Simon Parkin, “Return of the Chess Cheat”

“Accounts vary as to how exactly a chess game between King Canute the Great and one of his most trusted Viking chieftains, Earl Ulf, went down, in 1026, but certainly cheating was involved, and for at least one party the match proved fatal. In their 1851 book “The Chess Player,” the German chess masters Bernhard Horwitz and Josef Kling tell a version of the story in which the king made a “false move” and lost one of his knights. Canute “would not have this,” they write, and insisted that he be allowed a redo, at which suggestion Ullf “waxed angry” and overturned the board. (The match took place at a banquet; he may have been emboldened by mead.) Things escalated. The king accused Ulf of cowardice, prompting the earl to remind Canute of the assistance he had rendered him at Helge River, when, he gibed, “the Swedes beat you like a dog.” Ulf turned on his heel and retired for the night. It was to be his last: Canute had him killed in church the next day.”

From The New Yorker, 4/17/15

Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, “The Monster of Florence”

“I knew that Mario Spezi had already struggled with the evil expressed by the Monster case. One day, I asked him what he had learned. “Nobody understood evil better than Brother Galileo,” he told me, referring to the Franciscan monk turned psychoanalyst he had turned to for help when the horrors of the Monster case began to drag him under. Brother Galileo had since died, but Mario credited him with saving his life during the time of the Monster’s killings. “He helped me understand what is beyond understanding.”

“Do you remember what he said?”

“I can tell you exactly, Doug, I wrote it down.” He dug out his notes of the session where Brother Galileo spoke about evil and read them to me.

The old monk began by making a powerful play of words on the fact that the Italian word for evil and sickness are the same— male— and that the words for speech and study are also the same— discorso. “Pathology can be defined as discourso su male, study of sickness,” Brother Galileo said. “I prefer to define it as male che parla, ‘evil that speaks.’ Just so with psychology, which is defined as the ‘study of the psyche.’ But I prefer ‘the study of the psyche struggling to speak through its neurotic disturbances.’ There is no longer true communication among us because our very language is sick, and the sickness of our discourse carries us inevitably to sickness in our bodies, to neurosis, if not finally to mental illness. When I can no longer communicate with speech, I will speak with sickness. My symptoms are given life. These symptoms express the need of my soul to make itself heard, but cannot because I don’t have the words, and because those that should listen cannot get beyond the sound of their own voices. The language of sickness is the most difficult to interpret. It is an extreme form of blackmail which defies all our efforts to pay it off and send it away. It is a final attempt at communication. Mental illness lies at the very end of this struggle to be heard. It is the last refuge of a desperate soul who has finally understood that no one is listening or ever will listen. Madness is the renunciation of all efforts to be understood. It is one unending scream of pain and need into the absolute silence and indifference of society. It is a cry without an echo. This is the nature of the evil in the Monster of Florence, and this is the nature of the evil in each and every one of us. We all have a monster within. The difference is in degree.”

Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, “The Monster of Florence”

“Out of the Everest of evidence in the Monster case, Giuttari had pried out a few pebbles that he felt supported his new theory. First, Lotti had made an offhand statement, ignored at the time, that “a doctor asked Pacciani to do a few little jobs for him.” For Giuttari, this revived the old suspicion that a doctor was responsible for the killings— this time not as the killer himself, but as a mastermind. And then there was Pacciani’s money. After the old peasant died, it turned out he was rich. He owned two houses and had post office bonds worth more than the equivalent of a hundred thousand dollars. Giuttari was unable to track the source of this wealth. This should not have been all that surprising— a large percentage of the Italian economy at the time was underground and many people had unexplained riches. But Giuttari ascribed a more sinister reason to Pacciani’s affluence; the peasant farmer had gotten rich from selling the body parts he and his picnicking friends had collected in their years of labor.

In a later book on the case, Chief Inspector Giuttari explained his satanic sect thesis more particularly. “The best sacrifices for evoking demons are human sacrifices, and the death most favorable for such sacrifices are those that occur during orgasm and are called mors iusti. A similar motive led to the killings of the ‘monster,’ who struck his victims while they were making love…In that precise moment [of orgasm] powerful energies are released, indispensable for the person acting out satanic rituals, which bring power to himself and to the ritual he is celebrating.

Digging deep into medieval lore and legend, the chief inspector found a possible name for this sect: the School of the Red Rose, an ancient, almost forgotten diabolical order that had left its mark across centuries of Florentine history, a perverse Priory of Sion in reverse, all pentacles, black masses, ritual killings, and demonic altars. The school, some said, was a deviant offshoot of an ancient order, Ordo Rosae Rubae et Aurae Crucis, an esoteric Masonic sect connected to the English Golden Dawn, and therefore, with Aleister Crowley, the most famous satanist of the last century called himself “the Great Beast 666” and who in the 1920’s founded a church in Cefalu, Sicily, called the Abbey of Thelema. There, it was said, Crowley practiced perverted magical and sexual rituals involving men and women.”

INSIDE OF ME, THE NIGHT WILL LAST FOREVER

I AM VERY CLOSE TO YOU. YOU WILL NEVER TAKE ME UNLESS I CHOOSE IT. THE FINAL NUMBER IS STILL FAR AWAY. SIXTEEN ARE NOT MANY. I DON’T HATE ANYONE, BUT I HAVE TO DO IT IF I WANT TO LIVE. BLOOD AND TEARS WILL RUN SOON. YOU WILL MAKE NO PROGRESS THE WAY YOU ARE GOING. YOU HAVE GOTTEN EVERYTHING WRONG. TOO BAD FOR YOU. I WILL MAKE NO MORE MISTAKES, BUT THE POLICE WILL. INSIDE OF ME, THE NIGHT WILL LAST FOREVER. I CRIED FOR THEM. EXPECT ME.

Anonymous letter claiming to have been written by The Monster of Florence, mailed to Mario Spezi, who covered the case for La Nazione.

Douglas Preston, “The Monster of Florence”

“Myriam urged her husband to seek help, and finally he agreed. Instead of going to a psychiatrist, Spezi, a devout Catholic, turned to a monk who ran a small mental-health practice out of his cell in a crumbling eleventh-century Franciscan monastery. Brother Galileo Babbini was short, with Coke-bottle glasses that magnified his piercing black eyes. He was always cold, even in summer, and wore a shabby down coat beneath his brown monk’s habit. He seemed to have stepped out of the Middle Ages, and yet he was a highly trained psychoanalyst with a doctorate from the University of Rome.

Brother Galileo combined psychoanalysis with mystical Christianity to counsel people recovering from devastating trauma. His methods were not gentle, and he was unyielding in his pursuit of truth. He had, Spezi told me, an almost supernatural insight into the dark side of the human soul. Spezi would see him throughout the case; he would confide to me that Brother Galileo had preserved not only his sanity, but also his life.”

Originally printed in The Atlantic, July 2006