The book takes the form of ten letters addressed to Lockhart, the epistolary mode permitting Scott to be both conversational in tone and discursive in method. In these, Scott surveys opinions respecting demonology and witchcraft from the Old Testament period to his own day. As a child of the Enlightenment, he adopts a rigorously rational approach to his subject. Supernatural visions are attributed to 'excited passion', to credulity, or to physical illness. The medieval belief in demons is based on Christian ignorance of other religions, leading to the conviction that the gods of the Muslim or Pagan nations were fiends and their priests conjurers or wizards. In the post-Reformation period, the primitive state of science and predominance of mystical explanations of natural phenomena fed fear of witchcraft. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, witches were hunted with near-hysterical zeal. Examining Scottish criminal trials for witchcraft, Scott notes that the nature of evidence admissible gave free reign to accusers and left the accused no chance of escape. Prisoners were driven to confess through despair and the desire to avoid future persecution. Scott also observes that trials for witchcraft were increasingly connected with political crimes, just as in Catholic countries accusations of witchcraft and heresy went together. Advances in science and the spread of rational philosophy during the eighteenth century eventually undermined the belief in supernatural phenomena, although pockets of superstition remain. Scott's account is amply illustrated with anecdotes and traditional tales and may be read as an anthology of uncanny stories as much as a philosophical treatise.
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By Sir Walter Scott
Origin of the general Opinions respecting Demonology among Mankind—The Belief in the Immortality of the Soul is the main inducement to credit its occasional re-appearance—The Philosophical Objections to the Apparition of an Abstract Spirit little understood by the Vulgar and Ignorant—The situations of excited Passion incident to Humanity, which teach Men to wish or apprehend Supernatural Apparitions—They are often presented by the Sleeping Sense—Story of Somnambulism—The Influence of Credulity contagious, so that Individuals will trust the Evidence of others in despite of their own Senses—Examples from the "Historia Verdadera" of Bernal Dias del Castillo, and from the Works of Patrick Walker—The apparent Evidence of Intercourse with the Supernatural World is sometimes owing to a depraved State of the bodily Organs—Difference between this Disorder and Insanity, in which the Organs retain their tone, though that of the Mind is lost—Rebellion of the Senses of a Lunatic against the current of his Reveries—Narratives of a contrary Nature, in which the Evidence of the Eyes overbore the Conviction of the Understanding—Example of a London Man of Pleasure—Of Nicolai, the German Bookseller and Philosopher—Of a Patient of Dr. Gregory—Of an Eminent Scottish Lawyer, deceased—Of this same fallacious Disorder are other instances, which have but sudden and momentary endurance—Apparition of Maupertuis—Of a late illustrious modern Poet—The Cases quoted chiefly relating to false Impressions on the Visual Nerve, those upon the Ear next considered—Delusions of the Touch chiefly experienced in Sleep—Delusions of the Taste—And of the Smelling—Sum of the Argument.
You have asked of me, my dear friend, that I should assist the "Family Library" with the history of a dark chapter in human nature, which the increasing civilization of all well-instructed countries has now almost blotted out, though the subject attracted no ordinary degree of consideration in the older times of their history.
Among much reading of my earlier days, it is no doubt true that I travelled a good deal in the twilight regions of superstitious disquisitions. Many hours have I lost—"I would their debt were less!"—in examining old as well as more recent narratives of this character, and even in looking into some of the criminal trials so frequent in early days, upon a subject which our fathers considered as a matter of the last importance. And, of late years, the very curious extracts published by Mr. Pitcairn, from the Criminal Records of Scotland, are, besides their historical value, of a nature so much calculated to illustrate the credulity of our ancestors on such subjects, that, by perusing them, I have been induced more recently to recall what I had read and thought upon the subject at a former period.
As, however, my information is only miscellaneous, and I make no pretensions, either to combat the systems of those by whom I am anticipated in consideration of the subject, or to erect any new one of my own, my purpose is, after a general account of Demonology and Witchcraft, to confine myself to narratives of remarkable cases, and to the observations which naturally and easily arise out of them;—in the confidence that such a plan is, at the present time of day, more likely to suit the pages of a popular miscellany, than an attempt to reduce the contents of many hundred tomes, from the largest to the smallest size, into an abridgement, which, however compressed, must remain greatly too large for the reader's powers of patience.
A few general remarks on the nature of Demonology, and the original cause of the almost universal belief in communication betwixt mortals and beings of a power superior to themselves, and of a nature not to be comprehended by human organs, are a necessary introduction to the subject.
The general, or, it may be termed, the universal belief of the inhabitants of the earth, in the existence of spirits separated from the encumbrance and incapacities of the body, is grounded on the consciousness of the divinity that speaks in our bosoms, and demonstrates to all men, except the few who are hardened to the celestial voice, that there is within us a portion of the divine substance, which is not subject to the law of death and dissolution, but which, when the body is no longer fit for its abode, shall seek its own place, as a sentinel dismissed from his post. Unaided by revelation, it cannot be hoped that mere earthly reason should be able to form any rational or precise conjecture concerning the destination of the soul when parted from the body; but the conviction that such an indestructible essence exists, the belief expressed by the poet in a different sense, Non omnis moriar must infer the existence of many millions of spirits who have not been annihilated, though they have become invisible to mortals who still see, hear, and perceive, only by means of the imperfect organs of humanity. Probability may lead some of the most reflecting to anticipate a state of future rewards and punishments; as those experienced in the education of the deaf and dumb find that their pupils, even while cut off from all instruction by ordinary means, have been able to form, out of their own unassisted conjectures, some ideas of the existence of a Deity, and of the distinction between the soul and body—a circumstance which proves how naturally these truths arise in the human mind. The principle that they do so arise, being taught or communicated, leads to further conclusions.
These spirits, in a state of separate existence, being admitted to exist, are not, it may be supposed, indifferent to the affairs of mortality, perhaps not incapable of influencing them. It is true that, in a more advanced state of society, the philosopher may challenge the possibility of a separate appearance of a disembodied spirit, unless in the case of a direct miracle, to which, being a suspension of the laws of nature, directly wrought by the Maker of these laws, for some express purpose, no bound or restraint can possibly be assigned. But under this necessary limitation and exception, philosophers might plausibly argue that, when the soul is divorced from the body, it loses all those qualities which made it, when clothed with a mortal shape, obvious to the organs of its fellow-men. The abstract idea of a spirit certainly implies that it has neither substance, form, shape, voice, or anything which can render its presence visible or sensible to human faculties. But these sceptic doubts of philosophers on the possibility of the appearance of such separated spirits, do not arise till a certain degree of information has dawned upon a country, and even then only reach a very small proportion of reflecting and better-informed members of society. To the multitude, the indubitable fact, that so many millions of spirits exist around and even amongst us, seems sufficient to support the belief that they are, in certain instances at least, by some means or other, able to communicate with the world of humanity. The more numerous part of mankind cannot form in their mind the idea of the spirit of the deceased existing, without possessing or having the power to assume the appearance which their acquaintance bore during his life, and do not push their researches beyond this point.
Enthusiastic feelings of an impressive and solemn nature occur both in private and public life, which seem to add ocular testimony to an intercourse betwixt earth and the world beyond it. For example, the son who has been lately deprived of his father feels a sudden crisis approach, in which he is anxious to have recourse to his sagacious advice—or a bereaved husband earnestly desires again to behold the form of which the grave has deprived him for ever—or, to use a darker yet very common instance, the wretched man who has dipped his hand in his fellow-creature's blood, is haunted by the apprehension that the phantom of the slain stands by the bedside of his murderer. In all or any of these cases, who shall doubt that imagination, favoured by circumstances, has power to summon up to the organ of sight, spectres which only exist in the mind of those by whom their apparition seems to be witnessed?
If we add, that such a vision may take place in the course of one of those lively dreams in which the patient, except in respect to the single subject of one strong impression, is, or seems, sensible of the real particulars of the scene around him, a state of slumber which often occurs; if he is so far conscious, for example, as to know that he is lying on his own bed, and surrounded by his own familiar furniture at the time when the supposed apparition is manifested, it becomes almost in vain to argue with the visionary against the reality of his dream, since the spectre, though itself purely fanciful, is inserted amidst so many circumstances which he feels must be true beyond the reach of doubt or question. That which is undeniably certain becomes, in a manner, a warrant for the reality of the appearance to which doubt would have been otherwise attached. And if any event, such as the death of the person dreamt of, chances to take place, so as to correspond with the nature and the time of the apparition, the coincidence, though one which must be frequent, since our dreams usually refer to the accomplishment of that which haunts our minds when awake, and often presage the most probable events, seems perfect, and the chain of circumstances touching the evidence may not unreasonably be considered as complete. Such a concatenation, we repeat, must frequently take place, when it is considered of what stuff dreams are made—how naturally they turn upon those who occupy our mind while awake, and, when a soldier is exposed to death in battle, when a sailor is incurring the dangers of the sea, when a beloved wife or relative is attacked by disease, how readily our sleeping imagination rushes to the very point of alarm, which when waking it had shuddered to anticipate. The number of instances in which such lively dreams have been quoted, and both asserted and received as spiritual communications, is very great at all periods; in ignorant times, where the natural cause of dreaming is misapprehended and confused with an idea of mysticism, it is much greater. Yet, perhaps, considering the many thousands of dreams which must, night after night, pass through the imagination of individuals, the number of coincidences between the vision and real event are fewer and less remarkable than a fair calculation of chances would warrant us to expect. But in countries where such presaging dreams are subjects of attention, the number of those which seemed to be coupled with the corresponding issue, is large enough to spread a very general belief of a positive communication betwixt the living and the dead.
Somnambulism and other nocturnal deceptions frequently lend their aid to the formation of such phantasmata as are formed in this middle state, betwixt sleeping and waking. A most respectable person, whose active life had been spent as master and part owner of a large merchant vessel in the Lisbon trade, gave the writer an account of such an instance which came under his observation. He was lying in the Tagus, when he was put to great anxiety and alarm by the following incident and its consequences. One of his crew was murdered by a Portuguese assassin, and a report arose that the ghost of the slain man haunted the vessel. Sailors are generally superstitious, and those of my friend's vessel became unwilling to remain on board the ship; and it was probable they might desert rather then return to England with the ghost for a passenger. To prevent so great a calamity, the captain determined to examine the story to the bottom. He soon found that, though all pretended to have seen lights and heard noises, and so forth, the weight of the evidence lay upon the statement of one of his own mates, an Irishman and a Catholic, which might increase his tendency to superstition, but in other respects a veracious, honest, and sensible person, whom Captain ——had no reason to suspect would wilfully deceive him. He affirmed to Captain S—— with the deepest obtestations, that the spectre of the murdered man appeared to him almost nightly, took him from his place in the vessel, and, according to his own expression, worried his life out. He made these communications with a degree of horror which intimated the reality of his distress and apprehensions. The captain, without any argument at the time, privately resolved to watch the motions of the ghost-seer in the night; whether alone, or with a witness, I have forgotten. As the ship bell struck twelve, the sleeper started up, with a ghastly and disturbed countenance, and lighting a candle, proceeded to the galley or cook-room of the vessel. He sate down with his eyes open, staring before him as on some terrible object which he beheld with horror, yet from which he could not withhold his eyes. After a short space he arose, took up a tin can or decanter, filled it with water, muttering to himself all the while—mixed salt in the water, and sprinkled it about the galley. Finally, he sighed deeply, like one relieved from a heavy burden, and, returning to his hammock, slept soundly. In the next morning the haunted man told the usual precise story of his apparition, with the additional circumstances, that the ghost had led him to the galley, but that he had fortunately, he knew not how, obtained possession of some holy water, and succeeded in getting rid of his unwelcome visitor. The visionary was then informed of the real transactions of the night, with so many particulars as to satisfy him he had been the dupe of his imagination; he acquiesced in his commander's reasoning, and the dream, as often happens in these cases, returned no more after its imposture had been detected. In this case, we find the excited imagination acting upon the half-waking senses, which were intelligent enough for the purpose of making him sensible where he was, but not sufficiently so to judge truly of the objects before him.
But it is not only private life alone, or that tenor of thought which has been depressed into melancholy by gloomy anticipations respecting the future, which disposes the mind to mid-day fantasies, or to nightly apparitions—a state of eager anxiety, or excited exertion, is equally favourable to the indulgence of such supernatural communications. The anticipation of a dubious battle, with all the doubt and uncertainty of its event, and the conviction that it must involve his own fate and that of his country, was powerful enough to conjure up to the anxious eye of Brutus the spectre of his murdered friend Cæsar, respecting whose death he perhaps thought himself less justified than at the Ides of March, since, instead of having achieved the freedom of Rome, the event had only been the renewal of civil wars, and the issue might appear most likely to conclude in the total subjection of liberty. It is not miraculous that the masculine spirit of Marcus Brutus, surrounded by darkness and solitude, distracted probably by recollection of the kindness and favour of the great individual whom he had put to death to avenge the wrongs of his country, though by the slaughter of his own friend, should at length place before his eyes in person the appearance which termed itself his evil genius, and promised again to meet him at Philippi. Brutus' own intentions, and his knowledge of the military art, had probably long since assured him that the decision of the civil war must take place at or near that place; and, allowing that his own imagination supplied that part of his dialogue with the spectre, there is nothing else which might not be fashioned in a vivid dream or a waking reverie, approaching, in absorbing and engrossing character, the usual matter of which dreams consist. That Brutus, well acquainted with the opinions of the Platonists, should be disposed to receive without doubt the idea that he had seen a real apparition, and was not likely to scrutinize very minutely the supposed vision, may be naturally conceived; and it is also natural to think, that although no one saw the figure but himself, his contemporaries were little disposed to examine the testimony of a man so eminent, by the strict rules of cross-examination and conflicting evidence, which they might have thought applicable to another person, and a less dignified occasion.
Even in the field of death, and amid the mortal tug of combat itself, strong belief has wrought the same wonder, which we have hitherto mentioned as occurring in solitude and amid darkness; and those who were themselves on the verge of the world of spirits, or employed in dispatching others to these gloomy regions, conceived they beheld the apparitions of those beings whom their national mythology associated with such scenes. In such moments of undecided battle, amid the violence, hurry, and confusion of ideas incident to the situation, the ancients supposed that they saw their deities, Castor and Pollux, fighting in the van for their encouragement; the heathen Scandinavian beheld the Choosers of the slain; and the Catholics were no less easily led to recognize the warlike Saint George or Saint James in the very front of the strife, showing them the way to conquest. Such apparitions being generally visible to a multitude, have in all times been supported by the greatest strength of testimony. When the common feeling of danger, and the animating burst of enthusiasm, act on the feelings of many men at once, their minds hold a natural correspondence with each other, as it is said is the case with stringed instruments tuned to the same pitch, of which, when one is played, the chords of the others are supposed to vibrate in unison with the tones produced. If an artful or enthusiastic individual exclaims, in the heat of action, that he perceives an apparition of the romantic kind which has been intimated, his companions catch at the idea with emulation, and most are willing to sacrifice the conviction of their own senses, rather than allow that they did not witness the same favourable emblem, from which all draw confidence and hope. One warrior catches the idea from another; all are alike eager to acknowledge the present miracle, and the battle is won before the mistake is discovered. In such cases, the number of persons present, which would otherwise lead to detection of the fallacy, becomes the means of strengthening it.
Of this disposition, to see as much of the supernatural as is seen by others around, or, in other words, to trust to the eyes of others rather than to our own, we may take the liberty to quote two remarkable instances.
The first is from the "Historia Verdadera" of Don Bernal Dias del Castillo, one of the companions of the celebrated Cortez in his Mexican conquest. After having given an account of a great victory over extreme odds, he mentions the report inserted in the contemporary Chronicle of Gomara, that Saint Iago had appeared on a white horse in van of the combat, and led on his beloved Spaniards to victory. It is very curious to observe the Castilian cavalier's internal conviction that the rumour arose out of a mistake, the cause of which he explains from his own observation; whilst, at the same time, he does not venture to disown the miracle. The honest Conquestador owns that he himself did not see this animating vision; nay, that he beheld an individual cavalier, named Francisco de Morla, mounted on a chestnut horse, and fighting strenuously in the very place where Saint James is said to have appeared. But instead of proceeding to draw the necessary inference, the devout Conquestador exclaims—"Sinner that I am, what am I that I should have beheld the blessed apostle!"
The other instance of the infectious character of superstition occurs in a Scottish book, and there can be little doubt that it refers, in its first origin, to some uncommon appearance of the aurora borealis, or the northern lights, which do not appear to have been seen in Scotland so frequently as to be accounted a common and familiar atmospherical phenomenon, until the beginning of the eighteenth century. The passage is striking and curious, for the narrator, Peter Walker, though an enthusiast, was a man of credit, and does not even affect to have seen the wonders, the reality of which he unscrupulously adopts on the testimony of others, to whose eyes he trusted rather than to his own. The conversion of the sceptical gentleman of whom he speaks is highly illustrative of popular credulity carried away into enthusiasm, or into imposture, by the evidence of those around, and at once shows the imperfection of such a general testimony, and the ease with which it is procured, since the general excitement of the moment impels even the more cold-blooded and judicious persons present to catch up the ideas and echo the exclamations of the majority, who, from the first, had considered the heavenly phenomenon as a supernatural weapon-schaw, held for the purpose of a sign and warning of civil wars to come.
"In the year 1686, in the months of June and July," says the honest chronicler, "many yet alive can witness that about the Crossford Boat, two miles beneath Lanark, especially at the Mains, on the water of Clyde, many people gathered together for several afternoons, where there were showers of bonnets, hats, guns, and swords, which covered the trees and the ground; companies of men in arms marching in order upon the waterside; companies meeting companies, going all through other, and then all falling to the ground and disappearing; other companies immediately appeared, marching the same way. I went there three afternoons together, and, as I observed, there were two-thirds of the people that were together saw, and a third that saw not; and, though I could see nothing, there was such a fright and trembling on those that did see, that was discernible to all from those that saw not. There was a gentleman standing next to me who spoke as too many gentlemen and others speak, who said, 'A pack of damned witches and warlocks that have the second sight! the devil ha't do I see;' and immediately there was a discernible change in his countenance. With as much fear and trembling as any woman I saw there, he called out, 'All you that do not see, say nothing; for I persuade you it is matter of fact, and discernible to all that is not stone-blind.' And those who did see told what works (i.e., locks) the guns had, and their length and wideness, and what handles the swords had, whether small or three-barr'd, or Highland guards, and the closing knots of the bonnets, black or blue; and those who did see them there, whenever they went abroad, saw a bonnet and a sword drop in the way."
[Footnote 1: Walker's "Lives," Edinburgh, 1827, vol. i. p. xxxvi. It is evident that honest Peter believed in the apparition of this martial gear on the principle of Partridge's terror for the ghost of Hamlet—not that he was afraid himself, but because Garrick showed such evident marks of terror.]
This singular phenomenon, in which a multitude believed, although only two-thirds of them saw what must, if real, have been equally obvious to all, may be compared with the exploit of the humourist, who planted himself in an attitude of astonishment, with his eyes riveted on the well-known bronze lion that graces the front of Northumberland House in the Strand, and having attracted the attention of those who looked at him by muttering, "By heaven it wags! it wags again!" contrived in a few minutes to blockade the whole street with an immense crowd, some conceiving that they had absolutely seen the lion of Percy wag his tail, others expecting' to witness the same phenomenon.
On such occasions as we have hitherto mentioned, we have supposed that the ghost-seer has been in full possession of his ordinary powers of perception, unless in the case of dreamers, in whom they may have been obscured by temporary slumber, and the possibility of correcting vagaries of the imagination rendered more difficult by want of the ordinary appeal to the evidence of the bodily senses. In other respects their blood beat temperately, they possessed the ordinary capacity of ascertaining the truth or discerning the falsehood of external appearances by an appeal to the organ of sight. Unfortunately, however, as is now universally known and admitted, there certainly exists more than one disorder known to professional men of which one important symptom is a disposition to see apparitions.
This frightful disorder is not properly insanity, although it is somewhat allied to that most horrible of maladies, and may, in many constitutions, be the means of bringing it on, and although such hallucinations are proper to both. The difference I conceive to be that, in cases of insanity, the mind of the patient is principally affected, while the senses, or organic system, offer in vain to the lunatic their decided testimony against the fantasy of a deranged imagination. Perhaps the nature of this collision—between a disturbed imagination and organs of sense possessed of their usual accuracy—cannot be better described than in the embarrassment expressed by an insane patient confined in the Infirmary of Edinburgh. The poor man's malady had taken a gay turn. The house, in his idea, was his own, and he contrived to account for all that seemed inconsistent with his imaginary right of property—there were many patients in it, but that was owing to the benevolence of his nature, which made him love to see the relief of distress. He went little, or rather never abroad—but then his habits were of a domestic and rather sedentary character. He did not see much company—but he daily received visits from the first characters in the renowned medical school of this city, and he could not therefore be much in want of society. With so many supposed comforts around him—with so many visions of wealth and splendour—one thing alone disturbed the peace of the poor optimist, and would indeed have confounded most bons vivants. "He was curious," he said, "in his table, choice in his selection of cooks, had every day a dinner of three regular courses and a dessert; and yet, somehow or other, everything he eat tasted of porridge." This dilemma could be no great wonder to the friend to whom the poor patient communicated it, who knew the lunatic eat nothing but this simple aliment at any of his meals. The case was obvious. The disease lay in the extreme vivacity of the patient's imagination, deluded in other instances, yet not absolutely powerful enough to contend with the honest evidence of his stomach and palate, which, like Lord Peter's brethren in "The Tale of a Tub," were indignant at the attempt to impose boiled oatmeal upon them, instead of such a banquet as Ude would have displayed when peers were to partake of it. Here, therefore, is one instance of actual insanity, in which the sense of taste controlled and attempted to restrain the ideal hypothesis adopted by a deranged imagination. But the disorder to which I previously alluded is entirely of a bodily character, and consists principally in a disease of the visual organs, which present to the patient a set of spectres or appearances which have no actual existence. It is a disease of the same nature which renders many men incapable of distinguishing colours; only the patients go a step further, and pervert the external form of objects. In their case, therefore, contrary to that of the maniac, it is not the mind, or rather the imagination, which imposes upon and overpowers the evidence of the senses, but the sense of seeing (or hearing) which betrays its duty and conveys false ideas to a sane intellect.
More than one learned physician, who have given their attestations to the existence of this most distressing complaint, have agreed that it actually occurs, and is occasioned by different causes. The most frequent source of the malady is in the dissipated and intemperate habits of those who, by a continued series of intoxication, become subject to what is popularly called the Blue Devils, instances of which mental disorder may be known to most who have lived for any period of their lives in society where hard drinking was a common vice. The joyous visions suggested by intoxication when the habit is first acquired, in time disappear, and are supplied by frightful impressions and scenes, which destroy the tranquillity of the unhappy debauchee. Apparitions of the most unpleasant appearance are his companions in solitude, and intrude even upon his hours of society: and when by an alteration of habits, the mind is cleared of these frightful ideas, it requires but the slightest renewal of the association to bring back the full tide of misery upon the repentant libertine.
Of this the following instance was told to the author by a gentleman connected with the sufferer. A young man of fortune, who had led what is called so gay a life as considerably to injure both his health and fortune, was at length obliged to consult the physician upon the means of restoring, at least, the former. One of his principal complaints was the frequent presence of a set of apparitions, resembling a band of figures dressed in green, who performed in his drawing-room a singular dance, to which he was compelled to bear witness, though he knew, to his great annoyance, that the whole corps de ballet existed only in his own imagination. His physician immediately informed him that he had lived upon town too long and too fast not to require an exchange to a more healthy and natural course of life. He therefore prescribed a gentle course of medicine, but earnestly recommended to his patient to retire to his own house in the country, observe a temperate diet and early hours, practising regular exercise, on the same principle avoiding fatigue, and assured him that by doing so he might bid adieu to black spirits and white, blue, green, and grey, with all their trumpery. The patient observed the advice, and prospered. His physician, after the interval of a month, received a grateful letter from him, acknowledging the success of his regimen. The greens goblins had disappeared, and with them the unpleasant train of emotions to which their visits had given rise, and the patient had ordered his town-house to be disfurnished and sold, while the furniture was to be sent down to his residence in the country, where he was determined in future to spend his life, without exposing himself to the temptations of town. One would have supposed this a well-devised scheme for health. But, alas! no sooner had the furniture of the London drawing-room been placed in order in the gallery of the old manor-house, than the former delusion returned in full force: the green figurantés, whom the patient's depraved imagination had so long associated with these moveables, came capering and frisking to accompany them, exclaiming with great glee, as if the sufferer should have been rejoiced to see them, "Here we all are—here we all are!" The visionary, if I recollect right, was so much shocked at their appearance, that he retired abroad, in despair that any part of Britain could shelter him from the daily persecution of this domestic ballet.
There is reason to believe that such cases are numerous, and that they may perhaps arise not only from the debility of stomach brought on by excess in wine or spirits, which derangement often sensibly affects the eyes and sense of sight, but also because the mind becomes habitually predominated over by a train of fantastic visions, the consequence of frequent intoxication; and is thus, like a dislocated joint, apt again to go wrong, even when a different cause occasions the derangement.
It is easy to be supposed that habitual excitement by means of any other intoxicating drug, as opium, or its various substitutes, must expose those who practise the dangerous custom to the same inconvenience. Very frequent use of the nitrous oxide which affects the senses so strongly, and produces a short but singular state of ecstasy, would probably be found to occasion this species of disorder. But there are many other causes which medical men find attended with the same symptom, of embodying before the eyes of a patient imaginary illusions which are visible to no one else. This persecution of spectral deceptions is also found to exist when no excesses of the patient can be alleged as the cause, owing, doubtless, to a deranged state of the blood or nervous system.
The learned and acute Dr. Ferriar of Manchester was the first who brought before the English public the leading case, as it may be called, in this department, namely, that of Mons. Nicolai, the celebrated bookseller of Berlin. This gentleman was not a man merely of books, but of letters, and had the moral courage to lay before the Philosophical Society of Berlin an account of his own sufferings, from having been, by disease, subjected to a series of spectral illusions. The leading circumstances of this case may be stated very shortly, as it has been repeatedly before the public, and is insisted on by Dr. Ferriar, Dr. Hibbert, and others who have assumed Demonology as a subject. Nicolai traces his illness remotely to a series of disagreeable incidents which had happened to him in the beginning of the year 1791. The depression of spirits which was occasioned by these unpleasant occurrences, was aided by the consequences of neglecting a course of periodical bleeding which he had been accustomed to observe. This state of health brought on the disposition to see phantasmata, who visited, or it may be more properly said frequented, the apartments of the learned bookseller, presenting crowds of persons who moved and acted before him, nay, even spoke to and addressed him. These phantoms afforded nothing unpleasant to the imagination of the visionary either in sight or expression, and the patient was possessed of too much firmness to be otherwise affected by their presence than with a species of curiosity, as he remained convinced from the beginning to the end of the disorder, that these singular effects were merely symptoms of the state of his health, and did not in any other respect regard them as a subject of apprehension. After a certain time, and some use of medicine, the phantoms became less distinct in their outline, less vivid in their colouring, faded, as it were, on the eye of the patient, and at length totally disappeared.
The case of Nicolai has unquestionably been that of many whose love of science has not been able to overcome their natural reluctance to communicate to the public the particulars attending the visitation of a disease so peculiar. That such illnesses have been experienced, and have ended fatally, there can be no doubt; though it is by no means to be inferred, that the symptom of importance to our present discussion has, on all occasions, been produced from the same identical cause.
Dr. Hibbert, who has most ingeniously, as well as philosophically, handled this subject, has treated it also in a medical point of view, with science to which we make no pretence, and a precision of detail to which our superficial investigation affords us no room for extending ourselves.
The visitation of spectral phenomena is described by this learned gentleman as incidental to sundry complaints; and he mentions, in particular, that the symptom occurs not only in plethora, as in the case of the learned Prussian we have just mentioned, but is a frequent hectic symptom—often an associate of febrile and inflammatory disorders—frequently accompanying inflammation of the brain—a concomitant also of highly excited nervous irritability—equally connected with hypochondria—and finally united in some cases with gout, and in others with the effects of excitation produced by several gases. In all these cases there seems to be a morbid degree of sensibility, with which this symptom is ready to ally itself, and which, though inaccurate as a medical definition, may be held sufficiently descriptive of one character of the various kinds of disorder with which this painful symptom may be found allied.
A very singular and interesting illustration of such combinations as Dr. Hibbert has recorded of the spectral illusion with an actual disorder, and that of a dangerous kind, was frequently related in society by the late learned and accomplished Dr. Gregory of Edinburgh, and sometimes, I believe, quoted by him in his lectures. The narrative, to the author's best recollection, was as follows:—A patient of Dr. Gregory, a person, it is understood, of some rank, having requested the doctor's advice, made the following extraordinary statement of his complaint. "I am in the habit," he said, "of dining at five, and exactly as the hour of six arrives I am subjected to the following painful visitation. The door of the room, even when I have been weak enough to bolt it, which I have sometimes done, flies wide open; an old hag, like one of those who haunted the heath of Forres, enters with a frowning and incensed countenance, comes straight up to me with every demonstration of spite and indignation which could characterize her who haunted the merchant Abudah in the Oriental tale; she rushes upon me, says something, but so hastily that I cannot discover the purport, and then strikes me a severe blow with her staff. I fall from my chair in a swoon, which is of longer or shorter endurance. To the recurrence of this apparition I am daily subjected. And such is my new and singular complaint." The doctor immediately asked whether his patient had invited any one to sit with him when he expected such a visitation. He was answered in the negative. The nature of the complaint, he said, was so singular, it was so likely to be imputed to fancy, or even to mental derangement, that he had shrunk from communicating the circumstance to any one. "Then," said the doctor, "with your permission, I will dine with you to-day, téte-à-téte, and we will see if your malignant old woman will venture to join our company." The patient accepted the proposal with hope and gratitude, for he had expected ridicule rather than sympathy. They met at dinner, and Dr. Gregory, who suspected some nervous disorder, exerted his powers of conversation, well known to be of the most varied and brilliant character, to keep the attention of his host engaged, and prevent him from thinking on the approach of the fated hour, to which he was accustomed to look forward with so much terror. He succeeded in his purpose better than he had hoped. The hour of six came almost unnoticed, and it was hoped might pass away without any evil consequence; but it was scarce a moment struck when the owner of the house exclaimed, in an alarmed voice, "The hag comes again!" and dropped back in his chair in a swoon, in the way he had himself described. The physician caused him to be let blood, and satisfied himself that the periodical shocks of which his patient complained arose from a tendency to apoplexy.
The phantom with the crutch was only a species of machinery, such as that with which fancy is found to supply the disorder called Ephialtes, or nightmare, or indeed any other external impression upon our organs in sleep, which the patient's morbid imagination may introduce into the dream preceding the swoon. In the nightmare an oppression and suffocation is felt, and our fancy instantly conjures up a spectre to lie on our bosom. In like manner it may be remarked, that any sudden noise which the slumberer hears, without being actually awakened by it—any casual touch of his person occurring in the same manner—becomes instantly adopted in his dream, and accommodated to the tenor of the current train of thought, whatever that may happen to be; and nothing is more remarkable than the rapidity with which imagination supplies a complete explanation of the interruption, according to the previous train of ideas expressed in the dream, even when scarce a moment of time is allowed for that purpose. In dreaming, for example, of a duel, the external sound becomes, in the twinkling of an eye, the discharge of the combatants' pistols;—is an orator haranguing in his sleep, the sound becomes the applause of his supposed audience;—is the dreamer wandering among supposed ruins, the noise is that of the fall of some part of the mass. In short, an explanatory system is adopted during sleep with such extreme rapidity, that supposing the intruding alarm to have been the first call of some person to awaken the slumberer, the explanation, though requiring some process of argument or deduction, is usually formed and perfect before the second effort of the speaker has restored the dreamer to the waking world and its realities. So rapid and intuitive is the succession of ideas in sleep, as to remind us of the vision of the prophet Mahommed, in which he saw the whole wonders of heaven and hell, though the jar of water which fell when his ecstasy commenced, had not spilled its contents when he returned to ordinary existence.
A second, and equally remarkable instance, was communicated to the author by the medical man under whose observation it fell, but who was, of course, desirous to keep private the name of the hero of so singular a history. Of the friend by whom the facts were attested I can only say, that if I found myself at liberty to name him, the rank which he holds in his profession, as well as his attainments in science and philosophy, form an undisputed claim to the most implicit credit.
It was the fortune of this gentleman to be called in to attend the illness of a person now long deceased, who in his lifetime stood, as I understand, high in a particular department of the law, which often placed the property of others at his discretion and control, and whose conduct, therefore, being open to public observation, he had for many years borne the character of a man of unusual steadiness, good sense, and integrity. He was, at the time of my friend's visits, confined principally to his sick-room, sometimes to bed, yet occasionally attending to business, and exerting his mind, apparently with all its usual strength and energy, to the conduct of important affairs intrusted to him; nor did there, to a superficial observer, appear anything in his conduct, while so engaged, that could argue vacillation of intellect, or depression of mind. His outward symptoms of malady argued no acute or alarming disease. But slowness of pulse, absence of appetite, difficulty of digestion, and constant depression of spirits, seemed to draw their origin from some hidden cause, which the patient was determined to conceal. The deep gloom of the unfortunate gentleman—the embarrassment, which he could not conceal from his friendly physician—the briefness and obvious constraint with which he answered the interrogations of his medical adviser, induced my friend to take other methods for prosecuting his inquiries. He applied to the sufferer's family, to learn, if possible, the source of that secret grief which was gnawing the heart and sucking the life-blood of his unfortunate patient. The persons applied to, after conversing together previously, denied all knowledge of any cause for the burden which obviously affected their relative. So far as they knew—and they thought they could hardly be deceived—his worldly affairs were prosperous; no family loss had occurred which could be followed with such persevering distress; no entanglements of affection could be supposed to apply to his age, and no sensation of severe remorse could be consistent with his character. The medical gentleman had finally recourse to serious argument with the invalid himself, and urged to him the folly of devoting himself to a lingering and melancholy death, rather than tell the subject of affliction which was thus wasting him. He specially pressed upon him the injury which he was doing to his own character, by suffering it to be inferred that the secret cause of his dejection and its consequences was something too scandalous or flagitious to be made known, bequeathing in this manner to his family a suspected and dishonoured name, and leaving a memory with which might be associated the idea of guilt, which the criminal had died without confessing. The patient, more moved by this species of appeal than by any which had yet been urged, expressed his desire to speak out frankly to Dr.——. Every one else was removed, and the door of the sick-room made secure, when he began his confession in the following manner:—
"You cannot, my dear friend, be more conscious than I, that I am in the course of dying under the oppression of the fatal disease which consumes my vital powers; but neither can you understand the nature of my complaint, and manner in which it acts upon me, nor, if you did, I fear, could your zeal and skill avail to rid me of it."—"It is possible," said the physician, "that my skill may not equal my wish of serving you; yet medical science has many resources, of which those unacquainted with its powers never can form an estimate. But until you plainly tell me your symptoms of complaint, it is impossible for either of us to say what may or may not be in my power, or within that of medicine."—"I may answer you," replied the patient, "that my case is not a singular one, since we read of it in the famous novel of Le Sage. You remember, doubtless, the disease of which the Duke d'Olivarez is there stated to have died?"—"Of the idea," answered the medical gentleman, "that he was haunted by an apparition, to the actual existence of which he gave no credit, but died, nevertheless, because he was overcome and heart-broken by its imaginary presence."—"I, my dearest doctor," said the sick man, "am in that very case; and so painful and abhorrent is the presence of the persecuting vision, that my reason is totally inadequate to combat the effects of my morbid imagination, and I am sensible I am dying, a wasted victim to an imaginary disease." The medical gentleman listened with anxiety to his patient's statement, and for the present judiciously avoiding any contradiction of the sick man's preconceived fancy, contented himself with more minute inquiry into the nature of the apparition with which he conceived himself haunted, and into the history of the mode by which so singular a disease had made itself master of his imagination, secured, as it seemed, by strong powers of the understanding, against an attack so irregular. The sick person replied by stating that its advances were gradual, and at first not of a terrible or even disagreeable character. To illustrate this, he gave the following account of the progress of his disease:—
"My visions," he said, "commenced two or three years since, when I found myself from time to time embarrassed by the presence of a large cat, which came and disappeared I could not exactly tell how, till the truth was finally forced upon me, and I was compelled to regard it as no domestic household cat, but as a bubble of the elements, which had no existence save in my deranged visual organs or depraved imagination. Still I had not that positive objection to the animal entertained by a late gallant Highland chieftain, who has been seen to change to all the colours of his own plaid if a cat by accident happened to be in the room with him, even though he did not see it. On the contrary, I am rather a friend to cats, and endured with so much equanimity the presence of my imaginary attendant, that it had become almost indifferent to me; when, within the course of a few months, it gave place to, or was succeeded by, a spectre of a more important sort, or which at least had a more imposing appearance. This was no other than the apparition of a gentleman-usher, dressed as if to wait upon a Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a Lord High Commissioner of the Kirk, or any other who bears on his brow the rank and stamp of delegated sovereignty.
"This personage, arrayed in a court dress, with bag and sword, tamboured waistcoat, and chapeau-bras, glided beside me like the ghost of Beau Nash; and, whether in my own house or in another, ascended the stairs before me, as if to announce me in the drawing-room, and at sometimes appeared to mingle with the company, though it was sufficiently evident that they were not aware of his presence, and that I alone was sensible of the visionary honours which this imaginary being seemed desirous to render me. This freak of the fancy did not produce much impression on me, though it led me to entertain doubts on the nature of my disorder and alarm for the effect it might produce on my intellects. But that modification of my disease also had its appointed duration. After a few months the phantom of the gentleman-usher was seen no more, but was succeeded by one horrible to the sight and distressing to the imagination, being no other than the image of death itself—the apparition of a skeleton. Alone or in company," said the unfortunate invalid, "the presence of this last phantom never quits me. I in vain tell myself a hundred times over that it is no reality, but merely an image summoned up by the morbid acuteness of my own excited imagination and deranged organs of sight. But what avail such reflections, while the emblem at once and presage of mortality is before my eyes, and while I feel myself, though in fancy only, the companion of a phantom representing a ghastly inhabitant of the grave, even while I yet breathe on the earth? Science, philosophy, even religion, has no cure for such a disorder; and I feel too surely that I shall die the victim to so melancholy a disease, although I have no belief whatever in the reality of the phantom which it places before me."
The physician was distressed to perceive, from these details, how strongly this visionary apparition was fixed in the imagination of his patient. He ingeniously urged the sick man, who was then in bed, with questions concerning the circumstances of the phantom's appearance, trusting he might lead him, as a sensible man, into such contradictions and inconsistencies as might bring his common-sense, which seemed to be unimpaired, so strongly into the field as might combat successfully the fantastic disorder which produced such fatal effects. "This skeleton, then," said the doctor, "seems to you to be always present to your eyes?" "It is my fate, unhappily," answered the invalid, "always to see it." "Then I understand," continued the physician, "it is now present to your imagination?" "To my imagination it certainly is so," replied the sick man. "And in what part of the chamber do you now conceive the apparition to appear?" the physician inquired. "Immediately at the foot of my bed. When the curtains are left a little open," answered the invalid, "the skeleton, to my thinking, is placed between them, and fills the vacant space." "You say you are sensible of the delusion," said his friend; "have you firmness to convince yourself of the truth of this? Can you take courage enough to rise and place yourself in the spot so seeming to be occupied, and convince yourself of the illusion?" The poor man sighed, and shook his head negatively. "Well," said the doctor, "we will try the experiment otherwise." Accordingly, he rose from his chair by the bedside, and placing himself between the two half-drawn curtains at the foot of the bed, indicated as the place occupied by the apparition, asked if the spectre was still visible? "Not entirely so," replied the patient, "because your person is betwixt him and me; but I observe his skull peering above your shoulder."
It is alleged the man of science started on the instant, despite philosophy, on receiving an answer ascertaining, with such minuteness, that the ideal spectre was close to his own person. He resorted to other means of investigation and cure, but with equally indifferent success. The patient sunk into deeper and deeper dejection, and died in the same distress of mind in which he had spent the latter months of his life; and his case remains a melancholy instance of the power of imagination to kill the body, even when its fantastic terrors cannot overcome the intellect, of the unfortunate persons who suffer under them. The patient, in the present case, sunk under his malady; and the circumstances of his singular disorder remaining concealed, he did not, by his death and last illness, lose any of his well-merited reputation for prudence and sagacity which had attended him during the whole course of his life.
Having added these two remarkable instances to the general train of similar facts quoted by Ferriar, Hibbert, and other writers who have more recently considered the subject, there can, we think, be little doubt of the proposition, that the external organs may, from various causes, become so much deranged as to make false representations to the mind; and that, in such cases, men, in the literal sense, really see the empty and false forms and hear the ideal sounds which, in a more primitive state of society, are naturally enough referred to the action of demons or disembodied spirits. In such unhappy cases the patient is intellectually in the condition of a general whose spies have been bribed by the enemy, and who must engage himself in the difficult and delicate task of examining and correcting, by his own powers of argument, the probability of the reports which are too inconsistent to be trusted to.
But there is a corollary to this proposition, which is worthy of notice. The same species of organic derangement which, as a continued habit of his deranged vision, presented the subject of our last tale with the successive apparitions of his cat, his gentleman-usher, and the fatal skeleton, may occupy, for a brief or almost momentary space, the vision of men who are otherwise perfectly clear-sighted. Transitory deceptions are thus presented to the organs which, when they occur to men of strength of mind and of education, give way to scrutiny, and their character being once investigated, the true takes the place of the unreal representation. But in ignorant times those instances in which any object is misrepresented, whether through the action of the senses, or of the imagination, or the combined influence of both, for however short a space of time, may be admitted as direct evidence of a supernatural apparition; a proof the more difficult to be disputed if the phantom has been personally witnessed by a man of sense and estimation, who, perhaps satisfied in the general as to the actual existence of apparitions, has not taken time or trouble to correct his first impressions. This species of deception is so frequent that one of the greatest poets of the present time answered a lady who asked him if he believed in ghosts:—"No, madam; I have seen too many myself." I may mention one or two instances of the kind, to which no doubt can be attached.
The first shall be the apparition of Maupertuis to a brother professor in the Royal Society of Berlin.
This extraordinary circumstance appeared in the Transactions of the Society, but is thus stated by M. Thiebault in his "Recollections of Frederick the Great and the Court of Berlin." It is necessary to premise that M. Gleditsch, to whom the circumstance happened, was a botanist of eminence, holding the professorship of natural philosophy at Berlin, and respected as a man of an habitually serious, simple, and tranquil character.
A short time after the death of Maupertuis, M. Gleditsch being obliged to traverse the hall in which the Academy held its sittings, having some arrangements to make in the cabinet of natural history, which was under his charge, and being willing to complete them on the Thursday before the meeting, he perceived, on entering the hall, the apparition of M. de Maupertuis, upright and stationary, in the first angle on his left hand, having his eyes fixed on him. This was about three o'clock, afternoon. The professor of natural philosophy was too well acquainted with physical science to suppose that his late president, who had died at Bâle, in the family of Messrs. Bernoullie, could have found his way back to Berlin in person. He regarded the apparition in no other light than as a phantom produced by some derangement of his own proper organs. M. Gleditsch went to his own business, without stopping longer than to ascertain exactly the appearance of that object. But he related the vision to his brethren, and assured them that it was as defined and perfect as the actual person of Maupertuis could have presented. When it is recollected that Maupertuis died at a distance from Berlin, once the scene of his triumphs—overwhelmed by the petulant ridicule of Voltaire, and out of favour with Frederick, with whom to be ridiculous was to be worthless—we can hardly wonder at the imagination even of a man of physical science calling up his Eidolon in the hall of his former greatness.
[Footnote 2: Long the president of the Berlin Academy, and much favoured
by Frederick II., till he was overwhelmed by the ridicule of Voltaire.
He retired, in a species of disgrace, to his native country of
Switzerland, and died there shortly afterwards.]
The sober-minded professor did not, however, push his investigation to the point to which it was carried by a gallant soldier, from whose mouth a particular friend of the author received the following circumstances of a similar story.
Captain C—— was a native of Britain, but bred in the Irish Brigade. He was a man of the most dauntless courage, which he displayed in some uncommonly desperate adventures during the first years of the French Revolution, being repeatedly employed by the royal family in very dangerous commissions. After the King's death he came over to England, and it was then the following circumstance took place.
Captain C—— was a Catholic, and, in his hour of adversity at least, sincerely attached to the duties of his religion. His confessor was a clergyman who was residing as chaplain to a man of rank in the west of England, about four miles from the place where Captain C—— lived. On riding over one morning to see this gentleman, his penitent had the misfortune to find him very ill from a dangerous complaint. He retired in great distress and apprehension of his friend's life, and the feeling brought back upon him many other painful and disagreeable recollections. These occupied him till the hour of retiring to bed, when, to his great astonishment, he saw in the room the figure of the absent confessor. He addressed it, but received no answer—the eyes alone were impressed by the appearance. Determined to push the matter to the end, Captain C—— advanced on the phantom, which appeared to retreat gradually before him. In this manner he followed it round the bed, when it seemed to sink down on an elbow-chair, and remain there in a sitting posture. To ascertain positively the nature of the apparition, the soldier himself sate down on the same chair, ascertaining thus, beyond question, that the whole was illusion; yet he owned that, had his friend died about the same time, he would not well have known what name to give to his vision. But as the confessor recovered, and, in Dr. Johnson's phrase, "nothing came of it," the incident was only remarkable as showing that men of the strongest nerves are not exempted from such delusions.
Another illusion of the same nature we have the best reason for vouching as a fact, though, for certain reasons, we do not give the names of the parties. Not long after the death of a late illustrious poet, who had filled, while living, a great station in the eye of the public, a literary friend, to whom the deceased had been well known, was engaged, during the darkening twilight of an autumn evening, in perusing one of the publications which professed to detail the habits and opinions of the distinguished individual who was now no more. As the reader had enjoyed the intimacy of the deceased to a considerable degree, he was deeply interested in the publication, which contained some particulars relating to himself and other friends. A visitor was sitting in the apartment, who was also engaged in reading. Their sitting-room opened into an entrance-hall, rather fantastically fitted up with articles of armour, skins of wild animals, and the like. It was when laying down his book, and passing into this hall, through which the moon was beginning to shine, that the individual of whom I speak saw, right before him, and in a standing posture, the exact representation of his departed friend, whose recollection had been so strongly brought to his imagination. He stopped for a single moment, so as to notice the wonderful accuracy with which fancy had impressed upon the bodily eye the peculiarities of dress and posture of the illustrious poet. Sensible, however, of the delusion, he felt no sentiment save that of wonder at the extraordinary accuracy of the resemblance, and stepped onwards towards the figure, which resolved itself, as he approached, into the various materials of which it was composed. These were merely a screen, occupied by great-coats, shawls, plaids, and such other articles as usually are found in a country entrance-hall. The spectator returned to the spot from which he had seen the illusion, and endeavoured, with all his power, to recall the image which had been so singularly vivid. But this was beyond his capacity; and the person who had witnessed the apparition, or, more properly, whose excited state had been the means of raising it, had only to return into the apartment, and tell his young friend under what a striking hallucination he had for a moment laboured.
There is every reason to believe that instances of this kind are frequent among persons of a certain temperament, and when such occur in an early period of society, they are almost certain to be considered as real supernatural appearances. They differ from those of Nicolai, and others formerly noticed, as being of short duration, and constituting no habitual or constitutional derangement of the system. The apparition of Maupertuis to Monsieur Gleditsch, that of the Catholic clergyman to Captain C——, that of a late poet to his friend, are of the latter character. They bear to the former the analogy, as we may say, which a sudden and temporary fever-fit has to a serious feverish illness. But, even for this very reason, it is more difficult to bring such momentary impressions back to their real sphere of optical illusions, since they accord much better with our idea of glimpses of the future world than those in which the vision is continued or repeated for hours, days, and months, affording opportunities of discovering, from other circumstances, that the symptom originates in deranged health.
Before concluding these observations upon the deceptions of the senses, we must remark that the eye is the organ most essential to the purpose of realizing to our mind the appearance of external objects, and that when the visual organ becomes depraved for a greater or less time, and to a farther or more limited extent, its misrepresentation of the objects of sight is peculiarly apt to terminate in such hallucinations as those we have been detailing. Yet the other senses or organs, in their turn, and to the extent of their power, are as ready, in their various departments, as the sight itself, to retain false or doubtful impressions, which mislead, instead of informing, the party to whom they are addressed.
Thus, in regard to the ear, the next organ in importance to the eye, we are repeatedly deceived by such sounds as are imperfectly gathered up and erroneously apprehended. From the false impressions received from this organ also arise consequences similar to those derived from erroneous reports made by the organs of sight. A whole class of superstitious observances arise, and are grounded upon inaccurate and imperfect hearing. To the excited and imperfect state of the ear we owe the existence of what Milton sublimely calls—
The airy tongues that syllable men's names,
On shores, in desert sands, and wildernesses.
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