On 16 February 1846, we find Angelique Cottin in the laboratory of the Observatory situated in the 5th Arrondissement of Paris.
The Academicians Mathieu, Laugier and Goujon are there in the name of a Commission of scholars that Arago has just unofficially summoned.
The “electric girl” is not in very good form and is content with making a few papers fly about, and shaking a side-table.
Minutes are nonetheless taken and the next day, which is the day of the public seance at the Academy of Sciences, Arago comments the previous day’s events.
Babinet, a venerable elder of the institution almost suffocates from laughing. His laughter is even greater in that, as head of the Right at the Institut de France, he is the sworn enemy of Arago. Arago loses his temper, stamps his foot and bangs his fist onto the tribunal, which brings smiles to the faces of the Ultras who have never been so amused.
However, it is decided to constitute a Commission of Enquiry which will be composed of Arago, Becquerel, Rayer, Parisot and that light who is Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.
The kingdom of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire is the Jardin des Plantes. But poor Angelique will not be given much time to discover its beauties… When she is introduced into the great laboratory, she finds herself confronted with menacing test-tubes, bobines, balls of copper, tubs in which mysterious dials are plunged, full of malefic liquids. In other words, another planet for the unhappy girl who starts to cry gently, and then more and more loudly, and even louder because she has been delivered for an instant from the control of the frightful Cholet.
It is in vain that they attempt to touch her with certain bizarre apparatus. All these old men seem repulsive to her and, faced with magnetic fields that she is supposed to polarise, she breaks down and demands her Bouvigny fields and her only real friends, the cows and the Percheron horses.
They are obliged to send for Cholet who is waiting in the adjoining room, with Tanchon and mother Loisnard.
Nothing can be done, and at the end of this memorable seance, the extra-sensitive galvanometre hasn’t registered the slightest electrical fluid.
Babinet hopes to reduce to silence all magnetisers, spiritists and any other “occultists”. He largely inspires the decision rendered by the Commission three days later:
“In the seance of 17 February, the Academy received from Monsieur Cholet and Monsieur the Doctor Tanchon a note relative to the extraordinary faculties which, they said, had developed over roughly one month in a young girl of fourteen, from Bouvigny, in the Orne, by the name of Angelique Cottin.
“The Academy, conforming to custom, charged a Commission to examine the claimed facts and to report the results. We are going to acquit ourselves of this duty, in few words.
“We were assured that Mademoiselle Cottin exercised a very intense repulsive action on the bodies of all matters, at the moment when any part of her clothing came to touch them. It was even said that a side-table was tipped over. No appreciable fact of this kind was manifested in front of the Commission.
“Monsieur Tanchon believed that Mademoiselle Cottin had the faculty of distinguishing the North pole from the South pole of a magnetised needle by simply touching the tips with her fingers. The Commission is assured by varied and multiple experiments that the young person does not possess this claimed faculty.
“The Commission will not push any further the enumeration of her aborted attempts. It will content itself with declaring, in conclusion, that the only fact which was performed in front of it is that of a brusque and violent movement by the chair on which the young person was seated.
“Serious suspicions being raised about the manner in which this movement was happening, the Commission decided to submit it to an attentive examination. It announced without hesitation that the researches would tend to discover the part that certain clever and hidden manoeuvres could have on the observed facts. From this moment, it was declared to us by Monsieur Cholet that the young girl had lost her attractive and repulsive faculties and that we would be immediately informed when they happened again. Many days have passed since then and the Commission has not been alerted.
“We have however learnt that Mademoiselle Cottin is taken every day into salons where she repeats her experiments. The Commission is of the opinion that the notes relating to this person, which were given to it beforehand, should be considered as not having occurred.”
Arago is only implicitly attacked, and it is Tanchon who is presented as the culprit. Why doesn’t he protest? While leaving the Jardin des Plantes, Cholet had threatened:
“All these old pigs won’t ruin us.”
That same evening, Tanchon has the explanation of these equivocal words. A numerous public has invaded the dining-room of the dodgy hotel, places are being let at a good price, and Angelique has recovered all her gifts.
Honest Doctor Tanchon loses his temper, but he is mocked. The very next day, he boards the train and Angelique cries a lot, again, sensing that she has just lost her last protector.
Alerted from the Orne by the doctor, Arago orders an enquiry. The commerce of which the “electric girl” is the object prospers every day, and she now gives permanent shows which bring her a lot of money… which Cholet pockets of course.
Hundreds and hundreds of witnesses will still see her command, more or less well, all sorts of incredible phenomena.
Now it is the salons of “advanced” opinion which take hold of Angelique. Each chaise-longue which takes off, each wardrobe which sways, the tables which roll, and the soup tureens which fall, become so many insults to the Ultras…
When, by chance, the “‘gymnote girl” is a little late in manifesting her gifts, the inevitable Cholet is there to threaten her. This gives rise to pathetic scenes during which Angelique, to whom success has given a little assurance, throws appalling looks of hatred at her godfather.
The owner of the dodgy hotel, who is well-paid, finishes by having enough of this noise, and one day throws Cholet and his goddaughter into the street.
From then on, we lose all trace of the “electric girl”. We know that her persecutor returned home without her. Had she lost her gifts, or worse, her soul, in the welcoming Halles quarter?
A tenacious legend in the Perche claims that she threw herself into the Seine. She had said one day that it was too awful and that she wanted to die.
To be continued.