If you have baked me, so you shall also eat me
The dates of March 16 and 17 are the 297th anniversary of the trial and death of Juraj Jánošík, a famous Slovak bandit who lived in the forest and led his own merry band of robbers who preyed on the rich and gave to the poor. Born into a farmer’s family in 1688 just a few miles from my great-grandmother Marisa Andel’s family home near Dolny Kubin, Juro, as he was often called, was just 23 when he turned his teenage talent for devious behavior into a full time “business”.
Juro was once a theology student who turned to a life of crime after his parents’ landlord beat them. A Lutheran, as a student he participated in the Francis Rakoczi uprising of 1703-1710, protesting the Hapsburg Empire’s attempts to re-Catholicize the Kingdom and its suppression of the remaining limited self government. Juro was in favor of religious freedom and the Kingdom’s independence. He was recruited to join the Hapsburg army in 1710 where he became a prison guard at Bytča Castle and soon helped Tomáš Uhorčík, a brigand leader held in the castle’s dungeons, escape.
In the fall of 1711 Juro joined Tomas’s band of forest dwelling, crooked brothers and was quickly made the ringleader. Tomas retired from his life of crime and moved a bit to the south, where he changed his name, married and became the town’s shepherd, a some-time musician and even, if you can believe it, for a brief time the village policeman. Juro and his band of about 2 dozen men traveled across the Hapsburg Empire through what was then called the “Upper Country” (and is now Slovakia) preying on wealthy nobility and merchants primarily in the counties of Orava, Liptov and Spis (Orava is where the Andels lived), the largest concentration of nobility and wealth in Central Europe at the time. Juro claimed never to have killed anyone, and even stopped once to help a priest who had accidentally been shot by two of Juro’s sidekicks (perhaps a nod to his earlier education in theology?) Nevertheless, the Reverend Vrtik died a month after the robbery and Juro would one day pay the price for his death.
About this time, Juro’s brother Jan was also operating on the wrong side of the law engaging in highway robbery. Apparently this form of crime was not uncommon in the Upper Country, as two ancient north-south trade passages from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean passed through Eastern Slovakia, making merchants’ caravans a profitable target for highway robbers. After the religious/separatist uprising in the early 1700’s, many people of the area were left poor, and highway robbery appears to have been a common alternative livelihood. Even noblemen, who had to deal with absent or limited authority from the monarch, turned their hilltop castles over to the outlaws, armed these bands of thieves and supported them in highway robbery, the raiding of nearby villages and even the homes of their neighbors. I wonder if my relatives, the Andels, were victims or partners in these crimes; one relative was a Duke in the 1650’s, and others lived as knights in castles and estates across Slovakia at the time.
The bandits and highway robbers also depended on the cooperation of the peasant farmers to protect them from authorities. Europe was in the midst of the Little Ice Age at the time, and so winters were bitterly cold and the forests and mountains inhospitable in winter months. Shepherds, often used as lookouts for the bandits, would have returned their flocks of sheep and goats from the mountains back to the villages, trees would have lost their leaves, and heavy snow would have shown their tracks; robbery was a seasonal career. During the colder times of year, these same robbers would have depended on the hospitality of farmers for food, shelter, silence and hiding places from the authorities. In return, the brigands repaid the farmers with the stolen loot, and I suspect this is the origin of the stories of their Robin Hood-like behavior.
Juro’s crime spree was shortlived; in the fall of 1712, just a year after joining the band, Juro was arrested and held at the Mansion of Hrachov, but was released soon after. He was an excellent liar who appears to have talked his way out of jail. He was on the loose again, and enjoying a beer in a local pub (the Suster family was actually the Brewmaker family at that time, well known for their excellent beer) when he was recognized by authorities and chased. The quick thinking woman bartender threw peas down onto the floor in front of him, and Juro slipped, fell and was captured.
Juro’s trial lasted two days, during which time his meager booty was revealed; several guns, some bolts of fabric, a small amount of coins, two ladies’ wigs, several elegant pieces of ladies clothing and a bit of jewelry. Of course he probably bartered much of it away in return for the help of farmers and several pints of good Suster beer. He lied like a fiend to the courts about the whereabouts of Tomas, his brother Jan and his fellow robbers, despite being severely tortured. Juro was found guilty, and as was custom at the time, he was immediately sentenced to death. Tomas was eventually found and his punishment was death by having his body broken apart on a wheel, neck mercifully first; Jan was captured and hanged ten months later. It has been said that Juro refused hanging, and instead was impaled with a hook into his left side, and dangled in the gallows for all to see. His final words were: “If you have baked me so you should also eat me!”; he then leaped into the hook and died.