Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/March 1875/The Electrical Girl
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH OF LOUIS FIGUIER, BY CLARA HAMMOND.
IN the beginning of 1846, a year memorable in the history of table-turning and spirit-rapping, Angélique Cottin was a girl of fourteen, living in the village of Bouvigny, near La Perrière, department of Orne, France. She was of low stature, but of robust frame, and apathetic to an extraordinary degree both in body and mind. On January 15th of the year named, while the girl was with three others engaged in weaving silk-thread gloves, the oaken table at which they worked began to move and change position. The work-women were alarmed; work was for a moment suspended, but was soon resumed. But, when Angélique again took her place, the table began anew to move with great violence; she felt herself attracted to it, but, so soon as she touched it, it retreated before her, or was even upset. The following morning similar phenomena were observed; and before long public opinion was very decided in affirming that Angélique Cottin was possessed of a devil, and that she should be brought before the parish priest. But the curé was a man of too much common-sense to heed their request for an exorcism, and resolved to see the facts for himself. The girl was brought to the curé's house, and there the phenomena were repeated, though not with the same intensity as before: the table retreated, but was not overturned, while the chair on which Angélique was seated moved in a contrary direction, rocking the while, and giving Angélique great difficulty in keeping her seat. These effects were so remarkable as to attract a great deal of attention; and so many came to see the demonstrations that the girl's relations, who were in straitened circumstances, thought to make a lucrative business of her singular faculty by exhibitions from time to time. Various professional men testified to her performances, of which the following letter from Dr. Beaumont-Chardon, of Mortagne, gives the usual account:
"This is what I saw," says this physician.
"1. Repulsion and attraction, bounding and displacement of a massive table; also of another table, mounted on casters, about three metres by two; another square table, in oak, about a metre and a half in size; an arm-chair, of mahogany, very massive. All these movements took place from the voluntary or involuntary contact of Angélique's clothes.
"2. When she was seated, overturning and repulsion of the young girl and the person who was occupying the same chair; a momentary adherence of the chair to the girl's dress was seen several times. Cessation of these effects when the chair and the young girl were placed upon glass or oil-cloth, or when the girl was placed upon the chair without having the feet of the latter touch the floor, effects generally less upon waxed floors or carpets.
"3. Great disturbance noticed in the girl, recalling that which is produced by an electric discharge, when a piece of wood, a stick, a shovel, or tongs, was brought in contact with the vertebral column. My finger held toward her forehead, or the top, and above all, the back of her head, either by actual contact, or at a distance of two centimetres, produced the same effect as it had done when brought in contact with the elbow of the left arm—disappearance of this effect when a piece of oil-cloth was interposed between the arm and the object.
"4. Painful and insupportable sensation of itching when one or two iron rods, strongly magnetized, were held several centimetres from the extended fingers of her left hand, or from her head; non-magnetized iron did not produce this effect. A magnetized needle, suspended horizontally from the ceiling by a long thread, deviated from the direction of the terrestrial magnetic axis, and oscillated at the approach of the girl's left arm.
"The young girl was generally heavily charged when I was near her, because I did not arouse in her any feeling of mistrust, but always endeavored to spare her suffering; I thought that, in order to appear to the best advantage, her mind must be free, and she herself gay and lively, although her will seemed to be entirely void of influence."
Angélique's relatives resolved, at length, to take the electrical girl to Paris in order to submit her to the examination of the academicians. During the public séance on the 17th of February at the Académie des Sciences, the secretary, Arago, published the experiments to which Dr. Sanchon had subjected the girl, and read a notice given him by this physician, which appeared in the official Compte Rendu of this session. It is as follows:
"I have twice," says Dr. Sanchon, "seen the electrical girl (Angélique Cottin). A chair which I was holding as firmly as possible with my foot and both hands, was suddenly torn from my grasp when she sat upon it. A little strip of paper which I balanced on my finger was blown away several times as though by a sudden rush of wind. A dining-table of considerable size, and quite heavy, was several times displaced and pushed by the mere contact of the girl's clothes. A small paper wheel, placed vertically or horizontally upon its axis, received a rapid motion from the emanations which proceeded from the child's wrist and elbow-joint. A very large and heavy sofa, on which I was seated, was violently pushed against the wall when the young girl placed herself beside me. A chair held to the ground by strong persons, on which I sat in a manner so as to occupy but half of it, was suddenly pushed from under me when the girl sat upon the remaining half. A remarkable fact is, that each time the chair was raised; it seemed to adhere to the girl's clothes; she followed it for an instant, and then disengaged herself. Two little balls of elder-wood, or small pieces of quill suspended by a silk thread, were disturbed, attracted, and finally separated one from the other.
"The young girl's emanations were not permanent during the day; they appeared in the evening, from seven to nine o'clock: this gives me the idea that her last meal, which she takes at six o'clock, has some influence in regard to them. They recurred on the anterior surface of the body, particularly at the wrist and elbow. They only recurred in the left side; the arm on this side was warmer than the other; a gentle warmth was radiated from it as from a member on which a vivid reaction takes place. This part of the body was trembling and continually affected by unusual contractions and quivering, which seemed to be communicated to any hand that touched her. During the time that I noticed this young person, her pulse varied from 105 to 120; it often appeared irregular. When the girl was removed from the common reservoir, either by placing her in a chair without letting her feet touch the ground, or by resting her feet against those of another person standing before her, the phenomenon did not take place; it also ceased when she put her hands beneath her on sitting down. A waxed floor, a piece of oil-cloth, or a plate of glass, put under her feet or upon her chair, equally destroys her electric faculty.
"During the paroxysm, the girl can hardly touch anything with her left hand without causing it to be thrown some distance; when her clothes come in contact with pieces of furniture, she attracts, displaces, and finally overturns them. This will be better conceived when the fact is known that, at each electric discharge, she endeavors to escape in order to avoid the result; she says that she always feels a pricking sensation at her wrist and elbow. In searching for the pulse in the temporal artery, not being able to appreciate it in the left arm, my fingers inadvertently touched the nape of the neck; instantly the girl uttered a cry, and disengaged herself from me. In the region of the cerebellum (I have tested this many times), where the muscles of the upper portion of the
neck are inserted into the cranium, there was such a sensitive spot that the girl could not bear to have it touched—a spot which retained all the sensations she felt in her left arm.
"The child's electric emanations seemed to occur at intervals, and successively, in different portions of the anterior part of her body. I remarked on this occasion that in the displacement of the table, which requires great force, the electricity was in the base of the brain.
"Whatever these emanations are, they are produced by a gaseous current producing a sensation of cold. I distinctly felt a momentary breath upon my hands, similar to that made by the lips.
"This irregularity in the emission of the fluid seems to result from numerous causes. First, the continual preoccupation of the girl, who always glances behind her when any one or any thing touches her; and, finally, the apprehension which she has of the phenomenon; for, as soon as it becomes manifest, she rapidly endeavors to escape, as though repulsed by some contrary force. It is only when she thinks of nothing, or when her thoughts are otherwise engaged, that the phenomenon is most sudden and intense.
"Each phenomenon is marked by extreme fright in the girl, flight, and a general air of alarm. When she touches the north pole of a magnet with the end of her finger, she receives a violent shock. The south pole produces no effect. The magnet was charged in such a manner that the north pole could not be distinguished from the south; but the young girl knew the difference.
"She is very strong and in excellent health. Her intellectual capacities are but little developed; she is a village girl in every sense of the word.
"Paris, February 15, 1846."
After having read the preceding notice, Arago related all that he had himself observed concerning Angélique Cottin, whom her relations had taken to the Observatory. In the presence of MM. Mathieu, Laugier, and Gougin, he confirmed the following phenomena: When Angélique Cottin touched a sheet of paper lying on a table it was instantly attracted toward her hand. Angélique approached a table, which was repelled as soon as it came in contact with her apron. She seated herself upon a chair with her feet resting on the floor, and the chair was thrown violently against the wall, while the young girl was sent in another direction. This experiment succeeded whenever it was tried. Neither Arago, Gougin, nor Laugier, could hold the chair immovable, and M. Gougin, seating himself in one-half of it, while the girl occupied the other, was thrown upon the floor as soon as she took possession of it.
Arago then asked that a committee should be appointed to examine these phenomena. The Academy selected Arago, Becquerel, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Babinet, Rayer, and Pariset.
This committee assembled, on the following day, in the Jardin des Plantes, but the experiments were unfavorable in regard to the reality of the electric properties of Angélique Cottin.
Here is the committee's report:
"In the session of the 16th of February the Academy received from M. Cholet and Dr. Sanchon two notices relative to the extraordinary faculty which, it is
said, was developed about a month ago in a young girl from Orne, Angélique Cottin, aged fourteen years. The Academy, in conformity with its usual custom, appointed a committee to examine these alleged facts, and to give an account of the result. We will discharge this duty in very few words:
"It was affirmed that Mdlle. Cottin exercised a most intense action of repulsion upon bodies of all kinds whenever a portion of her garments touched them. Accounts were even given of heavy tables being overturned by the simple contact of a silk thread. No effect of this kind was manifested before the committee.
"In the narratives communicated to the Academy it was affirmed that a magnetized needle, under the influence of the girl's arm, performed rapid oscillations, and finally fixed itself quite far from the magnetic meridian. When tried before the committee, a needle, delicately suspended in the same way and under the same circumstances, experienced neither permanent nor momentary displacement.
"M. Sanchon thought that Mdlle. Cottin possessed the faculty of distinguishing the north pole of a magnet from the south pole, by merely touching them with her fingers. The committee was convinced, by varied and numerous experiments, that the young girl does not possess the capacity attributed to her of determining the poles.
"The committee need not enumerate these useless attempts. It will simply content itself with declaring that the only one of the alleged facts which was realised before them was that concerning the sudden and violent movements of chairs in which the young girl seated herself. Upon serious suspicions arising as to the manner in which these movements occurred, the committee has decided that they shall be submitted to an attentive examination. It frankly announces that the investigations tended to discover the fact that certain habitual manœuvres hidden in the feet and hands could have produced the observed fact. M. Cholet now declared that the young girl had lost her powers of attraction and repulsion, and that we should be notified as soon as they were restored. Many days have passed since, yet the committee has received no intelligence. We have learned, however, that Mdlle. Cottin is daily received in drawing-rooms where she repeats her experiments.
"After having fully weighed the circumstances, the committee is of the opinion that the communications transmitted to the Academy on the subject of Mdlle. Angélique Cottin should be considered as never having been sent in.