I was raised in a Protestant denomination where miracles were discouraged. They were all right for Jesus and some of his early followers, but if the man in the pew had made the blind to see and the lame to walk, he would have been told to sit down and stop acting so singular. The anomalies of miracles, visionaries, religious apparitions, enthusiasts, and impostures have been particular favorites of mine ever since an earnest, if misguided, relative assured me that Catholics worshipped idols. Idols were so much more interesting and decorative than anything provided by our house of worship that I instantly became a fan of faith-based forteana.
This 18th-century tale (could it be an Enlightenment exemplum?) of “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” has some delightful and ingenious details.
An Account of a remarkable Imposture, practised a few Years ago on a Widow Lady at Paris.
A Widow lady, aged about 62, who lodged in a two pair of stairs floor, in the Rue de la Ferronerie, with only a maid servant, was accustomed to spend several hours, every day, in her devotions, before the altar dedicated to St. Paul, in a neighbouring church. Some villains observing her extreme bigottry, resolved (as she was known to be very rich) to share her wealth: therefore one of them took the opportunity to conceal himself behind the carved work of the altar; and when no person but the old lady was in the church, in the dusk of the evening, he contrived to throw a letter just before her. She took it up, and not perceiving any one near her, supposed it came by a miracle, which she was the more confirmed in, when she saw it was signed, Paul, the Apostle, and purported, “the satisfaction he received by her addressing her prayers to him, at a time when so many new canonized saints engrossed the devotion of the world, and robbed the primitive saints of great part of their wonted adorations: and to shew his regard for his devotee, said, he would come from heaven, with the angel Gabriel, to sup with her, at eight in the evening.” It is scarce credible to think any one could he deceived by so gross a fraud; but to what length of credulity will not superstition carry the weak mind? The infatuated lady believed it all; and rose from her knees in a transport, to prepare the entertainment for the heavenly guests she expected.
When the supper was bespoke, and the side-board set out to the best advantage, she thought that her own plate (which was worth near 400l. sterling) did not make so elegant a shew as was desired, therefore sent to her brother (who was a counsellor of the parliament of Paris) to borrow all his plate: but charged her maid not to tell the occasion, but only, that she had company to supper, and should be obliged to him if he would lend her his plate for that evening. The counsellor was surprized at the message; and, as he knew the frugality of his sister’s way of life, suspected that she was enamoured with some fortune-hunter, who might marry her for her fortune, and thereby deprive his family of what he expected at his sister’s death; therefore he absolutely refused to send the plate, unless the maid would tell him what guests she expected. The girl, alarmed for her mistress’s honour, replied, that “her pious lady had no thoughts of a husband; but that St. Paul had sent her a letter from heaven, that he and the angel Gabriel would come to supper with her, and that her mistress wanted to make the entertainment as elegant as possible.” The counsellor, who knew the turn of his sister’s mind, immediately suspected some villains had imposed on her; and sent the maid directly with the plate, while he went to the commissary of the quarter, and gave him this information. The magistrate went with him to an house adjoining from whence they saw, just before eight o’clock, a tall man, dressed in long vestments, with a white beard: and a young man in white, with large wings at his shoulders, alight from an hackney-coach, and go up to the widow’s apartment. The commissary immediately ordered twelve of the foot guet (the guards [watch] of Paris) to post themselves on the stairs, while he himself knocked at the door, and desired admittance. The old lady replied, that she had company, and could speak to nobody. But the commissary answered, that he must come in; for that he was St. Peter, and had come to ask St. Paul and the angel how they came out of heaven without his knowledge. The divine visitors were astonished at this, not expecting any more saints to join them; but the lady overjoyed at having so great an apostle with her, ran eagerly to the door; when the commissary, her brother, and the guet rushing in, presented their musquets and seized her guests, whom they immediately sent to the Chatelet.
On searching the criminals, two cords, a razor and a pistol, were found in St. Paul’s pocket; and a gag, in that of the feigned angel. Three days after, their trial came on; when in their defence, they pleaded, that the one was a soldier of the French foot-guards, and the other a barber’s apprentice; and that they had no other evil design, but to procure a good supper for themselves at the expence of the widow’s folly ; that it being carnival time, they had borrowed the above dresses; that the soldier had found the two cords, and put them into his pocket; the razor was what he used to shave himself with; and the pistol was to defend himself from any insults so strange a habit might expose him to, in going home. The barber’s apprentice said, his design also was only diversion; and that, as his master was a tooth-drawer, the gag was what they sometimes used in their business. These excuses, frivolous as they were, were of some avail to them; and as they had not manifested any evil design by any overt act, they were acquitted.
But the counsellor, who had foreseen what would happen, through the insufficiency of evidence, had provided another stroke for them. No sooner were they discharged from the civil power, but the apparitor of the archbishop of Paris seized them, and conveyed them to the ecclesiastical prison; and in three days more, they were tried and convicted of “a scandalous prophanation, by assuming to themselves the names, character; and appearances, of an holy apostle and a blessed angel; with the intent to deceive a pious and well-meaning woman, and to the scandal of religion; therefore they were condemned to be publicly whipt, burnt on the shoulder by an hot iron, with the letters G. A. L. and sent to the gallies for 14 years.”
This sentence was executed on them the next day, on a scaffold in the Place de Greve, amidst an innumerable crowd of spectators; many of whom condemned the superstition of the lady, when perhaps they would have shewn the same on a like occasion; since it may be supposed that if many of their stories of apparitions of saints and angels, had been judically examined, they would have been found to be like to the above, a gross fraud; or else, the dreams of an overheated enthusiastic brain.
The Gentleman’s and London Magazine: Or Monthly Chronologer, 1741-1794, 1741
While France was still elaborately Catholic at the time of this incident, the Enlightenment had downplayed the miraculous and ridiculed religious superstition so that enthusiasts like the widow were mocked for their “overheated” imaginations.
I was amused by “St Paul” writing that he was grateful for the widow’s prayers, as a group of newly canonized upstarts were distracting the devotions of the faithful. While the 18th century had more than its share of fake visionaries and miracle-workers, it was not a particularly good century for saints. However, Sts. Vincent de Paul, Jesuit John Francis Regis, mystic Catherine of Genoa and foundress Juliana Falconieri were all canonized in 1737 by Pope Clement XII. Perhaps these were the newcomers referred to by “St. Paul.” The detail of the exalted personages arriving in a cab is also a diverting one, as is the ruse of “St. Peter” to gain entrance.
One wonders what the pious woman had planned to serve her guests: Very thin pasta? angel-food cake?
If you know of other saints and angels entertained to dinner, annunciate to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com