Breathe Once for ‘Yes’: Guibal and Greville’s Mind-Reading Act

Victorian mind-reading act

A Victorian stage thought-reader.

While I enjoy reading the first-person accounts of apparitions, fire-spooks, and faces in the windows, it is always a pleasure to find a new wrinkle in the mind-reading tricks sometimes used by Spiritualist mediums. Dr. Hyslop was James Hervey Hyslop, born in Xenia, Ohio, a prominent member of the Society for Psychical Research (as well as the ASPR) and frequent contributor to their journals. He had investigated the medium Leonora Piper and fervently believed in life after death. That said, he did not shirk from exposing fraudulent mediums and psychics. In the cases below, though, I am not sure that “frauds” is the correct term for the mind-readers who were, after all, performing a stage magic act, even though it’s obvious from the article that audiences believed that the Taylors and Guibal and Greville were genuine psychics.

 FRAUDS EXPOSED

Some of the Tricks of So-Called Mind Readers Solved by Dr. Hyslop.

Dr. Hyslop of Columbia College, says a writer in the Boston Herald, has helped to bring down several so-called mind readers who have visited New York. The Taylors, a man and woman who gave exhibitions in New York two years ago and convinced nearly everyone who saw them of the genuineness of their manifestations, gave a private séance for the benefit of this Columbia professor and some of his scientific friends. They found hidden objects, they picked out cards that had been selected from a pack and then shuffled it again, and all the other familiar tricks with more than common success, one of them staying in the room and being in the secret, and the other coming in after all was ready and supposedly reading the partner’s mind.

All went well until Dr. Hyslop and a confederate took the Taylors aback by announcing that they could do the same things. They had found that the words used by one of the “mind readers” in calling the other into the room were what gave the desired information. It was discovered that by skillful arrangement of not more than six words a surprising amount of information could be conveyed. This is the first time the fact that the Taylors were not genuine mind readers has been made public.

Another “mind-reader” exposed by Dr. Hyslop and coinvestigators was Guibal, who gave exhibition in New York recently astonished hundreds of persons, most of whom suppose to this day that his tricks were bona fide psychic phenomena. Guibal’s assistant was a woman called Greville, who sat on the stage, and who, so far as could be seen for a long time, gave him absolutely no sign of what was in her mind. Guibal apparently read that mind as if it were an open book. The whole thing was found to be a trick, and the explanation is now in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research. It is believed that Guibal and Greville were the same persons whose performances had amazed London not long before. The woman breathed very heavily, and the code of signals lay in the manner of her breathing, messages being conveyed by long and short breaths, something like the dots and dashes in the Morse telegraph code. Massillon [OH] Independent February 7, 1895 p. 8

Speaking codes were a dime a dozen on the psychic circuit: “What am I holding? Think carefully…take your time…” is the kind of simple verbal code (signifying the object is a watch.) that the blindfolded oracles used. Here’s a modern version of the trick.  At magic shops, you can purchase books like Calostro Radio Vision Mind Reading Code and The Zancig Code (named for a famous Danish thought-transference artist, Julius Zancig, who was endorsed as a genuine psychic by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)

I had heard of telegraphic codes using raps or pressure on a foot, but I was intrigued by the notion of a breathing code. Since many “mediums” and “mind-readers shared their stagecraft, I would have expected to find this technique elsewhere, but have failed to find anything similar in Behind the Scenes with the Mediums (David P. Abbott 1908), Spook Crooks (Julien J. Proskauer 1932), or similar how-they-did-it titles. Does anyone know where I can find other descriptions of the “breathing code?” And does anyone know who the Taylors were?

I found numerous descriptions of what critics described as the “truly mysterious act of thought transference” by Guibal and Greville. Mlle. Greville wears white robes and has her hair down and is introduced as “Miss Venus,” so that M. Guibal can describe the act as “the trance-it of Venus.” [ba-dum-bump!] I find it amusing that, as related in this account, the program primed the audience by describing what they would see.

 TELEPATHY.

AN HOUR AT THE EDEN MUSEE.

Monsieur Guibal gives to his New York audiences one exhibition that would be prohibited in France, Russia, and most European countries as in violation of the laws forbidding public hypnotic exhibitions. The name of the subject is Marie Greville. The public announcement which is made upon the programme is as follows:

“It is not thought or mind reading, as in experiments of this kind there is contact between the medium and the operator, and often loss of five or ten minutes before the task set can be accomplished.

“In this case there is no contact whatever between Miss Greville and Mons. Guibal, and were one hundred tasks allotted to her these many tasks would be accomplished in almost as many seconds.

“It is not either second-sight or clairvoyance, for in these cases there have been questions and answers between medium and operator.

“In the case of Miss Greville and Mons. Guibal there is not one word of communication.

“It is not again mesmerism or hypnotism as hitherto presented, for here again there was conversation or announcement beforehand in the possible hearing of the subjects of the tasks allotted.

“In Mr. Guibal’s séance Miss Greville will, without the slightest hesitation, faithfully perform any action suggested in a whisper to Mons. Guibal by any member of the audience. Yet, and this is where the novelty of the experiment lies, Mons. Guibal will not speak a single word, he will not touch Miss Greville in any way, or indeed hold any physical communication with her whatever.” The Medico-legal Journal, Volume 11, Alfred Waldemar Herzog, 1893

This description, quoting The London Daily News, is also intriguing for the insight it gives into the normal stage mind-reading act.

REMARKABLE MIND READING
A New Process Called Psychognosis Tested in London.

“Phychosnosis,” The London Daily News says, is the title which M. Guibal has adopted for a new and certainly very remarkable development of what is familiar to us under the name of the thought-reading process. The method adopted by M. Guibal may be briefly described, stating by way of introduction, that Saturday afternoon he submitted to the severest and closest test to which it could be subjected at the hands of an audience composed mainly of pressmen and members of the medical profession among whom was Dr. Bond, of Westminster Hospital.

Miss Greville, M. Guibal’s medium, is a young lady of prepossessing appearance, clad in flowing white robes. After mesmerizing his subject, M. Guibal collected from his audience a dozen pieces of paper, on which they had written their several requests. Then the séance began. M. Guibal never uttered a word. At a motion of his hand, Miss Greville, whose eyes were undoubtedly closed, rose from her seat, descended the steps from the stage to the audience, and unhesitatingly made her way to a gentleman in the front row of the stalls, and, taking a piece of paper and pencil from his hands, wrote the figures 65.

She next, simply guided by M. Guibal’s hand, though sometimes he was behind her and sometimes in front, but never close to her, went to a gentleman and took off his hat. Finding her way to another gentleman, she felt his pulse. From another she took an umbrella and gave three taps on the ground with it. She next took a pocketbook and selected a particular article, and from a card case belonging to another gentleman she extracted three cards and gave them to him.

A well known journalist had submitted a difficult task, which was to take his watch off his chain and place it in Capt. Molesworth’s pocket. This was done without hesitation. Other things were set her to do upon the stage, all of which were performed to the absolute satisfaction of those who had demanded them. Throughout the whole séance there was no faltering or hesitation, no rushing about with the hand of the medium tightly pressed to the forehead by another person, and then, after a number of mistakes, hitting, by hook or by crook, upon the right thing at last. The accuracy of each divination was as astonishing as the readiness with which it was accomplished.

There was no questioning the bona fides of the audience. They were mostly all known to each other, and though they went in no unfriendly spirit of criticizing, they did their best to test M. Guibal’s ability. The requests of the audience were only known to those who wrote them and to M. Guibal himself, and they were not announced until each demand had been satisfied. St. Paul [MN] Daily Globe 10 May 1891: p. 18

 

Impressive. So how was it done?

Explanation.

“In this trick a code of signs and things to be done must be learned by the alleged mesmerist. These he forces adroitly into the minds of the people. The following is the forcing code:

“1. Pull a gentleman’s hair.

“2. Turn up his trousers.

“3. Tic a number of knots in his handkerchief.

“4. Take a watch out of a gentleman’s pocket and place it in another pocket.

“5. Open a lady’s reticule; take out her purse, or anything she may desire.

“6. From out of a number of coins placed in a hat, pick out the special one which has been selected.

“7. Write any number selected on a card.

“8. Take a gentleman’s cane or umbrella and put it in the hands of another gentleman.

“9. Take glasses off a person and place on own nose.

“10. Take off lady’s or gentleman’s gloves.

“11. Write autograph on programme gentleman holds.

“13. Take a handkerchief out of some person’s pocket and tie it on his neck or arm.

“14. Tie a knot in a watch chain, and so on.

“This can be varied indefinitely.

“How to force these requests: The professor first pretends to hypnotize the subject; then moving among the audience, he goes to number one, or first person, and asks him what he would like the medium to do. ‘Let her tell me what I have in my pocket,’ suggests the spectator. ‘Oh,’ says the professor, you forget that she is hypnotized and we cannot have her speak. Get her to do so and so, or this, or that,’ and so the professor rapidly shoots out a volley of suggestions from his learned code. As a natural result, the person selects one of these suggestions.

“Going to the next, he forces the questions differently, saying, ‘What shall she do for you—turn up your trousers? Pull your hair? Tie a knot in your handkerchief?’ etc. In this case, a volley of queries is fired before the gentleman has time to make any suggestions not mentioned by the professor. Seeing a lady sitting near with a bag, the ‘mesmerist’ remarks: ‘Madam, have you a purse in it? Yes? Shall the lady remove it, or something from it?’ and so on. Again he beholds a gentleman with glasses on, and suggests that the medium remove the spectacles, etc. If, however, the gentleman does not wish this done, the professor suggests some of the other tests. In going through the audience the professor asks each individual his or her request in whispers only, and he generally has each person whom he asks a couple of yards apart….The professor has to keep his wits about him. Having gone to a sufficient number in the audience, he must keep mental track of the gentleman who selected No. 1 of code, of him who selected No. 2, and so on. When he returns to the stage to wave down Miss Venus, all she has to do is to follow him in front or at his side. The first person he stops at (by signal), she merely does first on code; the second he stops at, she does second on code; and so on right through. The professor must remember where each chooser is seated.

“He directs the medium to the spectator in question by the movements of his hands. He first shows her the rows in which the persons are seated, all the time waving his hands as if making mesmeric passes. As soon as the medium reaches No. 1 the professor drops his left hand at his side, whereupon she stops and pulls the gentleman’s hair.

“The professor then directs her to No. 2. She stops and turns up the gentleman’s trousers. When she gets to No. 3 the man of mystery tells her how many knots to tie in the handkerchief, by the number of downward waves of left hand, at the same time making passes with the right. To select any special coin out of a hat, or other receptacle, Miss Venus pours the coins from the hat into her right hand, letting them drop one by one into the left hand. When she reaches the proper article, the professor turns to the audience, as if silencing them, and says ‘hist!’

“The lady, however, continues pouring the coins into her left hand, and when all are in, picks out the one she knows is correct.

“These methods may be readily varied to suit the taste of the performers. The medium’s eyes appear to be closed all the time, but in fact are open sufficiently for her to see all the movements of the professor. After becoming expert it will not be necessary to use the forcing code often, because all requests can be whispered to the medium by the so-called mesmerist, without the audience becoming aware of it. He can do this when he escorts her from the stage to the audience, or as he occasionally passes her in the aisles. The waving of his hands and arms in his different ‘ passes’ will partly tell her what she is expected to do. Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, Including Trick Photography, Albert Allis Hopkins, 1901

In trying to find out more about Guibal and Greville, I was shocked to find an article headed “Marie Greville’s Lieutenant. A Romantic Escapade Ended With a Pistol Shot in Mexico,” and another, “A Conjurer Shot by His Medium.” These articles described how Mlle. Marie (or Blanche) Greville, the thought reader, had been arrested for the murder of her former partner in the “Physiocronitism Show,” Arthur Ferman Guibal, a first lieutenant of French Chasseurs.

Guibal had been a principal of a college of languages in Ireland, then moved to London where he covered literature and theatre for le Temps. When he was asked to interpret for the conjurer Verbeck, Guibal picked up the tricks of the magician’s trade and became a mind-reader. He advertised for the usual young, pretty assistant and hired Mlle. Greville. They toured to great acclaim in England and the United States. As one article says, “Mrs. Guibal arrived with her three children and, although Guibal paid some attention to her, it was evident that he had a predisposition for the fair assistant he had brought with him.” When the news from Potosi was gently broken to Mrs. Guibal by an old Dublin friend she said: “Well, I am not astonished. She often said she would kill him if he left for another woman.”

Strong, lurid stuff!

But in the New York Press [illegible date] 1895, Mlle. Greville was quoted in a letter of December 28, 1894 as saying

“I enclose you a clipping from one of the Southern papers, purporting to be a dispatch sent out from NewYork to the effect that I had killed Lieutenant Guibal and was under arrest. This is the first I have heard of the matter and I hope you will give out the information that the story is a ridiculous falsehood. I have not been arrested, and furthermore, Lieutenant Guibal is alive, in good health, and we are playing our regular engagements. How the story started I have not the slightest idea, as we had no difficulty whatever.”

In 1895 Mlle. Greville married a Mr. Becker, a music hall artist, and retired from her thought-reading act with M. Guibal. Her former partner died in 1897, but oddly enough, in 1910, somebody unspecified dug up the shooting story and sent it as a new article to The Magician who published it. Mrs. Becker sued for libel and was awarded £250 damages, receiving an apology from The Magician.  [Lloyds Weekly News January 16, 1910 p. 5]

I do not know what eventually happened to Mrs. Becker, whether she continued to perform or retired into respectable obscurity. Dr. Hyslop died in 1920. His devoted assistant and secretary, Gertrude O. Tubby, claimed that she had received messages from him from various mediums, compiling these messages into a book called James H. Hyslop: X-His Book. It is desperately dull reading, not nearly as entertaining as the Trance-it of Venus must have been.

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