On Halloween of 1589 the Werewolf of Bedburg was put to death. He was tied to a wagon wheel and red hot pincers stripped the flesh from his body, degloving his legs and arms. His limbs were smashed with an iron cudgel. He was beheaded, and his body was tossed into the fire where the corpses of his mistress and daughter smouldered. His head was stuck on a pole that was attached to a carving of a wolf, so that all could know the foul supernatural beast that had been slain.
The Werewolf’s name was Peter Stumpp, a wealthy farmer in western Germany’s Rhineland. He confessed to terrible crimes.: over the course of twenty-five years, Stumpp said, he murdered and partially consumed fourteen children and two pregnant women, as well as drank the blood of all sorts of local livestock. Stumpp tore the fetuses out of the women while they were still alive, and he called them ‘dainty morsels.’ One of the children he killed was his own son, and he ate the boy’s brain.
Stumpp did all of this while in the shape of a wolf. The Devil had given the farmer a belt made of wolf pelt, and when Stumpp put it on he transformed into “a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body, and mighty paws."
Stumpp was missing his left hand; local legend said that the wolf had been injured, its own left paw cut off. This couldn’t be just coincidence.
As if Stumpp’s murderous crimes weren’t enough he also confessed to carrying on an incestuous relationship with his daughter, Sybile, known as Beele. When sleeping with his daughter wasn’t enough, Stumpp rutted with a succubus sent to him by the Devil.
Stumpp’s trial was one of the most famous of the werewolf trials of the post-Middle Ages period. The werewolf trials were going on about the same time as witch trials, but werewolves were much less common (except in Estonia, where they went absolutely bonkers for werewolves). Stumpp’s trial was an absolute sensation, and it raised the awareness of the danger of werewolves across Western Europe, making the werewolf trials a little more hip.
Today some believe that the werewolf trials were probably the way primitive Europeans dealt with what we would now know as a serial killers; that humans could commit such terrible, often sexualized and brutal crimes was unthinkable. The Devil had to be involved, and the killer couldn’t possibly have even been human at the time. Drawing on ancient pagan beliefs - the myths of warriors who could metamorphose into animals - ignorant villagers explained away the unspeakable evil in their midst.
There are many who assume that Stumpp was an early serial killer, and that while he wasn’t a werewolf he may have committed the murders for which he was so cruelly dispatched. But there is a school of thought that says Stumpp could have just been caught in religious conflict happening in Germany at the time. The Catholics were battling the Protestants in what was known as the Cologne War or the Seneschal Uprising, and things had been getting brutal and ugly in Rhineland. The war got so rough that the Spanish and the Italians got involved, and some wonder if the murders for which Stumpp confessed weren’t in fact committed by soldiers involved in the conflict. Stumpp may have been a Protestant, adding a major political flavor to the entire trial.
It’s worth noting that Stumpp confessed, as so many did, under torture. He was stretched on the rack, an excruciating torture in itself. But Stumpp didn’t confess until he was shown what other tortures he would experience; he opted to die rather than undergo those horrors. Of course his death was pretty shitty, as was his daughter and mistresses - both women were flayed alive before being strangled.
Stumpp caused an upsurge in werewolf interest in his day, but his story was largely forgotten until 1920, when the occultist Montague Summers found an old pamphlet in the British Museum that decribed the event. It’s the only primary documentation, and it’s not even particularly primary - it’s an English translation of a German pamphlet. Summers, by the way, is a character in his own right, and part of the early 20th century occult renaissance. But unlike many of the other seekers (Aleister Crowley was an acquaintence), Summers fashioned himself a witch hunter. He’s most famous today for translating the Malleus Malificarum, the 15th century witch hunting manual.
Was Peter Stumpp a killer? It’s not impossible, and while we consider Jack the Ripper the first modern serial killer history is littered with murderous fiends who fit the bill. The fact that Stumpp may have been caught in the middle of a war of faith doesn’t mean he was completely innocent.