Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/February 1894/The Wandering Jew at the Salpetriere


THERE is always something of truth in even the most confused legends. Such is the case, for example, with the widespread legend of the Wandering Jew, which seems at first sight to have been wholly invented, but which can in reality be explained by examples originating in neuropathy. A very curious essay on this subject has been recently published by Dr. Henry Meige, from which we cite a few of the facts.

The beginning of the story of the eternal traveler Cartophilus, Ahasuerus (Fig. 1), or Isaac Laquedem—according to the country in which it is told is familiar. By the account of Matthew Paris, Cartophilus was the bearer of Pontius Pilate's pretorium. When Jesus Christ was passing through the gate, he struck him with his hand, and said: "Go on, Jesus, go faster; what are you stopping for?" Jesus, turning to him, replied, "I am going, but you shall tarry till I come again, and shall be always wandering." According to another version, Ahasuerus is a large man, with flowing hair, a Jew in nationality, a shoemaker by trade, "who was present at the death of Jesus Christ, and has continued in life ever since." Historians agree, whichever version is taken, in representing the Wandering Jew as marching hither and thither, visiting cities hastily, appearing now in Hamburg, now in Moscow, now in Paris, etc., but always with the same aspect. Painters are no less agreed in representing the portraits after a single model; whether executed at Bautzen or at Epinal, in 1600 (Fig. 2) or in 1800, the figure is always that of a typical Jew, wearing a large cloak, with curled beard and hair, downcast eye (Fig. 3), sadly contracted brow, etc.; with differences of the secondary order, according to the locality or the imagination of the designer. It is evident that historians and engravers have not conspired, from one end of Europe to the other, to talk about the Wandering Jew, or represent him. He has really existed, and those who talk of him do so in good faith. How then can we make the uniformity PSM V44 D540 Ahasuerus 1648.jpgFig. 1.—Ahasuerus. Facsimile of an old German engraving of 1618. (After Champfleury.) of the descriptions, that everlasting life and endless wandering, agree with the data of science? M. Meige assumes that there have been many wandering Jews, who have been taken for one and the same person, because they usually have the same general appearance and the same manner. These persons have been neuropathic Jews, possessed by an irresistible inclination to travel. Furthermore, such invalids still exist, and have been often seen at the Salpêtrière, attracted thither by the world-wide reputation of M. Charcot. When they are observed, even superficially, and are made to relate their history, one might really believe he had in his actual presence the hero of the well-known complaint:

"There is nothing on the earth
More cruelly piteous
Than the unceasing misery
Of the poor Wandering Jew!"

From M. Meige's collection of cases let us cite that of Moser B——, called Moses, aged thirty-eight years, a Polish Jew, born at Warsaw (Fig. 4). While still a child, he was drafted by the Russian military authorities and put into a special school, where PSM V44 D541 The wandering jew.jpgFig. 2.—The Wandering Jew, from the oldest known engraving. (Munich Library.) (Reproduced by Champfleury.) he received a certain kind of instruction. Urged by his superiors to renounce the Jewish religion, he struggled long before deciding to deny the faith of his fathers; feeling that he was in danger of yielding, he ran away and left Russia. He was then fifteen or sixteen years old, and had no trade. From that time on he wandered from one country to another, without any fixed purpose. He married in BudaPesth, and lived there for some time, and had three children there. The sojourn was longer than suited his disposition, and he was continually troubled with the PSM V44 D541 Wandering jew of avignon 1784.jpgFig. 3.—True Portrait of the Wandering Jew as he was seen passing through Avignon April 22, 1784. (Sketch taken at the Bibliothèque Nationale.) desire to travel. He took his family to Jerusalem, and left them there while he traveled over the world. Every five years he returned from his pilgrimage, visited his family for a few days, and then turned toward new countries. The motive of these perpetual journeys from place to place, he said, "was to find a remedy for a malady from which I have suffered five years old, which gives me no truce or rest, and concerning which I have consulted all the specialists in the world." He traveled in this way through Poland, Germany, Austria, Belgium, England, and other countries.

At last the fame of the school of the Salpêtrière drew Moses to Paris during the year 1892. He made his appearance in a shabby costume, wearing a long black frock-coat, worn and patched. His mien was that of a Polish Jew. The thin face, with hollow features, was buried in a full, untrimmed beard, curling at the sides; the thick hair fell over his ears and upon the nape of his neck in greasy ringlets; his high, round forehead was crossed by deep wrinkles; his heavy eyebrows came together over the nose with two very marked folds, which gave the physiognomy an expression of pain and attention; his long, hooked nose hung over thick lips; a deep wrinkle separated it from his cheeks, and PSM V44 D542 Moses the israelite neuropathic wanderer.jpgFig. 4.—Moser B——, or Moses, an Israelite, Neuropathic Wanderer. was so mobile that one never knew whether he was going to laugh or cry. He was acquainted with English, Turkish, Russian, and Hebrew, but generally spoke German. When he was admitted into M. Charcot's office, he began a long story of his troubles, and drew out a detailed list of the symptoms he felt, and began to read it. At times he would describe his sufferings with something like enthusiasm; then he would suddenly break out into an affecting lamentation over them. When a course of treatment was suggested to him, he assumed an air of attention; then, gradually, a smile would light up his face, and he would shake his head with a skeptical air, saying that he had tried all that with no success. Moses stayed a year in Paris, receiving electrical treatment; then, finding that of not much effect, he went away in search of a cure that could not be found. Gottlieb M—— (Fig. 5), forty-two years old, a native of a village near Wilna, like Moses, began to travel very early, and has been a frequent visitor to the hospitals. Never finding any remedy PSM V44 D543 Gottlieb m neuropathic wondering israelite.jpgFig. 8.—Gottlieb M——, an Israelite, Neuropathic Wanderer. for his ills, he passed from Russia into Germany, then into Austria, England, and France.

The history of other sufferers, in all essential features, is very like these.

If we compare the wandering neuropaths with one another and with the Wandering Jew of the legend, we find a remarkable uniformity among them. In the first place, we are struck with the common origin of the sufferers, who all seem to have come from the same source, which is situated on the borders of Germany, Poland, and Austria.

All, while polyglots, speak German by preference. The Wandering Jew has the same characteristics. "Wherever he went," says a legend of 1618, "he spoke the language of the country." On the other hand, the persons who thus become wanderers, usually without apparent cause, are always Jews; they find in themselves the impulse that urges them to travel; most frequently it is the necessity of consulting a new doctor, of trying a new remedy. On the road, they live on alms; on the other hand, profiting by the solidarity which prevails between Israelites, they find in every city credit houses where they can enjoy a modest revenue that makes them eternally rich, while it leaves them eternally poor; and thereby is explained in a remarkable manner that strophe in the complaint which awakens wonder at first:

"I have five sous in my purse,
In that is all my means,
And everywhere and always
I have enough."

Like the Wandering Jew, again, these neuropathic wanderers are shabbily dressed in a great cloak or a long robe reaching nearly down to the ground. They are nearly always men thirty or forty years old, but whom we might, from the wrinkles on their faces, suppose to be double that age. Their beards are long and uncombed. The beard of the Wandering Jew is, perhaps, the most characteristic trait of his figure. The primitive painters, as our figures show, represented it with great sincerity:

"Never was seen
A man so bearded."

The beards seen in the most ancient engravings are as exactly as possible like those of the sufferers observed by M. Meige; they are curled in all their length or are rolled in ringlets on the sides, where they mingle with the hair, also curled.

The faces of all the neuropaths express suffering, lassitude, and despair; a meager countenance, salient cheek-bones, hollow cheeks, and wrinkled foreheads appear in all the sufferers and all the portraits.

From the pathological point of view wandering neuropaths suffer chiefly from nervous exhaustion—neurasthenia—of which they present all the physical and psychical marks. Hysteria may sometimes be added. The Wandering Jew seems likewise never to have had a firm nervous equilibrium, for every time he had occasion to speak to any one he complained of being persecuted.

Thus, after all that we have just said, the Wandering Jew still exists, and under the same form he assumed in past centuries. His figure, his costume, his manners have preserved the same characteristics through the ages. The Wandering Jew of the legend and the Wandering Jew of the clinics are one and the same type: a wandering neuropath, a perpetual pilgrim, appearing to-day, vanishing to-morrow, and followed soon by another who resembles him in all points; a third will come like his predecessors, and then a fourth, and so on. Cartophilus, Ahasuerus, Isaac Laquedem, Moser B——, etc., are children of nervous pathology. Their resemblances result from attacks of the same malady, and have an identical origin.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.

A curious phenomenon is sometimes observed near Wetter Lake in Sweden, in the standing still of the Motala River. The flow of water ceases and the bed of the river is dried up, while the water is held back in the lake. It was formerly regarded as a miracle and portent. It is attributed by Block to a sudden sharp frost, which freezes the river to the bottom at a shallow place without allowing time for the formation of mere surface ice. An east wind and the growth of reeds near the outflow of the lake may also contribute to the stoppage.