On Eating Burghers


An article in the New York Times included the following, “… in the 1670’s … the prime minister was killed, and partially eaten, by a mob of angry Dutch ….” Well, we couldn’t leave that alone, could we? Our thanks to the iconoclastic columnist Cecil Adams for serving up this historical tidbit. In answer to a query about the aforementioned New York Times article, Cecil replies:

I’d better give a little context for this bizarre story, not that it’s going to help.
The article you refer to, which appeared in the Times on August 21, 2005, discusses the views of Yale economist Robert Shiller, who believes that “housing prices may drop sharply, as they did 300 years ago on the Herengracht [canal] in Amsterdam.” The article cites the work of Piet Eichholtz, a Dutch economist and evidently an admirer of Shiller’s, who charted housing prices on the prestigious waterway over a 400-year span. The passage about the unfortunate prime minister reads in its entirety as follows:
On the Herengracht, [economic] returns have often been fantastic for 25 or even 50 years at a time. Home prices soared in the first half of the 17th century, around the time of the tulip mania. But they came crashing down in the 1670’s, when the prime minister was killed, and partially eaten, by a mob of angry Dutch, and the country nearly disintegrated. Prices lagged inflation during the Napoleonic wars but surged after William became king in 1814 and the country industrialized.
No further details are provided. The reader seeking guidance about the housing market can only conclude: If people are eating government officials in your neighborhood, it’s time to sell.
So much for the Times. Now for the straight dope:

(1) The digested party was Johan de Witt (1625-1672; his first name is sometimes given as Jan or John), head of the Dutch government from 1653 till shortly before his demise. His title was raadpensionaris (commonly rendered as “grand pensionary” or “councillor pensionary”), but he was the equivalent of prime minister. Unknown today in the English-speaking world, and apparently little remembered even in the Netherlands, he was one of the great statesmen of his time, building his tiny confederacy (the United Provinces, as they were known, had a combined population of less than 2 million) into a global economic power through skillful diplomacy and efficient administration. His reward was a gruesome death at the hands of his ingrate countrymen.

(2) De Witt’s chief problem prior to being eaten was that he was a staunch republican in an era when most people preferred to be ruled by a prince. The princes of the Netherlands, who had traditionally served as stadtholders, or governors, hailed from the house of Orange and were mostly named William. De Witt had no use for princes or stadtholders and contrived to keep the Williams out of the picture during most of the time he was in charge. Meanwhile he did his best to fend off his two much larger neighbors, England and France.
So, a real champion of the underdog, right? Not that simple. During the 17th century the stadtholders were elected by the Dutch provinces and enjoyed popular support, whereas de Witt represented the wealthy merchant class. But cut the man some slack. He was the smartest person around, and the Dutch were materially better off for his running the show.

(3) It all fell apart in 1672. France invaded, the frightened populace turned to William III of Orange, and suddenly de Witt was the bad guy. His brother Cornelis was arrested on a trumped-up charge of plotting to assassinate the prince. Johan went to see about getting him out of jail, which was surrounded by a mob. Possibly incited by supporters of William III, the crowd burst in, dragged out Johan and Cornelis, and beat, stabbed, and shot them to death. The bodies were hung upside down from a nearby gallows ladder and mutilated, with fingers, ears, genitals, guts, and so on sliced off. Bits of the corpses were sold as souvenirs, and allegedly a few were cooked and eaten.

Question #1: Seriously, cannibalism?
Answer: The sources cited in the principal English-language bio, Herbert Rowen’s 1978 John de Witt, are obscure, but Rowen himself doesn’t seem to doubt that the crowd snacked on burghers.

Question #2: So what was up with these people?
Answer: Rowen doesn’t say, though he distinguishes between the killers, who were solid citizens, and the mutilators, who were “scaffold scum,” as a contemporary pamphlet puts it.
The atrocity had no noticeable impact on William III’s career (he later became king of England). Though notorious for centuries — the murders are the centerpiece of Dumas Pere’s 1850 novel The Black Tulip.

The Straight Dope by Cecil Adams, www.straightdope.com. Copyright 2005 Sun-Times Media. Reprinted with permission.