Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1590, died Sawney Bean.

Sawney Bean was a professional murderer and cannibal, the most prolific serial killer of all time.

Sawney Bean was born in East Lothian, about 10 miles from Edinburgh. His parents were hedgers and ditchers and he was brought up to that trade, but was noted for his indolence and dishonesty. At the age of 20, he ran of with a woman, Black Agnes Douglas, and having no home or livelihood, set up house in a sea cave in Galloway. Here the couple lived for 25 years, without ever visiting a town or village.

The Beans supported themselves by killing and robbing travellers, and survived on their victims’ flesh, eating the entrails raw and the limbs pickled and salted. The Beans had several children and the children grew up in the grisly lifestyle of their parents, and in turn, incestuously had children of their own, until the Bean tribe grew into a gang of 46. Over the years, thousands of people went missing, but the authorities had no clue as to how they disappeared. Innkeepers were suspected and, indeed many were hanged on suspicion, but the Beans were not detected.

As the Bean tribe grew larger, they became so adept at murder that they had a surplus of food, and often threw unwanted limbs into the sea, where they would be washed to shore, much to the horror of seaside inhabitants. On one occasion, a man and his wife were returning from a local fair on horseback, when they were ambushed by the Beans. The man put up a struggle his wife fell from her horse, to be instantly butchered by the cannibals, who ripped out her entrails and feasted on her blood. At that moment, a large party of travellers from the fair arrived at the scene and Beans were forced to retreat to their lair. When the travellers arrived in Glasgow, they informed the magistrates, who in turn told the king, James VI, later James I of England, and king of Great Britain, who took personal charge of the case.

The king took a posse of 400 men, together with bloodhounds, to search the area. Although the king’s men found the cave by the sea, they saw that they tide entered its mouth and did not believe that anyone could exist within it. But the bloodhounds caught the scent of the flesh, and set about barking and yelping. As the men entered the cave, they found dried parts of human bodies hanging from the roof, pickled limbs in barrels, and piles of money and valuables, the possessions of their victims. The Beans were captured alive and taken to Edinburgh in chains, where they were incarcerated in the Tollbooth.

On 31st August 1590, after a brief summary trial, they were convicted of over a 1000 murders, and the whole of the clan were sent for execution. The men had their hands and legs severed from their bodies, and were left to bleed to death. The women were forced to watch the spectacle of the men’s deaths, and then received a more humane sentence of being burnt to death in a bonfire.

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