply focus more on that part of the lore as history more so than anything I would use in field work.
That being said, let’s move our topic across the globe to America and fast forward a bit in time so that I can share with you an American werewolf story:
Isabella Burt – the Georgia Werewolf
Modern day Talbot county, Georgia has a population of around 7000 people. Back in 1836 the last of the Creek Indians were forcefully removed from Talbot county. The climate there in west central Georgia was perfect for growing peaches and cotton. By 1840 the population was almost 15,000 people.
The fertile soil and near perfect climate for agriculture had made the area one of the richest in the State of Georgia. One of the wealthier families in the area was the Burt family. The matriarch of the family, Mildred Owen Burt, had been widowed young at thirty seven years old. Mildred did a fine job overlooking her estate. The house had a large portion of property attached to it as well as what was thought to be a fine library for the time. Mildred had seven children including two daughters; Sarah, and Isabella. Isabella was introverted and shy seeming to prefer spending time in the library to the company of most people.
During the 1800’s a great revival of the occult had taken place, and the story goes that Isabella got deep into occult reading. James Webb wrote of that new era of occultism: “What was happening was the final collapse of the old world-order which had first been rudely assaulted during the Renaissance and Reformation… just when the Age of Reason seemed to be bearing fruit in the 19th century, there was an unexpected reaction against the very method which had brought success, a wild return to archaic forms of belief, and among the intelligentsia a sinister concentration on superstitions which had been thought buried…”
A lot of the growth in occult interest came from the influence of the spiritualist movement. Any well stocked library at the time might well contain books like Emanuel Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia, or the Andrew Jackson Davis pamphlet The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations. Those were not anything ‘dark and evil’ but they are the sort of thing well likely to plant a seed in an inquisitive mind. At the time séances were in vogue in Europe and the larger cities up north. Large cities had scores of mediums and the famous Fox Sisters were becoming famous for ‘talking to the dead’, a young lady with an interest in the occult was nothing unusual.
The level of her interest does seem a bit deep. Legend has she spent almost every waking hour pouring over various occult texts. There are several versions of her story. One says that from a child she had very bush brows and sharp canine-like teeth, which is why she rarely smiled. The other version says that around the time she started devoting herself to her studies she started letting her appearance go and developed bushy eyebrows and unkempt hair. The latter version sounds more likely. The few existing pictures of Isabella show a quite pretty young lady in the style of the time at least.
In time Isabella developed insomnia and painful headaches. She turned to roaming the town and nearby woods alone at night. Around that time, sheep and other livestock were being found dead, but not eaten by anything. Strange noises and cries were coming from the woods. The farmers went hunting for whatever was killing the livestock but to no avail.
Anytime Isabella heard her mother Mildred talking about the incidents, she showed an unusual interest. By this time the locals had started rumors about werewolves and some had started whispering about “that Burt girl who wanders around at night.”
Eventually Mildred had to find out for herself whether or not her daughter had anything to do with the animal killings. One night, after Isabella left for her nightly explorations, Mildred followed her. After some time she came across her daughter poised and ready to attack a group of sheep. The farmers had been staking out the area and according to legend there was gunfire. Some say Isabella had her hand shot off and the farmers found a wolf paw on the ground instead of a hand… at any rate, Isabella was kept out of the public eye until passage to Europe for her could be arranged.
While she was overseas waiting for the incident to blow over, it is rumored she was sent to a doctor who could cure lycanthropy. When she left, the animal killing stopped and even upon her return there were no more mysterious animal killings in Talbot County. Supposedly the doctor’s cure worked. She lived to be 70 years old and as the tale goes, if you visit her grave in the town of Woodland, Georgia you might hear a strange howling sometimes late at night.
© Copyright Doug Ward 2014