Today’s post is a rambling look at some unusual physical phenomena associated with table-tipping and automatic writing, which were all the rage in 1850s France. Just as we see warnings today from religious or skeptic groups against playing with Ouija boards or becoming obsessed with the paranormal, 19th-century religious authorities were wary of Spiritualism.
This is part of a longer article, which begins with mention of a series of articles on Spiritualism called “Modern Necromancy,” translated from Civila Cattolica, a Jesuit periodical. The editor notes: “Their writer’s object is twofold; first, to repel the prevalent materialism of the time, by showing that the facts of Spiritualism are supernatural; secondly, that they proceed from spirits evil and diabolical….”
The Marquis de Mirville was Jules de Mirville [1802-1873], an early investigator of haunted houses, poltergeists, and psychic phenomena. The events related here occurred c. 1857, at a time when there were strong anti-clerical sentiments in France. This “Ultramontane view” seems to be an attempt to reassert the primacy of the Church in such supernatural matters. Spiritualism, operating as it did, outside of the framework of the Catholic Church (despite a certain overlap in mysterious phenomena), was suspect. Something must have been in the water in France in the 1840s and 1850s—along with the rise of Spiritualism there was a cluster of Marian apparitions in those decades, including the most famous one at Lourdes in 1858.
FACTS RELATED BY M. DE MIRVILLE.
“The Marquis J. Ender de Mirville is well known in France for two important works which he has published upon the spirits, one in 1853, entitled Du Esprits et de leurs Manifestations Fluidiques, and addressed to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of Paris; and the other, in 1855, entitled Question du Esprits, ses Progres dans la Science Examen de Faits nouveaux et de Publications importantes sur les Tables, les Esprits, et le Surnaturel…According to him, all the phenomena of the tables, as well as those of animal magnetism, to which a great part of the first book is consecrated, are after all diabolical: the true and principal causes being wicked spirits, which, nevertheless, make use of fluids, magnetic, electric, nervous, vital, or however else we may call them, as instruments…
“Without, then, vouching for all which Mirville relates or teaches in his works, and without anticipating our opinion concerning the capital knot of the question, we shall bring forward only some of the most remarkable facts narrated by him, preserving for them all those characters of credibility and authenticity which they have in the author’s book, so that the reader may form a good judgment about them by himself….
“Still more strange and capricious are the facts narrated by M. de Sauley, Member of the Institute of France, who from having been from the first professedly incredulous of the magic wonders of the tables, was compelled to become by his own experience the solemn and authoritative attester of them and to seek, in some more recondite order of ideas, some explanation of those phenomena which no mechanical or physical hypothesis has been able to give in anything like a satisfactory manner. From the time that he began his experiments, not only did he obtain the usual movements, and jerkings, and rappings, and writings with pencil from his tables, but a variety and frightful violence of unexpected manifestations. A heavy massive oaken table, which three robust carpenters were pressing with all their might down on the ground: no sooner had M. de Sauley given to it the command to rise up by the simple imposition of his fore-finger, than it darted up with such force as to overthrow the three carpenters on to the ground, and the table itself was broken. The various articles of furniture of the room not only began to dance about, but ran against their master and struck him so unkindly that he was obliged to barricade himself and fence against them as against an enemy. One of the instruments which was most ready in yielding to the experiments was the stem of a chibouk [long-stemmed Turkish pipe] which M. de Sauley had brought with him from the East. It acted excellently as a divining rod in finding out things which were lost; and when it was held by two consultators by the two extremities, it moved with a prodigious force and velocity, drawing them after it, and carrying them to the spot where the lost objects were, which it showed by striking above them. However, it did not content itself with divining only, but one day, when two children dared to insult those who were carrying the divining wand, it began to threaten them, and to aim such fierce blows against them, that it was requisite to abandon it. At other times, it amused itself by striking upon the china cups, and knocking its master’s legs, and shaking off the ashes of his cigar.
“But, besides the play of power, the instruments gave signs of intelligence no less malignant than profound. The pencil, when asked by M. de Sauley to write, ‘I am a dog,’ wrote, in Arabic, ‘Ana kelb,’ but with the letters the wrong way and upside down, as if to make sport of the interrogator, who did not succeed in reading the answer until the pencil itself suggested to him to set the characters right. And so, at other times, it gave the learned Orientalist similar lessons in Arabic, Coptic, and Hebrew orthography. The same pencil, interrogated on one occasion by some ladies alone, wrote at length, after some hours of silence, certain words, clear enough to read, but which they did not understand, because their thoughts had never been contaminated. Oftentimes the spirit answered by strange figures and odd drawings, and represented himself with a human head, but horned, and with two triangles on the chest—one of them upright, like that which is the symbol of Jehovah, the other reversed, which symbol he himself explained by adding,’ I am a God reversed.’ When asked what he did, he made no other answer than in these solemn and sad words—’Veterem vitam vivo’ (I lead the old life). And almost always he ended his oracles with the word ‘engage’ to which he prefixed, for the sake of clearness, ‘veux-tu?‘ as if he would say, Will you make a compact with me? These, and many other similar phenomena, continued for several months, in presence of many and various witnesses, until M. de Sauley, now quite convinced of and frightened at the wicked nature of their cause, broke off all connection with the tables and the spirits, and abstained entirely, and advised others to abstain from repeating similar experiments, and at the same time gave to the experiments already made the public and authoritative sanction of his name.
Perhaps to modern ears, this sounds rather silly. I know I laughed at the pipe beating the children and the “certain words” unintelligible to ladies who had never been “contaminated.” But the Devil was very real in 19th-century France. Reports were current about the saintly priest, Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, the Cure d’Ars [d. 1859], who was attacked for 35 years by the devil, the grappin, with what sound very like poltergeist phenomena. He advised the myriad of people who came to him for confession and spiritual advice to fling holy water around the house to fight off the Devil. We see this being used as a remedy below.
“After Lyons and Paris, let us now pass on to Toulouse, where we shall encounter portents no less extraordinary than the preceding. The historian of them is M. Benezet, director of the Gazette de Languedoc, a man eminent in Toulouse for his learning and good sense, who after having been for a long while, like M. de Sauley, ‘railleur impitoyable a l’egard des tables,” was obliged at last to give himself up to the too evident reality of the facts which he had himself established by experiment, and which he published in a work entitled Des Tables Tournantes et du Pantheisme. Paris, 1854. The first phenomenon which gave a strong blow to his incredulity was his witnessing a heavy table rotate with a lightness and docility ill reconcilable with the natural inertia of its great mass. Then followed all the usual gambols of the tables and trestles, their raising themselves up and striking with the foot, and writing, answering, and divining. Then followed other movements and passages still more strange, so that the pieces of furniture, without any contact or imposition of hands, were seen upon a simple command to become agitated, moved about, to raise themselves up and again fall down on the ground as if they had been not inert matter, but living and animated bodies. ‘On the first days of this new phenomenon,’ according to the account of M. Benezet, ‘the little table in order to raise itself up from the ground, was obliged to support itself against the wall, or upon one of us. I saw it several times climb up by little leaps, crawling along my chest, and then, stopping a little, fall down again suddenly with a noise. At other times it seemed to jump up under our fingers, trying to reach the objects which we were presenting to it at a little height above it. Sometimes it even supported itself two or three minutes suspended in the air, approaching our hands and distancing itself from them, and striking gently our fingers, as it were caressing them.’…
‘One day,’ proceeds M. Benezet, ‘when the table was in the vein, running about and dancing, one of the spectators fetched a little holy water and sprinkled some upon it. Immediately it seemed to be seized with convulsions: so great was the force and fury with which it began to storm and beat itself about. Finally it upset, and thus, when overturned, it struck with its head upon the boards, as if it wished to make the holy water fall off from it. After some little while it got up again, and finding the door of the balcony open, it threw itself into it, as if it appeared to wish to get over the parapet and leap down to the ground below. On the day following, as I was terrified at the progress which I had made in the way I had taken so incautiously, I determined on leaving it, and resolved that neither myself nor any of mine should have anything more to do with experiments of this sort. M. and Madame L___ made the same- resolution with me. Three days passed over without any other incident, except that when M. and Madame L___ sat down to meals, the table was agitated and gave light blows, as it were in the act of provoking them. They, however, persisted in their good resolution, and abstained from making any interrogations of it.’
“‘On the third day, whilst they were at dinner, they felt all of a sudden a smart blow discharged by the table, without the slightest motion of the latter. They looked at one another in astonishment, and having left the dining room, retired into their chamber, but the noise followed them everywhere. When they were come into their apartment, they remained there for some time, without disturbance, and sat reading at a table. When the knockings began again, and as these were felt chiefly under the seat of Madame L___ , she bathed her fingers in a little vessel of holy water, which she kept near on purpose to defend her from all fear at night, and sprinkled it under the chair. At that very moment she felt her hand seized hold of and bitten under the second joint of the thumb, and she tried hard to withdraw it. Her husband did not understand what her cries meant; but as soon as he saw upon the reddened and tumid flesh the mark of a double file of teeth, his surprise was very much greater. A little while after, she uttered another shriek and fell back in a swoon with her hand placed upon her right shoulder. Her husband looked everywhere, but could see nothing and the dress of the lady did not show the slightest disturbance; but when the shoulder was made bare, he found there as it were a bruise as large as a crown piece, and saw some drops of blood. When she was again conscious, she felt herself bitten again in the forearm, and then in the back, though less severely. Nothing else happened that night. In the morning, sixteen hours after the occurrence, I saw the marks of the bites. The injured part of the hand was still red, although the mark of the teeth had disappeared. On the shoulder there was a blackish scar, and the forearm showed the impression of two canine teeth.’
The Spiritual Magazine 1873, pp. 312-25
Of course this recalls the case of the Romanian girl Eleonore Zugun, who was bitten and scratched apparently by an invisible entity in a poltergeist case of unusual violence. But what kind of creature had been conjured up by a bit of “harmless” tabletipping that sank its teeth into this lady?
Sprinkle your theories with holy water before sending to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
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.