This episode we take a look at the tale of Peter Stumpp. a man known as the Werewolf of Bedburg, who made a pact with the devil in trade for the ability to turn into a werewolf. We dig a little into the history of the folklore behind werewolves and have a look at the popular theories for the tale.
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The Werewolf of Bedburg
Peter Stumpp snuck out to the forest on the edge of the village, he slipped on his belt and felt the familiar rage burning inside of him. As the woman he had spotted by the village square left the packed street and waved goodbye to her friends, he sensed his opportunity. Bounding across the field toward her, she barely had time to let out a scream before he tasted the familiar metallic zing of the blood. The deed done, he left the remains on the ground and skulked off back to the woods, removed the belt and now, in the shape of a man, walked casually back to the village, as he turned into the busy street, he greeted passers-by with a spring in his step. Peter Stumpp held a very dark secret close to his chest.
This is dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Today, we know of Peter Stumpp primarily due to the work of Augustus Montague Summers. A literary scholar and clergyman with an interest in the occult, who rediscovered a 16-page pamphlet that detailed Stumpp’s crimes and execution in his 1933 publication of “Werewolves in Lore and Legend”. The pamphlets original title is practically a book in itself, but is generally shortened to “The most damnable life and death of Stubbe Peeter”. Originally written in High Dutch in 1590, somewhat as news, but perhaps moreso as entertainment. It was brought to English shores and translated by a man named George Bores to be sold on Fleet St. who claimed to have bore witness the entire ordeal. There are no surviving copies in its original language thanks to the destruction on the German landscape during the 30 years war, a conflict which also destroyed the birth records of Bedburg and which makes it impossible to know Peter’s exact date of Birth. Two copies of the English translation survived that now reside in the British Museum and the Lambeth Library.
The document is written in beautiful middle English and as such deserves, it’s space forefront to our story. The opening paragraph lays out the events we will delve into as such:
“A true Discourse. Declaring the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter, a most wicked Sorcerer, who in the likeness of a Wolf committed many murders, continuing this devilish practice 25 Years, killing and devouring Men, Women, and Children. Who for the same fact was taken and executed the 31st of October last past in the town of Bedbur [Bedburg] near the City of Collin [Cologne, Köln] in Germany.”
Peter Stumpp was born in the village of Epprath, near to Bedburg, thirty miles West of Cologne, Germany in the mid-16th Century, Extrapolating from the text, all we can do is guess at a year, but it was probably around 1545-1550.Though his name has some variations on the spelling, a running theme often found in old English documents, they are all a variation of Stumpf, the German word for stump and is generally thought to refer to his missing left hand, a disability that whilst seemingly severe, had not stopped him earning a decent living from the land as he had worked as a farmer. A widower, He was well known and relatively wealthy within Bedburg, he took a mistress and had two children, his first child a son whose name is not mentioned and his second, Sybil or Bil a younger daughter.
At the age of 12, Peter became interested in the dark arts and practised black magic, necromancy and sorcery. This occult path led Peter to making a pact with and selling his soul to the Devil around the age of 20 and in trade, the Devil gave him a belt in return for his eternal servitude. Once again, the original text really needs to speak its piece on the deal:
“The Devil, who hath a ready ear to listen to the lewd motions of cursed men, promised to give him whatsoever his heart desired during his mortal life: whereupon this vile wretch neither desired riches nor promotion, nor was his fancy satisfied with any external or outward pleasure, but having a tyrannous heart and a most cruel bloody mind, requested that at his pleasure he might work his malice on men, women, and children, in the shape of some beast, whereby he might live without dread or danger of life, and unknown to be the executor of any bloody enterprise which he meant to commit.
The Devil, who saw him a fit instrument to perform mischief as a wicked fiend pleased with the desire of wrong and destruction, gave unto him a girdle which, being put around him, he was straight transformed into the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like unto brands of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body and mighty paws. And no sooner should he put off the same girdle, but presently he should appear in his former shape, according to the proportion of a man, as if he had never been changed.”
And with that swiftly made deal, Peter began his life as “the Werewolf of Bedburg.”
The Werewolf of Bedburg
During the next 25 years, Peter maintained his reign of fear over the village of Bedburg, by day mingling with the village folk, apparently living quite amiably among them. It was, however, his dark streak that he is famed for rather than his social skills and he used this guise of sociability to lure women out into the fields alone, or await them to leave the village by themselves and sensing his opportunity would rape and murder them “plucking out their throats and tearing their joints asunder”. When he was unable to coax or follow a young lady by herself, he would tear into groups of young girls in his wolf-like shape, separate off the one he had taken a liking to and kill her promptly. When the deed was done, he would then remove the belt, resume his shape of a man and slip back into society, with no one any the wiser and even greeted his recent victims families with a smile. Within a few years, he had murdered 13 young girls and two pregnant women, apparently eating their unborn children.
When times were less fruitful and Peter was unable to find women or children to kill, he turned instead to the local cattle, reportedly killing lambs and various farm life, eating them raw in the fields.
During his murderous activities, he maintained a work and home life, taking care of his family. He took care of his family so well in fact that his daughter, who was apparently very beautiful, gave birth to a child born out of an incestuous relationship that Peter committed her to. Incest being simply not really enough unless you’re going to go all in, he also carried on an incestuous relationship with his sister at the same time. Throughout this period, he also had a relationship with his mistress named Katherine Trompin, though it’s a little difficult to discern the exact relationship, he met her one night whilst out drinking and seduced her with his “fair and flattering speech”. Katherine was a well known and well-liked woman from Bedburg. She was tall and slender and her beauty was described as:
“so fair of face and comely of personage, that she resembled rather some heavenly Helfin than any mortal creature, so far her beauty exceeded the choicest sort of women”.
Naturally, one does not acquire such looks without some sort of trickery and the document later suspects that she was, in fact, a “wicked spirit in the similitude and likeness of a woman” sent to him by the devil.
As time passed, however, Peters lust for blood grew insatiable and he became transfixed on the act of killing. He stopped selecting victims for their characteristics which stood out to him or attracted him and started killing for the simple pleasure he took from it. This grew to the point where, despite being a kind father to his son whom he deeply loved, he later attacked him whilst in wolf form. The whole grisly affair was reported as such:
“so far his delight in murder exceeded the joy he took in his son, that thirsting after his blood, on a time he enticed him into the fields, and from thence into a forest hard by, where, making excuse to stay about the necessaries of nature, while the young man went forward, incontinent in the shape and likeness of a wolf he encountered his own son and there most cruelly slew him, which done, he presently ate the brains out of his head as a most savory and dainty delicious mean to staunch his greedy appetite”
The original document stops counting bodies at this point, but rather goes on to say that he killed “many” and offers us an example of how he progressed as a murderer, when one day he came across a group of three people in a forest clearing of which he knew, two young men from Bedburg who were accompanying a young woman. Crouching by a bush, he called the name of one of the men, and when the walked over to see who was calling his name, Peter quietly killed him outright. When the second came to look for his friend, he promptly dispatched of him too and then chased the lone woman down, raped and murdered her. The bodies of the men were found in the woods by a patrol in later days, though the woman was never found and was presumed to have been eaten.
After twenty-five years, however, Peters deeds were not going unnoticed and whilst none suspected him of any wrongdoing, it became harder and harder for him to kill whenever he pleased, as most locals had begun to travel armed or with bodyguards, all afraid of the monster that lies in the forest and that by this point, had become legend. Around this time, as security tightened and fear gripped the villagers to walk alone, Peter suffered his only documented close call, when upon storming into a group of unaware children, he grabbed one young girl and unable to sink his teeth into her throat due to the virtue of her high and stiff collar, she let out a scream that startled the nearby cattle, who, apparently “by the will of God” stampeded towards Peter, forcing him to drop the child and run for his life. This young girl is the only documented survivor of an attack by Peter.
Time was running out for Peter by now and his misdeeds had run on for too long. In a desperate attempt to alleviate the village of Bedburg from fear, a small force of men was enlisted to hunt the wolf using dogs, who rather quickly entrapped the beast in the forest. Seeing there was no advantage for him in his predicament, Peter slipped out of the belt, transforming to his human form in front of their eyes. The men, all amazed at what they had witnessed, but knowing Peter well, escorted him to his home, whereby they called upon the local magistrate to arrest him. He was put to the rack, a form of torture in which a subjects ankles and wrists are tied on each corner of a frame and then through turning a crank, the whole body slowly pulled and stretched, inducing excruciating pain for anyone unlucky enough to experience such an interrogation. In fear, Peter quickly confessed his entire life story, from his encounter with the devil, his taking ownership of the belt and its magical properties to a long list of victims names that he had murdered during his reign of terror.
In the telling of his story, he admitted to casting the belt aside before his apprehension, however when men were sent to look for it, nothing could be found. This was supposed:
“that it was gone to the Devil from whence it came, so that it was not to be found. For the Devil having brought the wretch to all the shame he could, left him to endure the torments which his deeds deserved.”
On the 28th October 1589, Peter Stumpp faced trial for the murders of countless men women, children and cattle in and around Bedburg. He was found guilty almost immediately and as hinted at in the previous passage, Peter was indeed sentenced to “endure the torments which his deeds deserved.”
On the 31st of October, in a square of Bedburg and in the presence of many peers and princes of Germany, Peter Stumpp was placed on a device known as a “breaking wheel”, a large cart-wheel, where he was tied and bound. With red-hot pincers, his skin was torn from his bones, his arms and legs were then broken with wooden hatchets, mercifully he was at last killed outright through beheading and finally his body burnt. Deemed as accessory to murder, his daughter Sybil and mistress Katherine were also found guilty, however, suffered slightly less, their method of execution was to be thrown onto the burning body of Peter and burnt to ashes.
In celebration for downfall of his reign of terror over the village, a macabre shrine was erected, using the breaking wheel as the centrepiece upon which an engraving of a wolf was placed on top of a pole, along with Peter’s head. The whole thing was encircled with 16 pieces of wood a foot in length, symbolising the victims of Peter whose names were known.
The document of the life of Peter Stumpp is finished with a telling passage:
“This, Gentle Reader, have I set down the true discourse of this wicked man Stub Peeter, which I desire to be a warning to all sorcerers and witches, which unlawfully follow their own devilish imagination to the utter ruin and destruction of their souls eternally, from which wicked and damnable practice, I beseech God keep all good men, and from the cruelty of their wicked hearts. Amen.”
Werewolves in European Lore
Werewolves have appeared in literature as far back as the ancient Greeks, when King Lycaon tested Zeus omniscience by feeding him the cooked remains of his own son. Zeus was not best pleased with this human meal and in turn transformed King Lycaon into a wolf, whilst returning his son to life, presumably uncooked.
Throughout the medieval period, werewolves were rarely mentioned and it’s believed that there was no real folklore surrounding such creatures, however in the literature of the time, some “wolf men” were depicted as a human trapped inside the body of a literal wolf, though they were often gentle and only hunted with purpose, attacking whoever had cursed them into the bestial form, which was often their wives. As time passed, however, this attitude and the beliefs themselves shifted, mostly due to outside forces and by the 14th Century and increasing until the 16th Century, werewolves were written of in religious texts as servants to the devil and wicked forms of black magic associated with witches.
As this shift in perception was underway, werewolves also took on a metaphorical role in folk tales. Wolves were a plentiful and much-hated animal in Europe throughout the middle ages. They were notoriously difficult to hunt and inedible if you did happen to kill one. They carried rabies, ate livestock and cattle and most thought them dangerous to humans and in some cases, especially in rural areas, they were. In old allegorical texts, the wolf was seen as a greedy savage that led to the werewolf being used as a general term in law to refer to someone as an outlaw and in clerical texts as a derogatory term for someone who refused to gel within a community and participate in the mutual responsibilities of rural life.
Perhaps inevitably, an animal with such a bad reputation would be grafted into the folklore as a fearsome beast with dark associations and would also pave the way for the later persecutions when witch trials became a regular feature.
Werewolf trials evolved throughout Europe parallel to the infamous witch trials and much like the witch trials, hinged on the need to blame somebody for the many socio-political turmoils of the period. As the biblical depiction of Satan grew in popularity, so did the persecution of “sorcery” as the perception changed from being a pagan heresy to a demonic practice.
The very first documented witch trial in Valais actually included werewolf trials and as you move East across Europe, werewolf trials became more and more commonplace. In France and Germany, there were relatively few with our good friend Stumpp being one of the most infamous accounts, but in Baltic countries, they were far more commonplace, in Estonia for example, they were even more common than the witch trials themselves.
Germany in the 16th Century
As far as Germany goes, the case of Peter Stumpp is sensationalist in the extreme. From the way in which the victims were killed to the stories of incest and cannibalism to the final act of his execution, there is never a moment in the tale which is not deeply horrifying, even in today’s climate one would consider it a fringe case of brutality, but in 16th Century Germany, it was not only brutal but caustically heretical.
During the time of the murders, Germany was highly religious, recovering from plague and under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire, though it creaked at the seams and support waned. In 1587, Protestantism was still being pushed at a state level to be made the official religion by law as part of the wider Protestant Reformation, however Italian and Spanish mercenaries and soldiers, who happened to be recent occupiers of Bedburg castle, were heavily invested in restoring the Catholic faith as part of the wider context of the Cologne War. All of this religious division had devastated the local area around Cologne and laid the groundwork for the coming ‘thirty years war’ which saw 8 million dead. This atmosphere of violence, fear, uncertainty and division served as the backdrop to which our tale of Bedburg and Peter Stumpp was set.
It is clear that wolves were feared and hated within communities of the 16th century and werewolves seemed to take the next logical step for many by adding sorcery and black magic to the mix, but can such a beast truly exist or was it simply hysteria, helped along by religion and social fears?
The first place we should look for evidence is the source material, with such a turbulent setting, how can we be sure that any of the details laid out concerning “the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter” are true at all? There are several theories of what happened in 1590, each allotting a certain degree of truth to the claims. As far as the document itself claims, every word is true, sworn by a litany of witnesses, it states:
“Witnesses that this is true: Tyse Artyne. William Brewar. Adolf Staedt. George Bores. With divers others that have seen the same.”
Further, there is an account by one Master Tice Artine, a London based brewer and who was apparently loosely related to the surviving young girl attacked by peter:
“An that this thing is true, Master Tice Artine, a brewer dwelling at Puddlewharfe in London, being a man of that country born, and one of good reputation and account, is able to justify, who is near kinsman to this child, and hath from thence twice received letters concerning the same; and for that the first letter did rather drive him into wondering at the act then yielding credit thereunto, he had shortly after, at request of his writing, another letter sent him, whereby he was more fully satisfied; and divers other persons of great credit in London hath in like sort received letters from their friends to the like effect.”
To look any further for proof would be impossible, however, there are records of Death and it’s generally accepted that the story has, in the least, elements of historical truth. As to why it happened, we do not have to look far to find the many theories.
One theory alludes to the concept that religion played a role in the trial and execution of Peter Stumpp. When considering this theory, the symbolism and theological metaphors within the text allude to the religiosity of the time. There are numerous direct religious passages, one early example in the story of Peter Stumpp is as follows:
“Those whom the Lord doth leave to follow the imagination of their own hearts, despising his proffered grace, in the end through the hardness of heart and contempt of his fatherly mercy, they enter the right path to perdition and destruction of body and soul for ever”
The language used for the victims often likens them to sheep or lambs and when Peter killed livestock, it is only the sheep and lambs which are named directly, the rest are lumped together as simply “other cattle”. It’s important to remember that this leaflet was meant primarily as entertainment and therefore this emotive language with a religious bent was most probably assumed to bring about the greatest impact for the time, playing to an audience.
Use of language aside, the main crux of this theory lies with Peter’s recent conversion to Protestantism. Some claim that it was the work of the local Catholic lord, newly instated through the Cologne war, who used Peter as an example to other would be Protestants in a thinly veiled political trial.
This theory varies the level of Peter’s guilt as a factor for his execution, some stating that Peter committed the crimes either as a wolf or a man and the whole affair played well into the religious angle, proving to be a convenience that had to be made an example of. There are others, however, that extend the religious theory even further, proclaiming that Peter was entirely innocent and that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. As terrifying and painful an experience as the rack was, some believe that Peter would have admitted to the crimes freely either through hope of a lighter sentence or through fear of the coming agony of the torture he was about to endure, stating anything that he himself had known or heard about the murders. There are some that even suggest the murders were not murders at all and that over the period of 25 years, it’s plausible to believe that they were simple wolf attacks.
The text itself speaks quite well of Peter until of course, he begins to murder and rape the locals, going so far as to call him well known and respected as an elder of the village. He had, after all, managed to earn a decent living in the village and attract a mistress whose beauty was so great, it was presumed she was sent by the devil himself. It’s not uncommon for a murderer to be both brutal killer and charming socialite together, however, the brutality of Peters crimes and the claims of incest certainly leaves room to wonder how much was rumour and how much was truth.
Mental illness & Physical disability
One other common theory for Stumpp’s behaviour is that rather than a werewolf, Peter was simply mentally ill. Mental illness is poorly understood today, in the 16th Century most variations of mental illness were put down simply as “madness” in various forms. Peters long list of possible problems could have been depression, epilepsy, psychosis, any number of dissociative disorders and most interestingly, clinical lycanthropy, a medical delusion whereby the sufferer actually believe themselves to be able to transform into an animal. Even in 1584, Clinical Lycanthropy was put forward as a possibility for the existence of werewolves by Reginald Scot is his published work “The discoverie of witchcraft”.
Each of the above can take us down any number of paths as to the outcome, with once again varying levels of guilt on Peter’s part. Was he delusional and simply admitting to crimes he had not committed? Or had he committed the crimes under the delusion he was a beast? If it was psychosis, once again the same questions can be asked. One other possibility is that misunderstood as mental illness no doubt was by the general populace, was he simply outcast and made an example of? This last line of thought makes sense to a degree, but seems doubtful in peter Stumpps case, being that he was well known and well liked within the village, but it’s a possibility none the less and it could be possible that he had made certain enemies among the villagers, which would account for the rumours of his incestuous relationships. This same line of thinking can be enlisted when considering Peters physical disability in regards to his lack of left hand also.
A theory which does not excuse Peter nor believe him to be innocent states that he was a brutal serial killer. Werewolves were often depicted in wood blocks from Germany as simple men, crouched on all fours and the idea that werewolves were gripped by a cyclical blood lust worked its way into folklore and sits at his heart. A serial killer’s brutal outbursts can be seen as an explanation for such behaviour.
In the 16th Century, it could be entirely plausible that most people found it difficult to attribute such acts to people, with such a distance from any form of recognised normalcy within such behaviour, people seek to place the perpetrator as an “outsider” or an “other”. I will refrain from pointing out in detail how we still do the same today, however in the medieval and early modern ages, jumping to the supernatural was a simple way to achieve this and is not without precedent. Many historical serial killers in history have long been dubbed as Vampires.
If this was the case, however, then why the story of the black magic and the belt? If Peter wanted to admit to his crimes, why did he need to make such a fanciful explanation?
Of course, we are left with the theory that Peter Stumpp was simply an actual werewolf, it’s safe to say, however, that there is little to no evidence in support of this theory. The problem is, there is little to no evidence for any other theory concerning Peter Stumpp. Over the years there have been reported sightings of werewolf-like creatures and there have been skulls found throughout the years that have been put forward as evidence for their existence, one example being the skull found by Trayche Draganov on his farm in Novo Selo, Macedonia. This theory hinges on where your beliefs in the supernatural lie, for many it is no more and no less plausible than any other explanation given for the crimes of Peter Stumpp.
In the end, we cannot ignore the fact that there was no real evidence that Peter Stumpp was a murderer, except for his confession which was made under extremely difficult circumstances. Perhaps he was ill, perhaps he was truly a vicious serial killer. Religion and politics may well have played its part, or perhaps he was, despite all our over-complicated explanations, just a man who had made a pact with the devil and was able to transform into a murderous beast. In reality, it seems likely that the brutal killings of Peter Stumpp are a wild mix of all of the common theories.
And there is also the case of the mysterious belt, where did it disappear to, if it indeed existed in the first place? Though Peter told at his trial how he had thrown it aside during his capture, and presumably his captors knew the area relatively well, nothing was ever found. It’s all very easy to dismiss its existence outright, but why then had it made its way into the story in the first place?
Whether or not Peter Stumpp was true and to what degree, the author of The Damnable Life and Death of Stumpp Peter is absolutely certain of one thing in regards to werewolves:
“of all other that ever lived, none was comparable unto this Hell hound, whose tyranny and cruelty did well declare he was of his father the devil, who was a murderer from the beginning.”
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