By Stephen Basdeo, who is a writer and historian based in Leeds, United Kingdom.
In 1977 the famous horror movie director, Wes Craven, released the movie The Hills Have Eyes, which enjoyed moderate success at the box office, and has since become something of a cult classic. This movie, however, was based loosely upon a Scottish tale of a sixteenth-century criminal, who was immortalised in eighteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), and Charles Johnson’s The Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, and Street Robbers (1734).
During the reign of King James I of England (and VI of Scotland), people traveling through Ayreshire in Scotland were liable to go missing. But the authorities could never quite figure out why people were liable to go missing.
Sawney Beane and his family lived in a cave by the sea, and had no contact with the outside world, except for robbing unweary travelers. However, they were much more than simple murderers; the bodies of those they killed were used for food, as Smith records that:
Neither did they ever frequent any market, for any sort of provision; but as soon as they had robb’d, and murder’d, any man, woman, or child, they left not any carcase behind ’em, but carried it to their den, where cutting it into quarters, would pickle them, and live upon human flesh.
They were cannibals, and over 1,000 men, women, and children, lost their lives in this way. Of Bean’s family, Smith notes that it consisted of:
His wife, 8 sons, 6 daughters, 18 grandsons, and 14 granddaughters, begotten in incest.
One time, however, one of their victims, a man, whose wife was murdered by the family, after the female cannibals ‘cut her throat…ript up her belly and pulled out all her intrails,’ managed to escape, and alerted the authorities as to what was happening.
An expedition was soon mounted to capture the family, which was led by the king himself. When the authorities penetrated into the family’s subterranean lair, this is the scene which is described in Smith’s work:
To their great surprize…the legs, arms, thighs, hands, and feet, of men, women, and children, hung up like dry’d beef, and some limbs lying in a pickle, a great mass of money, both gold and silver, watches, swords, pistols, and a great quantity of cloaths, both linnen and woolen, and infinite other things, which they had taken from them they had murder’d.
Murder in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was viewed, and still is perceived, as one of the most heinous crimes, carrying with it, according to Lincoln B. Faller, a direct upon God and society. Beane and his family have gone one step worse than this, having subsisted upon human flesh-a practice that is directly prohibited in the Bible.
Such outrageous crimes demanded that the authorities take an equally outrageous response in punishing these depraved monsters:
The men, without process, or any manner of tryal, had their privy members cut off, and flung into the fire before their faces, then their hands, and legs, were cut off, by which amputation they bled in some hours to death: all this torture being justly inflicted upon them in sight of the wife, daughters, and grandchildren; they were then all burnt in 3 several fires, all dying like the men too, without repentance, but cursing, and venting, dire imprecations, to the last breath.
Now, is the legend true? One local historian from Ayreshire maintains that the story is ‘almost certainly fictional,’ and gives his reasoning thus:
The Bean family’s 25–year spree of robbery and cannibalism accounted for over 1000 victims, and (according to the tale) caused a ‘general outcry in the country round about’ and ‘the whole country was almost depopulated’. One might presume, then, that some mention of the outcry would be found in family papers, correspondence and memoirs of the period. Nothing of the sort has ever surfaced and William Roughead, one suspects, left few stones unturned on his search for a good, but valid, story. No account of Bean appears in Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials in Scotland, 1494–1624. Neither is there any record of the trials of the travellers and innkeepers who were, according to the story, wrongfully hanged for Bean’s murders.
He does concede, however, that ‘there is no smoke without fire;’ there may have been a cannibalistic family living in a cave in sixteenth-century Scotland (law enforcement wasn’t exactly strong in this period), who may have killed over 1,000 people in this way…but we’ll never know just how true it was.
However, this did not stop the writers of 18th-century criminal biography from ‘using’ this folk legend. The 18th century was, in my view, the golden age of crime fiction; a time when the lives of criminals were used in various works to warn readers of the dangers of following a life of crime. Criminal narratives from this period, according to Faller, represent their criminals according to three ‘types’: hero, brute, buffoon, though very few criminals are wholly one kind or another. Criminals, writes the French philosopher, Emile Durkheim, are like a social resource, demarcating the bounds of acceptable human behaviour; Sawney Beane and his family represented the extremes of prohibited human behaviour; people can be thieves, people can be murderers, but there are some things that you just shouldn’t do. Beane is subnormal, murderous, cannibalistic, incestuous; the readers of 18th-century criminal biography could identify with, and to a certain extent, sympathise with ‘nice’ criminals such as Dick Turpin (1705-1739), but Beane’s family are a whole different kettle of fish. No one would want to imagine themselves as a Sawney Beane, in the same way that readers might identify and want to be a criminal ‘hero’ like Turpin (although highwaymen too gained a poor reputation by the end of the 18th century). The ‘brute’ criminal inflicts maximum suffering upon his victims, like Beane does, whilst the ‘heroic’ criminalis relatively gentle to his victims, or carries out his crimes in such a way as to lessen the impact upon them, such as the highwayman’s robbing ladies ‘politely’. The narrative of Beane’s life in 18th-century criminal biography in something of an anomaly; usually these narratives told a generic story-birth, life, death by hanging. The protagonist of the narrative is usually the criminal, with whom the reader is asked to identify; not in Beane’s case, however, his crimes are so serious that, even though execution without a trial was anathema in the 18th century, it is implied that Beane and his family deserve it.
The story was appropriated for 19th-century penny dreadfuls, including The New Newgate Calendar (1863-1865). The story was re-adapted, of course, in Craven’s 1977 movie, and again most recently in the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes.
Perhaps the reason why the story has proved resilient is that it plays on people’s deepest, darkest fears; we don’t want to believe that there are sections of humanity capable of carrying out such an act, and books and movies portraying such heinous crimes serve to palliate these fears by telling us, ‘don’t worry, it’s only a story,’ even though we know, deep down, that there are probably some very unsavoury criminal characters out there.