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1856, November: John Gebhard's Escape

The Legend:

In November, 1856, John Wilhelm Gebhard was hanged at the prison in Paarl, Cape Province, South Africa, as punishment for the murder of Pierre Villiers, a murder Gebhard claimed he did not commit. On the gallows Gebhard loudly announced that no grave could hold him, for he was an innocent man... and then the trap was pulled, and Gebhard could no longer protest. After necessary examinations, Gebhard's corpse was placed in a coffin that was securely nailed shut, and was buried on Paarl Mountain, behind the prison. The grave was eight feet deep, and covered with a cairn of stones. And, because Governor Willemse was worried someone might steal the corpse to rebury it in consecrated ground, he applied official seals to the coffin and ordered armed guards to stand watch over the grave night and day for the next three months.

        Six weeks later, however, it was discovered that another man - Peter Lorenz - had been responsible for the murder of Pierre Villiers; worse still, Lorenz had also been the chief witness that sent Gebhard to the gallows! Gebhard's name was cleared, his mother, Anna Katherina Gebhard, was given a lifelong pension by way of public apology, and Gebhard's corpse was ordered exhumed to be reburied in proper consecrated ground at the government's expense. Thus, two months after Gebhard's execution, a large group which included Gebhard's mother climbed the mountain to the still guarded grave and watched as the cairn and earth was removed, and the coffin was brought back to the surface. After a brief examination confirmed that all the seals were intact, the coffin was transported to the mortician to transfer the body to a better casket. In front of the whole group of witnesses, the coffin was pried open.

        It was empty.

        The grave and body had not been left unguarded for even a moment after Gebhard was hanged; there was simply no way it could have been dug up without interference. Other nearby graves were checked, but they were undisturbed... and there was simply no trace of the body of John Gebhard.

        One-hundred years later, in August, 1956, a marble tombstone was discovered in the mountains near Paarl by some climbers. The stone was brought to the Huguenot Museum and carefully cleaned; it was found to possess the following inscription:

"Sacred to the memory of John W. Gebhard. Blessed are they that rest in the lord."

The Strange Gets Stranger

        The above briefly summarizes the legend of John Gebhard's escape as presented by Bill Wharton in an 1958 issue of FATE Magazine. John Gebhard's story was retold just one year later by Frank Edwards in his 1959 book, Stranger Than Science, which proved to be an extremely successful book... so most modern versions of Gebhard's story come from Edwards' re-telling. Now, before I dig further back on this story, I have to acknowledge a notable addition to the legend of John Gebhard that was made in 2002, which is still seen repeated as if part of the original story by some sources.

        In the June 11, 2002, issue of Weekly World News, a weekly tabloid that was famous for its fantastic stories and general lack of actual facts, not only did John Gebhard vanish from his grave, but for the hundred years or so since then they claimed he'd been seen haunting the graveyard he 'escaped' from. Gebhard's story was retold with extremely graphic detail on how horrible the hanging was, and then had added on after his coffin is discovered to be empty that since that time, every year on the anniversary of the hanging Gebhard is seen wandering the graveyard with a horrible purple face, eyes bugging out, and head lolled to one side due to a broken neck. Better still, the presentation of this new version is completed with a bad comic book image of the zombie-ish Gebhard wandering past gravestones!

        Have no doubt, these details are just a new addition to the original story, which is a bit ironic... because the original story appears to be false as well.

A Missing History, and...

        I presented Bill Wharton's version of John Gebhard's escape as the initial legend above for one simple reason... there doesn't appear to be an earlier version.

        Initially I had only Frank Edwards' account of Gebhard's escape, and a general search for the story in my usual manner brought up nothing - NOTHING - to even start to support the tale. As far as historical records go, there is no indication that a man named John Gebhard (or "Gebhardt") was hung for the murder of a man named Pierre Villiers anywhere in South Africa anytime around or after 1856. There is also no evidence that a tombstone was found in 1956 and given to the Huguenot Museum. So I went back to the basics of the story and took a different approach... and discovered something surprising.

        I know for a fact that most of the stories in Frank Edwards' book Stranger Than Science were things he initially read in FATE Magazine - Edwards himself was a frequent contributor to the magazine - so I went back to FATE and started digging... and I found not one story of an empty coffin, but two.

        In an 1958 issue of FATE Magazine I found Bill Wharton's initial account of John Gebhard's execution and disappearance, which was undoubtedly where Edwards got the story from for his book; but I also found that in an 1957 issue of FATE, about eight months before Wharton's account of Gebhard's story was published, there is a short four paragraph article labeled "The Empty Coffin." This brief account tells how in 1956 a man claiming to have mysterious powers from India had himself buried alive in a coffin in front of spectators in Sulmona, Italy, and that eight hours later, when the coffin was dug up and opened, it was found inexplicably empty. The short account went on to state that the mysterious man had not been seen since (for a fuller accounting, see link below).

        Call me skeptical; call me suspicious; call me what you will... but two stories of empty coffins being published in the same magazine less than a year apart is highly unlikely unless they are somehow related; and when you consider that Gebhard was said to be executed in 1856 - exactly 100 years previous to the man vanishing from an Italian coffin in 1956 - the coincidence becomes more questionable still.

        So I dug some more, and found a second surprising thing... there was a man named Gebhard who was hanged for killing a man in South Africa, but he was hanged in 1822, nowhere near the date of the supposed John Gebhard execution. However, the man accused was named John Wilhelm Louis Gebhard, and he was hanged on November 15, 1822, for causing the death of a slave named Joris on his father's plantation located near Paarl, South Africa. Among the witnesses questioned at the trial was a slave named Jacob Isaac de Villiers.

        Given the sheer number of connecting details, it becomes undoubtably that Wharton constructed the story of John Gebhard's supernatural disappearance by combining details of the historic account of John Wilhelm Louis Gebhard's trial and the 1957 account of 'The Empty Coffin' from FATE Magazine. Wharton gave his new story a moral motivation that turned the disappearance into a miracle story, which made the whole account palatable for both believers of the paranormal and believers of miracles... which are not necessarily the same group of people.

        For these reasons, I'm listing the story of John Gebhard's Escape as a False Lead... a story that had no factual basis to start with. Bill Wharton will have to carry the blame on this one.