The return of a dead baron

In September 1876, a noble man in The Netherlands blows out his mind. Subsequently, his body disappears and the secret of its wherabouts becomes the local myth in the village of Kessel. In Juni 2015, a gardener accidentally finds a mysterious coffin. Is this the lost baron and what made him disappear?

It is the year 1876 in Kessel, a tiny, idyllic village on a rivershore in the south east Netherlands. Bypassing skippers recognise the town from the recently completed neogothical church and the bold, medieval castle, that seem in peaceful coexistence. But reality is quite different. The lord of the castle and the priest are in a conflict that eventually will lead to a mystery that will be told from generation to generation during the upcoming 150 years.

On Wednesday September 27th, baron Frederick Henry Charles of Keverberg is near death in his house Villa Oeverberg, a few hundred feet upstream of his castle. After only 51 years, illness and alcohol are about to end his turbulent, miserable life. In his last will, written a few days ago, it says that Baron Frits, as villagers tend to call him, blames his mother, brother and daughter for his decay, because they all turned their back on him. As a result of a dispute with the priest he has stated that he shall not be buried according to catholic rituals. Instead, he offers his body for scienific purposes to the University of Leiden, where he once studied. However, the university kindly rejects and the baron never makes it to the cemetery. What does happen to his remains, no-one knows. The body seems to have vanished in the air, those last days of September 1876.

Who was Baron Frits and what turned him into the lonely, bitter man whose body disappeared during  the mid-nineteenth century? Frederick Henry was born July 22th 1825  in Stonor, England, as the second child of the british Mary Lodge and the dutch baron Charles Louis of Keverberg. The father was a political hotshot. He had served under Napoleon during the french occupation and turned to King William 1 after the French were expelled. He died in 1841 and his family moved to Castle Keverberg in Kessel. At that time, Frits was a law student in Leiden and already had his first disputes with the Van Wylick-family, a powerful dynasty that Frits accused of stealing his property. Despite these fights, Frits became town councellor in 1851. Shortly after that, his mother and siblings left Keverberg to move to another castle, Aldenghoor in the nearby village of Haelen. Frits was alone in his castle, but not for long.

1857 he married Louise Villers de Pité, who gave birth to their daughter Mary Mathile a few years later. But the joy of a child could not consolidate the marriage. It was widely known that the castle was the scene to many terrible fights between the couple, eventually resulting in Louise fleading. When little Mary Mathilde was seven years old, she was taken away by her grandmother to never be brought back. The child spend her youth in several boarding schools. She even lived a while under a false name in Duesseldorf, Germany, to keep her hidden from her father. In 1859 Baron Frits lost his position in the town council, but he was not ready to let that happen. The next meeting, half past nine in the morning, he entered the room, obviously drunk, only to insult his successor. During a game of cards with some high placed friends in The Hague, Frits got an argument with a Prussian prince. Only diplomatic intervention could restrain them from a duel with pistols.



In 1869 it was priest Simons’ turn to become subject to baron Frits’ rage. Simons had the old church torn down and replaced by a new and bigger house of God. The old building had stood partly on the castle’s ground and tradition had it that this part was therefore exclusively for the habitants of the castle. This was not the case with the new church and thus the priest considered the tradition to be outdated. For compensation, Simons offered the baron the first row in church, but Frits did not accept that. He attended the first masses outside, on the exact spot where his old, private bench had been.

The priest critisized his default of catholic obligation, but baron Frits replied that he was very capable of getting to peace with God by himself. He never attended a mass again and his separation with the catholic church was definate. This was the reason why Frits did not want to be buried according to catholic tradition and therefore the cause of the mysterious disappearance of his dead body.

Was he buried in the gardens of his house Villa Oeverberg? The castle’s gardens? The family tomb in Haelen? The latter was not very likely, since Frits had disputes with his relatives as well. It is said that on his deathbed he had a loaded revolver standby, just in case his mother and siblings would come to say farewell. True or not, it is a fact that in his last will it can be read that he left serious sums of money to his maid and his servant, under the condition they would succeed to keep his relatives out.

Thus, a myth was born and told from father to son to grandson. Albeid it was not really all that mysterious. The dutch writer and historian Jacobus Craandijk visited the castle in 1880 and wrote about an overgrown grave in a corner of the yard, that was said to contain the castle’s last noble inhabitant. Although that assertion could not stop the myth, it does help a lot when over a century later, June 25th 2015, workers find a lead coffin in the castle’s garden.

A month later the coffin is opened by forensic antropologue Birgit Berk. She scrutinises the remains to conclude that they belonged to a 44 to 53 year old male, 175 to 179 centimeters tall. That suits with the few things we know about baron Frits. Stains on the inside of the ribs witness of a heavy case of pneumonia, perhaps tuberculosis, which could very well be the disease that killed the baron back in 1876. The lead coffin and hardly worn (i.e. little physical labor) joints make it likely this was a wealthy man.

Alltogether it is almost sure that the lost body of baron Frits is back, almost 139 years afte rit vanished. Still, we will probably never be hundred percent sure. That would need a DNA-match, but who to match with? His daughter Mary Mathilde became a nun and was buried in the convent’s cemetery, which was emptied in 1976, with all the bones thrown in a mass grave. Only Frits’ sister Elfrida’s remains can be found in a markes grave in the city of Roermond. Should she be exhumed? Perhaps it is better to spare what’s left of the mystery.

This article was published November 2015 in Quest Historie

Religious homicide at sea: the secret of KW 171

Over a century ago, the crew of a dutch fishing boat gets insane on the middle of the North Sea. Three men are cruelly assasinated by their collegues, after which the rest spend their days waiting for the apocalypse, whilst praying and singing psalms. What took posession of the crew of the KW 171, the fishing boat that history would call the Fool’s Lugger?

Slowly and carefully the norwegian steam vessel Jonas Reis approaches the drifting fishing boat. From the port side, the captain scrutinises the vessel under him. It is sunday September 12th 1915 on the Doggersbank, in the middle of the North Sea, about 130 miles east of Scarborough. The Jonas Reid has left Tyne the day before. Half an hour ago, the fishing boat caught the captain’s eye. It draw his attention because all sails were down at mid sea. But when they got nearer, the captain saw the sails were not just lowered, but torn apart. He immediately ordered the machine room to stop the propellor and now they get closer, the captain gets a sinister premonition.

That turns out to be right. By the time the vessel with registration number KW 171 on the hull is about 50 feet away from the Jonas Reid, the skipper perceives to his dismay a complete chaos on deck. Not only are the sails torn apart, the ship’s rigging is completely dismantled and the hatches and katrols are gone. Five or six men are spreaded on deck, answering the skipper’s look with frightened eyes. On the rear deck, the captain observes dark red spots. Blood? It takes him a while to get himself back together and call all hands on deck.

The KW 171, also known as North Sea 5, was a sailing lugger built in 1906, based in Katwijk. This dutch fishing village with a very closed character did not have its own harbour. In former ages they used tot sail on flatboats that would be pulled on the beach. After these more traditional ships were replaced by faster and therefore more efficient luggers, the Katwijk fleet was forced to divert to neighbouring harbours.

On Tuesday August 3th 1915 the KW 171 set sail from IJmuiden, 15 miles north from it’s hometown Katwijk. It was the second voyage with this 13 men crew under the command of the 39 years old skipper Nicolaas de Haas. Also on board were navigator Pieter van Duijn (28), Jacob Jonker (33), Klaas Kuijt, seaman and cook Reijn Ros, his 13 years old son Arie Ros, brothers Arie (28) and Leen (17) Vlieland, Piet van der Plas (43), Thomas Heemskerk (29), Jan Kuijt (16), Willem Houwaart and 13 years old Dirk de Mol. The team got along very well and the first voyage had been a very pleasant one, according tot he skippers wife in a newspaper after the cruel event that would soon occur.

Katwijk in these years was a very orthodox religious community. The First World War raged outside and although the Netherlands remained neutral, war cruelty did not bypass the village. Mines made the North Sea, that was the primary source of income for the fishing village, extremely dangerous to sail on and the dead bodies from submarined allied vessels flushed ashore in high numbers. The pietistic character of the local religion turned these experiences into the most fantastic delusions. Apocalypse was near, so it was believed by many.



We know little about the five weeks following the departure of the KW 171. The lugger sailed northwest, destination Doggersbank, an area full of fish half way England and Denmark. The days probably passed like many others on Katwijk fishing boats in these days. Long hard days of work and beans, bacon and rice for dinner. Six days a week, for the compulsory Sunday rest counted at sea as much as at home.

The next sign of life from the KW 171 reaches IJmuiden via the skipper of KW 157 De Hoop. He tells about a meeting he had a few days earlier on mid sea with the KW 171. A few crew had been on his vessel for a while to hand over letters and ask him to, once back in IJmuiden, send them to Katwijk. The skipper had asked them why, since they were heading back to Katwijk themselves. The answer surprised the skipper even more. “God himself destroyed Katwijk and made it vanish. We will not return to Katwijk, we are heading to Jerusalem, where God came down from heaven.” When the men climbed back in their jolly, one of them, who so far had stayed aside, grabbed the skippers arm, begging him to stay aboard with him. The skipper did not see the urge to grant his wish and sent the man back in the dingy. While the crew members of the KW 171 rowed back to their boat, the skipper of the KW 171 shouted to them: “If I were you, I would go back to Katwijk. You are saying crazy things, I think you are going out of your mind!” Some time later, one of the seaman of the 171, Arie Vlieland, shouted back to the skipper of the 157: “Cut your nets, get rid of the crap! Believe in God’s justice, for you are all doomed!”

It is obvious that by that time, things were terribly wrong aboard of the KW 171. According to the Katwijk-born author Robert Haasnoot, who based his novel ‘Waanzee’ on this history, the crew had been practicing their religion for weeks. Religion, superstition and the side effects of long time isolation at sea were a perfect breeding ground for the upcoming evil.

There are two testimonies about the days following the encounter with the KW 151. In some details they contradict, but the whole stories are more or less the same. One of the youngest aboard, 13 year old Arie Ros, is interviewed by a newspaper, two weeks after the happening. Seaman Arie Vlieland, the suspected evil genius of the drama, later talks to the captain of RMS Prof. Buys, the vessel that takes him back to the Netherlands.

The skipper of the KW 151 later tells the owner of the KW 171, director N. Haasnoot from North Sea Fishing, that during the mysterious meeting at sea, he got the impression that it was not skipper Nicolaas de Haas, but seaman Arie Vlieland that was in actual command of the 171. Vlieland is known to have been an extraordinary strong man, huge and charismatic. All that made him a dominant personality. He mastered the Tale Kanaäs, a traditional, biblish way of speaking, that allowed him to manipulate his god-fearing ship mates. Katwijk had a culture of ‘chosen ones’ and ‘concerneds’. The chosen ones were believers who claimed to receive signs of God, what made them superiour to the concerneds, who lacked such relevations.

Probabely madness creeped into chosen Vlieland’s mind during the voyage. According to witness Arie Ros, Vlieland said on Sunday September 5th that he felt the Holy Spirit within him. Next came four days of praying and discussing the Bible, followed by the killings. Vlieland himself stated that he woke up shortly before the first murder to talk with God, who ordered him to purify the ship from Satan’s presence. He was busy throwing overboard anything that could possibly contain demons, when Leen Vlieland and Van der Plas woke up. They claimed to have seen a red star and interpreted that as a confirmation of Arie’s assertions. Sails, masts and ropes were thrown overboard.

Next morning, most of the crew joined the exorcism. Only Pieter van Duijn, Jacob Jonker and Klaas Kuijt refused. Their disbelief was not appreciated by Arie Vlieland, who forced Kuijt to alternating dance and stand still on deck for hours. It must have been an insane scene. “He looked as if he was posessed by the devil,” Arie Ros stated afterwards. For the crew it was reason enough to throw Kuijt overboard the next morning. When he tried to hold on to a rope, one of his mates chopped off his hand. Screaming from pain Kuijt disappeared in the sea.

Or at least, that is Arie Ros’ statement. Vlieland told the captain of the Prof. Buys that they beheaded Kuijt before throwing his body in the sea, while singing psalms.
According to Arie Ros, navigator Pieter van Duijn went lower deck to beat up his father, Reijn Ros. But Ros Sr. turned out to be tougher than Van Duijn and he kicked the latter under a bench. The rest of the crew mixed in though and beat Van Duijn to death with spades. Jonker chopped off his head with an axe.

After the murder Jonker went back on deck, where he bumped into skipper De Haas. “You have all gone crazy, do you really believe this nonsense!”, De Haas shouted, while Jonker kicked him down the stairs. De Haas locked himself in a berth, but the remaining crew dragged him out again to beat him to death with poles, brought to them by the young boys Arie Ros and D. de Mol. Arie Rol however said that the last two victims were stabbed to death. In both versions the bodies were thrown overboard.

On Sunday September 12th, the KW 171 was found by the Norwegian steamer and towed to Tyne. It was obvious that the whole crew had gone insane and the men were precautionary chained up on board of their own vessel.

The story of the fool’s lugger has always been unmentionnable in the Katwijk community. Although no-one else than the crew itself could be held responsible for their crimes, it seemed that the closed, religious people felt ashamed for them. During the first period after the disaster the people felt a sort of fear. Had it not been normal Katwijkians out there? If this could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.

The fact that most survivors were back in town only a year after the massacre made it even more difficult for the people to get over. Also, almost everyone was related to everyone. A niece of the killed navigator Pieter van Duijn said many years later that her mother told her father off when he greeted one of the surviving crew members on the street. “Gerrit, how can you say hello to a man that killed your brother?”

The two 13 year old boys went straight back to Katwijk, the other eight were brought to mental hospitals. Within a year they were all back home in Katwijk, except for Arie Vlieland. He moved with his wife and children to Wassenaar near The Hague, where he died in 1966 at the age of 79.

And the KW 171? The lugger was restored, but no Katwijk fisherman dared to sail on it. The vessel was sold to a shipowner from IJmuiden. Registered IJM 251, it struck a mine two years later, taking eight sailormen to the bottom of the North Sea.