Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/226

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
212
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

into the room, crying: "The demons have stolen your child and put a changeling in your bed: beat him, beat him, if you wish to have your child again!" Under the influence of this suggestion, which seemed to be almost hypnotic in its character, the bewildered mother began to beat the boy. The aunt now seized him and swung him to and fro, as if she would fling him out of the window, at the same time calling out to Satan: "There! you have him; take your brat!" She then gave him back to his mother with the words: "Throw him to the ground, drub him, beat him to death; otherwise you will never recover your child." This advice was followed, and the boy severely strapped with a heavy girdle as he lay on the floor. Meanwhile Bekker, hearing the noise, got up and at first tried to intervene for the protection of his son, but was easily convinced by his wife that she was doing the right thing, and persuaded to aid her in discomfiting the devil by beating the boy with a juniper stick. The process of exorcism, thus renewed with increased vigor, soon proved fatal. At this juncture, as the son of the aunt, a lad of five years, threw himself down with loud lamentations beside the dead body of his little cousin, his mother cried out: "Beat him; he is not my child! Why should we spare him? We shall get other children! Thereupon he, too, was maltreated in the same manner until he expired. The aunt then declared that the devil had crept into the stovepipe, and went to work to demolish the stove, but, when she was prevented from doing so, fled into the garden, where she was found the next morning by the school-teacher. By this time Bekker and his wife seem to have come to their senses, and were sitting by the corpses of the murdered children, weeping and praying, as the neighbors entered the house. The trial, which took place at Ostrov in January, 1872, led to the introduction of conflicting expert testimony concerning the mental soundness of the accused, and the matter was finally referred to a commission of psychiaters in Berlin, who decided that Bekker and his wife were not suffering from mental disease, and therefore not irresponsible, but that the aunt was subject to periodical insanity to such a degree as not to be accountable for her actions. Curiously enough, the jurors remained uninfluenced by this testimony, and pronounced her guilty of the crime laid to her charge, and in accordance with this verdict the court sentenced her to three years' imprisonment with hard labor. The jurors even went so far as to declare that she herself did not believe in the existence of elf children or satanic changelings, but made use of this popular superstition for her own selfish purposes, and that she guilefully denounced her own boy as an imp in order to get rid of him. In this verdict, or rather in the considerations urged in support of it, it is easy to perceive the effects of strong local prejudice against the