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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/229

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SUPERSTITION AND CRIME.

The records of the criminal courts in West Prussia during the last half century contain numerous instances of the violation of graves from superstitious motives. Thus in March, 1896, a peasant died in the village of Penkuhl; soon afterward his son was taken ill of a lingering disease, which the remedies prescribed by the country doctor failed to relieve. It did not take long for the "wise women" of the village to convince him that his father was a "nine-killer," and would soon draw after him into the grave nine of his next of kin. The sole means of depriving him of this fatal power would be to disinter him and sever his head from his body. In accordance with this advice the young man dug up the corpse by night and decapitated it with a spade. In this case the accused, if tried in court, might honestly declare that he acted in self-defense; indeed, he might plead in justification of his conduct that he thereby preserved not only his own life, but also the lives of eight of his nearest and dearest relations, and that he should be commended rather than condemned for what he had done. It is the possibility and sincerity of this plea that render it so difficult to deal with such offenses judicially and justly. Here is needed what Tennyson calls

"The intuitive decision of a bright
And thorough-edged intellect, to part
Error from crime."

Quite different, however, from a moral point of view, is the opening-of graves in quest of medicaments, and especially of talismans, which are supposed to bring good luck to the possessor or to enable him to practice sorcery and to commit crime with impunity. In ancient times, and even in the middle ages, physicians sometimes prescribed parts of the human body as medicine, and in Franconia, North Bavaria, a peasant now occasionally enters an apothecary's shop and asks for "Armensünderfett," poor sinner's fat, obtained from the bodies of executed malefactors and prized as a powerful specific. The culprit was tried first for murder and then for lard, and thus made doubly conducive to the safety and sanitation of the community. Formerly many persons went diligently to public executions for the purpose of procuring a piece of the criminal as a healing salve, but since the hangman or headsman has generally ceased to perform his fearful functions in the presence of a promiscuous crowd, such loathsome remedies for disease are sought in churchyards.

In May, 1865, a Polish peasant in Wyssokopiz, near Warsaw, discovered that the grave of his recently deceased wife had been opened and the corpse mutilated. Information was given to the police, and a shepherd's pipe, found in the churchyard, led to the