In keeping with my stated policy that my talents lie more in the direction of collection than analysis, and due to some very late nights thorax-deep in proof-sheets for The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, I offer several 19th-century Electric Ladies.
The South was apparently charged with these creatures including the Georgia Electric Girl, Mattie Lee Price, Annie Abbot (The Little Georgia Magnet) and Lulu Hurst, The Georgia Wonder. However, the name “electric girls” was a misnomer: there seems to have been little discrimination between electricity and magnetism because these three demonstrated magnetic, rather than shocking electrical powers. Outside the United States, the most famous Electric Girl was perhaps a French textile worker named Angelique Cottin, described by Punch as a “torpedo in petticoats.” This Popular Science article, written 35 years after the fact gives a good summary of her career, ascribing it to spiritualist powers.
Another description of the events around Cottin:
Outlines of Ten Years’ Investigations Into the Phenomena of Modern Spiritualism, Thomas Pallister Barkas, 1862
Given his distinguished scientific career, it is difficult to understand how Francisco Arago could have been taken in by this, unless possibly there was actual PK activity at the start of the manifestations. Cottin was at the right age to be a poltergeist vector. Some kind of PK activity seems to have surrounded her, at least briefly. She apparently resorted to trickery when the activity waned, as so many poltergeist children do and was quickly unmasked as a fraud. The medical and scientific journals gleefully ridiculed M. Arago.
The wonderful performance of the electrical girl has been proved to have been a clumsy piece of jugglery; and it is astonishing how M. Arago and other members of the Academy could have been so much deceived as to introduce the subject to notice in the manner they did. The Chemist, Or, Reporter of Chemical Discoveries and Improvements, Vol. 7, Charles Watt, John Watt, 1846.
ELECTRICAL GIRL AGAIN. We admitted an article from the Medical Times in our last No., stating that the distinguished philosopher, M. Arago, had moved in the Academy of Sciences of Paris, the appointment of a committee to investigate certain singular phenomenon he had witnessed in a young girl, who by the mere touch of her apron, could overturn tables, chairs, &c., We now learn by the last European Journals, that these wonderful performances have been proven to be nothing more than “a clumsy piece of jugglery.” The Southern medical and surgical journal, Volume 2, The Medical College of Georgia, 1846
While the majority of electrical females were young and in the United States, here are two anomalous anomalies. The first, who originally appeared in the German press, was from Vienna, Austria and was about 30 years old at the time of the events reported. Once again we see a link of ill-health and “neuralgia” with unusual phenomena. One wonders what delicate female secret was embodied in “peculiar symptoms”?
AN ELECTRIC LADY.
A respectable physician, in a late number of Silliman’s Journal, relates the following curious account of an Electrical Lady:
He states, that on the evening of Jan. 28th, during a somewhat extraordinary display of the northern lights, the person in question became so highly charged with electricity, as to give out vivid electrical sparks from the end of each finger to the face of each of the company present. This did not cease with the heavenly phenomenon, but continued for several months, during which time she was constantly charged, and giving off electrical sparks to every conductor she approached. This was extremely vexatious, as she could not touch the stove, nor any metallic utensils, without first giving off an electrical spark, with the consequent twinge. The state most favourable to this phenomenon was an atmosphere of about 80° Fah., moderate exercise, and social enjoyment. It disappeared in any atmosphere approaching zero, and under the debilitating effects of fear. When seated by the stove, reading, with her feet upon the fender, she gave sparks at the rate of three or four a minute; and under the most favorable circumstances, a spark that could be seen, heard, or felt, passed every second! She could charge others in the same way, when insulated, who could then give sparks to others. To make it satisfactory that her dress did not produce it, it was changed to cotton and woollen, without altering the phenomenon. The lady is about thirty, of sedentary pursuits, and delicate state of health, having, for two years previously, suffered from acute rheumatism and neuralgic affections, with peculiar symptoms. Madison [WI] Express 25 January 1840
This Electrical Lady-Doctress was even more unusual as she was elderly, rather than a young girl. While the lady was American, the examination in this article took place in Paris. Her “electricity” seems to have been more along the lines of chiropractic manipulation. The “electro-static breeze” was a feature also noted in the séances of Italian medium Eusapia Palladino and her so-called “psychic winds.”
An Electrical Woman.
We were recently invited (Saturday, March 16th) to the house of Dr. X., to see an American lady doctor, who, as we were told, has the power of giving shocks at a distance, even through insulators such as glass. We found our colleagues, Dr. J. Riviere and Dr. Mac Auliffe, also there. The subject spoke in English, but Dr. Riviere acted as interpreter. The operator-subject invoked the Divine Power and placed her hands on our heads.
We had a sensation of pressure, of heaviness, accompanied by many rapid vibrations resembling those of a vibro-massage instrument driven by an electric motor; then her hand was removed from our heads and we had a very distinct sensation of the electro-static breeze. The operator then tried interposing the hands of several of those present between her hand and our head, and we only felt a pressure but no vibrations.
Then the transmission of vibrations was made between two glasses connected together by a wooden cane, the glasses at each end being held by two of the persons present; against the middle of the cane the operator placed the mouth of a third glass, holding her hand against the bottom of the glass; the vibration was transmitted and very plainly perceived.
In order to test the nature of the phenomena I had brought with me a current indicator, a very sensitive galvanometer, with wires, metallic electrodes, and wads which could be made wet. I tried the following experiment: The subject states that her right hand, the fore-arm and the lower two-thirds of the arm on the same side, are the only parts of her body in which this phenomenon occurs. Are they of an electric nature? And if so, is the electricity in the skin or in the muscles? This is what I wished to determine. In order to discover whether the skin was the seat of electrical reactions, I used dry metallic electrodes (brass cylinders about two inches long), placing one end in her hand, which I made her close firmly, and the other on the active part of her arm; the electrodes were connected by wires with the very sensitive galvanometer; there was no reaction; the skin, therefore, was not in any degree electric. Were the muscles electric? I then replaced the metallic cylinders by damp wads; it is known that when muscles are thus electrified they contract, whilst dry metallic electrodes produce no result; I thought that, conversely, if the muscles developed electricity they might transmit it to the galvanometer; but this arrangement produced no reaction either. It would obviously have been more scientific to insert non-polarisable needles into the muscles, but this, of course, would not have been permitted, and, moreover, it would have been a very poor return for the gracious and quite gratuitous courtesy of the subject-operator!
I can draw no conclusions from these negative results. If the experiments had succeeded, if they had indicated objective and measurable dynamic electricity, this would have been very demonstrative.
Our subjective sensations remain to be considered, and these differed to some extent, but always indicated very distinct vibrations. These, in my opinion, may be explained by epileptoid muscular contractions produced by the subject in her right arm by will or by practice, and transmitted through the palm of the hand when pressed on persons or things. With regard to the sensation of an electro-static breeze, I do not discuss it; I affirm that I felt it very distinctly three separate times, and the others present felt it also. I might have tried to render it objective by making it act on a candle, for instance, and seeing if the flame was deflected, but it did not occur to me, and I offer the suggestion to future observers of a similar case.
This lady doctor—(or, at least, she is so represented)—is a woman above the average height, somewhat strong, very grey, with a kindly manner, and very convinced of her power. She attends to the sick and has a method of examination quite her own. She taps somewhat violently on the spinal column, the back, the stomach, and the chest. She thus hopes, no doubt, to produce some pain in the internal organs, and thus to discover the diseased centres, either through the complaints of the patient or by seeing them make a grimace when a sensitive spot is struck. Perhaps there is some other explanation, but this appears to us a plausible one.
In conclusion, she is an interesting subject, who deserves longer study, but as she was only spending four days in Paris and was on the eve of her departure we were unable to make fuller examination.
DR. FOVEAU DE COURMELLES.
The Annals of Psychical Science, Volume 5, 1907
Such electrifying people were widely exhibited at Dime Museums and similar venues. I think I recall some Electrical phenoms in Ricky Jay’s Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. Any other electric ladies? Galvanize me at Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
I’ve previously written about the shocking history of the electrical practical joke.
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.