Many years ago, a small, bedraggled paperback found its way into our family home. Not a particularly unusual occurrence as hundreds (if not thousands) of small, bedraggled paperbacks have appeared in similar manners over the years. But one in particular had a great impact upon our family: Scoundrels, Fiends and Human Monsters by Cliff Howe (pub. 1958).
It didn't look like much; in fact, the first few chapters were torn out (so we were able to learn that Thomas Dun had his limbs sawn off with jagged knives, etc. as punishment for his crimes, but not what those crimes might have been). But the first full chapter remaining was that of Sawney Bean(e), notorious cannibalistic murderer of the __th century (a remarkably similar text to that chapter can be found here; more on this source later).
In our home, the vicious character of Sawney Beane became a less frightening but more pervasive evil influence, taking over the role of bogey-man from an assortment of imaginary wolves, mice, and undifferentiated ghosts and spirits who had previously carried scare-duties on their own but had lost their spark for one reason or another. Beane mostly hovered around the dinner table (and occasionally communion service at church) in case reference to cannibalism was appropriate for the given meal (surprisingly often, I found), although sometimes he was invoked to scare younger children when our usual range of bogey-men (Rick James, Ozzy Osbourne, Michael Jackson) wasn't enough.
Unfortunately, it may have been too good to be true. A recent piece in the Fortean Times is rather dismissive of the whole tale; a host of other sources join in a solid and robust debunking of the most important details of the whole matter. The title tells the story in Urquhart's "Sawney Beane: Myth or Myth", "The reaction of any serious historian... to the Sawney Bean myth should be polite incredulity at least, and outright denunciation at best...." and more information of a debunking nature (along with a snippet of information about films inspired by the Beane legend) can be found at Mysterious Britain. Not everyone is a debunker, however; those with strong stomachs (especially with regard to unwanted sound effects/midi music on web pages) may enjoy this site which offers not only a full complement of dripping blood effects, skulls and the eerie like, but also your own Sawney Beane email address!!!1!111!!
To me, perhaps the greatest disappointment was not the debunking of the Beane legend (after all, certain elements just didn't ring quite true), but the discovery that Mr Cliff Howe's extensive historical research could be found, nearly word-for-word, in a slightly older text: the Newgate Calendar.
As described at exclassics.com, "The Newgate Calendar was one of those books, along with a Bible, Foxe's book of Martyrs and the Pilgrim's Progress, most likely to be found in any English home between 1750 and 1850. Children were encouraged to read it because it was believed to inculcate principles of right living -- by fear of punishment if not by the dull and earnest morals appended to the stories of highwaymen and other felons."
To think, the great historian from whom I learned about these important historical figures (fiendish though they might be) was merely a fan of the Newgate Calendar. I guess my search for his other seminal work (Lovers and Libertines: World's Greatest Lovers, 1958) is not so urgent...