May 2, 2017 Who was this mysterious boy from the city of Gävle? Johan came to Stockholm in 1676, an orphan. His mother had been executed. Executed because Johan accused her of being a witch. And he was just getting started. Stockholm was in trouble. Trouble with a capital T. And that rhymed with G... which stood for Gävle Boy.
Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.
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Music on this week’s episode:
Jahzzar – No-End Ave*
Caligine – Mε Πιάνουνε Ζαλάδες
Josh Spacek – Six Weeks to Live
Advent Chamber Orchestra – How Beautiful are the Feet (Handel)*
Fabrizio Paterlini – Profondo Blu*
Weinland – People Like You*
*modified for the podcast.
It was 1675, and there was a new boy in Stockholm. The city was full of them at that time of year: cute boys, strong boys, big large boys. For local teenager Lisbeth Carlsdotter, this one boy stood head and shoulders above the rest. His name was Johan Johansson Griis. He was 12 years old, and he had just moved to Stockholm from the northern city of Gävle, where he’d made waves by having his own mother executed for the crime of witchcraft.
‘Wow,’ thought Lisbeth—in fact, thought all of Stockholm—when they heard Johan’s story. Johan’s mother, he had said, had abducted him to the magical land of witches, where they had entered into sexual congress with the devil. After returning from this strange place, Johan had bravely informed the authorities, and his mother was sentenced to death.
It was a sensational tale. The Stockholm authorities couldn’t get enough of it. They came to consider Johan a first-hand expert in all matters of witchcraft. He became a minor celebrity, earning the nickname “the Gävle Boy” and was showered with treats.
He fascinated Lisbeth. She followed all his exploits, listened to all his testimony, even wrote in her copybook what her name would be if they got married: Lisbeth Gävle Boy. Everybody loved him.
‘You’re so wise, Gävle Boy,’ the authorities told him, ‘But tell us, have you noticed any signs of witchcraft going on here, in Stockholm?’
A smile crept across the Gävle Boy’s precocious face. ‘Maybe,’ he said, and winked.
You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby. This week’s episode: Häxprocesser.
By this time, Sweden was in the throes of witch-hunt fever, having already put to death hundreds of women. For 200 years, the Holy See had put the blame for failing crops, sickly livestock, and general misfortune squarely on witches, and Sweden had bought into this completely.
Johan’s tales of abduction simply confirmed what much of Sweden already believed about witches: that they regularly brought children to a secret land of sorcery, sin and sex parties. The name that they gave to this place was Blockula. And it is unfortunate, given the absolute tragedy of this period, that when you write down this word it looks exactly like Blackula, as in the Black Dracula.
Blockula was an endless meadow surrounding a stately manor; the house of the devil. At night, after children went to sleep, witches all over the country stole them from their beds and spirited them away to the devil’s disgusting pasture to engage in depravity. There would be a great feast, the children would have their blood mixed into a cauldron, and the devil would dance in rapture, or squat underneath the banquet table and play music out of his bare bottom.
After dinner, the devil would get married to everybody present. Wedding gifts were distributed. Then, the devil would fornicate with the witches and the children, and they would bear his children, and the devil would make them fornicate with each other, and their demonic issue would be toads and serpents. And they would all dance together, in one sordid boogie. It was sick.
Stockholm’s local authorities always knew there were witches in the city, but now that they were going after children, something had to be done. They were desperate to purge Stockholm of witchcraft, and in the famous Gävle Boy they had a willing accomplice.
Rumours would start to spread that a certain woman was a witch. She would be arrested, tried, and the Gävle Boy, who may not even have heard of the woman, would be put on the witness stand.
‘Is this woman a witch?’
‘Yes,’ he’d say, ‘she took me to Blockula, and exposed me to acts of Satanic love-making; she’s a witch.’ The crowds would gasp, and the highest priests in the land would nod at one another and affirm, ‘This is a credible boy.’
But, of course, the only way in which Johan Johansson Griis was even remotely credible, was as a liar and improviser of erotic fiction. Why he went along with this is a mystery. He never asked for anything in return. But whatever his motives, the Gävle Boy was quickly proving himself an unprecedented threat to the female population of Stockholm.
For Lisbeth Carlsdotter, the implications were clear: he was dangerous, and he was famous, and she wanted to be both of those things. So, she started accusing women of witchcraft. Mothers, aunts, anyone. All witches, she said. The courts were horrified that these extra witches had been hiding somewhere the whole time, and soon, Lisbeth was famous too. She had her own squad, the Maids of Myra, with whom she ran around, throwing deadly shade. The people of Stockholm started giving Lisbeth’s dad free stuff, so that she wouldn’t point her finger at any of them. She was the talk of the town, and the Gävle Boy could eat her dust.
Perhaps her most famous victim of this period was Brita Zippel. She wasn’t a popular woman. She had an attitude, and bore the terrible stigma of living in poverty after her husband’s death from syphilis. She was also mean to children, or that’s what the children said, and that would be her undoing.
‘I think you’re a goddamn witch, Brita Zippel,’ Lisbeth and her squad shouted at her in the street.
‘You are a little turd,’ she shouted back. ‘Go to hell.’
Well, you just didn’t talk to children like that in Sweden, 1675. Pretty quickly, the authorities took an interest. They questioned Brita’s daughter about the accusations.
‘Now, please think carefully. Has your mother ever take you to Blackula?’
‘Er, I don’t know. Sure, why not,’ she said, and then demanded treats.
Brita was arrested. During her trial, she dismissed her own children’s charges as just kids being kids. She was less understanding when it came to the other witnesses like Lisbeth, and the Gävle Boy who the prosecution dredged up to testify against her. She told them to go fuck themselves, and said that she wished she was a witch, so that she could come back as a ghost, and fuck up all their lives. She was found guilty.
Brita was brought to be executed, and broadcast her contempt loudly to the hissing mob, ‘Oh, fuck you all! Fuck you. Fuck you. And fuck you.’ A priest asked if she would care to reject Satan and take communion; she responded predictably.
The previous day, Brita’s daughter had gone to her priest, and confessed that she had lied. Brita had never taken her to Blockula. The priest mulled it over, and then told her, ‘Let’s just keep that one to ourselves, hm?’
On the podium, Brita continued to swear at everyone, and struggle with her executioner. Five men were brought up from the crowd to sit on her, and keep her still. Brita’s stream of obscenities grew ever more frantic, increasing in pitch and tempo, until finally the executioner swung, and silenced them.
Meanwhile, Lisbeth Carlsdotter was feeling pretty good. Her reign of terror was in fine health. In the streets and witness stands of Stockholm, she could be heard to shout, ‘I’m Lisbeth Carlsdotter, who the hell are you?’ and, ‘Eat my shorts.’
Her ego grew in proportion to the fame of her targets. Brita Zippel, that poor syphilis widow, was no big deal. She needed a nemesis; a woman who was worthy of being destroyed by the great Lisbeth Carlsdotter.
That was how she decided to accuse Maria Sofia De la Gardie. She had been the Mistress of the Robes to Sweden’s Queen Christina, an eminent industrialist and investor, a foremost exporter of ships, timber and textiles, and a pioneer in the field of hydroelectric power.
‘Yeah, she’s a witch,’ said Lisbeth, ‘and so’s her cousin, the Countess Palatine of Zweibrücken,’ a Royal Princess of Sweden, and the sitting King’s aunt. ‘And both of them,’ added Lisbeth, ‘took me on a ride to Black Dracula.’
The reaction from Swedish high society was swift: ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No. We are not listening to any of that witch shit here. Not a chance. Piss off.’
And this time, it seemed the whole country agreed. Countesses? Royal ladies? The wealthy? These were obviously not witches. That just wouldn’t make any sense! Lisbeth had gone too far. Her credibility was shot. And now the local authorities started to wonder: just how reliable were these child witnesses? Now, when they pulled kids in to hear their sordid stories of sex in Blockula, they sat on it for a few days, brought them back in, and asked them to repeat their story, exactly as they had told it the first time.
‘Oh, yeah, Blockula, right,’ they stumbled, ‘there was the devil, of course, I mean obviously, and I think there was also a sheep, and another monster. Now give me my treats, you fat fuck.’
The authorities were crestfallen. All their cases falling apart. These kids were just little liars, and probably had been the whole time. And at this low moment, who reappeared but the original Child Liar himself, the Gävle Boy, with a shocking message for his followers.
‘I have lied,’ he said. ‘I have borne false witness against many women, including my own mother, and accused them of witchcraft, when in truth, I knew them not to be witches. I have never been abducted, nor entered into intercourse with the devil. I feel a great sorrow for every loss of life for which I am responsible. I lied, and I could not help but lie, because I am a witch.’
The authorities were astonished. ‘But, Gävle Boy, if you are a witch, that means we must execute you.’
‘Yes, that is what you must do.’
So, that was how the career and life of the Gävle Boy ended: confusingly, and with much associated embarrassment. The teenaged Lisbeth Carlsdotter and her Maids of Myra followed him not long after; leaving the world from a gallows.
And in the New Year, 1677, the Swedish government met the religious authority in the land, and they asked, ‘Hey guys, why don’t we just say that we got rid of all the witches? As in, we did it, they’re all gone, and because we did such a good job there will never be another witch in Sweden ever again?’ The priests agreed that this made eminent sense.
So, Sweden released all the women still awaiting trial, and let all the child witnesses off with a light whipping. And that was how Sweden triumphed, once and for all, legally speaking, against the handmaidens of the dark one.
Today, the city of Gävle chooses to be represented not by a boy, but by a goat. The Gävle Goat. It is a traditional yule goat, a straw sculpture standing 43 feet tall and weighing three tonnes. Some years, most years, the people of Gävle try to set the goat on fire, or hit it with their car, or kick it to pieces. They hate it. ‘We just love to kick the goat!’ they say. But overall, the citizens of Gävle would agree, that if Gävle is going to be remembered for anything, better the Gävle Goat than the Gävle Boy, who was an absolute piece of shit.
That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby, with artwork by Ray Chen. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at somethingtrue.net. Follow us on twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again for the next episode: Charlie Joyride.