It is difficult to determine when the legend of Il Sonnambulo first started, but where it began is unanimously agreed upon: Venice, Italy.
Over the past five hundred years there have been allusions to a "sleepwalking, elegant man" replete with "top hat and cane" who stalked infants in the night – as well as plenty of unwitting adults - in various works of art, literature and even opera. However, contradicting these earlier mentions are two credible sources who believe the killer did not start his rampage until the turn of the 18th-19th Century. Due to the long time-span of these sightings and speculations, some argue that Il Sonnambulo is simply a Victorian folkloric fable designed to scare children; others believe there is a supernatural element to his appearances, and un-superstitious observers suggest that intermittent sightings over the centuries are due to slavish copy-cats obsessed with his crimes and the infamy they bring.
Such ‘copy-cats’ have been variously caught, tried and executed (Giuseppe Arondala, 1843; Mick Kerney, 1910, Stanislaus Kaminsky, 1938; Chase T. Johnson, 1961, Martin Bellman, 1983) but invariably their crimes lacked vital components that the original murders contained: principally, the fact that all the modern-day perpetrators had various degrees of psychotic mental imbalance, shared a motivation to all become infamous – and - they all got caught. There have been similar crimes which true observers of Il Sonnambulo have identified as being the work of the ‘Originale’ – even the delusional copy-cats couldn’t quite claim to be responsible for these - though a few tried. Whoever committed those crimes has remained completely elusive.
Arguably the most direct ‘eyewitness’ account of Il Sonnambulo is Vittorio Innocenti’s 1923 manuscript ‘Encounters with the Monster’, in which he describes how hearsay and personal anecdotes faded to a myth which still resounds in Italian nursery rhymes:
“Il Sonnambulo was not a Venetian at all, but a Turk killed in a great battle in the early 1700's whose vengeful spirit haunted Venice. Dario and Umberto said this was nonsense. Il Sonnambulo was certainly Venetian - they seemed rather proud of the fact - and he was not a spirit, but a magician who had mastered the Black Arts through the casting of spells and the sacrifice of innocents. In this way he had gained immortality. "
Writing some years earlier, at the close of the 1800s, a strange collection of essays titled 'Of Human Detritus' recalls a different version of the myth altogether:
"Walking with cane in hand, the various night owls of Venice affectionately called him ‘Il Sonnambulo, Il Generoso’, finding no malice nor fright encountering this handicapped and slight boy."
This recollection of the mythological murderer shows him as having "been born with a strange deformity of the face on its left side…a crooked leg that in addition, was slightly shorter than its partner." In what was possibly the only illustrated depiction of him at the time "He has his hand on a large boulder…possibly replacing what was actually a cane in real life."
Of Human Detritus paints a sympathetic portrait of a brilliant man whose life went awry after the murder of his wife and children, a man who had "successfully steered his family’s fortune to greater heights…Kind and self-effacing, with manners which were unflappably elegant whether in the company of King or pauper, he became a beloved patriarch of the floating city."
Of Human Detritus is careful not to blame this "beloved patriarch," affectionately known as Il Sonnambulo, with the horrific crimes that unfurled in Venice after the murder of his wife and children. It is left open for the reader to decide whether this man was the one responsible, justifiably earning the public's fear, for crimes that included almost an entire class of wealthy merchants and aristocracy facing ruination, execution and ultimately exile from the city they had so successfully exploited. The story makes for compelling reading and certainly begs the question as to what part rumour, hearsay and the panicked perception of fear-driven people has had in creating the tangled origins of the Il Sonnambulo mystery.
Whoever did commit the crimes detailed in Of Human Detritus certainly shared traits known to identify Il Sonnambulo through the ages: an emaciated man kitted in elegant suit, top hat and a cane which sounded a distinctive three-tap rhythm, the appearance of a black symbol scrawled near the murder sites (which are always left with a theatrical, macabre layout – like the nightmare paintings of a deranged artist) and visions of a dark-haired woman dressed head to toe in black in the vicinity prior to the murders.
The nightmarish mystery of Il Sonnambulo has obsessed Atticus Hurst for more than two decades, and he has collected every known historical mention, etching, painting and libretto in existence. Having found fortune, fame - and infamy- photographing Il Sonnambulo’s atrocities in various incarnations (from the glory seeking wannabes glomming onto his celebrity for their own notoriety, to the mafia patsies and psychopathic copycats), he may well be the only person alive who can discern the pathetic red herrings from the elusive Originale.