Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/September 1882/Trials by Fire and Fire-Jugglers



IN his very interesting lecture on witches, Dr. Regnard has mentioned that insensibility to suffering was, in the middle ages, considered evidence of diabolical relations. By a singular contradiction of the human mind, this same insensibility was also under certain circumstances attributed to divine intervention; and that which, in one case, brought death upon the accused, was good for his acquittal in another case.

Trial by fire, by means of which Heaven was appealed to for proof of innocence, appears to have originated in India. The Vedas mention it, and travelers still find it in use in all the East. The Greeks also were acquainted with it. "We are ready to hold red-hot iron and walk through flames to prove our innocence!" exclaimed the Thebans in the "Antigone" of Sophocles, who were accused of having abetted in the theft of the body of Polynice.

The first authentic trial of this kind recorded among Christians is related by Gregory of Tours, in the case of Saint Sulpicius, Bishop of Autun. This saint, who lived in the fourth century, was made a bishop, although he was married. His wife could not make up her mind to leave him, but resolved to live with him under a vow of chastity taken according to the laws of the Church. Having learned that the faithful accused them of not observing their vow, the woman had fire brought to her publicly on Christmas-day, and, having held it in her dress for nearly an hour, gave it to the bishop, saying to him, "Take this fire, which will not burn you, so that they may see that the fire of lust has no more effect upon us than these coals have upon our clothes."

Saint Brice, Bishop of Tours, made use of a similar trial to prove his innocence of a crime that was imputed to him. The chronicles, beginning from this epoch, have preserved numerous examples of these trials. They were employed, not only to discover heretics, but also to distinguish genuine relics from false ones. The Council of Saragossa, in 592, ordered that only those relics which the fire had respected should be venerated. The multiplication of these trials in Gaul was probably due to the influence of the conquering race, with whom the custom seems to have been established from time immemorial. In an addition to the Salic law made by Kings Childebert and Clotaire, in 593, was a clause that a man, accused of theft, should be adjudged guilty of it if he was burned in the trial by fire. In 630 King Dagobert, in reforming the laws of the Bavarians, the Alemans, and the Ripuarians, according to Christian ideas, continued in effect the law of the Ripuarians providing that, if any one was cited before a court to answer for an offense by his servant, he should be adjudged guilty if the hand of his servant was hurt by the fire. In 819 Louis le Débonnaire ordained that a servant, who was burned in the trial by boiling water, should be put to death. Hincmar relates that Queen Thietberge, wife of King Lothair, when accused of a horrible offense, proved her innocence by a man who underwent for her in 860 the trial by boiling water without being scalded. In 876, Louis, second son of Louis the German, established his rights over Germany, which his uncle, Charles the Bald, contested, by means of thirty men, ten of whom suffered the trial by cold water, ten that of hot water, and ten that of red-hot iron. Charles the Bald, not willing to give up to these proofs, marched against his nephew at the head of an army, and was thoroughly beaten. It would be superfluous to multiply examples of this kind, which became more and more numerous till the end of the eleventh century, when the trials were formally condemned by Popes Stephen V, Celestine III, Innocent III, and Honorius III.

We pass on to the description of the general course of proceeding: Trial by hot water was made simply by plunging the arm into a boiler full of boiling water, to take out from it a ring, or a nail, or a stone, which had been suspended in it. In some causes the hand was put in to the wrist, in others to the elbow. It is even said, in the formulas of Saint Dunstan, that the stone was sometimes concealed under an ell-deep of hot water. Commoners made the trial for themselves, while people of quality hired others to make them. Those who were burned were declared guilty, and those who escaped were considered innocent.

The trial with hot iron, called judgment by fire, was made in different ways. Sometimes one red-hot iron was taken hold of—or perhaps several in succession—and was carried to a considerable distance. The iron was generally shaped like a plowshare, and was, therefore, called Vomer. A second way was to walk upon red-hot irons with the legs bare to the knee. Six, nine, or twelve irons were made ready for the trial, according to the magnitude of the inputed offense. In Denmark a kind of red-hot iron glove, reaching to the elbow, was used.

The trials were made in the presence of priests delegated by the bishop, and of secular officers of justice. Those who submitted to them were obliged first to wash their hands, arms, or feet, with fresh water, to remove any advantages they might have obtained from rubbing their limbs with some substance that could deaden the action of the fire; the priest then threw holy water upon them, pronounced exorcisms and benedictions, which may be found in the formulas of Marculfe and Saint Dunstan, made them kiss the Gospels, and then the trial began. When it was over, the hand, arm, or foot that had been in contact with the fire was wrapped in a linen cloth, under the seal of the judge, not to be opened till after three days had passed.[1]

It is not easy to give now a natural explanation for all of these facts; we are too little informed respecting the accompanying circumstances. It appears, however, that we might, besides having recourse to the cases of hysterical insensibility described by Dr. Regnard, connect the power of enduring the trials with one of the three following causes: diminution of the sensation of heat by evaporation from the surface of the skin; insensibility obtained for the skin by means of preliminary artifices; and illusion respecting the intensity of the source of heat.

With respect to the first of these causes, the experiments of M. Boutigny are well known; and it is possibly only the want of hardiness that prevents our discovering more numerous applications of it. Dr. Davenport, an English physician, gives one of them. He says he has seen a workman in the dock-yards at Chatham plunge his bare hand into boiling pitch. The man tucked up his shirt-sleeve, put in his hand up to his wrist, and took out some of the pitch as he would have done with a spoon*; the pitch, which was in actual contact with his skin, he wiped off with tow. To assure himself that there was no trickery, Dr. Davenport put his whole forefinger into the boiling pitch, and was able to move it about for some time before the heat became uncomfortable. The workman affirmed that, if any one put his hand when covered with a glove into the boiling liquid, he would be burned very badly. A fact related by Dr. Beckman, another physician, is referable to both the first and the second of the causes we have mentioned. A workman in the foundry at Auerstädt, in 1765, for a small gift, took some melted copper in the hollow of his hand, showed it to the spectators, and then threw it against the wall. Then he rubbed the fingers of his calloused hand briskly together, put them under his armpits for a few instants, to make them sweat, as he said, passed them over a dish of melted copper as if he would skim it, and finished by moving his hand rapidly backward and forward in the liquid mass. Dr. Beckman perceived a strong smell of burned horn while this was going on, but the man's hand did not seem to be hurt.

In 1809 a Spaniard named Lionetto went through Europe performing still more wonderful feats. While he was at Naples he excited the curiosity of Professor Sementini, who made a study of him, and, having performed numerous experiments upon himself, has left us the most positive documents that we possess on the subject. Lionetto put a plate of red-hot iron on his hair, and a thick fume was immediately seen to rise from it. He struck his toes with another red-hot iron, and this likewise produced a thick and offensive vapor. He put an iron nearly red-hot between his teeth. He drank about a third of a spoonful of boiling oil. He quickly plunged the ends of his fingers into melted lead, and put a little of the liquid metal on his tongue; and afterward he bore a red-hot iron upon that organ, which was covered with a grayish coating. Professor Sementini discovered: 1. That rubbings with sulphuric acid leave the skin insensible to red-hot iron. 2. That a more complete result is reached by rubbing with a solution of alum evaporated till it becomes spongy. 3. That the insensibility obtained by either of these processes is made considerably more perfect by a series of rubbings with hard soap, each rubbing, except the last one, being followed by washing with water. 4. That the tongue may be made insensible by covering it with a salve composed of a solution of alum saturated at the boiling-point. Boiling oil put on a tongue thus prepared did not burn it; a hissing was produced, like that of hot iron when put into water; the heated oil cooled in contact with the solution, and could then be swallowed without danger.

Professor Sementini remarks that Lionetto, to satisfy the spectators that the oil was really hot, threw lead into it, which melted, but that the lead, in melting, absorbed a part of the heat from the oil. It is very possible, also, that the jugglers, instead of melted lead, used alloys fusible at low temperatures, or even simply mercury, as is done in some imitations of their tricks.

A father in the Church, Saint Hippolytus, has revealed to us in a book called "Philosophumena" other tricks which the pagan priests employed. "This is the way," he says, "that the magician can put his hand into a brass vessel full of pitch that appears to be boiling. He puts into the dish vinegar and natron (carbonate of soda), and, on top of this liquid, pitch. The mixture of vinegar and natron has the property, on the application of the slightest heat, of agitating the pitch and producing bubbles that rise to the surface and present the appearance of boiling. Previous to the operation, he washes his hands several times with salt-water, which would keep them from getting burned even if the pitch should be really hot. If he anoints his hands with myrtle, natron, and myrrh mixed with vinegar, and washes them as well with salt-water, he will not be burned. His feet will not be burned if he anoints them with isinglass.

"The magician breathes fire and smoke from his mouth; then, putting a piece of cloth on a dish full of water, he throws burning coals upon it, and they leave the cloth intact.

"He breathes smoke from his mouth for a short time, by putting in it a coal of fire wrapped in tow, and keeping the coal alive with his breath. The cloth in the dish is kept from being set on fire by the coals that are thrown upon it, by the transfer of the heat to the saltwater under it. The cloth should also be previously dipped in saltwater and covered with a mixture of whites of eggs and liquid alum. If to this liquid we add the liquor of eternal life,[2] the effect of the composition is to render the cloth—providing it has been prepared for some time wholly incombustible."

We may remark upon the similarity of the last recipe with that which the latest experiments have suggested for the robes of ballet dancers in the opera.

The feat of breathing fire played an important part in antiquity. By its aid the Syrian Eunus was able to revive the insurrection of the slaves in Sicily, and Barchochebas to assume the command of the Jews who revolted against Hadrian. Both used it to make their followers believe in the divine inspiration with which they pretended to be invested, the former by the Syrian goddess, the latter by the God of Israel.

I give next one of the recipes of the jugglers who at present perform this miracle in the fairs. They take a handful of tow in each hand; the left hand holds also, concealed, a piece of burning tinder. The performers begin by taking from the right hand with the teeth a piece of tow which they pretend to chew, while they fill it with saliva and dispose it in the mouth, by the aid of the tongue, so as to form a kind of shield against the heat. Then, pretending to take new tow with the left hand, they introduce into the mouth the parcel of inflamed tinder, on which they immediately place dry tow by biting into the right handful. Combustion is excited by blowing with the throat, and the current of air protects the lips from burning.

I have repeated the experiment of a pretended boiling described in the "Philosophumena," using oil instead of liquid pitch. It produced a complete illusion. The oil boiled in large bubbles, throwing up to the surface a white foam, without its being necessary to raise the temperature to more than 86°.

I have not tried either of the processes for producing insensibility described above, nor those which are given by Albertus Magnus and other sorcerers of the middle ages, as follows:

"1. Take mallows-juice, powdered psillium-seed, and lime; mix the whole with the white of an egg and horse-radish-juice. Rub the hands with the mixture and let them dry; then rub them again, and you will be able to handle fire.

"2. Dissolve quicklime in bean-water, then mix in Messina earth, to which add a little mallows and bird-lime; rub yourself with it and let it dry.

"3. Rub your hands with strong vinegar in which you have dissolved vitriol, and add plantain-juice."

It was probably by the aid of similar recipes that the priestesses of Diana Parasya, in Cappadocia, according to Strabo, were able to walk barefooted over burning coals; and the Hirpi, according to Pliny, procured exemption from military service by renewing the same miracle annually in the Temple of Apollo, on Mount Soracte. In our own time the Arabian sect of the Aissaouas perform feats quite as astonishing as those we have mentioned. The subject might afford entertaining studies to those who are interested in finding natural ways of accounting for facts which have been regarded as prodigies.—Revue Scientifique.

  1. [A volume of the "Calendars of State Papers; Colonial Series," recently published in London, under the editorial supervision of W. Noel Sainsbury, of the Public Record Office, contains in a letter of 1620, from an agent of the East India Company, in the Island of Tecoe, a description of the native rite of purgation from the charge of murder, which closely resembles the Saxon ordeal. The account is the more valuable and interesting, because it is, to all appearance, authentic, and not tainted with the superstitious credulity with which the stories dating from the middle ages are colored. An Englishman having been killed by some of the islanders, Nicolls, the chief factor, obtained their king's license to summon the suspected persons and make them touch the corpse. All except one, who was ill, obeyed the summons, but betrayed no sign of guilt; whereupon the king ordered the absentee to be sent for. "He took," says the narrator, "the dead man by the hand with extreme quaking and many distracted gestures and answers, but would not hold it any time. Nicolls urged this to be the man, and required, justice. The king caused him to be bound, and professed in his conscience that he was the man, but that he must be tried by their law also. . . . A fire was made, and an iron pan with a gallon of oil set to boil, till it came to such a degree of heat that a green leaf dipped therein was sodden and shriveled. The prisoner was then, in testimony of his innocence, to take a small ball of brass, little bigger than a musket-shot, out of the oil with his naked hand, and if any burning or scald appeared thereon he was contented to die. . . . Stripping up his sleeve above the elbow, and taking a kind of protestation, desiring that as he was clear he might prosper in this act, he dipped his hand to the wrist in the boiling oil, took out the ball, held it fast, and crying 'Olla Basar!' ('Great is the Lord!'), tossed it up, caught it again, and then cast it on the ground, showing his hand, which had no more sign of hurt than if he had experimented the same in cold water; the devil, as seems, being loath at that time to lose his credit. The fellow was instantly released, and within an hour after returned in his holiday apparel, and none so lusty as. he, though so weak before as to be brought upon men's shoulders to his trial. This was all the justice we could have for our murdered man." Editor P. S. M.]
  2. Possibly ammoniacal carbonate of copper, the magnificent color of which is called by chemists celestial blue. The ancients got ammonia by distilling blood with ashes.