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The Enduring Legend of the Changeling

Behavior & Belief

Stuart Vyse

March 1, 2018

In March 1863, a New York City coroner held an inquest on the death of a three-year-old child living on 83rd street between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues. As reported in the New York Times, Mary Nell, the child’s mother, had been told by a previous tenant that there were fairies about in the house where she lived, and growing up in Ireland she had learned this was a sign that a child in the household had been exchanged for a fairy child.[1] The prescribed test for a suspected changeling was to heat the blade of a shovel until it was red hot and have the child sit on it. If a fairy child had been substituted for the true child, it would fly away. Ms. Nell performed this test on her child (gender not specified) without her husband’s knowledge, and the resulting burns were so severe that the child died a week later. Mr. Nell testified that “for some time past he had occasionally thought his wife was insane, she acted so strangely.” The coroner decided to hold the mother in custody until the question of her insanity could be determined.

The devil steals a baby and leaves a changeling behind. Detail of “The legend of St. Stephen” by Martino di Bartolomeo, early fifteenth century. (Source: Wikimedia)

There are few events in life more anxiously anticipated than the birth of a child. The arrival of a healthy baby brings the prospect of happy years ahead and the fulfillment of many parental dreams. But childbirth has never been an easy passage. Prior to the twentieth century, both maternal and infant deaths were common, and after they arrived, children frequently succumbed to disease. Half of Martha Washington’s four children lived to the age of five, and only one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s four children achieved the age of twenty. Although in much of the world today maternal and infant mortality are less of a problem than they once were, many children continue to be born with abnormalities and developmental problems that profoundly alter their parents’ expectations.

The story of the changeling is said to be pre-Christian in origin, but many of the best written sources come from the late Middle Ages. An early mention of the phenomenon is found in the writings of William of Auvergne, who was Bishop of Paris from 1228 to 1249. According to Auvergne, children of incubi demons were exchanged for mothers’ healthy babies, and the changelings were discovered to have symptoms very similar to what today we would call “failure to thrive”:

They say they are skinny and always wailing and such milk-drinkers that four nurse maids do not supply sufficient milk to feed one. These appear to have remained with their nurses for many years, and afterward to have flown away, or rather vanished. (Cited in Green 2016, 114).

Stolen babies were the subject of common legend in England, Germany, and Scandinavia, and both Martin Luther (1483–1546) and the Grimm brothers reported cases of changelings (Ashliman 1997). The changeling legend was integrated into Luther’s Christian belief, and as a result, counterfeit children were said to have been left by the devil. Other traditional versions of the myth implicated witches, fairies, elves, incubi, succubi, trolls, water spirits, dwarves, or demons. Changelings were also described in the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), a popular manual on witchcraft, the original 1486 edition of which was written by German Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer (Kramer and Sprenger 1928). The Malleus Maleficurum advocated the extermination of witches and had a profound effect on witch hunting and the torture and murder of women. For almost two hundred years, it was the second most popular book in Europe after the Bible (Guiley 2008).

The case of the changeling has been a remarkably popular subject in art and literature. The Irish poet W. B. Yeats made reference to the legend in his 1889 poem “The Stolen Child,” which includes the repeated refrain:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Fictional accounts of changelings have been written by the Swedish Nobel Prize winning author, Selma Lagerlöf (Bortbytingen 1915) and contemporary American novelist Victor LaValle (The Changeling 2017). A 1980 horror film The Changeling starred George C. Scott under the direction of Clint Eastwood, and the 2008 Academy Award nominated film Changeling starring Angelina Jolie (also directed by Clint Eastwood) was based on the highly publicized late-1920s Los Angeles case of Christine Collins, whose nine-year-old son Walter disappeared. [Spoilers.] After several months without any progress, the L.A. Police claimed to have recovered Walter in Illinois. The boy was brought to Los Angeles, but Ms. Collins soon recognized that he was not her son. Far from being a supernatural abduction, the changeling in question admitted he had posed as Walter Collins in the hope of going to Hollywood to meet the movie star Tom Mix. Subsequent detective work suggested that the true Walter Collins was one of the victims of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, although his mother never accepted that explanation.

Common Themes of Changeling Stories

The folklorist Joyce Underwood Munro (1997) reviewed many of the traditional changeling stories and identified a number of common themes. The following is a brief summary of some of the features she discovered:

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781). An incubus perched on sleeping woman. (Source: Wikimedia)

Changeling Prevention and Treatment

Because the fear of stolen children was so rampant, many precautions were proposed for warding off demons and trolls and preventing the theft of a child. In his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm recommended that babies be constantly watched over: “Women who have recently been delivered may not go to sleep until someone is watching over the child. Mothers who are overcome by sleep often have changelings laid in their cradles” (cited in Ashliman 1997). A number of religious protective measures were employed. Catholics tended to use holy water, crucifixes, and representations of saints, whereas Protestants would often place the Bible or pages of the Bible in the child’s crib. In both sects, an unbaptized child was considered to be at risk (Ashliman 1997).

Once a child was identified as a changeling, the diagnosis often served as a justification for the kinds of horrible treatment described by Munro (1997) above. One of the more famous Grimm brothers’ stories includes many of the elements described by Munro (1997), including the method of banishment. The basics of this case are that, in 1580, a mother who was employed in a nobleman’s field during harvest time placed her week-old infant in a patch of grass while she worked. When she returned to nurse her baby, it drank milk like no child she had ever seen before, and she was convinced the infant was not hers. At the suggestion of the nobleman, she beat the child with a switch until it cried out, at which point the devil appeared and returned her original child (German Legends [1816], no. 88, cited by Ashliman 1997). This kind of treatment did not only occur in books. Eighteenth century European court records show that many parents who were charged with abandonment, manslaughter, and neglect claimed their children were changelings left by demons, fairies, or the devil (Froud 2017).

Medical Explanations for Changelings

It is likely that before the nineteenth century, many conditions that we now known to be medical—rather than supernatural—could have prompted parents to think their children were changelings. As mentioned above, the typical stories point to a condition we know as failure to thrive. This phrase describes a general outcome—not gaining weight or developing normally—that can result from a variety of underlying disorders, including cow’s milk intolerance, celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease (Marcovitch 1994; Schwartz 2000). However, the changeling legend was most widely believed in pre-scientific times when witches, the devil, and fairies were thought to be active participants in everyday life, and the medical science had not yet offered an alternative explanation for these conditions.

In addition to failure to thrive, before the development of modern medicine and psychiatry, it is very likely that any number of childhood disorders were interpreted as stolen children. Several modern authors have suggested that, in pre-scientific eras, children born with autism and other developmental disorders were probably considered changelings (Ashliman 1997; Wing and Potter 2002). By the late nineteenth century, science had begun to provide non-supernatural explanations for children who did not thrive or otherwise did not meet the normal expectations for a healthy infant, and belief in changelings faded.

Source (Flickr)

Today’s Changelings

Although fairies, incubi, witches, and demons play a much smaller role in our world today, we are far from free of the changeling impulse. If anything, our expectations about childbirth and parenthood are greater than those of couples in the middle ages.[2] When children don’t meet these expectations, parents sometimes find a different demon to blame. The anti-vaccination movement attributes autism to a greedy pharmaceutical industry supported by a government conspiracy. Most cases of autism involve developmental delays that begin within the first year of life, but a small percentage of autistic children show a regressive form of the disorder marked by normal development in the first years followed by a decline. Parents report that their children have changed and can no longer perform as they once did, in some cases losing language skills they previously had (Pickles et al. 2009; Taylor et al. 2002). Some of these parents have attributed this regression to the toxic effects of vaccines, but research does not support this conclusion. For example, Taylor et al. (2002) found no change in the rate of regressive autism after the introduction of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine in the United States.

A child not looking at the keyboard while her facilitator guides her hand over the keys. (Source: Wikipedia)

In other contemporary cases, parents of developmentally disabled children reject the diagnosis of autism and claim their children have a physical—rather than a developmental—disability. They are delighted to find out that with the help of facilitated communication (FC) or a variant of FC, such as rapid prompting method, their children’s normally functioning level is revealed in messages typed on keyboards or tapped out on letter boards. The children’s hands may require guiding by verbally competent facilitators to get the sentences typed out, but the result is a remarkably fluent language. A devastating condition is avoided. Unfortunately, the overwhelming evidence of research on facilitated communication shows that the language-competent adult facilitators are unconsciously typing out the messages, and the children are not communicating at all. It is a Ouija-like phenomenon.

Modern Methods of Banishment

Although autistic children are rarely called changelings today, they are sometimes subject to banishments that are, in their own way, almost as cruel as those administered in the Middle Ages. The parents of nonverbal children who embrace facilitated communication unwittingly turn their children into marionettes. Furthermore, because these children often use facilitated communication at school—and even in college—they are denied years of evidence-based education that could help them become truly independent.

In the case of parents who think their children are the victims of vaccines, some have subjected their kids to chelation therapy, an invasive medical procedure used to remove the heavy metals these parents presume to be the cause of their child’s autism. Of course, there is no research support for chelation therapy’s effectiveness as an autism treatment. Worse, there have been a number of reports of deaths of young children with autism who have been subjected to this treatment, both in the United States and Britain (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2006; Woznicki 2006). The chelation-related death of an autistic child in the U.K. prompted the editors of the British Medical Journal to publish an editorial warning against the use of this treatment:

Serious concern should arise about the ongoing use of chelation therapy in children with autism at this time, especially when the side effects of appropriate administration are well reported, a death has occurred with an error of administration, and the treatment incurs a cost for the families. (Sinha, Silove, and Williams 2006)

For so many of us, the dream of a healthy baby to love and hold is central to the story of our lives. Children give us meaning and purpose, and if all goes well, these little people offer us the prospect of a kind of immortality. Unfortunately, sometimes the child we get is not exactly as we imagined, and there are challenges we never thought we would have to face. Today, genetic counseling makes it possible to avoid many unwanted childhood conditions, and when a baby arrives that is not exactly what the parents hoped for, science provides a natural explanation—if not always a cure—for what has befallen the family. It is understandable why many parents might have the urge to deny the truth and declare their child a kind of changeling. But the challenge of parenthood is to recognize our children for who they are and do what is necessary to give them the best life they can possibly have.


Stuart Vyse

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Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is also author of Going Broke: Why American’s Can’t Hold on to Their Money. As an expert on irrational behavior, he is frequently quoted in the press and has made appearances on CNN International, the PBS NewsHour, and NPR’s Science Friday. He can be found on Twitter at @stuartvyse.