A Weeping Virgin Ends in Tears
A recent article on a weeping Virgin Mary statue in Fresno opened the floodgates of memory to this similar story and its dire sequel from early 20th-century France. You just know that it will all end in tears…
Weeping and Bleeding Images
By Edwin E. Slosson
Europe is rapidly slipping back into medievalism, both materially and mentally. The revival of racial and religious warfare, the dissolution of imperial aggregates into numerous petty independencies, the break— down of international credit and communication, the reversion to primitive forms of trade, industry and morality, the imitation of savage styles of music and art, the glorification of physical prowess and brutality, the growing contempt for science and the recrudescence of superstition, all point in the same direction, that is toward the Dark Ages. Magic is again in vogue. More books on necromancy are being published than on chemistry and have a vastly wider circulation. The worship of Satan reappears and the Black Mass is again celebrated. During the war one of the leading writers on Satanism, M. Jules Bois, was sent over to this country by the atheistic French government to urge us on to the war. Witchcraft is becoming popular and is appearing again in the courts. In January, 1920, a case came before the correctional tribunal of Bordeaux in which the defense was a charge of sorcery. The story, as told at length in the Mercure de France of August 1 is a curious illustration of the prevailing psychology. The affair originated with the Weeping Virgin of Bordeaux. In 1907  Marie Mesmin, a poor but pious concierge and housekeeper, aged 52, made a pilgrimage to Lourdes and brought back one of the ordinary plaster statuettes sold there of the Virgin of the Grotto who in 1858 revealed to a peasant girl the miraculous spring to which more than half a million invalids resort every year. Madame Mesmin set up the image in her kitchen and as she said her prayers to it day by day she noticed that tears came from its eyes and rolled down its cheeks. The priest to whom she reported the miracle was not convinced and advised her not to talk about it. But nevertheless the news spread and pilgrims came from all over France and from foreign lands to witness the miracle. As the tears gained repute for the healing of diseases their flow increased. The cashier of the National Insurance Company, presumably a hard-headed business man, testified in court that he had collected a small glassful of the tears and when a larger glass was brought that was repeatedly filled to the brim. A flask 0f the alleged lachrymal fluid was sent to the convent but the skeptical mother superior forwarded the sample to a chemist who reported that it was plain water without the salt and mucous that characterize human tears. When the image was removed to the convent [on the Archbishop’s orders] the tears ceased to appear. But when another sacred image, a reproduction of the Santissimo Bambina of Milan, replaced the Weeping Virgin in the kitchen, tears soon gathered in its enameled eyes and rolled down its plaster cheeks. One might surmise that the humidity of the basement kitchen caused a condensation upon the statues, but that would not account for the abundant flow of water.
The unsympathetic owners of the house, annoyed by the throngs of pilgrims, evicted Madame Mesmin and her miracle-working image but her devoted adherents installed it on an altar in an oratory provided for the purpose. Here there was no further flow of tears but the image developed another miraculous virtue. It exhaled a perpetual perfume that filled the chapel and impregnated with a strange and delightful fragrance all articles brought near it. During the war pictures and cloths carrying the celestial scent were much in demand at the front, and an extensive commerce in such pious objects developed under the directorship of a Syrian priest who was stranded in France by the war, the archimandrite Saboungi, vicar general of the diocese of Sidon, doctor of philosophy and theology of Rome. But after three years Madame Mesmin quarreled with her director and accused him of being in league with the Luciferians to torment her. Altho he had gone to Nantes, 300 miles away, Madame Mesmin testified that thru her clairvoyant power she could see him at night performing the indecent rites of the Black Mass with the blood of a frog in the chalice and making out of the black cloth of his robe silhouettes of the persons he wished to destroy. The canon of Bordeaux, who endeavored to relieve her paroxysms by repeatedly practicing exorcism by permission of the cardinal archbishop, testified to his belief that she was obsessed by a demon sent by Saboungi; and that the demon, tortured by the holy water thrown in the face of his victim, had begged thru her mouth to have the man who sent him killed.
The feeling spread among the circle of believers that Msgr. Saboungi was bringing suffering and death upon his enemies by means of his enchantments, and four men from Bordeaux, [M. de Floris, a broker; M. Cardon, Inspector of Police; M. Berton, an orchestra leader, and M. Parantel, a bank cashier] realizing that they could get no aid from an infidel government, determined to put a stop to his evil practices by direct action. So they went to Nantes and binding the priest to his bed, gave him a thrashing with a dog whip and a rubber tube. There seems something anachronistic about flogging a man for witchcraft with an automobile tire. They searched his room for evidences of sorcery but found nothing suspicious except a skull—not a skeleton— in the closet. [See the following article for more on this point.]
The archimandrite brought suit against his assailants who in defense produced witnesses to prove the injuries inflicted by Saboungi’s “sendings” as well as the expert evidence of Dr. Rochas, who in a well-known book on “The Exteriorization of Sensibility” had adduced experiments to show that sticking pins into a waxen image of a person would produce similar wounds on the individual himself. In spite of this the court decided that the four men from Bordeaux were guilty of unprovoked assault and sent them to prison for three months. But the verdict is so cautiously worded as to leave undetermined the witchcraft issue. On this point the court held:
That in the actual state of science it is not certain that the injuries of which Marie Mesmin complains were caused by the malefactions of the Abbe Saboungi and that her life was in danger;
That on the other hand it is not certain that the means employed by the accused were of a nature to put a stop to the suffering that she felt.
We do not therefore have in the Bordeaux case a judicial decision in validation of the reality of witchcraft but the respectful hearing given to it and the non-committal verdict lead us to expect this will come in the future.
[The author continues with an account of bleeding statues in Tipperary, omitted here in the interests of focus.]
These things are not important in themselves but are of great interest as signs of the times. It does not matter much whether the narrations are true or false or rather what may be the truth about them. The significant thing about them is that they are so widely and readily accepted. At the close of the nineteenth century the view was commonly expressed that all such things as astrology, magic, witchcraft, demonology and divination were exploded myths. Now the medieval mind is again in the ascendant. Medieval costumes and customs are being revived and medieval institutions, like the gild [sic] system and village commune, are being advocated. Marvelous incidents which a few years ago would not have been accepted on any amount of evidence are now accepted on no evidence at all. The public mind is shifting from a narrow and dogmatic skepticism to an uncritical and boundless credulity. Even where the ecclesiastical authorities, as at Bordeaux, endeavor to nip in the bud a nascent sensation the popular demand for wonders proves irresistible. The Catholic Church opposes modern spiritualism as strenuously as it opposed medieval witchcraft, but even its own adherents sometimes succumb to the wiles of the Ouija board. Church and state are alike powerless to oppose such a general movement and science offers little opposition. In fact some of the most prominent men of science are now relating personal experiences more amazing than the legends of the middle ages.
The Independent, Vol. 104, p. 1920
(The aggrieved tone may be explained by the fact that the author was the founding director of Science Service, an organization which has as its mission the promotion of science.)
Saboungi, [also spelt Sapounghi and Siboungi] seemed to know a good thing when he saw it.
“Mme. Mesmin, who was a concierge, received him in her house without charging him for lodging, made collections for him and denied herself in order to feed and clothe him—all this according to her own recital of events. Later she accused him of improper proposals and of trying to make a personal profit out of the miraculous weeping Virgin.”
Sensationally, the papers reported that Mme. Mesmin was tortured by invisible teeth, which left tooth prints on her face.
“From Nantes Sapounghi pursued me constantly. He tried to drive me crazy. He sent me homicidal thoughts against every one. He had a magnetic power of me. I know that when he was in my house he practiced black magic. He put the blood of toads and other foul beasts in a chalice, and he placed this chalice between the breasts of a wax doll representing a nude woman.” [other articles claim that the priest forced her to drink the blood, which made her ill.]
The broker, the police inspector, the orchestra leader and the bank cashier listened to Mme. Mesmin, believed her, resolved to free her from unholy persecution, broke into the priest’s room at Nantes, attacked him with a dog whip, a grooved wooden paddle, and a rubber band loaded with leaden pellets, and forced him to give up the key to his trunk. They found therein, according to their story of justification, a wax figure which bore all the marks of being the satanic instrument by means of which Mme. Mesmin had been tortured. And to crown the wonder of the tale, it is Mme. Mesmin’s solemn asseveration that at the precise moment when the Abbe was found, beaten and bleeding on the floor of his room, she—hundreds of kilometres away in Bordeaux—was relieved of her strange sufferings. The Evening World [New York, NY] 13 January 1920: p. 3
I was searching for more on the Four Whippers-in of the Apocalypse, when up popped a 1926 headline: French Priest on Charge of Having Evil Spirits, Is Beaten by Fanatics. It seemed rather late for the same story to be repeated as filler. Reading further, I realized that it was not the same priest, nor the same location, and there were ten perpetrators. But the theme was the same. Plus ça change…
French Priest on Charge of Having Evil Spirits, Is Beaten by Fanatics.
Paris, Jan. 6 Flagellated to exorcise evil spirits which he was accused of harboring, Abbe De Noyer, cure of the little village of Bombon, forty miles from Paris, has been so badly injured he will probably not be able to leave his bed for a month.
He was attacked by ten fanatics of the mystic sect of Our Lady of Tears, who travelled half way across France, from Bordeaux, to seize the gentle priest, strip him and beat him with knotted cords for twenty minutes until help came.
The two men of the party are held by the police and the eight women, varying in age from 17 to 70, were sent back to Bordeaux. But the chief of the sect, Marie Mesmin, who was a janitress until the sect made her rich, has been summoned to answer charges of instigating the attack.
Her hatred of the Abbe is several years old, dating back to the time when on a pilgrimage to Notre Dame De La Salette, he scoffed at the religious value of her image of the infant Jesus which she claimed wept perfumed tears. For three years he has been receiving threatening letters from Mme. Mesmin.
Finally she worked up members of her sect, which numbers about 2000, to the belief that the priest exercised an evil influence over her. [She was reported to have mesmerized her devotees by relating a dream where she saw De Noyers stabbing the Host with a knife.] Ten of them came to Bombon, caught Abbe De Noyers after mass, bound and gagged him tore his clothes off and beat him furiously with knotted ropes. [They were also said to have blinded him with pepper.] The Evening News [Harrisburg, PA] 6 January 1926: p. 16
Well, that puts a rather different complexion on the case; and probably not the shiny gesso coating of a miraculous statue. The men in the case received sentences of 8 months in jail; the women 6 months. The Abbe also received 5,000 francs damages. I cannot find any indication that Mme. Mesmin was ever charged, although the Cardinal-Archbishop of Bordeaux threatened to excommunicate anyone associated with her Order. She died in 1935. One wonders who wept for her?
Details of the post-1930 history of The Order of Our Lady of Tears? Why do I have the feeling that someone got the hose again? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
For a previous pious imposture, see this post on a bleeding painting.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.