According to The Newgate Calendar, Alexander Bean was born in East Lothian during the 16th century. His father was a ditch digger and hedge trimmer, and Bean tried to take up the family trades but quickly realized that he had little taste for honest labor.
He left home with a vicious woman who apparently shared his inclinations. The couple ended up at a coastal cave in Bannane Head (which name, "Bannane", is an earlier form of the modern "Beane"), near Galloway (now South Ayrshire) where they lived undiscovered for some twenty-five years. The cave was 200 yards deep and during high tide the entrance was blocked by water, and is said to be today's Bannane Cave, located between Girvan and Ballantrae in Ayrshire.
Their many children and grandchildren were products of incest and lawlessness. The brood came to include eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. Lacking the gumption for honest labor, the clan thrived by laying careful ambushes at night to rob and murder individuals or small groups. The bodies were brought back to the cave where they were dismembered and cannibalized. Leftovers were pickled, and discarded body parts would sometimes wash up on nearby beaches.
The body parts and disappearances did not go unnoticed by the local villagers, but the Beans stayed in the caves by day and took their victims at night. The clan was so secretive that the villagers were not aware of the forty-eight murderers living nearby.
As more significant notice of the disappearances was taken, several organized searches were launched to find the culprits. One search took note of the telltale cave but the men refused to believe anything human could live in it. Frustrated and in a frenetic quest for justice, the townspeople lynched several innocents, and the disappearances continued. Suspicion often fell on local innkeepers since they were the last to see many of the missing people alive.
One fateful night, the Beans ambushed a married couple riding from a fair on one horse, but the man was skilled in combat, deftly holding off the clan with sword and pistol. The clan fatally mauled the wife when she fell to the ground in the conflict. Before they could take the resilient husband, a large group of fairgoers appeared on the trail and the Beans fled.
With the Beans' existence finally revealed to the world, it was not long before King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) heard of the atrocities and decided to lead a manhunt with a team of 400 men and several bloodhounds, soon finding the Beans' previously overlooked cave in Bannane Head. The cave was rife with human remains, having been the scene of hundreds of murders and cannibalistic acts.
The clan was captured alive and taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh, then transferred to Leith or Glasgow where they were promptly executed without trial; the men had their genitalia cut off, hands and feet severed and were allowed to bleed to death, and the women and children, after watching the men die, were burned alive. (This recalls, in essence if not in detail, the punishments of hanging, drawing and quartering decreed for men convicted of treason while women convicted of the same were burned. Presumably—whether or not the story had an actual basis—cannibalism was considered the equivalent of treason.)
The town of Girvan, located near the crime scene, has another legend about the cannibal clan. It is said that one of Bean's daughters eventually left the clan and settled in Girvan, where she planted the Hairy tree. After her family's capture, the daughter's identity was revealed by angry locals who hanged her from the bough of the Hairy Tree.
Origins of the "Bean Cannible Clan" legend
The legend of Sawney Bean and his clan in popular culture
Largely do to the graphic and highly grotesque nature surrounding the cannibal clan, Sawney bean and his lot have become a minor, yet noticable influence in fiction, primarily in the horror genre.
- The Hills Have Eyes is a survival horror movie made in 1977, both written and directed by Wes Craven, who is best known for his slasher horror movies A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. The Hills Have Eyes had been conceived by Craven as a modern retelling of the Sawney Bean legend, sharing most of the core elements of the myth. The movie's plot centers around the deranged, Nevada dessert savage and cannibal by the name of Jupiter, who together with an equally mentally unstable woman raises an entire family of brutal children. The Jupiter Family, much like the Bean Clan, would ambush passer-bys and then devour them.
- The Hills Have Eyes reboot series, starting from 2006, draws further inspiration from the Scottish clan's legend by having two related mutant families living inside a series of undergorund mines. The movies' graphic novel prequel, The Hills Have Eyes: The Begginning, describes the mutant clan's founder as being a descendent of the eponymous mass murderer, her name being Karen Sawney Bean.
- The manga series Shingeki no Kyojin features two man-eating giants named Sawney and Bean, respectively. Both of them are held captive by the human research team in the hopes of communicating with the seemingly non-sentiant, malformed humanoid creatures. While under captivity, both giants attempted to ambush the head scientist in order to devour her whole.
- Shingeki no Kyojin's subsequent anime adaptation further references the Sawney Bean legend by having the lead scientist narrate the cannibal clan's tale in front of the two captive giants.