Bokkenrijders: The Ghostly Goat Riders Of Limburg
Between 1730 and 1775 the southern tip of the province of Limburg was terrorized by a gang of robbers that became know as the "bokkenrijders", meaning goat riders. Over time 600 people were trialed and convicted as bokkenrijder. However, up until today it remains unclear whether all these people actually were bokkenrijders or whether they simply fell prey to a local hysteria, resembling that of the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. We do know that there were gangs of robbers active in those years. Their targets were mainly icons of local power and wealth. Three historic facts may have led to the forming of these gangs and the type of victim they chose.
First of all, the once so wealthy Dutch Republic had slid into an economic crisis due to the enormous costs of the wars against the English, the French and the Spaniards in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Second, the once so independent provinces had lost much of their power to regents, very much to the dislike of the people. These regents were far more interested in increasing their own power and wealth than in actually governing their territories as they should have. And third, this was the Age of Enlightment that promoted rational thinking and secularisation.
It is easy to see how in this environment a gang of rebels could arise that rejected religion and attacked the regent class to strip them of their wealth and power so a new order could be imposed. Or, in a less noble variant, a gang of ordinary thieves that took advantage of their context to escape poverty.
Gangs of robbers were nothing new, but the bokkenrijders were different. The fact that they rejected religion and did not hesitate to burn down a church or rob holy church gold and silver made them extremely feared by the ordinary people. Anyone who would openly question the existence of God would definitely be seen as a devilish. No wonder they were thought to ride the skies on ghostly goats, symbol of the devil. For the upper class they represented a huge problem because they undermined their authority and threatened their wealth.
It is no wonder that the authorities fiercely persecuted these gangs. Any member that was caught was not simply trialed; they were tortured first, to get the names of of other gang members. And it is probably at this point that the whole thing escalated and went horribly wrong, just as in Salem. Under torture people would "confess" that they indeed were a bokkenrijder and they would spell out some names (enemies or just a random person), just to stop the torture. Through these confessions 600 people were arrested and trialed, many being brought to death by hanging. Most of them were probably innocent.
The trials are still being studied today, but no conclusive results have been presented yet. However, there is a full list online of all 600 people trialed as a bokkenrijder. You can find the list at the Limburg Center For Regional History Rijkheyt (Click here for the same link in Google Translate)
It is worth a look if you have ancestors in the 1730-1770 period in the southern tip of Limburg. Who knows, it may turn out you have a bokkenrijder in your family!
Descendants Of Bokkenrijders
A nice site that has traced descendants of quite some trialed bokkenrijders.
The National Society Of Bokkenrijders
They promote serious research into the bokkenrijders and organize all kinds of fun activities.