Thursday, June 9, 2011

Non Culpae ex Esse Lupinotuum? The Werewolf Defense

Woodcarving of the execution of werewolf Peter Stumpfe
Check THIS out. A fellow named Thomas Stroup, from Ohio, was arrested after behaving violently at a campground, on May 31. He told the arresting officers he was scratched by a wolf in Germany, and ever since has blacked out during full moons. He was charged with underage intoxication.

What's interesting about this story is that the plea of "not guilty by reason of being a werewolf" is a very old legal defense with a strong precedent. For centuries people convicted of particularly violent or abhorrent crimes including rape, murder, cannibalism and graverobbing (and combinations thereof) have, at their trials, claimed to be werewolves and had their sentences commuted. It is a kind of "diminished capacity" or "insanity" defense, although it has very specific features, chief among them the subject's modeling explicitly wolflike behavior. Depending on where the trial was held, who was jerking the reins of power at the moment, and which book on the occult the prosecutors happened to be reading, werewolves could be grouped as witches (fully culpable) to be tortured and burned at the stake, or forgiven morally of the crimes committed while a wolf but still considered culpable of willfully becoming a wolf (and so to be executed), or just sentenced to two years in the madhouse as was the case with Jacques Roulet in 1598. In the 16th century, there was suddenly a massive uptick in the number of crimes blamed on werewolves - tens of thousands over a period of about forty years. The early decades of the 17th century, however,  saw a growing number of writers (including James I) who insisted that werewolfism, although certainly a common enough problem, was a psychological one, the product of an unstable mind rather than an unstable body. To this day, clinicians consider lycanthropy or therianthropy to be a valid, serious psychopathological condition.

Fig. 1. Not exactly "full."
Mr. Stroup would indeed have been unlucky to have encountered a wolf in Germany - wolves were hunted to extinction around the 18th and 19th centuries, apparently there are only a few dozen wolves (recent immigrants from Poland) in the whole country, and those in remote areas. Also, on May 31, 2011, the moon was in the waning crescent phase [Fig. 1]. These facts poke some holes in Mr. Stroup's defense, but I note that despite his violent behavior he was charged only with "underage intoxication." That is to say, he is guilty of the crime of choosing to become irrational, not of the crimes he committed while irrational. So, the defense appears to still have some bite to it.

1 comment:

  1. This lovely story caused me to delve into a long explanation of King James I and his obsession with demons and magic. My two (awesome) coworkers were kind of shocked at my knowledge (only one of them knows I have a theatre background) of the subject, and were amazed that I actually found a copy of and read Daemonologie, for a paper. Not sure I'm going to let them read the paper. They think I'm just a math geek, so I might just let them continue thinking that.