The rich history of Flanders has left enough traces to fill a shelf of travel guides. And still, much remains to be discovered: hidden places with unknown stories, sometimes mysterious, sometimes quite sinister. Welcome to the first our five-part series “Mysterious Flanders”
A pretty grassy field belies the sinister history of the bokkenrijders of Limburg
The Bonderkuil in Wellen is an idyllic meadow. Nothing hints at the gruesome scenes that took place here in the 18th century: On this spot, 19 people were executed, accused of being bokkenrijders, or members of a satanic gang of robbers.
Life was particularly hard at that time in the Landen van Overmaas, as Belgian and Dutch Limburg were then called. Diseases and crop failures took their toll. Most people could barely survive, so the lure of crime was strong.
Out of the impoverished population arose gangs of robbers, which made the region dangerous, meaning wealthy farms and churches were no longer safe. A popular means of extortion was the brandbrief, or fire letter. A rich farmer would receive a letter under the door demanding that he leave a large sum of money somewhere in a remote field. If he refused, his farm would go up in flames.
Soon panic spread around the region, with rumours – this being the 18th century – of satanic gangs flying through the air on the backs of goats. (Bokkenrijder literally means “goat rider”.) Gang members would trample people and drink magic potions in a ritual to secure a pact with the devil.
Arrest and torture
Government officials hit back with a ferocity reminiscent of the witch trials: Anyone accused of being a bokkenrijder was led to the rack. After days of torture, virtually anyone was willing to confess to just about anything, even nocturnal flights on the back of a goat. A long list of accomplices were usually part of these fantasised confessions. Many hundreds were killed in the successive waves of persecution of alleged bokkenrijders between 1730 and 1780.
Two farms in Wellen (just south of Hasselt) that still exist today – Homestead Corfs and Homestead Wouters – received fire letters during that time. The case of Homestead Wouters is the most notorious. In January 1774, Farmer Wouters received a letter demanding that he hide a large amount of money somewhere close to the chapel of Oetersloven, or he could say goodbye to his farm. The word bokkenrijder is mentioned for the first time in this letter, as is the pact with the devil.
At the drop-off spot the farmer recognised Johan van Muysen, who was arrested and tortured. His arrest was the beginning of a wave of accusations and detentions in Wellen.
The legend continues
In total, 31 residents from Wellen were accused of being bokkenrijders between June, 1774 and February, 1776. This gave the village a reputation as a den of bokkenrijders, a reputation that still lingers today.
One managed to escape; two convicts died in their cell. The rest were executed in the Bonderkuil, and it was a particular bloody affair. Their punishment had to be a strong deterrent for others, so a number of convicts were strangled at the stake and then burned; others were burned alive or first had their hands cut off. Even for the time, these methods were extremely cruel.
The bokkenrijders continue to fire the imagination, especially since little is known with historical certainty. In Wellen and in other municipalities across Limburg, many names and monuments refer to the bokkenrijders. The image of the robber who made a pact with the devil, riding on the back of a goat through the darkness, is alive and kicking.
The House by the Canal
Twentieth-century Belgian writer Georges Simenon is best known for as the creator of the pipe-smoking police inspector Maigret. Another famous book of his is La Maison du canal (The House by the Canal). In the story, the young Edmée is forced by the death of her father to go and live with relatives in far-away Limburg, where the characters are portrayed as gnarled, twisted people. This they have in common with their surroundings, which are described as marshy, dark and lonely. Needless to say, the story doesn’t have a happy ending.
Few people know that the house by the canal really exists. Not in Neeroeteren, the town in Simenon’s book, but in nearby Elen, a district of Dilsen-Stokkem in the farthest corner of Limburg. The rest of the details are correct, thanks to the fact that the Flemish side of Simenon’s family – his mother’s side – owned the house, and he actually stayed there occasionally. Rumour has it he wrote the book during a stay in the house.
The house sits in a secluded spot on the Watering next to the Zuid-Willems Canal, surrounded by forests and meadows. Apparently, the place didn’t make a good impression on the young writer, even then, though now that would be even more understandable. Abandoned, its desolation is palpable. On a grey day, the gloomy picture is complete, and it is easy to grasp the ominous atmosphere described by Simenon.
The First Tour hero
To call Flanders bicycle-crazy is an understatement, so it’s strange that so few people know the figure of Marcel Kerff. He took part in the first Tour de France of 1903, but apart from an almost illegible inscription on a forgotten war memorial in Moelingen, a village in the Voerstreek, little remains of him.
Frenchman Maurice Garin won that first Tour, with Kerff in an honourable seventh place. At that time, the Tour was totally different. Only the French cyclists had a team, while entrants like Kerff were on their own. That means that they had to look for their own room and board before and after the ride, and trainers and masseurs were out of the question. Kerff even had to fight for a sip of water once. His seventh place, however, yielded him a well-earned medal.
Eleven years after his performance, the First World War broke out. The Germans had set up a huge camp in the fields between Gravenvoeren, Moelingen and Bereau. The ever-intrepid Kerff wanted to see what was going on first hand. His curiosity would cost him a heavy price: He was arrested and accused of espionage. On the morning of 7 August 1914, he was hanged in retaliation along with several other prisoners of war. A sad end for Flanders’ first Tour hero.