Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/April 1890/Alchemist's Gold

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"THE definite and unchangeable existence of sixty-six distinct elements, as we regard them now, would assuredly never have occurred to an ancient philosopher, or rather would have been dismissed by him as ridiculous: it had to be imposed upon us by the incontestable force of the experimental method. Is this, then, the final limit of our conceptions and hopes? Not at all; for really this limit has never been accepted by chemists except as a present fact, which they have always hoped to pass by."

This paragraph, quoted from Berthelot's "Origins of Chemistry," explains why so many distinguished men have spent their days in seeking the transmutation of metals. Did they find it? Excellent minds assure us that they did not, because, in spite of the infinitely more powerful forces we now have at our disposal, we have not been able to decompose any metal. Others maintain that the reasoning is not conclusive; for numerous industrial processes have been lost, and we knew how to convert alcohol into vinegar long before we could analyze either substance; and there is one element—time—which the moderns, with their intensive life, can not use as their predecessors did. Where is the man now who would bind himself down for years to make the projecting powder or the philosopher's stone—representing the hypothetical ferment of inorganic substances—or who could count enough upon the future to bequeath the continuation of his experiments to his heirs, as did the adepts of old?

There have been many alchemists who, notwithstanding the satirical definition of their art—"Ars sine arte; cujus principium mentiri, medium laborare et finis mendicare" ("An art without art; the beginning of which is to lie, the middle to work, and the end to beg")—have acquired considerable wealth, the source of which it is hard to divine in any other way. M. Louis Figuier has collated the stories of the principal of them in his "History of Alchemy." I purpose in this article to describe some medals which were struck from gold which was said to have been compounded. I have seen one of the pieces, and tried to buy it for purposes of analysis, but the holder would not sell it. Probably an interesting collection might be made of such medals.

In 1312 Raymond Lulle went to the British Islands in an effort to induce Kings Edward III and Robert Bruce to engage in a crusade, and promised to pay all the expenses of the expedition by means of his art. King Edward, more concerned about making gold than about going to the Holy Land, furnished the alchemist with a laboratory in the Tower of London; and there Raymond, according to a declaration in his will, at a single operation converted fifty pounds of mercury, lead, and tin into "gold." This "gold" was used in striking "rare nobles," some of which weighed as much as ten ducats, and must, therefore, have been as large as a French hundred-franc piece. Under the name of Raymond 's nobles, they have been much sought for by English collectors.

King Henry VI granted to several alchemists the right of making gold and silver out of the base metals. The products of their industry were probably used for coining the false money, the emission of which provoked prohibitory measures from the Scotch Parliament. Conrad Barchusen, a Dutch chemist of the beginning of the eighteenth century, assumed that the "gold" of Henry VI was obtained by putting mercury and sulphate of copper in an iron crucible with a little water. The copper, set free by the action of the iron, formed with the mercury an amalgam which, washed and pressed to drive out the soluble substances and the excess of mercury, gave on fusion a metal having the color of gold, but lighter, and readily taking the impress of the die.

At about the same time, Barbe de Cilley—wife of the Emperor Sigismund of Germany—pretended that she had found the philosopher's stone, in order to make her subjects accept an alloy of copper and arsenic for silver, and an alloy of gold, copper, and silver for gold. The alchemist Jean de Laaz solicited from her the privilege of being present at one of her transmutations. He detected the cheat, and was simple enough to reproach her Majesty for having bungled; and for this he barely escaped going to prison.

Jacques Cœur obtained from Charles VI of France, in consideration of his possession of the secret, power to coin money of "silver," some of the pieces of which were described by De Planis Campy as still existing in 1633. They bore his name and the three hearts of his arms.

Monconis[1] tells of a merchant of Lubeck who transformed lead into a hundred "gold" livres in the presence of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden; and who furnished the gold from which ducats were coined, bearing on one side the figure of the prince, and on the other side his arms, associated with alchemic symbols, in recollection of the origin of the metal. The merchant died some years afterward, leaving an enormous fortune, although his trade had been insignificant.

Christian IV of Denmark, in 1646, appointed as "alchemist to the king" Gaspar Harbach, who made him some "gold," from which were coined medals bearing the inscription "Vide mira Domini ('Behold the wonders of the Lord'), 1647," beneath the sign O—O, designating mercury.

An Austrian named Richtausen, in 1648, received as a bequest from one of his friends a casket containing precipitating powder; with a grain of this powder, the Count de Rütz, director of the mines of the empire at Prague, in the presence of the Emperor Ferdinand III and the absence of Richtausen, transformed three livres or six marks of mercury into five marks of "gold." Rodolph had struck in this "gold" a medal which still existed in the Treasury at Vienna in 1797. It represents the god of the sun carrying the caduceus and having wings on his feet—all by way of reminder of the formation of "gold" by the aid of mercury,[2] In 1650 the emperor made a second precipitation at Prague, from lead; and the medal struck on this occasion bore the inscription "Aurea progenies plumbo prognata parente" ("Golden progeny of a lead parent"). This medal was still shown in the last century, in the collection of the Château d'Ambras (Tyrol). Richtausen received for his discovery the characteristic title of Baron of Chaos.

General Paykhul, in 1706, made for King Charles XII of Sweden, with lead and a few grains of his powder, under the surveillance of artillery-general Hamilton and the chemist Hieme, a mass of "gold" sufficient for the coinage of one hundred and forty-seven ducats; a commemorative medal, struck on the occasion, from the same "gold," weighed two ducats and bore the inscription "Hoc aurum arte chimica conflavit Holmiæ 1706, O. A. V. Paikhull" ("This gold O. A. V. Paikhull produced by chemical art at Holm in 1706").

In 1704 a goldsmith of Lubeck, named Stolle, received a visit from a stranger, supposed to be the celebrated adept Lascaris, who, after a discussion respecting the transmutation of metals, left with him, as a proof of the possibility of the operation, an ingot weighing about a half-livre, which he said he had just made; he asked Stolle to treat it with antimony to purify it, heat it, and cut it into seven pieces. He then left two of the pieces with the goldsmith as a souvenir, and added eight ducats. One of the pieces was given to King Augustus of Poland, and the other was deposited in the collection of medals at Lubeck. They bore the inscription "O tu. . . philosophorum" ("O thou. . . of philosophers!"), which the adept had had engraved by the goldsmith.

A Provençal locksmith, named Jean Troins, who called himself the Sieur Delisle,[3] fabricated in the presence of M. de Saint-Maurice, president of the mint at Lyons, and at the Chateau SaintAuban, two ingots of "gold," one from mercury and the other from lead. On trying to strike medals from this preparation at Lyons, the minter found it "so hard that it was not possible to work it." It was then sent to Paris, to the controller-general of finance, who had a number of medals struck from it bearing the inscription "Aurum ex arte factum" ("Gold made by art"). One of the medals was deposited in the Royal Cabinet, and, according to Langlet-Dufresnoy, its allotted square was still existing at the mint in 1762. I have handled and have an impression of a piece which, although the inscription is not identical with that described by Dufresnoy, was most probably made from Delisle's metal,[4] Its density is perceptibly different from that of gold, and that should give it a place in the class of tokens without value. Some spots of verdigris disappeared under the action of nitric acid, which did not attack the rest of the metal. Delisle likewise made, under similar circumstances, but with a different powder, an ingot of "silver," from which two crowns, two half-crowns, two quarters, and three ten-sous pieces were struck.

In 1717 Landgrave Ernest Louis of Hesse-Darmstadt, who was an amateur alchemist, received by mail a little box containing two packages of powder, one red and the other white, with directions for using them. He was thus able to enjoy the pleasure of himself changing lead into "gold" and "silver." From the "gold" he struck a few hundred ducats, bearing on one side his name and effigy, and on the other the lion of Hesse and his initials, E. L. From the "silver" he struck a hundred thalers bearing his name and likeness on one side, and on the other the inscription "Sic placuit Deo in tribulationibus" ("Thus it has pleased God in tribulations"), 1717, with the lion of Hesse and his initials, surrounded by four crowns.

These operations made so much stir that the Academy of Sciences was moved by it; and in 1722 the chemist Geoff roy was charged to demonstrate to the learned company that these extraordinary achievements were a pure fraud. In the report, which he read on the 15th of April, he said: "Since the main intention of the operators is usually to show gold or silver in the place of the minerals which they pretend to transmute, they sometimes use double crucibles or cupels, or they put salts of gold or silver in the bottom of them; they then cover the bottom with a paste made by mixing crucible-dust with gum-water or wax; doing it so that this false bottom shall seem to be the real bottom. At other times they put gold or silver dust in a hole made in a piece of charcoal; or they saturate charcoal with solutions of those metals and then reduce the mass to a powder, in order to project it upon the substances which they are going to transmute.

"They use rods with hollowed ends containing in the cavities gold or silver filings, and stopped up with sawdust of the same wood. Stirring their molten matter with these rods, the sticks burn, leaving in the crucible the metal with which they have been charged. In an endless variety of ways they mix gold or silver with the substances with which they work. A small quantity of gold or silver will not show in a large quantity of such metallic substances as the regulus of antimony, lead, or copper. Salts of gold and silver can very easily be mixed with salts of lead, antimony, and mercury. Grains or nuggets of gold and silver can be inclosed in lead. Gold may be whitened with quicksilver and made to pass for tin. The collection of gold and silver from the substances with which they have been mixed may be made to pass for transmutation.

"All that goes on in the hands of these people should be watched. For the aqua fortis or aqua regia which they use is often already charged with solutions of gold or silver. The papers in which they wrap their chemicals are sometimes loaded with salts of these metals; and the pasteboards they employ may conceal such salts in their thickness. Glass has been known to come out from furnaces charged with portions of gold which had been admittedly slipped in while it was molten.

"Some alchemists have imposed on their spectators with nails half of iron and half of gold or silver. They make believe that they effect a real transmutation of half of these nails by dipping it into a pretended tincture. Nothing is more seductive at first; but it is, after all, only a trick. The nails, which seemed to be all iron, were really in two pieces neatly soldered, the gold or silver to the iron, and washed with an iron-colored wash, that disappeared when they were dipped into a suitable liquid. Of this character was the gold and iron nail formerly to be seen in the cabinet of the Grand Duke of Tuscany; of like nature are those half-silver and half-iron nails which I present to this society today. Such also was the knife which a monk once presented to Queen Elizabeth of England, in the earlier years of her reign, the end of the blade of which was of gold; as well also those knives, half silver and half iron, which a famous quack scattered a few years ago over Provence. It is true that they say that this last performer operated on knives that were given him, and which he gave back after a time with the ends of the blades silvered. But there is reason for supposing that the change was made by cutting off the end of the blade and soldering on a similar end of silver.

"There have been also pieces of money and medals half gold and half silver. Such pieces were said to have been originally all silver, half of which was turned into gold by dipping them half-way into the philosopher's mixture, without the outer form or the engraved designs being essentially changed. I say that no such medal was ever all silver, but that they were in two pieces, one of silver the other of gold, so soldered together as to preserve the proper arrangement of the characters. The thing could be easily done by having several silver medals of the same kind, a little worn, and making molds of them in sand for casting copies in gold. The sand would not even have to be very fine. Then let the medals be cut exactly to rule, fitted by filing, and the complementary halves soldered together with care, to have the designs precisely correspond. Any trifling flaw could be mended with the graver. The part of the medal that is of gold, having been cast in sand, looks a little grainy and is rougher than the silver part, which was pressed; but this fault was given out to be an effect or a proof of the transmutation; because a given quantity of silver, having a larger volume than a like quantity of gold, the silver shrunk some in changing into gold, leaving the pores or spaces that constituted the grain. The operator, besides, took pains to make the golden part a little thinner than the silver, to keep up the semblance; and to use only as much or not quite as much gold as there was of silver. A second medal was prepared in the same way.

"They also took a silver medal, filed down one half of it on either side, without touching the other half, till they reduced it to about the thickness of a playing-card. Then, taking half of a medal of gold, they split it, and reducing the two parts in the required proportions, adjusted the outside parts over the silver core, preserving the proper arrangement of the designer. They then had a whole medal, half silver and half gold, but with the gold part stuffed with silver. This, they said, was a silver medal which had not lain long enough in the elixir, and had only been partly transmuted.

"Half of a third medal was superficially gilded with an amalgam of gold, and represented a piece which, having been merely dipped into the elixir, had only begun to turn.

"When this game was played, the golden parts of the three pieces were whitened with mercury, so as to look as if they were all silver. To make the deception more complete, the performer, who should' have a knack for conjuring, exhibited three genuine silver pieces that had not been tampered with, and permitted the audience to examine them. Taking them back, he slyly substituted his prepared pieces for them; fixed these in his glasses, poured in as much of his elixir as suited him, and withdrew them at the lapse of the designated intervals of time. He threw them into the fire and left them there long enough to drive away the mercury with which the gold was masked. Then he took them out, looking as if they were half of silver and half of gold; but with the difference that, in cutting the parts that seemed to be of gold, one was merely gilded on the surface, another was gold filled with silver, and the third was gold all through.

"Chemistry furnished these tricksters with other most subtle means of carrying out their deceptions. It was also possible to introduce another, lighter metal into gold, which, while reducing its weight to that of an equal volume of silver, would not change its color, or separate from it in any part of the process."—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.

Many very curious features of language are exhibited in Dr. Leitner's book on the Hunzas of Dardistan. The substantive can not be used without the personal pronoun; as if we could say "my heart," "thy heart," or "his heart," but not "heart" by itself. The plurals of many feminine nouns are masculine, and vice versa. In the verb "to be" or "to become," as well as in numerous other verbs, there are different plurals for men, women, animals, etc., and the latter are again subdivided according to sex. Objects also are distinguished into male and female, according to their fancied stronger or weaker uses.
  1. "Voyage d'Allemagne."
  2. Arsenic (to τὰρσενικόν, the male) was one of the first substances tried for the purpose of transmutation. Its vapors whitened copper (which was considered a female element, was dedicated to Venus, and was represented by the sign ♀), forming an arseniuret; and this change was for a long time regarded as the beginning of transmutation.
  3. Delisle is accused of having been the servant of Lascaris, and of having assassinated him in Savoy, in order to steal his powder. After this crime, in 1706, he established himself at Sisteron, where he married and soon achieved a great local notoriety by changing nails, knives, shoe-buckles, rings, etc., of iron and steel into "gold" or "silver." Some of these transformed objects might, perhaps, still be found in the country if one should be at the pains of searching for them. Delisle resided in succession at Sisteron, the château of Palud Digne, where he is said to have enriched a merchant named Taxis; at Castellane, and at Senéz, where he performed several times before the bishop.
  4. Possibly, however, this was a mock token, like those which were struck in England in 1815, when Napoleon was sent to St. Helena. That token was just like a twenty-franc piece, and bore the figure of the emperor on one side and a ship on the other, with the inscription "This is copper."