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.