“Death is a delightful hiding place for weary men” – Herodotus
The problem with being a necromancer is that you tend to alienate both the living and the dead. The living don’t like to think about death and the dead, well, they probably prefer to be left alone to decompose in peace. This is why, traditionally, necromancers have been a solitary, brooding lot. While there was a brief period of time between the 19-20th Century where spiritualism was all the rage, and there was no party like a séance party, in European history, raising the dead for a brief confab was more typically the province of creepy lone sorcerers, court magicians, secret societies, and the occasional holy personage. Should a necromancer wish to avoid the more sordid fates associated with calling up the spirits of the recently deceased such as being burned at the stake, eviscerated by angry ghosts, or banished from the kingdom, the most prudent course of action is to try not to make the dead irritable, keep on the good side of the local aristocracy, and make sure you are in the good graces of the neighborhood occult secret society. Failing this, you should probably seek permanent employment in another field if you want to escape with your skin and soul intact. These common sense pitfalls are best illustrated by the cautionary tale of an impudent 18th Century necromancer named John George Schrepfer of Leipzig. He managed to piss off the dead, his Duke, and his secret society. Unsurprisingly, he wound up dead under suspicious circumstances, although with such an impressive existential enemies list, it’s darned hard to say who did the dastardly deed. In retrospect, Schrepfer should have stuck with coffee.
J.G. Schrepfer was “an ex-hussar, of good manners and boundless impudence, but without education, and possessed of a violent temper. In 1768 he opened a coffee-house in Leipzig; in 1772 held a Scots Lodge at his house, and based on it the Rosicrucian degrees. His forte was ‘calling spirits from the vasty deep,’ and they came. Their appearance was most realistic, so much so, that shortly previous to Mrs. Schrepfer becoming a mother, the materialized spirit was observed to be in a decidedly interesting condition. Schrepfer and his doings were treated with contumely by the Minerva Lodge of Leipzig, and Schrepfer, in his arrogance, insulted the Lodge. Now Prince Karl, Duke of Courland, was a member of the Lodge, and a highly placed military ofﬁcer withal. He caused Schrepfer to be conducted to the guard-house and soundly cudgeled, taking a stamped receipt for the punishment—which was printed in the newspapers. But in 1773 both the Duke and his friend Bischofswerder became converts, and the Duke and the Seer were in the habit of promenading the open places arm in arm” (Gould, 1882, p116). Now Schrepfer obviously wanted to make the move from slinging coffee to mastery of the dark arts, but in late 18th Century Saxony, the sorcery racket was largely a union shop dominated by Masonic lodges. Schrepfer was a proponent of a certain flavor of Masonic secret society associated with Rosicrucianism called “The Order of Strict Observance”, originating in France, and coming to be known as “the Scottish Rite”, as part of its agenda was “the restoration of the Stuarts in Great Britain” (Stanhope, 1912, p126). A later adherent would be the infamous Cagliostro. Schrepfer decided it was time to up his necromantic game.
He boldly asserted that he had intercourse with, and a control over spirits, whom he could summon, command, and cause to disappear, if not altogether at his pleasure, yet by the force of his invocations. These agents he had the ingenuity and effrontery to divide into three classes, the friendly, the evil, and the neutral, all of whom he knew how to distinguish at their approach, or on their appearance, by the noises which preceded and attended them. Whenever he affected to exert his magical powers, he always began by calling to his assistance the benevolent spirits; in order, as he said, to defend him against the attacks of the malignant ones. Pretensions so extraordinary, sustained by some exhibitions which impressed the spectators with astonishment, soon procured him no little reputation (Wraxall, 1800, p279-280).
Schrepfer started to make a name for himself first as an independent contractor, and then by forming his own local lodge, and as Masonry was heavily populated by the German aristocracy, these pretensions were not well received initially. In short, Schrepfer was roughed up, but managed to use the opportunity to exhibit his necromantic skills. You see, the neighborhood prince, Charles of Saxony, Duke of Courland (1733-1796), happened to be a member in high standing of the Minerva Lodge of Leipzig and found the behavior of upstart Schrepfer rather off-putting, opting to have him beaten soundly about the head and neck for his insolence.
The prince, irritated at such conduct, ordered an officer belonging to his household to repair to Leipzig, and there to inflict on Schrepfer, in his name, personal chastisement. His orders were exactly executed: but Schrepfer, though he attempted no other resistance, running into a corner of the room, threw himself on his knees, and loudly invoked his invisible allies to come to his assistance. Their visible appearance or interposition were however unnecessary, in order to rescue him from further violence: the officer, it is asserted, having been so much alarmed at the invocation and its possible consequences, as to quit the chamber with the utmost precipitation. A circumstance of such notoriety, as well as so degrading in itself to Schrepfer, induced him to leave Leipzig (Jarvis, 1823, p176-177).
Schrepfer reappeared in Dresden shortly thereafter, pretending to be a Colonel named von Steinbach in the service of France, continuing his investigations into necromancy, and again establishing a reputation as a fearsome sorcerer. Prince Charles of Saxony again caught wind of Schrepfer’s nefarious activities, but presumably was impressed by the man’s persistence and street cred, if nothing else. In an odd turn for a German aristocrat and in light of the increasing popularity of Schrepfer, he decided to make his apologies for initiating the earlier chastisement in Leipzig. Prince Charle’s contrition was not entirely selfless, as he turned out to have instrumental and practical reasons for befriending Schrepfer.
His real name soon became known; and his pretences to skill in magic attracting many followers, his reputation speedily reached Prince Charles. It was accompanied with such extraordinary accounts of Schrepfer’s powers as to induce that prince to make every exertion for obliterating the recollection of the indignity lately offered him. As one step toward it, he did not hesitate to go in person to the “Hotel de Pologne,” an inn where Schrepfer lodged, and, in presence of witnesses, to ask his pardon for the blows given him, as well as to offer every amend that the nature of the affront admitted. Schrepfer, flattered by such a condescension, having accepted the apologies, the prince then requested to see some proofs of his supernatural art. It is pretended that he exhibited many; all of which only tended to augment the prince’s admiration, and to stimulate his curiosity for further specimens. But the most difficult or sublime operation of magic in all ages has been to raise departed spirits from the tomb; a prodigy which Schrepfer made no secret of his ability to perform. Prince Charles having earnestly, as well as repeatedly, besought it of him, after many refusals, real or affected, obtained at length a reluctant promise to present before his eyes an apparition: for Schrepfer artfully professed the greatest repugnance and disinclination to the act, as being perilous to himself, and attended with various circumstances of horror. The promise thus obtained, it only remained, therefore, to fix on the spirit to be summoned from the tomb. After long consideration, the Chevalier de Saxe was named, and Schrepfer undertook to present his ghost in a visible form before a select company. The place chosen for making the experiment was Prince Charles’s palace in Dresden (Day, 1848, p38).
Some fifty years after Schrepfer had his moment in the sun, numerous writers asserted confidently that he was an imposter and showman, but his contemporaries seemed to regard his necromancy as genuine, and Prince Charles likely was one of them, figuring that if he had somebody who could wring information out of the dead, he may as well make a buck or two. This is why he requested Schrepfer contact Charles’ dead uncle, the Chevalier de Saxe, who reportedly had stashed a hidden treasure trove somewhere around the castle that had yet to be discovered. “Reports had been circulated that at his palace at Dresden there was secreted a large sum of money, and it was urged that if his spirit could be compelled to appear, that interesting secret might be extorted from him. Curiosity, combined with avarice, accordingly prompted his principal heir, Prince Charles, to try the experiment, and on the appointed night, Schrepfer was the operator in raising the apparition” (Dyer, 1893, p172). As one might expect, things did not go well. There’s a reason your mother warned you not to play with dead things that goes beyond simple hygiene. On the night in question, Schrepfer showed up at the Prince’s palace in Dresden and went about invoking the requested spirit. Prince Charles and nineteen other respectable aristocratic fellows assembled in secrecy at the palace, secured all the doors to the experimental chamber, had themselves a quick, fortifying drink and exhorted Schrepfer to begin.
Schrepfer commenced it, by retiring into a corner of the gallery, where kneeling down, with many mysterious ceremonies he invoked the spirits to appear, or rather-to come to his aid; for it is allowed that none were ever visible. A very considerable time elapsed before they obeyed; during which interval, he labored apparently under great agitation of body and mind, being covered with a violent sweat, and almost in convulsions, like the Pythoness of antiquity. At length, a loud clatter was heard at all the windows on the outside; which was soon followed by another noise, resembling more the effect produced by a number of wet fingers drawn over the edge of glasses than anything else to which it could well be compared. This sound announced, as he said, the arrival of his good or protecting spirits, and seemed to encourage him to proceed in his incantation. A short time afterwards a yelling was heard, of a frightful and unusual nature, which came, as he declared, from the malignant spirits, whose presence, as it seems, was necessary and indispensable to the completion of the catastrophe. The company were now, at least the greater part of them, electrified with amazement or petrified with horror; and of course fully prepared for every object or appearance which could be presented to their view. Schrepfer continuing his invocations, the door suddenly opened with violence, and something that resembled a black ball or globe, rolled into the room. It was invested with smoke or cloud, in the midst of which appeared to be a human face, like the countenance of the Chevalier de Saxe; much in the same manner, it would seem, that Coreggio or Annibale Caracci have represented Jupiter appearing to Semele. From this form issued a loud and angry voice, which exclaimed in German, ‘Carl, was wolte du mit mich?’ – Charles, what wouldst thou with me? Why dost thou disturb me? (Jarvis, 1823, p182-184).
At this point, the intrepid Prince Charles was rethinking the prudence of this invocation and fell to his knees begging Heaven for mercy, demanding Schrepfer dismiss the apparition, but apparently this was easier said than done. For roughly an hour, Schrepfer worked at banishing the spirit of the Chevalier de Saxe, who apparently made a few more hideous and antagonistic appearances. Finally, having at last sent the phantasm away, the spectators quickly left the scene, both impressed and terrified. The immediate consequences of this were to increase the celebrity of Schrepfer, and inspire the Elector of Saxony to place injunctions against such activities. The entire spectacle was a big boost for Schrepfer’s necromantic career, attracting a circle of students about him. Unfortunately, as Nietzsche observed, once you look into the abyss, the abyss considers you a “peeping tom” and acts accordingly. Schrepfer’s fame was short lived. Or rather, Schrepfer himself was short lived. Following his stunning success he resettled in his native Leipzig and took on thamaturgical students.
Three gentlemen, whom he had in some measure initiated into his mysteries—for he professed to instruct in the science of magic—were promised by him an exhibition more wonderful than any at which they had yet assisted. For this purpose they attended him into the wood of Rosendaal, which is at a small distance without the gates of Leipzig. It was in summer, before the sun rose, between three and four o’clock in the morning. When they came to a certain part of the grove, he desired them to remain there a little, while he went on one side to make the requisite invocations. After waiting a few minutes, they heard the report of a pistol. Hastening to the spot, they found that he had shot himself, and was already without sense. He soon afterward expired. All those who believe him to have had intercourse with evil spirits, affirm that he was tormented by them perpetually, which rendering his life miserable, induced him to have recourse to a pistol (Day, 1848, p40).
J.G. Schrepfer had managed to antagonize not only occult organizations, but also the landed gentry, not to mention those malevolent spirits that he reportedly tapped into as the source of his magical prowess. On top of that, he was an awful businessman and spent his money as fast as he made it. Whether angry occultists, frustrated creditors, swindled students, paranoid aristocrats, or the evil dead had a hand in Schrepfer’s demise has never been determined, but suffice it to say, necromancy rarely ends well for the necromancer in the long term. Sure, Schrepfer was the sorcerous equivalent of a rock star for a short span, amazing his friends and confusing his enemies, but dalliances with the dead seem to have a tendency to catch up with you. There’s a certain cachet to living fast, burning bright, and dying young, but as Ashley Montagu said, “The idea is to die young as late as possible”.
Day, Clarence S. Remarkable Apparitions And Ghost stories, Or Authentic Histories of Communications (real Or Imaginary) With the Unseen World. New York: Wilson and company, 1848.
Dyer, T. F. Thiselton 1848-. The Ghost World. London: Ward & Downey, 1893.
Gould, Robert Freke, 1836-1915. The History of Freemasonry: Its Antiquities, Symbols, Constitutions, Customs, Etc., Embracing an Investigation of the Records of the Organisations of the Fraternity In England, Scotland, Ireland, British Colonies, France, Germany And the United States ; Derived From Official Sources. London: Thomas C. Jack, 1882.
Grant, James. The Mysteries of All Nations: Rise And Progress of Superstition, Laws Against And Trials of Witches, Ancient And Modern Delusions, Together With Strange Customs, Fables, And Tales … Leith: Reid & son; [etc., etc., 1880.
Henne am Rhyn, Otto, 1828-1914. Mysteria: History of the Secret Doctrines And Mystic Rites of Ancient Religions And Medieval And Modern Secret Orders. New York: J. Fitzgerald & co, 1895.
Jarvis, T. M.. Accredited Ghost Stories. London: J. Andrews, 1823.
Stanhope, Gilbert. A Mystic On the Prussian Throne: Frederick-William II. London: Mills & Boon, limited, 1912.
Wraxall, Nathaniel William, Sir, 1751-1831. Memoirs of the Courts of Berlin, Dresden, Warsaw, And Vienna, In the Years 1777, 1778, And 1779. 2d ed. London: Printed by A. Strahan, for T. Cadell jun. and W. Davies, 1800.
Well, heck–and here I thought, based on your subject line, that you might frequent the same coffee shop in Seattle that I do! 😉
Well, maybe barista necromancy is more common than we imagine. Everybody has to have a fallback career.