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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/225

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SUPERSTITION AND CRIME.

found that the lad had done nothing worthy of blame, but that his only fault was an exceptionally large head. This cranial peculiarity, offensively conspicuous in what seems to have been a narrow-headed family, was reason enough for the parents to disown their offspring, and to treat him as the counterfeit of a child foisted in by the fairies. At Hadersleben, a considerable market town of North Silesia, the wife of a farmer, in 1883, gave birth to a puny infant, which the parents at once assumed to be a changeling. In order to defeat the evil designs of the elves and to compel the restoration of their own child, they held the newborn over a bed of live coals on the hearth until it was covered with blisters and died in intense agony. In East Prussia, the Mazurs, a Polish race, whose only notable contribution to modern civilization and the gayety of nations is the mazurka, take precautionary measures by placing a book (usually the Bible, although any book will do) under the head of the newborn babe, so as to prevent the devil from spiriting it away and substituting for it one of his own hellish brood, thus unwittingly furnishing a marvelous illustration of the beneficent influence of the printing press and the magic power of literature. The Estnian inhabitants of the island of Oesel in Livonia refrain from kindling a fire in the house while the rite of baptism is being celebrated, lest the light of the flames should render it easier for Satan surreptitiously to exchange an imp for the infant. After the sacred ceremony has been performed there is supposed to be no danger of such a substitution.

One of the most incredible instances of this extremely silly and surprisingly persistent superstition occurred in 1871 at Biskunizy, a village of Prussian Posen, where a laborer, named Bekker, had by industry and frugality gradually acquired a competence and been able to buy a house of his own, in which he led a happy domestic life with his wife and five children, of whom he was very fond. After fourteen years of unbroken felicity the wife's elder sister, Marianne Chernyāk, came from Poland to pay them a visit. This woman was a crackbrained devotee, who spent half her time in going to mass and the other half in backbiting her neighbors. She also claimed that she could detect at once whether a person is in league with Satan, and could cast out devils. The villagers came to look upon her as a witch, and avoided all association with her, especially as her aberrations manifested themselves in exceedingly malevolent and mischievous forms. Unfortunately, she acquired complete ascendency over her younger sister, who accepted her absurd pretensions as real. On November 19, 1871, Marianne, after returning from confession, went to bed, but at midnight Mrs. Bekker, who slept with her youngest child, a boy about a year old, was awakened by a fearful shriek and lit the lamp. Thereupon the sister rushed