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