23. A Macabre Disaster That Helped Fuel the Enlightenment
The exact number of casualties caused by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, fire, and tsunami, is unknown. Due to the paucity of records at the time and the chaos that followed the disaster, the figure is probably forever unknowable. However, the best estimates indicate that victims might have numbered as high as 60,000 dead in Lisbon alone. The grand total for the entire region that includes Lisbon and its surroundings might have been as high as 100,000 deaths, plus many more injured. The disaster’s impact was not limited to loss of lives and damage to people and property.
The Lisbon earthquake struck just as the Enlightenment had begun to get into full swing. It inspired significant philosophical discourse and exchanges that furthered the development of theodicy, or the question of how a just and good God could allow what had happened in the Portuguese capital to take place. The thorniest theodicy question was why God had sent an earthquake to crush His worshippers by the thousands in cathedrals and churches as they gathered in prayer to celebrate All Saints Day and glorify His name. The question was compounded and made thornier yet by the macabre twist of survivors who fervently prayed for God’s mercy, only for Him to send a tsunami that drowned them in Lisbon’s harbor.
In the long annals of macabre people, few were more macabre than Karl Denke (1860 – 1924). Little in his background hinted at what he would become. Denke was born into a wealthy family of farmers in the Kingdom of Prussia near Munsterberg, Silesia – today’s Ziebice, Poland. His early life is shrouded in mystery, but he ran away from home when he was twelve-years-old, and apprenticed himself to a gardener. Over the years, he worked a variety of jobs, and eventually took a stab at agriculture and decided to follow in the family’s tradition, and become a farmer.
After his father died, Denke used his share of the inheritance to buy a plot of land. Farm life and Denke were not a great match, however, and it did not take long before work on the fields reminded him why had why he had run away from home and the family farm as a child. So he sold his land, and bounced around various occupations for a few years. He eventually bought a small house in Munsterberg, and became an organ player in his local church.
After a life spent in aimless wandering about, Karl Denke seemed to have finally found his footing in Munsterberg. There, he developed a reputation as a devout evangelical, and became a well-liked and respected member of his community. A friendly avuncular figure, always kind and helpful to people, he was nicknamed “Vatter Denke“, German for “Papa Denke”, by his neighbors. His status took a turn for the worse in 1924, however, when people discovered just who the real Papa Denke was.
On December 21st, 1924, a passerby heard cries for help from Denke’s house. He rushed in to render assistance, and encountered a young man in distress, who staggered in a corridor as he bled profusely from a head wound. Before he collapsed on the floor, the victim blurted out that “Papa Denke” had attacked him with an ax. Police were called, and Denke was arrested. A search of his house turned up identification papers for a dozen men, plus various items of male clothes whose sizes indicated that they did not belong to Denke. It was the start of a series of ever more macabre revelations.
20. You Did Not Want to Accept Papa Denke’s Gifts of “Pickled Pork”
That the respected and admired “Papa Denke” had tried to murder a young man in his home with an ax was a big enough shock for the good people of Munsterberg, but worse was to come. A bigger shocker was in Karl Denke’s kitchen, where police found two large tubs that contained meat getting pickled in brine. The meat was attached to human bones. When they tallied the various bits and pieces, investigators estimated that Denke had been in the process pickling up to thirty people.
Police also found a notebook, in which Denke had listed the names of many more victims, as far back as 1921. It included the dates of their murders, and the weight of their pickled bodies. Investigators did not get the opportunity to grill Denke about his motives or get him to shed some light on his macabre deeds: he used a handkerchief to hang himself in his cell in his first night behind bars. Evidence gathered, however, revealed that Denke routinely ate his victims. He also fed their meat to guests, jarred and sold it as pickled pork, or gave jars of “pickled pork” to his neighbors as gifts.
19. The Aristocrat Who Led Medieval Peasants Against His Own Class
Georghe Doja (1470 – 1514) was a Transylvanian nobleman and soldier of fortune, who made a name for himself in the wars against the expansionist Ottoman Turks. Despite the fact that he was himself an aristocrat, he led a peasant rebellion in 1514 – a fierce but eventually unsuccessful uprising of the downtrodden Hungarian peasantry against their rapacious aristocratic overlords. After the peasant revolt was put down, Doja went down in history as both a notorious criminal and as a Christian martyr.
Based on his reputation as a successful military leader against the Turks, Doja was appointed by Pope Leo X to lead a Crusade against the Ottomans. About 40,000 volunteers gathered beneath his banner, comprised in the main of peasants, friars, and parish priests – medieval society’s lowest rungs. The Hungarian nobility however neither supplied the Crusaders nor offered military leadership. That was seen as especially unseemly, since military leadership was the main justification for the aristocracy’s elevated status and privileges.
As the Hungarian nobility shirked its obligations to aid Pope Leo X’s Crusade, the gathered throng of lower class volunteers began to voice its collective grievances against the exploitative nobles. By harvest time, the peasants’ resentment had reached a boil, and they refused to return and reap their lords’ fields. The nobles tried to seize the peasants by force and compel them to toil, but that did not sit well with Georghe Doja. He sided with the serfs against his own class, and led the Hungarian peasants in a violent rebellion that morphed into a war of extermination against the landlords.
Hundreds of castles and aristocratic manors were put to the torch, while thousands of the privileged nobles and gentry were killed. Many of the privileged class were tortured to death or executed in a variety of macabre and gruesome ways, such as crucifixion or impalement. The rebellion was finally crushed, and the peasantry was crushed with it. Hungary’s peasants were subjected to a reign of terror and a wave of retaliatory vengeance by the nobles, in which more than 70,000 were tortured to death.
After the defeat of the Hungarian peasants, their class was condemned to perpetual servitude. They were permanently bound to the soil, fined heavily, had their taxes sharply hiked, and the number of days they had to work for their landlords was increased. The uprising’s leader, Georghe Doja, was captured and condemned to a fiendishly cruel and macabre death. Accused among other things of having sought kingly powers, he was sentenced to sit on a hot iron throne, while a heated iron crown was affixed to his head.
Next, bloody hunks were torn out of Doja’s body, and nine of his chief lieutenants, starved beforehand, were forced to eat his flesh. The aristocratic backlash backfired, however. Twelve years later the Ottoman Turks invaded Hungary, and had a relatively easy time in the conquest of what was still a bitterly divided country. As to Doja, the revolutionary aspects of his life were drawn upon heavily throughout the communist era in Romania, his land of birth. Similarly in Hungary, where Doja is the most popular street name in villages, and a main avenue and metro station in Budapest bear his name.
In 1950, Ivy Cogdon was a fifty-year-old mother from a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, who was afflicted with a variety of nervous complaints. Among other things, she suffered from night terrors. Although unwell, few could have predicted Cogdon’s macabre acts on August 11th of that year. In the dead of night, with an ax in hand, she entered the room of her nineteen-year-old, Patricia, and smashed her skull. When police arrived, Cogdon admitted what she had done, and was duly arrested and charged with murder.
In her defense, Cogdon claimed that she was sleepwalking when she left her bedroom. While in that somnambulistic state, she thought that North Korean soldiers had invaded her suburban home and were attacking her daughter. So she grabbed an ax, and rushed to her daughter’s defense. As she swung at the imaginary North Korean soldiers to fend them off, she killed her daughter, instead. As she told detectives: ” I dreamt the [Korean] war was all around the house. I heard Pat screaming and rushed into her room, it was full of soldiers. I hit at them. I remember hitting the bed. Oh Pat, I don’t want to live now“.
15. A Macabre Fear of Asian Communists Got a Mother to Kill Her Daughter
While Ivy Congdon’s actions were bizarre, her fears were not uncommon at the time in Australia, where there was a borderline panic and hysteria about Asians and Asian communists. The country was only five years removed from World War II, when it had been threatened by a Japanese invasion. More recently, Mao’s communists had won control of China, and only two months earlier, the North Koreans had sparked the Korean War when they crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea.
Cogdon pled not guilty on grounds that she was sleepwalking at the time and unaware of her actions. At a coroner’s inquest, a psychiatrist testified that he thought Ivy was a somnambulist, or sleepwalker. As described by other doctors who had treated her before she killed her daughter, Cogdon’s medical history included powerful night terrors. She had been described as a “hysterical type” prone to blackouts and somnambulism. Their conclusion was that Mrs. Cogdon would not have known what she was doing when she killed her daughter.
14. Australia’s First Successful Sleepwalking Defense
At trial, Ivy Cogdon testified that of her many fears, her greatest was of the recently started Korean War, and of how she would protect her family if North Korean soldiers invaded. She was particularly worried that the invaders would “pollute” her daughter. On the night of the homicide, those fears were exacerbated and made more vivid when her daughter told her that she would volunteer as a transport driver if the Koreans invaded Australia. As she lay, wrapped in worries, her daughter told her: “Mummy, don’t be silly worrying about the war. It is not at your front door“.
That attempted reassurance only worsened matters, and made Mrs. Cogdon imagine what would happen if the war actually did come to her front door – and crossed the threshold. Based on the medical evidence, Mrs. Cogdon’s mental history, and testimony by family and friends that she had been a loving mother, devoted to her daughter, she was acquitted. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty on grounds that she was unaware of her actions at the time, and thus not responsible for their consequences. It was the first time in Australia that somebody had successfully used sleepwalking or somnambulism as a defense, so the case, Regina v. Cogdon, made legal history.
Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada (circa 1925 – 2003) was a military officer who seized power in a 1971 coup, and ruled the country until 1979. He had been commander of the Ugandan army when he got wind that he was about to be arrested for theft, so he overthrew the government and declared himself president. Amin’s regime was known for repression, ethnic persecutions, human rights abuses, economic mismanagement, corruption, and nepotism. But what sets him apart from other brutal and incompetent kleptocrats, and earns him a place on this list, was his unpredictable and often macabre behavior, and sheer bizarreness.
Amin’s governance was odd from the start, and grew increasingly more erratic and unpredictable with time. He started off as a conservative, and was initially supported by the West and Israel. Then he turned around, and became an ardent supporter of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and the PLO. He ordered the expulsion of Uganda’s ethnically Asian citizens and residents, and seized their and Europeans residents’ businesses and enterprises, which formed the economy’s backbone. He then handed them to relatives and supporters, who promptly drove them into the ground.
When the Ugandan dictator’s antics led the UK to sever diplomatic relations, Idi Amin declared that he had defeated Britain and awarded himself a CBE (“Conqueror of the British Empire”) medal. He also conferred upon himself a VC, or Victorious Cross, a copy of the British medal. Among the titles he bestowed upon himself were “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular“. While he was at it, Amin also declared himself King of Scotland. The man’s personal life was no less bizarre, with an added dose of the macabre tossed in for good measure.
A polygamist, Amin married at least six women, at least one of whom he murdered and dismembered. In 1975, a nineteen-year-old go-go dancer caught his eye. She had a boyfriend, however. Amin had him beheaded. He then married her in a lavish wedding that cost about 10 million US dollars, at a time when much of Uganda was hungry and malnutrition was widespread. Estimates of his victims range from 100,000 to half a million. A boneheaded attempt to seize a province of adjacent Tanzania led to a war, which Amin swiftly lost. He was forced to flee in 1979, first to Libya, and then to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family gave him asylum, refused to honor requests for his extradition, and paid him generous subsidies until his death in 2003.
11. An African Dictator Even Weirder Than Idi Amin
Bizarre and macabre as Idi Amin’s rule was, it did not hold a candle to that of a contemporary dictator in the Central African Republic: Jean-Bedel Bokassa (1921 – 1996). He began his career in the French colonial army, and was a captain when Central Africa gained its independence. The country’s new president, a distant cousin, invited Bokassa to head its armed forces. He accepted, and a few years later, staged a coup against his cousin, seized power, and declared himself president.
He then proceeded to rule as dictator from 1966 to 1979. Bokassa’s years in power were marked by terror, corruption, and increasingly bizarre behavior. His rule took a decided turn for the weird when Bokassa, a huge admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, declared the small landlocked country an empire, and anointed himself Bokassa I, Emperor of the Central African Empire. Bokassa bankrupted his impoverished country with a lavish coronation that cost about 80 million US dollars, with a diamond-encrusted crown that cost 20 million.
Bokassa’s rule was marked by a reign of terror in which he personally supervised the judicial beatings of criminal suspects. He decreed that thieves were to lose an ear for the first two offenses, and a hand for the third. He also oversaw the torture of political opponents to death, and added a macabre twist to the proceedings by feeding their corpses to crocodiles and lions he kept in a private zoo. To make matters even more macabre, there were also widespread accusations of cannibalism, triggered by photographs published in Paris-Match magazine of a refrigerator in one of his residences, that contained the bodies of children. Among Bokassa’s sundry atrocities, the most infamous began with the arrest of hundreds of schoolchildren in 1979. Their crime? They had refused to buy school uniforms from a company owned by one of Bokassa’s wives.
Emperor Bokassa I personally supervised the murder of over 100 children by his imperial guard. That was a final straw, and soon thereafter, French paratroopers deposed the deranged ruler. He went into exile in France, but within a few years, he had managed to waste the millions he had embezzled and squirreled away in overseas accounts. He was reduced to penury, and his dire financial straits became news when one of his children was arrested for shoplifting food. Bokassa returned to Central Africa in 1986, where he was tried and convicted of murder and treason, and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, however. He was released in 1993, and lived another three years before he died in 1996.
Albert Dekker (1905 – 1968) was a noted American character actor, with a career that four decades on stage and the silver screen. In that time, he accumulated a filmography of over 110 credits, and was praised for notable performances in films such as East of Eden, The Killers, Dr. Cyclops, Kiss Me Deadly, as well as in his final role in Sam Peckinpah’s classic western, The Wild Bunch. He also won acclaim for his moral courage in the midst of Red Scare early in the Cold War.
Dekker was one of the few actors in Hollywood who dared to stand up to and denounce the demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy, as well as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Hiccup with moral courage, however, is that comes with a cost, and often a steep one at that – otherwise the whole world would brim with moral courage. Dekker’s stance got him blacklisted in Hollywood and derailed his career. It took years, until the anticommunist fever finally broke and the McCarthyite hysteria waned, before Dekker was able to get back to work in Hollywood. Sadly, he is probably better known today not for his professional career or his moral courage, but for his macabre demise.
Albert Dekker’s life journey came to a weirdly macabre end in 1968. That year, he managed to land a great supporting actor part in The Wild Bunch. When he completed his final scene, he left the set, and seemed to fall off the map. Friends and family became concerned after days passed and nobody had heard from him. Among other things, he was a no show at a date with his fiancee, fashion model Geraldine Saunders. She tried to call him at home, but got no response.
So Saunders went to his apartment, knocked but got no answer, and finally pinned a note on a door that was already covered by notes from friends and acquaintances. When she returned later that day and found things still the same, she convinced the building manager to let her in the apartment. Once in the apartment, they found the bathroom door chained from the inside, and had to break it open. There, they were greeted with the macabre sight of Dekker’s corpse, hanged from a leather belt. That was not the worst of it.
In addition to the belt around his neck, there was another one around his waist, tied to a rope that bound his ankles. That, in turn, was wrapped around his wrist and clasped in his hand. Sun rays were drawn around his nipples in lipstick, which was also used to draw a vagina on his stomach. A hypodermic needle stuck out of each arm, and his right butt cheek had two needle punctures, above which the word “whip” was written in lipstick. Nor was that all.
In addition to the word “whip” on his butt, Albert Dekker’s body was covered in other words and phrases, also written in lipstick, such as “cocksucker”, “make me suck”, and “slave”. His death was initially ruled a suicide – albeit a decidedly weird one. However, after S&M toys and porn were found in his apartment, it was changed to accidental autoerotic asphyxiation that occurred in the midst of masturbation. Despite the coroner’s findings, foul play was suspected and the death was and remains suspicious.
In the long history of piracy, there were probably not that many pirates who were more ruthless than Jean-David Nau, better known as Francois L’Olonnais (1630 – 1669). One of history’s most feared pirates, his reputation for brutality and macabre acts stood out even in an age and within a profession where brutality and the macabre were the norm. He had a particular bone to pick with the Spanish, and his relentless pursuit of that vendetta earned him the nickname “The Flail of the Spaniards”.
Born in dire poverty in France, L’Olonnais was sold by his family into indentured servitude as a child. It was in that capacity that arrived in the Caribbean at age fifteen, to toil away the next ten years of his life on Spanish plantations. The menial work he was put to perform was back-breaking, and the conditions were exceptionally harsh. He endured so much mistreatment and so many humiliations that, by the end of his term of indentured servitude, he had come to greatly hate Spain and all things Spanish.
The recently indentured Jean-David Nau changed his name to Francois L’Olonnais and moved to Tortuga, a French island north of modern Haiti. At the time, Tortuga was a nest of piracy and lawlessness, and it did not take long before he joined its buccaneers. He showed such zeal in his new profession that within a short time, Tortuga’s French governor gave L’Olonnais his own ship, a letter of marque that authorized him to prey on Spanish ships as a privateer, and turned him loose. He set himself apart with a reputation for viciousness and ferocious cruelty in the treatment – or more accurately, mistreatment – of prisoners, especially Spanish ones.
An expert torturer, L’Olonnais got up to some pretty macabre stuff. Among other things, he liked to slice off strips of his victims’ flesh, burn them, or tighten ropes around their skulls until their eyeballs popped out of their sockets. Early in his career, he was shipwrecked off Yucatan. A majority of the crew survived and made to shore, only for most of them to perish soon thereafter when Spanish soldiers found and fell upon them. To survive, L’Olonnais covered himself in blood and viscera, and hid among the corpses. Later, he snuck into a nearby town that was celebrating the deaths of the pirates, and arranged for an escape back to Tortuga.
Francois L’Olonnais resumed his depredations against Spain and the Spaniards, and in 1666 he assembled a fleet of eight ships and 440 pirates to attack Maracaibo in modern Venezuela. En route, he came across and looted a Spanish treasure ship, which yielded 260,000 Spanish dollars, in addition to gemstones and cocoa beans. When he arrived at Maracaibo, L’Olonnais discovered that the citizens had fled. So he tracked them down into the nearby jungles, and tortured them until they revealed where they had hidden their valuables.
He and his men then spent two months engaged in widespread assault, pillage, and murder. They finally put the town to the torch and tore down its fortifications before they left. A year later, L’Olonnais led an even bigger pirate expedition against Central America, only for his men to get ambushed and massacred in Honduras. He was one of the few survivors who managed to escape back to a ship, but it ran aground off the coast of Panama. L’Olonnais disembarked and led his men inland in search of food, only to get captured, killed, and eaten by an indigenous tribe.
King Edmund II, better known as Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016), ruled over England from April 23rd to November 30th, 1016. The son of one of England’s worst kings, the weak and hapless Ethelred the Unready, Edmund turned out to be a vast improvement over his father, and proved himself made of sterner stuff than his predecessor. He earned the nickname “Ironside” because of the staunch resistance that he put up against a massive invasion led by the Danish King Canute.
In 991, Edmund’s father, Ethelred the Unready tried to buy off the Danes who then occupied northern England, and stop their incessant raids into his kingdom. He figured that if he paid them tribute known as the Danegeld, or “Danish gold”, they would back off. Unsurprisingly, rather than get the Danes to back off, the tribute only emboldened them. They upped their demands for more and more gold, and secure in the knowledge that they had little to fear from Ethelred, they continued to raid his realm. Finally, after he bankrupted his kingdom and beggared its people with the high taxes necessary to pay the Danegeld, an exasperated Ethelred resorted to a macabre expedient: a massacre of all Danish settlers in 1002. It made things worse.
King Ethelred the Unready’s massacre of the Danes led to an invasion by the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard. He conquered England in 1013, and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy. However, Sweyn died a year later, at which point Ethelred returned. He and his son Edmund, who played a key role, chased Sweyn’s son, Canute, out of England in 1014. Canute returned with a large Danish army which pillaged much of England, but Edmund mounted a fierce resistance that stymied the Dane. When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund, by now known as “Ironside”, succeeded him on the English throne.
His reign lasted only seven months, and came to a macabre end on November 30th, 1016. That night, Edmund went to the privy to answer a call of nature. Unbeknownst to him, an assassin lay in wait in the cesspit for the royal posterior to show up. When Edmund sat down to do his business, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger, and left the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels as he made his escape. Unfortunately for Edmund Ironside, even if his sides had been made of iron, his bottom was not.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading