The Dark Truth Behind Baby-Stealing Changelings From Legends
Welcome to Creepy Questions with Obvious Answers, the Cracked essay series that is exactly like The X-Files (if every episode was about swamp gas). You can find yesterday's installment on alien abductions here.
Welcome back to another heapin’ helping of crapping all over the supernatural! Yesterday we dealt with a phenomenon that at least one person you know has likely been affected by – and, if not, odds are your local trailer park has a friendly man who claims he can now access wifi with his mind since being abducted.
Today’s topic is a little more obscure. It’s pretty unlikely you’ve ever met anyone who’s been affected by this one, unless you’re in the habit of hanging out with a bunch of Early Modern-era northern European peasants. (Which would be even weirder than today’s topic, honestly!) Because today, we’re talking about changelings.
A Famous Case
Ireland, 1826. Michael Leahy was a young boy, only four years old. Growing up in the countryside of Kerry, he wasn’t like the other boys: he didn’t spend his days drinking a quart of whisky every morning for breakfast or whatever Irish children did in the early 19th century, I don’t know.
No, young Michael never learned to walk, or stand, or speak. His parents were concerned for him, and so asked his grandmother Ann Roche for help. Roche was one of the few people in the city still familiar with the old ways of the fairies, the pagan arts that were forgotten with St. Patrick. Roche declared that the issue with Michael wasn’t medical: no, he was fairy-struck. Roche believed there was only one cure for Michael: to wash the fairy from his body in the river Flesk.
Roche bade Mary Clifford and an unnamed accomplice, two women who lived nearby, to bathe Michael in the dawn hours for three days straight. On the dawn of the third day, when it was clear Michael wasn’t getting any better, Roche declared he needed to be bathed even deeper. To be washed clean of the fairy within him. Mary objected: surely they could simply continue to wash him? Her companion didn’t listen. She held Michael under. She held him and held him until his thrashings grew weak, and then stopped completely. She held him under for as long as the fairy could stand – and then just a bit longer.
In the hush of the blue-gray morning, the woman lifted Michael’s lifeless body from the cold of the Flesk. Realizing what had happened, Mary asked in a horrified whisper, “How can you ever hope to see God now?”
When a police officer apprehended the woman, she was reported to have said that it wouldn’t have mattered if Michael had died when he’d been born. At her trial, she declared that Ann Roche should be the one tried, since she was following Roche’s prescriptions. She claimed in court that the intent was never to kill Michael, but to wash the fairy from him.She was found not guilty.
But What Is It, Though?
Damn! That was dark! Sorry, it felt weird to make jokes about, you know, the actual murder of a real child, so I kinda dialed back the comedy knob a little bit there. I promise it gets funny again now: Guy Fieri getting tuba farts from eating too many deep-fried Sasquatch boners! There, now we’re back on track.
The story of Michael Leahy is from a newspaper. A British newspaper, sure, so you should take everything in it that’s not just vicious rumor-mongering and transphobia with some serious grains of salt, but still. These beliefs have been around for literally hundreds of years. Changelings were a common folk belief throughout much of northern and western Europe. The basic belief is that fairies (or demons or what-have-you) replace babies or children with a lookalike that is somehow deficient or dies unexpectedly. There are lots of variations of this belief, although an all-too-common unifying factor is that the best way to discover a changeling is to basically torture the crap out of your child. In New York in 1863, a three-year-old suspected of being a changeling died after being forced to sit on a shovel that had been heated until it was red-hot. 1863! That’s contemporaneous with the American Civil War! Orphans spun wooden wheels to keep the lights on in New York’s finest horse butcheries!
In the German tradition, the best way to discover a changeling was to simply whip or beat your child until they confessed – this is also how we Germans show affection, anger, or sadness. But far and away the most common method for disposing of a changeling was banishment – leaving a child alone in the wild to die. Keep that in mind.
You may not be familiar with changelings, but it is absolutely mind-boggling how common this superstition was right up until the dawn of the twentieth century. It was a BS belief so common it was like the toxins of its day, except instead of leading to white people spending $25 for the grittiest most disgusting cup of “cleansing juice” imaginable it led to, uh, probably thousands of dead children. Seriously, doing research for this column, I was absolutely stunned at how widespread this superstition was! You can find hundreds of actual, documented court cases where the defense was “I thought they were a changeling” – and those are mostly from the relatively recent past! King Charles I of England, born in the year 1600, was rumored to have been a changeling. Which kind of means that the entire British royal family is descended from monsters? No, actually, that explains a lot.
Belief in changelings was once so ubiquitous that it still affects our language today. In the distant past those who were considered dull or sluggish were considered to be elves, called alfr in Old Norse. This was borrowed by Old English and changed to aulf, then auf, and then, finally, as oaf, a word we still use today to describe the more palooka-centric and the galoot-esque among us.
The Obvious Explanation
Okay. I have a theory, and upon doing research I learned that I’m not the first person to come up with this – just the most ruggedly handsome person to come up with it. Full disclosure: this is going to get pretty dark.
So why were so many children killed for being changelings? How could such a pernicious belief be so ubiquitous? How could so many people possibly believe that their children had been replaced by fairies?
Well: they didn’t. Not really. That’s my suspicion. Sure, as with anything, there are probably some true believers. There are probably some people who narrow their eyes at the occasional passing car and mutter “Obviously a Transformer” under their breath. But I believe that for the vast majority of people, “believing” in changelings was simply a convenient way to change child murder from a crime that would proably end with them getting burned at the stake to something carrying the same dubious legal status to going to the beach just to make a delicious and nutrient-filled seagull-egg omelette. Try it! The cops legally can’t stop you! Probably. I’m not a lawyer.
Why would so many people want to kill their own children? Were they simply not vibing with them? Were the kids being, like, SUPER obnoxious? I’ve definitely been tempted to throw the occasional child off of an airplane mid-flight, dust my hands off, and calmly explain “probably a changeling” to the horrified onlookers of Economy Class.
There are probably a few reasons why this kept happening. One of them is simply that in Ye Olde Timey, life was hard and cheap. Remember that story I told you about Michael Leahy? Remember what the accused woman said to the police officer? “It be no matter if had died four years ago.” That’s really kind of giving up the game, isn’t it? The lives of the disabled were considered a burden. When you’re a peasant struggling just to grow enough for your daily barley-and-posion-ivy gruel, having a child who is incapable of also doubling as farming equipment might be a losing proposition. This is pretty much explicitly the plot of the original Grimm version of Hansel and Gretel – two children are banished to the wilderness to die. But killing a human is a sin! Which makes it really convenient that that’s not a human at all! It’s just a lil ghoulie! Total God loophole, like anal sex before marriage or pre-confessing your sins.
And it wasn’t just the physically disabled, either. More recent readings of the changeling phenomenon are that many of the symptoms of taken-by-goblins-itis are consistent with what we would today call failure to thrive. In some cultures, traditional signs of children actually being changelings are surprisingly similar to what we’d today recognize as autism – slow to learn to speak, struggles with social cues, and some legends even state that a surefire way to identify a changeling is intentionally spill a bag of rice or beans and see if they feel compelled to count it.
So there you have it. Changelings were a convenient way to moralize killing children they couldn’t afford to keep, or were considered a burden, or perhaps even to ensure that only favored children inherited anything (especially in cases of remarriage – perhaps this is why the Evil Stepmother is so common in fairytales). Damn, I can’t believe this article started with the premise of “supernatural beings steal babies” and made that the less horrifying option! Good job, team?
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! He is on Twitter.
Top image: Martino di Bartolomeo/Wikimedia Commons