New Book: Sawney Bean – Dissecting the Legend of the Scotland’s Infamous Cannibal Family


I’m pleased to say that my latest true crime book – Sawney Bean – Dissecting the Legend of the Scotland’s Infamous Cannibal Family, is finally available in the US in both Kindle and paperback format.  This was one of the strangest research and writing projects I have ever undertaken.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the legend – Alexander “Sawney” Bean was the son of a hedger outside of Edinburgh.  He was lazy and fell in with a woman of low morals.  They moved to the Galloway region of Scotland.  There Sawney and his wife became highwaymen, robbing travelers.  Their twist, they would kill the travelers and eat their flesh.

Sawney and his wife had children who joined them in their marauding.  The family lived in a cave on the western coast of Scotland and their family grew.  Sawney and his wife were incestuous in the growing of their clan.  It was a hedonistic life for this family of serial killers and over the years their numbers swelled to forty.

The locals knew something was amiss as people traveling the isolated regions of Galloway disappeared.  On occasion, a limb would wash up on shore only fueling the mystery.  Searches for the killers revealed nothing.  Soon a mob-mentality kicked in and several innkeepers were killed, accused of murdering the missing travelers.  If the story is to be believed, upwards of a thousand men and woman fell prey to the cannibals.   The Beans remained elusive because no survivors lived to tell the tale of horror that befell those caught by them.

Sawney Modified0001

A later image of Sawney Bean – Compare to the book cover.  The English printer added a kilt and leggings to make Sawney more Scottish appearing 

One evening after a fair a couple was ambushed by the Bean’s.  The husband managed to hold them at bay but his wife was not so lucky, being ripped apart before his very eyes.  He rode off and got help from the locals who chased the Beans away.  Finally a survivor to their crimes gave the locals what they needed to pursue.

King James VI personally rode in with an armed party to find this band of cutthroats and cannibals.  They nearly gave up their hunt when the hounds located the Bean’s cave.  The Bean’s surrendered to the King’s justice and were taken to Edinburgh where they were imprisoned in the Tolbooth, then burned at the stake.

All were executed in a manner befitting witches, save one young girl who was mysteriously spared.  She was taken to Girvan where she was raised under an alias.  When, in her later years, her identity was revealed, the locals hung her from a tree in Girvan, a tree that she had ironically planted in her youth.

Does the story of a cannibalistic family hidden in isolating killing and eating people sound familiar?  It should.  Have you ever seen the cult classic, The Hills Have Eyes? That is based on the tale Sawney Bean; along with dozens of other films and stories.  In the contemporary world, the Bean’s are more popular than ever.

Hills Have Eyes Cover Front0001

Part Manson Family, part horror film – the Bean’s are more believable than ever

 The question must be asked however:  Is the legend true?  If so, what parts of it?  If it is, it is the largest serial killing spree in recorded history.  Hence the impetus of this book.

When I approached this book I wanted to attack it in a manner of a true crime book.  This forced me to start to look for the primary evidence. I came up short, other than a murky cave along the coast of Galloway which has been accepted for centuries as Sawney Bean’s cave.  I then spent time in the Library of Scotland going back to all of the earliest accounts of the Bean folklore.

The result is a book which explains the evolution of this tale over the years.  I had to explore not only the history of the people of Galloway but the struggles for the English throne that led to this story being so easily accepted as the truth.  I dug (pun intended) into stories of cannibals in Scotland and even into the crimes of Burke and Hare.

Is the legend true?  Some locals will tell you yes.  There are even restaurants and bars named Sawney Bean.  The story makes for good business as people try and retrace the steps of this cannibal family.  Most of the locals I met smiled when I asked if it was true, smiling as if they know something I didn’t.  One barmaid told me that Sawney was used to frighten children.  “If you don’t eat your vegetables Sawney Bean will get you.”  Even today the lines between truth and folklore around the story blur.

This isn’t your typical kind of true crime book.  It is a story of serial killing that moves between local legend and reality.  I think it will be the perfect fare (pun intended) for many true crime readers.

Here’s the paperback version:

Here’s the Kindle version:

Both are enjoyable – just not after a filling meal…

Writing Update – So Many Words…So Little Time

I have been quite busy on a few fronts (both of my careers) and negligent in updating my blog.  So, here’s an update on various writing projects for those that are interested. Pardon me if I ramble…

 Fires Promo

First up – I discovered today that my book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Fires of October, (Fonthill Media) is a finalist in the History category for the Military Writers Society of America.  I couldn’t be happier.  The book breaks new ground in Missile Crisis studies, revealing the invasion plans for Cuba in 1962.  I have gotten two silver medals in the past for my books – I’m hoping that this year I score a gold.  The book has been getting good coverage in the media, so I’m honored just to be considered again.

My next book to reach readers is the true crime project, The Murder of Maggie Hume: Cold Case in Battle Creek. (The History Press).  The title of this project changed from Unsolved Battle Creek and I’m happy that it did – I like having the victim of this crime brought up-front-and-center.  This is a case where the victim has sometimes been lost in the chaos of the investigation, so I’m glad she gets top billing here.  When you read the book you’ll understand what I mean.

Maggie Front Cover

Sidebar:  For some reason publishers like changing my titles, and I’ve learned not to cringe much at this.  You have to have a thick skin in this business.  Like I told one marketing person who questioned one of my titles several years ago, “You can call the book, Free Beer if you think it will sell the books to the right people.”

This book will start arriving in bookstores in August, and it’s available right now for pre-order from The History Press and on  This book was an incredible amount of labor to research, but I was lucky because my co-author, Victoria Hester, is so talented and full of energy.  She’s my daughter as well, and from what I have found, we’re the only father/daughter true crime author team out there.  She tackled some of the hardest parts of this book – and did a great job.

This book hits home for both of us because, as a cold case, this one is one that could be brought to trial.  There have been a lot of rumors over the years in Battle Creek MI, where the crime took place, as to the perpetrator(s) and motives.  The national media got involved and really muddied the waters, as you will read in the book.

We’re hoping this book can give people the answers to some long open questions regarding this senseless and brutal murder.  Books on cold cases tend to make some people uncomfortable – especially those responsible.

We will be in Battle Creek in mid-October doing some lectures and book signing events. More on that later, when the book is finally out.

Sidebar Number Two:  There must be something going on where I was raised because Western Michigan is getting a lot of air-time soon. CBS has a new TV series coming out soon called Battle Creek.  And Marshall MI, the nearby town my family hails from (and that I wrote about in my true crime book, Secret Witness) has a TV show airing this week on The History Channel – Dark Horse Nation.  My family and I have long been patrons of the Dark Horse, so it is extra cool to see Aaron and the guys get some much deserved publicity. The Dark Horse Nation is strong in Virginia guys. But I digress…

I just finished the last editorial pass on Never Wars The US Plans to Invade the World. (Fonthill Media).  This book covers the US’s war plans starting in 1904-1941.  The details of these plans for attacking Great Britain, Germany, Canada, etc., are fascinating reading.  They really give you an insight into the political realities of the era, as well as the gradual evolution in US military planning.  Wargamers out there are going to love this because it is fertile material for any number of “what if” gaming sessions.


Sawney Bean – Dissecting the Legend of the Scottish Cannibal. (Fonthill Media) will be coming out sometime this fall.   Ever see The Hills Have Eyes?  It was based on this story.  This is a cross between a history book, a horror story, and a true crime book.  Did Sawney Bean and his family kill over a thousand people in the Galloway region of Scotland, only to devour their victims?  This book really emphasizes how folklore evolves and changes over time as well.

Other stuff.  I’m writing fiction again, military sci-fi.  That’s all I can say.  No, it’s not BattleTech.  I know my fans what BattleTech, but there are tangible reasons I am not writing those novels right now.  I just finished the first book in this new and exciting effort – well over 110k words – so this is not a small book at all.  This is something new, something huge, something different and more importantly, fun.  It has been great for me to get back to doing some good military fiction again.

So what’s next?  More on the fiction front – follow my blog for information.  I have two ideas in mind for Michigan history books, something I enjoy doing.  I’m heading to Ithaca NY in October for a silent film viewing of Bert Hall’s film, A Romance of the Air, which was filmed there.   Since I wrote his biography (The Bad Boy – Fonthill Media) , I thought going there was a great idea.  I am also penciled in to speak at the September meeting of the League of WWI Aviation Historians in Dayton on another subject I wrote about – Frederick Zinn (Lost Eagles – University of Michigan Press).

Thanks for tuning in…there’s a lot coming.

In Scotland – On The Trail of Sawney Bean

Last week I did something out of the ordinary for me.  I went to Scotland to do conduct research for a book.  Usually I do research with libraries and archives remotely, but this book demanded feet on the ground.  Why?  Simply put, some of the materials I needed couldn’t be accessed or copied remotely, and if you are going to write about Scotland, you have to walk in the footsteps of key characters.

When I write a non-fiction WWI book, going to the locations of battles really doesn’t help.  The changes to the terrain and geography doesn’t give a good representation of the same ground during battle.  That, and the biographies I write tend to be about the people, not the locale.

My book on Sawney Bean is different.  It is a piece of legend/myth/folklore.  It is tied to the land and people here, which demanded being on-site.  Yes, things have changed, but there is a part of Scotland, her bones, which hasn’t changed.  If you don’t believe me, drive along the west coast.  Yes, the road is new, but the land is almost exactly as it was during the 15th/16th centuries.  So with my wife/aide in tow as my research assistant, I made the decision to track down this legend on the ground.

I began our trip at the end of Sawney’s life – in Edinburgh where he was allegedly tried with his inbred clan, and executed.  I spent an afternoon at the Scottish Registry, combing the records for any hint of the Bean family tree.  Records are scarce in the period I was researching but I did find some intriguing tidbits for the book.


The site of the Tolbooth in Edinburgh, actually on the Royal Mile

Day two was a long-planned day at the Scottish National Library.  I’m used to accessing old records, it’s part of the business of a historian.  This was different because I was holding paperwork that dated to the 18th century.  This stuff dated to the time of the American Revolution and earlier.  I discovered some wonderful material and arranged to have some of it copied for the book.  I also tracked down the location of the Tolbooth where the Bean clan was imprisoned.  I can tell you it was fascinating to walk the ground.  Moreover I discovered some things about the origins of this myth that no other historian has unearthed to date.  That felt good, it always does.  We also managed to get in a tour of Edinburgh castle, which was great research for the fantasy book project I have been mulling over.

We then took the train to Ayr so that I could spend some times in the collections of the Carnegie Library.  Ayr is a quaint working town with a wonderful history intertwined into the folklore of the Bean’s.  I got several gems of material and some new areas to research.  Did you know that King James I killed over 3000 witches during his reign?  Wow. How does this tie into the Bean saga?  Well, for that, you’ll have to read the book.

The next day we rented a car to go down and visit Girvan, the alleged site of the Hairy Tree (a corollary to the Sawney Bean legend).  From there I drove down to the location of the alleged cave of Sawney Bean.  We were in a driving rain (mostly horizontal, I’m told that’s a “good Scottish rain.”)  only to discover that the locals had put up a barrier to us accessing the cave.  I don’t blame them, too many people have allegedly been injured on such hijinks.  I did see the location of the cave, through the blinding rain.  We drove through Girvan but I didn’t get a good site for a photo for the book.

We drove the next day to Dumfries in the south of Scotland so I could go to the Ewart Library for some research.  Again, it was fantastic.  At the same time we walked all over Dumfries and even found a bar named Sawney Bean’s.  The owner opened it up for me to get some photos.  It was neat, and a little strange.  Imagine naming a restaurant after Charles Manson’s family or Ted Bundy’s crime spree.  There is something a little light-hearted about the Bean clan’s legend, almost tongue-in-cheek, with the locals.  Yet at the same time, it is a perfect example of how this bit of folklore has embedded itself into the local mythos.


The author above Sawney Bean’s in Dumfries

Scotland is spectacular and we were off of the traditional tourist trails, which is something I always enjoy.  We met some fantastic people who were warm, friendly, and very assistive in my research.  I can’t wait to go back and see the country as a tourist.  More importantly though, I surfaced some stunning material for the book!  Keep posted to this blog for more information.