The Price of Anti-Vax

Today I read that an art academy in the USA decided that students can only attend when fully vaccinated unless they’ve got a medical or religious waiver: “Of the major religions practiced in the United States, only the Church of Christ, Scientist (whose adherents are known as Christian Scientists) and the Dutch Reformed Church are the two religious groups that openly discourage vaccination.”

Of course, the American anti-vax movement would have its roots in Dutch religious zealots. The Dutch Reformed Church would be the church of the Secession of 1834, by Reverend Hendrik de Cock, and it was his own son he carried to the grave because of his stance against vaccination. Dr. Hanneke Hoekstra, university lecturer on modern history wrote about this in her paper The Deceased Child:

In 1840 a son was born to the De Cock family, Regnerus Tjaarda. When he was one year old, the child got the feared smallpox. To survive, the little boy had to be vaccinated with cowpox, but this brought De Cock a moral dilemma. His oldest son Helenius had been vaccinated against pox in 1838; he was witness to what happened.

My father became familiar with the arguments of dr. A. Capadose and others against the vaccine soon after his conversion. Then and also later he was suspicious of everything that came from the side of the non-believers or was heavily promoted by them. (…) He constantly left the sick room and when evening had fallen I followed him without being noticed and witnessed how he poured his heart out to his God.

Trusting on his direct connection with God, De Cock decided that “Your will, and not mine, will be done.” When his son died the next day, there was not a word of complaint against God from the mouth of his father, according to Helenius. The death inspired their religious practice and their religion decided on death. (from: The Deceased Child, Hanneke Hoekstra, p. 199)

Vaccination depicted as a cow-like monster, being fed children in 1807. A precursor of the modern “not my children!” movement. Everything old is new again!

Of course, he wasn’t the first anti-vaxer; in the earlier 19th century there’d been an offensive against the pox, met by resistance from orthodox religious corners. Still; this one church, and one man’s religious verve, and we now still have people in the USA (and The Netherlands?) who are not getting vaccinated because of him. Aside from his boy Regnerus, how many have died because of it?

Farmer and writer (and De Cock’s nemesis) M.D. Teenstra had seen how tuberculosis spread like wildfire through his family in the 1820s. He’d written about smallpox in the Dutch colony of South Africa in his The Fruits of my Labours (1830):

In 1713 and 1755 smallpox must have raged terribly here. It appears that these childhood diseases are more dangerous amongst black and coloured people and make more victims than amongst Europeans. It was the knowledgeable and humanitarian Dibbetz (…), I say it was mr. R. de Klerk Dibbetz, inspector-general of the Cape’s hospitals, who in secrecy went to the Portuguese ship Belisario, anchored in the Table Bay where it had arrived on the 18th November 1803, where he got a strand of the material without the people’s knowledge, with which he in the city started his beneficial deceit, until finally governor Janssens, even though at first against the vaccine, allowed him the use the great hospital, now the barracks, for the further application of it. When the government saw the beneficial results, they showed Dibbetz their gratitude for his dangerous and courageous, his beneficial undertaking, with a genuine display of admiration for him, as well as costly gifts.

Meanwhile, in the province of Groningen (where Teenstra and De Cock lived) a 1an emergency hospital was built in 1817 because of a typhus epidemic, while newspapers in 1849 had daily updates on cholera sufferers and mortality numbers.

Article from an 1849 regional newspaper, tracking cholera infections and mortalities, much like our modern news bulletins.

All this goes to show that people of the era were well aware of the dangers and suffering caused by the various epidemics; the 19th century was an era of epidemics, but also one of enlightenment and medical progress. Not having your children vaccinated in 1840 certainly was a choice.

On a Secession

In 1834, in the then isolated and remote village of Ulrum, Reverend De Cock was unhappy with the increasingly Enlightenment-influenced ideas that permeated the Dutch Reformed state religion, and with the church board he seceded. Eventually, his secession lead to a split in the Dutch Reformed Church, and reverberated through to the USA. Before that, De Cock was relieved of his function by the government, forbidden to preach, and another pastor, Reverend Smith, was called in. Writer, traveller and local gadfly Marten Douwes Teenstra wrote an anonymous pamphlet (with some italics mine)…

The Dutch Reformed church in Ulrum

(…)Sunday (12 October) morning ships full of hungry souls arrived in Zoutkamp (the next village, a harbour) to come to Ulrum with their dirty linen; more than a hundered carriages and a legion of pedestrians gathered in the streets of Ulrum, of which many went to the Widow Koster (in whose pub the secessionists met), who poured them gin, then left without paying – well, that was for De Cock and the landlady to solve; to pay is worldly and to pray and sigh is heavenly. It was mostly unknown faces who looked at each other in bewilderment. “O, if only these could be the last days of such violence,” others sighed.

At 10 o’clock, Reverend Smith went to the church, which was already full of people, both natural children of Adam as those who (as they felt) were reborn and had seen the light and belonged to the chosen flock. (Here Teenstra’s want of an editor becomes apparent, as the text becomes mired in smug allusions which, 185 years later, become unreadable. Suffice to say: De Cock was busy conspiring with his church council, and sent a friendly preacher, Scholte, to the church to try and preach. As designated preacher, Smith refused to forego his sermon.)

The pub of the widow Koster, meeting place of the Secessionists, early 20th c. photo

Reverend Smith, climbing off the pulpit, was asked again by Scholte to be allowed to preach in the church that afternoon. On being refused again, as Reverend Smith had received a message from the Provincial Church Council in Groningen to not only refuse it but to prevent it with suitable means, De Cock and his Xantippe started lambasting his sermon. Now the plebs started thronging more and more. Reverend Smith, almost 66 years old, was squeezed and punched, especially in the underbelly, so that his supporting girlde broke. The elderly preacher, almost breathless, would have collapsed in the pushing and pinching mass (amongst which Mrs De Cock shouted out: “Now is the time!”) if not for the few men, who also associate our own work and labours with religion, who supported him in getting out. Now the Game Cock put up his feathers (quo quis indoctior eo impudentior – the more stupid, the more brazen) and shouted to the people: “Stay in the church! Stay, people! Anon Reverend Scholte will speak.” Then some verses from Psalm 25 were sung. Later, however, De Cock and his cronies were driven out of the church by police officials, in name of the church elders and the local governors, after which the church was closed.

Reverend Hendrik de Cock, and his Act of Secession

Now we come to the main events of Sunday 19th October.

G.J. Van Polen, police officer from Appingedam, had already arrived early, as well as the constables of the neighbouring villages of Leens, Kloosterburen, Baflo, Warffum, Usquert and Kantens in Ulrum, and, with Ulrum’s constable, guarded the doors of the church. Two of them placed themselves at the pulpit, and two others accompanied J. van der Helm, reverend of Niekerk and Vliedorp, whose turn it was to preach. Coming in the church towards 9:30, it was already filled with participants and onlookers. The constables helped the preacher to get through the crowd and reached the step to the choir, close to the choir fence; here they got so much push-back that they had to retreat a little; while one Klaas Pieters Ritsema (commonly named after his wife, Klaas Wietskes), day labourer in Ulrum, being warned against pushing back by the constable of Leens, called in a loud voice: “Reverend Van der Helm will not get on the pulpit, but De Cock will.” – The constable of Leens called for help from the constables at the pulpit, but they called back that they couldn’t push through: Reverend Van der Helm, while hearing many sniggering comments, had to leave the church.

Interior of the church in Ulrum, 1925

Now De Cock, in full regalia, climbed on a bench within the choir fence, after having tried himself to get to the pulpit, now being stopped by Van Polen, whom he asked: who gave you the right to refuse me; to which Van P. answered: my superior, that is, the Officer of Justice. Upon this, De Cock, who did not want to answer to any worldly powers, read openly the ACT OF SECESSION.

(…) After reading this so-called Act of Secession – of which we could hear little, and so don’t know where De Cock ended, so we have included the whole thing (though I’m not) – Van Polen once more asked with the utmost sweetness, if it were praying and begging, to no longer rebel against the government – quoting once more the Officer of Justice, to which De Cock replied: “that the Officer didn’t have a say, and that he came in name of God, the King of Kings,” after which he called to the crowd: “Shall Van der Helm climb the pulpit? – No! No! Away with that Baal-priest! Away with the papist! Away with the idolator! Away with Satan’s sermon!” and adding: “The church is ours, we have seceded!”

Van Polen letDe Cock know in soft and modest terms that he was rousing the crowd and was heating tempers, to which De Cock replied: “I do nothing except for God, and should you use violence against me, than you will find your death; because I do not fear any worldly power of government.” A new attempt (by De Cock) to reach the pulpit failed, and the crowd started singing from the 118th Psalm, after which De Cock did a very noisy prayer. (…) We felt sorry for the man: his long, straight hair hung over his hollow eyes and pale cheeks, as if he was drowning. (…) We hoped that Van Polen would let him continue, thinking as the father of a madhouse: “leave the mad to do their talking.” But of course! He was again urged to obedience by Van Polen. De Cock said: “God should be obeyed sooner than people. There are no earthly powers who can stand against this,” and he started reading the community something from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Another caution from Van Polen again was fruitless and the gospel exercise lasted until 11:30, closing with an announcement that the service in the church would continue towards 1. Then De Cock left, the crowd thinned, those who remained were driven from the church, the door was closed and the church was surveilled by the constables.

Hotel/village hall of Ulrum, early 20th century

(…) Wednesday evening, 22nd October, De Cock and church elder J. J. Beukema, the first decent in black and wearing a tricorne hat, the other, as a crippled Vulcan, with coloured stockings, knee breeches with the buckles undone, and a blue sleeping cap on his head, appeared in the village hall. Here they immediately (as if to shoot burning soot from a chimney with a two barrel gun) announced officially that they had seceded and now were independent; requesting protection, instead of opposition, from the Council, because they had to follow God’s holy laws instead of the worldly.

(…)”What shall it be tomorrow?” was the question going round on Saturday 25 October. All sorts of rumours spread here: Reverend de Cock, Reverend J. van den Helm, the constable of Ulrum, called Jan Koster, and also the other constables present, as well as the earlier mentioned Klaas Wietskes had been summoned to appear in Appingedam at the courthouse on Friday the 31st; (…) Others said, that in Zoutkamp more than 40 ship’s mates, all big followers of their preacher Du Cloux of Vierhuizen, would appear armed with crankshafts, to help their reverend, whose turn it was, to the pulpit. One of the main Cock-friendlies (sorry, it’s what it says) said (and I have heard this myself): that opposition made matters worse, and if the constables had started anything, then it wouldn’t have stopped with the eight people (who had been summoned to Appingedam), and what would they have done against it? (…) followed by a much-meaning nodding of the head. He meant that a small force was like a drop of water in a coal fire, only stoking the heat. The sailors from Zoutkamp would not help either; because on Sunday the 26th so many people would come from Friesland, from the other side of the canal, from here to Delfzijl, to help De Cock in the pulpit, that nothing would stop them.

So, what did happen? Saturday afternoon, about 2 o’clock, an infantry company of the 10th division, one hundred men strong, not counting the officers (and Captain Vrij), came marching along the towpath from Mensingeweer to Ulrum, having come with three barges from Groningen city. (…) The soldiers were quartered with the villagers, and the night from Saturday to Sunday remained peaceful. (…)

The Ulrum rectory, 1925 postcard

Mr De Cock had not been forgotten in this respect, having aside from twelve men quartered in, also a guard at his house. Further there were no or few exceptions; all villagers, whichever denomination, were tasked with housing soldiers, of which butchers, bakers and pub landlords had the most profit: however much bakers were the main cause of the circumstances (Beukema, main church elder, was a baker and owner of half a dozen properties in the village). The girls too, being pious yet greedy, rejoiced, that Ulrum was enriched with a garison.

(…) Sunday morning, the 26th October, heard aside from the rumbling of clocks also the beating of drums. More than a thousand strangers (many out of sheer curiosity) came to Ulrum. This was the end of the handwringers’ mutiny: Soldiers who had withstood the siege and bombardment of the citadel of Antwerp in 1831, stood in line and received orders to loosen their ammunition belts. (…) The church was occupied and the reverend A.P.A. Du Cloux climbed without any opposition into the pulpit.

(…) De Cock wanted to go outside in the morning, telling his guard that he wanted to preach. (…) The guard simply kept him in the house and De Cock was not allowed to preach or go out. (…) Then came a crowd of Cock-friendlies to the rectory, and twenty were admitted, and now started a service in the presence of an officer, who quickly put an end to it.

To the south of Ulrum some of the pious gathered to hear a certain Roelf Medema, farmer in Adorp, in a field, while others played church on the sides of a ditch – then this crowd was soon disbanded.

(…) The soldiers muttered about the lady who’d have them sleep on straw, though they’d managed to get themselves beds, pillows, etc.

Reenactment soldiers at the 175-year anniversary

De Cock was now inaccessible under house arrest; and the guard at the rectory said: “He (De Cock) is not allowed out and nobody can visit him; if he has to go somewhere, an armed man goes with him, as well as with the missus, and even the maid is followed closely. All his papers have been sealed and moved away, so that he doesn’t even have a napkin left.” It goes without saying, that this was said in an exaggerated tone; only those papers were taken by the constable which had to do with his correspondence.

Everything is peaceful and quiet for now. Many poor villagers, who are not looking towards the coming winter without worry, are concerned that in their poverty they will be eaten out of bread and home, and complain about their guests. And also, these are soldiers from Holland (the west; Ulrum is in the far north), and they are not used to such guests. The soldiers guarding the rectory were also jealous that Mrs De Cock outdid them in swearing and cursing.

(…) Ulrum, 28 October 1834.

A Fisherman’s Prayer

The people of Zoutkamp are not by far as pagan as we have them in the short story we’ve just finished, but you can’t escape a certain feeling of “one hand on the Bible, one on the tiller” when reading about the history of the fisherman’s village.

Zoutkamp lies at the mouth of the Reitdiep river, which goes landinwards, to the city of Groningen. With the reclaiming of land over the last centuries the village got further removed from the sea, and with the damming of the Lauwers Sea it lost its open thoroughfare to the Wadden Sea altogether, and with it – as some would claim – its soul.

Zoutkamp’s sea dyke with sluice to the Hunsingo canal, ca. 1930. On the right you can see the chalk ovens, where sea shells were burnt to produce chalk for the building industry. (photo: Oud Zoutkamp facebook page)

Ulrummer writer Marten Douwes Teenstra would come through Zoutkamp when visiting the grounds on the other side of the Reitdiep, Het Ruigezand, where his father and uncle had their farms. He wrote about one such a crossing of the river in his zine, The Diligence, in 1840:

A while ago I sailed with a poor fisherman from the Zoltkamp to the other side, who (he said) taught his children to pray like this:

“Lord! Save us from storms and flood, sickness and war, expensive times and a country full of rich farmers!”

When I asked him for the reason behind this strange prayer, the man said that he feared that his poor family on the shore would starve of hunger and sorrow because of the price of the daily bread, or be hit and squashed by speeding landowners on their horses or traps.

Zoutkamp’s harbour, with on the horizon M.D. Teenstra’s birth ground, Het Ruigezand. (photo: Oud Zoutkamp facebook page)

Borries, the Dreaded Hound

Borries too, the dreaded hound,
Stalks here round with glowing eyes
And lets his tail hang just a little
He comes from Weem or is just going
You see the Plague dog just alone
It keeps to itself and to its own.
– Marten Douwes Teenstra

It appears that the region around Ulrum, as with other parts of the Netherlands, was rich with ghostly dogs. Ulrum was where M.D. Teenstra lived in the mid-19th century, and he gathered reports of such dogs (and many other superstitions) for Volksverhalen en Legenden (1843) and the three following volumes. Other folklorists, before and after, also gathered material, or elaborated on Teenstra’s.

The disappeared village of Vliedorp, near Vierhuizen, of which even in Teenstra’s time remained nothing more than a score of grave stones and trees. One of the last buildings to disappear was the rectory, the weem in Gronings, for which the place is still called Olle Weem.

A main source for Teenstra was information from the historian Nicolaas Westendorp from his 1820 magazine Antiquiteiten,andsix years later reused in an essay on the application of Norse mythology to what we know of prehistoric religion in the Netherlands. Westendorp writes:

Who will explain to us who Goddess Baduwenna was, whose holy wood is well known from our native history books? Which God was represented by the ghostly calf with big glowing eyes, the black dog with identical eyes, with the haunting black Dog with a key in his mouth from North-Brabant; the three-legged billy-goat, the vehicle of witches; (…) the horse rattling with chains, the man-horse Hommel-stimmel in the Oldambt; (…) the man with a tail and goat’s feet; the ghost in the shape of a man with two horse’s hooves and horns on his head, sometimes clothed in red (…)? Who was the black dog consecrated to which, by howling at someone’s door, would announce a death?

The name for the man-horse Hommel-stimmel is an onomatopoeia, a name describing a thudding sound. You find the same in Stommelstaart (Stumbletail), also known as Borries, the hellhoundseen all over the province, mainly in the direction of Friesland. Westendorp gives a description including eyes the size of dobbelieren. At first I was stumped by this peculiar word and thought it referred to double-yoked eggs. It turns out to be a small bowl of glazed earthenware with a flat bottom which would contain butter, fat or sauce, to dip your potatoes in.

The description is used by several different sources, and proves how much is copied over, not always uncritically, and even locals would quote from older written sources rather than living memory. This includes a report on the Borries from the 1828 schoolmaster surveys. This survey was organised by the Committee of Education, and sent to a large number of teachers in the province, with questions on topography, population, language and customs.

While the piece from Zuurdijk was signed by the schoolteacher, it’s supposedly written by Klaas Jan Beukema of Castor, the farm once belonging to Teenstra’s father. He suggests that this and other ghosts are remnants from heathen times, which may be important to the origin and history of these places. He lists the dogs at de Houw at Leens, Elens and Molenhuizen (Ulrum) and Menneweer, with a nod to Westerdorp’s 1820 magazine Antiquiteiten.

Whereas Teenstra, around the middle of the 19th century, finds the neighbourhood rife with superstition, the Zuurdijk writer, some decades earlier, was more kindly disposed. The mutt itself isn’t so bad either: While one nowadays no longer meets any traces of belief in ghosts and witches, one can hear from old people that, even in the last half of the previous century, a Borries was seen on the Ewer; such a Borries was according to their belief a certain podgy and benevolent sort of hellish creature, in the shape of a big black dog, with glowing eyes, as big as dobbelieren. (…) The borrieses were always seen on the slopes of wierden, mostly on the roads that run past their foot, and where roads diverge.

A wierde is a man-made hill, on which people in the early middle ages would build their farms and churches, before the monks started building the dykes. They’re of early Medieval origin, before Christianity took hold in the area, and it’s tempting indeed to see the spectres as remnants of a pagan past.

Wierde of Ezinge, 1720

In an 1858 summary of his works on folk history and legends, M.D. Teenstra theorises: The most feared ghosts in many areas of our fatherland are werewolves, and it’s an old fairytale that one of seven brothers would be a werewolf, and is under compulsion of the evil one to get up, turn into a black wolf and walk to a designated place, [it is] named by the Greek Lycanthropos, by the French Loup Garou, and in the province of Groningen in the shape of a big black poodle dog called Börries, maybe after Börr from the Norse fables.

Teenstra repeats many of Westendorp’s examples, but adds this one: On the Zoltkamp path, four pieces of land south-west of Ulrum, has been seen and heard in October 1838 a terribly panting, going up and down, following people at a short distance, standing still whenever they stand still, and whenever they’d come nearer, it would retreat, or went sideways into the field; on this black monster, as a reliable witness told me, no head nor legs could be discerned; it looked like a dog but was as big as a sheep.

Teenstra’s witness was a Fr. P. from neighbouring Leens, and according to the footnote: in no way one of the – here so common – Secessionists, but is a true member and light of the unerring and sanctifying church. Teenstra, not a friend of De Cock’s Secession, was a freemason, and his footnote damns his witness with faint praise. I wonder whether Fr. P. saw a confused and maltreated dog, badly in need of a haircut. The fact that people didn’t run screaming but tried to approach it seems to suggest as much. There’s another reason why I (with Teenstra?) doubt the report.

When laying out the sightings of black dogs in the areas on a map, they are indeed all found near wierden. You’ll see them neatly lined up on a naturally higher ridge, which must’ve been less prone to flooding. From the early middle ages the sea retreated slowly, and from the 6th century coastline at Wehe, hamlet after hamlet was founded, each on a wierde.

The only outlier is Teenstra’s example, which falls outside of the chain and does not belong to a landmark.

Map of the Hunsingo area, with its wierden (black circles and dots); red circles are Borries sightings

Onwards with Teenstra: In some nights, especially with quiet weather and a fine drizzle, Hellhounds can be found between Warffum and Warffum’s monastery, which drag along glowing chains. On the southern wierde of the old place Rottum you can find that sort of hound, as well as a firey cart, pulled by 4 or 6 dogs, which goes up and down the lane of the milking place of the former monastery of Rottum. Then, notwithstanding how often terrified people have avoided these dogs (and how many of these poodles are there!), there are also examples of these dogs befriending people, as well as pet dogs.

The long-disappeared monastery of Rottum

In the 1930s Groninger historian K. ter Laan wrote a two part work on local legends, in which he includes tales as told to him. In dialect he writes: At Rotilstermeulen windmill near the Scheemsterweg, it’s a little black dog following you. But when you look back, it’s no longer a little dog; it’s become quite a dog. And then it becomes a big, lumbering dog. First he walks on four little legs, then on four legs, and then only on his back legs. His front legs he lays on your shoulders. And so it goes along with you, just as wide as it’s tall. And when you reach Noordbrouk, you’re drenched with sweat. But harm? No, it won’t harm you none.

Also in the area of the Hogeland: There you have the Widde Wiend, the devil in the shape of a white greyhoud. You’ve got to be careful with him. At first it’s a little thing, walking ahead of you and around you. He wants to guide you, but you know better than that. Don’t say a word! You’ll find out soon then! Out of anger he’ll grow bigger, as he wants to scare you and go with him out of fear. Then you’ve got to quickly get to a house or barn. If he finds out that he’s not getting his way, then he’ll bite you and then you’ll be sorry.

And a closer examination of the Borries, penned by Ter Laan: Everyone knows what a barries is – a big hulk of a dog. But for a borries you have to watch out. That’s a dog who haunts. You meet it at night, and it’ll frighten you. They haunt in the dark, and in moonlight. They don’t make any sound. As the moon shines, you can see from two things whether it’s a barries or a borries. The borries has a peculiar way of walking; he first moves both left legs at the same time, and then his right legs, again at the same time; he sways to and fro. You can also immediately notice it from his tail. It’s a very thick, rough tail, which is stuck straight out. Other dogs always have their tails at a bit of an angle, with a curve. But the most frightening is when it’s dark. Because he has eyes like sauce bowls, and fire flies from them. He always walks at lonely places, especially old strongholds. You mustn’t do anything, and not say a word; then he doesn’t have power over you.