Chapter 16 - From Diabolism to Hysteria
Beginnings of Helpful Scepticism
But near the end of the eighteenth century a fact very
important for science was established. It was found that these
manifestations do not arise in all cases from supernatural
sources. In 1787 came the noted case at Hodden Bridge, in
Lancashire. A girl working in a cotton manufactory there put a
mouse into the bosom of another girl who had a great dread of
mice. The girl thus treated immediately went into convulsions,
which lasted twenty-four hours. Shortly afterward three other
girls were seized with like convulsions, a little later six more,
and then others, until, in all, twenty-four were attacked. Then
came a fact throwing a flood of light upon earlier occurrences.
This epidemic, being noised abroad, soon spread to another
factory five miles distant. The patients there suffered from
strangulation, danced, tore their hair, and dashed their heads
against the walls. There was a strong belief that it was a
disease introduced in cotton, but a resident physician amused the
patients with electric shocks, and the disease died out.
In 1801 came a case of like import in the Charite Hospital
in Berlin. A girl fell into strong convulsions. The disease
proved contagious, several others becoming afflicted in a similar
way; but nearly all were finally cured, principally by the
administration of opium, which appears at that time to have been
a fashionable remedy.
Of the same sort was a case at Lyons in 1851. Sixty women
were working together in a shop, when one of them, after a bitter
quarrel with her husband, fell into a violent nervous paroxysm.
The other women, sympathizing with her, gathered about to assist
her, but one after another fell into a similar condition, until
twenty were thus prostrated, and a more general spread of the
epidemic was only prevented by clearing the premises.
But while these cases seemed, in the eye of Science, fatal
to the old conception of diabolic influence, the great majority
of such epidemics, when unexplained, continued to give strength
to the older view.
In Roman Catholic countries these manifestations, as we have
seen, have generally appeared in convents, or in churches where
young girls are brought together for their first communion, or at
shrines where miracles are supposed to be wrought.
In Protestant countries they appear in times of great
religious excitement, and especially when large bodies of young
women are submitted to the influence of noisy and frothy
preachers. Well-known examples of this in America are seen in the
"Jumpers," "Jerkers," and various revival extravagances, especially
among the negroes and "poor whites" of the Southern States.
The proper conditions being given for the development of the
disease - generally a congregation composed mainly of young
women - any fanatic or overzealous priest or preacher may stimulate
hysterical seizures, which are very likely to become epidemic.
As a recent typical example on a large scale, I take the
case of diabolic possession at Morzine, a French village on the
borders of Switzerland; and it is especially instructive, because
it was thoroughly investigated by a competent man of science.
About the year 1853 a sick girl at Morzine, acting
strangely, was thought to be possessed of the devil, and was
taken to Besancon, where she seems to have fallen into the hands
of kindly and sensible ecclesiastics, and, under the operation of
the relics preserved in the cathedral there - especially the
handkerchief of Christ - the devil was cast out and she was cured.
Naturally, much was said of the affair among the peasantry, and
soon other cases began to show themselves. The priest at Morzine
attempted to quiet the matter by avowing his disbelief in such
cases of possession; but immediately a great outcry was raised
against him, especially by the possessed themselves. The matter
was now widely discussed, and the malady spread rapidly;
myth-making and wonder-mongering began; amazing accounts were thus
developed and sent out to the world. The afflicted were said to
have climbed trees like squirrels; to have shown superhuman
strength; to have exercised the gift of tongues, speaking in
German, Latin, and even in Arabic; to have given accounts of
historical events they had never heard of; and to have revealed
the secret thoughts of persons about them. Mingled with such
exhibitions of power were outbursts of blasphemy and obscenity.
But suddenly came something more miraculous, apparently,
than all these wonders. Without any assigned cause, this epidemic
of possession diminished and the devil disappeared.
Not long after this, Prof. Tissot, an eminent member of the
medical faculty at Dijon, visited the spot and began a series of
researches, of which he afterward published a full account. He
tells us that he found some reasons for the sudden departure of
Satan which had never been published. He discovered that the
Government had quietly removed one or two very zealous
ecclesiastics to another parish, had sent the police to Morzine
to maintain order, and had given instructions that those who
acted outrageously should be simply treated as lunatics and sent
to asylums. This policy, so accordant with French methods of
administration, cast out the devil: the possessed were mainly
cured, and the matter appeared ended.
But Dr. Tissot found a few of the diseased still remaining,
and he soon satisfied himself by various investigations and
experiments that they were simply suffering from hysteria. One of
his investigations is especially curious. In order to observe
the patients more carefully, he invited some of them to dine with
him, gave them without their knowledge holy water in their wine
or their food, and found that it produced no effect whatever,
though its results upon the demons when the possessed knew of its
presence had been very marked. Even after large draughts of holy
water had been thus given, the possessed remained afflicted,
urged that the devil should be cast out, and some of them even
went into convulsions; the devil apparently speaking from their
mouths. It was evident that Satan had not the remotest idea that
he had been thoroughly dosed with the most effective medicine
known to the older theology.
At last Tissot published the results of his experiments, and
the stereotyped answer was soon made. It resembled the answer
made by the clerical opponents of Galileo when he showed them the
moons of Jupiter through his telescope, and they declared that
the moons were created by the telescope. The clerical opponents
of Tissot insisted that the non-effect of the holy water upon the
demons proved nothing save the extraordinary cunning of Satan;
that the archfiend wished it to be thought that he does not
exist, and so overcame his repugnance to holy water, gulping it
down in order to conceal his presence.
Dr. Tissot also examined into the gift of tongues exercised
by the possessed. As to German and Latin, no great difficulty was
presented: it was by no means hard to suppose that some of the
girls might have learned some words of the former language in the
neighbouring Swiss cantons where German was spoken, or even in
Germany itself; and as to Latin, considering that they had heard
it from their childhood in the church, there seemed nothing very
wonderful in their uttering some words in that language also. As to
Arabic, had they really spoken it, that might have been accounted
for by the relations of the possessed with Zouaves or Spahis from
the French army; but, as Tissot could discover no such relations,
he investigated this point as the most puzzling of all.
On a close inquiry, he found that all the wonderful examples
of speaking Arabic were reduced to one. He then asked whether
there was any other person speaking or knowing Arabic in the
town. He was answered that there was not. He asked whether any
person had lived there, so far as any one could remember, who had
spoken or understood Arabic, and he was answered in the negative.
He then asked the witnesses how they knew that the language
spoken by the girl was Arabic: no answer was vouchsafed him; but
he was overwhelmed with such stories as that of a pig which, at
sight of the cross on the village church, suddenly refused to go
farther; and he was denounced thoroughly in the clerical
newspapers for declining to accept such evidence.
At Tissot's visit in 1863 the possession had generally
ceased, and the cases left were few and quiet. But his visits
stirred a new controversy, and its echoes were long and loud in
the pulpits and clerical journals. Believers insisted that Satan
had been removed by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin;
unbelievers hinted that the main cause of the deliverance was the
reluctance of the possessed to be shut up in asylums.
Under these circumstances the Bishop of Annecy announced
that he would visit Morzine to administer Confirmation, and word
appears to have spread that he would give a more orthodox
completion to the work already done, by exorcising the devils who
remained. Immediately several new cases of possession appeared;
young girls who had been cured were again affected; the embers
thus kindled were fanned into a flame by a "mission" which sundry
priests held in the parish to arouse the people to their
religious duties - a mission in Roman Catholic countries being
akin to a "revival" among some Protestant sects. Multitudes of
young women, excited by the preaching and appeals of the clergy,
were again thrown into the old disease, and at the coming of the
good bishop it culminated.
The account is given in the words of an eye-witness:
"At the solemn entrance of the bishop into the church, the
possessed persons threw themselves on the ground before him, or
endeavoured to throw themselves upon him, screaming frightfully,
cursing, blaspheming, so that the people at large were struck
with horror. The possessed followed the bishop, hooted him, and
threatened him, up to the middle of the church. Order was only
established by the intervention of the soldiers. During the
confirmation the diseased redoubled their howls and infernal
vociferations, and tried to spit in the face of the bishop and to
tear off his pastoral raiment. At the moment when the prelate
gave his benediction a still more outrageous scene took place.
The violence of the diseased was carried to fury, and from all
parts of the church arose yells and fearful howling; so frightful
was the din that tears fell from the eyes of many of the
spectators, and many strangers were thrown into consternation."
Among the very large number of these diseased persons there
were only two men; of the remainder only two were of advanced
age; the great majority were young women between the ages of
eighteen and twenty-five years.
The public authorities shortly afterward intervened, and
sought to cure the disease and to draw the people out of their
mania by singing, dancing, and sports of various sorts, until at
last it was brought under control.
Scenes similar to these, in their essential character, have
arisen more recently in Protestant countries, but with the
difference that what has been generally attributed by Roman
Catholic ecclesiastics to Satan is attributed by Protestant
ecclesiastics to the Almighty. Typical among the greater
exhibitions of this were those which began in the Methodist
chapel at Redruth in Cornwall - convulsions, leaping, jumping,
until some four thousand persons were seized by it. The same
thing is seen in the ruder parts of America at "revivals" and
camp meetings. Nor in the ruder parts of America alone. In June,
1893, at a funeral in the city of Brooklyn, one of the
mourners having fallen into hysterical fits, several other
cases at once appeared in various parts of the church edifice,
and some of the patients were so seriously affected that they
were taken to a hospital.
In still another field these exhibitions are seen, but more
after a medieval pattern: in the Tigretier of Abyssinia we have
epidemics of dancing which seek and obtain miraculous cures.
Reports of similar manifestations are also sent from missionaries
from the west coast of Africa, one of whom sees in some of them the
characteristics of cases of possession mentioned in our Gospels,
and is therefore inclined to attribute them to Satan.