Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

Book VII. Judiciary

"All through the Middle Ages justice was no such secret to the people as it is at the present time, when it is buried under piles of law papers."

I. The Holy Vehm

206. Origin and Object of Institution.—In this book we are introduced to an order of secret societies altogether different from preceding ones. Hitherto they were religious or military in their leading features; but those we are now about to give an account of were judicial in their operations, and the first of them, the Holy Vehm, or secret tribunals of Westphalia, arose during the period of violence and anarchy that distracted the German empire after the outlawry of Henry the Lion, somewhere about the middle of the thirteenth century. The supreme authority of the Emperor had lost all influence in the country; the imperial assizes were no longer held; might and violence took the place of right and justice; the feudal lords tyrannised over the people; whosoever dared, could. To seize the guilty, whoever they might be, to punish them before they were aware of the blow with which they were threatened, and thus to secure the chastisement of crime—such was the object of the Westphalian judges, and thus the existence of this secret society, the instrument of public vengeance, is amply justified, and the popular respect it enjoyed, and on which alone rested its authority, explained.

207. Places for Holding Courts.—Romance writers have surrounded the Vehm with darkness, mystery, and awe, but sober history shows the institution to have been, before the date of its corruption, the fairest, and perhaps the only fair tribunal in the country where it existed, and that its only secrecy consisted in the justice and rapidity with which it discovered crime and executed its sentences. As to its meetings, they were not usually held in subterranean vaults or dimly lighted caves, but more frequently in the open air; at Nordkirchen the court was held in the churchyard; at Dortmund in the market-place. The favourite place for holding the courts was near or under trees; nor were they held at night, bat in the morning, soon after the break of day.

208. Officers and Organisations.—The Westphalia of that period comprehended the country between the Rhine and the Weser; its southern boundary was formed by the mountains of Hesse, its northern by Friesland. Vehm or Fehm is, according to Leibnitz, derived from fama, as the law founded on common fame. But fem is an old German word, signifying condemnation, which may be the proper radix of Vehm. But the old German word Fehm also meant "company," "society," "separation," "something set apart;" thus pigs put apart for the purpose of fattening were called fehm-pigs (Fehmschweine); the mark that was set on them to distinguish them was called the fehm-sign (Fehmmahl). The word Vehm having this general meaning, we may understand how the society of Free Judges, to distinguish it above other associations, acquired the epithet of "holy."

The courts were also called Fehmding, Freistuhle, "free courts," heimliche Gerichte, heimliche Achten, heimliche beschlossene Achten, "secret courts," "free bann," and verbotene Gerichte, "prohibited courts." No rank of life prohibited a person from the right of being initiated, and in a Vehmic code discovered at Dortmund, and whose reading was forbidden to the profane under pain of death, three degrees are mentioned: the affiliated of the first were called Stuhlherren, "lords justices;" those of the second, Schoppen (scabini, echevins); those of the third, Frohnboten, "messengers." Two courts were held, an offenbares Ding, "open court," and the heimliche Acht, "secret court." Any uninitiated person found in the "secret court" was invariaby hanged lest he might warn the accused, condemned in contumaciam, of the sentence passed upon him. The members were called Wissende, "the knowing ones," or the initiated. The clergy, women and children, Jews and heathens, and as it would appear the higher nobility, were exempt from its jurisdiction. The courts took cognisance of all offences against the Christian faith, the Gospel, and the Ten Commandments.

209. Language and Rules of Initiated.—The initiated had a secret language; at least we may infer so from the initials S.S.S.G.G., found in Vehmic writings preserved in the archives of Herfort, in Westphalia, that have puzzled the learned, and by some are explained as meaning Stock, Stein, Strick, Gras, Grein—stick, stone, cord, grass, woe. At meals the members are said to have recognised each other by turning the points of their knives towards the edge, and the points of their forks towards the centre, of the table. A horrible death was prepared for a false brother, and the oaths to be taken were as fearful as some prescribed in the higher degrees of Freemasonry.

The affiliated promised, among other things, to preserve the secret Vehm before anything that is illumined by the sun or bathed by rain, or to be found between heaven and earth; not to inform any one of the sentence passed against him; and to denounce, if necessary, his parents and relations, calling down upon himself, in case of perjury, the malediction of all, and the punishment of being hanged seven feet higher than all others. One form of oath, contained in the archives of Dortmund, and which the candidate had to pronounce kneeling, his head uncovered, and holding the fore-finger and the middle finger of his right hand upon the sword of the president, runs thus: "I swear perpetual devotion to the secret tribunal; to defend it against myself, against water, sun, moon, and stars, the leaves of the trees, all living beings; to uphold its judgments and promote their execution. I promise, moreover, that neither pain, nor money, nor parents, nor anything created by God shall render me perjured."

210. Procedure.—The first act of the procedure of the Vehm was the accusation, made by a Freischopps, The person was then cited to appear; if not initiated, before the open court, and woe to the disobedient! The accused that belonged to the Order was at once condemned; and the case of the unaffiliated was transferred to the secret tribunal. A summons was to be written on parchment, and sealed with at least seven seals; six weeks and three days were allowed for the first, six weeks for the second, and six weeks and three days for the third. When the residence of the accused was not known, the summons was exhibited at a cross-road of his supposed county, or placed at the foot of the statue of some saint or affixed to the poor-box, not far from some crucifix or humble wayside chapel. If the accused was a knight, dwelling in his fortified castle, the Schoppen were to introduce themselves at night, under any pretence, into the most secret chamber of the building and do their errand. But sometimes it was considered sufficient to affix the summons, and the coin that always accompanied it, to the gate, to inform the sentinel of the fact that the citation had been left, and to cut three chips from the gate, to be taken to the Freigraf as proofs. If the accused appeared to none of the summonses, he was sentenced in contumaciam according to the laws laid down in the "Mirror of Saxony;" the accuser had to bring forward seven witnesses, not to the fact charged against the absent person, but to testify to the well-known veracity of the accuser, whereupon the charge was considered as proved, and the Imperial ban was pronounced against the accused, which was followed by speedy execution.

The sentence was one of outlawry, degradation, and death; the neck of the convict was condemned to the halter, and his body to the birds and wild beasts; his goods and estates were declared forfeited, his wife a widow, and his children orphans. He was declared fehmbar, i.e., punishable by the Vehm, and any three initiated that met with him were at liberty, nay, enjoined, to hang him on the nearest tree. If the accused appeared before the court, which was presided over by a count, who had on the table before him a naked sword and a withy halter, he, as well as his accuser, could each bring thirty friends as witnesses, and be represented by their attorneys, and also had the right of appeal to the general chapter of the secret closed tribunal of the Imperial chamber, generally held at Dortmund. When sentence was once definitively spoken for death, the culprit was hanged immediately.

211. Execution of Sentences.—Those condemned in their absence, and who were pursued by at least a hundred thousand persons, were generally unaware of the fact. Every information thereof conveyed to them was high treason, punishable by death; the Emperor alone was excepted from the law of secrecy; merely to hint that "good bread might be eaten elsewhere," rendered the speaker liable to death for betraying the secret. After the condemnation of the accused a document bearing the seal of the count was given to the accuser, to be used by him when claiming the assistance of other members to carry out the sentence; and all the initiated were bound to grant him theirs, were it even against their own parents. A knife was stuck in the tree on which the person had been hanged, to indicate that he had suffered death at the hands of the Holy Vehm. If the victim resisted, he was slain with daggers; but the slayer left his weapon in the wound to convey the same information.

212. Decay of the Institution.—These secret tribunals inspired such terror that the citation by a Westphalian free count was even more dreaded than that of the Emperor. In 1470 three free counts summoned the Emperor himself to appear before them, threatening him with the usual course in case of contumacy; the Emperor did not appear, but pocketed the affront. By the admission of improper persons, and the abuse of the right of citation, the institution—which in its time had been a corrective of public injustice—gradually degenerated. The tribunals were, indeed, reformed by Rupert; and the Arensberg reformation and Osnaburgh regulations modified some of the greatest abuses, and restricted the power of the Vehm. Still it continued to exist, and was never formally abolished. But the excellent civil institutions of Maximilian and of Charles V., the consequent decrease of the turbulent and anarchic spirit, the introduction of the Roman law, the spread of the Protestant religion, conspired to give men an aversion for what appeared now to be a barbarous jurisdiction. Some of the courts were abolished, exemptions and privileges against them multiplied, and they were prohibited all summary proceedings. The last Vehm court was held at Celle in 1568. But a shadow of them remained, and it was not till French legislation, in 1811, abolished the last free court at Gemen, in the county of Munster, that they may be said to have ceased to exist. But it is not many years since that certain citizens in that locality assembled every year, boasting of their descent from the ancient free judges.

213. Kissing the Virgin.—There is a tradition that one of the methods of putting to death persons condemned to that fate by the secret tribunals was the following:—The victim was told to go and kiss the statue of the Virgin which stood in a subterranean vault. The statue was of bronze and of gigantic size. On approaching it, so as to touch it, its front opened with folding doors, and displayed its interior set full with sharp and long spikes and pointed blades. The doors were similarly armed, and on each, about the height of a man's head, was a spike longer than the rest, the two spikes being intended when the doors were shut to enter the eyes and destroy them. The doors having thus opened, the victim by a secret mechanism was drawn or pushed into the dreadful statue, and the doors closed upon him. There he was cut and hacked by the knives and spikes, and in about half a minute the floor on which he stood—which was in reality a trap-door—opened, and allowed him to fall through. But more horrible torture awaited him; for underneath the trap-door were six large wooden cylinders, disposed in pairs one below the other. There were thus three pairs. The cylinders were furnished all round with sharp blades; the distance between the uppermost pair of parallel cylinders was such that a human body could just lie between them; the middle pair was closer together, and the lowest very close. Beneath this horrible apparatus was an opening in which could be heard the rushing of water. The mechanism that opened the doors of the statue also set in motion the cylinders, which turned towards the inside. Hence when the victim, already fearfully mangled and blinded, fell through the trap-door, he fell between the upper pair of cylinders. In this mutilated condition, the quivering mass fell between the second and more closely approaching pair of cylinders, and was now actually hacked through and through on the lowest and closest pair, where it was reduced to small pieces which fell into the brook below, and were carried away, thus leaving no trace of the awful deed that had been accomplished.