Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/June 1889/New Chapters in the Warfare of Science: Medicine IV

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 35 June 1889  (1889) 
New Chapters in the Warfare of Science: Medicine IV by Andrew Dickson White




JUNE, 1889.






ABOUT forty years later than the New England epidemic of "possession" occurred another typical series of phenomena in France. In the year 1727 there died in the city of Paris a simple and kindly ecclesiastic, the Archdeacon of Paris. He had lived a pious, Christian life, and was endeared to multitudes by his charity; unfortunately, he had espoused the doctrine of Jansen on the subject of grace and free will; and, though he remained in the Galilean Church, he and those who thought like him were opposed by the Jesuits, and finally condemned by a papal bull.

His remains having been buried in the cemetery of St. Medard, the Jansenists flocked to say their prayers at his tomb, and soon miracles began to be wrought there. Ere long they were multiplied. The sick being brought and laid upon the tomb, many were cured. Wonderful stories were attested by eye-witnesses. The myth-making tendency—the passion for developing, enlarging, and spreading tales of wonder—came into full play and was given free course.

Many thoughtful men satisfied themselves of the truth of these representations. One of the foremost English scholars came over, examined into them, and declared that there could be no doubt as to the reality of the cures.

This state of things continued for about four years, when, in 1731, more violent effects showed themselves. Sundry persons approaching the tomb were thrown into convulsions, hysterics, and catalepsy; these diseases spread, became epidemic, and soon multitudes were similarly afflicted. Both religious parties made the most of these cases. In vain did such great authorities in medical science as Hecquet and Lorry attribute the whole to natural causes; the theologians on both sides declared them supernatural—the Jansenists attributing them to God, the Jesuits to Satan.

Of late years such cases have been treated in France with much shrewdness. When, about the middle of the present century, the Arab priests in Algiers tried to arouse fanaticism against the French Christians by performing miracles, the French Government, instead of persecuting the priests, sent Robert Houdin, the most renowed juggler of his time, to Algiers, and for every Arab miracle Houdin performed two; did an Arab marabout turn a rod into a serpent, Houdin turned his rod into two serpents, and afterward showed the people how this was done.

So, too, at the last International Exposition, the French Government, observing the evil effects produced by the mania for table turning and tipping, took occasion, when a great number of French schoolmasters and teachers were visiting the Exposition, to have public lectures given in which all the business of dark closets, hand-tying, materialization of spirits, presenting the faces of the departed, and ghostly portraiture, was fully performed by professional mountebanks, and afterward as fully explained by them.

So in this case. The Government simply ordered the gate of the cemetery to be locked, and, when the crowd could no longer approach the tomb, the miracles ceased. A little Parisian ridicule helped to end the matter. A wag wrote up over the gate of the cemetery:

"De par le Roi, défense à Dieu
De faire des miracles dans ce lieu"—

which, being translated from doggerel French into doggerel English, is—

"By order of the king, the Lord must forbear
To work any more of his miracles here."

But the theological spirit remained powerful. The French Revolution had not then intervened to bring it under healthy limits. The agitation was maintained, and, though the miracles and cases of possession were stopped in the cemetery, it spread. Again full course was given to myth-making and the retailing of wonders. It was said that men had allowed themselves to be roasted before slow fires, and had been afterward found uninjured; that some had enormous weights piled upon them, but had supernatural powers of resistance given them; and that, in one case, a voluntary crucifixion had taken place.

This agitation was long, troublesome, and no doubt robbed many temporarily or permanently of such little brains as they possessed; it was only when the violence had become an old story and the charm of novelty had entirely worn off, and the afflicted found themselves no longer regarded with especial interest, that the epidemic died away.[1]

But in Germany at that time the outcome of this belief was far more cruel. In 1749 Maria Renata Sänger, sub-prioress of a convent at Würzburg, was charged with bewitching her fellow-nuns. There was the usual story—the same essential facts as at Loudun—women shut up against their will, dreams of Satan disguised as a young man, petty jealousies, spites, quarrels, mysterious uproar, trickery, utensils thrown about in a way not to be accounted for, hysterical shrieking and convulsions, and, finally, the torture, confession, and execution of the supposed culprit.[2]

Various epidemics of this sort broke out from time to time in other parts of the world, though happily, as modern skepticism prevailed, with less cruel results.

In 1760 some congregations of Calvinistic Methodists in Wales became so fervent that they began leaping for joy. The mania spread and gave rise to a sect called the "Jumpers." A similar outbreak took place afterward in England, and has been repeated at various times and places since in our own country.[3]

In 1780 came another outbreak in France; but this time it was not the Jansenists who were affected, but the strictly orthodox. A large number of young girls between twelve and nineteen years of age, having been brought together at the church of St. Roch, in Paris, with preaching and ceremonies calculated to arouse hysterics, one of them fell into convulsions. Immediately other children were similarly taken, until some fifty or sixty were engaged in the same antics. This mania spread to other churches and gatherings, proved very troublesome, and in some cases led to results especially painful.

About the same period came a similar outbreak among the Protestants of the Shetland Isles. A woman having been seized with convulsions at church, the disease spread to others, mainly women, who fell into the usual contortions and wild shriekings. A very effective cure proved to be a threat to plunge the diseased into a neighboring pond.

But, as we near the end of the eighteenth century, a fact very important for science is established. It was found that these manifestations do not arise entirely from religious sources. In 1787 came the noted case at Hodden Bridge, in Lancashire. A girl working in a cotton-manufactory there put a mouse into the bosom of another girl, who had a great dread of mice. The girl thus treated immediately went into convulsions, which lasted twenty-four hours. Shortly afterward three other girls were seized with like convulsions, a little later six more, and finally, in all, twenty-four were attacked. Then came a fact throwing a flood of light upon earlier occurrences. This epidemic, being noised abroad, soon spread to another factory five miles distant. The patients suffered from strangulation, danced, tore their hair, and dashed their heads against the walls. There was a strong belief that it was a disease introduced in cotton, but a resident physician amused the patients with electric shocks, and the disease died out.

In 1801 came a case of similar import in the Charité Hospital at Berlin. A girl fell into strong convulsions. The disease proved contagious, several others becoming afflicted in a similar way; but nearly all were finally cured, principally by the administration of opium, which appears at that time to have been a fashionable remedy.

Similar to this was a case at Lyons in 1851. Sixty women were working together in a shop, when one of them, after a bitter quarrel with her husband, fell into a violent nervous attack. The other women, sympathizing with her, gathered about to assist her, but one after another fell into a similar condition, until twenty were thus prostrated, and a more general spread of the epidemic was only prevented by clearing the premises.[4]

But, while these cases appeared to the eye of Science fatal to the old conception of diabolic influence, the great majority of such epidemics, when unexplained, continued to give strength to the older view.

In Roman Catholic countries these manifestations, as we have seen, have generally appeared in convents, or in churches where young girls are brought together for their first communion, or at shrines where miracles are supposed to be wrought.

In Protestant countries they appear in times of great religious excitement, and especially when large bodies of young women are submitted to the influence of noisy and frothy preachers. Well known examples of this in America are seen in the "Jumpers," "Jerkers," and various revival extravagances, especially among the negroes and "poor whites" of the Southern States.

The proper conditions being given for the development of the disease—generally a congregation composed mainly of young women—any fanatic or overzealous priest or preacher may stimulate hysterical seizures, which are very likely to become epidemic.

As a recent typical example on a large scale, I take the case of diabolic possession at Morzines, a French village on the borders of Switzerland; and it is especially instructive, because it was thoroughly investigated by a competent man of science.

About the year 1853 a sick girl at Morzines, acting strangely, was thought to be possessed of the devil, and was taken to Besançon, where she seems to have fallen into the hands of kindly and sensible ecclesiastics, and, under the operation of the relics preserved in the cathedral there—especially the handkerchief of Christ—the devil was cast out and she was cured. Naturally, much was said of the affair among the peasantry, and soon other cases began to show themselves. The priest at Morzines attempted to quiet the matter by avowing his disbelief in such cases of possession; but immediately a great outcry was raised against him, especially by the possessed themselves. The matter was now widely discussed, and the malady spread rapidly; myth-making and wonder-mongering began; amazing accounts were thus developed and sent out to the world. The afflicted were said to have climbed trees like squirrels; to have shown superhuman strength; to have exercised the gift of tongues, speaking in German, Latin, and even in Arabic; to have given accounts of historical events they had never heard of; and to have revealed the secret thoughts of persons about them. Mingled with such exhibitions of power were outbursts of blasphemy and obscenity.

But suddenly came something more miraculous, apparently, than all these wonders. Without any assigned cause this epidemic of possession diminished, and the devil disappeared.

Not long after this Prof, Tissot, an eminent member of the medical faculty at Dijon, visited the spot and began a series of researches, of which he afterward published a full account. He tells us that he found some reasons for the sudden departure of Satan which had never been published. He discovered that the Government had quietly removed one or two overzealous ecclesiastics to another parish, had sent the police to Morzines to maintain order, and had given instructions that those who acted outrageously should be simply treated as lunatics and sent to asylums. This policy, so accordant with French methods of administration, cast out the devil: the possessed were mainly cured, and the matter appeared ended.

But Dr. Tissot found a few of the diseased still remaining, and he soon satisfied himself by various investigations and experiments that they were simply suffering from hysteria. One of his investigations is especially curious. In order to observe the patients more carefully, he invited some of them to dine with him, gave them without their knowledge holy water in their wine or their food, and found that it produced no effect whatever, though its results upon the demons when the possessed knew of its presence had been very strikingly marked. Even after plentiful doses of holy water had been thus given, the possessed remained afflicted, urged that the devil should be cast out, and some of them even went into convulsions, the devil apparently speaking from their mouths. It was evident that Satan had not the remotest idea that he had been thoroughly dosed with the most effective medicine known to the older theology.[5]

At last Tissot published the results of his experiments, and the stereotyped answer was soon made. It resembled the answer made by the clerical opponents of Galileo when he showed them the moons of Jupiter through his telescope, and they declared that the moons were created by the telescope. The clerical opponents of Tissot declared that the non-effect of the holy water upon the demons proved nothing save the extraordinary cunning of Satan; that the arch-fiend wishes it to be thought that he does not exist, and so overcame his repugnance to holy water, gulping it down in order to conceal his presence.

Dr. Tissot also examined into the gift of tongues exercised by the possessed. As to German and Latin, no great difficulty was presented: it was by no means hard to suppose that some of the girls might have learned some words of the former language in the neighboring Swiss cantons where German was spoken, or even in Germany itself; and as to Latin, considering that they had heard it from their childhood in the church, there seemed nothing very wonderful in their uttering some words in that language also. As to Arabic, had they really spoken it, that might have been accounted for by the relations of the possessed with Zouaves or Spahis from the French army; but, as Tissot could discover no such relations, he investigated this point as the most puzzling of all.

On a close inquiry he found that all the wonderful examples of speaking Arabic were reduced to one. He then asked whether there was any other person speaking or knowing Arabic in the town. He was answered that there was not. He asked whether any person had lived there, so far as any one could remember, who had spoken or understood Arabic, and he was answered in the negative. He then asked the witnesses how they knew that the language spoken by the girl was Arabic; no answer was vouchsafed him, but he was overwhelmed with such stories as that of a pig which, at sight of the cross on the village church, suddenly refused to go further—and he was denounced thoroughly in the clerical newspapers for declining to accept such evidence.

At Tissot's visit in 1863 the possession had generally ceased, and the cases left were few and quiet. But his visits stirred a new controversy, and its echoes were long and loud in the pulpits and clerical journals. Believers insisted that Satan had been removed by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin; unbelievers hinted that the main cause of the deliverance was the reluctance of the possessed to be shut up in asylums.

Under these circumstances the Bishop of Annecy announced that he would visit Morzines to administer confirmation, and word appears to have spread that he would give a more orthodox completion to the work already done by exorcising the devils who remained. Immediately several new cases of possession appeared; young girls who had been cured were again affected; the embers thus kindled were fanned into a flame by a "mission" which sundry priests held in the parish to arouse the people to their religious duties—a mission, in Roman Catholic countries, being akin to the "revivals" among some Protestant sects. Multitudes of young women, excited by the preaching and appeals of the clergy, were again thrown into the old disease, and at the coming of the good bishop it culminated.

The account is given in the words of an eye-witness:

"At the solemn entrance of the bishop into the church, the possessed persons threw themselves on the ground before him, or endeavored to throw themselves upon him, screaming frightfully, cursing, blaspheming, so that the people at large were struck with horror. The possessed followed the bishop, hooted him, and threatened him, up to the middle of the church; order was only established by the intervention of the soldiers. During the confirmation the diseased redoubled their howls and infernal vociferations, and tried to spit in the face of the bishop and to tear off his pastoral raiment. At the moment when the prelate gave his benediction a still more outrageous scene took place. The violence of the diseased was carried to fury, and from all parts of the church arose yells and fearful howling; so frightful was the din that tears fell from the eyes of many of the spectators, and many strangers were thrown into consternation."

Among the very large number of these diseased persons there were only two men; of the remainder only two were of advanced age. The great majority were young women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five years.

The public authorities shortly afterward intervened and sought to cure the disease and to draw the people out of their mania by singing, dancing, and sports of various sorts, until at last it was brought under control.[6]

Scenes similar to these, in their essential character, have arisen more recently in Protestant countries, but with the difference that what has been generally attributed by Roman Catholic ecclesiastics to Satan is attributed by Protestant ecclesiastics to the Almighty. Typical among the greater exhibitions of this were those which began in the Methodist chapel at Redruth in Cornwall—convulsions, leaping, jumping, until some four thousand persons were seized by it. The same thing is seen in the ruder parts of America at "revivals" and camp-meetings.

And in still another great field these exhibitions are seen, but more after a mediæval pattern. In the Tigretier of Abyssinia we have epidemics of dancing which seek and obtain miraculous cures.

Reports of similar manifestations are also sent from missionaries from the west coast of Africa, one of whom sees in some of them the characteristics of cases of possession mentioned in our Gospels, and is therefore inclined to attribute them to Satan.[7]

But happily, long before these latter occurrences, science had come into the field and was gradually diminishing this class of diseases. Among the earlier workers to this better purpose was the great Dutch physician Boerhaave. Finding in one of the wards in the hospital at Haarlem a number of women going into convulsions and imitating each other in various acts of frenzy, he immediately ordered a furnace of blazing coals into the midst of the ward, heated cauterizing irons, and declared he would burn the arms of the first woman who fell into convulsions. No more cases occurred.[8]

These and similar successful dealings of medical science with mental disease brought about the next stage in the theological development. The Church sought to retreat, after the usual manner, behind a compromise. Early in the eighteenth century appeared a new edition of the great work by the Jesuit Delrio which for a hundred years had been a text-book for the use of ecclesiastics in fighting witchcraft. But in this edition the part played by Satan in diseases was changed. It was suggested that, while diseases have natural causes, it is necessary that Satan enter the human body in order to make these causes effective. Delrio claims that Satan "attacks lunatics at the full moon, when their brains are full of humors;" that in other cases of illness he "stirs the black bile," and that in cases of blindness and deafness he "clogs the eyes and ears." By the close of the century this compromise was evidently found untenable, and one of a very different sort was attempted in England.

In the third edition of the "Encyclopædia Britannica," published in 1797, under the article "Dæmoniacs," the orthodox view was presented in the following words: "The reality of demoniacal possession stands upon the same evidence with the gospel system in general."

This statement, though necessary to satisfy the older theological sentiment, was clearly found too dangerous to be sent out into the modern skeptical world without some qualification. Another view was therefore suggested, namely, that the personages of the New Testament "adopted the vulgar language in speaking of those unfortunate persons who were generally imagined to be possessed with demons." Two or three editions contained this curious compromise; but, as we come to the middle of the present century, the whole discussion is quietly dropped.

But science, declining to trouble itself with any of these views, pressed on, and toward the end of the century we see Dr. Rhodes at Lyons curing a very serious case of possession by the use of a powerful emetic; yet myth-making came in here also, and it was stated that, when the emetic produced its effect, people had seen multitudes of green and yellow devils cast forth from the mouth of the possessed.

The last great demonstration of the old belief in England was made in 1788. In the city of Bristol at that time lived a drunken epileptic, George Lukins. In asking alms he insisted that he was "possessed," and proved it by jumping, screaming, barking, and treating the company to a parody of the "Te Deum."

He was solemnly brought into the Temple Church, and seven clergymen united in the effort to exorcise the evil spirit. Upon their adjuring Satan, he swore "by his infernal den" that he would not come out of the man—"an oath," says the chronicler, "nowhere to be found but in Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress,' from which Lukins probably got it."

But the seven clergymen were at last successful, and seven devils were cast out, after which Lukins retired, and appears to have been supported during the remainder of his life as a monument of mercy.

With this great effort the old theory in England seemed practically exhausted.

Science had evidently carried the stronghold. In 1876, at a little town near Amiens, in France, a young woman was brought to the priest, suffering terribly with all the usual evidences of diabolic possession. The priest was besought to cast out the devil, but he simply took her to the hospital, where, under scientific treatment, she rapidly became better.[9]

The final triumph of science in this part of the great field has been mainly achieved during the latter half of the present century.

Following in the noble succession of Paracelsus and John Hunter and Pinel and Tuke and Esquirol, have come a band of thinkers and workers who have evolved out of the earlier forms of truths new growths, ever more and more precious.

Among the many facts and principles thus brought to bear upon this last stronghold of the Prince of Darkness, may be named especially those of "expectant attention," an expectation of phenomena dwelt upon until the longing for them becomes morbid and invincible, and the creation of them perhaps unconscious. Still another class of phenomena are found to arise from a morbid tendency to imitation which leads to epidemics. Still another group has been brought under hypnotism. Multitudes more have been found under the innumerable forms and results of hysteria. A study of the effects of the imagination upon bodily function has also yielded remarkable results.

And, finally, to supplement this work, have come in an array of scholars in history and literature who have investigated myth making and wonder-mongering.

Thus has been cleared away that cloud of supernaturalism which so long hung over mental diseases, and thus have they been brought within the firm grasp of science.[10]

Conscientious men still linger on who find comfort in holding fast to some shred of the old belief in diabolic possession. The sturdy declaration in the last century by John Wesley, that "giving up witchcraft is giving up the Bible," is echoed feebly in the latter half of this century by the eminent Catholic ecclesiastic in France who declares that "to deny possession by devils is to charge Jesus and his apostles with imposture," and asks, "How can the testimony of apostles, fathers of the Church, and saints who saw the possessed and so declared, be denied?" And a still fainter echo lingers in Protestant England.[11]

But, despite this conscientious opposition, science has in these latter days steadily wrought hand in hand with Christian charity in this field, to evolve a better future for humanity. The thoughtful physician and the devoted clergyman are now constantly seen working together; and it is not too much to expect that Satan, having been cast out of the insane asylums, will ere long disappear from monasteries and camp-meetings, even in the most unenlightened regions of Christendom.

  1. See Madden, "Phantasmata," chap, xiv; also Sir James Stephen, "History of France," lecture xxvi; also Henry Martin, "Histoire de France," chap, xv, pp. 168 et seq.; also Calmeil, iiv. v, chap, xxiv; also Hecker's "Essay," iv, 5; and, for samples of myth-making, see the apocryphal "Souvenirs de Créquy."
  2. See Soldan, Scherr, Diefenbach, and others.
  3. See Adams's "Dictionary of All Religions," article on "Jumpers"; also Hecker's "Essay," iv, 6.
  4. For these examples and others, see Tuke, "Influence of the Mind upon the Body," vol. i, pp. 100, 277; also Hecker's "Essay," chap. iv.
  5. For an amazing delineation of the curative and other virtues of holy water, see the Abbé Gaume, "L'Eau bénite au XIXme Siêcle," Paris, 1863.
  6. See Tissot, "L'Imagination: ses Bienfaits et ses Égarements surtout dans le Domaine du Merveilleux," Paris, 1858, par. 7; "Les Possédés de Morzines"; also Constans, "Relation sur une Epidémie de Hystéro-Démonopathie," Paris, 1863.
  7. See Figuier, "Histoire du Merveilleux," vol. i, p. 402.
  8. For the Tigretier, with especially interesting citations, see Hecker's "Essay," chap, iii, sec. 1; for the cases in western Africa, see the Rev. J. L. Wilson, "Western Africa," p. 217.
  9. See Figuier; also Collin de Plancy, "Dictionnaire Infernale," article Possédes.
  10. To go even into leading citations in this vast and beneficent literature would take me far beyond my plan and space, but I may name, among leading and easily accessible authorities, Brierre de Boismont on "Hallucinations," Hulme's translation, 1860; also James Braid, "The Power of the Mind over the Body," London, 1846; Kraft-Ebing, "Lehrbuch der Psychiatric," Stuttgart, 1888; Tuke, "Influence of the Mind on the Body," London, 1884; Maudsley, "Pathology of the Mind," London, 1879; Carpenter, "Mental Physiology," sixth edition, Loudon, 1888; Lloyd Tuckey, "Faith Cure," Nineteenth Century Magazine for December, 1888; Pettigrew, "Superstitions connected with the Practice of Medicine and Surgery," London, 1844.

    As to myth-making and wonder-mongering, the general reader will find interesting supplementary accounts in the recent works of Andrew Lang and Baring-Gould.

    A very curious evidence of the effects of the myth-making tendency has recently come to the attention of the writer of this article. Periodically, for many years past, we have seen, in books of travel and in the newspapers, accounts of the wonderful performances of the jugglers in India; of the stabbing of a child in a small basket in the midst of an arena, and the child appearing alive in the surrounding crowd; of seeds planted, sprouted, and becoming well-grown trees under the hand of the juggler; of ropes thrown into the air and sustained by invisible force. A short time since Count de Gubernatis, the eminent professor and Oriental scholar at Florence, informed the present writer that he had recently seen and studied these exhibitions, and that, so far from being wonderful, they were much inferior to the jugglery so well known in all our Western capitals.

  11. See the Abbe Barthélemi, in the "Dictionnaire de la Conversation"; also the Rev. W. Scott's "Doctrine of Evil Spirits proved," London, 1857.