The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 4/An Evening with the Telegraph Wires

The Atlantic Monthly
An Evening with the Telegraph Wires


My cousin Moses has made the discovery that he is a powerful magnetizer.

Like many others who have newly come into possession of a small tract in those mysterious, outlying, unexplored wildernesses of Nature, which we call by so many names, but which as yet refuse to be defined or classed, he has been naturally eager to commence operations, and exploit and farm it a little. He is making experiments on a narrow border of his wild lands. He is a man of will and of strong physique, with an inquiring and scientific turn of mind, which inclines him chiefly to metaphysical studies. It is not to be wondered at, that, having lately discovered that he possesses the mesmeric gift, he should not sufficiently discriminate as to its application. Later he will see that it is an agent not to be tampered with, and never to be used on healthy subjects, but applied only to invalids. To-day he is like a newly-armed knight-errant, bounding off on his steed at sunrise, in search of adventures.

One afternoon, not long since, he was telling me of his extraordinary successes with somnambulists and somnoparlists,—of old ladies cured of nervous headaches and face-twitches, and of young ones put to sleep at a distance from the magnetizer, dropping into a trance suddenly as a bird struck by a gun-shot, simply by an act of his volition,—of water turned into wine, and wine into brandy, to the somnambulic taste,—and so on, till we got wandering into crooked by-paths of physics and metaphysics, that seemed to lead us nowhere in particular,—when I said, "Come, Cousin Moses, suppose you try it on me, by way of experiment. But I have my doubts if you'll ever put me to sleep."

My cousin yielded to my request with alacrity;—every subject for mesmerism was for him legitimate;—and I relinquished myself to his passes with the docility of a man about to be shaved.

The passes from the head downward were kept up perseveringly for half an hour, without my experiencing any change, or manifesting the least symptom of drowsiness. At last the charm began to work. I began to be conscious of a singular trickling or creeping sensation following the motion of his passes down my arms. My respiration grew short. I experienced, however, no tendency to sleep, and my mind was perfectly calm and unexcited. My cousin was satisfied with his experiment so far, but we both concluded it had better end here. So he made the reverse passes, in order to undo the knot he was beginning to tie in my nerves. He did not, however, entirely succeed in untying it. I was a healthy subject, and the magnetism continued to affect my nerves, in spite of the untangling passes.

Soon after, I rose and took my leave. I was strangely excited, but it was a purely physical, and not a mental excitement. Thinking that a walk would quiet me, I went through street after street, until I reached the outskirts of the city. It was a mild September evening. The fine weather and the sight of the trees and fields tempted me to continue my walk. It was near sunset, and I strolled on and on, watching the purple gray and ruddy gold of the clouds, until I had got fairly into the country.

As I rambled on, I was suddenly seized with a fancy to climb a tree which stood by the roadside, and rest myself in a convenient notch which I observed between two of the limbs. I was soon seated in among the branches, with a canopy of leaves around and over me,—feeling, in my still nervous condition, as I leaned my back against the mossy bark, like a magnified tree-toad in clothes. The air was balmy and fragrant, and against the amber of the western sky rose and fell numberless little clouds of insects. The birds were chirping and fluttering about me, and made their arrangements for their night's lodging, in manifest dread of the clothed tree-toad who had invaded their leafy premises.

The peculiar nervousness which had taken possession of me was now passing off, to be replaced by a species of mental exaltation. I was becoming conscious of something approaching semi-clairvoyance, and yet not in the ordinary form. Sensation, emotion, thought were intensified. The landscape around me was dotted with farm-houses, pillowed in soft, dark clumps of trees. One by one, the lights began to appear at the windows,—soft rising stars of home-joys. The glorious September sunset was fading, but still resplendent in the west. The landscape was pervaded with a deeper repose, the glowing clouds with a diviner splendor than that which filled the eye. Then thronging memories awoke. My remembrances of all my past life in the crowded cities of America and Europe rose vividly before me. In the long strata of solid gray clouds, where the sun had gone down, leaving only a few vapory gold-fishes swimming in the clear spaces above, I could fancy I saw the lonely Roman Campagna and the wondrous dome of St. Peter's, as when first beheld on the horizon ten years ago. Then, as from the slopes of San Miniato at sunset, gray, red-tiled Florence, with its Boboli gardens, full of nightingales, its old towers and cathedrals, and its soaring Giotto Campanile. Then Genoa, with its terraces and marble palaces, and that huge statue of André Doria. Then Naples, gleaming white in the eye of day over her pellucid depths of sea. The golden days of Italy floated by me. Then came the memories, glad or sad, of days that had passed in my own native land,--in the very city that lay behind me,—the intimate communings with dear friends,—the musical and the merry nights,—the trials, anxieties, sorrows——

But all this is very egotistical and unnecessary. I merely meant to say that I was in a peculiar, almost abnormal state of mind, that evening. The spirit had, as it were, been drawn outwards, and perhaps slightly dislocated, by those mesmeric passes of my cousin, and I had not succeeded as yet in adjusting it quite satisfactorily in its old bodily grooves and sockets. The condition I was in was not as pleasant as I could have wished; for I was as alive to painful remembrances and imaginations, as to pleasant ones. I seemed to myself like a revolving lantern of a light-house,—now dark, now glowing with a fiery radiance.

I asked myself, Is it that I have been blind and deaf and dull all my life, and am just waking into real existence? or am I developing into a medium,—Heaven forbid!—and the spirits pushing at some unguarded portal of the nervous system, and striving to take possession? Shall I hear raps and knockings when I return to my solitary chamber, and sit a powerless beholder of damaged furniture, which the spirits will never have the conscience to promise payment for, when my landlady's bill comes in? (By the way, have the spirits ever behaved like gentlemen in this respect, and settled up fair and square for the breakages they have indulged in by way of exemplifying the doctrine of a future state?)

As I soliloquized thus, I was attracted by a low vibrating note among the leaves. Looking through them, I saw, for the first time, that two or three telegraph-wires, which I had observed skirting the road, ran directly through the tree in which I was seated. It was a strange sort of sound, that came in hurried jerks, as it were, accompanied with a corresponding jerk of the wire.

A gigantic fancy flashed across me:—This State of New York is a great guitar; yonder, at Albany, are the legislative pegs and screws; down there in Manhattan Island is the great sounding-board; these iron wires are the strings! The spirits are singing, perhaps, with their heads up there in the sweet heavens and the rosy clouds,—and this vibration of the wires is a sort of loose jangling accompaniment of their unpractised hands on earth. The voice is always above the strings.—This I thought in my semi-mesmeric condition, perhaps. I soon laughed at my Brobdignagian nonsense, and said,—There is a telegraphic despatch passing. Now if I could only find out what it is!—that would be something new in science,—a discovery worth knowing,—to be able to hear or feel the purport of a telegraphic message, simply by touching the wire along which it runs!

So, regardless of any electric shock I might receive, I thrust out my hand through the leaves of the tree, and boldly grasped the wire. The jerks instantly were experienced in my elbow, and it was not long before certain short sentences were conveyed, magnetically, to my brain. In my amazement at the discovery, I almost dropped out of the tree. However, I kept firm hold of the wire, and my sensorium made me aware of something passing like this:—"Market active. Fair demand for exchange. Transactions from five to ten thousand shares. Aristides railroad-stock scarce. Rates of freight to Liverpool firm. Yours respectfully, Grabber and Holdham."

Upon my word, said I, this is rather dry!—only a merchant! I expected something better than this, to commence with.

The wire being now quiet, I fell into a musing upon the singular discovery I had made,—and whether I should get anything from the public or the government for revealing it. And then my thoughts wandered across the Atlantic, and I remembered those long rows of telegraphic wires in France, ruled along the tops of high barrier-walls, and looking against the sky like immense music-lines,—and those queer inverted-coffee-cup-like supports for the wires, on the tall posts. Then I thought of music and coffee at the Jardin Mabille. Then my fancy wandered down the Champs Elysées to those multitudinous spider-web wires that radiate from the palace of the Tuileries, where the Imperial spider sits plotting and weaving his meshes around the liberties of France. Then I thought, What a thing this discovery of mine would be for political conspirators,—to reverse the whispering-gallery of Dionysius, and, instead of the tyrant hearing the secrets of the people, the people hearing the secrets of the tyrant! Then I thought of Robespierre, and Marat, and Charlotte Corday, and Marie Antoinette,—then of Delaroche's and Müller's pictures of the unfortunate Queen,—then of pictures in general,—then of landscape-scenery,—till I almost fell into a doze, when I was startled by a faint sound along the wire, as of a sigh, like the first thrill of the AEolian harp in the evening wind. Another message was passing. I reached my hand out to the iron thread. A confused sadness began to oppress me. A mother's voice weeping over her sick child pulsed along the wire. Her husband was far away. Her little daughter lay very ill. "Come quick," said the voice. "I have little hope; but if you were only here, I should be calmer. If she must die, it would be such a comfort to have you here!"

I drew my hand away. I saw the whole scene too vividly. Who this mother was I knew not; but the news of the death of a child whom I knew and loved could not have affected me more strangely and keenly than this semi-articulate sob which quivered along the iron airtrack, in the silence of the evening, from one unknown—to another unknown.

I roused myself from my sadness, and thought I would descend the tree and stroll home. The moon was up, and a pleasant walk before me, with enough to meditate upon in the singular discovery I had made. I was about to get down from my crotch in the tree, and was just reaching out my dexter leg to feel if I could touch a bough below me, when a low, wild shriek ran along the wire,—as when the wind-harp, above referred to for illustration, is blown upon by some rude, sharp northwester. In spite of myself, I touched the vibrating cord. The message was brief and abrupt, like a sea-captain's command:—"Ship Trinidad wrecked off Wildcat's Beach,—all hands lost,—no insurance!"

Do you recollect, when sitting alone sometimes in your room, at midnight, in the month of November, how, after a lull in the blast, the bleak wind will all at once seem to clutch at the windows, with a demoniac howl that makes the house rock? Do you remember the half-whistles and half-groans through the key-holes and crevices,—the cries and shrieks that rise and fall,—the roaring in the chimney,—the slamming of distant doors and shutters? Well, all this seemed to be suggested in the ringing of the iron cord. The very leaves, green and dewy, and the delicate branches, seemed to quiver as the dreary message passed.

I thought,—This is a little too much! This old tree is getting to be a very lugubrious spot. I don't want to hear any more such messages. I almost wish I had never touched the wire. Strange! one reads such an announcement in a newspaper very coolly;—why is it that I can't take it coolly in a telegraphic despatch? We can read a thing with indifference which we hear spoken with a shudder,—such prisoners are we to our senses! I have had enough of this telegraphing. I sha'n't close my eyes to-night, if I have any more of it.

I had now fairly got my foot on the branch below, and was slipping myself gradually down, when the wire began to ring like a horn, and in the merriest of strains. I paused and listened. I could fancy the joyful barking of dogs in accompaniment. Ah, surely, this is some sportsman,—"the hunter's call, to faun and dryad known." This smacks of the bright sunshine and the green woods and the yellow fields. I will stop and hear it.—It was just what I expected,—a jolly citizen telegraphing his country friend to meet him with his guns and dogs at such a place.

And immediately afterwards, in much the same key, came a musical note and a message babbling of green fields, from a painter:—"I shall leave town to-morrow. Meet me at Bullshornville at ten, A.M. Don't forget to bring my field-easel, canvases, and the other traps."

If there is more of this music, I said, I think I shall stay. I love the sportsmen and the artists, and am glad they are going to have a good time. The weather promises well for them.

There was a little pause, and then a strain of perfect jubilation came leaping along the wire, like the flying song of the bobolink over tracts of blowing clover and apple-blossoms. I expected something very rare,—a strain of poetry at least. It was only this:—"Mr. Grimkins, Sir, we shall expect rooms for the bridal party at your hotel, on the side overlooking the lake, if possible. Yours, P. Simpkins."

Ah, I said, that's all Greek to me,—poor, lonely bachelor that I am! I wonder, by the way, if they ever wrote their love-letters by telegraph.—But what is this coming? I am clearly getting back to my normal condition:—"Miss Polly Wogg wishes to say that she has been unable to procure the silk for Mrs. Papillon for less than five dollars a yard."—Nonsense! I'm not in the dry-goods, nor millinery, nor young-lady department.

And here was another:—"I have found an excellent school for Adolphus in Birchville, near Mastersville Corners. Send him up without delay, with all the school-books you can find."

And another,—important, very:—"I find that 'One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin' is in 'Troilus and Cressida.' Don't send the MS. without this correction."

But what's this, accompanied with a long, low whistle?—"The cars have run off the track at Breakneck Hollow. Back your engine and wait for further orders."

We are getting into the minor key again, I thought. Listen!—"Mr. S. died last night. You must be here totomorrow, if possible, at the opening of the will."

Well, said I, I have had plenty of despatches, and have expended enough sympathy, for one night. I have been very mysteriously affected,—how, I can't exactly tell. But who will ever believe my evening's adventure? Who will not laugh at my pretended discovery? Even my cousin Moses will be incredulous. I shall be at least looked upon as a medium, and so settled.

And here allow me to remark,—Have you not observed how easily things apparently difficult and mysterious are arranged in the popular understanding by the use of certain stereotyped names applied to them? Only give a name to a wonder, or an unclassified phenomenon, or even an unsound notion, and you instantly clear away all the fog of mystery. Let an unprincipled fellow call his views Latitudinarianism or Longitudinarianism, he may, with a little adroitness, go for a respectable and consistent member of some sect. A filibuster may pass current under some such label as Political or Territorial Extensionist;—the name is a long, decent overcoat for his shabby ideas. So when wonderful phenomena in the nervous system are observed,—when tables are smashed by invisible hands,—when people see ghosts through stone walls, and know what is passing in the heart of Africa,—how easily you unlock your wardrobe of terms and clap on the back of every eccentric fact your ready-made phrase-coat,—Animal Magnetism, Biology, Odic Force, Optical Illusion, Second Sight, Spirits, and what not! It is a wonderful labor-saving and faith-saving process. People say, "Oh, is that all?" and pass on complacently. There are such explanatory labels to be met with everywhere. They save a deal of trouble. All the shops keep these overcoats,—shops ecclesiastical, medical, juridical, professional, political, social.

Now all I have to do is, not to go to the second-hand slop-shops for the phrase-coat I need for my naked discovery, but look for some unfamiliar robe,—some name more recherché, learned, and transcendental than my neighbors sport,—and then I shall pass muster. The classic togas seem to be the most imposing. The Germans, who weave their names out of their indigenous Saxon roots, are much too naïve. I will get a Greek Lexicon and set about it this very night.

After all, why should it be thought so improbable, in this age of strange phenomena, that the ideas transmitted through the electro-magnetic wire may be communicated to the brain,—especially when there exist certain abnormal or semi-abnormal conditions of that brain and its nerves? Is it not reasonable to suppose that all magnetisms are one in essence? The singular experiences above related seem to hint at the truth of such a view. If it be true that certain delicately-organized persons have the power of telling the character of others, who are entire strangers to them, simply by holding in their hands letters written by those strangers, is it not full as much within the scope of belief that there are those who, under certain physical conditions, may detect the purport of an electro-magnetic message,—that message being sent by vibrations of the wire through the nerves to the brain? If all magnetisms are one in essence,—as I am inclined to believe,—and if the nerves, the brain, and the mind are so swayed by what we term animal magnetism, why not allow for the strong probability of their being also, under certain conditions, equally impressible by electro-magnetism? I put these questions to scientific men; and I do not see why they should be answered by silence or ridicule, merely because the whole subject is veiled in mystery.

It may be asked,—How can an electro-magnetic message be communicated to the mind, without a knowledge of the alphabet used by the telegraphers? This question may seem a poser to some minds. But I don't see that it raises any grave difficulty. I answer the question by asking another:—How can persons in the somnambulic state read with the tops of their heads?

Besides, I once had the telegraph alphabet explained to me by one of the wire-operators,—though I have forgotten it,—and it is possible, that, in my semi-mesmeric condition, the recollection revived, so that I knew that such and such pulsations of the wire stood for such and such letters.

But is there not a certain spiritual significance, also, in these singular experiences here related?

We may safely lay down this doctrine,—a very old and much-thumbed doctrine, but none the less true for all its dog-ears:—No man lives for himself alone. He is related not only to the silent stars and the singing-birds and the sunny landscape, but to every other human soul. You say, This should not be stated so sermonically, but symbolically. That is just what I have been doing in my narrative of the wires.

It gives one a great idea of human communion,—this power of sending these spark-messages thousands of miles in a second. Far more poetical, too,—is it not?—as well as more practical, than tying billets under the wings of carrier-pigeons. It is removing so much time and space out of the way,—those absorbents of spirits,—and bringing mind into close contact with mind. But when one can read these messages without the aid of machinery, by merely touching the wires, how much greater does the symbol become!

All mankind are one. As some philosophers express it,—one great mind includes us all. But then, as it would never do for all minds to be literally one, any more than it would for all magnetisms to be identical in their modes of manifestation, or for all the rivers, creeks, and canals to flow together, so we have our natural barriers and channels, our propriums, as the Swedish seer has it,—and so we live and let live. We feel with others and think with others, but with strict reservations. That evening among the wires, for instance, brought me into wonderful intimate contact with a few of the joys and sorrows of some of my fellow-beings; but an excess of such experiences would interfere with our freedom and our happiness. It is our self-hood, properly balanced, which constitutes our dignity, our humanity. A certain degree, and a very considerable degree of insulation is necessary, that individual life and mental equanimity may go on.

But there may be a degree of insulation which is unbecoming a member of the human family. It may become brutish,—or it may amount to the ridiculous. In Paris, there was an old lady, of uncertain age, who lived in the apartment beneath mine. I think I never saw her but twice. She manifested her existence sometimes by complaining of the romping of the children overhead, who called her the "bonne femme." Why they gave her the name I don't know; for she seemed to have no human ties in the world, and wasted her affections on a private menagerie of parrots, canaries, and poodle-dogs. A few shocks of the electric telegraph might have raised her out of her desert island, and given her some glimpses of the great continents of human love and sympathy.

A man who lives for himself alone sits on a sort of insulated glass stool, with a noli-me-tangere look at his fellow-men, and a shivering dread of some electric shock from contact with them. He is a non-conductor in relation to the great magnetic currents which run pulsing along the invisible wires that connect one heart with another. Preachers, philanthropists, and moralists are in the habit of saying of such a person,—"How cold! how selfish! how unchristian!" I sometimes fancy a citizen of the planet Venus, that social star of evening and morning, might say,—"How absurd!" What a figure he cuts there, sitting in solitary state upon his glass tripod,—in the middle of a crowd of excited fellow-beings, hurried to and fro by their passions and sympathies,—like an awkward country-bumpkin caught in the midst of a gay crowd of polkers and waltzers at a ball,—or an oyster bedded on a rock, with silver fishes playing rapid games of hide and seek, love and hate, in the clear briny depths above and beneath! If the angels ever look out of their sphere of intense spiritual realities to indulge in a laugh, methinks such a lonely tripod-sitter, cased over with his invulnerable, non-conducting cloak and hood,—shrinking, dodging, or bracing himself up on the defensive, as the crowd fans him with its rush or jostles up against him,—like the man who fancied himself a teapot, and was forever warning people not to come too near him,—might furnish a subject for a planetary joke not unworthy of translation into the language of our dim earth.

One need not be a lonely bachelor, nor a lonely spinster, in order to live alone. The loneliest are those who mingle with men bodily and yet have no contact with them spiritually. There is no desert solitude equal to that of a crowded city where you have no sympathies. I might here quote Paris again, in illustration,—or, indeed, any foreign city. A friend of mine had an atelier once in the top of a house in the Rue St. Honoré. He knew not a soul in the house nor in the neighborhood. There was a German tailor below, who once made him a pair of pantaloons,—so they were connected sartorically and pecuniarily, and, when they met, recognized one another: and there was the concierge below, who knew when he came in and went out,—that was all. All day long the deafened roar of carts and carriages, and the muffled cry of the marchands des légumes, were faintly heard from below. And in an adjoining room a female voice (my friend could never tell whether child's or woman's, for he never saw any one) overflowed in tones of endearment on some unresponding creature,—he could never guess whether it was a baby, or a bird, or a cat, or a dog, or a lizard, (the French have such pets sometimes,) or an enchanted prince, like that poor half-marble fellow in the "Arabian Nights." In that garret the painter experienced for six months the perfection of Parisian solitude. Now I dare say he or I might have found social sympathies, by hunting them up; but he didn't, and I dare say he was to blame, as I should be in the same situation,—and I am willing to place myself in the same category with the menagerie-loving old lady, above referred to, omitting the feathered and canine pets.

As to my mesmerico-telegraphic discovery, it may pass for what it is worth. I shall submit it at least to my cousin Moses, as soon as he returns from the South. People may believe it or not. People may say it may be of practical use, or not. I shall overhaul my terminologies, and, with the "metaphysical aid" of my cousin, fit it with a scientific name which shall overtop all the ologies.

Having dressed my new Fact in a respectable and scholarlike coat, I shall let him take his chance with the judicious public,—and content myself, for the present, with making him a sort of humble colporteur of the valuable tract on Human Brotherhood of which I have herewith furnished a few dry specimens.