Spiritualists and Theosophists alike were drawn to the miracles and marvels of India. Today we hear from a gentleman who tells of a peculiar “Devil Woman” in Benares, known for her magnetic powers.
A BENARES LADY MAGNET.
Sir,—Last year when on a tour through India I visited the highly interesting city of Benares. One day when inspecting some of the strange temples which are in such numbers all over the city, I happened by a mere chance to ask my Indian servant as we passed a small but very smart temple in a narrow, crowded street, “Is there anything worth seeing here?” He immediately replied, “Oh, yes; devil woman!” Naturally this reply roused my curiosity, and I inquired whether the lady was a difficult person to visit, and whether she was dangerous to approach. Hyder said, “Oh, no, very quiet; no hurt, but very much devil.” He further volunteered the fact that two rupees was the fee for a séance. I then sent him to make arrangements, and waited myself in the entrance to the temple, which was a very beautifully decorated one, evidently in high favour, and receiving much patronage.
My servant returned, and said, “Now, sahib, woman ready.” I was conducted by a queer old priest through a sort of cloister and up a small stair, my servant coming with me. A thick “durrie,” or carpet, covered a small doorway, and drawing this aside my conductor signed to me to enter.
The chamber was a very small one, with at the end a sort of raised dais, on which was crouched a most hideous old woman. She was a mere skeleton, and her face was wizened and shrivelled up as small as an infant’s, but a pair of dark eyes seemed to blaze with light. A small lamp was in the room, but even with it I could see that her hair, which was in tangled grey masses about her shoulders, showed a distinct phosphorescent light. Noticing that I was looking at her hair, she raised her shrivelled hands, and taking them through and through the long locks, she made sparks fly out and bright gleams of light show all over it. My servant interpreted for me, and asked if I wanted to see her perform some of her wonders. On my replying in the affirmative, the carpet on which she was sitting was removed and I then saw that the little platform was made of coarse, dull, greenish glass. The woman stood up, and at that moment the old priest brought to the doorway a small goat. It looked in and seemed very frightened. No sooner did the woman raise her hand than it became still, slowly advanced, sideways, towards her, and, as it reached the platform, fell down and was quickly drawn towards her, lying perfectly passive on its side. She then went through the same sort of thing with a cat, which was brought in a basket, two pigeons, and a snake, making them do all sorts of curious antics, making the snake stand perfectly perpendicular, like a stick or young sapling. The birds she brought to her by a curious drawing process through the air; they did not fly, and they seemed averse to going, but were invisibly compelled to advance to her. She then asked through my servant whether I would care to be operated on myself, or should they get in a native. Not caring first to be a victim, I suggested to Hyder that he should be one; but this he strenuously refused to be, and so I despatched him for a coolie. He brought in an exceedingly tall, handsome lad, who had a sort of devil-may-care expression on his fine face. The woman ordered him to throw off his loose gown, so he had nothing on but a loin cloth. She then motioned him on to the edge of the platform, and almost immediately, after a few passes, she placed her hand under his and slowly raised him off the ground to the height of about two feet, the chamber being so low that he could not get up much higher. She then made a few hypnotic passes, and he became quite stiff, and by a deft turn of her hand she somehow turned his body sideways and raised him in that position as high as her own breast. She did several other things, and then, placing his arms out straight, signed for me to come and put them down. This I attempted to do, but they were rigid as iron, his fingers and hips the same, and his eyes, though evidently seeing, did not have the slightest motion Thoroughly convinced of her power, I then allowed her to practise on myself, and the sensation caused by her even pointing her hand was like an intense discharge from an electric battery into my body, but by no means an unpleasant sensation. She raised me up in the same way as she had done the coolie, and my power was entirely gone and I was under her control completely, but again with rather agreeable sensations than otherwise. On her removing her hands and making evidently one or two back passes, a shivery feeling came over me, and I was able to step down from the rough platform. She became quite apathetic the moment the business was over, and the old priest received my .honorarium and my praises in a matter-of-fact way. My servant, who was deeply impressed and for days on the qui vive to see something happen to me, said that the “devil woman ” was supposed to be two hundred years old.
Light 5 December 1891: p. 578-9
OK, I’ll bite. How was it done? What was the significance of the green glass platform? The woman’s phosphorescent and sparking hair is an interesting detail, but was it any more than a séance special effect?
What is most unusual about this story is that W.H.H. tells us that he, unlike the usual bystanding witnesses to such marvels, personally experienced the Lady Magnet’s powers of levitation. Did he? Or were his agreeable sensations and shivery feelings, like the Indian Rope Trick, just another hypnotic illusion?
This story was part of a larger discussion of “Magnetic Women,” like Annie Abbott, “The Georgia Magnet,” who could not be lifted by strong men, supposedly due to her magnetic powers. Magnetic and Electric Men, Women, Boys, and Infants electrified wonder-seekers from the 1830s to the 1890s. I’ve written about some atypical Electric Ladies here. In that post I remark on the conflation of “electric” and “magnetic.”
The Theosophical Society had moved its headquarters to India in the 1870s. Spiritual pilgrims and Spiritualists flocked to the country to experience such wonders for themselves. It is difficult to believe that the Indian servant of someone who would write of his experiences to Light did not know exactly where to steer his master. Any thoughts on the author? chriswoodyard8 @ 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.