View Full Version : The Legend of The Goat–Riders Criminal Gangs

Saturday, November 19th, 2005, 03:37 PM
In the 18th century, the name "goat-riders" applied to all criminal gangs that operated in the border region on both sides of the river Maas (Meuse), both in the Netherlands (Kerkrade), Germany (Aachen) and Belgium (Wellen). Great poverty caused these highwaymen to rob churches, abbeys and monasteries. Soon, they started plundering villages, robbing travellers and unprotected farms, particularly at night.

We zijn met achten,
we stelen alle nachten.
Omdat we te lui zijn om te werken,
bestelen we de kerken

= There are eight of us,
We go out stealing every night.
Because we are too lazy to work,
We rob churches.

According to popular belief, the name of these robbers has two origins. Firstly, the he-goat (or buck) was at the centre of their meetings. To be accepted into a gang, newcomers had to undergo a ritual. The candidate was required to sit on a wooden goat (which was turned around until they fell off), drink gin and pronounce several formulas. They committed sacrilege by spitting on the holy cross and reading this oath: "I renounce God and the holy mother of God and I acknowledge the devil. If I should be captured, I will rather undergo torture to death above betraying one of them."

Moreover, the name is derived from the excellent organisation ofthese gangs. During a single night, they were able to strike in different places almost simultaneously, seeming to appear out of nowhere. This probably gave rise to the myth that the members flew through the air, sitting on he-goats. The he-goat was seen as the symbol of Satan, which led people to believe these criminals (like witches) had closed a pact with the devil. As this superstition grew, these stories were believed to be true.

There is the story of a priest who was returning home from a far-away visit late one night. It was a long trip, but luckily a coach passed him and the driver, whom he knew to be from his own village, offered him a ride: "Close your eyes, reverend, you need some sleep." After a few minutes, the driver heard that the priest was sound asleep and he pronounced the magic formula.

Over bos en struik
Door de wolken uit!

= Across woods and shrubs
All the way through the clouds!

The coach was then lifted into the air, so they reached their destination within seconds. The reverend woke up and remembered dreaming about flying. When he entered his house, he looked at the time and realised it hadn't been a dream …

A common mode of operation for the goat-riders was the dun: by putting down anonymous letters, they would urge farmers to pay them large amounts of money. If their request wasn't met, the gang threatened to burn down the farmstead. This usually meant the farm would also be pillaged. This type of extortion was not always successful, as appears from the many fires that were lit in those days.

In our own area, the Belgian province of Limburg, the village of Wellen suffered from these fires, caused by the gang of "captain" Jan van Muysen.

On 11th November 1773 the farm of Jan Corfs was set alight, after he had refused to meet the threats made in several letters. The house, the stables and his cattle were all lost. All that was left for Corfs, was his money. This news reached one of the goat-riders, so the poor man again received a dun, along with others in the area. People became increasingly upset and urged the authorities to take action.

Jan van Muysen seemed to lead an inconspicuous life, spending most of his time studying. Although he was never seen to be working, he had a lavish lifestyle. This led the sheriff to follow his steps, and he appeared to be more active at night. After he had been caught, he initially refused to cooperate with the authorities. But when torture was applied, he immediately gave in: he admitted to being a goat-rider, which allowed the sheriff to arrest 5 other men. Together they admitted that there were 200 in their gang, who gathered by an oak on the verge of Wellen and Kortessem. It was the point of departure for their nocturnal raids.

The goat-riders derived pleasure from the desecration of Christian symbols. The wife of one of the arrested criminals was said to have smuggled holy communion out of church in order to mix it with soup and veal. These stories of sacrilege shocked ordinary civilians to the extent that they showed no mercy for the goat-riders. In Wellen, 16 were burnt on a meadow called "Bonderkuil". Van Muysen was decapitated and his head was exhibited on a post.

The goat-riders were feared because of their cruelty and their Satanic belief and as a result they were prosecuted beyond measure. Many criminals were tortured into saying they were goat-riders (even though they were not) and were hanged, quartered or murdered. This suddenly stopped when the French conquered the Southern Netherlands in 1789.

One of the most famous stories tells of the execution of Arnold van de Wal, also known as "Nolleke van Geleen", whose gang terrorised the area of Bree. They were prosecuted by sheriff Clercx. When they led him to the gallows, he was given the opportunity to convert. But he bluntly refused and urged the executioner to hurry up so he would "be on time for lunch with Lucifer." He was smoking a pipe and after the cord broke, he stood up again and said: "With all this going on, my pipe will extinguish!" As he still refused to convert, they killed him off.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the goat-rider gangs were largely exterminated. But long afterwards, people kept staring to the nightly sky. One never knew when Satan's allies would return …

The legend of the goat-riders lives on in popular culture through the story of "Villa Volta" ("The Flying House". This haunted house can be found in "De Efteling", a theme park in the south of the Netherlands.

While Hugo van den Loonsche Duynen and his allies are robbing the Abbey of Postel, he sees a mysterious woman floating in the air, dressed in immaculate white. She says:

"Thou shalt not steal,
never carry anything beyond this Holy Cross ...
Or else thou shalt be banned in thy own house,
and shalt never find peace of mind anymore!"

He pushes the woman aside and walks out carrying the bag with silver past the Holy Cross on the wall. When he reaches his house, Villa Volta, he is overcome with fear. The mysterious white lady is standing on top of the roof, waving her arms:

"Nowhere in your own house, you will find peace now that you have violated God's house.
Only when a noble person, pure at heart, will enter this house, the curse will be removed."

Hugo locks the door and settles into an easy chair. Then he realizes the meaning of the curse: everything around him starts moving, walls move towards him and the house is literally turned upside down. Even worse, Hugo cannot leave the villa! He has to wait forever for the visitor with the purest mind and heart to lift the curse. Maybe you are the one Hugo is waiting for …

Source: http://www.kcst.be/e-legends/legendbelgium.htm