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Equal parts lurid and absurd, Diana Vaughan's story quickly spread across 1890s Europe. She had, many claimed, given herself over to Satan during her time in Charleston. The Holy City. What better place for the devil to wed?
Two years had passed since Diana allegedly escaped from a secret Satanic temple on the coast of South Carolina, finding safety in the confines of a French cloister. Forced to remain hidden lest she be silenced by assassins, Diana's memoirs were the talk of France. Going on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies and gaining favor among the Catholic Church's top officials, the confessions of this former Luciferian high priestess-turned nun detailed the alleged unholy rituals carried out among an all-controlling sect of Freemasons headquartered in Charleston's so-called "Infernal Vatican."
With Diana's celebrity beginning to wane, April 19, 1897 was to be the day of her grand public unveiling. Before an anxious crowd of clergymen, masons, and reporters, it was finally time for Diana to face the world. But she never appeared. Instead, what was revealed that day was an uglier, more honest look at the dangerous lies we spread about God, the devil, and man.
Diana Married the Devil
Reports of Diana Vaughan communing with the devil reached the pages of her hometown paper just before the Christmas of 1896. It was around this time that Louisville's Courier Journal shared Diana's curious story of redemption. Other stateside publications were soon to follow.
Born March 1, 1864, Diana was said to be descended from a powerful alchemist who pledged himself to the devil by beheading an archbishop. In exchange for this ritual sacrifice, Satan added 33 years to the alchemist's life and told him how to make gold. The alchemist then moved to America where he married the demonic bride that had been promised to him, thus tainting the Vaughan family bloodline for generations to come.
- An unknown woman posed as Diana Vaughan for photos in lÉo taxil’s publications
Raised in a Luciferian household, Diana later relocated from Louisville to Charleston, the rumored headquarters of a secret Masonic sect called the Palladians and their Satanic temple. Concealed at the center of a great maze, the Palladian chapel contained the "Sanctum Regnum" where a monstrous statue of Baphomet stood. It was here that Diana's first of many alleged meetings with the Devil occurred.
Meditating alone before the grimacing statue, Diana was startled as fire leapt out into the room, gushing up along the walls to surround her in flame. This display was quickly followed by seven claps of thunder in quick succession. Five spirits appeared, then vanished, and there sat before Diana on a throne of diamonds was Lucifer.
Diana was said to have prepared herself for this dark master "by a sort of fasting." In spite of being described, rather tastefully, as a young woman "whom a careful education rendered difficult," Diana was satisfied beyond her expectations.
"His male beauty, on this unforgettable day, is unspeakable," she wrote of her first meeting with Lucifer.
Oddly enough, the initial version of Diana's story that appeared in her hometown paper after her escape from Charleston was later corroborated by a purported acquaintance, who claimed that there were roughly 500,000 Palladians in America.
By that time, Catholic periodicals had already thrown their complete support behind Diana's tale of redemption — a bride of Satan, who through the grace of God found salvation in the Church.
Although not all were so ready to accept the titillating confessions of a former bride of Satan, Diana had gained enough true believers to make headlines around the world and convince those in and out of power that a Masonic cult in Charleston held regular meetings with Lucifer every Friday at 3 p.m.
But, in what came as a shock to many and perhaps a relief to others, her story was all a lie.
The Taxil Hoax
April 19, 1897: As an eager crowd gathered in the grand hall of the Geographical Society of Paris to meet the woman who once belonged to Charleston's most elite Satanic sect, they were instead met by a giddy Frenchman who wrote under the name Leo Taxil. Diana Vaughan, he explained with pride, had been his creation all along.
- When Leo Taxil confessed to the hoax, it made the front pages
Taxil, once notorious for his writings that mocked the Church, had inexplicably converted to Catholicism 12 years earlier. Since that time, he had taken up writing and publishing popular exposes on the alleged Satanic practices of the Freemasons, drawing Charleston into one of the most elaborate hoaxes ever perpetrated.
Taxil was reportedly raised in a religious family, but was disowned by his father after joining the Freemasons only to be ousted from his lodge.
After Pope Leo XIII condemned Freemasons in 1884, Taxil concocted a plan to gain the trust of the Church and publish increasingly outlandish claims against the Masons in order to reveal the Vatican's bias. But Taxil knew the task would be more than a simple leap of faith.
The gifted con man spent weeks reviewing reports of missing persons in newspapers before deciding upon a victim of sorts. In a tearful confession, he admitted to murdering a man who had recently vanished. Now, Taxil told the priest, he was willing to give himself over to God for salvation.
After two years, Taxil was received in Rome, even claiming he was granted a 45-minute audience with the Pope.
When it came to Diana Vaughan, Taxil hired a woman from an American typewriter company to transcribe his words, carry on correspondence with clergymen, and sit for an illustration to run alongside Diana's memoirs. For her troubles, she received 150 francs a month.
Charleston would come to serve as the headquarters of Taxil's fictitious sect of Satanic Freemasons due to the city's real-life setting as the birthplace of the Mother Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. When the local Catholic bishop made an attempt to assure the Vatican that Diana Vaughan's writings were untrue, Taxil simply claimed that the bishop himself was a Freemason — in league with the devil.
- A poster for one of Taxil’s anti-freemasonry books
Although many had seen through Taxil's ploy, enough of the public and members of the Church had bought into his lies to leave a lasting resentment. In the end, Taxil gleefully accepted the nature of his crimes as he looked to end his epic charade once and for all. But he had created a lie so detailed and vivid, so attractive to those hungry to explain their lot in life, that it would long outlive its author.
Following his confession, multiple women claiming to be the real Diana Vaughan had surfaced, each accusing the others of fraud.
A Nov. 3, 1901 Baltimore Sun article on Taxil's declining health shares some of the conman's thoughts on the hoax: "They accepted my fables as gospel truth, and the more I lied for the purpose of showing that I lied, the more convinced became they that I was the paragon of veracity ... Then it dawned upon me that there was lots of money in being a Munchhausen of the right kind, and for 12 years I gave it to them hot and strong, but never too hot."
Taxil is said to have died in relative obscurity in 1907 as the editor of a small food journal. While he had disavowed the stories of influential Luciferians headquartered in South Carolina, the tales still percolate on the edges of modern discourse.
Taxil's allegations regarding devil worship and secret societies controlling global events remain popular themes among right-wing conspiracies, anti-semitic propaganda, and would go on to help fuel the era of Satanic panic in America that was to come.
Fear in the Upstate
In March of 1973, around four years after her father had first published the Satanic Bible, Karla LaVey arrived at Wofford College in Spartanburg. Leaning back in a chair onstage before an auditorium of onlookers, wearing knee-high go-go boots and a miniskirt, Karla is thin and tall with long, dark hair and a large pendant dangling from her neck.
Age 22, a self-proclaimed witch and member of the Church of Satan, LaVey was invited to Wofford as a part of the spring semester emphasis on "Man's Religious Experience in the 20th Century." She explains that the Church of Satan, despite popular belief, does not practice human sacrifices. LaVey is repeatedly interrupted by members of the audience rushing the stage with Bibles in hand.
- Karla LaVey caused a stir with her 1973 visit to Wofford College
Undeterred, LaVey tells the crowd that her father founded the Church of Satan as a result of the tragedies he witnessed as a police photographer in California, saying, "'He thought that if these acts were the will of God, then God must be a pretty thoughtless guy,'" according to the Greenville News.
Later that year, fear of Satanic sacrifices would become an all too real fear in Upstate South Carolina as a Greenville teenager faced trial for first degree murder in Florida. David O. Hester, age 17, was ordered to stand trial on Oct. 15, 1973, for the death of Michael Ross Cochran.
Four days in, the supposed leader of "The Devil's Children," a small cult in Daytona Beach, was sentenced to life in prison. Hester claimed he was high. Doctors called him an anti-social "schizoid." Another member of the group described Hester as a "warlock."
By the start of the '80s, fears began to spread of subliminal Satanic messages hidden in popular songs. In newspaper columns, Billy Graham linked drug use to the devil. Everywhere people looked, there was the devil — ready to spoil your child's mind.
- Author Grady Hendrix remembers when everyone thought the devil was out to get their kids
"It sort of started in '80 or '81, really, because you had that whole thing with kids going missing. That was when you had the first milk carton kids. There was this idea that people were after your children," says author Grady Hendrix, explaining his own experience with the rise of Satanic panic in the Charleston area. Satanic Panic, a screenplay by Hendrix, finished filming last year.
But Hendrix feels his most recent novel, We Sold Our Souls, best encompasses his thoughts on these unkillable Satanic conspiracies.
"This idea about what has value, it really felt like the equivalent of the 15th century or 16th century Christian world view of a world where physical events are shaped by invisible forces," Hendrix explains.
Hendrix recalls teachers at Porter-Gaud warning students of LSD-soaked Halloween treats and local hospitals scanning for candy stuffed with AIDS-infected needles, razor blades, and broken glass — rumors that became even more absurd when Hendrix realized that they weren't going away.
"Police officers believed them and took them seriously. Judges took them seriously. Juries took them seriously. Newspaper editors took them seriously. It felt like everyone had sort of lost their minds."
By October of 1985, police in Upstate South Carolina were preparing to shift into high alert for Halloween night. Devil worship was suspected among teens near Gaffney.
In August, local police inspected an abandoned building to find "666" and inverted crosses scrawled across the walls. Reports also described a desk covered in candles and several small nooses, which according to one officer "might have been large enough for an animal's neck."
"From time to time we have this talk spring up about devil worship and some teenagers participating in it, but we don't have anything concrete at this particular time," the chief of police told the Gaffney Ledger in 1985.
On the eve of Halloween, Gaffney police and agencies in surrounding counties were out in full force to prevent any mishaps. Local police asked that citizens leave their firearms at home.
This is How Rumors Spread
Hardy Childers, the man behind the blog Esoteric Columbia, was browsing online auctions last fall when he happened upon a strange relic from South Carolina's past. On his website, Childers likes to highlight the stranger and little-known parts of the once "Famously Hot" city's history. And for good reason.
"It may stem from a friendly competition with Charleston. I feel like there's lots of strange stories that have been compiled about Charleston, and they're easy to find. Not so much about Columbia," Childers explains.
- Courtesy Hardy Childers
- Many police departments were issued manuals to help identify and confront suspected Satanists and their practices
That's why when he came across a mud-colored class manual from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy with "Satanism" printed across the cover, he knew he had found something special. With no competing bids, the book was his for $10, plus shipping and handling.
Plucked from the summer of 1987, the manual features the cramped handwriting of its original owner alongside an illustrated glossary of demons and Satanic imagery.
By the start of 1987, fears of Satanists had grown into a nationwide panic. In the first few days of the new year, news began to spread that the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy would join around half a dozen other states with formal seminars on policing Satanic cults. Authorities had identified eight sites around the state where Satanic ceremonies were suspected to have been held, from Caesars Head to Hanahan.
According to interviews at the time, Paul Banner, the senior criminology instructor at the Criminal Justice Academy who led the course on Satanism, claimed to receive around 30 calls a week from law agencies asking to participate in the training — although they admitted to not having had any actual experience with Satanists. Banner also made it clear that he was aware of no evidence that Satanic cults in South Carolina were involved in child abuse or pornography. Other officers and news outlets were willing to move forward with these rumors regardless.
In March 1987, shortly after a Friday the 13th hoax gripped the Columbia area, the body of a Columbia girl was found wrapped in a minister's robe. Inside the garage of the 23-year-old man charged in her murder, police found a similar robe, as well as what was described as a makeshift altar covered in animal blood, according to an April 18, 1987 article in The State newspaper that was included in the Criminal Justice Academy's manual on Satanism.
Illegal activities among Satanists, according to the manual, included trespassing, vandalism and arson, animal mutilation, kidnapping, rape, child abuse, and murder. Officers were instructed to keep an open line of communication with animal control officers to monitor for sacrifices. The profile of your average Satanist was an intelligent, creative, underachieving man from a middle or upper-middle class family, with low self-esteem, difficulty relating to peers, and feelings of alienation from their family's religion. They could also be interested in role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons or heavy metal music.
In its initial year, the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy's in-house class on Satanism drew 74 students, with the seven classes offered by the academy's field training program attracted 359 officers around the state.
A Cold Comfort
- Courtesy The Index Journal
- Sometimes the menacing scribbles are just punk band lyrics, like these near Greenwood
By 1989, alleged Satanic symbols were said to have been spray-painted on any available surface along I-26. In June, Greenwood police consulted a "nationally recognized expert in Satanism" regarding graffiti that had appeared around town including skulls, emblems, and the phrase "I would rather be the devil, than go creeping to the cross." It turned out to be a lyric from a song by a Northern Irish post-punk band.
Despite the expert's dismissal of the message as nothing serious, a photo of the graffiti was prominently featured in a special section of Greenwood's Index-Journal solely focused on the threat of Satanists.
Also around this time, a Pickens County detective was lecturing local school counselors on so-called "breeders," women who give birth to an infant for the sole purpose of being used in a sacrifice. Meanwhile, a Lexington County detective would find his way to Orangeburg to lead a seminar on the difficulties of tracking Satanic activity. Almost two years later, this same detective was still on the instructional circuit, informing a McCormick crowd that Satanism is a statewide problem worse than drug addiction.
By the early '90s, former Catholic priest, turned tell-all novelist Malachi Martin revived the old claims that Charleston was the center of Satanic activity around the world. As author Grady Hendrix explains, "He had a whole thing where during the 1963 enthronement of Pope Paul VI, he claimed it was, of course, the enthronement of a Satanic Pope."
In his works of alleged fact and thinly-veiled fiction, Martin wrote that a corresponding Satanic ritual complete with a human sacrifice was held in Charleston as the ceremony was piped into the Vatican via speakerphone, granting Satan control over the Church moving forward.
So there it was. A century had passed since Leo Taxil convinced much of Europe that Charleston was the center of Satanic activity. Then, by the 1990s, another man claiming to have inside knowledge presents another Holy City conspiracy with the devil at its core.
Today, in the age of Pizzagate, the Deep State, and endless QAnon conspiracies, it's hard to dismiss the appeal of a well-told lie backed by a compelling villain. The main difference now is that your aunt can sign into Facebook and spread whatever unsubstantiated conspiracy happens to float across her feed.
"The idea of a global conspiracy that secretly runs the world is an old one and a really appealing one. Sort of the Satanic panic version of that, that there is a Satanic conspiracy running the world and we can't do anything about it, it's very appealing in the sense that you have no chance," says Hendrix.
So the concept of a conspiracy theorist has become universal. It's anyone with an internet connection. Everyone's connected and the world is too complicated to understand. Instead of doing the hard work to make sense of things, here's a story with a clear narrative. Even if there isn't a good guy, there sure as hell is a villain.
"It makes you feel good because look at the other people. They're a bunch of pedophiles and drug addicts, and they eat human blood and they're disgusting and they have no souls. They're awful," says Hendrix. "On the one hand, it's tremendously comforting. On the other, it's disempowering and weakening."
So what about the so-called bad guys? What about the Satanists?
I decided to forward a copy of the Criminal Justice Academy's manual of Satanism to the official Church of Satan to hear their response. What I received was a lengthy written response from the church's high priest, Magus Peter Gilmore.
"This sort of literature was common during 'The Satanic Panic,' when evangelical Christians as well the media looking for shock value stories promoted the false idea that there were 'satanic cults' acting as a society-wide conspiracy to incite drug use, sacrifice or mutilate animals, and breed babies for ritual murder that were disposed of in 'portable crematoria,'" Gilmore wrote.
It's worth noting that the official Church of Satan does not worship the devil. They don't believe in any higher power — God, Satan, or otherwise — instead mainly focusing on personal responsibility, individualism, and a sort of self-worship. Magus Gilmore appeared on many talk shows during the years of the Satanic panic. He acknowledges that "some disturbed youths imitated what was portrayed in the media" regarding Satanic activity, but these so-called "Geraldo Satanists" were separate from the actual church's true beliefs and practices.
Describing the Justice Academy manual on Satanism as "hate literature" masquerading as fact, Gilmore compares it to a 1487 book, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) which he says was meant to serve the exact same purpose, offering a means to interrogate and persecute thousands of Europeans.
"So, while this type of material isn't new, it is an unfortunate trend that has recurred again and again," says Gilmore. "It allows those in authority to persecute powerless people and enrich themselves in the process, cementing their belief system as the one maintaining power and thus 'truth.' Our species is often quite appalling, isn't it?"