Werewolves In London
Writers often compare the Werewolf Trials in Europe to the Salem Witch Trials. This makes some sense. While there are certainly differences, there are a number of similarities.
The Salem Witch Trials refer to one very specific event in one town at one point in American history. There were a number of other witch trials in U.S. history, and certainly many in European history, however, what makes the Salem Witch Trials notable was how quickly they went from being a series of allegations to a tragic hysteria. Meanwhile, the Werewolf Trials refer to a number of different accusations that happened in several countries over a period of three hundred years.
Being accused of being a werewolf was one of many forms of blasphemy one could be accused of in Europe, and people were a lot more likely to be accused of witchcraft than being a werewolf. The Salem witch trials stopped at a definitive moment, while the Werewolf Trials gradually ceased over a long period of time.
However, it’s hard not to notice the similarities. Like in Salem, some of the accused confessed, usually under torture. In most of these cases, accused werewolves were believed to have made a pact with the Devil. Like in Salem, it’s remembered as a particularly strange moment in history, a moment where superstition had very definitive consequences on everyday people.
Like with witchcraft, the punishment for being a werewolf was usually death, although some were sentenced to whipping.
Yes, it’s not an easy life as a werewolf.
While belief in werewolves would subside by the end of the nineteenth century, there were still a few cases of people claiming to be werewolves. By this time, the storyline had changed to create a much more similar creature to what we know now: a werewolf was the victim of a curse, and usually hunted at night.
Famously, there was the case of Manuel Blanca Romasanta. In the 19th century, Romasanta was Spain’s first known serial killer. He attempted to argue in court that he was not in control of his actions due to him having the dreaded werewolf curse.
His defense was thrown out of court, but the claim did ultimately prevent him from getting the death penalty. The Queen commuted his sentence from the death penalty to life in prison. This is particularly interesting because it returns us back to an old theme in my articles: the rise of medical science in the Victorian era.
Some articles about him seem to imply that they thought Romasanta was a werewolf as the result of a medical condition, but from my reading, that interpretation seems to be somewhat misleading. He was thought to possibly have “lycanthropy,” yes, but specifically, his lycanthropy was believed to be a “monomania.”
In the nineteenth century, the word “monomania” was used to refer to a specific obsession that can drive a person to insanity. Doctors attempted to treat monomanias with hypnosis. In other words, it wasn’t necessarily that they believed Romasanta to literally be a werewolf, but they did believe it was possible that he thought he was. In this case, it’s sort of similar to a delusion.
It’s not really clear if Romasanta sincerely believed himself to be a werewolf, or if he was the original Son of Sam and lying in an attempt to avoid the death penalty. I’m inclined to believe the latter, but that is a personal speculation. There’s not a lot known about the rest of his life, but it is believed that he ultimately died of natural causes in prison.
By the end of the Victorian era, most people saw werewolves the way we do today. A handful of superstitions continued (and still continue) to live on, but most people stopped believing in them. Instead, with the rise of popularity of gothic fiction, the werewolf went from being a real accusation to a horror monster.
Which, by my estimate, is a good place for it. The werewolf is a great monster, and one that makes for a fun story. It plays to primal fears, and if you like your horror stories to be a little gross, the werewolf can usually help you out with that.