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Victim or Villain? The Untold Story of the Priest Who Became the First Filipino Serial Killer

How a man of God committed the worst mortal sins.
IMAGE SHUTTERSTOCK, MANSELL LIFE PHOTO COLLECTION
ILLUSTRATOR RAPHAEL QUIASON
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It all began with a string of strange murders in Pampanga in 1810. 

One by one, the bodies surfaced in the town of colonial-era Magalang. Spaniards and FIlipinos alike were swept up in wave of wave of curiosity along with brow-raising worry and hair-raising fear. No one knew why this was happening. Such is the material of mysteries and thrillers of modern-day society, but this was unheard of for the residents of the area at that time. 

After all, nothing similar had ever been recorded. As the colonial police force scrambled to figure out who was behind this act that appeared to be the very picture of evil itself, more and more citizens fell victim to the mysterious killer who brought terror without the burden of a face or a name attached to the gruesome actions. 

In a span of about a decade, around 50 strange deaths occurred in scattered parts of the area and the guwardya sibil were stumped, unable to find a clear motive or connection between the gruesome murders. 

With no clues or suspects found, there was no other choice but to determine the case as unsolved, at least for the meantime, even though the ghastly fear of an unknown killer roaming the streets of Magalang would loom over everyone’s heads. But given that these murders would lead to the first documented Filipino serial killer, it would have been unusual for the unsuspecting townsfolk to pinpoint all of them to just one person—let alone a Filipino priest. 

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Calligraphy by Fr. Juan Severino Mallari

Photo by SINGSING.

Juan Severino Mallari: A Man of Many Firsts

Fr. Juan Severino Mallari was an accomplished man of exemplary skill. Historian and psychiatrist Dr. Luciano Santiago wrote about the man’s life in his book, Kapampangan Pioneers in the Philippine Church. He documents how the Macabebe-based priest was the first Filipino to preside over the parish of Pampanga. Mallari had climbed and scraped his way through several bouts of rejections while applying to become a pastor. This was an impressive feat, considering that it happened during a time when it was not common for Filipino priests to hold such positions of power as the Spaniards reigned supreme.

He was also one of the first Filipinos to master the art of calligraphy. The Pampanga quarterly publication Singing stated how Mallari used his talent to decorate the parish annual reports with flowered vines and angels on clouds. One can only wonder how such a gentle artist’s hands could commit the atrocities he supposedly did later in life. But of course, a serial killer might just consider his work as “art.” 

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A devout priest and a talented artist that produced intricate designs and showed his clear artistic genius, he was the last person anyone would think of to have committed such horrific crimes. The typical priest during the colonial era was feared by many, although the norm was that he was a Spaniard. A Filipino priest was much easier for the locals to trust. But evil wears many faces and Fr. Juan Severino Mallari eventually turned out to be the first documented Filipino serial killer—as well as the first Filipino priest to be hanged. 

Calligraphy by Fr. Juan Severino Mallari

Photo by SINGSING.

For the Love of A Mother 

But is evil born or made? Is it nature or nurture? The argument for Mallari’s case somehow treads the line when the supernatural steps into the equation. According to Dr. Santiago, Mallari's exploits were born from a belief that his mother had somehow been bewitched or nakulam. This bewitching was believed to be from the dark incantations of a mangkukulam, who can bring sickness or death to people through pricking a wax idol with a magic pin. He thought that, by taking the lives of the parishioners, he would be able to revert the black magic. With the hazy emotions of love and distress blurring the lines between right and wrong, Mallari set forth with his killing spree. 

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There were no records of what specific illness his mother had been afflicted with, only that the priest was determined to undo the sorcery. There was also no known basis for Mallari’s connection between killing souls to save one with regards to black magic. In his mind, he was a man on a mission. Call it a crime of love, or whatever seems fit. But one can’t dispute that the act of murder is still a crime. Mallari ultimately reportedly killed at least 57 people during the time when he presided over the Pampanga parish. 

Hospicio de San Jose

Photo by MANSELL, LIFE PHOTO COLLECTION.

Mallari’s Struggles With Mental Illness

But Mallari had a battle of his own in his head. In an issue about Memorable Kapampangans, Singsing stated that the priest was afflicted by severe psychosis. This was often ignored by anyone who dared to notice since the perception of mental health at the time was quite different from how the topic is approached nowadays. Most of the common folk did not understand what it was and instead blamed it on the supernatural. According to research by Dr. Miguel P. Tecson, there were still remnants of belief in black magic and superstitions even though colonial times had sought to change that. 

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Still, the Spanish view was slightly more advanced for its time, seeing as the world’s first mental hospital, according to the publication Aleteia, was founded in Spain. The Hospicio de San Jose—which according to Dr. Tecson’s research was then an asylum headed by religious charities for the mentally ill—had also been operating for almost two decades by the end of Mallari’s harrowing killing spree. It’s precisely this reason why Dr. Santiago mentioned in his book that he found it odd that Mallari was arrested instead of being admitted to a mental institution. 

The priest’s alleged murder streak that had started with his mother’s illness came full circle when it ended with his own sickness 10 years later. Singsing stated that Mallari had fallen physically ill, and members of the community decided to visit his place of residence. For people who had not intended to investigate the string of murders, Mallari’s visitors had a lot more luck than the guwardya sibil when it came to finding the evidence. With that, the truth about the harrowing Magalang deaths began to unravel.

It was a spine-chilling sight worthy of a horror movie—a stash of items covered in blood, located in the house of a seemingly blameless, virtuous man. Suddenly, the mysterious murders of the past decade began to make sense. There were no records of exactly how he committed his murders, but the evidence was damning. Eventually, the authorities imprisoned him in Manila, where he stayed for 14 years until he was hanged in 1804. 

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The Dismissal of the Juan Severino Mallari's Case 

The aftermath of the case did not prove to be any better than the tragedy itself. There was no replacing the precious lives lost, and Fr. Mallari never had the chance to find help. Still, the Spaniards ultimately decided that the case showed how indios had a natural tendency to believe all sorts of supernatural tall tales. 

The case ultimately ends with divided opinions as to Mallari’s role in it. To some, the priest himself was an inherently evil, cold-blooded killer who robbed people of their lives. But for others, he was merely an ill, confused son.

What is sure, however, is that while the case was rooted in stories, it also brought about one of its own. Because what came out was ultimately a historical tragedy in three parts—one of an ill man who lost the battle with his mind, another of his mysterious mother’s suffering, and the last of a multitude of innocent Filipinos who were murdered by a man of God.

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