On the Horrors of Having Your Children Snatched by Fairies

Changeling

Depiction of a mother and a “changeling,” a fairy-child swapped for a human one.

In today’s world, parents often worry about whether their kids are eating healthy and getting a good education, and in the case of long car trips, whether the children have their phones fully charged. It’s tough being a modern parent, but at the least, you don’t have to worry like Europeans did about your spawn being snatched by fairies. While the concept of the changeling has now been relegated to folklore, it was once a serious threat for many superstitious moms and dads. Well after the Enlightenment,  between 1850 and 1900, courts across Europe were still handling cases of people who abused or killed children accused of being changelings.

According to folktales and historical accounts, a fairy-swapped child could be identified by physical deformities, a sickly or underdeveloped body, and an excessive (or small) appetite. By the 19th century, scholars recognized that stories of changelings likely stemmed from children who were disabled or mentally challenged. The idea of the changeling is thought to have originated with peasants’ recognition that something was “wrong” with their children, and it could have been used to justify abusing and killing the poor kids.

An interesting historical example of a changeling comes from the English poet and topographer George Waldron. While working as an official on the Isle of Man, the London-born Waldron wrote a book about the island’s history and culture, 1726’s “A Description of the Isle of Man.” Criticizing the Manx for being superstitious, Waldron noted that the belief in fairies was still alive and well. “The old story of infants being changed in their cradles,” he observed, “is here in such credit, that mothers are in continual terror at the thoughts of it.”

When Waldron was presented with an alleged changeling, he described the child as having a beautiful face and delicate complexion. The boy was five or six years old, with long and thin limbs. He didn’t talk or cry, hardly ate anything, and was unable to walk and stand. When the kid was left alone, people watching from his window would see him laugh by himself. It was believed that he was in the company of fairies then, and that they would wash the boy and comb his hair.

In another example, Waldron heard a story from a mother who claimed to have been continually harassed by fairies. The trouble began four or five days after she gave birth to her first child. All of a sudden, her family heard somebody shout that there was a fire. They ran out of their house to see where it was, leaving the mother and her baby alone in their room. As she trembled in bed, the woman watched incredulously as her baby was picked up by an invisible hand and stolen away. When the rest of the family came back inside, finding no fire anywhere in their neighborhood, they discovered the baby lying at the entrance of the house. Naturally, fairies were blamed for moving the child.

A year after this incident, following the birth of the mother’s second child, the family heard a loud commotion from their cattle barn. As they rushed to see what the problem was, the mother and her new baby were once again left alone. Inside the barn, nothing was out of the ordinary, and no cows had gotten loose. Reassured, the neglectful family made their way back to the house, where they were greeted by the second baby lying in the entryway. As with the first child, this mysterious displacement was believed to be the work of the little people.

As the saying goes, the fairies figured that the third kidnapping’s the charm. Not long after this same mother delivered her third child, another commotion was heard in the barn. Like clockwork, everybody ran outside, leaving the mother and baby with a nurse who was fast asleep. As the nurse snoozed, the mother watched with horror as an invisible set of hands promptly snatched her baby and carried it away. The woman screamed for her nurse to get up, but it was too late: The fat and beautiful baby was spirited away.

When her family returned, the mother was found crying hysterically. Although the husband pointed out that the baby was still inside the bed, the mother couldn’t be fooled. This was a skinny and deformed impostor, a changeling. The creature, Waldron reported, lived with the family “near the space of nine years.” During its brief existence, the changeling ate “nothing except a few herbs, nor was ever seen to void any other excrement than water: it neither spoke, nor could stand or go,” resembling the child Waldron met on the island. While our English reporter doesn’t detail what ultimately happened to this particular changeling, I think we could sadly conclude that the child suffered from malnutrition and neglect, if not deliberate abuse.

 

If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider supporting my work by pre-ordering my book “Forgotten Lives” on Amazon here. My first collection of short stories includes the company of such wonderful people as a vengeful circus dwarf, a gourmet cannibal, and a mother who convinces her daughter that aliens are coming to abduct them. If you’re up for something strange and morbid, be sure to check the book out when it hits Kindle on September 23.  

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How the Devil Set a Troublesome Teenager Straight

thedevil

From buying guitarists’ souls to impregnating Mia Farrow, the Devil has always kept himself busy. Personally, I cannot speak much for his talents, but one might want to take a note from his parenting skills. Consider, for example, the case of unruly English teenager Joseph Boxford. According to a pamphlet published in London in 1645, Joseph was a fifteen-year-old boy who lived in Bow, a village in the county of Devon. Joseph’s father John sent him to the town of Crediton to become a weaver’s apprentice, but after a month of work, Joseph wanted to do something else.

Without telling his father, Joseph decided to trade the excitements of weaving for the life of a soldier. As this was a decision made during the First English Civil War, when the Parliamentarians were engaged in fighting King Charles I and his Royalist supporters, this was not the best idea. Joseph spent his summer in the king’s army, being such a general ne’er-do-well that he ended up dressed in rags.

When the broken boy went back home for support, his father gave him new clothes and recommended that he return to his apprenticeship. As teenagers are wont to do, Joseph refused to listen to common sense. John, furious, threatened that he’d apprentice the boy to the Devil.

In the morning, John announced to his son that they were going to Crediton. A rebellious Joseph insisted that he’d rather be apprenticed to the Devil. This was not what John actually wanted, so he beat the boy until Joseph agreed to leave the house. As father and son approached Crediton, with the former hitting the latter, and the latter swearing at the former, the Boxfords came across a man in a carriage pulled by four horses. The argument caught the driver’s attention, so he asked John why he felt the need to be so violent. John answered with a rant, complaining about Joseph and his refusal to do anything responsible.

Taking pity on the poor boy, the driver offered to take Joseph along and find him a good employer. John came to an agreement with the carrier; if Joseph didn’t like the work the carrier found him, then he’d be sent back to Bow within eight days. With both Boxfords satisfied, John turned back home and left his son with the stranger and four horses. I suppose, if this were a YA novel, this would be the part when the benevolent stranger would reveal that Joseph was actually a great wizard or hero or something, and that he’d come to start the misfit boy on his destiny. Unfortunately, that’s not how things turned out.

Instead, the stranger immediately morphed into a ugly, dark horse, snatching Joseph up and taking flight into the sky. Riding on the horse’s back, Joseph was so high up that big cities like London looked “no greater than small cottages.” The teenager rode past the moon and Neptune, dropping into a cave in the earth that brought him to Hell. Now in the safety of his home, the Devil rid himself of his disguise. Saying that Joseph could see some of his old Royalist war-buddies, the Devil summoned an army of ghosts who howled, suffered, and vocally regretted taking up the Royalist cause.

Scanning over this collection of ghosts, Joseph noticed a politician named Sir Peter Ball, whose eternal damnation was rather creative. The sinner’s legs and feet were engulfed in flames, while his buttocks were burned on a gridiron, his back and shoulders were cooked in a frying-pan, and his face was boiled in a kettle. Next to Ball were two spots reserved for “Greenvile” and “Goring,” references to the Royalist military-men Bevil Grenville and George Goring. These two gentlemen, once they were ready, would be punished by having hot aconites shoved down their “belching throats.” Goring’s sister “Lady Scot,” on the other hand, received the honor of being hanged by the tongue on scalding tenterhooks.

All this horrible torture was too much to bear for Joseph Boxford. He begged to leave, and since they were there long enough, the Devil whisked the teenager away to a place in Devon called Cannon Lee. A pair of servants later spotted Joseph under a hedge, where his “hands and legs (were) strangely distorted, his haire of his head singed,” and “his Clothes all be smeared with pitch and rosin and other sulfurous matter, which yeelded an odious stench.” Since Joseph was in bad shape, and couldn’t manage to speak, the men took him to their master’s house.

Once he recovered, Joseph bared his misadventure with the Devil, a tale the owner of the house found creditable. His father was called, and John picked the boy up and forgave him for their disagreement. According to Jonathan Gainwell, a minister who heard Joseph tell his story, the former juvenile delinquent became reformed. To make for an even happier ending, the Devil was also seen that day, back in his carrier-with-horses disguise. A group of Royalist soldiers passing by took a fancy in the horses, and as they were in the middle of stealing them, the Devil and his entourage disappeared in an inferno. Three of the Royalists caught fire and died, and the rest took off running for their lives.

Despite the pamphlet’s over-the-top claims, despite the fact that I can’t trace a place called Cannon Lee, and that Sir Peter Ball died many years after the end of the English Civil War, I believe there are some valuable lessons here. Children should obey their parents, parents should love their children, and nobody who pledges allegiance to the King of England should be allowed into heaven.

 

If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider supporting my work by pre-ordering my book “Forgotten Lives” on Amazon here. My first collection of short stories includes the company of such wonderful people as a vengeful circus dwarf, a gourmet cannibal, and a mother who convinces her daughter that aliens are coming to abduct them. If you’re up for something strange and morbid, be sure to check the book out when it hits Kindle on September 23.  

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Murdered by the Devil

Griffin

In 1662, one Englishman had the misfortune of being attacked by both griffins and the Devil.

For all the evil attributed to the Devil, his personal kill count is remarkably low. According to a count on the skeptical blog Dwindling In Unbelief, Old Nick is estimated to have killed only 60 or so people in the Bible. It’s a pretty embarrassing number for the Prince of Darkness, but based on a story from an old English pamphlet, we could bump this number to 61.

In 1662, a pamphlet was published in London entitled “A Strange and True Relation of One Mr. John Leech.” One morning, Leech- a farmer from the village of Raveley-set off to go drinking at a fair in the town of Whittlesey. Walking two miles away from his house, Leech bumped into one of his neighbors, and demanded the man take part in his merrymaking. Since you should never decline a morning drink with your neighbor, Leech and his friend stopped at a near-by house for some fermented refreshments.

After Leech began to get “very merry,” his neighbor asked the members of the household what time it was. They answered that it was almost 11, but Leech wasn’t apparently done yet. He replied, “Let the Devil take him who goeth out of this house today.” More drinking and sitting followed until Leech suddenly remembered the fair, and decided to stick to his original plan. Though his friend reminded Leech of his earlier words, Leech scoffed that he was too heavy for the Devil to carry. He then called for his horse and left.

On his way to the fair, Leech began to have second doubts. His mind was plagued with anxiety, and he rode back and forth in a daze until dark, never reaching his destination. At one or two morning, Leech encountered a pair of monsters that looked like griffins. The sight scared the bejesus out of him, and then he heard a voice repeat”Remember thy sins and the Oath thou hast broken this day” three times. At the sound of these words, Leech fell from his horse and was seized by the griffins, who carried him twelve miles into the air. The monsters tore off his clothes and dumped him, bloody and gory, in a farmyard.

In the morning, some servants starting their day found Leech laying incoherent on a set of harrows. They asked him a bunch of questions, but Leech could only sigh and groan. The servants’ master took pity on Leech, and ordered him to be moved to a bed in the house. When Leech recovered his strength, he explained what happened, and the master allowed him to rest there for another day or two.

Meanwhile, a few of the servants doing their chores found torn-up clothes two miles away from the farm. They showed the rags to Leech, who quickly “grew into a Frenzy so desperate, that they were afraid to stay in his Chamber.”  The master offered to call Leech a minister, but Leech refused, saying it was too late to save him. The master called for a minister anyway, and when the man went into Leech’s room, Leech jumped out of bed and threw the minister so violently that he nearly killed him.

The master and his servants heard the commotion and rushed to the bedroom. Inside, Leech was trying to beat the minister to death, so they grabbed and bounded Leech onto the bed. Leech immediately broke loose, and everybody was so terrified at this point that they opted to just lock Leech inside the room. (Because why waste money on an exorcism when you can just lock the door?) For the rest of the day, nobody dared to enter Leech’s room.

When morning came, the members of the household went to check on their demented guest by listening at his door. They didn’t hear a single screech or bit of glossolalia, and when they unlocked the room, discovered why. Leech was found dead on the bed, with “his neck broke, his tongue out of his mouth, and his body as black as a shoe, all swelled, and every bone in his body out of joint.” Most of the people of the town saw Leech’s body, and his corpse was eventually buried after the smell got too unbearable.

For anybody who thinks the poor farmer simply had too much to drink, the author of the pamphlet takes care to note that the account had been verified by six “Persons of unquestionable Credit.” At any rate, I hope you’ll all think twice the next time you invoke the Devil during a morning drink with your neighbor.

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The Girl Who Ate Fairy Food

Fairies

Drawing of Ann Jefferies and her fairies, from Robert Hunt’s “Popular Romances of the West of England.”

In 1696, the English printer Moses Pitt wrote a peculiar letter to Edward Fowler, Bishop of Gloucester, detailing the old case of a woman named Ann Jefferies. Some five decades earlier, when Moses was a boy, Ann worked as a servant girl for the Pitt family. At the age of 19, Ann allegedly came into contact with fairies and developed healing powers. While she had her supporters, Ann’s claims caused a scandal, and ultimately led to trouble with the law.

According to Moses, the story began on a day in 1645, when Ann sat knitting in the Pitts’ garden in the little village of St. Teath. As Ann sat there, minding her own business, six little fairies dressed in green suddenly flew over the garden hedge. I’d imagine most people would be delighted to spot fairies, but Ann was so frightened by the sight that she fell into convulsions.

These convulsive fits lasted for months. While the Pitt family nursed her back to health, Ann kept the fairy sighting a secret. She was so weak that she couldn’t stand on her feet, and the Pitts had to be careful not to upset her, because the slightest annoyance would send Ann into another fit.

By harvest-time, Ann had recovered a little strength. One afternoon, she was alone in the house with Mrs.Pitt. Mrs. Pitt had an errand to run, but didn’t want to leave Ann unattended, in case she might accidentally set the house on fire. (How or why Ann might have accomplished such a feat in her illness isn’t explained in Moses’ letter.) For the safety of all, Mrs. Pitt moved Ann into the garden, where she waited for Mrs. Pitt to come back.

While coming home from her errand, Mrs.Pitt accidentally slipped and hurt her leg. The pain was very bad, so a neighbor on horseback had to take her home. Once Mrs. Pitt was back, a servant was called to fetch a horse and ride eight miles away to get a doctor. Just then, Ann came in and insisted on seeing Mrs. Pitt’s leg.

Cautious that refusing would send the girl into a fit, Mrs. Pitt showed Ann the injured limb. With her eyes on the leg, Ann rested it on her lap and stroked it with her hand. Amazingly, Mrs. Pitt’s pain began to go away. The mere touch of Ann’s hand, in fact, worked so well that Mrs. Pitt called the doctor off.

After demonstrating these new healing powers, Ann confessed the cause of her fits: the fairies. Ever since that day in the garden, Ann was constantly attended by fairies who always showed themselves in even numbers. Since Ann was forced out of the house against her will, six of the fairies decided to teach Mrs. Pitt a lesson, deliberately causing her to trip.( Evidently, Mrs. Pitt was too satisfied with Ann’s new powers to be angry that her servant’s fairies had conspired to break her leg.)

The fame of Ann and her magic touch spread across Cornwall, and soon all sorts of sick people came to her to be healed, some of them coming from as far away as London. Ann never asked for money for these services. It was said that she could also predict who was coming to visit her, before the actual guest arrived.

At the same time, Ann stopped eating human food. For six months, Ann persisted on fairy food, gifted to her by her friends. Moses Pitt had the good fortune to try this food. While visiting Ann in her room, Moses was given a piece of fairy bread. In his letter, he remarked that “I think it was the most delicious Bread that ever I did eat either before or since.”

Naturally, all this hullabaloo about healing and fairy food attracted the attention of the authorities. Some magistrates and ministers visited Ann at the Pitts’ house and questioned her about her little friends. The ministers were convinced that the fairies were evil spirits sent by the Devil. They advised Ann to ignore them and have nothing to do with them.

Later that night, Ann was sitting with the Pitts at a fire when she said the fairies began to call her. The family pled with her not to go, but on the third calling, Ann retired into her room. When she came back out, she held a Bible in her hand. The fairies, Ann said, recommended that the magistrates and ministers read the following Bible passage: “Dearly beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits if they be of God. Because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”

Even though the good fairy folk were clearly virtuous Christians, quoting scripture wasn’t enough for the powers that be. One of the cruelest magistrates of the day, Jan Tregeagle, got wind of Ann’s stories. Tregeagle was a notoriously vicious man; some claimed he sold his soul to the devil, and after his death, his spirit was said to haunt Cornwall.

Tregeagle issued a warrant for Ann’s arrest, and she was jailed eight miles away in Bodmin. During her imprisonment, Tregeagle starved Ann. Mrs. Pitt and Moses were called in to testify, and Moses was questioned to make sure that he didn’t bring Ann any food. Eventually, Ann was moved to Tregeagle’s house and then let go after a time. She was forbidden, however, to live with the Pitts.

From here, Ann went to live with Mr. Pitt’s sister, a widow named Francis Tom. Ann apparently demonstrated healing powers here too. Later, she went to live with her brother, and then she married a man named William Warden. The historical record isn’t very clear about her fate, but Ann was still alive when Moses wrote his letter in 1696. By that time, it seems the elderly Ann had come to regret the whole affair. When Pitt’s brother-in-law reached out to her in 1693, Ann refused to talk about the fairies. She said that even if her own father were alive, she wouldn’t say a word about them to him.

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Hieronyma and Her Incubus

Incubus

An 1879 painting of an incubus.

The 17th century priest Ludovico Maria Sinistrari was a thinker who tackled some of the most pressing questions of his time. Could demons and humans, for example, have sex? Could they have children? Theologically-speaking, which is the greater evil: carnal knowledge of the family dog, or screwing a succubus? If you’re one of the half-dozen people who lay in bed at night pondering such enigmas, then boy does Father Sinistrari have a book for you!

Sinistrari, an Inquisition-associated writer, concerned himself with what the Catholic Church regarded as sinful sexuality. His work touches on homosexuality, sodomy, and demoniality, the act of sexual intercourse between a person and a demon. Sinistrari’s treatise on that last subject, Demoniality, is a bit mysterious. It was probably written in the late 1690s, but its manuscript wasn’t discovered until 1872, when the French publisher Isidore Liseux bought it from an English bookseller. (Some scholars have argued the treatise is a forgery, but the academic Alexandra Nagel makes a good case for its authenticity in a research paper available here.)

Essentially, Demoniality claims that demons like incubuses and succubuses are real, and similar to humans. It’s entirely possible, and considerably sinful, to have sex with one. It’s also possible to have children with such demons; Alexander the Great, Martin Luther, and Plato were all the result of demon-human elopements. While there’s a lot of theological theorizing- including the contemplation of demon semen- Sinistrari also discusses some case studies. In one particular story about a woman and an incubus, Sinistrari claim that he was an eye-witness, and that he interviewed “numerous persons” to corroborate the account.

Some twenty-five years before he wrote Demoniality, Sinistrari says that he worked as a lecturer in the city of Pavia. During that same time, there was a “married woman of unimpeachable morality” named Hieronyma who also lived in the city. One day, Hieronyma kneaded some bread and gave it to a baker to finish off. After baking it in the oven, the man dropped the bread off at Hieronyma’s house, along with a “large cake of peculiar shape” she didn’t remember giving him. Since the baker didn’t bake any other customers’ bread that day, he insisted the cake must have been Hieronyma’s. Hieronyma was easily convinced to take the cake, and she later ate it with her daughter, husband, and servant.

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A Haunting on Fuencarral Street

Torres

Diego de Torres Villarroel

It would probably be easier to tell you what the 18th century Spanish writer Diego de Torres Villarroel didn’t do. According to his highly picaresque autobiography, Torres did all sorts of different jobs, including working as a bullfighter, dancer, soldier, lock picker, astrologer, and math professor. He was also said to be a prophet, although his apparent predictions of the death of the Spanish King Louis I and the French Revolution were more vague coincidences than actual prophecies.

In 1723, after moving to Madrid, a poverty-stricken Torres was forced to work as a smuggler to get by. One day, Torres’ fortunes changed when a messenger from Josepha de Figueroa, the Countess of Arcos, paid him a visit. The messenger looked pale and sick, and explained that the Countess wanted Torres to come stay at her house. For the past three nights, the Countess’ home had been knocked by loud, unexplained noises.

The Countess was afraid that her house, which was located on Fuencarral Street, was being haunted by a duende. In Spanish folklore, duendes are creatures similar to goblins, tricksters who come into people’s homes to harass them and drive them crazy with loud noises. (Our demented friends from The House of the Lions, the follets, are technically a Catalan variety of duende.)

Torres was skeptical about the story, but agreed to investigate the haunting. When he arrived at the Countess’ house, he found the servants pale and quiet, and the Countess terrified. That night, they all banded together and slept in the same bedroom, Torres included.

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How Gnomes Drove an Artist to Kill Herself

GhostTower

The Castle of La Boca, named after the neighborhood in Buenos Aires where it stands, is a big and beautiful representation of Catalan modernism. It’s also supposedly haunted, which is why many people call the building’s tower “The Ghost Tower.” The eponymous ghost of the tower is said to haunt the top floor, where people have heard anguished shouts and disembodied footsteps.

According to legend, the ghost is a painter named Clementina, a young art student who lived there a century ago. The story behind Clementina’s demise involves a nostalgic rancher, a noisy reporter, and a bunch of mischievous follets, a creature in Catalan folklore similar to gnomes.

The story begins with the estanciera (rancher) Maria Luisa Auvert Arnaud. Auvert owned a very profitable estancia, a rural estate like a ranch, making her one of the wealthiest people in Buenos Aires. In the early 20th century, Argentina was experiencing a great boom in immigration from Europe. Hoping to make some money off these new Argentinians, Auvert bought a plot of land in La Boca and planned to get into real estate.

Despite her French-sounding name, Auvert’s family had roots in Catalonia. On her new land, Auvert hired the Catalan architect Guillermo Alvarez to build a house that would remind her of her family’s homeland. To maximize the Catalan flavor, Auvert imported furniture and plants from the old country, including some mushrooms she put on the balconies.

When the construction was completed in 1908, Auvert was so happy with the final product that she dropped the idea of renting the building and took the house for herself. The Castle should have been her dream home, but Auvert quietly packed her bags after living there for only a year. Nobody knew why she moved so suddenly, though neighbors said they sometimes heard her and her servants yelling at something at night.

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