A WORLD OF WONDERS (1845) by Albany Poyntz



(Investigator 205, 2022 July)

There are instances in which it may be fairly said that seeing is not believing. In the case of a variety of persons who have exhibited themselves, in different times and countries, as endowed with the natural power of resistance to fire, the frightful feats displayed serve only to convince the spectator, that the incombustibility of the exhibitants is but a skilful effort of legerdemain.

It may be observed that the persons who pretend to this miraculous faculty, seldom expose themselves to the hazard of the investigations of the scientific world. For the exhibition of their exploits, they usually prefer small towns to great cities. In former days, incombustible men assumed, in Spain, the name of saludores; and most of those who have since exhibited in public their insensibility to fire, are descendants or imitators of these Spanish mountebanks. The saludores, however, pretended to a power of curing all sorts of diseases by means of their saliva; whereas, the incombustible individuals who have figured in France and Germany, pretend only to handle fire with impunity, to swallow boiling oil, walk upon glowing embers, or even among flames; all which exploits they accomplish with perfect self-possession. So long as two hundred years ago, however, the saludores were recognised as impostors. Leonard Vain relates a story of one of them, who, having pretended to the faculty of sustaining the heat of a kindled oven, was forced by the populace into one, without sufficient preparation; on opening which, at the close of an hour, the man was found to be calcined. A somewhat severe mode of punishing imposture!

This example, however, did not serve to extinguish the race; and in 1806, a man who called himself the miraculous Spaniard, opened an exhibition in Paris, where he renewed all the skilful marvels of his predecessors, by walking barefooted on red hot iron, drawing heated bars across his arms, face and tongue, dipping his hands in molten lead, and swallowing, as if with zest, a glass of boiling oil. This exhibition, to which the idlers of the French capital resorted, produced a careful examination into the precedents of antiquity for similar instances of incombustibility.

Some cited the well-known lines of Virgil, with reference to the exhibitions of the priests of Apollo, on Mount Soracte, where they walked unhurt, in presence of the worshippers of their divinity, upon burning embers. Others quoted the equally doubtful authority of Pliny; who relates the same fact, adding that the privilege of incombustibility was hereditary in a specific family; a fact the more remarkable, because all the modern jugglers in this branch of the black art, pretend to descend from St. Catherine.

Varro, less credulous than Pliny, expressly states that the priests of the Temple of Soracte possessed the secret of a composition which rendered them fire-proof.

Long after Varro, Strabo related that the votaries of the goddess Feronia obtained, as the price of their devotions, the faculty of walking unhurt over burning piles; and that the exhibition of this miraculous power before her altars, attracted numerous spectators.

"The worship of the goddess Feronia," says Strabo, "is much in vogue; her temple being remarkable as the site of a miracle. Those persons whose prayers the goddess deigns to propitiate, are enabled to defy the most ardent flames. This miracle is renewed at her annual festival."

It is also related that, not far from the city of Thyane, the birth-place of Apollonius, there was a celebrated temple dedicated to Diana Persica; the virgins devoted wherein to the worship of the goddess of Chastity, possessed the power and privilege of treading unhurt upon burning embers. A confirmation of these wonders is to be found in Aristotle and Apuleius.

When the visitors of the miraculous Spaniard had satisfied themselves, that antiquity supplied a variety of examples in substantiation of the power to which he pretended, modern history was searched for further attestation; when it appeared that Ambrose Paré and Cardan, depose to having seen mountebanks so inured to the effects of molten lead and boiling oil, that they were able to wash their faces and hands, unhurt, with those terrible materials. Delrio, Delancre, and Bodin, advance many curious facts of a similar nature.

Had these incombustible individuals existed in the days when trial by ordeal was still a form of law; or, rather, had the Art of Chemistry attained at that period the power of hardening the human skin into resistance of fire, the secret would have been invaluable.

In those barbarous ages, a culprit sentenced to the fiery ordeal of walking upon heated ploughshares, or plunging his limbs into boiling oil, was tacitly condemned to death. We may infer, however, that Kings, Queens, and Dignitaries of the Church were of a less combustible nature than humbler mortals; for when these were forced to submit to the terrible ordeal of fire, it was observed that they escaped unsinged; while serfs and beggars, burnt like tinder: an understanding with the cruel executioners of these savage laws, being essential to establish the innocence of an accused person.

It would appear as though a sinister influence had always attached itself to the ill-fated See of Autun; for one of the first instances on record of the ordeal of fire being applied to a member of the hierarchy, was that of Simplicius, Bishop of Autun, who, after submitting to it in his life-time, was canonized after death. Two later Bishops of Autun—the Abbé Roquette, said to be the original of the Tartuffe of Molière, and the Prince de Talleyrand, one of the most remarkable personages of modern times, have certainly not experienced the same posthumous distinction.

Simplicius, being a married man, when called to the honours of the See of Autun, repudiated his wife, to whom he was tenderly attached. He was, nevertheless, accused of retaining her conjugally in his palace after his promotion to the mitre; in disproof of which, he submitted, and caused his beloved wife to submit to the fiery ordeal in presence of a vast congregation; when, both having escaped unhurt, Simplicius was eventually promoted to the honour of the Calendar.

St. Brie, the successor of St. Martin in the See of Tours, was also accused of having become a father, to the discredit of his episcopal functions; a charge he is said to have defeated by bestowing powers of speech upon the infant, thereby enabling it to name its real father. In addition to this exculpation, he submitted to the fiery ordeal; and having gathered up his robe, and filled it with burning embers, proceeded in this guise to the tomb of his predecessor, St. Martin, without experiencing the slightest injury. It is not added in the legend, whether the garments of the Bishop were also uninjured.

One of the most celebrated trials by fire on record, is that of Thuitberge, wife of Lothaire, King of France. Having been accused of more than becoming intimacy with the young Prince, her brother, and condemned to the ordeal, she had the good fortune to find a champion willing to undertake it in her behalf. These champions or proxies were tantamount to the special pleaders of the present day, being mostly hired by fee or reward for the purpose. The champion of Thuitberge managed to establish her innocence, by plunging his arm without injury into a cauldron of boiling water; after which, Lothaire was compelled to admit the injustice of his accusation, and retain her as his wife. Even at that epoch, however, mistrust had arisen on this score; and certain servitors of the King openly insinuated the existence of chemical compositions, by the application of which a man might fortify his flesh against the action of boiling fluids. Appeal from the decision of an ordeal was, however, decided to be impossible.

A celebrated Father of the Oratoire, the Père Lebrun, published a recipe purporting to insure impunity against fire; consisting of equal parts of alcohol, sulphur, ammonia, essence of rosemary, and onion juice. At the moment Père Lebrun was devoting himself to experiments on the mysteries of incombustibles, an English practician, named Richardson, was amazing the world of science by the performance of prodigies. This person contrived to walk upon burning embers, to place burning sulphur upon his hand, then transferring it to his tongue, allow it to consume away without apparent injury. He also allowed a piece of meat, or an oyster, to be cooked upon his tongue; the fire for the purpose being kept up in a live coal by a pair of bellows. He was also able to grasp a red hot bar of iron, and even seize it between his teeth; to swallow molten glass and a mixture of burning pitch and sulphur, so that the flames burst from his mouth as from that of a furnace; just as common mountebanks emit fire from their mouths by means of a coal wrapt in tow, which has been previously steeped in spirits of wine.

These experiments attracted so much attention, that scientific men considered them deserving notice; and in 1677, Dodart, of the French Academy of Sciences, addressed a letter on the subject to the Journal de Science, proving that such phenomena might be achieved by time, address, and perseverance, without the intervention of chemical agency. The ordinary hardening of the hands and feet by labour and exercise, certainly induce a belief that perseverance in the same means might be made to produce absolute callosity.

It is well known, that bakers are remarkable for the muscularity of their arms and slightness of their legs; while dancers have usually slender arms and muscular legs. The difference of exercise, necessitated by their several professions, producing diverse development of limb. On the other hand, there is no need to compare the sole of the foot of a lady who seldom goes out, unless in a carriage, or treads on any other material than luxurious carpets, with that of a peasant who goes bare-footed on the flinty road, without inconvenience, to be assured that the same degree of boiling water which could be sustained by the latter without inconvenience, would blister the delicate epidermis of the former.

Dodart observes that, in the ordinary circumstances of life, some people are able to swallow their food much hotter than others; and that, as regards the experiments of Richardson, charcoal loses its heat the moment it is extinguished, and is easily extinguished by means of the human saliva. It is a common trick of jugglers to put lighted tapers into their mouths; and in the attempts made by Richardson to cook a piece of meat upon his tongue, the slice was made so to envelop the ember, as to secure his mouth from contact with the fire; while the bellows used during the process, on pretence of keeping up the flame, were on the contrary, intended to cool the mouth. As to the mixtures of boiling wax, pitch and sulphur, Dodart states their temperature to have been such, that he could hold his finger in them two seconds without pain. It is well known that the workmen in the foundries are so inured to heat, as to touch, without injury, metals in a state of fusion; frequently plunging their hands into molten lead, in order to recover articles of value. Moreover, as regards any ignited substance placed in the mouth, it naturally becomes extinguished the moment the lips are reclosed; the gas from the human lungs tending especially to that purpose.

About the year 1774, there lived at the foundry of Laune, a man who could walk unharmed over bars of red-hot iron, and hold burning coals in his hands. The skin of this man was observed to emit a sort of unctuous transpiration, which served as his preservative. These facts suffice to prove that the miraculous Spaniard, who affected preternatural incombustibility, had no need of magic for the working of his wonders.

For another case, equally remarkable, we are indebted to Sementini, an eminent Professor of Chemistry at Naples. A Sicilian, named Lionetti, came to that city for the purpose of exhibiting feats of incombustibility; and soon excited public astonishment by his power of drawing a red-hot plate of iron over his hair without singeing it, on which he afterwards stamped with his naked feet. He also drew rods of red-hot iron through his mouth, swallowed boiling oil, dipped his fingers in molten lead, and dropped some on his tongue. He fearlessly exposed his face to the flames of burning oil; poured sulphuric or muriatic acid upon lighted embers, and imbibed the fumes; ending by allowing a thick gold pin to be thrust deep into his flesh.

The Neapolitans were as much enchanted by the feats of Lionetti as the Parisian with those of the incombustible Spaniard. But at Naples, Sementini, who was on the watch, perceived that, at the moment the fire-proof man applied the heated materials to his skin, there escaped a whitish vapour. Instead of swallowing a glass of boiling oil, according to his announcement, he introduced only a quarter of a spoonful into his mouth, and a few drops of molten lead upon his tongue, which was covered with a white fur, like the secretion perceptible in cases of fever. When he took the hot iron between his teeth, symptoms of suppressed pain were perceptible; and the edges of his teeth were evidently charred by previous performances of a similar description. From these appearances, Sementini inferred that Lionetti made use of certain preparations which secured him against the influence of heat, by hardening the epidermis; and that his skin having become callous from use, was in itself able to resist, to a certain degree, the action of fire. These conclusions, which concur with those made by Dodart, in the case of Richardson, were verified by personal observation and careful experiment.

After many fruitless attempts to discover the chemical agents used by the Incombustibles, the persevering Sementini found that by frequent frictions of sulphuric acid, he was able to inure his flesh to the contact of red-hot iron; and we are bound to admire the patience and courage of those who, for the benefit of scientific discovery, attempt experiments of so powerful and perilous a nature. To have exposed a fallacy in matters of science, is equal to the discovery of a fact; and the extirpation of a single error or false conclusion from the popular mind, is an act deserving of gratitude.

Sementini found that by bathing the parts thus deprived of their usual sensitiveness with a solution of alum, their former sensibility to heat was restored; and one day, happening to smear with soap the parts he had re-softened in this manner with alum, he found, to his great surprise, that they became hardened anew against the action of heat. The experimentalist instantly applied to his tongue a preparation of soap, and found that it enabled him to defy the contact of iron heated to a white heat. To neutralize the faculty thus acquired, he had only to sprinkle his tongue with sugar; a new application of soap serving at any moment to render it fire-proof.

By these experiments, in various countries, the pretension to a supernatural power of incombustibility has been reduced to its true level. The Priests of Soracte, the Virgins of Diana, the Champion of Queen Thuitberge, and the Bishop of Autun, were doubtless adepts in the art of the miraculous Spaniard; and according to the recipe of Sementini, a man may be enabled to defy the element of fire as successfully as an expert swimmer overmasters that of water, or an experienced aëronaut of air.