From time to time in the course of human history natural depravity plumbs new depths—and not only during wars. The Sawney Beane case in the early seventeenth century concerned a family that lived in a cave and chose murder, cannibalism, and incest as its way of life.
For twenty-five years this family, rejecting all accepted standards of human behaviour and morality, carried on a vicious guerrilla war against humanity. Even a medieval world accustomed to torture and violence was horrified.
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Because over the years a large family was ultimately involved, most of whom had been born and raised in fantastic conditions under which they accepted such an existence as normal, taking their standards from the criminal behaviour of their parents, the case raises some interesting legal and moral issues.
Retribution when it finally came was quick and merciless, but for many of the forty-eight Beanes who were duly put to death it may have been unjust.
The case is simple enough, though scarcely credible, and has been well authenticated. Sawney Beane was a Scot, born within a few miles of Edinburgh in the reign of James VI of Scotland, who was also James I of England.
His father worked the land, and Sawney was no doubt brought up to follow the same hard working but honourable career. But Sawney soon discovered that honest work of any kind was not his natural metier. At a very early age he began to exhibit what today would be regarded as delinquent traits. He was lazy, cunning and vicious, and resentful of authority of any kind.
As soon as he was old enough to look after himself he decided to leave home and live on his wits. They were to serve him well for many years. He took with him a young woman of an equally irresponsible and evil disposition, and they went to set up “home” together on the Scottish coast by Galloway.
Home turned out to be a cave in a cliff by the sea, with a strip of yellow sand as a forecourt when the tide was out. It was a gigantic cave, penetrating more than a mile into the solid rock of the rather wild hinterland, with many tortuous windings and side passages.
A short way from the entrance of the cave all was complete darkness. Twice a day at high tide several hundred yards of the cave’s entrance passage were flooded, which formed a deterrent to intruders.
In this dark damp hole they decided to make their home. It seemed unlikely that they would ever be discovered. In practice, the cave proved to be a lair rather than a home, and from this lair Sawney Beane launched a reign of terror which was to last for a quarter of a century.
It was Sawney’s plan to live on the proceeds of robbery, and it proved to be a simple enough matter to ambush travelers on the lonely narrow roads connecting nearby villages. In order to ensure that he could never be identified and tracked down, Sawney made a point of murdering his victims.
His principle requirement was money with which he could buy food at the village shops and markets, but he also stole jewelry, watches, clothing, and any other articles of practical or potential value. He was shrewd enough not to attempt to sell valuables which might be recognized; these were simply stock-piled in the cave as unrealizable assets.
Although the stock-pile grew, the money gained from robbery and murder was not sufficient to maintain even the Sawney Beanes modest standard of living. People in that wild part of Scotland were not in the habit of carrying a great deal of money on their persons.
Sawney’s problem, as a committed troglodyte, was how to obtain enough food when money was in short supply and any attempt to sell stolen valuables taken from the murdered victims might send him to the gallows. He chose the simple answer. Why waste the bodies of the people he had killed? Why not eat them?
This he and his wife proceeded to do. After an ambush on a nearby coastal road he dragged the body back to the cave. There, deep in the Scottish bedrock, in the pallid light of a tallow candle, he and his wife disemboweled and dismembered his victim.
The limbs and edible fish were dried, salted and pickled, and hung on improvised hooks around the walls of the cave to start a larder of human meat on which they were to survive, indeed thrive, for more than two decades. The bones were stacked in another part of the cave system.
Naturally, these abductions created intense alarm in the area. The succession of murders had been terrifying enough, but the complete disappearance of people traveling alone along the country roads was demoralizing.
Although determined efforts were made to find the bodies of the victims and their killer, Sawney was never discovered. The cave was too deep and complex for facile exploration.
Nobody suspected that the unseen marauder of Galloway could possibly live in a cave which twice a day was flooded with water. And nobody imagined for a moment that the missing people were, in fact, being eaten.
The Sawney way of life settled down into a pattern. His wife began to produce children, who were brought up in the cave. The family were by no means confined to the cave. Now that the food problem had been satisfactorily solved, the money stolen from victims could be used to buy other essentials.
From time to time they were able to venture cautiously and discreetly into nearby towns and villages on shopping expeditions. At not time did they arouse suspicion. In themselves they were unremarkable people, as in the case with most murders, and they were never challenged or identified.
On the desolate foreshore in front of the cave the children of the Beane family no doubt saw the light of day, and played and exercised and built up their strength while father or mother kept a look-out for intruders—perhaps as potential fodder for the larder.
The killings and cannibalism became habit. It was survival, it was normal, it was a job. Under these incredible conditions Sawney and his wife produced a family of fourteen children, and as they grew up the children in turn, by incest, produced a second generation of eight grandsons and fourteen granddaughters.
In such a manner must the earliest cavemen have existed and reproduced their kind, though even they did not eat each other.
It is astonishing that with so many children and, eventually, adolescents milling around in and close to the cave somebody did not observe this strange phenomenon and investigate. The chances are that they did, from time to time—that they investigated too closely and were murdered and eaten.
The Sawney children were no doubt brought up to regard other humans as food. The young Sawneys received no education, except in the arts of primitive speech, murder and cannibal cuisine.
They developed as a self-contained expanding colony of beasts of prey, with their communal appetite growing ever bigger and more insatiable. As the children became adults they were encouraged to join in the kidnappings and killings.
The Sawney gang swelled its ranks to a formidable size. Murder and abduction became refined by years of skill and experience to a science, if not an art.
Despite the alarming increase in the number of Sawney mouths which had to be fed, the family were seldom short of human flesh in the larder. Sometimes, having too much food in store, they were obliged to discard portions of it as putrefaction set in despite the salting and pickling.
Thus it happened that from time to time at remote distances from the cave, in open country or washed up on the beach, curiously preserved but decaying human remains would be discovered.
Since these grisly objects consisted of severed limbs and lumps of dried flesh, they were never identified, nor was it possible to estimate when death had taken place, but it soon became obvious to authority that they were connected with the long list of missing people.
And authority, at first disbelieving, began to realize with gathering the nature of what was happening. Murder and dismemberment were one thing, but the salting and pickling of human flesh implied something far more sinister.
The efforts made to trace the missing persons and hunt down their killers resulted in some unfortunate arrests and executions of innocent people who se only crime was that they had been the last to see the victim before his, or her, disappearance. The Sawney family, secure in their cave, remained unsuspected and undiscovered.
Years went by. The family grew older and bigger and more hungry. The programme of abduction and murder was organized on a more ambitious scale. It was simply a matter of supply and demand—the logistics of a troglodyte operation.
Sometimes as many as six men and women would be ambushed and killed at a time by a dozen or more Sawney’s. Their bodies were always dragged back to the cave to be prepared by the women for the larder.
It seems strange that nobody ever escaped to provide the slightest clue to identify the domicile of his attackers, but the Sawney’s conducted their ambushes like military operations, with “guards” concealed by the road at either side of the main centre of attack to cut down any quarry that had the temerity to run for it.
This “three-pronged” operation proved effective; there were no survivors. And although mass searches were carried out to locate the perpetrators of these massacres, nobody ever thought of searching the deep cave. It was passed by on many occasions.
Such a situation could not continue indefinitely, however. Inevitably there had to be a mistake—just one clumsy mistake that would deliver the Sawney Beane family to the wrath and vengeance of outraged society.
The mistake, when it happened, was simple enough—the surprising thing was that it had not happened earlier. For the first time in 25 years the Sawneys, through bad judgment and bad timing, allowed themselves to be outnumbered, though even that was not the end of the matter.
Retribution when it finally came was in the grand manner, with the King himself talking part in the end game—the pursuit and annihilation of the Sawney Beane tribe.
It happened this way. One night a pack of the Sawney Beanes attacked a man and his wife who were returning on horse-back from a nearby fair. They seized the woman first, and while they were still struggling to dismount the man had her stripped and disemboweled, ready to be dragged off to the cave. The husband, driven berserk by the swift atrocity and realizing that he was hopelessly outnumbered by utterly ruthless fiends, fought desperately to escape. In the vicious engagement some of the Sawney’s were trampled underfoot.
But he, too, would have been taken and murdered had not a group of other riders, some twenty or more, also returning from the fair, arrived unexpected on the scene. For the first time the Sawney Beanes found themselves at a disadvantage, and discovered that courage was not their most prominent virtue.
After a brief violent skirmish they abandoned the fight and scurried like rats back to their cave, leaving the mutilated body of the woman behind, and a score of witnesses. The incident was to be the Sawney’s first and last serious error of tactics and policy.
The man, the only one on record known to have escaped from a Sawney ambush, was taken to the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow to describe his harrowing experience. This evidence was the break through for which the magistrate had been waiting for a long time.
The long catalogue of missing people and pickled human remains seemed to be reaching its final page and denouement; a gang of men an youths were involved, and had been involved for years, and they had to be tracked down.
They obviously lived locally, in the Galloway area, and past discoveries suggested that they were cannibals. The disemboweled woman proved the point, if proof were needed.
The matter was so serious that the Chief Magistrate communicated directly with King James VI and the King apparently took an equally serious view, for when he went in person to Galloway with a small army of four hundred armed men and a host of tracker dogs, the Sawney Beanes were in trouble.
The King, with his officers and retinue, and he assistance of local volunteers, set out systematically on one of the biggest manhunts in history. They explored the entire Galloway countryside and coast—and discovered nothing.
When patrolling the shore they would have walked past the partly waterlogged cave itself had not the dogs, scenting the faint odour of death and decay, started baying and howling and trying to splash their way into the dark interior.
This seemed to be it. The pursuers took no chances. They knew they were dealing with vicious, ruthless men who had been in the murder business for a long time. With flaming torches to provide a flickering light, and swords at the ready, they advanced cautiously but methodically along the narrow twisting passages of the cave.
In due course they reached the charnel house at the end of the mile-deep cave that was the home and operational base of the Sawney Beane cannibals.
A dreadful sight greeted their eyes. Along the damp walls of the cave human limbs and cuts of bodies, male and female, were hung in rows like carcasses of meat in a butchers cold room. Elsewhere they found bundles of clothing and piles of valuables, including watches, rings and jewelry. In an adjoining cavern there was a heap of bones collected over some twenty five years.
The entire Sawney Beane family, all forty-eight of them, were in residence; they were lying low, knowing that an army four hundred strong was on their tail. There was a fight, but for the Sawney’s there was literally no escape.
The exit from the cave was blocked with armed men who meant business. They were trapped and duly arrested. With the King himself still in attendance they were marched to Edinburgh—but not for trial. Cannibals such as the Sawneys did not merit the civilized amenities of judge and jury.
The prisoners numbered twenty seven men and twenty one women of which all but two, the original parents, had been conceived and brought up as cave-dwellers, raised from childhood on human flesh, and taught that robbery and murder were the normal way of life.
For this wretched incestuous horde of Scottish cannibals there was to be no mercy, and no pretense of justice if every any one of them merited justice.
The Sawney Beanes of both sexes were condemned to death in an arbitrary fashion because their crimes over a generation of years were adjudged to be so infamous and offensive as to preclude the normal process of law, evidence and jurisdiction. They were outcasts of society and had no rights, even the youngest and most innocent of them.
All were executed the following day, in accordance with the conventions and procedures of the age. The men were dismembered, just as they had dismembered their victims.
Their arms and legs were cut off while they were still alive and conscious, and they were left to bleed to death, watched by their women. And then the women were burned like witches in great fires.
At not time did any one of them express remorse or repentance. But, on the other hand, it must be remembered that the children and grandchildren of Sawney Beane and his wife had been brought up to accept the cave dwelling cannibalistic life as normal.
They had known no other life, and in a very real sense they had been well and truly “brain-washed,” in modern terminology. They were isolated from society, and their moral and ethical standards were those of Sawney Beane himself. He was the father figure and mentor in a small tightly integrated community.
They were trained to regard murder and cannibalism as right and normal, and they saw no wrong in it. It poses the question as to how much of morality is the product of the environment and training, and how much is (or should be) due to some instinctive but indefinable inner voice of, perhaps, conscience. Did the young members of the Beane clan know that what they were doing was wrong?
Whether they knew or not, they paid the supreme penalty just the same.
Source: The Worlds Strangest Crimes, by C.E. Maine