The dining-room has been emptied of its furniture, and is divided down the middle by a big, black veil. Only a few chairs have remained in place. Five or six gentlemen in high, white collars, waistcoats and tails are talking gravely in a corner.
A little woman around fifty, dressed all in black and looking like a peasant, makes her entrance. She glances around absently, then stares at the overhead light, her eyes blinking. The gentlemen move closer to one another and examine her with suspicious curiosity…
The chairs are arranged in a circle, and a man in a striped jacket and bow tie, aims a bulky camera at the newcomer. This could be used to photograph her, but the light is gradually dimming and the photograph therefore risks being completely spoiled…
Two gentlemen sit on either side of the little woman and squeeze up so close to her that their knees touch her. One of them is not afraid to remove his ankle boot and place his foot on that of the woman…
Now they attach their ankles and their wrists to those of the woman, who again appears to be unsettled by the faint light still coming from the ceiling. The two other actors in this scene take hold of their acolytes’ hands in a way that forms a sort of chain. It is growing darker, and the man whose camera is connected to a big battery seizes the rubber bulb.
Now, it is almost completely dark.
Suddenly, a cracking noise shakes the table placed in front of the group. Someone asks if his neighbour is holding Eusapia’s hand. He is told that she is being held by her thumb. He asks about her legs.
“My left leg is pressed tightly against her right leg and I can’t feel any movement.”
“Mine too. And my foot is on her left foot. Lightly, for she tells me that it hurts her. But neither her foot nor her leg can move!”
A man’s voice draws their attention to the table. It is rising, and reaches at least thirty centimetres in the air. The seated, bound woman then screams:
There is a flash. The photo is taken. A photo which will set off a passionate debate throughout the whole of the scholarly world at the beginning of the XXth Century.
Its most illustrious representatives will contribute to it for around ten years.
On 9 August 1888, a very curious article appears in an Italian newspaper. It relates the occult powers of a certain Eusapia Palladino and, looking more closely at it, it seems to be more of an open letter. It emanates from a Napolitan Professor of Medicine, Ercole Chiaia, who is addressing it to the famous Italian doctor Cesare Lombroso.
He is asking that Science deign at last to treat the case of this peasant woman from Abruzzes, other than with indifference or amused contempt.
Lombroso, who is one of the greatest scholars of modern Italy, knows Chiaia and estimes him. He is doubtless a little troubled by his colleague’s tone and the recital of the astounding performances of which this Eusapia appears capable. He accepts to examine her case, convinced that, although it will contribute nothing to Science, it will at least sweep from its noble doorstep one of those manifestations which disturb its rational harmony.
Thanks to the subsidies of Aksakoff, a famous spiritist medium of the epoch, he surrounds himself with a whole collection of first-class scholars, has Eusapia brought to his laboratory, and submits her for weeks to a great number of observations. They result in so many paranormal manifestations that Lombroso and his colleagues are obliged to draw up an inventory of them in the form of a chart which contains no fewer than forty-four headings. It goes from the transportation through space of objects or the medium’s own body, to the perception of icy breaths, not to mention visions of flying hands accomplishing complicated acts, and imprints of unknown faces or hands in clay placed near the medium.
The scholars gathered around the Maestro are unanimous: the phenomena which they have just seen are authentic and irrefutable. All except one, a Frenchman: the great criminologist, Dr Edmond Locard, who remembers that Lombroso is not fully satisfied with his medium. That she sometimes cheats, like cracking her joints and passing it off in the dark as coming from spirits. Or arriving at the place of the experiments with flowers in her pockets which are supposed to surge later from a table or a stool…
It is therefore decided to attempt a whole series of other experiments controlled by veritable commissions of enquiry, one of which includes Charles Richet, also French, and one of the best physiologists of his time.
Richet is impressed to the point of having Eusapia come to his property on the island of Roubaud for new observations. He takes the precaution of inviting a few English scholars who are particularly sceptical and clever at weeding out false mediums.
They are impressed, but not convinced. One of them, Richard Hogdson, who knows all the secrets of illusionism, even attempts to prove that all Eusapia’s paranormal actions are reduced to an extremely simple trick, which consists in liberating one of her hands from the hold of those who are controlling her. In the darkness, she would make one of them hold the back of one of her hands, and the other, the palm, and they would have the illusion of holding Eusapia’s two extremities at the same time. It is with the freed hand that she would accomplish her prodigies.
These subterfuges, that other scholars present had not uncovered, are eventually known, and the scientific observers are more and more vigilant and sceptical, when they aren’t frankly aggressive or hostile.
Eusapia Palladino participates in numerous experiments for another few years, in front of witnesses as distinguished as W.-H. Myers, Joseph Maxwell, Camille Flammarion, Victorien Sardou, Gustave Le Bon, Professor Morselli of the University of Turino, and many others. Despite the notoriety of the witnesses and the trouble or the enthusiasm of most of them, unhappy minds make it known that, had a prestidigitator of quality been present at these seances, he would certainly have been able to detect the fraud.
To be continued.