Werewolf Wednesday: Sabine Baring-Gould Chapter 14 (1865)

The fourteenth chapter of Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Were-Wolves is entitled “A Galician Were-Wolf” and opens with a summary of the demography of Galicia, a historical region spanning parts of what are now Poland and Ukraine. The author goes on to discuss an event that happened “sixteen years ago” (circa 1849, then) in the Galician hamlet of Polomyja. Or, at least, he discusses this event after another digression, this time describing the hamlet in question, and gives the general impression that he is padding things just a little.

The main narrative, when it finally begins, concerns an elderly beggar named Swiatek. While on his way to Polomyja, he is taken in by a couple who have adopted an orphan:

“She’s a good little thing, and gives no trouble,” observed the woman. “You go back to Polomyja tonight, I reckon.”
“I do—ah!” exclaimed Swiatek, as the little girl ran up to him. You like the ring, is it not beautiful? I found it under a big fir to the left of the churchyard,there may be dozens there. You must turn round three times, bow to the moon, and say, ‘Zaboï!’ then look among the tree-roots till you find one.”
“Come along!” screamed the child to its comrades; “we will go and look for rings.”
“You must seek separately,” said Swiatek.
The children scampered off into the wood.
“I have done one good thing for you,” laughed the beggar, “in ridding you, for a time, of the noise of those children.”
“I am glad of a little quiet now and then,” said the woman; “the children will not let the baby sleep at times with their clatter. Are you going?”
“Yes; I must reach Polomyja to-night. I am old and very feeble, and poor”—he began to fall into his customary whine— very poor, but I thank and pray to God for you.”
Swiatek left the cottage.
That little orphan was never seen again.

This is just the beginning of a spate of disappearances. The next victim is a schoolboy named Peter:

“Where’s Peter?” asked one little boy of another who was beside him. “We three go home the same way, let us go together.”
“Peter!” shouted the lad.
“Here I am!” was the answer from among the trees; “I’ll be with you directly.”
“Oh, I see him!” said the elder boy. “There is some one talking to him.”
“Yonder, among the pines. Ah! they have gone further into the shadow, and I cannot see them any more. I wonder who was with him; a man, I think.”
The boys waited till they were tired, and then they sauntered home, determined to thrash Peter for having kept them waiting. But Peter was never seen again.

Then a servent-girl disappears, leaving no trace besides some footprints in the snow:

A slight powdering of snow covered the ground, and her footsteps could be traced at intervals where she had diverged from the beaten track. In that part of the road where the trees were thickest, there were marks of two pair of feet leaving the path; but owing to the density of the trees at that spot and to the slightness of the fall of snow, which did not reach the soil, where shaded by the pines, the footprints were immediately lost. By the following morning a heavy fall had obliterated any further traces which day-light might have discovered.
The servant-girl also was never seen again.

The author then introduces wolves to the picture:

During the winter of 1849 the wolves were supposed to have been particularly ravenous, for thus alone did people account for the mysterious disappearances of children.
A little boy had been sent to a fountain to fetch water; the pitcher was found standing by the well, but the boy had vanished. The villagers turned out, and those wolves which could be found were despatched.

Meanwhile, a local innkeeper notices some of his ducks missing and suspects the beggar Swiatek. Hoping to catch him in the act, the innkeeper follows the smell of roasting meat and barges into Swiatek’s cottage. He gets a nasty surprise, however, when he finds Swiatek hiding not a duck, but a teenage girl’s severed head:

As he threw open the door, he saw the mendicant hurriedly shuffle something under his feet, and conceal it beneath his long clothes. The publican was on him in an instant, had him by the throat, charged him with theft, and dragged him from his seat. Judge of his sickening horror when from beneath the pauper’s clothes rolled forth the head of a girl about the age of fourteen or fifteen years, carefully separated from the trunk.

A search of the cottage reveals the girl’s mutilated and partially-cooked body. The authorities interrogate Swiatek and his family, revealing that the clan was complicit in killing and eating as many as fourteen people. The cannibal patriarch then reveals the origin of his habits:

In 1846, three years previous, a Jewish tavern in the neighbourhood had been burned down, and the host had himself perished in the flames. Swiatek, whilst examining the ruins, had found the half-roasted corpse of the publican among the charred rafters of the house. At that time the old man was craving with hunger, having been destitute of food for some time. The scent and the sight of the roasted flesh inspired him with an uncontrollable desire to taste of it. He tore off a portion of the carcase and satiated his hunger upon it, and at the same time he conceived such a liking for it, that he could feel no rest till he had tasted again. His second victim was the orphan above alluded to; since then—that is, during the period of no less than three years—he had frequently subsisted in the same manner, and had actually grown sleek and fat upon his frightful meals.

However, there is no need for him to be executed, as Swiatek hangs himself in prison.

Baring-Gould previously had the chapter published in an 1861 issue of Once a Week magazine as a self-contained article entitled  “Cannibalism in Galicia”, but I have yet to find an earlier attestation to the Swiatek case. More recently, a number of the more sensationalistic books on monster folklore or serial killers (or both) recount the story as presented by Baring-Gould. Where he got it from, however, is unclear. The story leaves a number of questions: were Swiatek’s family members, who admitted to their complicity in the murders, also tried? Is there any legal record of the affair?

Note, also, that while the disappearances were apparently blamed on wolves prior to the culprit being caught, there is no suggestion of Swiatek being an actual werewolf. As with the Gilles de Rais case study that took up the three previous chapters, Baring-Gould is here equating lycanthropy with any form of murderous sadism, particularly if it involves cannibalism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: