Why 3 Man-Sized Cages Hang From a Medieval German Church Steeple

ptwo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
ptwo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Visitors to St. Lambert’s church in Münster, Germany may notice something odd about the building’s facade. Three gleaming iron cages, 7 feet tall and a yard wide and deep, hang empty from the church spire. Once home to the mutilated bodies of three revolutionaries who shaped one of the strangest chapters in the Protestant Reformation, the cages have hung there for nearly 500 years. They remain on the spire as a testament to their former occupants’ experiment in religious utopia—and the tremors they sent through German religious and political life for years after their occupants' deaths.

MÜNSTER’S RADICAL ROOTS

In 1530, Münster was a divided city. Although technically self-governing, the Catholic Church vied with the city council for control of the town. The aristocrats who had owned the land and nearly everything on it for generations existed in sharp conflict with the peasants, craftsmen, and trade guilds that were beginning to threaten their economic dominance. Meanwhile, Germany was still recovering from a 1525 peasant uprising that didn’t have much of an effect on Münster, but frayed the nerves of the ruling class across the Holy Roman Empire. To make matters worse, Europe was also still reeling from the startling intensity of the Protestant Reformation, 13 years after Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses.

Against this fraught backdrop, an evangelical Protestant preacher named Bernhard Rothmann began preaching against Catholic doctrine and drew a large following in Münster, particularly among the peasants and the trade guilds. Alarmed at his threat to their dominance, the Catholic Church banned him from the pulpit. But in February 1532, a mob of his supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church—the main parish church in Münster—and installed Rothmann as its preacher.

That May, Franz von Waldeck was elected prince-bishop of Münster, becoming the highest-ranking Church official in town. As the little brother of the Count of Waldeck-Eisenberg, a minor aristocrat, young Franz had access to family money and military power. Rothmann’s Protestant rabble-rousing threatened to turn Münster against the Catholic Church, which would render the new prince-bishop's position powerless. Von Waldeck hired mercenary cavalry to blockade Münster until its citizens expelled Rothmann and his allies—but the city council, under pressure from Rothmann’s supporters, refused.

And the people of Münster struck back: In a surprise attack early on the morning of December 26, 600 armed townspeople, backed by 300 newly minted city soldiers, assailed von Waldeck at his council in nearby Telgte. They raided his residence, and captured several high-born hostages. But after a neighboring noble stepped in to mediate the conflict, von Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from Münster’s parish churches.

That caught the attention of a band of Dutch Anabaptists led by one Jan Matthijs, who for years had been persecuted for their faith and chased from town to town throughout the Low Countries. The Anabaptists believed in baptizing only adults, not children, marking them as radicals even among their fellow Protestants, who feared that unbaptized children who died before reaching adulthood would burn in hell—and who feared the upturning of social orders the Anabaptists represented. Four years before Münster’s religious toleration treaty, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had ordered that every Anabaptist in his territory “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”

Matthijs, a charismatic baker-turned-Anabaptist prophet, sent two of his acolytes to Münster in January 1534. When they arrived, Rothmann—who by then had become more radical and supported the idea of adult baptism—embraced them. The Anabaptists reportedly rebaptized 1400 people (20 percent of the city’s adult population) within a week of their arrival. Along the way, they spread Matthijs’s apocalyptic prophesy: Jesus Christ would return to Earth that Easter, and all Christians needed to prepare themselves for the imminent end of the world.

THE NEW JERUSALEM

An 1840 painting of Jan of Leiden baptizing a girlJohann Karl Bähr, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

On February 11, 1534, the Münster city council granted full religious toleration to Anabaptists, who began referring to Münster as the “New Jerusalem.” They sent out messengers far and wide to recruit new believers to the city. As the month went on, armed city employees reportedly moved through the city warning those who refused adult baptism to flee, reportedly crying "Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!" When Matthijs arrived, he delivered a sermon calling for the execution of Catholics and Lutherans alike. He preached, "Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!" When the execution idea failed to fly, his advisors convinced him to settle for expelling the Catholics and Lutherans from the city.

More than 2000 Catholics and moderate Protestants poured out of Münster—and just as many Anabaptists streamed in from the countryside to replace them. By February 23, a new city council election gave the Anabaptists, led by Matthijs, full control of Münster. Watching these developments from outside the walls, Bishop von Waldeck prepared to besiege the city with a mercenary army in hopes of reestablishing Catholic control.

Münster simultaneously prepared to battle von Waldeck and to meet Jesus Christ. The citizens beefed up the city walls. They rounded up all residents who hadn’t yet been rebaptized and forced them to accept baptism or leave. They confiscated food and weapons from departing Catholics, and then, in March, the city council abolished private property altogether. That month, Matthijs also had all archives, documents, contracts, accounts, and ledgers destroyed in a Fight Club-style attempt to abolish all debt. "Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other," Rothmann preached.

Meanwhile, von Waldeck’s troops surrounded the city and the siege began.

DOOMSDAY POSTPONED

On April 5, 1534, Easter came—but Christ did not. With his apocalyptic prophecy shattered, Matthijs claimed to have a divine vision. He mounted a horse and sallied forth with a small entourage to personally break von Waldeck’s siege and free the city. But his plan failed miserably: Von Waldeck’s troops ran Matthijs through with a spear, and then put his head on a spike in front of the city gates for all of Münster to see. The Anabaptists’ prophet was dead.

To quell the city’s rising panic, Matthijs’s main lieutenant, a 25-year-old tailor named Jan of Leiden, gave a speech reinterpreting the apocalyptic prophesy and postponing doomsday. On April 8, he dissolved the elected city council and appointed 12 elders to run the city.

Münster became increasingly militarized: Armed bands of citizens lived communally near their posts by the city gates, and two church steeples were repurposed as platforms for cannons. Residents adhered to a regimented daily schedule, and were required to wear simple clothing to erase social distinctions.

But as the city transformed, it still faced threats from the outside. Von Waldeck launched a massive engineering project to drain the moat surrounding Münster and allow his troops to attack the city gates. He conscripted over 2000 farmers from the surrounding land to leave their spring planting aside and dig a drainage ditch under cover of night. With the moat drained, von Waldeck's cannons pummeled Münster's walls for four straight days. But when the prince-bishop finally attacked on May 25, the Anabaptists staved off his disorganized and reportedly drunk mercenaries.

In June, an Anabaptist woman named Hille Feicken hatched a plan to assassinate von Waldeck and break the siege. She was inspired by the Biblical character Judith, who during the siege of Bethulia seduced the attacking general Holofernes and beheaded him in his sleep. Early in the morning on June 16, Feicken snuck out of Münster to seduce von Waldeck—but unlike Judith, she was quickly discovered, captured, and executed.

Soon after Feicken’s death, Jan of Leiden announced his plans to legalize polygamy and make marriage mandatory for all women—even those who had living Catholic or Protestant husbands in exile. Those who refused to marry were imprisoned in church cloisters, where preachers attempted to reeducate them. Historians speculate that Jan of Leiden’s motives were partially demographic: At that point, there were 2000 adult men and over 5500 adult women in Münster. The unmarried women were not under the protection—or control—of a husband, who might prevent them from sneaking off like Hille Feicken did.

Rothmann defended Jan of Leiden's decision. "God wills to create something new on earth," he wrote. "Just as the women commonly have been lords and have had their own way, now among us he has subjected the women to the men, so that all of them, young as well as old, have to let themselves be ruled by the men according to the word of God."

The polygamy announcement drew major backlash. On the night of July 30, 1534, 47 conspirators, led by a blacksmith named Heinrich Mollenhecke, attempted to overthrow the city government. They managed to take Jan of Leiden prisoner and hole up in the city hall, but the majority of Münster didn’t rally to the conspirators’ cause. Loyalists surrounded the mutineers, forcing them to surrender and free Jan of Leiden.

Over the next four days, all 47 conspirators were shot or beheaded. The polygamy plan went forward, and every woman in Münster was married. (Jan of Leiden himself reportedly took as many as 16 wives over the next year, including Jan Matthijs’s widow.)

A NEW KING

Meanwhile, von Waldeck's siege continued. He launched yet another assault in August 1534, which the Anabaptists narrowly repelled. Afterward, a new Anabaptist prophet, a goldsmith named August Johann Dusentschuer, proclaimed that Jan of Leiden should rule as king. Jan of Leiden accepted the prophecy, adding that God had revealed to him that he was to be the new King David and rule until Jesus’s return to Earth. He replaced the Council of Elders with a royal court and began wearing a crown and carrying a scepter.

Over the winter, von Waldeck choked off all remaining routes in or out of Münster with walls and moats. The city ran out of grain and residents began slaughtering young cows for food. "Anyone who still has something must share with his brother," Jan of Leiden declared. But by April, facing a mounting famine, the king dismissed exhausted and hungry women, children, and old men from the city. About 1600 armed men remained within the walls.

As life inside of Münster became increasingly grim, Jan of Leiden promised his subjects that God would deliver them from the prince-bishop's besieging army. "God will smite them in their hearts, so that they will run away," he predicted. But by Easter, he clarified that he meant his promise of deliverance in a metaphorical, spiritual sense—not literally.

In May 1535, an Anabaptist carpenter named Heinrich Gresbeck tried to flee Münster, but was captured by von Waldeck’s troops. In exchange for his life, he agreed to help the besiegers take the city. On the night of June 25, he led 300 of von Waldeck’s soldiers into town through a poorly guarded city gate. The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster for hours, killing over 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered. They took Jan of Leiden, his viceroy Bernd Knipperdollinck, and another Anabaptist leader named Bernd Kretchtinck prisoner. Bernhard Rothmann, the upstart Protestant preacher who had stirred up the entire conflict from his pulpit at St. Lambert’s church, apparently died fighting, although his body was never found.

With von Waldeck's victory, events took an even more gruesome turn. On January 22, 1536, the prince-bishop gathered a crowd in front of city hall to see Jan of Leiden, Knipperdollinck, and Kretchtinck tortured and killed. Executioners ripped the flesh from their bodies with hot tongs for an hour before stabbing them each in the heart. Their bodies were bound into iron cages and then hoisted from the tower of St. Lambert’s church.

IN “MEMORY OF THEIR DEPARTED SOULS”

As he retook control of Münster, von Waldeck re-Catholicized the city, and from 1536 on he appointed the city council members himself. Citizens weren’t allowed to elect their own representatives again until 1554.

The Münster Rebellion also marked the end of the militant streak in Anabaptism. The Münster Anabaptists were universally condemned, and exaggerated accounts of their treachery have circulated until the present day. Although the religious movement continued for centuries—evolving into today’s Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites—no Anabaptist group would ever attempt to take and wield political power on that level again.

The bodies of the three Anabaptist leaders stayed in their cages for 50 years before St. Lambert’s removed them, prompting artists to draw pictures of ravens descending on the church tower to feast on stray bits of flesh. But the original cages remained, even after the tower from which they hung was demolished and replaced in the 1880s. The church repaired the cages, which had been damaged by rust, and strung them back up on the newly constructed tower.

When British bombs hit the church on November 18, 1944, the highest cage—Jan of Leiden’s—fell into the street, another fell into the organ loft, and the third remained dangling by a thread. When the church rebuilt the tower four years later, workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting on their sturdy construction.

In 1987, as a small act of reconciliation, the church installed a small yellow bulb in each cage to burn from dusk until dawn each night “in memory of their departed souls.”

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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The Secret Society That Left a Trail of Human Skeletons in its Wake

Skeletons have been known to lurk in abandoned lodges of fraternal organizations.
Skeletons have been known to lurk in abandoned lodges of fraternal organizations.
Photo by Mitja Juraja from Pexels

Cheerleading practice can be grueling, but rarely does it involve the discovery of human remains.

That changed in 2004, when the young women of the ShowMe Spirit All-Stars in Houston, Texas, were set to converge on a century-old building they had rented to use as practice space with the letters IOOF written above the door. Walking through the property, squad coaches Tabbi Ireland and Sheri Wade found a primitive security system with door buzzers and peepholes. They also discovered old robes, ancient ledgers, and books that seemed to hint at a mysterious history. The spine of one volume read: IOOF Working Rituals.

Then there were the coffins—three of them in total. Two contained fake skeletons, but the third seemed suspiciously authentic and quickly became the talk of the practices. One of the girls’ mothers asked local authorities to examine them, and their suspicions were confirmed: The specimen and its dirt-encrusted surface was the genuine article, a skeleton that would eventually prove to be of indeterminable gender and ancestry. All anyone knew of the remains was that they belonged to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a centuries-old fraternal organization.

Owing to the dirt, they also knew the skeleton was likely not acquired through conventional means. The dirt hinted it may have once been buried, and someone had then dug it up. The ShowMe Spirit All-Stars had uncovered evidence of a ritual that still exists in some form today, one that has resulted in multiple instances of skeletons making dramatic reappearances during renovations.

But why did the Odd Fellows need them in the first place?

 

Though their numbers have waned in recent years thanks to the advent of the internet, fraternal organizations were once a prominent part of American life. Freemasonry, Moose Lodges, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks opened chapters across the country and espoused a values system normally based around charitable acts and loyalty while bonding through arcane rituals, languages, and attire. By one estimate, 10.5 million Americans were a member of over 500 “secret societies” in 1907.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was one such society. The group formed in 17th century England before arriving in America in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1819, and its name has a few potential origins: It might refer to the fact that early members were tradesmen who wanted to form a trade group but had too few peers in their specialty and had to band together. Others believe it refers to the “odd” nature of assembling in an effort to be charitable, which is something the Odd Fellows pride themselves on. Helping orphans and assisting people in burying their dead were early tenets. Today, the group sponsors a professorship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and supports the Arthritis Foundation, among other pursuits. Their symbol of three interlocking rings represents Friendship, Love, and Truth. In the early 20th century, it may have had as many as 3.4 million members.

“The IOOF or Odd Fellows is an inclusive co-ed fraternal organization with over 200 years of history that serves as the original social network and provides members a multi-faceted experience depending on what they are looking for,” Ainslie Heilich, a spokesperson for the Sovereign Grand Lodge for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, tells Mental Floss. “Lodges provide socializing with a purpose to help improve our communities while improving ourselves. Members come together to become a better version of ourselves and leave behind the frustrations of daily life while participating in meetings, socials, fundraisers, volunteering, initiations, and degree rituals. It’s a great way to learn new social, business, and life skills as well. 

“One of my Lodge friends aptly describes the experience as being like scouting but for grownups. I think it’s a little like slipping into a real life Wes Anderson movie. It’s something I didn’t realize I was looking for until I found it.”  

While good intentions were and are abundant, both the Odd Fellows and other organizations tended to have a taste for the macabre, using ritualized behaviors to indoctrinate members and cement a sense of solidarity and discretion.

Not all were harmless. In 1913, a Loyal Order of Moose ritual turned deadly when two candidates in Birmingham, Alabama, perished. Fooled into thinking that senior members were really branding them with a hot iron—the iron was cool, but a battery connection sent a sensation up their bodies—the men had heart attacks and died. A Knights of Tablor ceremony in Texas in 1916 nearly ended fatally when a member tripped and fell on a sword. He survived and sued the Knights in an act of decidedly non-fraternal litigation.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows symbol representing Friendship, Love and Truth.smallcurio, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While the injuries incurred during such practices invite publicity, other organizations have gone years—perhaps centuries—without disclosing what goes on behind closed doors. That was true of the Odd Fellows until the 1990s and early 2000s, when disbanded lodges and vacant locations began to be occupied by comparatively normal fellows.

In 2001, an electrician in Warrenton, Virginia, named Paul Wallace was repairing circuits in an old building previously occupied by Odd Fellows when he came across a space between two walls. Tugging on the contents, he discovered a black box. Inside was a skeleton covered in a white shroud—“like a Dracula movie,” Wallace would later recall—and alerted authorities.

The scene had been playing out across the country. In 2000, a theater worker in Missouri was offered two free caskets by a consolidating Odd Fellows lodge. One had a plaster skeleton. A second had a real one. In 2008, a man in Wayne Township, Pennsylvania, named David Simmons was helping renovate his grandfather’s home when he saw something unusual in between the floorboards of a crawlspace. Shining his flashlight, he noticed an old clock, a lantern, and some 50 bones. (Some Odd Fellows skeletons are incomplete: The human body has over 200 bones.) Other skeletons cropped up in California, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, and Virginia, among others.

“As with all fraternal organizations, the number of IOOF members and lodges has been shrinking,” Heilich says. “The second half of the 20th century saw many lodges closing and the Grand Lodges all over the continent couldn’t keep up with clearing out and storing everything so whole lodges full of stuff were just abandoned. These traditionally downtown buildings would then be sold and as the new owners would be doing renovations they would unwittingly discover [the skeletons] long forgotten in a storage cubby."

Once authorities determined the buildings where these remains were found once belonged to Odd Fellows, the society that cherished its privacy was forced to disclose a portion of its history and detail why so many of their lodges held real skeletons—and what purpose they served.

 

Though Odd Fellows sometimes asked authorities to be discreet about their ritualized practices, details eventually began to circulate outside their closed circles.

When a prospective Odd Fellow was ready to join the ranks of the society, their initiation would involve donning a hoodwink—goggles with built-in blinds that could be open and shut. Sometimes weighed down with chains, the would-be member would be led into a torch-lit or candlelit room. When the blinds were opened, they would find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly standing face-to-face with a skeleton.

The practice, known as the Lodge of Reflection, is intended to remind members of their own mortality—that no matter a person’s wealth or stature, all wind up the same in the end.

“The skeleton serves as a ritual and symbolic 'memento mori' where we all are face mortality by looking the inevitable great equalizer in the eye,” Heilich says.

Odd Fellows kept skeletons around for initiations.cottonbro, Pexels

Heilich says the practice dates back to 1797. Lodges were able to acquire skeletons through medical supply companies or businesses that specialized in supplying the large demand for items useful in fraternal orders. One catalog at the turn of the 20th century advertised real skeletons as “genuine and life-sized” and “fairly deodorized.” Interested parties were prompted to call for a price.

While other elements of Odd Fellows rituals—like riding a goat or donning a ceremonial screen maskwere unusual but largely harmless, their practice of using real human remains gave new occupants and contractors a number of frights decades later. Inevitably, authorities would investigate the findings, determine there was no foul play, and then hand off the bones to forensic anthropologists, universities, or museums. Others received a proper burial. Two skeletons were laid to rest in Warrensburg, New York, in 2013 in a funeral funded by the Alexander Funeral Home and the Chestertown Lodge Odd Fellows chapter. Their coffins still bore the dripping wax of rituals past.

Occasionally, some will come up for sale. Two Odd Fellows skeletons found in Pennsylvania were auctioned off by the Mahoning Valley Fire Company in Mahoning Township on behalf of the Odd Fellows Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 2001. That practice has sometimes drawn criticism over the ethical nature of making human skeletons a commodity. There’s also been concern over a possible legal issue with the desecration of human remains, though the bones being decades old means the statute of limitations has expired.

Indeed, not all Odd Fellows bones have gone on to maintain their dignity. One skeleton belonging to the order in Pittsburgh and later sold to a prop dealer made its way into 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, with both the production and the audience unaware that the bones were the genuine article.

The Odd Fellows are still active—and actively recruiting—but sightings of their skeletons have trailed off in recent years. Still, Heilich says that as old lodges continue to be renovated, there is potential for more skeletons to pop up.

As for Houston’s Odd Fellow remains: The bones eventually wound up under the care of curious forensic anthropology students at Southwest Missouri State University. Their origin was never determined, though the dirt pointed to the fact that the skeleton may have been taken by someone—not necessarily an Odd Fellow—directly from the grave.

And what of the initiation? With skeletons literally tumbling out of closets, have the Odd Fellows found a new way of representing mortality without human remains in play?

Heilich is quick to answer. “Who said we stopped?”