The Winter of 1857 has been long and very hard in Haute-Savoie. When, at last, in mid-March, the days start to lengthen a little, and the remaining ice on the banks of the Leman begins to melt, the Savoyards are greatly relieved. Morzine, in the arrondissement of Thonon-les-Bains, has particularly suffered. The little Alpine town of 1,500 inhabitants has been cut off from the rest of the world for nearly three months. So, in the tightly bunched little houses whose slate rooves are caving in, in some places, under the weight of the snow, the minds of the Morzinois have been very much turned in on themselves.
Monsieur the Curate does what he can to chase away any deviating thoughts. This year, he has zealously prepared his little girls, with particular care, for their First Holy Communion. On the eve of the great day, around five o’clock, little Peronne leaves the church, where she has been to Confession…
In the afternoon, she had run alongside the torrent to watch the water being engulfed inside the last tunnels of ice. One of her little friends had almost been swept away after slipping. Peronne had rushed to her and succeeded in pulling her out of there.
Has this incident strongly marked her?… Around five o’clock, when she comes back to the Sisters of Saint-Vincent’s school, she collapses on her bench. She is taken to her home unconscious, and only wakes up three hours later…. As if nothing had happened. But, the following Sunday, at Mass, she falls again into her strange sleep, emerging this time only in the afternoon.
In the first days of May, Peronne and her sister Marie are guarding sheep. They are found lying in the grass, both plunged into a deep lethargic sleep, as if fused to each other.
Soon, the sickness progresses in both little girls. Now, before falling into catalepsy, they are taken with convulsions. They blaspheme, and proffer all sorts of horrors while throwing their arms in the air.
The attacks are now happening even at school. During their convulsions, they scream that demons have taken possession of them. They look fixedly at the sky, stretch out their arms, as if to receive something which is going to fall from the sky. They then mime the movements of someone opening a letter and reading it. Over the pages, their expression goes through different degrees of anxiety, joy, terror…
At last, they claim that the three demons who are installed in their bodies are called the Miser, the Thief and the Woodcutter.
And now, the illness of the little sisters is becoming contagious. Suddenly, in the small room heated by a big woodburning stove, one little girl stands up, spinning her arms like propellers. Another, when questioned, is unable to hear, and for days, can only communicate by signs. Another one again becomes a somnambulist in full daylight, while her neighbour twists herself with pain on the ground, because seven devils have suddenly entered into her stomach.
In other words, the peaceful school of the good Sisters of Saint-Vincent is transformed into a lunatic asylum…
But, that’s not all. Respectable mothers are also struck by the disease. Jeanne Boraz, a woman of thirty, mother of four children, opens the sabbath by letting out pitiful cries, before collapsing in convulsions.
The Mass of the Festival of the Assumption, usually joyful and meditative, this time resounds with the cries of the possessed. As soon as the Kyrie is heard, little girls and grown women convulsing make a deafening noise. The poor curate can shake his sprinkler as much as he wants; Holy Water on heads has the same effect as flaming pitch.
The one and only doctor in Morzine, Doctor Buet, is rapidly out of his depth. At the end of May, he alerts the authorities. It’s the Sardinian carabiniers who investigate because, in 1857, Savoie is not yet attached to France. Doctor Tavernier, a doctor from Thonon, armed with an Official Mission Order, is also sent to the scene. He goes first of all to the school, where he witnesses a complete pot-pourri of satanic manifestations.
It’s very impressive, and Doctor Tavernier just jots down in his notebook for that day that, after their attacks, the possessed little girls appear to wake up from a dream. Their mothers do too.
He concludes that it is a collective delirium, which will only propagate if the sick people are not isolated. Even if it doesn’t deliver the nature of the illness which is attacking the Morzinoises, this diagnosis is at least very reasonable. But the inhabitants refuse to listen. They say that little Marie and little Peronne have been touched by a witch from Gets, and that that is the origine of this generalized diabolical possession.
On top of that, Julienne Perot, who is suddenly endowed with the gift of prophecy, assures that the whole village is going to suffer from it.
It is whispered as well that it is a defrocked priest, now living in Geneva, 70 km away from there, who is responsible for this bewitchment. The good curate of Morzine then decides to take the devil by the horns, as it were. He distributes exorcisms all over the place, which of course only reinforces the generalized psychosis.
It is now 1860 and the number of possessed, having since become subjects of the Emperor, is over one hundred and fifty. Alerted by this disturbing progression, Napoleon III’s Government sends to Morzine, on an Extraordinary Mission, Doctor Arthaud, from Lyon. He has no trouble in convincing himself that the lugubrious spectacle, which the Morzinois see every day, is playing a determining role in the extension of the illness.
With the Government’s agreement, the sous-prefet of Thonon then decides to strike a decisive blow: he is going to have thrown into prison all those who wriggle around in convulsions.
To be continued.