“Witches never existed, except in people’s minds. All there was in the olden days was women and some men who believed in herbal cures and in folklore and in the wish to fly. Witches? We’re all witches in one way or another. Witches was the invention of mankind, son. We’re all witches beneath the skin.”
– Ian Rankin, The Flood
When Meredith Kercher was murdered in Perugia, Italy in October 2007, the wrong people – Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito – were quickly arrested by a police force operating under the direction of prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. Mignini is an eccentric who believes that witchcraft and devil worship are abroad in the world today and that evil powers force people to commit crimes. From the outset, Mignini adopted the witchcraft theme and this ensured immediate and continuing world wide media interest as the case wound its way interminably through the Italian court system for the next four years.
At the time of the murder Mignini was already under investigation himself for abuse of office, accused of orchestrating a massive illegal wire tapping operation as he attempted to pursue the ‘Monster of Florence’ – a serial killer who has never been caught. During this investigation, as with the Kercher case later, he relied on information from an unusual source, Gabriella Carlizzi, a medium of questionable sanity, who shared with Mignini a passion for explaining crimes as being the result of activities carried out by satanic Masonic sects. Why was Mignini so bewitched by Satanism and Masonic corruption and why does the concept of witchcraft remain so compelling, hundreds of years after the heyday of the witch hunt? What is the key to Mignini’s psyche?
Arthur Miller defines the phenomena
In 1952 Arthur Miller published the play ‘The Crucible’, a thinly veiled allegory inspired by the McCarthy ‘witch hunt’ of supposed communists and fellow travellers in the USA at the time. Miller’s point was not only that the phenomenon of the witch hunt can take different forms but also that it has never really gone away, however ‘civilised’ we think we are.
Forty years after McCarthy and Miller’s age, witch hunts returned to America and Europe in the form of child abuse scandals. One of the largest of these centred on Bryn Estyn, a former children’s home in Wrexham, North Wales. A massive operation began in 1991 and continued for ten years. Thousands of people were accused and hundreds were arrested as the investigation extended throughout the UK. A few care workers were guilty and were rightly convicted, but once the crusade started, no one was safe and police and prosecutors ‘trawled’ for new victims by advertising and encouraging former residents to accuse more perpetrators. The ‘victims’ were promised compensation if a prosecution succeeded, so understandably there was no shortage of men coming forward. Some were awarded tens of thousands of pounds though their stories would later be exposed as bogus.
Richard Webster, a cultural historian took an interest in the scandal and was eventually able to prove that most of the allegations were false. His assistance enabled a collective, ‘Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers’ (FACT) to begin to turn the tide and eventually a book, ‘The Secret of Bryn Estyn – The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt’ was published in 2005. In it, Webster not only debunked the scandal, he also explained how witch hunts still happen, why they have an irresistible fascination for the public and how the media relies on them to fire readers and boost circulation.
Witch hunts continue today
There remains a general assumption that witch hunts are a historical phenomenon and that in the modern age science and reason has consigned them to history. Nothing could be further from the truth as Webster explained. In his book, he wrote:
“The demonological anti-Semitism of the Christian middle ages or the great European witch-hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were, according to this perspective, terrible aberrations from the path of progress; they belong to the childhood of humankind rather than to the state of rational maturity we have now reached. Witch-hunts are things that happen in other countries or other eras than our own. We have passed beyond them.”
“. . such a view of human progress is not only mistaken but dangerous. The history of twentieth-century Europe certainly offers no evidence to support it. Both modern European anti-Semitism and Stalin’s purges were marked by collective fantasies in which people identifying themselves as the ‘pure’ sought to persecute or even annihilate entire groups of human beings imagined as ‘evil’ or ‘unclean’. These are not the only modern examples of our susceptibility to large-scale delusions in which, through a terrible process of psychological projection, we attribute to minorities we have defined as evil or unclean, our own unacknowledged desires and darkest impulses.”
After an explanation of the origins of anti-Semitism, he moved on to describe witchcraft more specifically:
“A comparable fantasy, which was to prove just as compelling to the Christian imagination, would eventually emerge. This maintained the existence of a society of witches who flew through the air astride rams, pigs or broomsticks, and gathered together to engage in the orgiastic worship of their master Satan. The members of this evil conspiracy supposedly took particular delight in besmirching that which was holy and destroying innocence. They were sometimes imagined killing and eating young children or babies in sacrificial rituals.
“Such fantasies as these do not belong, as we like to believe, to some primitive, archaic mode of thought which we long ago transcended. The more we feel impelled, in our pursuit of civilised rationality, to exclude from our own self-image violent, destructive or sexually perverse impulses, the more we tend to define such feelings as irredeemably external or alien. Projecting feelings we experience as alien onto those whom we define as alien is one of the ways in which we attempt to get rid of them. The process of demonising cultural enemies is, in this sense, entirely normal.
“It is also dangerous. Whenever we allow any group of human beings to be demonised, the anxieties associated with our dreams of purity throughout history will almost inevitably be brought into play; we will begin to imagine the group in question in the same terms which are found in other demonological fantasies.”
“. . .of all the misconceptions about historical witch-hunts, perhaps the most important is the notion that they were driven forward by the common people – that they were based on the untutored instincts of the mob. This is the very opposite of the truth. In historical reality the witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the creation of the learned. They were set in motion not by ordinary people but by an educated elite consisting of bishops, ministers, magistrates and judges. These zealous agents of Christian purity pursued those they deemed witches not out of whims or fantasies but on the basis of what they sincerely believed to be solemnly attested facts. Historically, indeed, witch-hunts have always relied on judges and magistrates, and on official inquiries, in order to maintain their power and authority.”
Belief fosters invention
So we see that Webster describes precisely the mindset of Mignini and his cronies and explains that the people we should fear the most are those who are deluded but who also have the authority to act out their delusions and enslave the innocent with the collusion of those they control.
By turns fascinated and horrified by its vivid sexual content, many of those who were called upon, some three centuries ago, to scrutinise evidence of witchcraft, suspended their critical judgment. They unsceptically accepted accounts of crimes which were unlikely or impossible and came to believe unreservedly that they had discovered solid evidence for an evil conspiracy which did not in fact exist. As a result countless innocent men and women were convicted of offences they had not committed and many were executed or burned alive.”
“Whenever we allow demonological fantasies to develop in our midst . . . there is always a danger that the same process of self-delusion may take place over again. For, when small, zealous groups become seized by this kind of fantasy, they may well, as has happened repeatedly throughout history, construct a narrative so powerful that they cannot escape from its grip. There is then a very great danger that they – or the agents of the church or state they succeed in mobilising – may begin unwittingly to ‘create’ the very evidence they need to intensify this fantasy.”
Thus did Richard Webster unknowingly set the scene for another modern witch hunt, this time thousands of miles away in Italy, albeit with far fewer characters than McCarthy had attacked in the US and fewer than the UK child abuse scandal engulfed, but arguably with a worldwide audience greater than any since the days of McCarthy. For this kind of phenomenon to take hold there are two requirements: an imaginative source and a willing and gullible means of transmission. Mignini was the source, in control of the evidence and a master of briefing and leaking to a compliant media, but without lazy and avaricious journalists and greedy newspaper and television news operations, his fantasies would never have gained traction.
Webster explained that it is in the personification of evil and its use by the medieval church that the seeds of witch hunts were sown and it is this deep held belief in the power of evil as a tangible force in the world that drives zealots like Mignini to pursue their crusades, deluding themselves and others as they do so.
Mignini’s psyche is revealed
A Rolling Stone article in 2011 explained Mignini’s modus operandi:
“[In Mignini’s] view, things are often touched by Satan. He detected Satan’s influence as early as 2001, when he became a central figure in the Monster of Florence serial-killer case. Mignini proposed that the suicide of a Perugian doctor was actually a murder committed by a satanic cult, practising since the Middle Ages, that demanded human organs for their Black Masses. He later accused a hostile journalist of Satanism and was convicted of abusing his office. In the early stages of the Kercher investigation, Mignini suggested that the victim had been slaughtered during a satanic ritual.”
Author Nina Burleigh travelled to Perugia and lived there while she researched her book, ‘The Fatal Gift of Beauty’. The New York Post printed a summation on October 2nd 2011 which included the following points:
“The story of Amanda Knox in Italy is of media, misogyny, mistranslation, misbehaviour — but chiefly superstition. Kercher’s death was a terrible but simple act of sexual aggression against a young woman in her home. Yet while a prosecutor in the United States might see only the forensic evidence, the motives and the opportunity — the small-town Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini saw something more. It was a Halloween crime, and that was one of the first clues to register with Mignini, called to the crime scene fresh from celebrating All Souls’ Day, a day when proper Italian families visit their dead.
And on scene was a pale, light-eyed 20-year-old girl who, prosecutors said in their closing arguments last week, had the look of a “she-devil.”
Mignini always included witch fear in his murder theory, and only reluctantly relinquished it. As late as October 2008, a year after the murder, he told a court that the murder “was premeditated and was in addition a ‘rite’ celebrated on the occasion of the night of Halloween. A sexual and sacrificial rite [that] in the intention of the organizers … should have occurred 24 hours earlier” — on Halloween itself — “but on account of a dinner at the house of horrors, organized by Meredith and Amanda’s Italian flatmates, it was postponed for one day.”
To understand Mignini’s worldview, to get what he saw when he looked at the crime scene at Hallowtide, on a Thursday night, and to see what led him to think of a woman leading a sex game, we must dig far back into the history of the long battle of Catholicism versus alternative spirituality in Italy and know its signs and symbols as well as he does.”
Burleigh goes on to explain the influence of the Masons in Perugia, Mignini’s ambivalence towards them and their habits of bizarre one footed rituals:
“Mignini was very familiar with this Masonic ritual. At 7 via della Pergola, the home of Meredith and Amanda, the track of single bloody shoe prints was evidence enough of their involvement.
Many in the Catholic Church believe in evil as a force
Mignini was also comfortable with the notion that his Catholic Church still battles the forces of paganism, and chief among the church’s traditional pagan foes was an old cult in Italy that revered the fertility goddess Diana. Italian women executed as witches in the 1300s said they followed a “lady of the game” into the forest, where they practiced animal transformation, becoming beasts that could fly, and travelled long distances, entering houses through windows and walls, drinking wine, leaving behind faeces, and waking up in their own beds the next morning unsure of how they’d gotten home.”
So Mignini didn’t just use witchcraft legends as a crutch, to bolster his case, he actually believes that witches are abroad today, are a force in the world and that evil is a power as real as electricity, exuded by the Devil and that people like Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito are his agents.
In his own words, Knox was “a diabolical, satanic, demonic she-devil” who “likes alcohol, drugs and hot, wild sex”. In 2008, The Times reported that the prosecuting team believed Knox had killed Kercher as part of a “perverse game of group sex” and “some kind of satanic rite”.
In the New York Post: “It was a Halloween crime, and that was one of the first clues to register with Mignini, called to the crime scene fresh from celebrating All Souls’ Day, a day when proper Italian families visit their dead… Mignini always included witch fear in his murder theory, and only reluctantly relinquished it.”
“The point is this: there is no grand conspiracy of Satan-worshippers. It is a myth, created by a certain kind of highly active religious imagination. There are no Black Masses where human sacrifices or dark sexual games on blood-soaked altars take place. There are a few sad fantastists who daub pentagrams on things. . . Once you know that, you know that the case against Amanda Knox could not be what it seemed.”
Evidence? “Well, she was sexually active, they said and had a sex toy”, reported Timothy Egan in the New York Times. “I half-expected prosecutors to throw Knox in a tank of water to see if she sank or floated, a la the Salem witch trials. If all the attention to the Knox episode made people to take a second look at other questionable cases”, said Egan, “then perhaps the tide from Perugia will lift other boats.”
The witchcraft delusion extends to others
Joan Smith in a Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ blog posted just before the acquittal parodied a scenario that most would have thought beyond parody if the possible outcome had not been so serious. She pointed out the extent to which Mignini’s colleagues had believed his fantasy:
“Here are the news headlines for 1486: in the fair city of Perugia, a she-devil hath falsely accused an inn-keeper of murder most vile … Sorry, let me start again. This isn’t the 15th century, when ‘witches’ were being hunted all over Europe, tortured into confessing and burned at the stake. In 2011, no one seriously believes that women go mad with lust and sell their souls to the devil – or do they?”
“Astonishingly, exactly that accusation has been made in an Italian court this week by a lawyer called Carlo Pacelli. He used the occasion of an appeal by American student Amanda Knox against her conviction for the murder of a British student to call her an “enchanting witch” and attack her in terms that would be instantly recognisable to a mediaeval witch-finder.”
The sexist nature of the witchcraft fantasy
The idea that women are natural liars has a long pedigree. The key document in this centuries-long tradition is the notorious witch-hunter’s manual, the Malleus Maleficarum or ‘Hammer of Witches’, which was commissioned by Pope Innocent VIII. The book was written by two Dominican monks and published in 1486. It unleashed a flood of irrational beliefs about women’s ‘dual’ nature. “A woman is beautiful to look upon, contaminating to the touch, and deadly to keep,” the authors warned. They also claimed that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable”.
“You might imagine that the crime for which Knox and her then boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted in 2007 was unpleasant enough without dragging in a lot of medieval mumbo-jumbo”, wrote Smith.
“Pacelli’s . . . outburst brought into the open a strain of irrationality and misogyny that exists as an undercurrent in many headline-grabbing criminal cases. Behind such insinuations – regardless of whether the woman in question is a victim or a perpetrator – lie irrational and indeed medieval assumptions about the untrustworthiness of women. The Malleus traces this ‘fault’ all the way back to Adam and Eve, claiming that woman was created from a ‘bent’ rib and is therefore defective: ‘And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.’”
Mignini has total control
In Italy the prosecutor is the leader of the investigation. He can direct the police as he wishes. He directs the activities of the CSI team, and supervises the press releases. This approach can start with a simple but tragic burglary and murder case, add on wild accusations of witchcraft and conclude with a cartoon ‘recreation’ of a feverish and lurid fantasy of how the crime occurred, made at the Italian taxpayer’s expense at a cost of 187,000 Euros. This ‘reconstruction’ alone was so shocking, you couldn’t make it up.
No one in the twenty first century should have to face a trial defined by superstition, misogyny and fantasy. No prosecutor should build a case on vilification, character assassination and innuendo. Yet this is exactly what happened. There was never any physical evidence, as re-examination of witnesses and so-called low copy DNA samples proved in the second trial. Mignini used assumptions about behaviour to vilify a young woman of unblemished character because he believed that she was an evil force, literally possessed by the Devil. From the moment he decided that Knox and Sollecito were guilty, ‘evidence’ became an inconvenient but necessary requirement that could be fixed to enable him to convince a court that it should accept what he already believed. The means justified the end. Woe betide anyone who is faced with a prosecutor who operates in this way.
Observers of Mignini’s approach are convinced that he believes in devils and witchcraft, a mindset that one would hope is in decline in most legal systems, but the possibility remains that because he knew he had a thin case against the two students, he chose to bolster it as best he could by drawing on the gullibility of surrounding journalists and jurors by conjuring witches out of thin air. If this is true, it makes him an even more cynical and unsympathetic figure: a monster who was prepared to use any means at his disposal in order to incarcerate two innocents. This explanation opens the door to the possibility that there were reasons why Mignini and the Perugian authorities wanted to distract attention from Rudy Guede, the real murderer and were prepared to stop at nothing to do so.
Mignini’s medieval obsession with witchcraft has stolen four years of freedom from two innocent young people. The international notoriety of the Kercher case has finally thrown a spotlight onto his activities. Noted writers Mario Spezi and Douglas Preston are also among his victims. Italian blogger Frank Sfarzo was attacked and intimidated by his thugs. How many more people must suffer on his orders before the authorities in Perugia finally pluck up the courage to stop him?
We will not know the answer until after the Italian Supreme Court finally rules on the case and confirms the decision reached by Judge Hellmann’s court in the second trial. What we do know is that the world wide furore created by Mignini’s activities has made his return to oblivion more difficult. In the words of J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”
Nigel Scott – July 2012
Extracts from ‘The Secret of Bryn Estyn’ are used with the permission of the estate of Richard Webster. ‘The Secret of Bryn Estyn’ is published by The Orwell Press.