Antjie Somers, the Spring Heel Jack of South Africa

In the Western Cape, a child may still be told "Be good, or Antjie Somers will get you. " Antjie Somers is often described as a man in women's clothes, with a hare lip and teeth like a baboon's. He has the power to become invisible. His prodigious leaps gave rise to the story that he has winged heels, so that he can fly as long as he is only carrying one child. (This is reminiscent of England's bogeyman of similar vintage, Spring Heel Jack.)

At night, when husbands are away, Antjie Somers may plunder a house and kill the children. Pretending to be a woman in need of a lift, he attacks and robs travellers. Antjie Somers is also an invisible stone-thrower, and often jumps out at night to frighten late-night revellers. "Antjie Somers" may be the nickname of an outlandishly dressed man, and he is even the subject of an Afrikaans musical.

According to one source, there were in the early nineteenth century two outlaws, one known as Antjie Somers and the other as Antjie Winters. This expanation has not been corroborated.

The legend of Antjie Somers began in Tuinstraat, now called Queen Victoria Street, in central Cape Town. Near the top of the street was a dark place with many trees. The spot had a sinister reputation, especially after the Dutch colony's last executioner hanged himself there. The colony's executioner doubled as torturer, and his livelihood was ruined when the new British governor banned torture and other cruel punishments. The executioner was also paid a fixed amount for hanging the bodies of suicides on the gallows, an irony which could not have escaped him as he put the noose around his own neck.

In the eighteen-forties, the same area became the haunt of a ghostly man in women's clothing. The authorities tried to lay the ghost, in the non-American sense (I think), but it appeared in other places. Because of the female attire, the ghost came to be called Annetjie ("Little Annette"). As it appeared mostly in warm weather, the surname Somers ("Summers") was added. Eventually, Annetjie was contracted to Antjie.

Obviously, some of the crimes attributed to Antjie Somers were committed by real people, and the first person so named may have been a harmless cross-dresser (who wisely preferred to go out on warm nights). This cannot explain all of the stories, however.

The author and artist Penny Miller does not mention the women's clothes, and describes Antjie Somers as "a curious gnome-like prankster, more poltergeist than ghost." Perhaps the name Antjie Somers has been acquired by the elemental spirit which would have been recognised by the indigenous peoples as Heitsi-Eibib, the trickster.



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