When I was kid I was really in to the paranormal (I still am, although I like to think I’m a lot less credulous today than I was back then). At school we had a book club where they’d hand out a catalog three or four times a year and (if you could convince your parents to fork over the cash) you could put in an order, and a couple of months later the books would arrive and get handed out. Now and then the catalog would contain books about monsters, ghosts and other “unexplained mysteries” and I’d always convince my parents to buy them for me.
In one of these books – it had a rowboat being capsized by the Loch Ness Monster on the cover – there was a story that has always stuck with me.
It was about an isolated village in Russia. Just over the hill from this village was another village that had once been run by monks, but in the middle ages there’d been an investigation by the Tsar’s troops who’d discovered that the Monks were devil worshipers and had put them all to the sword. Ever since, the village had been abandoned, and even though it was surrounded by fertile land the locals wouldn’t graze their sheep on it because it was ‘cursed’. The buildings were mostly collapsed, but the church belltower was still standing on one side of the village square, which was surrounded by stone benches.
The only people who used to go to the ruins were the local youths who’d prove how brave they were by trying to run from the top of the ruins to the bottom and then back between when the sun started to set and when the last rays left the belltower. There were all kinds of stories about what would happen to anyone who failed, but no one ever came to any harm, although no one would visit the ruins after sunset.
Now supposedly in the late 1800s a teacher named Swerts was sent to the village by the government to help “modernise” the area. He’d been brought in from Germany and was highly dismissive of the Russian peasants and their beliefs. When he learnt about the ‘cursed’ ruins, he decided that he was going to prove there was nothing to the story, and announced that he was going to spend the night there. The locals tried to talk him out of it, but he was insistent and eventually convinced some of them to assist him. They set out in the afternoon before a night of the full moon, and helped him get into the belltower by stacking up some of the benches from the square. They then hurried away, promising to come back and help him down the next morning.
When the sun came up they headed back to the ruins. They reached the square and called for Swerts, but he didn’t respond. After some nervous discussion two of the bravest men climbed up into the tower. On the top floor they found Swerts, huddled in a corner in terror with his arms wrapped around his head, weeping quietly and whimpering under his breath.
They couldn’t get any sense out of him, but they managed to get him down the tower and into the square. Here he went into hysterics, shrieking in German and apparently gesturing at the piled up benches. In the end one of the villagers had to knock him out, and they carried him back to the village.
After several weeks there was no change in Swerts’s condition, so the villagers sent a message to the authorities. A new teacher was sent out, and Swerts was sent back to Germany, where he was confined to a lunatic asylum in Cologne. No one dared to visit the ruins again, and after the Soviets came to power the site was cleared and the land put back into production.
As I said, this story stuck with me for some reason, always floating around in the back of my head. As I got older I discovered that most of the stories in the book were excitingly rewritten but exaggerated accounts of well known (and often completely debunked) ‘paranormal’ incidents, but I never found any other references to that particular one.
Then a few years back a friend of mine moved to Germany for work and ended up living just outside Bonn (which is just down the road from Cologne). I jokingly asked if he could say hi to Swerts at the local lunatic asylum for me, and in the resulting discussion ended up telling him the whole story. It turned out that one of the friends he and his wife had made was a member of the local historical society and he’d said he’d ask her if any records were available.
It turns out that there was a lunatic asylum just outside Cologne in the late 19th century, and although it was destroyed during World War II some of the records survived. Looking though these (they’d recently been digitised) she found that a teacher named Ralf Swartz was admitted to the asylum in 1882 with ‘hysterical paralysis’ after a trip to Georgia. He remained an inmate until he died of a seizure in 1907 and in all that time was completely non-communicative. He simply repeated just one phrase, over and over under his breath – Die heiligen Brüder nicht gerne auf dem Boden sitzend.
“The Holy Brothers don’t like to sit on the earth”