Werewolf Wednesday: Sabine Baring-Gould Chapter 15 (1865)

François Bertrand, the “Human Hyæna”

Chapter 15 of Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Were-Wolves has the intriguing title “Anomalous Case.–The Human Hyæna” but turns out to, again, have a tenuous link to lycanthropy.

The chapter opens with an account of the flesh-eating ghouls depicted in the Arabian Nights (“it is well known that Oriental romance is full of stories of violators of graves”). Baring-Gould argues that these ghouls were inspired by actual grave-robbers who dug up fat and hair from corpses for use in magic spells.

He then provides a story of fifteenth-century ghouls from Fornari’s History of Sorcerers; as this tale attributes the habit of blood-drinking to its ghouls, Baring-Gould comments that the story connects ghouls to vampires — and therefore, indirectly, to werewolves, as the present book has already drawn a line between the vampire and the lycanthrope.

The next citation is from The Golden Ass. Baring-Gould provides an excerpt in which a character advises another to keep close watch on a corpse, as “the witches, infamous wretches that they are! can slip out of their skins in an instant and change themselves into the form of any animal they have a mind… whether it be in the shape of a bird, or a dog, or a mouse, or even of a common house-fly” and eat human remains: “if the corpse be not restored to the relatives entire, the deficient pieces of flesh torn off by the teeth of the witches must be replaced from the face of the sleepy guardian.”

Another classical anecdote follows:

Marcassus relates that after a long war in Syria, during the night, troops of lamias, female evil spirits, appeared upon the field of battle, unearthing the hastily buried bodies of the soldiers, and devouring the flesh off their bones. They were pursued and fired upon, and some young men succeeded in killing a considerable number; but during the day they had all of them the forms of wolves or hyænas.

Baring-Gould again theorises that such tales are based on fact, and as an example of such an occurrence in real life, he details a happening recorded in the Annales Medico-psychologiques for July 1849. Because the details are “too revolting for reproduction” he gives only an outline of the narrative — which turns out to be that of François Bertrand, a man who had the habit of digging up corpses and doing questionable things to them:

In the night he climbed the wall, and dug up a little girl of seven years old. He tore her in half. A few days later, he opened the grave of a woman who had died in childbirth, and had lain in the grave for thirteen days. On the 16th November, he dug up an old woman of fifty, and, ripping her to pieces, rolled among the fragments. He did the same to another corpse on the 12th December. These are only a few of the numerous cases of violation of tombs to which he owned.

Baring-Gould comments that the fits of exhaustion that reportedly followed Bertrand’s antics “are very remarkable, as they precisely resemble those which followed the berserker rages of the Northmen, and the expeditions of the Lycanthropeists” and concludes that Bertrand’s case “scarcely bears the character of insanity, but seems to point rather to a species of diabolical possession.”

The author is perhaps too polite to mention the very real possibility that Bertrand (the man for whom the term “necrophile” was first coined) was actually motivated by sexual perversion. “Although he dug up the bodies of several men”, notes Baring-Gould, “he felt no inclination to mutilate them, whereas he delighted in rending female corpses.” Hmm.

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