Although a lot of people complain that nobody knows their neighbors anymore, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. All too often, neighbors play their music too loud, steal garbage cans, and if they’re old and bored, spend all their time watching you from their windows. Historically, at the least, neighbors appear to be improving. Very few of us, for example, are accused of being witches by the people who live next door. For centuries, some neighbors dispensed this charge rather freely, as in the tragic trial of a 17th century merchant named Thomas Looten.
Local intelligence had it that Looten, a 60-year-old man who lived in the parish of Meteren in French Flanders, was a sorcerer. When Looten gave a boy some plums, and the boy died a month later, his neighbors put two and two together and realized that Looten must have cursed the fruit. Disturbed at the accusation, Looten trusted that the authorities of his community had enough sense to clear him of any wrongdoing. In September 1659, the concerned cattle merchant turned himself in to bailiff (and prosecutor) Jacques Vanderwalle, asking for a trial. Vanderwalle agreed and put Looten under arrest.
After two days of inquiries, Vanderwalle had made up his mind. Looten was obviously guilty of the charge,and twelve witnesses who could confirm it were willing to testify against him. Following a raid on Looten’s house for ointment and potions, the trial dragged on for another three weeks before Vanderwalle was thoroughly convinced that all evidence pointed toward the sorcery theory. While Looten was visited by two judges later that week, he declined to get a lawyer or provide any counterevidence. His fellow citizens, he was still convinced, would make the right call.
Indeed, a call was made, but it was answered by Jan Noorman, an executioner from Dunkirk who was passing in the area. Noorman examined Looten in jail, poking him with a pin in search of the Devil’s mark, a personal marking by Old Nick that was said to be left on witches and other diabolical lackeys. As a veteran who executed some five or six-hundred witches in his day, Noorman had no problem finding the necessary spot on the prisoner’s back. Now that a pin prick had confirmed Looten’s Satanic connections, the judges believed it was high time that he was tortured for a confession.
During the first session, Looten was bound to a wooden chair. His neck was strangled with a garrote, and Looten told his torturers that he’d first heard the rumor that he killed the plum-eating boy while hanging out at a tavern. When Looten was tormented during a second interrogation, he was forced to take off his shirt. Looten was dabbed with holy water by a friar, and to ensure more holiness, sat on a blessed chair and wore a new blessed shirt. As the torturers attacked him with a garrote again, Looten was made to finally give the admission the community wanted.
In his confession, Looten confirmed his neighbors’ suspicions that he was a sorcerer. His relationship with the Devil, whom he dubbed “Harlakyn,” stretched back eight long years. At night, Looten participated in the usual rowdy sabbaths, drinking booze, feasting on veal, and having sex with beautiful women. His financial success, his cattle and houses, were also owed to the Devil. Harlakyn gifted his friend plenty of money, along with some magical ointment that granted Looten the ability to fly. For handing that neighbor boy some cursed plums, Looten earned a total of five coins.
From here, like in so many other witch trials in early modern Europe, Looten’s punishment would proceed to an execution. The morning after his confession, however, Looten was discovered dead in his cell. While it would be reasonable to deduce that the poor merchant had his neck broken from the garrote, the authorities attributed his death to the Devil. Seeing to it that justice would still be served, the judges dutifully ordered Looten’s body burned and placed on a gibbet for public display.
Outrageously, in the aftermath of the trial, Looten’s cattle were sold to cover the legal costs. Records indicate that Looten was charged for everything from the raid on his own house to the paper used to record information during the trial. Given Looten’s economic standing in the community, one has to wonder whether some of his neighbors had a financial interest in getting the old merchant killed.
If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider supporting my work by buying my book “Forgotten Lives” on Amazon here. My first collection of short stories includes such sweet tales as “The Society for the Preservation of Vice,” in which a group of decadent artists attempt to pull off a human sacrifice, and the heart-warming “A Gourmet’s Confession,” in which a glutton resorts to cannibalism after he can’t eat conventional food anymore. The book is available on Kindle, and can be purchased for the price of five bewitched plums (or $4.99).