Tag Archives: the Calves’ Head Club

The Calves Head Club – Celebrating A Beheaded King!

Who would join a club that celebrated the beheading of a 17th century king? Well, rich Londoners it seems…

On the 30th January, 1649, king Charles I stepped out of a first floor window of the Banqueting House in Whitehall (a building you can still see today though much restored) and on to a wooden scaffold. In front of a great crowd, the king’s head was chopped off. This was the culmination of the English Civil War – a bitter conflict between the forces of the king and those of parliament. The latter, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, won. The decision to kill Charles wasn’t taken lightly and followed a trial after which 59 Commissioners signed his death warrant.

Not something to be celebrated!

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, several of those Commissioners were hunted down and then hanged, drawn and quartered – a slow and dreadful way to die. Any talk of sympathy for the regicides was treason. So it’s rather surprising to find that reports began to emerge in the early eighteenth century of a gentlemen’s club that actually celebrated the beheading of Charles I.

They did this in a rather macabre way. At a tavern in Suffolk Street, a large dish of calves’ heads was served up each dressed in a different way to represent the late king and other royalists who’d died in a similar manner. When the cloth was whipped away to reveal the strange meal, the revellers sang an anniversary song. A calf’s skull filled with wine was then passed around and every man toasted the regicides and their good work.

In 1735, the gentlemen got a little carried away and chucked a bloodied calve’s head out of the tavern window. According to an account titled the Secret History of the Calves’ Head Club or the Republican unmasked, this act – on the anniversary of the king’s beheading, provoked a riot. At least that was the widely circulated version of events.

Lord Middlesex, who was one of the revellers, wrote an indignant letter to a friend of his, Mr Spence, who he referred to playfully as “Spanco”. According to his lordship, there was indeed a drunken party and the gentlemen even made a bonfire outside the tavern door for a bit of fun. But they suddenly realised that such an act on the 30th January would make it look as if they were celebrating the execution of Charles I, which they definitely weren’t, he wrote.

However, a mob of royalist Londoners was not so easily convinced and gathered round the tavern to rain rocks through the windows for an hour . To try and fend off the mob, the party shouted “The King, Queen and Royal Family!” Only the arrival of some soldiers saved the gathering from getting their heads bloodied. After that incident, we don’t hear about the Calves Head Club again.

The secret history of the Calves-head Club, or, The republican unmask’d : With a large continuation, and an appendix to the history : Wherein is fully shewn, the religion of the Calves-Head heroes, in their anniversary thanksgiving songs on the xxxth of January, by them called anthems, with reflections thereupon. ; To which is annex’d A vindication of the royal martyr, King Charles the First … / Written in the time of the Usurpation, by the celebrated Mr. Butler … ; With A character of a Presbyterian, written by Sir John Denham, Knight ; and The character of a modern Whig; or, The Republican in fashion

From the web site of Pascal Bonenfant


The Calves’ Head Club, in “ridicule of the memory of Charles I.,” has a strange history. It is first noticed in a tract reprinted in the Harleian Miscellany. It is entitled “The Secret History of the Calves’ Head Club; or the Republican unmaskedWherein is fully shown the Religion of the Calves’ Head Heroes, in their Anniversary Thanksgiving Songs on the 30th of January, by them called Anthems, for the years 1693, 1694, 1695, 1696, 1697. Now published to demonstrate the restless implacable Spirit of a certain party still amongst us, who are never to be satisfied until the present Establishment in Church and State is subverted. The Second Edition. London, 1703.” The Author of this Secret History, supposed to be Ned Ward, attributed the origin of the Club to Milton, and some other friends of the Commonwealth, in opposition to Bishop Nixon, Dr. Sanderson, and others, who met privately every 30th of January, and compiled a private form of service for the day, not very different from that long used. “After the Restoration,” says the writer, “the eyes of the government being upon the whole party, they were obliged to meet with a great deal of precaution; but in the reign of King William they met almost in a public manner, apprehending no danger.” The writer further tells us, he was informed that it was kept in no fixed house, but that they moved as they thought convenient. The place where they met when his informant was with them was in a blind alley near Moorfields, where an axe hung up in the club-room, and was reverenced as a principal symbol in this diabolical sacrament. Their bill of fare was a large dish of calves’ heads, dressed several ways, by which they represented the king and his friends who had suffered in his cause; a large pike, with a small one in his mouth, as an emblem of tyranny; a large cod’s head, by which they intended to represent the person of the king singly; a boar’s head with an apple in its mouth, to represent the king by this as bestial, as by their other hieroglyphics they had done foolish and tyrannical. After the repast was over, one of their elders presented an Icon Basilike, which was with great solemnity burnt upon the table, whilst the other anthems were singing. After this, another produced Milton’s Defensio Populi Anglicani, upon which all laid their hands, and made a protestation in form of an oath for ever to stand by and maintain the same. The company only consisted of Independents and Anabaptists; and the famous Jeremy White, formerly chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, who no doubt came to sanctify with his pious exhortations the ribaldry of the day, said grace. After the table-cloth was removed, the anniversary anthem, as they impiously called it, was sung, and a calf’s skull filled with wine, or other liquor; and then a brimmer went about to the pious memory of those worthy patriots who had killed the tyrant and relieved their country from his arbitrary sway: and, lastly, a collection was made for the mercenary scribbler, to which every man contributed according to his zeal for the cause and ability of his purse.

The tract passed, with many augmentations as valueless as the original trash, through no less than nine editions, the last dated 1716. Indeed, it would appear to be a literary fraud, to keep alive the calumny. All the evidence produced concerning the meetings is from hearsay: the writer of the Secret History had never himself been present at the Club; and his friend from whom he professes to have received his information, though a Whig, had no personal knowledge of the Club. The slanderous rumour about Milton having to do with the institution of the Club may be passed over as unworthy of notice, this untrustworthy tract being the only authority for it. Lowndes says, “this miserable tract has been attributed to the author of Hudibras;” but it is altogether unworthy of him.

Observances, insulting to the memory of Charles I., were not altogether unknown. Hearne tells us that on the 30th of January, 1706-7, some young men in All Souls College, Oxford, dined together at twelve o’clock, and amused themselves with cutting off the heads of a number of woodcocks, “in contempt of the memory of the blessed martyr.” They tried to get calves’-heads, but the cook refused to dress them.

Some thirty years after, there occurred a scene which seemed to give colour to the truth of the Secret History. On January 30, 1735, “Some young noblemen and gentlemen met at a tavern in Suffolk-street, called themselves the Calves’ Head Club, dressed up a calf’s head in a napkin, and after some hurras threw it into a bonfire, and dipped napkins in their red wine and waved them out of the window. The mob had strong beer given them, and for a time hallooed as well as the best, but taking disgust at some healths proposed, grew so outrageous that they broke all the windows, and forced themselves into the house; but the guards being sent for, prevented further mischief. The Weekly Chronicle of February 1, 1735, states that the damage was estimated at ‘some hundred pounds,’ and that the guards were posted all night in the street, for the security of the neighbourhood.”

In L’Abbé Le Blanc’s Letters we find this account of the affair:—”Some young men of quality chose to abandon themselves to the debauchery of drinking healths on the 30th of January, a day appointed by the Church of England for a general fast, to expiate the murder of Charles I., whom they honour as a martyr. As soon as they were heated with wine, they began to sing. This gave great offence to the people, who stopped before the tavern, and gave them abusive language. One of these rash young men put his head out of the window and drank to the memory of the army which dethroned this King, and to the rebels which cut off his head upon a scaffold. The stones immediately flew from all parts, the furious populace broke the windows of the house, and would have set fire to it; and these silly young men had a great deal of difficulty to save themselves.”

Miss Banks tells us that “Lord Middlesex, Lord Boyne, and Mr. Seawallis Shirley, were certainly present; probably, Lord John Sackville, Mr. Ponsonby, afterwards Lord Besborough, was not there. Lord Boyne’s finger was broken by a stone which came in at the window. Lord Harcourt was supposed to be present.” Horace Walpole adds: “The mob destroyed part of the house; Sir William (called Hellfire) Stanhope was one of the members.”

This riotous occurrence was the occasion of some verses in The Grub-street Journal, from which the following lines may be quoted as throwing additional light on the scene:—

“Strange times! when noble peers, secure from riot,

Can’t keep Noll’s annual festival in quiet,

Through sashes broke, dirt, stones, and brands thrown at ’em,

Which, if not scand- was brand-alum magnatum.

Forced to run down to vaults for safer quarters,

And in coal-holes their ribbons hide and garters.

They thought their feast in dismal fray thus ending,

Themselves to shades of death and hell descending;

This might have been, had stout Clare Market mobsters,

With cleavers arm’d, outmarch’d St. James’s lobsters;

Numskulls they’d split, to furnish other revels,

And make a Calves’-head Feast for worms and devils.”

The manner in which Noll’s (Oliver Cromwell’s) “annual festival” is here alluded to, seems to show that the bonfire, with the calf’s-head and other accompaniments, had been exhibited in previous years. In confirmation of this fact, there exists a print entitled The True Effigies of the Members of the Calves’-Head Club, held on the 30th of January, 1734, in Suffolk Street, in the County of Middlesex; being the year before the riotous occurrence above related. This print shows a bonfire in the centre of the foreground, with the mob; in the background, a house with three windows, the central window exhibiting two men, one of whom is about to throw the calf’s-head into the bonfire below. The window on the right shows three persons drinking healths; that on the left, two other persons, one of whom wears a mask, and has an axe in his hand.

There are two other prints, one engraved by the father of Vandergucht, from a drawing by Hogarth.

After the tablecloth was removed (says the author), an anniversary anthem was sung, and a calf’s-skull filled with wine or other liquor, and out of which the company drank to the pious memory of those worthy patriots who had killed the tyrant; and lastly, a collection was made for the writer of the anthem, to which every man contributed according to his zeal or his means. The concluding lines of the anthem for the year 1697 are as follow:—

“Advance the emblem of the action,

Fill the calf’s skull full of wine;

Drinking ne’er was counted faction,

Men and gods adore the vine.

To the heroes gone before us,

Let’s renew the flowing bowl;

While the lustre of their glories

Shines like stars from pole to pole.”

The laureate of the Club and of this doggrel was Benjamin Bridgwater, who, alluding to the observance of the 30th of January by zealous Royalists, wrote:—

“They and we, this day observing,

Differ only in one thing;

They are canting, whining, starving;

We, rejoicing, drink, and sing.”

Among Swift’s poems will be remembered “Roland’s Invitation to Dismal to dine with the Calf’s-Head Club”:—

“While an alluding hymn some artist sings,

We toast ‘Confusion to the race of kings.'”Wilson, in his Life of De Foe, doubts the truthfulness of Ward’s narrative, but adds: “In the frighted mind of a high-flying churchman, which was continually haunted by such scenes, the caricature would easily pass for a likeness.” “It is probable,” adds the honest biographer of De Foe, “that the persons thus collected together to commemorate the triumph of their principles, although in a manner dictated by bad taste, and outrageous to humanity, would have confined themselves to the ordinary methods of eating and drinking, if it had not been for the ridiculous farce so generally acted by the Royalists upon the same day. The trash that issued from the pulpit in this reign, upon the 30th of January, was such as to excite the worst passions in the hearers. Nothing can exceed the grosness of language employed upon these occasions. Forgetful even of common decorum, the speakers ransacked the vocabulary of the vulgar for terms of vituperation, and hurled their anathemas with wrath and fury against the objects of their hatred. The terms rebel and fanatic were so often upon their lips, that they became the reproach of honest men, who preferred the scandal to the slavery they attempted to establish. Those who could profane the pulpit with so much rancour in the support of senseless theories, and deal it out to the people for religion, had little reason to complain of a few absurd men who mixed politics and calves’ heads at a tavern; and still less, to brand a whole religious community with their actions.”

The strange story was believed till our own time, when it was fully disproved by two letters written a few days after the riotous occurrence, by Mr. A. Smyth, to Mr. Spence, and printed in the Appendix to his Anecdotes, 2nd edit. 1858: in one it is stated, “The affair has been grossly misrepresented all over the town, and in most of the public papers: there was no calf’s-head exposed at the window, and afterwards thrown into the fire, no napkins dipt in claret to represent blood, nor nothing that could give any colour to any such reports. The meeting (at least with regard to our friends) was entirely accidental,” etc. The second letter alike contradicts the whole story; and both attribute much of the disturbance to the unpopularity of the Administration; their health being unluckily proposed, raised a few faint claps but a general hiss, and then the disturbance began. A letter from Lord Middlesex to Spence, gives a still fuller account of the affair. By the style of the letter one may judge what sort of heads the members had, and what was reckoned the polite way of speaking to a waiter in those days:—

“Whitehall, Feb. ye 9th, 1735.

“Dear Spanco,—I don’t in the least doubt but long before this time the noise of the riot on the 30th of January has reached you at Oxford; and though there has been as many lies and false reports raised upon the occasion in this good city as any reasonable man could expect, yet I fancy even those may be improved or increased before they come to you. Now, that you may be able to defend your friends (as I don’t in the least doubt you have an inclination to do), I’ll send you the matter of fact literally and truly as it happened, upon my honour. Eight of us happened to meet together the 30th of January, it might have been the 10th of June, or any other day in the year, but the mixture of the company has convinced most reasonable people by this time that it was not a designed or premeditated affair. We met, then, as I told you before, by chance upon this day, and after dinner, having drunk very plentifully, especially some of the company, some of us going to the window unluckily saw a little nasty fire made by some boys in the street, of straw I think it was, and immediately cried out, ‘D—n it, why should not we have a fire as well as anybody else?’ Up comes the drawer, ‘D—n you, you rascal, get us a bonfire.’ Upon which the imprudent puppy runs down, and without making any difficulty (which he might have done by a thousand excuses, and which if he had, in all probability, some of us would have come more to our senses), sends for the faggots, and in an instant behold a large fire blazing before the door. Upon which some of us, wiser, or rather soberer than the rest, bethinking themselves then, for the first time, what day it was, and fearing the consequences a bonfire on that day might have, proposed drinking loyal and popular healths to the mob (out of the window), which by this time was very great, in order to convince them we did not intend it as a ridicule upon that day. The healths that were drank out of the window were these, and these only: The King, Queen, and Royal Family, the Protestant Succession, Liberty and Property, the present Administration. Upon which the first stone was flung, and then began our siege: which, for the time it lasted, was at least as furious as that of Philipsbourg; it was more than an hour before we got any assistance; the more sober part of us, doing this, had a fine time of it, fighting to prevent fighting; in danger of being knocked on the head by the stones that came in at the windows; in danger of being run through by our mad friends, who, sword in hand, swore they would go out, though they first made their way through us. At length the justice, attended by a strong body of guards, came and dispersed the populace. The person who first stirred up the mob is known; he first gave them money, and then harangued them in a most violent manner; I don’t know if he did not fling the first stone himself. He is an Irishman and a priest, and belonging to Imberti, the Venetian Envoy. This is the whole story from which so many calves’ heads, bloody napkins, and the Lord knows what, has been made; it has been the talk of the town and the country, and small beer and bread and cheese to my friends the garretteers in Grub-street, for these few days past. I, as well as your friends, hope to see you soon in town. After so much prose, I can’t help ending with a few verses:—

“O had I lived in merry Charles’s days,

When dull the wise were called, and wit had praise;

When deepest politics could never pass

For aught, but surer tokens of an ass;

When not the frolicks of one drunken night

Could touch your honour, make your fame less bright;

Tho’ mob-form’d scandal rag’d, and Papal spight.”


To sum up, the whole affair was a hoax, kept alive by the pretended “Secret History.” An accidental riot, following a debauch on one 30th of January, has been distributed between two successive years, owing to a misapprehension of the mode of reckoning time prevalent in the early part of the last century; and there is no more reason for believing in the existence of a Calves’ Head Club in 1734-5 than there is for believing it exists in 1864.

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. I
London, 1866


10 Strange And Obscure Secret Societies

Secret societies like the Illuminati and the Freemasons always seem to get the limelight. However, a good number of lesser-known groups have their own strange stories to tell that make them just as interesting as their more famous counterparts.

10: The Order Of Chaeronea

The Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. saw the defeat of the Sacred Band Of Thebes, an elite ancient Greek fighting unit consisting of 150 soldiers and their male lovers. Years later, in 1899, Chaeronea lent its name to a slightly related but very different group—the Order of Chaeronea, an English political organization for gay men.

Cecil Ives founded the group as a means to communicate without fear of persecution. He patterned the order like a true secret society, devising ceremonies and passwords for its members. He also devised a strict set of rules, which kept members from using the society for sexual meet-ups.

Many prominent gay intellectuals joined—Oscar Wilde was reportedly a member. The organization soon spread around the world, enabling Ives to promote gay rights through books and numerous lectures. The order became a modern precursor to 20th-century rights organizations. After Ives’s death, the movement faltered, gaining steam again during the 1990s, especially in the US, and inspiring several offshoots.

9: The Knights Of The Apocalypse

This group formed in 1693 to protect the Catholic Church against the supposed coming of the Antichrist. Members were noted for their peculiar habits, such as bringing swords to work and wearing clothing with an elaborately drawn star on the breast.

The society’s strange behavior could be blamed on the founder himself, a merchant’s son by the name of Agostino Gabrino. A certifiably insane man, Gabrino was known to have disrupted two church masses by waving a sword and proclaiming he was the “King Of Glory.” At his group’s founding, he declared himself a “Monarch of the Holy Trinity” and devised a bizarre set of rules for his knights, which included the practice of polygamy and exclusive marriage to virgins.

A year after the group began, one knight betrayed its existence to the Inquisition. The order was disbanded, and its knights were thrown into prison.

8: The Order Of The Occult Hand

This group had just one goal. Its members inserted one particular phrase—“it was as if an occult hand had“—into newspapers and other publications.

The group had its beginnings when Joseph Flanders, a reporter for the Charlotte News, innocently used the phrase in a report. His friends liked the wording so much that they conspired to copy it as often as possible. Pretty soon, other reporters and journalists from all over the world began using the phrase in their own stories.

The conspiracy was undone in 2004, when James Fanega, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, managed to track down the perpetrators and list the publications they had infiltrated. However, the group bounced back in 2006 when leader Paul Greenberg and the chief members announced that they had picked a new phrase to carry on the tradition. So far, no one has succeeded in finding out the new phrase, which Greenberg claims has already appeared in many major outlets.

7: The Calves’ Head Club

Shortly after the execution of King Charles I in 1649, his opponents formed the Calves’ Head Club to mock his memory. Members met once a year on January 30—the execution’s anniversary—and celebrated a very bizarre dinner, replete with a symbolic axe hung high over the dining room. The menu itself included calves’ heads (which represented the king’s royal office and supporters), a cod’s head (which represented the king himself), and a large pike and boar’s head stuffed with a smaller pike and an apple respectively (which represented the king’s tyranny).

The members had their own anthem that praised the king’s death, and they toasted it with wine from cups made of calf skulls. They also burned a copy of the king’s autobiography while swearing by John Milton’s treatise supporting his execution—Milton himself allegedly founded the group.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, The Calves’ Head Club had to meet secretly. The club finally met its demise in February 1735, when a mob invaded a meeting and almost lynched several members.

6: The Arioi

The Arioi was a secret society that existed in Tahiti well before any Europeans found their way to the island. The group dedicated itself to the worship of its patron deity Oro, and it traveled extensively in search of new recruits.

To attract new applicants, members did elaborate ritual dances. Anyone could ask to join, but only the most handsome and beautiful were eventually selected, since the society linked beauty to spiritual prowess.

Members had to memorize their rituals perfectly to be recognized; otherwise, they were mocked mercilessly. In addition, the society preached a very free lifestyle, as evidenced by some of their sexually charged rituals. Their behavior evidently disgusted Christian missionaries assigned to the place, with one describing them as “privileged libertines who engaged in abominable, unutterable, and obscene exhibitions.”

For all their profligate habits, the Arioi had a strict rule that forbade childbirth; children would interfere with members’ duties. They routinely aborted the unborn and killed infants. Parents whose children did survive were demoted within the society.

Christian proselytizing eventually put an end to the Arioi by the 19th century.

5: The Scotch Cattle

In response to unfair working conditions, Welsh miners in the 1820s formed a secret union called the Scotch Cattle, named for the fearsome breed of Highland cattle. Each mining town in the region had its own chapter, led by a leader called “the Bull.” Together, members intimidated and attacked those perceived to oppose their cause. Their targets were not limited to oppressive bosses; scabs were also fair prey.

The group usually first sent a warning letter to the offending party. If it was ignored, the members—with blackened faces and dressed in cowskins—would invade the unlucky man’s home at midnight and destroy his property. Sometimes, the members would also beat the man; before leaving, the group would always paint a red bull’s head on the vicitm’s front door.

The Scotch Cattle continued its operations until the 1840s, when more organized trade unions took its place.

4: The Order Of The Peacock Angel

This secret society first formed in Britain in the 1960s, founded on the ancient religious beliefs of the Yezidis—a group that has faced accusations of devil worship from Muslims and Christians alike. The group actually worshiped Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, represented by either a stone statue of a peacock or by a real live bird.

Members believe that the Peacock Angel has the power to answer prayers, and they revere it accordingly. Their meeting room is usually filled with hallowed images of the Peacock Angel; the altar itself is placed in the middle and contains the main symbol of veneration. Members often do a slow ritual dance around the altar while they silently express their wishes. The dance gradually takes on a frenzied pace as religious fervor builds. It ends in ecstatic bliss, with the members satisfied that they are now filled with the Peacock Angel’s divine power.

3: The Leopard Society

Although it had adherents in East Africa, the age-old bloodthirsty Leopard Society thrived mainly in West African nations such as Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Members of this cult engaged in ritual human sacrifice and cannibalism. Dressed up in a leopard skin and armed with sharp metal claws and teeth, a member would ambush and maul an unwary victim to death. Afterward, the leopard-man collected the victim’s blood and used it to make a potion that he believed would give him supernatural powers.

Following a spate of killings after World War I, colonial authorities in Sierra Leone and Nigeria wrongly thought they had successfully suppressed the cult. The Leopard Society again reared its ugly head after the Second World War, killing more than 40 people. Locals refused to provide any information about the cult because they believed in the leopard-men’s invulnerability. Only after the authorities managed to kill a member in 1948 did several witnesses express their willingness to help.

That breakthrough allowed authorities to find the cult’s hideout, imprison 34 members, and hang another 39. To spread the story that the members were just human, the authorities allowed several local chiefs to view the executions.

2: The Bald Knobbers

This secret vigilante group sprang up in response to the rampant crime and lawlessness that plagued southwest Missouri after the Civil War. Led by their founder, a hulking veteran named Nat Kinney, the Bald Knobbers of Taney Count—so-called because they held secret meetings above bare mountaintops—proceeded to take the law into their own hands. Wearing their coats backward and sporting odd, horned masks, the Bald Knobbers employed such heavy-handed tactics as whipping, beating, and even killing suspected criminals. Eventually, some Bald Knobbers began to use their membership to protect their own criminal activities.

The group’s notoriety peaked in 1887 when they killed two critics and injured their families. Authorities arrested 20 members and executed four others. A year later, Kinney—who had already left the group before the shootings—was killed by an opponent of the organization. Although minor conflicts continued after that, the Bald Knobbers had effectively reached their end by 1889.

1: The Secte Rouge

According to Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American author who traveled to Haiti in the 1930s, the Secte Rouge—also known as Cochon Gris or Vinbrindingue—was a secret society that practiced ritual cannibalism and grave robbing. Although she had no firsthand experience with the society, she had three indirect encounters with the cult.

The first occurred in 1936, when Hurston heard an odd beating of drums late one evening. She wanted to go out to investigate, but her house girl warned her to stay inside, or else they’d risk the cult’s wrath. The second time happened when she questioned a man burning rubber tires near her house. The man explained that the tire smoke was to deter the cult members from abducting his child. Finally, she saw militiamen on a secret operation to suppress an unknown group in a remote area of the island.

All this, plus accounts from locals who swore of the group’s existence, painted the portrait of a murderous cult that met at night in a cemetery and engaged in macabre rituals, including waylaying travelers for human sacrifices.

+: The Skoptsy

In line with some of the craziest rituals ever performed in the name of religion, the Skoptsy of Russia castrated themselves in the belief that it would lead to salvation. Founded in the mid-18th century by two peasants named Andrei Ivanov and Kondratii Selivanov, the Skoptsy believed that genitals and breasts appeared only after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit; consequently, these organs must be removed to live a perfect life.

Shortly after the group’s founding, authorities arrested the two leaders and exiled them to Siberia. Selivanov managed to escape and traveled to St. Petersburg, where he titled himself the Messiah and claimed to be the reincarnation of Tsar Peter III. His preaching attracted many followers. It also attracted renewed attention from the authorities, who arrested him repeatedly and finally locked him up in a monastery for good.

Selivanov’s incarceration and subsequent death did nothing to dampen the sect’s growth. At its height, the Skoptsy were believed to number more than 100,000 and included members of the Russian elite. Following the Communist revolution, the sect’s numbers drastically declined. Today, it is estimated that there are just over 100 left, most located in the sect’s birthplace.