An Experimental Hoofprint Balloon & The Invention of Chill aka Holiday Folklore

Hello, I'm Rebekkah Rosewood. And this is Thrice Cursed.


Hello Cursed Ones. It's a little late, but happy holidays. Here's hoping they were merry, peaceful, and bright. Whether you spent it on your own, quarantining away this year, with family, or herding 3 sick cats that need to be medicated. Specific, you say? Yes, that was my holiday this year. And before you ask how that was, it's ongoing. So ask me when the 10 days is up and I've sufficiently lost my mind. I'm almost there.


Perhaps for today's story, or, stories, having lost my mind would have been a blessing. Maybe then, I wouldn't have to remember them. But alas, insanity doesn't find you when it's convenient. Now there will be no hints as to what frivolity and horror is in store for you, but I will say that this one is written in a different style than usual, and will have a little more emphasis on story-telling. So once I get into it, know that this is no longer about me, or the realities of my life. I personally love it, and would love to hear what you think.


Now grab your cocoa, mulled cider, or whatever your warm choice of drink is, grab the best spot by the fire, and get snuggled up under your blanket. Maybe there, you can prevent the darkness from seeping into your bones. The chills? Well, those will surely be inevitable. Are you cozy? Good. Let the story begin.


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The sun has settled for the night. It didn’t take long. It fell asleep quickly and did not shirk from lying below the horizon, comfortable until the next day. The moon has awoken and shines through the windows of our family home; a four bedroom ranch home seated at the top of a small hill blanketed with snow.


The candles are lit and the robust smell of the smoke from the wicks permeates the nostrils. The fire is blazing and, rightfully so, as it’s the only warmth in the home, currently. Surrounded by a warmth of light, it’s easy to convince oneself that you're safe here. Nothing could harm you.


Seated at the foot of my rocking chair by the mantle are three children, all nieces and nephews. Having not been blessed with children, but with a brother and sister, their children look intently on as I prepare to tell them stories once told to me which were told to many.


My mind reels with stories. Aesop’s fables, Edgar Allan Poe, and even tales from those Little Golden Books my parents read to me when I was a child. But tonight calls for a special selection of stories. Stories so dark that they create a sharp contrast against the brightness and warmth of the fire. The mood is right and the kids are finally old enough.


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The world is full of stories. Prior to social media, texting, cell phones, dial up, landlines, and even telegram, our world was one big oral tradition. In 1440 in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which could push out 3600 pages a day. A lot of folks like to say this killed the oral tradition, and maybe they’re right. Perhaps we’ve lost our memory for stories that are longer than 5-15 seconds. Perhaps we have evaded the urge to tell stories when all we have to do is just give it a quick Google and read rather than remember it.


But I’m pretty sure these stories live on despite those opinions. The stories carry on in specific cultures. Just because you may not have heard of them told to you, it does not mean they are not alive and well. For some cultures, their stories are everything. These are the stories I’ll be telling today.


Some of the strongest stories that live on today focus around the holidays and the winter season. Considering winter signals the death of Summer, and writers tend to use winter to represent tales of sorrow, death, and other such unpleasant things, it’s no surprise that winter happens to be where some of the more terrifying stories reside. The stories we dive into today aren’t those you would typically tell around the yule log during an awkward family Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever you celebrate. Then again, maybe they are. I don’t know you and I don’t know your life. Perhaps you genuinely enjoy terrifying small children.


In either case, each of these stories is cultural, and they have been strengthened and passed on by the cultural, real-life, communicative game of telephone. Some of these stories are based on reality, or legitimate people, while others might be.


Still have that drink you grabbed earlier? May your drink warm your soul, and your blanket warm your body as you prop up your feet on grandma’s old ottoman.


Hans Trapp


Our first story takes us to Bavaria, Germany during the late 15th century. We’ve always heard tales of Santa or the equivalent, but there has also always been the opposite figure. Every protagonist must have an antagonist, and with every good, there must be evil (even if it’s Martin Short’s character, Jack Frost, in Santa Clause 3. He invented chill, you know). Probably the most well-known anti-santa is Krampus. We won’t be talking about him today. Instead, I’ll be telling you the story of Hans Trapp, the antithetical Santa that once stabbed a child, sliced him into tiny pieces, and cooked and ate his flesh.


But every story comes from somewhere. Every story has an ounce of truth in it. Who was this Hans Trapp? Where is this ounce of truth?


Hans von Trotha was many things. He was a German knight and marshal within the prince-elector of the Palatinate (pah-lat-teh-nat). The Palatinate (pah-lat-teh-nat) was a country claimed by and part of the Holy Roman Empire. It stretched from the Upper Rhine in Germany to parts of France, towards the Odenwald (Oh-den-vald) range. It included Heidelberg (Hi-dell-burg) and Mannheim (Man-high-m), two capital cities.


In addition to being a German knight and marshal, he was also a Chevalier d’Or (Shev-ah-leer de-Or), a French honorary title. I can’t be sure how he got all of these accolades, but after I read some of what he did, I think you’ll understand that even in the 15th century, it seems everyone got a participation trophy.


During his time as a youth, he proved himself worthy to John of Magdeburg (Mahg-deh-berg), the patron saint of Bishop Thilo von Trotha. He also proved himself by 1480 to Philip the Sincere, the Elector. Philip sincerely gave him hereditary fiefs. He received two castles, Berwartstein (Bear-vart-stine), to include all of its belongings, and Grafendahn (Graph-en-dahn).


But Hans was only interested in one of the castles. He wasn’t interested in the castle of Grafendahn (Graph-en-dahn). It was falling apart due to the fact that it was built for multiple and joint owners and, much like the group projects we were all forced to do in high school, no one took responsibility.


Berwartstein (Bear-vart-stine) however, turned into a literal citadel. The castle included a battery tower on a platform which allowed for the ancestor of the musket, the culverin, to be set up. Multiple culverins could be set up to allow for easy access to anyone attempting to breach the stronghold. Think Lord of the Rings, only smaller, but don’t tell Hans that.


For all intents and purposes, Hans was a small-timer. He owned a castle or two, sure, but not much was known about him until his feud with Henry. If it were any ordinary Henry we wouldn’t care, sorry Henry. This was Henry, the Abbot of the Order of Benedictine Monks at Weissenburg (Vice-sen-berg) Abbey. Henry was pissed off, if a Monk can be pissed off, because the items within Berwartstein castle were originally the property of the monastery. He said Hans did not acquire this castle legitimately because the Electoral Palatinate (pah-lat-teh-nat) had not been granted possession of the castle, but instead had merely been under his protection. Instead of the Elector defending the monks in this dispute, he promoted Hans to marshal and sold him the entire estate.


Now, for a man like Hans, mere ownership simply wasn’t good enough. Hans’ pride was on the line. He decided he would dam up the Wieslauter (Vee-slau-tear) river. And let’s think about that for a second. Creating a dam is no small task. And I’m all for petty where it’s deserved, not that this was, but that’s a bit much don’t ya think? Thanks to the ultimate act of unwarranted pettiness, Weissenburg, the town beside the castle, was now without water. Not to mention that when you dam a river, the water has to go somewhere, and in this particular instance it went to flooding the meadows of Bobenthal.


Now, the memorable Henry, the Abbot, complained. After all, they needed water. This is exactly what Hans anticipated. In order to appease Henry, and in accordance to his diabolical plan, Hans tore down the dam. Not in stages, but all at once. And as we’ve seen any time a dam breaks, it kind of causes a problem. So Hans tore down the dam which, subsequently, created a huge flood in the town of Weissenburg, and wreaked havoc on their economy.


Hans, now a Baron, fought openly with the abbot. The Abbot attempted to put an end to things by calling upon the emperor. This did absolutely nothing. So in a true Who Wants to be a Millionaire phone a friend lifeline, the abbot reached out to Pope Innocent VIII (8th).


Eventually the successor to Innocent, Alexander VI (6th), asked that Hans appear in Rome in order to be questioned about his loyalty to the church. Hans couldn’t be bothered to make the trip, and instead decided he would throw a total B.F. and write a letter. This letter essentially accused the Pope of being immoral, and ended up causing an anathema, or a document officially shunning Hans, to be written up. This resulted in the excommunication of Hans Von Trotha. As if they were waiting for the smoke from the chimney, both the Roman-German king and Emperor Maximilian I determined they would levy an imperial ban against him.


So where does the story come from? Basically, Hans was a pretty bad dude. To go up against the church would definitely get you put in the history books in the 15th century.


Hans stood at a towering 2 meters tall, which is 6’5”. This would be tall even by today's standards, and back in the 15th century, the average height for an adult male was 1 inch shorter than it is today at 5’5”.


Hans was terrifying, imposing, and became a legend in the area of his residence. They called him, “Hans Trapp.” In Palatinate (pah-lat-teh-nat), now the German federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, or Rheinland-Pfalz (Rine-land Felts) covering around 2,105 square miles, he was described as a robber baron and, eventually, this tall man became known as the schwarzer Ritter (sh-wart-zer Ritter) or Black Knight.


The black knight was restless, and as a spirit he stalked at night. He is featured in the Legend of Jungfernsprung (Yoong-fern-shprung). “...a man suddenly burst out of the thicket, probably the robber baron, Hans Trapp from Berwartstein Castle. The man clearly intended to rob the virgin of her innocence.” So… gross.


In nearby areas, his name was used as a way to scare children into behaving. He was said to accompany Saint Nicholas while in a white beard, pointed hat, and a rod. The Alemannic German poem reads:


Look, there comes Hans Trapp.

He has a nice pointed hat

And a beard white like a roan.

He comes from the beautiful starry sky

And brings children a rod

Who do not do singing and praying.

Look, Hans Trapp, we are so small

And good and obedient at home.

Shouldn't come with your stick

Because we can sing and pray too.


Hans Trapp also became known as the Christmas Scarecrow. But unlike the beloved Scarecrow from the original Wizard of Oz, he’s not someone you would want to skip down the yellow brick road with. Legend has it that after being excommunicated, Hans took up with Satan, selling his soul, and living out his life in the forested mountains of Bavaria. The longer he remained sequestered away, the more his anger, resentment, and greed grew. It’s even said that it’s in these mountains where Hans developed his taste for human flesh. In an effort to disguise himself, Hans stuffed straw into his clothing, and went on the prowl for children.


It’s here that the legend briefly mentioned earlier came to be. A boy around the age of 10 year old had the distinct misfortune of crossing paths with Hans one day. Hans Trapp then viciously stabbed the boy with a sharp stick, and brought his body back to his makeshift home. It’s there that Trapp is said to have cut the boy’s body into several pieces, and roasted it. However, before he could eat it, Trapp was struck by lightning, and killed instantly.


This wouldn’t be the end of Trapp, however. Hans Trapp would team up with dear old Santa. While Santa remains the holly jolly man that jumps down chimneys to bring presents and joy, Hans has settled for redemption. He spends his holidays trying to persuade naughty children to come over to the side of virtuosity and change their naughty ways. What those methods of persuasion are, well… I don’t think I want to know.


What I do want to know, however, is what the hell actually happened in England in 1855.


The Devil’s Footprints Mystery


On May 26, 1855, an issue of Bell’s Life in Sydney published a column that read:


It appears on Thursday last night, there was a very heavy snowfall in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the South of Devon. On the following morning the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the footmarks of some strange and mysterious animal endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the footprints were to be seen in all kinds of unaccountable places – on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and court-yards, enclosed by high walls and pailings, as well in open fields."


The superstitious go so far as to believe that they are the marks of Satan himself; and that great excitement has been produced among all classes may be judged from the fact that the subject has been descanted on from the pulpit.


The impressions of the foot closely resembled that of a donkey's shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half inches across. Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the centre remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been concave.


Reading this, you might tell yourself it was only a story. Anything to help you sleep at night. It was surely thought up in the mind of someone like Stephen King as what might even be a throwaway story placed in some collection to be published after his own demise.


But no. These footprints were found on the night of the 8th and morning of the 9th of February, 1855, starting in the South West region of England called Exmouth (EkSmuhth), up to Topsham (Topshem), and all the way into Teignmouth (Tinmuhth), a seaside town and fishing port in Devon. This is a distance of nearly 22 miles as far as Google Maps goes. Walking this distance would take nearly six hours. Some writers stated the footprints went even further. Reports during the event estimate the trail as short as 40 and as long as 100 miles.


As one could expect, there is very little evidence that comes from anything during the mid-19th century. There were some documents, but those didn’t really offer much information, as they themselves were published in an effort to gather more information. Over 30 separate locations along the trail were reported.


In his editorial and collection of source material on the event called The Devil’s Hoofmarks Source Material on the Great Devon Mystery of 1855, Mike Dash describes the prints. “The marks, which were almost all four inches long by three broad or rather smaller, appeared to have been left by a biped, although the prints were almost always in a single file, rather than alternating to right and left as most tracks do. Sometimes the prints appeared cloven, sometimes not, and the stride was tiny, almost mincing, at between eight and 16 inches.” To be honest, if these are the devil's footprints, I’m not impressed. I mean, I know everyone always says “size doesn’t matter,” but that’s really small for some otherworldly being you expect me to be afraid of. More terrifying than the size, is the fact that the marks were also left on haystacks, roofs, and walls.


While there is a lot that could lead one to reject the notion that these hoofprints belonged to the devil, the fact is that this was somewhat of an agrarian culture. They made their living predominantly from hunting, fishing, and farming. All of this to say, they know their tracks pretty well. If they really did belong to a common farm animal, it seems only logical they would have known.


Heavy snow fell around the time the tracks were said to be made. After that there were rising temperatures and then rain. Then the temperature dropped again which could change up how tracks look. “...but one local source asserted that many tracks left by common animals remained easily identifiable in the morning, and on the whole it appears that a considerable majority of the inhabitants, most of whom were country people who might have been expected to be familiar with all manner of trails left by the local wildlife, were puzzled and in many cases scared by these tracks and by the places in which they were discovered.” You mean like on the walls? Yeah, I don’t know many bipedal donkeys that climb walls. But then I’m not a country folk so maybe I just lack the familiarity I guess. I’ll get back to you after I’ve moved to VT and lived there for a while. Maybe it’s just a rare breed.


There have been multiple explanations for this series of strange hoof marks over the years. Mike Dash, in his article, concluded there was no one source for the hoof marks. He determined that some were probably hoaxes, some made by common animals with four legs, and some were made by wood mice. Other explanations have included an experimental balloon, a kangaroo, and badgers. Now the kangaroo one is simply absurd, unless one escaped from a local zoo? But even still, the traveling distance of 40-100 miles alone makes that seem insanely far-fetched. As for this experimental hoofprint balloon? Well, I needed to know more about that.


According to prolific British novelist Geoffrey Household, this “experimental balloon” had been released by mistake from Devonport Dockyard. The balloon was believed to have trailed two shackles on the end of its mooring ropes. Now I couldn’t confirm this but I’m speculating wildly that when they say balloon, it’s more like a hot air balloon, or a blimp, than the type of balloon you’d see at a birthday party. With context it seems pretty obvious, but that’s what I initially pictured. So, you’re welcome for having stated the obvious.


Anyway, Geoffrey got this information from a local man, Major Carter. Carter’s grandfather had apparently worked at the dockyard at the time, and claimed that the incident had been buried because the balloon caused an immense amount of damage and wrecked a number of conservatories, greenhouses, and windows before finally touching down in Honiton where it was then presumably rushed away from and hidden forever. Likely in an effort to avoid having to pay for all of the damage this caused. I could totally see this because my grandpa used to create some insanely wild inventions, like a golden toilet with a red carpet, a la The Golden Throne, that he would then ride around the neighborhood with his dog. I could 1,000% see him inventing something that accidentally causes a ton of damage and then just swearing us all to secrecy so he can get away with it and laugh about the story at a family gathering later.


As believable as something like that may be, many skeptics have questioned how the balloon would have been able to travel in such an erratic nature with no true course, and somehow avoid the trailing shackles and ropes being caught on some kind of obstacle. Which is an excellent point.


Of course, the human mind is an interesting place. We do a lot to rationalize what we see, feel, and experience. This was no different. We need answers, we require answers. Even if the answers are too far fetched to be true. Like some kind of experimental hoofprint balloon. As human beings, if we believe it’s believable, that’s typically good enough for us. Even if it isn’t.


Speaking of good enough, I’m going to take a quick break where you’ll hear about a podcast good enough, that it should have been in your ear holes YESTERDAY. So you’re welcome. You’ll also hear the usual ads and stuff, sorry.



As I said, that podcast is so good. No one ever listens to me. Not literally, because I mean… you’re listening to my podcast. But… you get it. It’s fine. Well, enough of my rambling, let’s get back into it.


Yuki-Onna