The billygoat riders


Strangers in the night

Wellen is a flourishing fruit culture village south of Hasselt in today Belgian Limburg. In 1774, one Jan van Muysen put down a blackmail letter next a farm at its village square. It contained a reference to the devil: "The devil is urging us, billygoat riders Ö Now you can know what kind of life we are living. By the promptings of devils, we are able to reign ...". In such a blackmail letter, it usually said the gentleman farmer should put down a certain amount of money on a fixed place, or else his farm was to be burnt down. It was well known these knaves would sell their soul by a sacrilegious oath to the devil in the shape of a billygoat. Most often they couldn't be traced, and they emerged in all corners of the region. Thus, people got the idea they were riding through the sky on goat carts.
I guess you don't really want to know what crimes these rascals committed. They would guzzle brandy, and curse at Jesus and virgin Mary. They robbed the churches and melted the stolen silver, to mould a silver billygoat. During robberies, they sometimes abused their victims with knives or with burning straw. They raped the women and hung them in the chimney. They used to sign the blackmail letters with the paw print of a billygoat.
Once, a member of the band was caught and he confessed, in short, he had taken the oath in a little bush past Wolfhagen, forswearing God next a little box containing a consecrated host, and promising not to betray his comrades.
It was not for nothing that the farms at both sides of the river Meuse were of the closed type. In fact, you could only get in if somebody was cooperating from inside. Which servant was betraying his master? Which tradesman was spying for the robbers? There were many of these bandits and they were operating in bands far and wide. At a rough estimate, there were two hundred of them in Wellen alone.

Who were the billygoat riders?

Of course, there have always been robbers and knaves. Throughout the eighteenth century, gypsies and dismissed soldiers caused a lot of trouble in our region. What distinguished the billygoat riders from these free running bands? Firstly, they often were living and working in the villages they struck at. They led a double life: by day they were walking about with a hypocritical face, by night they committed their crimes.
Now and then, a rascal got into the wrong box by a coincidence. Then he was put to the torture, and forced, in spite of his oath of silence, to give away the names of his accomplices. This way, the names of hundreds of these bandits have become known from the lawsuits, and many Limburg people can 'glory' in a billygoat rider among their ancestors. The names are mostly very common, like Smeets, Ploumen, Daniels, etc, etc ... Prominent leaders were, among others, a skinner named Mathias Ponts, a fiddler and taylor named Nolleke van Geleyn, a landlady called Katrien Billen, a butcher called Abraham Nathan, the brothers Kerckhoffs, and two noblemen, Gavarelle and du Pré.
A relatively large number of them were skinners by profession. Perhaps, the threshold was lower for a skinner, because his profession was bloody already. With our eastern neighbours, a former skinner was still operating in the French era: it was the infamous Schinderhannes. Among the receivers, there were rather many Jews. And among the leaders, there were some elegant surgeons. They, too, had a bloody profession, and they could easily travel about 'on their way to patients' without becoming suspect. The best known bandit in this category was 'the black captain', Jozef Kerckhoffs from 's Hertogenrade. This man maintained he was innocent, and with the rope around his neck he cried: "Jesus, for thee I lived, Jesus, for thee I'll die".

film billygoat riders

Had they ideals?

Was the cry of the black captain mere boast and hypocrisy? Or did he strive with his crimes after some ideal, like Robin Hood? Ton van Reen wrote about this question a novel, and on television there appeared a series of episodes adapted from it. The writer contends there was much injustice in society. I remember a scene on television in which a rich canon was gorging, and another scene in which tax collectors robbed a poor family from its last humble goods.
Moreover, people were emancipating from the tyranny of nobility and high clergy. Since Enlightenment, people began to question faith, and a long time before there were trade unions, they judged that canons and nobles were conspiring to keep the people dumb and poor. It became ever more visible that the lives of the authorities were contradicting the Christian ideals which mum advocated in their childhood.
We could say the billygoat riders, like the jacobins in France, belonged to a more general movement that ended in the French Revolution. Indeed, it's well known many of them were striving for a society of liberty, equality and fraternity. High freemasons controlled them like puppets on a string. These puppets were the first to dance around the maypole after the arrival of the French revolutionaries.
So we shouldn't idealise them. They were criminals in the first place. In fact, the same holds for many jacobins. We see something like that with every large revolutionary movement, whichever may be its signature. There is always a group of terrorists in it, who shrink from nothing. Didn't the beggars of the sea in sixteenth century Holland commit crimes similar to the crimes of the jacobins? Robespierre wasn't the inventor of terror, and terror didn't die when he died at the scaffold.

Other causes

Besides these causes of a general and cultural character, there were other circumstances favouring the phenomenon of billygoat riders.
Firstly, our present region of both provinces of Limburg was in the eighteenth century a political patchwork quilt. For instance, there were the Austrian and Dutch domains, the prince-bishopric of Liège, and the free fiefs like the fief of Wylre, etc. Robbers could thwart justice by flying to an other country. Whenever somebody from a village had debts in Maastricht, Maastricht authorities didn't shrink from imprisoning an arbitrary visitor from that village. So this era was a paradise for lawyers.
Secondly, since the years 1720 the billygoat riders became active in relatively quiet times, for example some years after the battle and occupation of Maastricht in the war of the Austrian Succession, about 1750. For what reason? Why, in times of war and cattle plague, the skinners had a lot of work. Whilst many people were reduced to poverty, they went through golden times. However, for this reason they met with even more contempt, and fell into isolation. When the farmers recovered, the skinners got into trouble. They became jealous in turn. At the farms, during their work which became ever scarcer, they kept their eyes open ...
Yet, these gangs couldn't have had so much 'success' if only skinners were involved. In reality, the knaves practised a hotchpotch of professions. There were also many smiths, cartwrights an dismissed soldiers among them. After all, these fellows, too, were often unemployed in times of peace. The rascals contacted each other in certain inns, or at the farms where they did their day labourer's jobs.

a cross next the path

Torture and excecution

The main responsible for tracing and trying criminals was originally the schout, a sort of sheriff, and later on the drossaard, a sort of high bailiff. In a stilted chant, drossaard Clercx is applauded as the exterminator of the huge Wellen band of billygoat riders. He took exceptionally strong action, and this was necessary indeed. Mathias Kemp and other critics like mr L Augustus say there were many innocent among the people put to death. However, it turns out Clercx was a wise and careful man. When the French revolutionaries came into our region, prohibiting religion and claiming money and young men for the war, he was an inspiring leader of underground resistance. He was 'afraid of nobody except of God alone'. But, nevertheless, he didn't encourage the outright rebellion of the brigands in the Peasants' War.
In the lands east of the river Meuse, the torture intended to get knaves to talk, consisted mostly in three degrees: thumbscrew, Spanish boot, and strappado. There were precise precepts for applying these instruments of torture. With the strappado, the hands of the suspect were tied behind his back, and then the torturers pulled his hands aloft with a rope. Sometimes they even demanded that the suspect pray aloud a paternoster or a miserere.
Execution took often place at the gallows. Many people came to watch it, because hanging was considered a public lesson for young and old. Sometimes the corpse stayed at the gallows for months. In some special cases, the condemned was strangled first, and then burnt. Or the executioner chopped a hand off and nailed it onto a plank. Chopping off heads and exhibiting them on sticks was also in vogue. So justice was often as cruel as the crime itself, and it makes us think of the sharia in present-day Islam.

Did the billygoat riders really exist?

Mr Augustus argues that the whole story of the billygoat riders was actually created much later by the Church and the authorities, to justify their extremely repressive actions. He thinks torture forced all confessions about mixing with the devil. So in his view, there was not really a single phenomenon called 'billygoat riders', but rather a series of criminal incidents that were probably unrelated. But so many proofs in so many processes are clearly contradicting this opinion. For example, Jan van Muijsen wrote already in 1774 in the Wellen blackmail letter, without torture, that he was a 'bockereijder' and that he was allied to the devil.
The well known historian Anton Blok argues there was such a phenomenon. The billygoat riders borrowed symbols and methods from the military and from the administration of justice. As an example we mention the lugubrious oath 'on the dead hand', that is the chopped off hand of an executed criminal. They inverted many symbols from religion. In fact, when suggestionizing they were riding on goat carts through the sky, the bandits harked back to a well known legend from the old heathen German religion, the Wodanís Chase. They had not only motives of an economical or idealistic character, but they also sought revenge because they felt robbed of their honour by society. As to this, we may compare them with the Mafia, which Anton Blok also wrote about. So itís not for nothing that there are many statues of the billygoat riders throughout our region, because they clearly did exist.
In Maastricht, at the eleventh of December 1773 the hangman hung one Leonard Daemen, who had been a pious carrier of the bust of Charlemagne in many Aachen processions. He, too, turned out to be a billygoat rider ...

billygoat rider

To a more humane society?

What should we think of the eighteenth century torture? On the one side, it was suited to get people to talk. But on the other side, because there were so many trials, there must have been judicial errors, despite all precautions. Then someone innocent was whipped or hung. Moreover, the judges took little account of extenuating circumstances and of the injustice done by the gentry themselves.
Napoleon put an end to the torture with a concise decree: "La torture est abolie". Although we may frown on other decisions, this one was good. Thus, the French Revolution brought in the end progress, after many fits and starts.
Abolishing the death penalty is a logical next step. I prefer ten murderers who stay alive to one innocent put to death. It's a pity many Americans don't. Furthermore, it's too easy to get weapons in America. It's true there was much smuggling with weapons from Liège in the eighteenth century, but Americans can buy guns in a shop. That's why in no other country there's more crime and violence.
Satanism and exorcism are still flourishing, even in Europe. At the thirteenth of March 2005, the newspaper Nieuwsblad reported that at least thirty satanic sects are active in Italy, with altogether more than a hundred thousand members, among which many youths. If some group is expressly engaged in exorcising devils, its very members should take care the devil doesn't get hold of them. After all, nobody is only good or only bad. In every soul, the devil is fighting the guardian angel, so to speak. So we have to pray, and stay engaged in good projects. For idleness is the parent of vice.

Literature (Dutch):

Winkler Prins encyclopedia and Wikipedia, "bokke(n)rijders" and "slag bij Lafelt"
De bokkerijders, Juliaan Melchior, de Lijster Maasbree 1981 (eerste druk 1915)
Limburgs verleden, Limburgs Geschied- en Oudheidkundig genootschap
Geschiedenis van de beide Limburgen deel II, Jappe Alberts, van Gorcum & Comp, Assen 1974
De Bokkerijders, Roversbenden en geheime genootschappen in de landen van de Overmaas (1730-1774), Anton Blok, Amsterdam 1995
Mathias Kemp, Geschiedenis van Limburg, Maastricht 1934; herdruk Heerlen-Schiedam 1976, Limburgse Boek- en Kunsthandel-Interboek International
Minnerij, Misdaad en Magie, Jef Leunissen, Corrie Zelen Maasbree
De Bende van de Bokkenrijders, Ton van Reen, zie (about the Peasants' War)
Noordeuropese mysteriŽn, F.E.Farwerck, Ankh-Hermes Deventer 1978.

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