Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/June 1893/The Revival of Witchcraft
|THE REVIVAL OF WITCHCRAFT.|
IN the byways of science, as on the scenes of a theatre and in the pages of fiction, an alias is often found to serve a very convenient purpose. But it is always a little disappointing, to those in search of a veritable novelty, to find in place of it only a discredited piece of antiquity, though varnished, polished, and faced with a new color; and it is not inspiriting, even to the dilettante of the drama or of fiction, to be put off with old and worn-out characters, masquerading under new names, with fantastic costumes and modern effects, however ingenious and startling.
The modern Athenians, who dignify themselves with the title of psychical researchers, have for some time been inviting us to the investigation of what they have led us to believe were altogether new departures into the domain of mental philosophy. A new horizon was opened out before us; methods of the communication of thought were described which set distance at naught, which dispensed with speech or gesture, touch, sight, or smell. Sensation, we were told, was transmissible without material expression; mental impressions could be conveyed by the unexpressed power of the will, character could be transferred by subtle and invisible channels into those whose morality required strengthening, or whose self-control needed bracing. All this has been indicated with some confidence, and with a careful and measured approximation to methods of rational inquiry, by some English observers whose competence in literature and some departments of physical research were calculated to invite confidence. But it must be confessed that the results which they had obtained, and the very rudimentary evidence which they had adduced in this country, were far from sufficing to persuade any but a very select band of idealists that there was anything substantial either in their premises or their conclusions. For the last year or two, however, public attention has been invited to a series of phenomena which were seriously alleged to afford positive evidence of the existence of a variety of endowments of the human body, and of marvelous powers of mental action, which realized some of the promised wonders of "the new psychology." France was now, as in the last century, the chosen land of marvel. There appears to be something in the temperament of the Latin race which lends itself easily to neurotic disorder, to hysterical excitement, and to the production of startling displays of mental eccentricity. We have never been celebrated in this country, even in the middle ages, for our demoniacs, our dancing hysterics, or our miraculous cures. We have nothing to rival the ancient histories of St. Medard and Port Royal, or the modern pilgrimages of Lourdes. But if the modern hypnotists, psychists, and faith-curers are allowed the full play which has recently been given to them, in infecting the public mind with the follies of the "new hypnotism," the "profound hypnosis," the "new mesmerism," the "magnetization of hypnotics," and the "externalization of sensation," which they have been so solemnly propounding and so profusely describing in the pages of our leading newspapers and serials, we may yet see here an abundant harvest of mentally disordered and pathological creatures, such as have now for some years been permanently on show across the Channel; we may expect also to find our more solid literature poisoned with this evil influence, as our literature of romance and fiction already has been. From what I hear and know of the attractions which these false phenomena, these dangerous tricks, and this practice of mental subordination to another will, are already exercising on some ladies of the upper class in England and on some writers of influence, it appears high time that a thorough exposure should be made of the imposture and the self-deception which underlie the performances. Some of them have been rehearsed before eminent British journalists on their visits to Paris, and by them described in good faith, with no small literary power and considerable although imperfect detail, to the readers of the great English journals. The most vivid descriptions of the modern development of the now superstitions appeared in a series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette early in last December, and in the Times at the end of December and the beginning of the present year. I was induced thereby to devote a fortnight at the end of the year to an investigation of the facts described and the phenomena produced, and to an endeavor to find out how they were produced, and, as is always important in an inquiry of the sort, in what sort of people they took place. As a result I was able briefly to affirm in the columns of the Times that I found the whole series of performances to be based upon fraud, and that I had succeeded in reproducing the phenomena without employing any occult means or invoking any new powers of mind or body. This statement was welcomed by persons whose opinion I value, and by many of whom the articles in question had been read, as Prof. Tyndall writes, with "disfavor and indeed dismay." I am urged to lose no time in sweeping away this mass of rubbish, and "the disgusting superstitions" which these letters and publications have tended to promote. This I will attempt to do by stating in some detail precisely what the performances at the Charité are, and removing from them the halo of false science which has rendered them attractive and credible, and has to some extent obscured their demoralizing character. The business of demonstrating the marvels of the new hypnotism has been going on now for upward of twenty years, with very mischievous effects. It has culminated in performances of the patients of Dr. Luys in the wards of one of the greatest and most historically celebrated of the Paris hospitals. The Hospital of La Charité is a hospital with great traditions, dignified by great names, and still the seat of sound and able clinical instruction by a staff who must, I am sure, feel humiliated at finding the name of the great institution to which they belong becoming thus notorious throughout Europe for its connection with proceedings which they can but view with extreme disfavor.
In the first place, two patients were presented (who must be among the patients referred to), for they are and have been for some time the main subjects for demonstration at La Charité. One of these is a man named Mervel, an unhappy being of whom Dr. Luys promised to give me the clinical history, and of whom, briefly, it may be said that he has been all his life a wretched hysteric, subject to fits, to sleep-walking, and to catalepsy. He has passed through all the phases of this form of extreme nerve disorder. If he had been let alone, as he would have been in this country, or treated to a sound course of tonics, cold water (internally and externally), and field labor, he might have lived a more healthy life. He is now a miserable object, trained to all the tricks and the pathological aptitudes for simulation of a highly trained hypnotic, and on him were demonstrated phenomena which might indeed be "marvels" if they were not almost wholly frauds. I will run rapidly over a series of this man's performances as they were shown to me in the wards by Dr. Luys in the presence of observers, and I will presently add some of the other performances of other patients and trained subjects of Dr. Luys who have differing aptitudes and a various répertoire. The man was brought in from the waiting-room and put in an arm-chair; a finger held up before his eyes sufficed to plunge him into induced sleep. This was clearly not simulated, and in a highly trained subject is exceedingly common. The eyelids were then lifted, and a little performance was gone through, which is described in the programme set out in Dr. Luys's Leçons Cliniques as the prise du regard. A finger is held before him; he gazes at it, sits bolt upright, and follows it as though fascinated around the room. This is, of course, a very ordinary performance, and is only, so to speak, the lever de rideau. He is taken back to his chair, and then begins the second performance. He is shown a magnetic bar, and here the true stage play begins, as it does in so many of these mesmeric performances, with the utterly irrelevant introduction of the apparatus of magnetism. He sees now from one pole of the magnet the "odic" effluvia, the blue flames, which are familiar to the readers of Reichenbach. He is delighted with them; he caresses the bar like a child with a toy; he follows it all over the place, and when the opposite pole of the magnet is presented to him, he is struck with horror at the red flames which issue from it, and shows every sign of fear and disgust. There are infinite variations of this marvel. Thus, a photograph of the poles of a magnet affects him in a similar way, no matter how old the photograph. On the face of Dr. Luys he sees red flames proceeding from the eyes and nostrils on one side of the face and blue flames on the other, which is supposed to coincide with the duality of the nerve-centers of the brain and the opposite polarity of the two sides of the body—puerile deductions which bear upon their face ignorant credulity, but which are supposed to derive evidential strength from these heightenings of the visual perception of this individual and the other performers of the same school. For these subjects quickly learn how to pretend to see the same thing; and Colonel de Rochas d'Aiglun, the administrateur of the Polytechnic School in Paris, whom Dr. Luys was good enough to introduce to me, has subjects who have made for him also a considerable series of drawings showing these flames playing about magnets and parts of magnets, surrounding crystals, and irradiating the features of himself and others. One patient has done me the honor of making my portrait with all its magnetic accompaniments. To the heightened visual perception of these ladies and gentlemen it seems that from one side of my face issues a sheet of lambent blue flame, and my eyes dart rays of blue fire; the other side is equally luminous with red flame, while down the middle of my face is a bright streak of yellow. Mervel drew this interesting picture, and the others confirmed it; and as this was done in the wards of a hospital and by a patient in a state of "lucid somnambulism" and of good faith, I suppose I ought to have assumed that "there was no room for fraud or imposture." I ventured, however, to think otherwise. I took with me on the third occasion a magnet lent me by Dr. Johnson, of London, which had been thoroughly demagnetized by being thrust into the fire, and a series of steel pins which had been variously magnetized in inverse senses, and I found that the heightened senses of Mervel were quite incapable of distinguishing between the inert magnet, the variously magnetized needles, and the true magnet. I even placed the needles and the magnet in the hands of Dr. Luys and asked him to determine what Mervel saw. He saw always, in reply to Dr. Luys's questions, the orthodox thing. I then gently suggested to Dr. Luys that he should try some test experiments and use an electro-magnet, in which he could at will put on and take off the current and try for himself whether the patient did or did not really perceive what he described. I ventured to repeat the same suggestion when Mervel was describing the colored lights he saw around the poles of a faradic machine. My suggestions, however, were not favorably received; and Dr. Luys observed that he must be allowed to make his experiments in his own way. At these sittings Dr. Sajous, Dr. Lutaud, M. Cremière, of St. Petersburg, and others, were present. To end this part of the matter, I should state that I took successively three other subjects of demonstration whom Dr. Luys has presented to his classes, and tested still more decisively their pretended powers of distinguishing emanations from the north and south poles of the magnet and seeing the colored flames of Reichenbach. These subjects were a person named Jeanne, an accomplished impostor, and the most distinguished and highly trained of M. Luys's subjects, whose portrait occurs repeatedly in the illustrations of his lectures, and who describes herself as his premier sujet; a person named Clarice, whose marvelous powers are also much described in the publications of Dr. Luys; and a patient now in the wards named Marguerite. I tested these subjects repeatedly in the presence sometimes of the gentlemen above named, sometimes of Dr. Olivier, of Dr. Meurice, and of others whom I need not at present name. The results were that Mervel, whether sent to sleep by Dr. Luys, or by myself, or by the wardsman, was never really asleep to the extent of not being able to gather verbal and visual suggestions as to his course of action, as to what he ought to do and what he ought to see, and that his hysterical or hypnotic slumber did not prevent him from simultaneously carrying on a course of elaborate imposture. When I rapidly displaced the magnetic photographs of Dr. Luys or my own, he blundered over them, but immediately he understood that he was blundering he corrected his mistake and saw what he ought to have seen. He was quite unable to distinguish an inert piece of iron from a true magnet, and unless he were guided by words let fall by the bystanders, or by the adoption of a systematic proceeding to which he was accustomed, he was quite at sea. Clarice and Jeanne, in their lucid somnambulistic state, never knew whether the current was on or off; unless they had a clew to the answers they ought to give, they were ludicrously wrong. They saw enormous flames issuing from the powerful magnet which I used. When I told the assistant to put on the current, acting on my previous instructions, he always did exactly the opposite of what I said, and they always fell into the trap. The culminating absurdity of this phase of the performance was the famous show for which this clinique has become famous, known as the magnetic skullcap, with its therapeutic and physical influences. "In this magnetic circlet," said Dr. Luys (speaking in the presence of his somnambulistic patient, who was supposed not to hear), "are stored up the thoughts and mental characteristics of an individual who suffered from melancholia and hallucinations of persecution. I will now put it on Mervel's head, and you will see what follows"; whereupon Mervel showed dramatic signs of the hallucination of persecution, suffering apparently great pain of mind and body. Possibly it was too cleverly acted to be wholly simulation, but it afforded a good example of the mixture of hysterical readiness to accept any suggestion with unlimited powers of deception; for this took place at the same sitting, and in the same state in which he pretended to see red flames and blue flames at random, accordingly as he supposed the magnet, or the photographs which I showed him, or the prints, or the pins, to be of the north pole or of the south pole. I repeated the experiment, always with the like results. Dr. Olivier, the editor of the Revue des Sciences Physiques, writes to me that the exposure was complete.
At any rate, therefore, we may exclude from the positive results which I attained in the presence of many witnesses the possibility of the electrical or magnetic current having any real relation whatever to the phenomena shown, and, as far as the utmost care could go, we may exclude also the influence of suggestion in any occult sense. Where the subjects thought they knew what was expected of them in their state of lucid somnambulism, they did it or saw it, whether I operated, or Dr. Luys, or his ward assistant. Where they did not know they tried to guess, and with ludicrous results. Habitually they produced results exactly opposite to those which should have occurred, had the magnetic current had any influence whatever as a causal agent. I will now go further, and will affirm that there never was, any more than there now is, the slightest ground for believing that the most powerful magnets are capable of exercising any such influence as Dr. Luys and others are in the habit of assuming that they can exert over the animal organism. Opportunely enough, I find in the New York Medical Journal of the 31st of December a report of the experiments made by F. Peterson and A. E. Kennelly, with the most powerful magnets in the Edison laboratory, of which Mr. Kennelly is the chief electrician. Very powerful electro-magnets of 2,000 to 5,000 C.G.S. units to the square centimetre were employed. Not only was no visible effect produced in the polarization within the magnetic field of the hæmoglobin of blood, or in the circulation in the web of the frog's foot, but when a dog was placed for five hours under the influence of a magnetic field with an intensity of from 1,000 to 2,000 C.G.S. units to the square centimetre the dog was in no way affected and was very lively when liberated. A photograph is given of a boy sitting in a cylinder two feet in diameter and seven inches deep, upon which a set of field magnets converged: he was in no way affected. The next experiments were made by introducing the head into the field of a very powerful electro-magnet (2,000 C. G. S. units). The current could be turned on or off the coils of the electro-magnet without the knowledge of the subject. No effect on consciousness, sensation, circulation, respiration, or tendon reflex could be perceived. The subject was quite unable to say when the current was turned on or off. The last series of experiments were made with an electro-magnet in which the current was reversed two hundred and eighty times a second. No effect whatever was perceived when the head was introduced within the magnetic field of this potent instrument. The authors conclude that the human organism is in no wise appreciably affected by the most powerful magnets known to modern science; that neither direct nor reversed magnetism exerts any perceptible influence upon the iron contained in the blood, upon the circulation, upon ciliary or protoplasmic movements, upon sensory or motor nerves, or upon the brain. The authors further observe that they find it difficult to understand why magnetism appears to have no influence whatever upon the human organism. The experiments of like kind recorded by Sir William Thomson and in Pflüger's Archiv gave equally negative results.
The complete exposure which the results of my experiments effected of the valuelessness of the so-called magnetic effects on the patients of Dr. Luys tallies with the negative results of Peterson and Kennelly, but it is perhaps too much to hope that it will put an end to the habitual exploitation of magnetic superstitions in this connection.
I come now to another series of phenomena which various eminent journalists have noted as illustrations of what the Times correspondent described as a perfectly genuine exhibition, and one which, as he said, in concluding his description of it, "proved that suggestions and impressions can be conveyed from one person to another by mere contact, and even across an intervening space." As he professes to be an impartial and guarded observer, I will quote his report, which, so far as some obvious occurrences are concerned, describes accurately what appears to go on in the extravagant folly which they have described so seriously, known as "l’envoûtement." This is a title taken from the practices of the middle ages, when the magicians of France and Italy exercised (as the magicians of the far East do now) their powers of sorcery upon a wax image, which, being duly endowed with mystical relationship to a human subject, was pinched, tortured, wasted, or destroyed, with corresponding results to the unhappy individual in whose effigy it was made. Here is the modern counterpart in the new mesmerism of which the modern historian gives the explanation which I have just quoted:
Thus his exhibition, which was "perfectly genuine," proved that suggestions and impressions can be "conveyed across space." The fact is that it did not prove the one any more than the other; and if the writer had instituted a few control experiments such as those which I forthwith carried out on the same subject, he would have saved himself from having been the medium of introducing thus impressively to the English reading public, through the pages of a great newspaper, a solemn description of what was easily proved to be a common imposture of a vulgar kind, by which the good faith and unquestionable sincerity and honor of the amateur of whom he speaks, and of Dr. Luys, had been surprised. There is no secret about the name of the amateur, for he has published much about the matter in great detail, with an abundance of highly technical and scientific nomenclature, and the performances had already been described, under his name, in the Pall Mall Gazette in this country, and in La Justice and L'Echo de Paris, and other journals in France. Colonel de Rochas d'Aiglun, who was the operator in this case in the ward of La Charity, gave a similar demonstration for my benefit at the invitation of Dr. Luys in the ward of La Charité in the presence of several witnesses. Subsequently he gave me and Dr. Sajous a like demonstration with fuller developments at the École Polytechnique, of which he is the administrateur; and I gave him a counter-demonstration in the rooms of Dr. Sajous before leaving Paris. To appreciate all the details of these performances one should read his book, entitled Les États profonds de l'Hypnose.
To the subject, Madame Vix, being plunged into "profound hypnosis," as it was alleged, was handed a glass of water. To this she transferred by contact her sensitiveness; the atmosphere surrounding her was also similarly charged with her sensibility; she herself becoming anaesthetic. When pinches were made in the air at given distances, which were supposed to represent points of contact and lines of cleavage of the atmospheric planes, such pinches at these given points were always felt by her and gave what is above described as "evident pain." I was shown drawings of these planes. When the water was removed to a distance and the glass was stroked or imaginary pinches made in the air just above the water, or the water itself was touched, she gave similar manifestations. This water, we were told, was charged with her vitality, and terrible consequences might ensue if the water were maltreated, either then or subsequently. Fantastic stories are related by Colonel de Rochas of the terrible effects following from the throwing away of this water and from people stepping on it, or from watering the flowers with it. In one case, where some one incautiously drank the water, the patient fell into a swoon which lasted for a fortnight. The only correct proceeding was to allow the subject herself to drink the water at the close of the séance, and thus enable her to protect herself from the sad effects which might follow any careless treatment of it. She herself was supposed to be insensitive while under operation, and her sensibilities were externalized and communicated to others either by "contact" directly to the operator, or in another hypnotized patient who was placed in contact with her, or, as the reporter solemnly describes, "across space." Whenever her magnetizer was touched she felt it in the same place.
Now, Madame Vix furnishes séances for a fixed consideration. On page 28 of his book on the profound stages of hypnosis. Colonel de Rochas refers to her as being a subject "well known in Paris," "very distinctly polarized," and "who passes with extreme regularity" through all the phases described at length in his first chapter, and, besides, "through some phases of an indeterminate character up to the point of syncope." She presented indeed, "when the left hand was placed on her head instead of the right, general paralysis so closely resembling death in appearance," that he did not dare to continue his experiments. She did the wax-image business, the state of sympathy by contact, and the rest, with such perfection before me under the manipulations of Colonel de Rochas at the Charité and at the Polytechnique School, that I asked her to favor me with some professional sittings, which she readily consented to do. She had an extensive repertoire, and on three separate occasions she went through her performances with great precision and completeness in the presence of a variety of witnesses, some of whose names I have already cited. I determined, however, to do everything en faux. On the first occasion I solemnly went through all the series of passes and strokings and head pressure with, the right hand, which Colonel de Rochas considers so essential, and we had all the correct successive stages of credulity (or credivité), of lethargy, catalepsy, again lethargy, somnambulism, lethargy, and rapport, and I then tested the statements of Colonel de Rochas. In the first place I found that in all the phases of the stage of rapport the subject perceived other objects and other persons quite as well as the individual, my humble self, who was supposed to be "the magnetizer." When any one pretended to be in contact with me, it had the same effect upon her as if he were really in contact, and it was evident that she guessed at what we were doing. Visions were as easily produced by pressure with the left hand as with the right, and, as to the seeing of colored odic flames from the magnet, she saw them "six yards long"; but, in fact, when proper tests were applied, she was found to be absolutely incapable of distinguishing a true magnet from a false one. She never knew whether the current was on or off my electro-magnet; and her whole performance in this respect, although she was not made aware of it, was so manifest and ludicrous an imposture that the bystanders had great difficulty in retaining their gravity. I tested now the phenomena to which the sham scientific terms of "externalization of sensation," "communication by contact," and "transference across space," are pretentiously applied. Behind a little pile of books on the writing table I concealed a tumbler containing some water. In duly solemn fashion I poured out from a carafe a little water into a similar glass and placed it in her hands. I then quickly substituted, without her perceiving it, the hidden glass of water, which she had neither seen nor touched. We had then a full-dress rehearsal of all the performances which I had previously witnessed. She showed the same "obvious" marks of pleasure or of pain when the water was caressed or pinched as were witnessed by the Times correspondent or the Pall Mall Gazette reporter. When one of the spectators was placed in imaginary contact with me, she became equally sensible of his actions; she writhed, she smiled, she was tickled, she was hurt, she was pleased, and she was "exhausted" in the orthodox manner. I now introduced the "wax figure." Skeptic as I was, but willing to be convinced, I had purchased two rather pretty little sailor dolls, twin brothers of the navy, at a neighboring toy shop. One of these she held until it was sufficiently "charged with her sensitiveness" by contact. I then rapidly substituted the twin doll from my pocket, and put away the sensitivized doll for future service. To make the performance quite regular, I cut off a minute lock of her hair and pretended to affix it to the doll. To this proceeding, which I had seen Colonel de Rochas gravely go through, she rather objected in her profound sleep, much to our quiet amusement. "C'est trop. c'est trop" she murmured, apparently thinking that I was taking too much hair for the money. I need not say that I did not affix it to the head of the doll, although I went through the motions of doing so. I have now, and shall preserve, the two little doll "witnesses" and the valuable tress of hair as mementos of this interesting performance. It may take its place by the side of the famous tress cut from the locks of the spirit form of Katie King. We then produced, with the aid of the untouched doll, just unrolled from the tissue paper of the toy shop, all the phenomena of the envoûtement of the sorcerers, of which so much has been heard lately and which have figured so largely in the pages of the great newspapers of England and France. She felt acutely when its imaginary lock was touched and pulled, whether by myself or by Dr. Sajous, by M. Cremière, or by any one else in the room. She greatly resented its being pricked; she felt all sorts of indescribable and generalized heats and pains when the doll was touched in places of which she could not well make out the locality owing to our backs being turned to her, and she was duly suffocated when we pretended to sit down on the doll. I am ashamed to say that the real doll was lying there all the time, cruelly stabbed by me to the heart with a stout pin, of which she was unconscious. Its maltreatment, which ought theoretically to have been fatal to her, produced no visible effect. These performances she went through three times. On the third occasion Colonel de Rochas was himself present, and assisted to put her into a complete state of hypnosis, for by this time I had become a little indifferent to the stages of preliminary mummery, and, as there were three subjects on hand at the final sitting, I rather abbreviated the proceeding. Colonel de Rochas was a little astonished when I produced my toy-shop doll, clothed in woolen trousers and jacket, for demonstrating the envoûtement; but he explained that he was not so surprised as he should have been at an earlier date, for he had only that week observed that in a classic author, where these magical proceedings were described, it was noted that woolen stuff was a very good conductor; and he quoted a passage from a Latin author—of which I am sorry that I do not retain the exact recollection—in evidence of the fact that the woolen dress might prove an effective medium; otherwise, he observed, he should have been doubtful of securing good results, as the doll was of composition and not of wax. It did prove a very good conductor. In the course of the experiment, however, he skeptically tweaked the nose of the little composition doll face (of the doll which had not been "sensitivized"), and we had all of us the satisfaction of observing that the material made no difference to Madame Vix, and that the result was as perfectly satisfactory as that somebody was pulling her nose, and resented it accordingly. At the close of this final séance, at which I had invited the presence of Colonel de Rochas, I explained to him the extent of the imposture, and showed him the false glass of water and the twin doll, the sham magnet, and the method which we had pursued in working the electro-magnet under a system of contradictory directions. I may venture to repeat that Colonel de Rochas acted in this, as throughout, as a gentleman of the most perfect good faith. He was duly and adequately impressed with this new order of facts. It is of course impossible to say what may be the conclusions at which he will ultimately arrive, but I understood him to incline to the vague belief that "it was all suggestion."—Nineteenth Century.
(To be continued.}
- Les États profonds de l'Hypnose. Par le Lieutenant-Colonel de Rochas d'Aiglun, Administrateur de l'École Polytechnique. Paris: Chamuel, 29 Rue de Trévise; and G. Carré, 58 Rue St. André-des-Arts, 1892. See also Les Limites de l'Inconnu, by Georges Vitoux. Chamuel, 29 Rue de Trévise, Paris, 1892; and Le Figaro, January 10, 1893, p. 2.