It is only in the crucial year 1905 that the tenors of the scientific world of the epoch decide to find out once and for all whether or not the peasant woman, Eusapia Palladino, is a fraud.
None of those who participated in these decisive experiments is a second-class mind; almost all are known to the public. Before looking at the astonishing report that they published, let us discover a bit more about the enigmatic figure of Eusapia, who was doubtless the greatest medium of all time.
When she is born in 1854, into a family of poor peasants, the region is still living in antique paganism as far as religion goes, and in the Middle Ages as far as the roughness of its life is concerned. In the little, narrow valleys, witchcraft is rife, and the backroads unsafe. One night, bandits occupy the little farm and slit the throat of Eusapia’s father in front her, so atrociously, that the poor little girl is covered in blood. She faints, then remains prostrated for days. She is taken in by her grandmother, an appalling shrew, who beats her for pleasure. All of her nights are peopled with horrible nightmares and, at puberty, she starts having hallucinations which eventually go away, only to be replaced by another strange trouble: the instability which, until now, has wreaked havoc inside her, regularly exteriorises itself in material form, visible to numerous witnesses. It is as if, at puberty, Eusapia has ceased suffering from hallucinations, to become capable of making other people see them…
These phenomena are unexplained to this day, and the term “hallucination” is hardly the right one, because there are photographs of these so-called hallucinations.
At fifteen, Eusapia, who does not know how to read and write, finds work as a washerwoman. One of her employer’s clients is Professor Damiani, an adept of spiritism. As soon as he meets the young girl, Damiani realises that she is a medium endowed with very exceptional qualities. Despite her absolute ignorance, Eusapia is very intelligent; she immediately accepts the Professor’s proposition to take her into his home and, thanks to his advice, her gifts rapidly develop. So great is her fear of falling back into her former condition, that she is sometimes tempted to help nature along a bit… When the phenomena are slow to occur, she has the unfortunate tendency to replace them by cheating. Not always very cleverly either: she pretends that a draught of cold air comes from a scar that she has on her forehead, and to do it, she gently expulses her breath towards the ceiling, while directing the air with her fingers… A subterfuge that Rinn, a prestidigitator, and pupil of the famous Houdini, rapidly discovers.
Does this mean that all the other supranormal phenomena that Eusapia produces are suspicious? To claim this would be absurd, and would contradict the conclusions of numerous scholarly commissions. For example, the most prestigious of them all, which met four times between 1905 and 1908 in Paris, under the auspices of the Institut general de psychologie.
Around the table, which has just entered into levitation, are grouped the dignified people who have submitted Eusapia to a test of unprecedented rigour. The most scrupulous among them go as far as upturning the table, to verify that it does not have some cheating dispositive… One of them asks Henri Bergson what he thinks. The philosopher replies simply:
“Hypothesis non fingo!” [“I shall not make an hypothesis” – in the words of Galileo Galilei.]
Flammarion remarks, when asked his opinion, that it is more the domain of his friend Branly who is also present.
Pierre Curie thinks that it is just a shame that they don’t have with them one of the illusionists who are performing at the Alhambra.
The famous scholar, Yurievitch, says jokingly that Eusapia should be entrusted to Mme Curie for a week, as women tell each other everything.
Marie Curie, who, with her husband, has just discovered radium, replies that she would rather need simple faith:
“I have seen it, but my reason doesn’t believe it, nonetheless!”
The fate that official science will reserve for Eusapia’s powers is entirely resumed in these words from Marie Curie. It perfectly resumes the embarrassment of all those who want to drink only from the sources of rationality, backed by reasoning of the mathematical or physical type. Beyond the evident perceptions of their senses, they are ceaselessly looking for this objective proof which can only be furnished by phenomena which are repeatable at will. Completely the opposite of what is happening with Eusapia, as with all other mediums: their powers are submitted to forces, part of which they don’t understand, and this is why they have highs and lows.
This is what immediately appeared to our scholars, assembled in Paris, who, however, had the immense merit of studying supranormality, with the seriousness and the perseverance which evidently prove the authenticity of the phenomena that they had been called upon to examine. How is it conceivable that minds, which are at the origin of a great number of the XXth Century’s essential scientific discoveries, consecrated themselves to this study, by meeting all together, for forty-three seances of the kind that we saw at the beginning of the first part of this story? Spread as they were over nearly three years, they demonstrate the durable interest that Eusapia’s extraordinary gifts suscitated. Before this atonishing collection of geniuses, the medium is not at all awed. It is true that she is accustomed to it. Since the age of fifteen she has been running around Europe at the invitation of all the scholarly commissions that wanted to examine her: Naples, Milan, Rome, Cambridge, Varsovia, Saint Petersburg, London, Toulon… However, she has never had to vanquish so many doubts, fed by an inflexible scientific mentality, which therefore gives weight to the report that will be published. Eusapia knows this, and that is why she plays the game with completely inhabitual patience and good will. Until now, it has been mostly she who imposes her conditions of light, disposition of witnesses throughout the room, proximity of the objects that she is going to move or imprint. This time, the witnesses multiply controls and constraints, in such a way that the medium is practically tied up throughout the experiments by all the strings which bind her, the hands which hold her, the feet which press on her…
To be continued.