The proper conditions being given for the development of the disease—generally a congregation composed mainly of young women—any fanatic or overzealous priest or preacher may stimulate hysterical seizures, which are very likely to become epidemic.
As a recent typical example on a large scale, I take the case of diabolic possession at Morzines, a French village on the borders of Switzerland; and it is especially instructive, because it was thoroughly investigated by a competent man of science.
About the year 1853 a sick girl at Morzines, acting strangely, was thought to be possessed of the devil, and was taken to Besançon, where she seems to have fallen into the hands of kindly and sensible ecclesiastics, and, under the operation of the relics preserved in the cathedral there—especially the handkerchief of Christ—the devil was cast out and she was cured. Naturally, much was said of the affair among the peasantry, and soon other cases began to show themselves. The priest at Morzines attempted to quiet the matter by avowing his disbelief in such cases of possession; but immediately a great outcry was raised against him, especially by the possessed themselves. The matter was now widely discussed, and the malady spread rapidly; myth-making and wonder-mongering began; amazing accounts were thus developed and sent out to the world. The afflicted were said to have climbed trees like squirrels; to have shown superhuman strength; to have exercised the gift of tongues, speaking in German, Latin, and even in Arabic; to have given accounts of historical events they had never heard of; and to have revealed the secret thoughts of persons about them. Mingled with such exhibitions of power were outbursts of blasphemy and obscenity.
But suddenly came something more miraculous, apparently, than all these wonders. Without any assigned cause this epidemic of possession diminished, and the devil disappeared.
Not long after this Prof, Tissot, an eminent member of the medical faculty at Dijon, visited the spot and began a series of researches, of which he afterward published a full account. He tells us that he found some reasons for the sudden departure of Satan which had never been published. He discovered that the Government had quietly removed one or two overzealous ecclesiastics to another parish, had sent the police to Morzines to maintain order, and had given instructions that those who acted outrageously should be simply treated as lunatics and sent to asylums. This policy, so accordant with French methods of administration, cast out the devil: the possessed were mainly cured, and the matter appeared ended.
But Dr. Tissot found a few of the diseased still remaining, and he soon satisfied himself by various investigations and experi-