Johan de Witt (1625 – 1672) was a major political figure in the mid-seventeenth century’s Dutch Republic, a prosperous period that came to be known as the Dutch Golden Age. He controlled the government from 1650 until shortly before his death in 1672, and his main priority in those years was to decentralize and shift power from the central government to local ones. His decentralization agenda however led him to neglect the Dutch army and navy. When the Third Anglo-Dutch War erupted, the result was a series of military catastrophes in 1672.
Things got so bad that 1672 became forever after known in Dutch history as rampjaar – “disaster year”. It was against that backdrop that Johan de Witt went to visit his brother Cornelis, who had recently been sentenced to exile, on August 20th, 1672. An angry mob spotted and seized the brothers, then shot, stabbed, and beat them to death. It then strung up their corpses upside down from a gibbet, disemboweled them, ripped off their genitalia, and roasted and ate their livers and other parts in a cannibalistic frenzy.
History is full of dark and sad episodes, and one of the darker and more macabre ones was the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted for almost four hundred years from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. It was part of a triangular exchange that linked the New World, Europe, and Africa. Raw goods were shipped from the New World to Europe, and manufactured goods were shipped from Europe to Africa, where they were traded for slaves who were then shipped to the New World.
Upon their arrival in the New World, the slaves were made to toil in often horrific conditions, to produce more raw goods for shipment to Europe, and continue the cycle. While it lasted, the transatlantic slave trade saw the transportation of an estimated 12 – 15 million Africans to the New World for a life of slavery that was often dark, cruel, brutal, and short. At least it was for those who survived the horrific Middle Passage from Africa to the New World, during which millions of slaves perished.
17. The Macabre Passages of Slaves From Africa to the New World
The journey of Africans from what the Europeans referred to as the Dark Continent to the New World was broken into three macabre stages, that were often referred to as passages. Each of the passages was marked by its own cruelties and challenges, but it was the Middle Passage that was most infamous for the depths of inhumanity in that stage of the slaves’ journey. The process began with the First Passage, in which captive Africans were marched to the coast to get taken aboard ships.
The Middle Passage saw the Africans crammed into slave ships, packed like sardines to maximize the number of human cargo units, and chained in place in horrific conditions. The Final Passage was the surviving slaves’ journey from ports of disembarkation in the New World, such as Charleston, South Carolina, to the plantations or other destinations where they would be put to work. Depending on weather conditions and the prevailing winds, slave ships packed with chained unfortunates could take from one to six months to complete the Middle Passage.
16. The Vile Conditions in the Holds of Slave Ships
The journey of slaves from Africa to the New World was often described as hellish, and for once, the word was not used as literary hyperbole. Few things were darker, grimmer, and more macabre than the hold of a slave ship during the Middle Passage. To save space, slaves were chained by their ankles in pairs, and shackled to a post. Some ships allowed the slaves to move about during the day, but most kept them shackled in place for the entire journey. They were fed one meal a day with water, if at all.
Bodily functions had to be performed in place, and the chained Africans often spent the entire journey soiled in urine, vomit, and excrement. Diseases in the slave holds were rife, and mortality rates were high. Crews avoided entry into the dark and fetid human cargo holds, and slaves sometimes spent days shackled to rotting corpses. The stench was horrific, and sailors in other vessels frequently stated that they were able to smell slave ships from miles away, long before they hove into view.
15. Short Rations Aboard Slave Ships Often Transformed Already Macabre Conditions Into Nightmarish Ones
It was important to take on enough food and water for the macabre Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean. However, since a slave ship’s voyage was a commercial venture driven by the profit motive, investors seldom wanted to spend more money on supplies than was absolutely necessary to get their human cargo to the New World. Many times, they erred on the side of too little than too much. The results were often catastrophic for the chained slaves in the ship’s hold, and piled even more misery atop their already nightmarish load.
If food and water became scare on slave ships during the Middle Passage, the ship’s crew took care of themselves first. When transatlantic sailings took longer than expected and sustenance ran low, slave ship captains often turned to cruel and cold calculations in order to salvage what they could of their human cargo. As seen below, in order to figure out how to stretch the remaining food and water in order to arrive at port with at least some live slaves to sell, slavers were not above turning to cold-blooded murder.
A slave ship captain whose vessel ran low on food or water while crossing the Atlantic often turned to macabre calculations. Once he figured out that the remaining victuals could sustain only a certain number of slaves, the dark logic of the situation called for the disposal of the excess human cargo. So they were thrown overboard, to drown or be devoured by the sharks that routinely trailed slave ships. The most infamous and best-documented incident of slavers throwing live Africans overboard occurred on the slave ship Zong, in late November 1781.
The ordeal began on November 29th, and lasted for days, during which the ship’s captain went on a killing spree in which he had over 130 Africans thrown overboard to drown in the Atlantic. The event, which came to be known as the Zong Massacre, shocks modern sensibilities. At the time, however, such occurrences were sufficiently common that this instance would probably have been forgotten, save for one twist. An insurance fight erupted between the ship’s owners and their insurance company.
13. A Longer-Than-Expected Voyage’s Hellish Consequences
The Zong Massacre was saved from vanishing into historic obscurity only because, when the ship finally reached port in Jamaica, its owners filed an insurance claim to recover the value of the slaves whom their captain had thrown overboard. It was the subsequent litigation, and the legal precedents set, that preserved the details of the Zong Massacre for posterity. The record shows that the Zong was owned by Liverpool’s Gregson Slave-Trading Syndicate. In what was common business practice at the time, the syndicate took out insurance on the lives of their human cargo.
The Zong, with a crew of 17 men captained by a Luke Collingwood, a former ship’s surgeon, set sail with 244 slaves in its hold. The voyage was Collingwood’s first command at sea. Between the new commander’s inexperience, navigational mistakes, and a crew that was considered too small by contemporary standards for a vessel the size of the Zong, the Atlantic crossing took longer than expected. As a result, food and water provisions ran low. So the captain decided to reduce the number of mouths to feed and water, and threw 130 Africans overboard.
12. A Jury Determined That it Was OK to Throw Slaves Overboard to Drown
When the owners of the Zong filed an insurance claim for the murdered slaves, the insurers refused to pay on grounds that the claimants had killed the slaves they now wanted to get paid for. So the Gregson syndicate sued – and won in a jury trial. In Gregson v Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug. KB 232, the jury decided that the macabre expedience of throwing slaves overboard to drown was legal in the circumstances of the case, which meant that the insurers could be made to pay up.
The insurers appealed the trial court’s verdict, and sought to have it set aside and for the case to be retried. In a hearing before the Court of the King’s Bench, the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield, and two other King’s Bench judges reversed the lower court’s decision. The reversal was not made on grounds of humanity, or because the slavers had committed murder. Instead, the court reversed based on newly introduced evidence that showed that the slaves had been thrown overboard because of the ship captain’s negligence.
11. Nobody Was Prosecuted for the Zong Massacre, But it Nonetheless Set the Stage for the Abolition Movement
After the jury verdict was reversed on appeal, the Zong case was sent back to the lower court for a new trial. There is no evidence that another trial was ever held. By then, thanks to the efforts of a former slave named Olaudah Equiano, word of the Zong Massacre had spread. Led by anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp, the abolitionists demanded justice for the drowned slaves, and sought to have the ship’s crew prosecuted for murder. Their efforts to secure justice for the drowned slaves were unsuccessful, and nobody was ever criminally prosecuted for the killings.
Granville Sharp wrote both the Prime Minister and the Admiralty, but received no response. His attempts to get newspapers interested in the macabre episode also met with little success. However, thanks to his efforts and those of other activists, the massacre eventually began to attract national and international attention. As the macabre details of what had happened became more widely known, many were shocked into taking a stand against slavery, and they coalesced to launch the abolition movement. It was a gradual and long slog that took decades. Eventually, the British Royal Navy was tasked with the suppression of the international slave trade in 1807, and in 1833, Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire.
Holy Father Stephen VI’s time on the papal throne was not that long, and lasted for little more than a year between his election as pope in May, 896, until his death in August, 897. However, that was more than enough time to secure his place in the books, with one of the most controversial and macabre episodes in a papal history that has no shortage of controversy. It took place during a period, from roughly the middle of the ninth century to the middle of the tenth, that was marked by severe political instability in the Italian Peninsula.
Popes in this period were appointed and dethroned in rapid succession, based on the obscure machinations and intrigues of provincial Italian and Roman aristocratic families. Those rustics did not view the papacy and popes through our current global prism. Instead, to the factions in Rome and the surrounding region, the Holy See was simply another tool to be used to further their parochial ambitions and to thwart the ambitions of their rivals. Historical sources are relatively scarce as to the details of just what those rivalries revolved around, but the gist of them covered the basics: wealth, power, and prestige.
9. Formosus, Stephen VI’s Enemy to the Death, and Beyond
Pope Stephen VI hated a former Holy Father, Pope Formosus, who was born in Rome in 816. Formosus rose within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy to Cardinal Bishop of Porto, Rome’s port city and main harbor, in 864. Two years later, Pope Nicholas I appointed him papal legate and missionary to the pagan Bulgar tribes. He was so successful at it, that the converted Bulgarians clamored to have him appointed as their bishop. However, technicalities in the Catholic Church’s laws forbade that. In years to come, Formosus’s enemies used that success in converting the Bulgars, and his popularity with them, against him.
They asserted that he had corrupted the minds of the Bulgars “so that as long as he was alive, they would not accept any other bishop from the apostolic see“. Formosus was also alleged to have conspired with others to usurp the authority of Pope John VIII, and to have plundered church property. Between those charges and the Bulgar-related allegations, he was excommunicated. He was restored to the Church’s good graces after John VIII’s death in 882, and resumed his bishopric of Porto, which he held until he was elected pope in 891.
Pope Stephen VI was born into the ruling family of Spoleto, an independent duchy in central Italy. In 891, an earlier Pope Stephen V had reluctantly crowned Guy III, Duke of Spoleto as Holy Roman Emperor. However, his preference had actually been for the East Frankish King Arnulf of Carinthia. When Formosus became pope, he was lukewarm at best towards the Spoletan Emperor Guy, and like Stephen V before him, he also preferred Arnulf. In 892, Guy and the Spoletans forced Pope Formosus to crown Guy’s underage son Lambert as co-emperor. While at it, the Spoletans also forced him to make their relative, Stephen, the future pope and persecutor of Formosus’s corpse, a bishop. Resenting the Spoletans’ ham-handedness, Formosus persuaded Arnulf to invade Italy and liberate it from the Spoletans.
Arnulf complied, and in 894, he invaded and occupied northern Italy. Guy died later that year, and left his son Lambert in the care of his mother. Mother and child proved no match for Arnulf, who defeated their forces, and seized Rome in 895. Formosus promptly ditched the Spoletans, and crowned Arnulf Holy Roman Emperor in Saint Peter’s basilica. The new emperor then set out to mop up the Spoletans, only to suffer a stroke, which paralyzed him and forced him to end the campaign. Formosus himself died a few months later, in 896. He was succeeded by Boniface VI, who lasted only 15 days as Holy Father, before he died of gout. He was followed by the Spoletan Stephen VI, who was livid at Formosus for what he perceived as an unforgivable offense against, and betrayal of, his family.
Pope Formosus was dead, but that did not stop the Spoletan Pope Stephen VI from giving him a piece of his mind. He ordered the rotting corpse of Formosus exhumed, and had it hauled to the papal throne. There, in one of the papacy’s weirdest episodes, the remains were subjected to an ecclesiastical trial before the Roman clergy, that came to be known as the “Cadaver Synod”. With Formosus’ reeking corpse propped on the throne, Stephen VI conducted the prosecution, while a teenage deacon, placed behind the dead pope, conducted the defense. Stephen’s list of charges against Formosus was long, and included perjury; serving as bishop while actually a layman; transmigration of sees in violation of canon law; and of generally having been unworthy of the pontificate.
The proceedings were just as ghoulishly farcical and macabre as one might imagine. The unhinged Stephen would scream the accusations against Formosus’ cadaver, then the deacon hiding behind the dead pope, imitating Formosus’ voice, would deny the charges. To no one’s surprise, Formosus’s corpse, being a corpse, lost the case, and was found guilty. An ancient Roman penalty, damnatio memoriae, meaning “condemnation of the memory” and typically decreed by the Senate against those who brought dishonor upon the state, was applied. Stephen VI then had the papal vestments stripped from Formosus’ corpse, to be replaced with rags. Next, he ordered the amputation of three fingers from Formosus’ right hand, which he had used in consecrations. Then he had the body dumped in a pauper’s grave.
6. Pope Stephen VI Took Vindictiveness to Macabre Heights
The macabre trial, conviction, and punishment of Formosus’s corpse failed to satisfy Pope Stephen VI and sate his vindictiveness for long. Soon thereafter, still raging at the deceased Holy Father’s insult to the Spoleto family, he again had Formosus’ corpse dug up, then ordered it loaded down with stones and tossed into the Tiber river. The man was clearly insane, and his bizarre behavior led to widespread rioting that finally ended with his ouster. The rioters got a hold of Stephen VI, and he was stripped of his papal vestments, imprisoned, and strangled to death in his cell.
Pope Stephen VI and the Cadaver Synod might have been the era’s weirdest pope and papal episode, but neither would prove to be the worst in a period that is often described as the nadir of the papacy. In the following few decades, before serious reform efforts were finally made, the woeful list of Stephen VI’s successors would include Pope Sergius III, who murdered two predecessors and fathered an illegitimate child (who would go on to become pope). Another pope, John XII, became a serial rapist and murderer and transformed the papal palace into a de facto brothel. Yet another Holy Father, Benedict IX, sold the papacy in order to fund his retirement.
Josef Mengele (1911 – 1979), an SS extermination camp doctor, gained the macabre moniker the “Angel of Death”. The son of a Bavarian farm machinery manufacturer, Mengele grew up in comfort, and developed an early passion for music, skiing, and art. He studied philosophy in university, and joined the Brown Shirts in 1934. A year later, he received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Munich, which got him into the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene. It was the start of a dark journey.
In 1938, Mengele joined the SS, and during World War II, he served as a combat doctor on the Eastern Front until he was wounded in 1943. After he recovered from his injuries, he was transferred to Auschwitz as camp doctor. There, he greeted new arrivals and cursorily sorted out those who got to live as slave laborers from those to be sent immediately to the gas chambers. He was also a sadist who conducted gratuitously cruel and deadly human experiments upon the camp’s prisoners, with little regard to the safety or well-being of his victims. Unfortunately, as seen below, he got away with it.
Josef Mengele ended up in a British POW camp after the war. However, he hid his true identity with an assumed name, so his stint in captivity was relatively brief before he was released. He then went into hiding, helped by a network of Nazi sympathizers in the Vatican. He eventually made it to South America and settled in Argentina in 1949. By the early 1950s, Mengele had resumed living under his real name and made a good living as a salesman for his family’s farm equipment business, Karl Mengele & Sons. He also acquired an interest in a pharmaceutical company.
In 1960, however, Mengele’s deeds in Auschwitz became more publicly known, and West German prosecutors sought to have him arrested and extradited. Between that and fears that the Israelis – who had recently seized Adolf Eichmann in Argentina – might be after him, Mengele went on the lam once again. This time, he headed to Brazil, where with the help of Nazi sympathizers, he settled down and purchased a coffee and cattle farm in Sao Paulo. He was never held accountable for his crimes and died in a swimming accident in 1979.
Throughout history, it is unlikely that there were that many people who have ever been as obsessed with hookers as Gary Ridgway (1949 – ) was. Unfortunately for the working women, he came in contact with, his obsession was of the extremely macabre kind: that of a prolific serial killer with his target population. Ridgway, also known as “The Green River Killer”, was convicted of the murder of 48 women, most of them prostitutes. He would eventually confess to the murder of 71 sex workers.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Ridgway grew up in a poor neighborhood and was raised by parents who often engaged in violent arguments. He had peed in his bed until he was thirteen years old, and whenever he wet the sheets, Ridgway’s mother would wash his genitals. He informed psychologists that in his teens, he had been sexually attracted to his mother, even as he fantasized about killing her. His father, a bus driver, often complained about the proliferation of prostitutes in and around the neighborhood.
Gary Ridgway was a dyslexic child, with an IQ in the 80s. His violent criminality began in the 1960s, when at age sixteen, he led a six-year-old boy into the woods and stabbed him in the liver. The child survived, and stated that Ridgway had laughed as he walked away. After high school, Ridgway joined the Navy and was sent to Vietnam, where he served aboard a supply ship. Upon his discharge, he got a job painting trucks, and spent 30 years in that occupation. He was a family man, although one who had trouble keeping a marriage going; he was married three times. He was also a regular churchgoer who was described by many who knew him as a religious fanatic.
Ridgway was into ladies of the night, and long before he began to kill them, he was a frequent customer of these working women. His macabre career as a serial killer began in the early 1980s. He would pick up these women, runaway teenagers, or other vulnerable women, along Route 99 in King County, Washington. He took them to his home, where he usually choked them to death with his bare hands, although he sometimes garroted them with a cord or wire. He dumped the bodies in remote forested areas in King County, and often returned to the corpses to have his macabre way with them.
The authorities began to suspect that a serial killer was on the loose when sex workers and teenage runaways began to disappear along Route 99. After the first five bodies surfaced in the Green River, the press dubbed the unknown culprit “The Green River Killer”. In 1987, suspicion fell upon Ridgway, when many of the working women who worked along Route 99 – which he drove to and from work – described a suspect who resembled him. When investigators scrutinized Ridgway’s work record, they discovered that the disappearance of many victims coincided with his days off. He was taken into custody, but passed a polygraph test, and allowed investigators to take hair and saliva samples. He was released for lack of evidence and was soon back on the prowl.
Finally, in 2001, a new generation of detectives, who had been children when Ridgway first began to murder women, made more effective use of computers in the Green River Killer investigation. They also had access to modern DNA techniques that had not existed in the 1980s. When Ridgway’s hair and saliva samples, carefully preserved since 1987, were sent for DNA analysis, they returned a match that tied him to 4 victims. He was arrested, and entered a plea bargain in which he disclosed the locations of dozens of still-missing women. In exchange, he was spared the death penalty and was sentenced instead to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading