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Sawney Bean

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Alexander "Sawney" Bean(e) was the legendary head of a 48-member clan in 15th- or 16th-century Scotland, reportedly executed for the mass murder and cannibalisation of over 1,000 people.

The story appears in The Newgate Calendar, a crime catalogue of the notorious Newgate Prison in London. While historians tend to believe that Sawney Bean never existed, his story has passed into legend and is part of the Edinburgh tourism industry.

The legend

According to The Newgate Calendar, Alexander Bean was born in East Lothian during the 16th century. His father was a ditch digger and hedge trimmer, and Bean tried to take up the family trades but quickly realized that he had little taste for honest labour.

He left home with a vicious woman who apparently shared his inclinations. The couple ended up at a coastal cave in Bannane Head (which name, "Bannane", is an earlier form of the modern "Beane"), near Galloway (now South Ayrshire) where they lived undiscovered for some twenty-five years. (The cave was 200 yards deep and during high tide the entrance was blocked by water, and is said to be today's Bennane Cave, located between Girvan and Ballantrae in Ayrshire).

Their many children and grandchildren were products of incest and lawlessness. The brood came to include eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. Lacking the gumption for honest labour, the clan thrived by laying careful ambushes at night to rob and murder individuals or small groups. The bodies were brought back to the cave where they were dismembered and cannibalised. Leftovers were pickled, and discarded body parts would sometimes wash up on nearby beaches.

The body parts and disappearances did not go unnoticed by the local villagers, but the Beans stayed in the caves by day and took their victims at night. The clan was so secretive that the villagers were not aware of the forty-eight murderers living nearby.

As the disappearances took more significant notice, several organized searches were launched to find the culprits. One search took note of the telltale cave but the men refused to believe anything human could live in it. Frustrated and in a frenetic quest for justice, the townspeople lynched several innocents, and the disappearances continued. Suspicion often fell on local innkeepers since they were the last to see many of the missing people alive.

One fateful night, the Beans ambushed a married couple riding from a fair on one horse, but the man was skilled in combat, deftly holding off the clan with sword and pistol. The clan fatally mauled the wife when she fell to the ground in the conflict. Before they could take the resilient husband, a large group of fairgoers appeared on the trail and the Beans fled.

With the Beans' existence finally revealed to the world, it was not long before King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) heard of the atrocities and decided to lead a manhunt with a team of 400 men and several bloodhounds, soon finding the Beans' previously overlooked cave in Bannane Head. The cave was rife with human remains, having been the scene of hundreds of murders and cannibalistic acts.

The clan was captured alive and taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh, then transferred to Leith or Glasgow where they were promptly executed without trial; the men had their genitalia cut off, hands and feet severed and were allowed to bleed to death, and the women and children, after watching the men die, were burned alive. (This recalls, in essence if not in detail, the punishments of hanging, drawing and quartering decreed for men convicted of treason while women convicted of the same were burned. Presumably—whether or not the story had an actual basis—cannibalism was considered the equivalent of treason.)

The town of Girvan, located near the crime scene, has another legend about the cannibal clan. It is said that one of Bean's daughters eventually left the clan and settled in Girvan, where she planted the Hairy tree. After her family's capture, the daughter's identity was revealed by angry locals who hanged her from the bough of the Hairy Tree.

Sources and veracity

Whatever the truth may be, Sawney Bean is often considered a mythic figure. The Ayrshire area is known for dark folklore, and the implausibility of four dozen people evading capture for a quarter of a century has sown the seeds of scepticism amongst many historians.

The multitude of disappearances should have led to more expeditious investigation of the area. Moreover, there is a notable lack of written sources; such a long string of atrocities resulting in the involvement of King James VI of Scotland should have generated historical records, but so far none have been uncovered.

As an example, this article by Sean Thomas expresses significant doubt about the accuracy of the Sawney Bean legend:

"...from broadsheet to broadsheet, the precise dating of Sawney Bean's reign of anthropophagic terror varies wildly: sometimes the atrocities occurred during the reign of James VI, whilst other versions claim the Beans lived centuries before."

Some versions date them to the reign of James I, or merely to "hundreds of years ago". Thomas continues,

"Viewed in this light, it is arguable that the Bean story may have a basis of truth but the precise dating of events has become obscured over the years. Perhaps the dating of the murders was brought forward by the editors and writer of the broadsheets, so as to make the story appear more relevant to the readership ... To add to the intrigue, we do know that cannibalism was not unknown in mediæval Scotland and that Galloway was in mediæval times a very lawless place; perhaps nothing on the scale of the Bean legend took place, but every story grows and is embroidered over time."

Thomas also notes that newspapers and diaries during the era when Sawney Bean was supposedly active make no mention of ongoing disappearances of hundreds of persons.

Moreover, according to nutrition researchers, a group of forty-eight would have consumed far more people than alleged in The Newgate Calendar. In order to survive for some twenty-five years, the Beans would have depopulated the entire southwestern region of Scotland. However, this presumes that the diet of the family was exclusively cannibalistic, a notion not addressed in the Legend.

It is also notable that the legend closely resembles the story of Christie-Cleek, which is attested much earlier.

The legend of Sawney Bean first appeared in the British chapbooks (rumour magazines of the day), which today leads many to argue that the story was a political propaganda tool to denigrate the Scots after the Jacobite Rebellions. Thomas disagrees by noting:

"If the Sawney Bean story is to be read as deliberately anti-Scottish, how do we explain the equal emphasis on English criminals in the same publications? Wouldn't such an approach rather blunt the point?"

Sawney Bean in popular media

The legend of Alexander "Sawney" Bean has been chronicled in various media, including such print sources as:

  • Historical and Traditional Tales Connected with the South of Scotland by John Nicholson, 1843
  • The Legend of Sawney Bean, by Ronald Holmes, London, 1975
  • The Flesh Eaters, by L.A. Morse, Warner Books, 1979
  • Cannibalism: The Last Taboo, by Brian Marriner London; Arrow, 1992
  • The Galloway Gazette November 28, 1994
  • Finding Serenity, Anti-heroes, Lost Shepards and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, edited by Jane Espenson 2004
  • The Monarch of the Glen, An American Gods Novella, by Neil Gaiman 2004
  • Mick Lewis's novel The Bloody Man also deals with the myth of Sawney Bean, which is also mentioned in the novel Paying the Piper by Sharyn McCrumb.
  • Jack Ketchum's novel Off Season is an update of the Sawney Bean legend, with the cannibalistic clan headquartered in a sea cave on the Maine coast.
  • The short stories "She's a Young Thing and Cannot Leave Her Mother" by Harlan Ellison and "They Bite" by Anthony Boucher make reference to the Bean family, as does Neil Gaiman's short story, "The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish", in which the titular goldfish are named "Sawney" and "Beaney".
  • The legend also plays a part in Gaiman's 2004 novella, "The Monarch of the Glen" (in his 2006 collection, Fragile Things).
  • The horror story "The New Wing" by F.R. Welsh deals directly with the Bean legacy, with the legendary events said to have occurred during the reign of James I of Scotland.
  • Sawney Beane: The Abduction of Elspeth Cumming is a work of historical fiction by author Frieda Gates. It takes the legend of Sawney Beane and examines it through the lens of a young girl, Elspeth Cumming, abducted by Sawney and his family.
  • Sawney Bean was also mentioned in a BBC radio play called Vampirella, an adaptation of the short story "The Lady of the House of Love" by feminist author Angela Carter. In this version, Sawney's wife escapes death and finds a job working for the family of vampires in the play. Sawney talks about his life leading up to his death.
  • The punk rock band the Real McKenzies recorded a song entitled "Sawney Beane Clan". British neofolk outfit Sol Invictus recorded a song entitled "Sawney Bean".
  • Musician Snakefinger's "Sawney Bean/Sawney's Death Dance" (from his album, Night of Desirable Objects) tells the tale of the clan and its eventual comeuppance, as does the concept album, Inbreeding the Anthropophagi by American death metal band Deeds of Flesh.
  • JB Nelson recorded Sawney Bean and Hairy Tree for his Weeping Willows album
  • In 2006, American Psych rockers Dead Loretta, recorded a song entitled "Sawney Beane".
  • He was depicted in an edition of Arcade Comics published by R. Crumb and others during the 1970s. Also depicted in D.O.A. Comics #1 by Jim Osborne, published 1976, where Beane's dates are given as ca. 1390 to 1437.
  • A five-page story about Sawney Bean written by Paul Kirchner and illustrated by Tom Sutton is part of the comic-anthology The Big Book of Bad, 1996, Paradox Press, ISBN 1-56389-359-2.
  • The Hills Have Eyes: The Beginning graphic novel details the fictional history of the descendants of Sawney Bean, a group of murderous, cannibalistic mutants.
  • The book Madhouse by Rob Thurman features Sawney Beane as the main villain.

The book Fatal Voyage by Kathy Reichs references Sawney Beane as one of many cannibals revered by a secret cannibalistic group.

  • Certain editions of the Guinness Book of World Records (for example, the 1973 edition) mention the "Beane" family in their Crime section.

Several low-budget movies have adapted the Sawney Bean story:

  • Wes Craven directed the 1977 movie The Hills Have Eyes, which sets the cannibal clan in modern-day America; a 2006 remake of the film was made by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur and reimagined the cannibal clan as deformed mutants.
  • Gary Sherman's Death Line (aka Raw Meat) depicts the Sawney character as a derelict living in the London Underground subway tunnels.
  • In 2003 Christian Viel directed Evil Breed: The Legend of Samhain (aka Samhain), a soft-core version of the Sawney legend set in modern-day Ireland.
  • 2005 saw the release of an award-winning UK/Canada co-produced animated short, The True Story of Sawney Beane.
  • 2006 saw the release of The Asylum's Hillside Cannibals, with Bean portrayed by Leigh Scott, although in this case, Bean was a pilgrim settler in New England rather than a Scotsman.
  • Nicholas David Lean's film Hotel Caledonia is a modern re-telling of the Sawney Bean story.
  • There is a Sawney Bean display in the London Dungeon wax museum. Along with other London Dungeon displays relating to cannibalism, this is located just outside the snack bar.
  • In the White Wolf role-playing game, Vampire: the Masquerade, the cannibalistic Dunsirn branch of the incestuous Giovanni clan may have originated from the legend of the Beane family.
  • Sawny Bean and the Cannibal Army released their first album No More Crack Cocaine in June 2007 and disbanded in November 2007
  • Sweeney Todd : The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Peter Haining mentions Sawney Bean and his tale.
  • Guy N. Smith's 1986 novel Cannibals is based on the legend of Sawney Bean.
  • An episode of the BBC SF-serial Torchwood dealt with members of the organization uncovering and fighting a clan of cannibals living in a remote village (albeit set in Wales).
  • Anthony Horowitz's book of short horror stories, "Horowitz Horror" has a reference to Sawney Bean in one of the stories.
  • Jim MacCool includes a tale about Sawney Bean in his IONAN TALES, twelve stories in verse told on an Easter pilgrimage crossing the Isle of Mull to Iona.
  • The X-Files, Season 4, Episode 2 "Home" features the "Peacock Family," a family much based on the Sawney Bean Clan.
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