Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/April 1900/A Survival of Medieval Credulity II


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By Professor E. P. EVANS.


IN the seventeenth year of her age Miss Diana Vaughan joined the Freemasons, entering the lodge ("triangle") of "The Eleven Seven," at Louisville, and passing rapidly through the different grades until the "Elect Palladistic Knighthood" was conferred upon her after she had given satisfactory proofs of her Luciferian orthodoxy. One thing she refused to do—namely, to stab the host with a dagger—since this act implied a recognition of the sacramental character of the Eucharist. She maintained that there would be no sense in piercing the consecrated wafer unless it was believed to be the real body of Christ; but as she rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation as a childish superstition, she was unwilling to make a fool of herself by assaulting a piece of ordinary bread with a show of wrath. She would not hesitate to commit sacrilege, but did object to being silly. This scruple, or rather this lively sense of the ridiculous, rendered her unpopular with the Freemasons, inasmuch as it marred the performance of their most important and impressive Satanic ceremony, and thus gave her rival, Sophia Walder, an advantage, which she was quick to improve.

We need not follow the career of Sophia Walder, known to the infernals as Sophia Sapho. She is said to have been born in Strasburg, September 29, 1863, as the supposititious daughter of a Protestant parson, Phiiias Walder, and a Rosicrucian dame, Ida Jacobsen, with whom the clergyman lived after having murdered his wife in Copenhagen. Her real father, however, was the devil Bitru, who declared her to be the predestined great-grandmother of antichrist. In 1896, while in Jerusalem, she gave birth to a daughter, the grandmother of antichrist; this child was also of demoniac paternity. Owing to her uncompromising Luciferianism, she was a favorite of the Freemasons, and excited the jealousy of Diana Vaughan, who tells with zest of the practical jokes played on her. Thus, at a banquet of the Freemasons, somebody put a few drops of Lourdes water in her glass of lemonade, which caused terrible pain and threw her into spasms, from which she finally found relief by vomiting fire. This incident is cited by a Catholic writer. Dr. Michael Germanus,[1] in his Secrets of Hell (Geheimnisse der Hölle), as conclusive proof that "Sophia was possessed."

Bitru's proclamation of Sophia Sapho as the prospective great-grandmother of the incarnate antichrist is given in full. It was dictated in Latin by Bitru at a meeting of Freemasons in Italy, and written down by Luigi Revello, and bears the devil's signature, composed of Satanic signs and symbols, darts, sword, cords, lightning, bugle-horn, trident, and crowing cock.

This climax of absurdity ought to have served to expose the trickery and trumpery of the whole affair, but it produced the very opposite effect. Dr. Germanus refers to "Bitru's sign-manual as highly interesting," and characterizes "the documentary evidence as thoroughly convincing"; those who refuse to recognize the truth in the face of such positive proof he accuses of imitating the ostrich and willfully shutting their eyes to the light.[2]

The salvation of Diana Vaughan is described as due to her intense admiration for Joan of Arc, a feeling which was ardently fostered by the priests with whom she chanced to come in contact. One day, as she was attended by Asmodeus, Astaroth, Beelzebub, and Moloch, incarnate in "the counterfeit presentment" of fine gentlemen, she obeyed a sudden and irresistible impulse to invoke the Maid of Orleans, when these devils were immediately stripped of their disguise, and stood before her in their true character as imps of hell, with hoofs and horns, and emitted an intolerable stench. No sooner did they perceive that they were unmasked than they vanished with a fearful howl. This miracle made a deep impression upon her, and led to her conversion. She took refuge in a Parisian cloister, and, after severe penance and proper instruction, was received into the bosom of the Catholic Church. During this period of penitential seclusion she wrote her Memoirs, which produced an immense sensation in clerical circles, and were pronounced by a high ecclesiastical dignitary to be "worth more than their weight in gold."

It must be confessed that in weaving this tissue of fabrications Taxil showed consummate skill as a romancer and a profound knowledge of the possibilities of human credulity. He made a happy hit in calling the heroine of his Stygian story Diana, since in the annals of witchcraft the pagan goddess of the chase is wont to frequent the nocturnal assemblies of demons, and in mediæval theology the phrase "congressus Sabathi cum Diana" was a common expression for intercourse with Satan. Another masterly stroke was to represent her deliverance from the snares of evil spirits and the hallucinations of Luciferianism as a miracle of grace wrought through the mediation of Joan of Arc, thus furnishing an argument in favor of the canonization of the Maid of Orleans, which the cleverest advocatus diaboli would be unable to answer. At this time Taxil prepared also a Catholic prayer book entitled Eucharistic Novena, published under the name of Diana Vaughan, and containing forms of supplication against unbelief, worldly indifference and lukewarmness, hardness of heart, blasphemy, and unchastity. The covert sarcasm which pervades the entire manual of devotion comes out most clearly in the section on the violation of the seventh commandment. A copy of the work, which had been approved by the Archbishop of Genoa, was sent to Cardinal Parocchi, with a letter signed "Your Eminence's most devoted servant in Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Diana Vaughan," and five hundred francs, of which two hundred and fifty were to be used for organizing an international antimasonic congress, and the rest to be given as Peter's pence to the Pope. The cardinal replied with great cordiality to his "dear daughter in our Lord," called her conversion "one of the most glorious triumphs of grace," and added, "I am reading at this very moment your Memoirs with burning interest." He gave her his blessing, and conve-yed "the thanks and special benediction of his Holiness." Numerous letters of a like character were received from the Vatican. On May 27, 1896, the General Secretary of the Apostolic See, Verzichi, wrote that "his Holiness had read her Eucharistic Novena with extreme pleasure"; two months later the Pope's private secretary, Vincenzo Sardi, thanked her in the name of Leo XIII for her exposure of Crispi, and bade her "continue to write and to unmask the godless sect," and the Civillà Cattolica, the official organ of the papacy, praised her "inexhaustibleness in precious revelations, which are unparalleled for their accuracy and usefulness. Freemasonry is confounded, and seeks to evade the blows of the valiant championess by denying her existence, and treating her as a myth. It is a pitiable shift, but Freemasonry can find no better refuge." "Your pen and your piety," wrote Monsignore Villard, October 15, 1896, "are predestined to demolish the foes of mankind. The good works of the saints have always met with opposition, and it is no wonder, therefore, that yours should be combated."

Naturally, there was intense curiosity to see this new convert and powerful defender of the faith. This inquisitiveness was easily allayed at first by the plea that the cloister to which she had retired must be kept secret, in order that she might be safe from assassination by the Freemasons. Meanwhile the medium of correspondence was a bright American girl, employed as copyist in a Parisian typewriting establishment, who wrote all the letters at Taxil's dictation, and received a monthly salary of one hundred and fifty francs for her services. After a time he deemed it politic to introduce her privately to select circles of Catholics, who were thereby enabled to testify to her existence, since they had seen and conversed with her.* The following incident may be mentioned to illustrate the adroitness with which she played her part: M. Pierre Lautier states that he once breakfasted with her, and offered to pour a little Chartreuse into her coffee, but she refused it with a singular sign of aversion, and took a few drops of old cognac instead. As an ex-Luciferian, she instinctively shrank from a drink made in a cloister, or what she called "an Adonaïc liquor." That she should have thought of such a feint on the spur of the moment indicates that she had not only made a thorough study of her rôle, but also had been endowed by Nature with genuine theatrical talent. A full account of the solemn sham, published in the Revue Mensuelle, served to strengthen the faith of waverers in the reality of Diana Vaughan, and furnished an admirable opportunity for discoursing on the difficulty of throwing off Satanic influences; for here was a young lady who, although she had received absolution and thus become a child of grace, could not forget the terrible effect of a few drops of Lourdes water on one of her former demonolatrous associates, and recoiled with horror from a glass of Chartreuse. Taxil and his confederates confess that they often "doubled up with laughter" over the success of their imposture, and indulged in jokes about it in their writings. Thus Dr. Bataille, in the first volume of The Devil in the Nineteenth Century, remarks, as a peculiarity of Diana Vaughan, that she "is very fond of wearing male attire," but no allusions of this kind, however pointed, seemed to have excited any suspicion of guile in minds predisposed to credulity by Nature and by education.

Taxil's long series of mystifications, extending over a dozen years, culminated in the convocation of an antimasonic congress at Trent, on September 26, 1896, to the president of which Leo XIII addressed an apostolical brief with his benediction, and expressed the hope that the assembled representatives of the Church would not rest until the "detestable sect" had been unmasked and the evil utterly eradicated. A "central executive committee," consisting of a score of Italian papists, issued a circular summoning all Catholics to join "the new crusade," and declaring that the Vatican had now raised a war-cry against Freemasonry, "the den of Satan," as it did eight centuries ago against Islam. Taxil was received with ovations, and did not hesitate to poke fun at the venerable prelates to their very faces. With an assumption of modesty he reproved them for what might be misplaced enthusiasm. "One can never be sure," he said, "of a converted Freemason, but must always fear lest he may return to his former friends. Not until the convert is dead can one be wholly free from this anxiety. I am well aware that this general principle applies also to myself." But even this daring dash of irony, hardly hidden under the gauzy disguise of self-distrust, did not cool the ardor of his admirers, who continued to greet the harlequin with "Evviva Taxil!" His photograph hung among the pictures of the saints, and the mere mention of his name called forth loud applause, whereupon the prince of mountebanks rose and bowed. A few Germans had the good sense and courage to protest against these demonstrations, and to doubt the existence of Diana Vaughan and the sincerity of Taxil, whose sole object, as Dr. Gratzfeld asserted, was to "lay a snare for Catholics and anti-Freemasons, and scoff at them when they are caught in it." This skepticism created intense excitement, and was severely rebuked by an Italian priest and a Parisian prebendary, who averred that they knew Diana Vaughan personally, and could vouch for her saintliness. A French monk used such violent language in his reply to Dr. Gratzfeld that the presiding officer, although indorsing his views, felt constrained to call him to order. "Any doubt of Diana Vaughan's existence or of the genuineness of her revelations," exclaimed the Abbé de Bessonies, "is a sin against the antimasonic cause!" The Spanish delegates introduced a resolution demanding that all Freemasons should be legally incapacitated to hold any civil office or military command; the resolution was adopted, with the amendment that "wherever it may be feasible" such laws should be enacted and executed. The manner in which Taxil met the allegations of his opponents is highly characteristic." A priest of the Holy Sacrament, Father Delaporte, had often declared that he would gladly give his life for the conversion of Diana Vaughan. She attended mass in the cloister for the first time on Corpus Christi, and left her sacred retreat on the following Saturday. On the very day of her departure Father Delaporte died. And yet there are persons who doubt the existence of Miss Vaughan!" The burst of applause elicited by this irrefragable argument proved his accurate appreciation of the logical powers of his auditors, whose minds had been fed on the nutriment which may be wholesome as "milk for babes," but, when persistently administered to adults, converts them into intellectual milksops.

Although the congress was attended by many of the chief dignitaries of the papal hierarchy, and the Romish Patriarch of Constantinople sat there in state with a golden crown on his head, Taxil was its ruling spirit. On his motion, it was resolved to establish antimasonic associations in every land under the auspices of the bishops and the direction of national committees, and a commission was appointed to investigate the Diana Vaughan affair. A few months later, on January 22, 1897, this commission made an indecisive and utterly nugatory report, to the effect that "no thoroughly convincing evidence had been furnished for or against the existence and conversion of Diana Vaughan and the authenticity of the writings attributed to her." This evasion of the issue, however, did not shake the confidence of the ultramontane press, nor prevent its positive affirmation of the points which the commission had discreetly left in doubt. As a reward for this fanatical zeal and steadfast credulity, the editor of The Pelican received a special apostolical benediction, and was thus encouraged to "resist the raging of Satan." "Stand firm!" he exclaimed. "The Holy Father is with us, and who is over him?"

With the Congress of Trent the mystification which Taxil had been playing off on papacy for so many years had reached the acme of success, and nothing now remained but to wind up the plot with a drastic denouement. Accordingly, Diana Vaughan issued an invitation to a conference to be held on April 19, 1897, in the great hall of the Geographical Society of Paris. It was also stated that other conferences would be held in the principal cities of France, Italy, England, and the United States. The programme for the evening was quite elaborate, beginning with a lottery for an American typewriter and ending with a series of fifty-four stereopticon pictures representing, among other fantastic scenes, Sophia Walder and her serpents, events in the life of Diana Vaughan, the apparition of the devil Bitru in Rome, Eden and Eve with the fatal apple, sacrilegious stabbing of the host on a Satanic altar in a Masonic lodge at Berlin, and finally Leo XIII with the encyclical letter Humanum genus as a flaming sword in his hand, the archangel Michael on his right and the apocalyptic St. John on his left treading the triple-headed dragon of Freemasonry under foot. The audience consisted chiefly of priests, with a few Protestant clergymen and Freemasons, and an unusually large number of newspaper reporters. The typewriter was won by Ali Kemal, correspondent of the Constantinople journal Ikdam, who only regretted that it did not write Turkish. Taxil then appeared on the platform, and began his address with the words: "Reverend sirs, ladies, and gentlemen! You wish to see Diana Vaughan. Look at me! I myself am that lady!" After this startling exordium, he proceeded to relate how from his youth up he had always had an irresistible inclination to play practical jokes. Once he frightened the inhabitants of Marseilles by discovering a shoal of sharks in the harbor, and again he set the archæologists all agog by announcing the existence of a city, built on piles, at the bottom of Lake Leman. But these were "childish things" compared with the manner in which he had humbugged the Catholic clergy for nearly a dozen years. We need not report the details of his discourse; it is sufficient to say that he gave a full account of the deep-laid plot from its first conception to its final consummation at the Congress of Trent. Each new disclosure called forth cries of "Liar!" "Scoundrel!" "Vilifier!" "Villain!" and similar epithets, but nothing could disturb the cynical composure of the speaker. As a precautionary measure, all persons had been required to give up their canes and umbrellas at the entrance, otherwise the angry words would have been emphasized by blows. The shameless impostor coolly referred to the numerous presents received, among which was an Emmenthaler cheese, sent by the Marquis de Morès, with pious sayings carved in the rind. "It was an excellent cheese," he added, "and served to strengthen me in my fight against Freemasonry." The money remitted to Diana Vaughan in ten years amounted to more than half a million francs, and flowed into the pockets of Taxil and his confederates. He expressed his thanks to the clergy for their aid in carrying out his scheme, and attributed their co-operation chiefly to ignorance and imbecility, but partly also to dishonesty, declaring that among the many dupes there were not a few knaves. As he left the hall he was threatened with violence, and took refuge in a neighboring café, under the protection of the police. No one thought any longer of the pictures which were to form such a novel and attractive feature of the entertainment; indeed, this forgetfulness constituted an important although unprinted part of the programme in the minds of those who arranged it.

How difficult it is for constitutionally credulous persons, in whom this disposition has been nurtured by education, to take a rational view of things when a strong appeal is made to their prejudices, is evident from a statement published in the Osservatore Cattolico of Milan, in May, 1897, that Leo Taxil was held in durance vile by the Freemasons, one of whom personated him on the occasion just described. Another Catholic writer asserted that Diana Vaughan did not appear at the conference because Taxil had been bribed by the Freemasons to have her shut up in a lunatic asylum.

The history of Taxil's imposture has been circumstantially narrated in a book entitled Leo XIII und der Satanskult, by Dr. J. Ricks (Berlin: Hermann Walther, 1897, pp. xiv-301; price, three marks). The author, a doctor of divinity and pastor of a Lutheran church at Olvenstadt, near Magdeburg, has collected his materials from authentic sources and treated the whole subject with remarkable thoroughness and impartiality. His work is a valuable contribution to the voluminous annals of religious superstition and credulity.

The ease with which Taxil succeeded in duping so many prominent representatives of the papal hierarchy naturally disturbed the equanimity of the most intelligent Catholics, especially in Germany, and caused them to sound a note of alarm. How is it possible, they asked themselves, for a large body of educated men, claiming to be the spiritual guides of the people, to become the victims of so plump an imposition? Is it not due to radical defects in the development and discipline of the intellectual faculties? Nearly a century ago Madame de Staël remarked that "since the Reformation the Protestant universities stand unquestionably higher than the Catholic, and the whole literary fame of Germany emanates from these institutions"; and this opinion has been quoted and indorsed by the unimpeachable authority of an eminent Catholic theologian, the late Professor Döllinger.[3] Recently another Catholic, Dr. Hermann Schell, Professor of Apologetics in the University of Würzburg, has called attention to the latest statistics of religious denominations in Germany, showing the inferiority of Catholics, as indicated by their comparative lack of interest in higher education and the smaller percentage of them in the learned professions.[4] In this connection he refers to Taxil's successful exposure of the intellectual deficiencies, which render the hierophants of Roman Catholicism incapable of resisting the most palpable delusions of superstition. His two "tracts for the times," as they might fitly be termed, Der Katholicismus als Princip des Fortschritts and Die neue Zeit und der alte Glaube, maintain that Catholicism should be progressive, and that the old faith can remain a living force in each new era only by adapting itself to every real advance of mankind in knowledge and thus becoming reanimated by the spirit of the age. Professor Schell expresses his sympathy with the movement in favor of greater freedom of thought and independence of research, known as "Americanism" in the Catholic Church, and regards its extension to the Old World as a vital necessity.[5]

It is creditable to the Catholic prelates in the United States that they were not among the foolish birds caught with the lime laid by Leo Taxil. Indeed, the Bishop of Charleston went to Rome for the express purpose of warning Leo XIII against this trickster, but was sharply reprehended and admonished to be silent. A similar rebuke was given to the Apostolic Vicar of Gibraltar for denying the existence there of Tubal-Cain's subterranean laboratory for manufacturing microbes.

The Breviarium Romanum, the daily use of which, as a manual of devotion and edification, is enjoined by the Pope on the clergy, is full of legends which are recorded as historical facts, and quite equal in absurdity to Taxil's most extravagant and fantastic inventions. The tales there told of the miracles wrought by saints, their communion with angels, and their combats with devils may have easily suggested many incidents narrated in The Devil in the Nineteenth Century and the Memoirs of Diana Vaughan. It is no wonder that minds accustomed to accept the marvels of hagiology as actual events should be readily deceived by a clever caricature of them, especially when appealing to a prejudice so absurd and yet so strong as that entertained by the papacy against Freemasonry. It would seem from many indications that the Romish Church, as an ecclesiastical organization, bears about the same relation to contemporary culture that Roman paganism did to the best thought of the period when Lucian wrote his sprightly dialogues and Lucretius his genial and comprehensive didactic poem De Rerum Natura. Is it doomed to the same fate, or has it, as Professor Schell and Dr. Müller assert, a saving, recuperative power?

Of the geological age of the building stones used in the United States, George P. Merrill observes, in his report to the Maryland Geological Survey, that few stones are used to any extent that are of later date than the Triassic, and few, if any, of our marbles are younger than the Silurian, while nearly all our granites, as now quarried, belong at least to Palæozoic or Archæan times. Stones of later age than Triassic are, so far as relates to the eastern United States, so friable or so poor in color as to have little value.
  1. Michael Germanus (a Latinization of "Der deutsche Michel" the personification of the German nation, analogous to the English "John Bull" and the American "Brother Jonathan") is the pseudonym of a priest, Parson Künzle, of Feldkirch, in the Tyrolese Voralberg.
  2. A photographic reproduction of this document is given in Diana Vaughan's biography of the Italian stateman Crispi, which contains numerous illustrations and portraits of Crispi, Mazzini, Leniini, Garibaldi, Giordano Bruno, and other "Palladists," or Masonic worshipers of Satan. The original French title of the book is "Le 33º ∴ Crispi. Un Palladiste Homme d'État démasqué. Biographie documentée du Héros depuis sa Naissance jusqu' à sa deuxième Mort. Par Miss Diana Vaughan."
  3. Cf. Ignaz von Döllinger. Sein Leben auf Grund seines schriftlichen Nachlasses dargestellt von J. Friedrich. München: Beck, 1899, vol. i, p. 77.
  4. In confirmation of this statement we may cite the statistical tables of Dr. Von Mayr for 1896, giving the number in every ten thousand of the different denominations attending the gymnasia or classical schools, the scientific schools with Latin, and the scientific schools without Latin:
    Protestants 27.7 13.2 12.5
    Catholics 21.4 3.8 6.7
    Dissidents 17.7 13.2 18.7
    Jews 173.7 65.8 92.7

    The Catholic students in the gymnasia are mostly candidates for the priesthood. "Dissidents" are members of free religious associations. A noteworthy feature is the large proportion of Jews, and curiously enough this laudable characteristic is made by anti-Semitic agitators a ground of crimination and used to prejudice the public mind. Not long since a demagogue of that ilk in Berlin charged the Jews with putting forth every effort for the education of their sons, in order that they might more effectually compete with Christians; "therefore down with the Jews!"

  5. Since these lines were written Professor Schell has been disciplined and threatened with excommunication by the See of Rome. We regret to be obliged to add that he did not have the courage to maintain his opinions, but made a public recantation of them. The cause of progress in the Catholic Church has now found a new and apparently more fearless advocate in a Bavarian priest, Dr. Müller, of Munich, whose pamphlet on Reformkatholizismus can hardly escape the interdict of the papal hierarchy.