The Holy Vehm
The Holy Vehm
In the middle of the thirteenth century, when outlaw bands and mercenaries roamed the lawless territory between the Rhine and the Weser rivers in Westphalia, Germany, the Chivalrous Order of the Holy Vehm (or Fehm), a secret vigilante society, was formed by free men and commoners to protect themselves from the marauders. In the beginning, the resistance group had the approval of both the church and the Holy Roman emperor, but as time passed the Holy Vehm became a law unto itself, passing judgment on all those whom they decided should receive a death sentence.
Because the society began with only a handful of members and violent retaliation could be expected from any gang of outlaws who might learn the identities of those commoners who dared to oppose them, an oath of secrecy was imposed upon all those with the courage to join the ranks of the Vehm. During the initiation ceremonies, candidates vowed to kill themselves and even their spouses and children, rather than permit any society secrets to be betrayed. Once the oath had been made, one of the Vehm's Stuhlherren or judges, would move his sword across the initiates' throats, drawing a few drops of blood to serve as a silent reminder of the fate that awaited all traitors to the society. After this ritual had been observed, the initiates kissed the cross that was formed by the space between the sword's blade and hilt. Below the Stuhlherren in rank were the deputy judges, the Freischoffen, and the executioners, the Frohnboten. The deputy judges and the executioners carried out the various tasks of inquisitors, jury, and hangman.
The name "Vehm" or "Fehm" was a corruption of the Latin word "fama," a law founded upon a common or agreed upon opinion. However, "Fehm" could also mean something that was set apart, and the leaders of the Holy Vehm soon decided that their crusade against evildoers had set them apart and above the laws that governed others. Within a few decades of its formation, the Vehm had more than 200,000 free men and commoners in its ranks—each man sworn to uphold the Ten Commandments and to eliminate all heresies, heretics, perjurers, traitors, and servants of Satan. Once anyone was suspected of violating one or more of the Lord's commandments or laws, he or she was brought before one of the Holy Vehm's courts and was unlikely to escape the death sentence to be hanged.
Because of the great power that the Vehm acquired, it conducted trials of noted outlaws and thieves unopposed in public places, such as village squares or market places, in the full light of midday. As its numbers and influence grew, the Vehm had little reason to fear anyone speaking out against them, but the harsh and punitive secret courts conducted by the society, the Heimliches Gericht, were always held at midnight in order to create an even more sinister and frightening effect to their reading of the death sentence. Even less merciful to those suspected of witchcraft or heresy were the "forbidden court," Verbotene Acht, and the Heimliches Acht, the "secret tribunal," both of which were conducted by the Black Vehm, a splinter group of the Holy Vehm.
Once the outlaws, thieves, and other assorted brigands had been largely driven from Westphalia, the Vehm turned its attention to those men and women suspected of heresies or of betraying the commandments of God in a variety of sins. Before suspects came to court, they were served with three summonses, each of which gave them the opportunity of attending voluntarily. Each summons also gave the accused a period of consent of six weeks and three days. Because the tribunals of the Vehm had gained a reputation of pronouncing only death sentences, few people attended the courts of their own volition. Those who tried to escape were condemned without the usual pretense of a trial and Vehm executioners were assigned to hunt them down.
Because the tribunals of the Vehm were willing to accept the weakest of circumstantial evidence against any individual accused of a crime or an act of heresy, there appears to be no record of any of the secret courts ever finding anyone innocent. While no accurate records of their victims were ever kept, historians have estimated that thousands of men and women—the innocent along with the guilty—were dragged into the night to attend one of the Vehm's secret courts.
An entire population of sleeping villagers might be awakened by the thudding of swords' hilts on their doors and be summoned by torchlight to attend a midnight tribunal that accused one of their neighbors of some act of heresy—real or imagined. Regardless of the charges levied against those victims the Vehm accused, the sentence was always death. And if any spoke in defense of their friends, they were likely to be hanged as well, for giving false witness to defend a heretic or a traitor. On those rare occasions when the tribunal failed to convince even its own members of an accused individual's guilt, that unfortunate person was hanged to preserve the secrecy of the tribunal.
Eventually the Holy Vehm was condemned by the church and the German state, but the secret society remained active in a greatly diminished capacity. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, it went under-ground and seemingly ceased all acts of violence. In the 1930s, with the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany, for the first time in its 700-year history the Vehm came into the open, focusing its bigotry upon the Jewish people, judging them to be guilty of heresy. The Chivalrous Order of the Holy Vehm appears to have been destroyed along with their Nazi allies with the fall of the Third Reich in 1945.
Daraul, Arkon. A History of Secret Societies. New York: Pocket Books, 1969.
Heckethorn, Charles William. Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries. Kila, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 1997.