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The Alienist’s Assessment
On February 21st, 1901, Victor Gorenhoff – the self-confessed murderer of six children – was committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, which lies outside the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire. Once there, he came under the care of Doctor Stephen Conrad, a prominent alienist (as the precursors to psychiatrists and psychologists were known).
Although the term ‘serial killer’ was still decades away from being defined, Dr Conrad can lay claim to be one of the first medical professionals to investigate with any degree of intellectual detachment the type of killing perpetrated by Gorenhoff .
Although Gorenhoff was clearly insane, there seemed an underlying logic to the pattern of his actions, Conrad reasoned, as the mutilation of the children was so specific and ritualistic in nature. If Gorenhoff’s actions could be evaluated and understood, it might be possible to spot these “aberrants” (as Conrad defined Gorenhoff) before they succumbed to their lunatic instincts.
Conrad had Gorenhoff placed in a wing of the asylum where the patients were relatively calm and quiescent. Conrad ensured security was high around Gorenhoff’s cell; but he also ensured the presence of the security was as unobtrusive as possible: he knew how sudden and terrible Gorenhoff’s violence could be if made to feel threatened.
He then began a number of conversations with Gorenhoff, to which he invited as a participant Professor Albert Longden, an expert on English folklore and pagan practices and the man who had led police to Gorenhoff’s lair outside the Hampshire town of Fleet.
The first subject the two academics touched upon was precisely who the “master” was that Gorenhoff had claimed to serve while giving his initial statement at Aldershot Police Station.
Gorenhoff had a cleft palate, which made his diction difficult to understand, and was deeply ashamed of the condition. Through slow and careful conversation, though, Conrad and Longden began to make progress, winning Gorenhoff’s confidence.
Gorenhoff said he first came to Fleet in 1896, where he had worked as a drayman, and had originally lived rough in the woodland north of Fleet Pond. To supplement his meagre income, he had often scavenged for food: foxes, squirrels and fish. The first breakthrough came while talking of this latter subject.
Conrad’s notes record Gorenhoff’s words: ‘I was fishing from an eyot in the centre of the Fleet lake when I noted a disturbance in the water.
‘When I peered down, I saw the figure of a drowned man floating just below the water’s surface. His face was white and blotched with blue, the way a corpse is when it has been in cold water a long time. As I watched, the man rose up until he stood knee deep in the water some 10 yards from where I sat. He was tall and wore the plate and chain armour of a knight of old.
‘Without hearing my voice, he asked me if I would be free of the cruel curse inflicted upon my mouth. I answered that I would.
‘It was then that he revealed to me where I might find the lair of the Leper King and learn the mighty power of the Pale Saint.’
When pressed, Gorenhoff told them that the lair was indeed the lazaret in Railroad Heath where police had first tried to apprehend him. He claimed the “Leper King” had been imprisoned there a great many centuries ago.
Professor Longden asked Gorenhoff where he had found the plague mask used in the cellar ritual conducted at the house, the beak of which had been stuffed with bundles of tongues and teeth wrapped in the murdered children’s clothing.
Gorenhoff said his master had visited him in a dream and instructed him that it was buried in the wall. The “Leper King” had then explained what it was that must be done to effectuate a cure for Gorenhoff’s cleft palette . . .
Meanwhile, newspapers learned of these conversations with Gorenhoff and responded with outrage, indignation and scorn. An editorial in The Times said “This brutal lunatic should not be pampered and engaged with in conversation. He should wrapped in chains and imprisoned in the asylum’s deepest, darkest dungeon until such time as he can be brought to trial and hung”. The London Journal attacked Dr Conrad’s methods, accusing him of holding “dialogue with the Devil” and warning him that his soul would suffer “inevitable consequences in the afterlife”.
There were also angry scenes at the gates of the asylum, and a bloody parcel of pig tongues and animal offal was tied to a brick and thrown through the window of Dr Conrad’s house in Crowthorne.
Undeterred, the two academics continued with the conversations. Conrad said the story of the man in the water was proof that Gorenhoff was delusional, yet also showed that he possessed a rich – if warped – imagination. He and Longden decided to press Gorenhoff for more details on the cellar ritual in an effort to unpick the man’s maniacal motives.
Gorenhoff claimed the “Leper King” had, through dreams, taught him an ancient pagan ritual by which any condition could be cured, although the details of the ritual differed depending on the malady – Gorenhoff had difficulty in speaking and for that reason had been instructed to remove the children’s tongues. He was quick to add that he had first broken the children’s necks “so they died quick and clean as sparrows”.
He had then butchered the children’s bodies and rendered them for tallow in the cauldron of beaten copper that the police raid had found inside the slaughterhouse at the lazaret in Railroad Heath. Gorenhoff said he had found the cauldron buried beneath the rubble in a collapsed part of the lazaret, where “it had lain since the days of the Leper King and his consort, Mother Ljudmilla”.
The mention of this last name stunned Professor Longden, for it suddenly brought to mind something he had previously overlooked: the cauldron at the Gorenhoff house was similar to another that had been found just six miles away at a local landmark known as Mother Ludlam’s Cave.
Mother Ludlam’s Cave
England is a country drenched in myth, mystery and legend, and folklore often attributes the creation of local geographical features to witchcraft, wizardry, or visitations by devils and demons.
One such is Mother Ludlum’s Cave (which lies east of Farnham, close to the ruins of Waverley Abbey and the River Wey) and is famously mentioned by politician and activist, William Cobbett, in his book, Rural Rides, who decries its deterioration in 1825:
‘The semicircular paling is gone; the basins to catch the never-ceasing little stream are gone; the iron cups, fastened by chains, for people to drink out of, are gone; the stream that ran down a clean paved channel, now [makes] a dirty gutter.’
The cave is 192 feet deep but was once far deeper (a series of roof collapses over the centuries have closed off the inner chambers, the last of which occurred in 1961 and 1976) and folklore links it with another local landmark, the Devil’s Jumps in Churt (a series of three ironstone hills that local legend claims were kicked up by the Devil’s hooves).
Precisely who Mother Ludlam was and when she inhabited the cave are lost to history, but she was reputedly a witch who dispensed healing brews from a cauldron of beaten copper. This cauldron was reputedly stolen by a local man, who was then chased by the witch. To escape her wrath, the man sought sanctuary in Frensham Church, where the cauldron remains to this day.
Professor Longden had made a detailed study of the Frensham cauldron as a young man, and, as he pondered the matter, it seemed to him that the cauldron Gorenhoff had used was identical in both size and metallurgical composition to that which lay in Frensham Church. Could it be that there was a link between the two?
Longden thought there was and began to search his extensive library for details on Mother Ludlam’s Cave.
St Mary’s Well
Longden turned first to an academic work which drew together all of the known records, annals, diaries and other written documents made by successive generations of Cistercian monks at Waverley Abbey between its creation in 1128 and its dissolution in 1535.
The first detail Longden discovered was that Mother Ludlam’s Cave was once known by a different name: in the 13th century, the cave had been dedicated to the Virgen Mary and was known afterwards as St Mary’s Well. The spring that flows through the cave was used as a source of drinking water by the monks, but due to its consecration, many came to drink its waters in search of a cure for various ailments.
One of the most prolific chroniclers of the abbey’s history is Brother Thomas of Bath, a Cistercian monk who lived his entire adult life at Waverley (1362-1396) and recorded a series of incidents in that completely changed the reputation of St Mary’s Well.
It began in 1387 when a group of knights arrived at the abbey. The knights claimed to have participated in the Baltic Crusades, fighting to bring the Lord’s word to the forest pagans of Lithuania. They arrived in winter and flew crimson pennants upon which were stitched the image of a curious horned human figure.
When Brother Thomas asked what this symbol was, the knights’ leader told him it represented their patron saint, ‘one that is much venerated by the military orders in the east, for he can cure the wounds of battle and bring easy deaths to those beyond the help of medicine and mercy. We call him the Sanctus Pallidus – the Pale Saint as the English language would translate it . . .’
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