Posts Tagged madness

Who Haunted Betsy Bell?

14 January 2012

Elizabeth Bell

The visitations began with sightings of strange animals about the Bell homestead, and of a unknown girl in green swinging to the limb of a tall oak. Soon there came an unaccountable knocking about the door and exterior walls of the house, followed by scratching and gnawing sounds that searched from room to room. It assaulted the boys in the night, ripping the sheets from their beds and pulling their hair as they tried to sleep. Whenever candles were lit to investigate, they would soon hear screams coming from their sister’s room. 

Betsy Bell was 12 years old in 1818 when she became the thrall of an unseen tormentor who, for some three years, relentlessly beat her, mangled her hair, pinched and pricked her skin, and once caused her to vomit pins and needles. Her family, early, well-respected settlers of Robertson County, TN, at first tried removing her from the home, but to no avail—the disturbances followed her wherever she went. It was intelligent and, moreover, able to communicate. 

At first the communication was mediated through conventional spirit rapping techniques, but soon it achieved a faltering whisper that grew into a disembodied voice, able to be heard distinctly by everyone in the room. The so-called Bell Witch—or “Kate,” as she came to be known—went on to grant many interviews, over the course of which she sang, gossiped, played tricks, and aped the sermons of local ministers, all the while heaping violent torments on Betsy, her family, and visiting skeptics.

Above all, “Kate” hated Betsy’s father—John Bell, or “Old Jack,” as she addressed him—and swore that she would torture him to death. Coincident with her arrival, he had begun suffering from facial seizures that limited his ability to speak and consume food, and when he ultimately died in 1820, the witch pointed out a vial of poison that she had used to do him in. It was only after John Bell was thus dead that the witch began to release her grip on Betsy, the manifestations more or less coming to an end by 1821. 


Elizabeth d’Espérance’s “Shadow Land”

1 October 2011

Elizabeth d’Espérance grew up in a tired old house on the East End of London, filled with dark, oak-paneled halls and desolate, forbidden rooms that compelled her to explore. “I was very fond of wandering about from one empty room to another,” she wrote, 

and of sitting with my dolls on the broad low window seats, whence I would be fetched with an exclamation of horror and wonder by our servant, who considered my liking for the haunted rooms as “uncanny” and unnatural, threatening me with the ghosts and their vengeance if I persisted in invading their domains by myself.

I could never quite understand nurse’s remarks about the lonelines of the rooms, though her threats about the ghosts frightened me. To me the rooms were never empty nor lonely;—strangers were constantly passing to and fro, from one room to another; some took no notice of me, some nodded and smiled as I held up my doll for their inspection. I did not know who the strangers were, but I grew to know them by sight…

On this note, d’Espérance sets the tone for Shadow Land, her 1897 memoir of life as a medium during the heyday of Victorian spiritualism.

Her career began, naturally enough, in experiments with table rapping and automatic writing, but before long she was performing full-form manifestations in the manner of Florence Cook, Annie Fairlamb, and other star mediums of the era. Her usual controls were “Walter,” a light-hearted American soldier, and the professorial “Humnur Stafford,” but she is best remembered for manifesting female spirits like the “Yolande:” a playful Arab girl whose favorite trick was to materialize (“apport”) exotic flowers into the room. 

Accounts of purported spectral phenomena like these are familiar to any student of spiritualism. What sets Shadow Land apart is that d’Espérance weaves them into a powerful, first-personal narrative that delves into the subjective experience of giving over one’s body as a conduit to the spirit world, together with its attendant doubts, fears and anxieties. Enough has been written about whether it is possible for a medium to lend her substance to strange, otherworldly entities—Shadow Land gives us a basis to imagine what it might actually feel like to do so.


The Lighter Side of Victorian Spiritualism

3 September 2011

The Spirit Katie King in the Seance Room

The Spirit Katie King in the Seance Room

“One important and often overlooked aspect of Victorian mediumship is that it could be enormous fun,” says Alex Owen in The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. This is the picture that emerges when one looks particularly at the “star mediums” of the 1870’s, who were known for performing theatrical, full-body materializations for eager audiences.

In a dim seance room, the medium would enter a closed cabinet wherein she would tap the mysterious psychical forces that would allow her to manifest one of her spirit familiars. This familiar would then emerge to from behind the curtain to entertain the assembled sitters. Each medium had her own repertoire of otherworldly entitles at her command, each with his or her own distinct personality, speech patterns, favored tricks and antics. They could be gallant, flirtatious, aggressive, or playful, as suited them.  

Florence Cook’s child spirit Pocha “stole money and trinkets from the sitters, climbed on the laps of gentlemen, stroked their whiskers, and allowed herself to be kissed and cuddled.” Annie Fairlamb’s male familiar Sam repeatedly boxed a sitter on the side of the head until the man guessed his name right. Elizabeth d’Esperance manifested Yolande, a sensual, oriental girl who kissed and caressed her sitters, and made gifts of exotic flowers that she materialized into the room. 

These encounters often took on highly sexual overtones. Clad in loose-fitting garments, liberated from extraneous corsets and underwear, spirits sometimes invited sitters to explore their corporeal forms and prove to themselves just how very real they were. Florence Cook was famously purported to have carried on an affair with one of her investigators, whom she allowed to enter the materialization cabinet with her. The seance room was a liminal space where participants were afford greater license to transgress the ordinary norms of Victorian society.


The Moonflowers Bloom at Night

6 August 2011

Datura inoxia -- Photo by Clinton and Charles Robertson

Datura inoxia -- Photo by Clinton & Charles Robertson


THE sun has burned his way across the sky,
And sunk in sultry splendor; now the earth
Lies spent and gray, wrapped in the grateful dusk;
Stars tremble into sight, and in the west
The curved moon glows faintly. ‘T is the hour!
See! Flower on flower the buds unfold, until
The air is filled with odors exquisite
And amorous sighs, and all the verdurous gloom
Is starred with silvery disks.
                            Oh, Flower of Dreams! —
Of lover’s dreams, where bliss and anguish meet;
Dreams of dead joys, and joys that ne’er have been;
Keenest of all, the joys that ne’er shall be!            

                                    —Julia Schayer 

The common name “moonflower” has been applied to a variety of fragrant, vespertine plants that ranged across Europe and North America during the Victorian period. One in particular is Datura inoxia, which evokes the name not only for its ethereal white, night-blooming flowers, but for the deadly madness it produces when ingested.

Like all members its genus, Datura inoxia is a potent deliriant that contains malignant alkaloids chemically similar to those of deadly nightshade. Its effects include acute psychosis, lasting visual and spatial distortion, itching and dryness, disruption of the urinary tract, amnesia, and, all too often, death. In spite of a history of shamanic use, it is notorious, even among psychedelic luminaries, for producing the sort of drug trip that leads to such questions as “How did I get here?” and “What chewed off my fingers?” With its toothed flower and thorny fruit, D. inoxia signals danger to those who would unlock its secrets. 


Psychopathy as a “New Malady”

25 June 2011

The first popular use of the term “psychopath” is commonly traced to to an 1885 article in the Pall Mall Gazette, which has not heretofore been easily available online. It turns out to be a short piece in the “occasional notes” section of the newspaper’s issue for January 21st, which reports a perverse case in which psychopathy had actually served as a winning criminal defense:

The acquittal, at St. Petersburg, of Mdlle. Semenova, accused of being implicated in the murder of the child Sarah Becker, has been the cause of a scene closely resembling that witnessed at Paris when Mdme. Clovis Hugues was restored to her admiring friends. The reason, however, for the acquittal of the Russian lady differs greatly from that which saved Mdme. Hugues. The evidence all through the trial was dead against Mdlle. Semenova, and it would have fared badly with her but for the declaration of an expert M. Balinsky, a Russian mad-doctor, who, pointing out to the jury the hysterical bearing of the culprit, persuaded them that she was suffering from “psychopathy,” and therefore morally irresponsible. For the benefit of those who are as yet ignorant of the meaning of psychopathy—a term which before long will be naturalized in our courts—we give M. Balinsky’s explanation of the new malady. “The psychopath,” he says, “is a type which has only recently come under the notice of medical science. It is an individual whose every moral faculty appears to be of the normal equilibrium. He thinks logically, he distinguishes good and evil, and he acts according to reason. But of all moral notions he is entirely devoid….Beside his own person and his own interests, nothing is sacred to the psychopath, &c., &c.” The short and long of it sees to be that if egotism is fully developed in a human being he becomes “morally irresponsible”—a very convenient doctrine, to which, however, mankind will have to add as a corollary that whenever a fully developed psychopath is discovered he shall be immediately hanged.

In less than four years after the publication of this article, London would meet Jack the Ripper.


The Life and Madness of Edward H. Rulloff

7 May 2011
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The brain of Ithaca genius / murderer Edward Rulloff on display in the Uris Hall brain collection.

Edward H. Rulloff's Brain, on Display at Uris Hall, Cornell University

Visitors to Cornell University’s psychology department would be hard pressed to overlook the eight pickled brains, preserved in heavy glass jars, which are proudly showcased on the second floor of Uris Hall. A small sample of the 122 specimens in the university’s Wilder Brain Collection, each belongs to a notable scholar or learned individual whose think-meat was once deemed worthy of anatomical examination. One of these brains, however, is not like the others. If the brain of Edward H. Rulloff, a.k.a. Professor Leurio, were able to come alive, glowing and pulsating as it issued angry, murderous commands to you from inside your head, it would.

Rulloff was a criminal genius who left no question of how he should like to be remembered. One week prior his execution in May of 1871, he had this to say:

…you cannot kill an unquiet spirit, and I know that my impending death will not mean the end of Rulloff. In the dead of the night, walking along Cayuga Street, you will sense my presence. When you wake to a sudden chill, I will be in the room. And when you find yourself alone at the lake shore, gazing away at gray Cayuga, know that I was cut short and your ancestors killed me.

Rulloff was a murderer and a thief whose savant-like intelligence and erudition have invited comparison to Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. He committed robberies throughout his life in order to fund his grandiose research into the science of philology; an obsession that may have had unrecognized origins in a deep-seated sense of remorse.

Binghamton journalist E. H. Freeman was Rulloff’s jail-house confessor. His 1871 biography, The Veil of Secrecy Removed, recounts much of Rulloff’s story in his own words. It is the story of a long and ignominious criminal career that begins in Dryden, NY, where Rulloff established himself as a botanical physician, and married a seventeen year old pupil named Harriet Schutt.


The Lunacy of English Lunacy Laws

26 February 2011
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Antoine Wiertz. Hunger, madness, crime. Canvas. 1853.

Antoine Wiertz. Hunger, madness, crime. 1853.

As one may suspect, Victorian mental institutions were not, shall we say, the paragons of compassionate good sense and enlightened medical science that they are today. While the days when the practice of psychiatry consisted of scourging out demons were long past, a pauper committed to an asylum may have been subjected to any combination of beatings, neglect, long-term physical constraint, sexual molestation, and myriad other forms of abuse. What may come as a surprise, however, is just how very easy it was to get someone committed.

All that was needed were two certificates of lunacy, which could wrested from any medical practitioner one could dazzle with a shiny yellow sovereign, and the signature of a sympathetic clergyman or magistrate. Probably this was not much more challenging than it is to score a prescription for Adderall today, assuming that it wasn’t Queen Victoria or Benjamin Disraeli that you were trying to certify. “Hysterical” wives, inconvenient heiresses, senile and neurotic relatives were all candidates for easy disposal at the hands of the medical profession.

Once committed, inmates could not be discharged except by the same doctor who signed the original order of incarceration. Friends and relatives were not guaranteed visitation rights. In theory, an inmate was entitled to write to the lunacy commissioners who oversaw conditions in Britain’s asylums. However, according to Ronald Pearsall, there were only ten of these to serve the interests of “106,611 inmates scattered throughout England and Wales,” so one can imagine how worthwhile it must have been to send them letters pleading one’s sanity. In practice, inmates’ contact with the outside world was largely at the pleasure of those who had incarcerated them to begin with. Sanctions against corrupt medical practitioners were, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. (more…)