THE BLOG

A Demon in the Head I: Madness and Murderous Violence

02/05/2009 09:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the year 1689, in the Bavarian town of Haidau north of Munich, a twelve-year-old girl named Katharina Gruber announced to everyone that spirits regularly paid her visits to tell her about the condition of departed souls. She soon had a reputation as a medium, and with the help of her parents she was established in her own little cottage to receive the public and their payments for her communications with dead relatives, dead friends, and so on. Local officials did not like the business at all, and within a few months she was arrested as a swindler and imprisoned. Once in prison, the girl promptly informed the authorities that she was a witch, that her mother and another woman were also witches, and that the three of them had made a pact with the Devil and had regularly flown (as witches always did) to the witches' dances (the Witches' Sabbath), where, according to the girl, all sorts of disgusting orgiastic rituals and fornications and blasphemies occurred by the eerie light of the moon. As the authorities continued to question the girl, three families of witches were exposed. All the parents in these families and eight of ten children between the ages of seven and sixteen were convicted of witchcraft and eventually executed. A girl of three years had also claimed to be a witch and confessed to sex with the Devil, but after considering her age, the authorities spared her. The usual method of witch-execution in this region was to burn witches alive, adults and children, in a public spectacle attended by a large audience of local residents. Witches burned at the stake had wood piled high around them, the process often slow, the fire first burning the lower parts of the body, then the torso and arms and head, the agony of pain by fire reduced only by chance carbon monoxide asphyxiation or heat stroke early in the burning.

The questions immediately posed to us by this nasty driblet of history are clear: Who was crazy? Who was mad? Was it twelve-year-old Katharina Gruber? Her parents? The local officials? The judges at her trial? The other accused witches who confessed after or before torture? And what of the spectacle? How was it possible for the local crowd to watch such an event, the painful public death of men, women, and children they had known as neighbors?

Also in Bavaria, about 80 miles northwest of Haidau, is the town of Bamberg. Between 1623 and 1633, Bamberg and its surrounding district were ruled by Johann Georg II, who was both a bishop of the Catholic Church and a prince of the Holy Roman Empire. The Prince-Bishop had a passion for witch-hunting, and during the ten years of his reign he executed more than 600 witches, men, women, and children, most of them burned alive at the stake after confessing under torture to various pacts with the Devil. Not all these people were ignorant peasants: Johannes Junius, 55 years old and accused of witchcraft, was Burgomeister of Bamberg. During his trial, he smuggled out to his daughter from prison a letter telling her of his innocence no matter what he said publicly after torture by thumb-screws, leg-screws, and the infamous strappado that ripped his shoulders apart. He was burned alive at the stake on July 4, 1628. Historians estimate that during the witch-hunting craze in Europe and America it's likely that more than 100,000 witches were executed in public spectacles.

If you imagine the source of such nightmares was unique to Christianity, you are wrong. Let's leave Christian Europe and travel in our mental time-machine to pagan Rome during the reign of Caligula, Tiberius, or some other royal personage of the Empire. We visit the Colosseum, that huge torture chamber in which nearly every day in the week thousands of ordinary Romans shout with joy at the spectacle of men, women, and children from every corner of the Empire (and many from the very streets of Rome) on the sand, alive, half-naked, defenseless as they are torn to pieces by lions, tigers, leopards, bears, or even fellow humans, the gladiators who wield maces, swords, spears, or hatchets, flesh crushed, ripped, and gored, the sand soaked in blood. The daily consequence was such an abundance of dead human meat that modern scholars have been provoked to write whole books debating the logistics puzzle of how the bodies were disposed. Again, we have a question: How was it possible for the Roman crowd to enjoy this human butchery? Were they all mad?

Are these spectacles of death in pagan Rome and Christian Europe merely some dark twist in the history of Western civilization? The evidence says otherwise. Far away in the Americas 600 hundred years ago, among people uncontaminated by ancient Rome or Christianity, we find the answer at the marvelous tourist delight of a huge flat-topped Aztec pyramid in what is now Mexico City. If we imagine ourselves on the flat top of that pyramid in the 15th century but before the arrival of the Europeans, we might see a fellow who with some assistance has just made the arduous climb up the steep steps of the pyramid to the flat top where a bevy of priests and royalty awaits him. He's decked out in some finery, his skin painted in places, his body healthy-looking after some months of fattening. In short order, he's laid out on a stone table, a priest holding each leg, a priest holding each arm, a fifth priest waving a black obsidian knife in the air as he chants above the prone body. Finally the knife descends, slices through the victim's diaphragm, and the priest with the knife inserts his hand and arm to find the beating heart. The heart is quickly ripped out of the living body as arterial blood spurts and fountains everywhere. The heart is held up, raised to the sky with a chant before it's tossed into a ceremonial bowl blackened by the blood of previous victims. One blow of a sword cuts the head from the body, and like the heart, the head is held up with a chant before it's finally taken to the edge of the flat top of the pyramid and tossed down the steep steps to the crowd below. Ultimately the head will be mounted on a high pole and become part of the long lines of heads that line the two sides of the road leading to the pyramid. And the body? The headless body is the last of the victim to be tossed down the steps of the pyramid, the falling body helped along by guards at various places on the steps to keep it moving, keep it falling on the steps until finally it reaches the ground. Now the crowd hurries forward to quickly cut the body to pieces, with some pieces of the body carried home. Carried home? Legs, thighs, and arms are carried home to be cooked and eaten. The torso is fed to local animals. Here again we have a problem in logistics, since so many thousands of victims--men, women, and children--were sacrificed on the pyramids, sometimes thousands in a day, it's apparent that disposal of the bodies had to require special attention. Again, it's the crowd that holds our interest: in 16th century Mesoamerica, blood-gushing ceremonies of human sacrifice, not only of captives but also of local people carefully prepared for ritual, were common entertainments attended by thousands of spectators. Were they all mad? What exactly did they feel?

Between July, 1982 and March, 1984, a period of 20 months, an American "family man", 33 years old, church-goer with a wife, son, and pick-up truck, murdered 40 women, a steady rate of approximately twice a week, the ages of the women ranging from 15 to 31 years old. His name was Gary Leon Ridgway, and 17 years passed before he was arrested in 2001 on the basis of DNA evidence. He pleaded guilty to 48 murders, but said he actually killed about 90 women, most of whom he picked up in his truck along Pacific Highway South (State Route 99) in the state of Washington. Ridgway said he talked to the women, got their mind off anything they seemed nervous about, showed them a picture of his son, got them in his truck and eventually killed them. Again, the questions confront us: Was he mad? What did he feel as he left his wife and son at home twice a week to kill random women on the highway? What did he feel later as he looked at their dead bodies?

Several years ago in Germany, a 49-year-old woman named Anna Arbenz (not her real name), a nurse and mother of three children, killed her two younger children (ages 9 and 10) by sedating them with a drug and then drowning them in a river. She then tried to commit suicide by cutting her arteries, but she was found early enough to be rescued. When questioned later, she said she had also wanted to kill her oldest child (a girl age 13), but the child was not at home at the time of the murders. Frau Arbenz claimed she had a genetic defect that made her unable to feel emotions and made her life senseless. She said she could not identify other people's emotions or intentions by interpreting their facial expressions or by grasping information from intonations in speech. She said she was unable to communicate with other people, but in her daily life she was known as a social person and she participated in social events. She said her children suffered from the same genetic disorder and killing them was justified because their lives were as senseless as her own. To the police, she described the murders without apparent emotion. In court, Frau Arbenz was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Again, we have questions: Was she mad? Is madness synonymous with insanity? Was the absence of feeling when she killed her children possible?

Empathy is the ability to imagine or feel the emotions of other people. The clinical entity known as Asperger's syndrome is categorized as a mild autistic disorder involving average or high intellectual functioning coupled with restricted social interaction due to typical autistic difficulties in social cognition, primarily a deficit in sensing the mental or emotional state of others coupled with a deficit in empathy. In a recently reported case, a young man 22 years of age (we will call him H.) who had been diagnosed as autistic at the age of 5 (and later diagnosed with Asperger's disorder), while walking home from his job in a sandwich shop, was approached by an 8-year-old boy on a bicycle. The boy asked some questions about a popular game called Game Boy. H. had no interest in the conversation and told the boy to leave him alone. When the boy accidentally ran over H.'s foot with his bicycle, H. pulled out a gun that he carried for protection and shot the boy dead. Was H. mad? H. was tried for murder, but unlike Anna Arbenz, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Murderous violence has always been more prevalent in some places than in others. The most important questions are why and how and what if any are the threads that connect murderous violence in the Roman arena or in an Aztec ritual to murderous violence that kills an 8-year-old boy on a bicycle or a 10-year-old girl burned at the stake as a witch? Are there connections between spectacles of death, lynch mobs, terrorism, and individual murderous violence? Modern science is now providing possible explanations and connections that were not available until recently, and it's these explanations and connections that are the focus of this series. Stay tuned.

(to be continued)

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