Europe’s Forgotten Werewolf Trials

Stories of witch trials throughout history are pretty well-known. During the witch hunts that took place across Europe, but especially in the areas of present-day Germany and France, thousands of innocent people were put on trial for witchcraft. Many of them were put to death. But while this was going on, trials of people accused of being another sort of supernatural creature were also occurring. People were put on trial for lycanthropy, the crime of being a werewolf, but these cases were often overshadowed by the more numerous witch trials.

The first known prosecution for werewolfery took place in Poligny, France in 1521. After a wolf attacked the town, three men wound up being arrested for being werewolves. After undergoing torture, one of the men, Pierre Bourgot, said they had made a deal with some men dressed all in black. The black-clad men gave them a potion that turned them into werewolves whenever they used it. As werewolves, they then roamed about eating children. The accused werewolves were put to death.

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Another case occurred in the French town of Dole, when the town’s children began disappearing in 1573. Some of the bodies were found dismembered in the woods. When a man named Gilles Garnier was caught with a child’s body, he was tortured on the rack. He also confessed to receiving an ointment that turned him into a werewolf. He said he and his wife were eating the children because they couldn’t afford food, but it is unclear whether or not he confessed just to stop the torture. He was found guilty and burned alive.

One of the more gruesome fates to meet an accused werewolf happened to a German man named Peter Stubbe. Instead of a potion or ointment, Stubbe claimed he was given a magic belt by Satan himself. This belt allowed him to turn into a werewolf. He confessed to killing and eating 14 children, including his own son. He also confessed to killing pregnant women and ripping their fetuses from their bodies before eating them.

Needless to say, such a sensational crime demanded an equally sensational execution. First, his skin was ripped off with hot pincers. Then, all his limbs were broken and his head was cut off before he was burned. His daughter, who he had raped, was also burned to death for some reason. Stubbe’s head was put on display to warn people against doing business with Satan.

Of course, none of these people were werewolves, and most of them were probably not guilty of anything. Research into the trials has shown that many of them might have practiced folk magic, a practice that caught up many of the women accused of witchcraft, too. Some of the accused men were also accused for political reasons, such as converting to Protestantism in a Catholic region. And more than a few were possibly mentally ill. Once they were put under torture, they probably would have confessed to anything to make the pain end.

No one is sure just how many were accused of lycanthropy, though it was only a small fraction of the number accused of witchcraft. Some werewolf trials were also combined with accusations of witchcraft, further complicating the numbers. All we know is how brutally they were treated, which begs the question: who were the true animals of the werewolf trials?

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