A Remarkable Case of "Physical Phenomena"
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A Magazine of Literature, Science,Art, and Politics.
VOL. XXII.—AUGUST, 1868. — NO. CXXX.
IT is proposed to give a plain and truthful statement of facts concerning a very marked case of the phenomena known to Spiritualists as “ physical manifestations,” regarded by scientific men generally as “ tricks of jugglery,” and by common-sense, practical people looked upon as wonderful natural effects, the cause of which has never been explained.
This case in many respects resembles that of the French peasant-girl, Angélique Cottin, so well described by Robert Dale Owen in the Atlantic Monthly of September, 1864, in an article entitled the "Electric Girl of La Perrière,” which (though well authenticated by French journals) took place twenty years before.
The chief interest which may attach to this article will lie in the fact, that the occurrences it describes are of very recent date, — having happened during the past few months,—and are susceptible of verification.
Further than this, it may be added, that the writer is a confirmed sceptic as to the so-called doctrine of Spiritualism. Indeed, a careful study of these phenomena, witnessed by himself, has strengthened him in the belief, that to attribute their production to the spirits of the departed is ridiculous folly, delusion, and imposture.
Mary Carrick is an Irish girl, eighteen years of age, who came to this country in the month of May, 1867. She is very ignorant, like the most of her class, but quick to learn anything required. Previous to leaving her native land she had, for a short time, lived in a gentleman’s family as a “ maid of all work,” and she has always been healthy with the exception of a severe attack of fever occurring a few months before she left home. By a correspondence with the gentleman in whose service she had lived in Ireland, we find that nothing remarkable was ever discovered concerning her, except that at one time she had been a somnambulist, but seemed to have recovered from her tendency to sleep-walking.
Immediately upon her arrival, she went to live with a very respectable family in one of the larger towns in Massachusetts. At this time she appeared to be in perfect health. She performed the duties required of her in a most acceptable manner, and nothing whatever in her appearance or behavior excited particular remark. She seldom left the house, and, at the time when the occurrences we are about to describe took place, she did not have the acquaintance of six persons outside the family. She had lived in this situation about six weeks, when, upon the 3d of July, the bells hanging in the kitchen and communicating with the outside doors and chambers commenced ringing in an unaccountable manner. This would occur at intervals of half an hour or longer, during the day and evening, but not during the night. It was at first attributed to the antics of rats upon the wires. An examination showed this to be impossible ; though, to put the matter beyond doubt, the wires were detached from the bells ; but the ringing went on as before. These bells hang near the ceiling of a room eleven feet high. They never rang unless the girl was in that room or the adjoining one, but were often seen and heard to ring when different members of the family were present in the room with the girl. The ringing was not a mere stroke of the bell, but there was a violent agitation of all the bells, such as might have been produced by a vigorous use of the bell-pulls, had they been connected. A careful examination by the writer and others showed that there was no mechanism or other appliance by which the ringing could be produced. A few days after the bell-ringing commenced frequent loud and startling raps were heard, which seemed to be on the walls, doors, or windows of the room where the girl might be at work. The noises thus produced were quite as loud as would ordinarily follow a smart application of the knuckles to any article of wood. They were heard by all the members of the family, and many others whom curiosity prompted to come in for the purpose of verifying, by their own senses, what they were slow to believe. These occurrences increased from day to day, and became a source of great annoyance. The girl, ignorant as she was, and naturally superstitious, became very much excited ; and it was with the greatest difficulty that she could be kept in a comparative state of calmness during her wakeful hours, while in her sleep at night she was continually raving. She wept very much, protested that she had no action in the occurrences, and begged of the family not to send her away, for she had not a single friend in the country to whom she could go, and none of her countrymen would take her in, for the matter had already become notorious, and they shunned her as they would the Evil One himself. Several applications were made by professed Spiritualists, offering to take the girl, and provide for her ; but it was not deemed advisable to place her under such questionable supervision. It was finally decided to retain her, and try to endure the disagreeable phenomena which, as will be seen, were only the beginning of troubles.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1868, by TICKNOR AND FIELDS, in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.
It should be stated that the raps referred to followed the girl from room to room, and could be heard in her chamber at night, when she was found to be in a profound sleep. Thus had matters gone on for nearly three weeks, when occurrences of a more extraordinary character began to take place. Chairs were upset, crockery-ware thrown down, tables lifted and moved, and various kitchen utensils hurled about the room. No particular record of these occurrences was made until August 1st; after which time, and until the phenomena bad entirely ceased, accurate daily memoranda were noted, from which some extracts are here taken.
“ On the 5th of August, Mary was washing clothes, when a bench, having upon it two large tubs filled with water, was suddenly moved several inches, The lid of a copper wash-boiler was repeatedly thrown up, when the girl was not near enough to touch it. These occurrences were observed by different members of the family.”
“ August 6th, Mary was ironing. The table at which she worked continually lifted itself, and troubled her so much that she took her work to another table, where the same operation was repeated, and her flat-iron, which she left for a moment, was thrown to the floor.” This annoyance was always repeated whenever she worked at ironing, and more or less at other times. It was seen by all the members of the family and other persons. The writer saw the table thus lifted when neither the girl nor any other person was near enough to touch it. It has happened when a child nine years of age was sitting upon it, and also when persons have tried to hold it down. This lifting propensity seemed to communicate itself to everything movable. The covers to the woodbox and wash-boiler were constantly slamming. A heavy soapstone slab, one and a half inches thick, weighing forty-eight pounds, which formed the top of a case of drawers, was often affected in a similar manner.
“ On the 6th of August, as Mary was putting away the ‘tea things,’ and about to place a metallic tray filled with dishes upon this slab, it suddenly flew up, and struck the bottom of the tray with such force as to upset the dishes upon it.” This was seen by one of the family, and frequently occurred afterwards. The stone would also often be thrown up violently when Mary was at work at the sink near it. On the last occasion that this happened, August 25th, the writer was seated near to it, and watching for the movement, which had been repeated several times within an hour. Suddenly it raised itself, and fell with great force, breaking in two through the centre, Mary at the moment being in the act of wringing out her “ dish-cloth.” Soon after, one half of the same was thrown to the floor; and the fragments were then thrown out of the house on the ground, where they remained quiet. This peculiarly active stone, it should be added, had a lew days previous been taken from its place, and laid upon the floor of a room adjoining, with a heavy bucket placed upon it; but as the same movements continued, it was replaced in its position for the purpose of noticing the effect, and with the result before stated. It had also, at one time, been fastened in its place by wooden clamps, which were forcibly torn away. It is moreover worthy of particular notice, that another soapstone slab, in which the copper wash-boiler is set, and which had become loosened from the brick-work, was split and thrown to the floor in like manner ; showing that the force, whatever it may be, has a striking effect upon this kind of material. A piece of the same, weighing several pounds, was also thrown into the kitchen from the wash-room, no person being in the latter room at the time. A common cherry table, standing against the wall in the kitchen, often started out into the room, and at one time was hurled completely over upon its top.
“ On the 20th of August the table movements occurred many times. On this day a large basket filled with clothes was thrown to the floor. A small board, used for scouring knives, hanging against the wall, was thrown quite across the kitchen. The doors were continually slamming unless locked or latched.
“ August 26 and 27 were very stirring clays, there being hardly a half-hour of quiet. The rappings (which occurred daily) were particularly vigorous on these days. The chairs, and other movables, were thrown about; a large wash-tub, filled with clothes soaking, was thrown from the wash-form to the floor, and emptied of its contents; a stool, having upon it a pail filled with water, moved itself along the floor; a porcelain-lined kettle, standing in the sink, was lifted over the side, and dropped upon the floor. The movable furniture in the girl’s room was so much agitated, that, with the exception of the bedstead, it was all taken from the room for the sake of quiet.”
The foregoing are a few only of the various phenomena occurring from the 3d to the 27th of August, there being but one day during the whole time when nothing of the kind took place. On the date last mentioned the girl was sent away for two days, to observe what the effect might be. On the evening of the 29th she returned, and reported that she had not seen or heard anything unusual during her absence. It should also be remarked that the family experienced no trouble while she was away. But, within two hours after her return, the demonstrations again commenced.
It is needless to follow them further in detail. It is sufficient to say that similar scenes to those of the previous days and weeks were daily repeated from the date of her return until the night of September 12th, when her nervous system succumbed, and she was suddenly seized with a violent attack of hysteria. During the paroxysm, which continued two or three hours, she was in an unconscious state, and could be restrained upon her bed only by the combined strength of her attendants. After the subsidence of the paroxysm she slept quietly until morning. For several days she remained in a very excited state, and on the nights of the 15th and 17th there was a return of the paroxysm, but without a loss of consciousness. These attacks were not characterized by any very peculiar symptoms, excepting, perhaps, a very distressing sensation referred to the base of the brain. From time to time she would seize the hand of her attendant, and press it upon the back of her head, and at the same time complain of strange noises. She also had severe attacks of bleeding at the nose, which seemed in some measure to relieve her.
From the date of her prostration until her removal to an asylum, on the 18th, no phenomena occurred.
At the end of three weeks she was thought to be sufficiently recovered to return to her work ; and pity for her condition, as well as a curiosity to observe if the phenomena would return, induced the family to receive her back to service again.
She returned in a very happy frame of mind, and comparatively calm ; but it was noticed that she was quite nervous, and would start suddenly at any little noise at all resembling the rappings or movements of furniture which had formerly so much annoyed her, and driven her to the verge of insanity. But none of the phenomena ever again occurred. She seemed very well, grew very fleshy, and performed her duties with alacrity. Being desirous of learning to read and write, a member of the family undertook the task of teaching her.
She proved a very apt scholar, and made remarkable progress. At times, however, she complained of great distress in her head ; but nothing of a serious nature occurred until some six weeks after her return, when, on the night of the 28th of November, she had an attack of somnambulism, it being the first instance of the kind since coming to this country. She arose and dressed herself, went to the room of her mistress, and asked permission to go out to clean the outside of the windows. Her condition was at once discovered, and she was with some difficulty induced to go back to bed. She remembered nothing of this in the morning. On the following and for five consecutive nights this was repeated. At about the same hour of the night she would get up, go down stairs, usually in her night-dress, with no light, and go about her work. She would sweep rooms, dust clothing, scour knives, go out of doors (cold weather as it was) and brush the steps, sit down in the darkness and study her reading and spelling lesson, and finally, in an hour or two, return to bed. On the fifth night, however, nature gave out, and she again passed into the condition of hysteria. She was again conveyed to the asylum, where she now remains, though she seems to have entirely recovered, and is there employed as a housemaid.
So much for the facts in this extraordinary case, — facts well attested and beyond contravention. As to a theory of the “ moving cause ” we have none. But we now proceed to give results of observations and experiments bearing upon the case, referring their explanation to those competent to give an opinion, At an early stage of the phenomena we sought to trace their production to electricity, and the results of some experiments seemed to give support to this theory. It has already been stated that the rappings were repeatedly heard in the girl’s room by members of the family who went in after she was asleep. The noises seemed to be on the doors, and sometimes on the footboard of the bedstead, and at times, as they came very loud, she would start in her sleep, and scream as though in the utmost terror.
Conceiving the idea that the sounds might be produced electrically, the writer caused the bedstead to be perfectly insulated by placing the posts upon glass. The effect was all that could be desired. Although the raps continued to follow her all day from room to room and to her chamber at night, yet, so soon as she was fairly in bed, everything of the kind ceased. For six weeks or longer the bedstead was kept thus insulated ; and no raps were ever heard, except once, when an examination showed the insulation to be destroyed, one of the posts having slipped off the glass. It was replaced with the same effect as before. Another experiment, similar to the one described, was tried. The cherry table in the kitchen before alluded to, at which Mary took her meals, was nearly always agitated when she sat down to eat. At such times, also, the rappings were very loud and frequent, troubling her so much that she had no desire to eat. On one or two occasions this was peculiarly the case, and a remedy for it was sought in insulation. The table and her chair were placed on glass, but before she was ready to sit the former suddenly jumped off the insulators, but was at once replaced, when she took her seat, and was able to finish her meal in peace, there being no movements and no raps. This was afterwards repeated with the same success. It was evident that, whatever force this might be, — whether electricity or not, — there did seem to be some sort of attraction between the girl and these inanimate objects of wood, stone, iron, and other material which set them in motion whenever she was near them, and they were not insulated. In this connection it should be noticed that the movements of furniture, &c., seldom occurred in rooms with woollen carpets on the floors, but were mostly confined to rooms with bare floors or oil carpets and matting. The raps, also, were more frequent and louder in such rooms. In the daily journal which was kept the state of the weather each day was carefully noted, and for a time it was thought that the phenomena were much more frequent on a clear day than on a damp or sultry one ; but a careful study of that record shows that some of the most marked and violent demonstrations actually occurred on very rainy days, though the latter were generally more quiet than days of fair weather. Thus it would seem that the phenomena, though appearing in some degree electrical, did not in all cases follow the known laws of electricity.
The writer has heretofore stated that he is a thorough sceptic concerning the so-called doctrine of Spiritualism. The same may be said of every member of the large family (ten persons) in which these things occurred. With the exception of the girl herself, no one of the household ever became in the least degree nervous, much less inclined to believe that the spirits of the departed had returned to earth only to make their presence known by means so palpably ridiculous.
But the Spiritualists, of whom there are many in the community where these occurrences took place, became very much exercised about the matter. The family were excessively annoyed at frequent applications from this class of persons for the privilege of coming in to witness the “ manifestations,” as they call them, and to see the girl. But not one of them was ever admitted, nor has the girl ever yet held any communication with a person of this character. Of Spiritualism she had never heard in the old country, and, when any one spoke of “ mediums,” she seemed to have an idea that they were something dreadful to contemplate. But although no Spiritualists were invited to enlighten us, we did on three occasions hold “circles" among ourselves, being willing to test the matter.
At such times, seated around a large dining-table with the poor simple-hearted and terror-stricken girl in the midst, we in all seriousness went through the farce of inviting communications from the spirits present. Occasional raps were heard, questions were put, and the alphabet used, after the most approved manner of those mysterious circles, but without ever eliciting the first gleam of intelligence; and the conclusion was reached, that, if there were any spirits present, their education must have been sadly neglected while on the earth, and that no improvement had been made since they passed into the other world. But this folly was soon given up, having only resulted in highly exciting the girl, whose nervous system had now reached a terrible state. Day by day she became more and more excited, and rapidly lost flesh. She would complain of great distress in her head and of great noises in her ears. At times she would sink into a sort of lethargy bordering upon the “trance state.” But she still kept about her work. One of the ladies of the house was in the habit of going to church to practise organ-playing, and sometimes took Mary to “blow,” with which she was quite delighted, but the great difficulty at such times was to keep her awake, the music made her so sleepy ; and this peculiarity was noticed, that, so long as the organ was played softly, she was wakeful, and performed her part at the “bellows,” but, when the loud playing commenced, she invariably became sleepy, and the failing wind would soon give notice that she had sunk into slumber. At night, in her sleep, she would sing for hours together, although she had never been heard to sing in her wakeful moments, being in a very unhappy frame of mind.
We have spoken of her somnambulistic habits. To this should be added still another accomplishment, that of “ clairvoyance.”
The most marked instance of the latter was shown in a declaration by her, that a young lady member of the family, who had been absent in a distant city for several weeks, was sick. She seemed in great distress of mind about it, but was assured that she had just been heard from, and was quite well. But she would not be quieted, and declared that the young lady was ill, and suffering much from a very bad sore upon her hand. And this proved to be exactly as she had stated, and is only another evidence of this extraordinary power, of which science now allows the existence, though it cannot fully explain it. These things are mentioned here simply on account of the possible bearing they may have on the physiological aspect of this remarkable case.
The question may be asked, Why, during the long continuance of these strange phenomena, which occurred nearly every day for a period of ten weeks, was no scientific investigation instituted? We answer, that such a one was sought for by the family and others interested. At the end of four weeks from the commencement of the phenomena a plain statement of facts was made in writing, and submitted with proper indorsement to two of the learned professors of one of our educational institutions, with the request that some proper person might be sent to witness and experiment. To our surprise the communication was treated with contempt, and returned with the statement that we were being imposed upon; that such things could not take place save through the agency of some person ; they advised constant watchfulness in order to discover the “trickery.” As may be supposed, after meeting with such a rebuff, a second attempt to invoke the assistance of these wise men would not soon be made.
However, acting upon the only advice they did volunteer, “constant watchfulness ” was maintained ; the girl being watched in every available manner to detect the tricks, if any were attempted. It is sufficient to say that the question of her honesty and innocence in the matter was put beyond a shadow of doubt. It was at this time that a daily journal of the occurrences was commenced, and continued so long as the phenomena lasted ; and from this journal the instances noticed in these pages are taken.
In justice to another professor of the Institution mentioned, it should be said, that, having incidentally heard of the case, he expressed a wish to have an investigation made, and directed two of his students to make arrangements to witness the phenomena ; but unfortunately the proposition came too late, as, before the arrangements could be made, the phenomena had already ceased, and the girl was prostrated as before stated. A detailed statement was made, however, and submitted to this gentleman, containing a copy of the daily journal of events, to which he gave careful attention, and accorded to the writer two long interviews upon the subject. He seemed greatly interested, and did not deny the possibility of the phenomena at all, and regretted much their abrupt cessation, which precluded an investigation. It was hoped that, when the girl returned, there would be a recurrence of them, to afford this investigation, though the annoyance to the family was great. The fact that they did not return is as strange as that they ever occurred at all. Upon the girl’s return, all the conditions appeared to be the same. As has been stated, her nervous condition was bad, and grew worse, until she was again prostrated; but there were none of the noises and movements as before. For the benefit of the incredulous, who may say that a knowledge on her part that an investigation was to be had prevented the repetition, it should be remarked, that such knowledge was kept from her, though she had known of the first application that was made to have the matter looked into by scientific men, and sometimes asked when the “ sanctified" men were coming to put a stop to the troubles.
No one can regret more than the writer that the application was so disdainfully treated; though an extenuation of the action of these men is found in the fact that they had previously been most egregiously humbugged by what they supposed to be cases similar to this. Still, we cannot but feel that perhaps the opportunity for a valuable addition to scientific discoveries was lost.
We believe that the day will come when such occurrences as are herein described will be as satisfactorily explained as are now the wonders of electricity. Whether it shall be soon or late depends upon the willingness of learned men to treat seriously phenomena which they now almost universally denounce as imposture and trickery, without having examined into them. That they are not of every-day occurrence does not argue that they do not occur. That they are usually so mixed up with the humbugging tricks of the so-called Spiritualists as to be difficult of elucidation we will allow ; but when a case is presented of the character of the one under consideration, entirely free from surroundings calculated to produce distrust, we contend that it is a subject worthy the study of any man.
In closing we would say, that not from any wish to give notoriety to the case herein described has this article been written, but with the sincere hope and desire that, as time goes on, and other cases of a like nature occur, this record may be of some service for comparison, or perhaps may in itself induce competent men to undertake an explanation with which the world will be satisfied, and which may save from the pernicious doctrines of Spiritualism and from our insane asylums thousands who are now hopelessly drifting in that direction.