From the ‘Black-hooded’ Vehme to the Ku Klux Klan
Recently I came across a bit of intriguing history. It turns out that the Ku Klux Klan was inspired by the romantic tales of the Holy Vehme; specifically what was written about them by Sir Walter Scott. During the time of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, everyone in the South, it seems, was obsessed with Scott’s novels. And his 1829 Anne of Geierstein, in particular, contains detailed descriptions of the Vehme.
Below you’ll find a succinct overview of the “Vehmgerichte,” Vehmic Courts or Secret Tribunals, from Charles William Heckethorn’s The Secret Societies of All Ages, followed by the 1922 article, “Goethe and the Ku-Klux Klan” by James Taft Hatfield.
The Holy Vehm, by Charles William Heckethorn
Origin and object of Institution. — In this book we are introduced to an order of secret societies altogether different from preceding ones. Hitherto they were religious or military in their leading features; but those we are now about to give an account of were judicial in their operations, and arose during the period of violence and anarchy that distracted the German empire after the outlawry of Henry the Lion, somewhere about the middle of the thirteenth century. The most important of these were the secret tribunals of Westphalia, known by the name of Vehm-Gerichte, or the Holy Vehm. The supreme authority of the emperor had lost all influence in the country; the imperial assizes were no longer held; might and violence took the place of right and justice; the feudal lords tyrannized over the people; whosoever dared, could. To seize the guilty, whoever they might be, to punish them before they were aware of the blow with which they were threatened, and thus to secure the chastisement of crime — such was the object of the Westphalian judges, and thus the existence of this secret society, the instrument of public vengeance, is amply justified, and the popular respect it enjoyed, and on which alone rested its authority, explained.
Officers and Organization. — The Westphalia of that period comprehended the country between the Rhine and the Weser; its southern boundary was formed by the mountains of Hesse, its northern, by Friesland. Vehm or Fehm is according to Leibnitz derived from fama, as the law founded on common fame. But fern is an old German word, signifying condemnation, which may be the proper radix of Vehm. These courts were also called Fehmding, Freistiihle, “free courts,” heimliche Gerichte, heimliche Achten, heimliche beschlossene Achten, “secret courts,” “free bann,” and verbotene Gerichte, “prohibited courts.” No rank of life excluded a person from the right of being initiated, and in a Vehmic code discovered at Dortmund, and whose reading was forbidden to the profane under pain of death, three degrees are mentioned; the affiliated of the first were called Stuhlherren, ” lords justices;” those of the second, Schoppen (scabini, echevins); those of the third, Frohnboten, “messengers.” Two courts were held an offenbares Ding, “open court,” and the heimliche Acht, “secret court.” The members were called Wissende, “the knowing ones,” or the initiated. The clergy, women and children, Jews and heathens, and as it would appear the higher nobility, were exempt from its jurisdiction. The courts took cognizance of all offences against the Christian faith, the Gospel, and the Ten Commandments.
Language and Rules of Initiated. — The initiated had a secret language; at least we may infer so from the initials S. S. S. G. G., found in, Vehmic writings preserved in the archives of Herfort, in Westphalia, that have puzzled the learned, and by some are explained as meaning, Stock, Stein, Stride, Gras, Grein, stick, stone, cord, grass, woe. At meals the members are said to have recognized each other by turning the points of their knives towards the edge, and the points of their forks towards the centre, of the table. A horrible death was prepared for a false brother, and the oaths to be taken were as fearful as some prescribed in the higher degrees of Freemasonry. The affiliated promised, among other things, to serve the secret Vehm before anything that is illumined by the sun or bathed by rain, or to be found between heaven and earth; not to inform any one of the sentence passed against him; and to denounce, if necessary, his parents and relations, calling down upon himself, in case of perjury, the malediction of all, and the punishment of being hanged seven feet higher than all others. One form of oath, contained in the archives of Dortmund, and which the candidate had to pronounce kneeling, his head uncovered, and holding the forefinger and the middle finger of his right hand upon the sword of the president, runs thus: “I swear perpetual devotion to the secret tribunal; to defend it against myself, against water, sun, moon and stars, the leaves of the trees, all living beings; to uphold its judgments and promote their execution. I promise moreover that neither pain, nor money, nor parents, nor anything created by God, shall render me perjured.”
Procedure. — The first act of the procedure of the Vehm was the accusation, made by a Freischoppe. The person was then cited to appear; if not initiated, before the open court, and woe to the disobedient! The accused that belonged to the order was at once condemned; and the case of the unaffiliated was transferred to the secret tribunal. A summons was to be written on parchment and sealed with at least seven seals; six weeks and three days were allowed for the first, six weeks for the second, and six weeks and three days for the third. When the residence of the accused was not known, the summons was exhibited at a cross-road of his supposed county, or placed at the foot of the statue of some saint or affixed to the poor-box, not far from some crucifix or humble wayside chapel. If the accused was a knight, dwelling in his» fortified castle, the Schoppen were to introduce themselves at night, under any pretence, into the most secret chamber of the building and do their errand. But sometimes it was considered sufficient to affix the summons, and the coin that always accompanied it, to the gate, to inform the sentinel of the fact that the citation had been left, and to cut three chips from the gate, to be taken to the Freigraf, as proofs. If the accused appeared to none of the summonses, he was sentenced in contumacia, according to the laws laid down in the “Mirror of Saxony; ” the accuser had to bring forward seven witnesses, not to the fact charged against the absent person, but to testify to the well-known veracity of the accuser, whereupon the charge was considered as proved, and the Imperial ban was pronounced against the accused, which was followed by speedy execution. The sentence was one of outlawry, degradation, and death; the neck of the convict was condemned to the halter, and his body to the birds and wild beasts; his goods and estates were declared forfeited, his wife a widow, and his children orphans. He was declared fehmbar, i. e. punishable by the Vehm, and any three initiated that met with him were at liberty, nay, enjoined, to hang him on the nearest tree. If the accused appeared before the court, which was presided over by a count, who had on the table before him a naked sword and a withy halter, he, as well as his accuser, could each bring thirty friends as witnesses, and be represented by their attorneys, and also had the right of appeal to the general chapter of the secret closed tribunal of the Imperial chamber, generally held at Dortmund. When sentence was once definitively spoken for death, the culprit was hanged immediately.
Execution of Sentences. — Those condemned in their absence, and who were pursued by at least a hundred thousand persons, were generally unaware of the fact. Every information thereof conveyed to him was high treason, punishable by death; the emperor alone was excepted from the law of secresy; merely to hint that “good bread might be eaten elsewhere,” rendered the speaker liable to death for betraying the secret. After the condemnation of the accused a document bearing the seal of the count was given to the accuser, to be used by him when claiming the assistance of other members to carry out the sentence; and all the initiated were bound to grant him theirs, were it even against their own parents. A knife was stuck in the tree on which the person had been hanged, to indicate that he had suffered death at the hands of the Holy Vehm. If the victim resisted, he was slain with daggers; but the slayer left his weapon in the wound to convey the same information.
Decay of the Institution. — These secret tribunals inspired such terror that the citation by a Westphalian free count was even more dreaded than that of the emperor. In 1470 three free counts summoned the emperor himself to appear before them, threatening him with the usual course in case of contumacy; the emperor did not appear, but pocketed the affront. By the admission of improper persons, and the abuse of the right of citation, the institution—which in its time had been a corrective of public injustice—gradually degenerated. The tribunals were, indeed, reformed by Rupert; and the Arensberg reformation and Osnaburgh regulations modified some of the greatest abuses, and restricted the power of the Vehm. Still it continued to exist, and was never formally abolished. But the excellent civil institutions of Maximilian and of Charles V., the consequent decrease of the turbulent and anarchic spirit, the introduction of the Roman law, the spread of the Protestant religion, conspired to give men an aversion for what appeared now to be a barbarous jurisdiction. Some of the courts were abolished, exemptions and privileges against them multiplied, and they were prohibited all summary proceedings. But a shadow of them remained, and it was not till French legislation, in 1811, abolished the last free court in the county of Minister, that they may be said to have ceased to exist. But it is not many years since that certain citizens in that locality assembled secretly every year, boasting of their descent from the ancient free judges.
Kissing the Virgin. — There is a tradition that one of the methods of putting to death persons condemned to that fate by the secret tribunals was the following: — The victim was told to go and kiss the statue of the Virgin which stood in a subterranean vault. The statue was of bronze and of gigantic size. On approaching it, so as to touch it, its front opened with folding doors and displayed its interior set full with sharp and long spikes and pointed blades. The doors were similarly armed, and on each, about the height of a man’s head, was a spike longer than the rest, the two spikes being intended when the doors were shut to enter the eyes and destroy them. The doors having thus opened, the victim by a secret mechanism was drawn or pushed into the dreadful statue, and the doors closed upon him. There he was cut and hacked by the knives and spikes, and in about half a minute the floor on which he stood—which was in reality a trap-door—opened, and allowed him to fall through. But more horrible torture awaited him; for underneath the trap-door were six large wooden cylinders, disposed in pairs one below the other. There were thus three pairs. The cylinders were furnished all round with sharp blades; the distance between the uppermost pair of parallel cylinders was such that a human body could just lie between them; the middle pair was closer together, and the lowest very close. Beneath this horrible apparatus was an opening in which could be heard the rushing of water. The mechanism that opened the doors of the statue also set in motion the cylinders, which turned towards the inside. Hence when the victim, already fearfully mangled and blinded, fell through the trap-door he fell between the upper pair of cylinders and was thus drawn in between them, his body being cut on all sides by the knives set round the cylinders. In this mutilated condition, the quivering mass fell between the second and more closely approaching pair of cylinders, and was now actually hacked through and through and thrown on the lowest and closest pair, where it was reduced to small pieces which fell into the brook below, and were carried away; thus leaving no trace of the awful deed that had been accomplished.
“Goethe and the Ku-Klux Klan,” by James Taft Hatfield (PMLA, Vol. 37, No. 4, 1922, pp. 735-739)
In 1799, at the very threshold of his literary career, Walter Scott published a translation of Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen, containing the single short scene devoted to the judges of the Vehmgericht, who are discovered in “a narrow vault dimly illuminated, … all muffled in black cloaks.” This translation had no second edition, nor is there evidence that it was known in our southern states.
It was almost at the close of his long career, namely in 1828-1829, that Scott wrote the novel, Anne of Geierstein accounted one of his least inspired performances. Of direct significance for our argument is Scott’s comment, in his introduction to the second edition (1831), that he had touched at some length in the narrative upon “the Vehmic tribunals of Westphalia, a name so awful in men’s ears during many centuries, and which, through the genius of Goethe, has again been revived in public fancy with a full share of its ancient terrors.” This introduction also contains a long and thrilling treatise on the Vehmgericht, taken from Francis Palgrave.
In the seventeenth chapter of the first part of the novel, Scott mentions the “strongholds of that Robber-chivalry … of whom, since Goethe, an author born to arouse the slumbering fame of his country, has dramatized the story of Goetz of Berlichingen, we have so many spirit-stirring tales.”
The actual episode of the Secret Tribunal in Anne of Geierstein makes the second chapter of Book II: Philipson, after a restless hour in bed, finds his pallet sinking into a dark subterranean vault (corresponding to “a narrow vault, dimly illuminated” in Scott’s translation of Goetz); lights are carried by men “muffled in black cloaks” (”muffled in black cloaks” in Goetz), wearing their cowls drawn over the heads, so as to conceal their features. He learns that he is in the presence of the “celebrated Judges of the Secret Tribunal” (”Judges of the Secret Tribunal” occurs three times in the scene in Goetz); a “coil of ropes and a naked sword” (”cord and steel,” six times in Goetz) play a part more than once.
The president addresses the assembly “as men who judge in secret and punish in secret, like the Deity” (”ye that judge in secret and avenge in secret like the Deity” occurs twice in Goetz).
William E. Dodd, in his recent work “The Cotton Kingdom,” observes:
To men whose interests were those of masters of slaves, and whose philosophy was the doctrine of social caste and prescriptive rights, it was but natural that Walter Scott’s famous novels should make appeal. One New York publisher said he sent Scott’s works South in carload lots. . . . Before 1850 it was good form for Southern gentlemen to place Sir Walter Scott’s novels on their library shelves, and for all Southern boys and girls to read these books as the great models of life and good breeding. Few men ever had a greater influence over the cotton-planters than the beloved Scottish bard and novelist.
Elsewhere Mr. Dodd adds:
Walter Scott’s romanticism and hero-worship suited their taste and braced their social system, . . . and he furnished matter enough for the longest of the idle days of a lonely cotton plantation.
Mark Twain, whose keen insight demands respect, even when finding expression in rather drastic terms, remarks (in Life on the Mississippi):
Whereas crowned heads in Europe were gods before [Bonaparte], they are only men since then. . . . Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might . . . sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms. … He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. But for the Sir Walter Scott disease, the character of the Southerner or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it would be wholly modern, in place of modern and mediaeval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. … It was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. … Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.
That local devotees of Scott did not balk at accepting the ill-starred Anne at par value, may be gathered from a review of this novel, in the Southern Review of Charleston, at the time of its appearance:
We congratulate the reading public on the pleasure they have shared with us; … we find truer gratification in the enjoyment of such exquisite fare, as is here presented, than in the indulgence of any morbid critical appetite whatever. . . . The courage and generosity of the high-toned cavalier are again shown forth in the scene of Arthur’s duel with Donnerhugel amidst the ruins of the old castle of Geierstein. . . . We have heard it surmised that our author would exhaust himself; … we have never participated in this fear. . . . Like an experienced general, he skilfully reconnoitres the ground, and seizes on every ‘coin of vantage’ that lies in the direction of his march; … he touches a trap, and initiates you into all the fearful mysteries and appalling rites of the ‘Secret Tribunal.
This extended rhapsody closes with further allusions to the “Secret Tribunal.”
The fundamental history of the origins of the Ku-Klux Klan is by Lester and Wilson, edited by Fleming (1905). Captain Lester, the first author, and one of the actual founders of the clan, was a lawyer, an official in the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and later a member of the Tennessee legislature. The Rev. D. L. Wilson was a Presbyterian pastor; the editor is Professor of History in Vanderbilt University.
The society was founded in May, 1866, in the office of a prominent lawyer of Pulaski, Tennessee, a town of unusual cultivation; the organizers were young college-men, looking for some harmless diversion in the dreary days following the Civil War. The bookish quality of the founders reveals itself not merely in the fact that every page of the first printed constitution was bordered with Latin quotations, but in the name itself, which, it is agreed, is derived from Kuklos, “circle.” The meetings were held in a dilapidated empty house on the borders of the town. Pulaski is in the region of the Scotch immigration: the names of the first clan-leaders, Wilson, Lester, Pike, Jones, Crowe, Kennedy, Reed, McCord, are not without suggestion.
One needs no overstrung imagination to understand the appeal which passages like the following, in Anne of Geierstein, might make to high-spirited Southeners, facing the collapse of their traditional institutions:
Such an institution could only prevail at a time when the ordinary means of justice were excluded by the hand of power, and when, in order to bring the guilty to punishment, it required all the influence and authority of such a confederacy. In no other country than one exposed to every species of feudal tyranny, and deprived of every ordinary mode of obtaining justice or redress, could such a system have taken root and flourished. . . . The Vehmic Tribunals can only be considered as the original jurisdictions . . . which survived the subjugation of their country.
In Dixon’s Clansman, which is based upon much study of Ku-Klux history, are various features which betray the direct working of Walter Scott: in Book Four the “fiery cross” is sent around to summon the clans. Even at the present moment, when this edifying association is being systematically revived, the emblem plays a notable part: in December, 1921, Oklahoma members of the Ku-Klux Klan appeared, in disguise, at the funeral of a Tulsa policeman, bearing “a flaming cross of red roses.” Mr. Dixon emphasizes more than once the Scotch-Irish ancestry of his nightriders. Thought-provoking is also the form of Mr. Dixon’s statement that the accused was tried by “secret tribunal” - the identical term used continually by Scott in translating and imitating Goethe.
Of specific borrowings it is not easy to adduce much proof: the phrase, “trying the culprit by his peers,” in Scott’s novel, is not unlike “to protect the people from trial except by their peers” in the Nashville Constitution of the Invisible Empire, May 1867. In Tennessee, we are informed (Lester and Wilson, 107), several members of the Klan were executed by its orders, “for committing evil deeds in the name of the Klan,” which seems like an application of Scott’s statement: “unworthy members were expelled, or sustained a severe punishment.” The terrible penalty for revealing secrets, mentioned in Anne of Geierstein, is comparable to the Nashville obligation of the Invisible Empire,  “Any member divulging, or causing to be divulged, any of the foregoing obligations, shall meet the fearful penalty and traitor’s doom, which is Death! Death! Death!” The designation “dens” for the lodges of the order corresponds very well with the subterraneousness of the tribunal in Scott’s novel. In Scott’s translation of Goethe, as well as in Anne of Geierstein, the members of the court are all “muffled in black cloaks.” It is true that the Rev. Thomas Dixon has put white robes upon the Clansmen (in more senses than one), and doubtless his “cheap unbleached domestic” corresponds to the facts in certain regions, but the costumes of the Klan were usually black.
The full official title of the Klan, adopted in Nashville, May 1867, “Ku-Klux Klan or Invisible Empire,” is strikingly near the “Invisible Tribunal” in Anne of Geierstein. In Fleming’s introduction to Lester and Wilson is found, as might be expected in the work of a learned professional historian, an explicit suggestion that the Vehmgericht of Germany “may well have served as an example of secret association for self-defence,” but there is no hint at the plausible mediation of Sir Walter Scott.
The Ku-Klux organization, at the beginning, doubtless combined elements from the history of the crusades, freemasonry, college fraternity pranks, and classical masquerades, but it seems reasonable to hold that the underlying formative influence was that derived, by way of Scott, from Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen, Act V, scene xi.
JAMES TAFT HATFIELD
 Report of the Committee on Affairs in the late Insurrectionary States, II, p. 48.