Sunday, February 26, 2012

The most famous somnambulist of his time.

By the middle of the 19th century, Alexis Didier has become the most famous somnambulist of his time. Indeed, when he died in 1886, he was celebrated by several magnetic reviews as ‘the greatest clairvoyant in modern times’.

Alexis was born in Paris in march 1826, from a poor family. His mother had ten children, and his father repaired shoes for a living. He was thinly built and his health, it seems, was frail. He was a very clever man, and, at the time he practiced, did not suffer any particular psychological disorder. He first became an apprentice, because his family could not afford to pay his studies. As he suffered fits of epilepsy, at the age of fourteen, his mother sent him to a mesmerist, who succeeded in restoring his health. But, during the process of the cure, he became a somnambulist, and he discovered his powers.

Then, around 1842, he met a well-known mesmerist, Jean Marcillet, a former officer of the Royal Guard. Marcillet understood that this youth had exceptional magnetic powers, and decided to work with him. The two men went on tour in the northeast of France, especially in Normandy, giving both public and private demonstrations. They also had a cabinet in Paris, where people could come for private consultations.

In 1843, at the age of sixteen, Alexis was already famous. People came from everywhere to consult him, sometimes from England, where his fame had spread into certain circles of the aristocracy. Indeed the British were even the first to discover him as a research subject.

For instance, the first report ever written on Alexis was by a British physician, Dr Edwin Lee, who had heard of him in London, and came to Paris to consult him. At first skeptical, he quickly was convinced that Alexis’ abilities were genuine. He wrote a report on his observations, which he sent on June 1843 to the President of the Parisian medical society.

This report was never published in France, but Lee published it in London.

In may 1844, while touring in the North of France, Alexis and Marcillet gave seances in Calais. Upon seeing the British coast across the channel, Marcillet had the sudden conviction that they must cross over and conquer England. He was not the first. Dupotet came first in 1837, and Lafontaine in 1840, but Marcillet and Alexis had something very different in mind for their neighbors. Actually, they were totally unprepared for such a trip, as neither spoke a single word of English; their only contact in London was Baillière, a French publisher established in London, and specialized in medical books. But through Baillière, who was well introduced in magnetic circles, they managed to convince Dr Elliotson[1], the leading figure of animal magnetism in England, to give them a chance. Elliotson organized a private séance with a very sophisticated audience. The first cession began with some difficulties, as Alexis was intimidated by this new audience, who spoke a language that he did not understand. Gradually, however, he gained confidence, and the meeting turned into a triumph. The people were completely stunned by what they had seen. Some newspapers, in the following days, including the Lancet, celebrated the young somnambulist.

Alexis and Marcillet stayed in London until the end of the summer, and where invited for private cessions by aristocrats; Lord Adare was one of them. They met skeptics too,convinced some of them, but needless to say, they could not convince Dr. Forbes, the leading skeptic figure, and Dr Elliotson[1]’s greatest enemy.

But, in fact, Alexis was never caught cheating – he was not even suspected on the basis of tangible facts. Forbes’ arguments relied upon what we call in French ‘une pétition de principe’, that is, the assumption that such phenomena are impossible, and must therefore be considered as mere tricks.

Meanwhile, back in France, Alexis’ fame kept growing.

In 1847 he gave demonstrations for the royal family. The same year, he was confronted with Robert-Houdin, the most celebrated conjuror of the time, and the spiritual father of all modern conjurors. In letters later published the conjuror admitted frankly that he could neither produce, nor explain the feats he observed. In one letter he wrote:
‘The more I reflect upon the facts I observed, the more I am convinced that they cannot by produced by my art’.

While thoroughly blindfolded, he would read texts or words enclosed in boxes, sealed envelopes, or simply people’s pockets. He would read sentences in an uncut book taken at random in a library. People would just give him the number of a page, and he could read a sentence of this page. He could ‘travel’ to a remote place, visit the consultant’s office, and read the title of a book left on purpose on the table. He could give a diagnosis of another person’s health problem. Based on an object having some link with a person, he could give the name of this person, or her address, or her dog’s name.

In 1851, reverend Chauncey Hare Townshend[2], a friend of Dickens, a well know painter and poet, who wrote two books on animal magnetism, met Alexis in Paris. This is one of the feats he reports:
‘Alexis now seemed rather fatigued. I made him a few passes over him to relieve him, and then proceeded to test his power of reading through obstacles. I brought out of the next room Lamartine’s Jocelyn, which I had bought that day, I opened it, and Alexis read some lines with closed eyes. (…) Then, suddenly, he said: “How many pages further down would you wish me to read?”. I said “eight”. I had heard of this faculty, but never witnessed it. He then traced with his fingers slowly along the page that was opened, and read: “a dévoré d’un trait toute ma sympathie”. I counted down eight pages from the page I had first opened, and found, exactly where his fingers had traced, the line he had read. It was correct, with the exception of a single word. He had read “déchiré” au lieu de “dévoré”. Human incredibility began to stir in me, and I really thought perhaps Alexis knew Jocelyn by heart’.

Alexis kept demonstrating his powers until 1855. But his health deteriorated and impaired him from continuing his demonstrations. He died in 1886, probably from a liver cancer.


[2]Chauncy Hare Townshend, born Chauncy Hare Townsend (1798, Godalming, Surrey – 1868) was a 19th century English poet, clergyman, mesmerist, collector, dilettante and hypochondriac. He is mostly remembered for bequeathing his collections to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) and the Wisbech & Fenland Museum in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire.

In the 1830s Townshend studied mesmerism, and was the chief British exponent of the art after Dr. John Elliotson[1]; he published two books and some articles and letters on the subject. Elliotson introduced Townshend to Charles Dickens, who also had an interest in mesmerism, and the two became lifelong friends. Townshend's volume of poetry The Three Gates (1859) was dedicated to Dickens, who in turn dedicated Great Expectations to Townshend; Dickens also gave Townshend the original manuscript of the novel, and his crystal ball.

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