One Man's Monster
All over the world there are practices which are considered taboo. Actions taken by certain people which seem to strip them of their humanity and leave those who observe them to be afraid and disgusted but also fascinated. Interest in the darker aspects of our species has always been present in society but in the past hundred or so years starting maybe most notably with Jack the Ripper taboo subjects have reached mainstream and one look at Netflix or Amazon shows that the interest has not waned. In fact we're probably due the capture of a new Bundy or Ed Kemper to become the symbol of hate for the western speaking world as people search for an outlet to their frustration during this lockdown.
Around 1700 in England a pamphlet was printed telling the tale of John Gregg and his murderous, incestuous cannibal family who terrorised the North Devon coastline for a quarter of a century. John's parents earned their living in Hedging and digging ditches and he was brought up to do the same, but he was given to idleness and decided running off into the moorlands and living with his lover as a psycho Bonnie & Clyde was a better plan. I guess they began their careers as outlaws like many others and simply robbed unsuspecting travellers and lived off of the profits.
Somewhere along the line though this was not enough and the evil but logical step of not leaving any witnesses to their crimes led the Gregg's to kill all of those people who they stole from. Then things really took a turn for the macabre, why waste all that good meat? Cutting up an pickling the bodies of those you've robbed and killed is just an extension of the old 'waste not want not idiom'. The 18th Century did not have the same opinions on birth control as we hold today so as a result lots of baby Greggs came to be born.
Once old enough these children helped their parents in their vile family trade and of course as they'd crossed the moral line of cannibalism when they were old enough, when the topic of the birds and the bees came up who better to experiment with than one of your other relations in the cave system. The families reign of terror lasted for twenty five years and it was estimated that they murdered well over a thousand people.
Now I'm in no way condoning any of their actions but there is a twisted logic to not leaving anyone alive to report on your whereabouts or actions as is there a strength to being an unknown entity. The local people had no idea what was going on, but people were scared and were not venturing out onto the moors or near the coast. Who knew who or what was occurring but it seemed prudent to stay away or travel in larger groups. The Gregg family had their own rules on engagement and did not attack groups of over six, or two if the travellers where on horseback.
Well all good plans can be hit with unexpected complications and when engaged in their normal raiding, they were disturbed by a large group travelling from a local fair, the Greggs fled to their den but they had finally slipped up and left a survivor. Well this was to spell their doom, a mob some 400 strong set out to track them using bloodhounds. The 'home' of the Greggs was a cave system by the shore and when the tide was in, it was the most secure of all hiding places. Luckily some of the bloodhounds found the scent when the tide was out, and the cavern was stormed and the family of inbred cannibals apprehended and dragged to Exeter for trial and execution.
You may also have heard of The Legend of Sawney Bean which is identical to that of John Gregg in all but name and location, with Bean being based on the Galloway coats in Scotland and Gregg on the North Devonshire coast. There are several pamphlets and of course writings on both of these tales but sadly there are no court records, or real evidence that either man existed.
Today we are left with a great little macabre tale to read on a dark night and frighten others when out camping or hiking. Even to this day in Dartmoor there are people who believe that the descendants of Gregg still live underground in secret caves, emerging periodically to claim those who wonder too close.
So over 300 years later in our age of logic an technology the name of John Gregg is still enough to keep people away from the coastline and shore of Clovelly Devon. Apart from cannibal fed incest another illegal activity although nowhere near as sick as the Clovelly cannibals but much more common was smuggling. And as Daniel Defoe wrote in 1724
"I do not find they have any foreign commerce, except it be what we call smuggling and roguing; which I may say, is the reigning commerce of all this part of the English coast, from the mouth of the Thames to the Land's End in Cornwall."
Looking back if my whole livelihood depended on people staying away from where I worked and keeping it secret, I think that a hoard of cannibals would have been perfect. Even if this wasn't enough to keep people away from the coastline the tale tells them that if you travelled in groups of over six or more than two on horseback then you would be safe; groups of these sizes would have been much more noticeable and heard long before they arrived on your position.
When heading up to Scotland many today claim that Sawney Bean was simply an anti Scottish piece of writing realised after the Jacobite risings and its purpose was to skew the ordinary English peoples opinions on the Scots or maybe there were other criminal acts being committed on the Galloway coast and they too wanted to keep people away from where they did their work?
The term propaganda is used very frequently in todays age and put in very simple terms propaganda is news with intent. Although dependant on your personal beliefs and leanings on its morality you cannot fail see how skewed the information we are given today truly is. With just the right amounts of murder and gore the tale of a cannibal family has lasted 300 years and still manages to shock and keep people away from the Devon Coast. It makes me wonder what equivalents there are today and what certain pieces of news intend to make us think and feel for many of us are stuck indoors, many are unsure on when they can return to work or how they will survive the coming months and years in fact the only way of summing it up is that we are all living in an uncertain time.
So with this in mind we should of course remember certain actions are taboo for good reasons, and it can only be a positive that the Gregg's were caught and brought to justice but it would do us all well to remember that not all sources information are telling the truth nor will they all have a moral objective but they will all have an angle.