International Congress of Spiritualists and Occultists

Atlanta Constitution, October 28, 1900

Museum of Spook Curios
The Only Collection of Its Kind That Has Ever Been Brought Together Was the Occultist Exhibit at the Paris Exposition.

V. Gribavedoff.

     Paris, October 18—Not before in civilized lands has a more curious gathering come together for a stranger purpose than the International Congress of Spiritualists and Occultists at the exposition.  Occultists from every country in Europe, from the two Americas, and from the near east and the far east, lands where occultism is the life-breath of religion and the atmosphere of daily life, are here met to exchange weird experiences and afford to each other renewed proofs of the connection between the material and the spiritual world.  The United States were represented in great numbers, and this is only natural, for the newest of the great nations, in spite of its reputation for being eminently practical and matter of fact, has the largest occult literature and the greatest number of esoteric circles of any but the world-old nations of the mystic east.

    The cosmopolitan character of the congress gave its proceedings an unwonted comprehensiveness.  No question which has ever been raised by initiates or students anywhere, at any time, in any language, was neglected.  Hypnotism, table-turning, dreams, ghosts, the summoning of spirits, presentiments, faith-healing, astrology, alchemy, clairvoyance, prophecy, the hermetic mysteries, the powers of symbols—all these things, and many kindred in these, were the subject of lecture and discussion in the light brought by representatives of the different countries and schools of thought.  The big volume in which will be published the proceedings of the congress will mark an epoch in occult research—the summing up of what has been thought and arrived at by the close of the century, the starting point for profounder investigation in the future.

Material Evidence of Spiritual Existence.

    But for the normal man—the man who is not quite sure whether he believes in any of the spiritualistic theories, and who, at any rate, does not greatly care to trouble himself about them except for the harmless amusement or excitement they may procure him—the point of greatest interest in the building devoted from floor to roof to the occultists was the “Musee Spirite.”  This spiritualistic museum is perhaps the first of its kind known in the history of the movement, it was certainly the largest and most inclusive.  It contained, on long tables, round which continually buzzed an animated crowd of devout believers, an odd collection of objects, gathered from every part of the world, tending to prove the reality of spirit phenomena.  One was an assortment of plaster casts, in which may be dimly traced resemblance to the imprint of a human face, generally distorted in a “witch-like” expression, or of a knotted human hand, clutching at some unseen object.  These molds, as the amiable and perhaps slightly credulous founder of the museum tells one, are taken from impressions made at séances by spirit presences.  Professor Chiala, of Naples, guarantees them.  He explains that whenever he got a good medium he begged her to ask the spirits to leave a visible token of their visit by passing their incorporeal faces or hands over a gelatine composition carefully prepared for that purpose.  The spirits in most cases “politely obliged.”  Next day the professor would go to work reverentially in his laboratory making plaster casts from the gelatine.  The display is certainly curious, but not, after all, very convincing.  A clever operator could readily enough “fake” the molds.  Besides, we are told that the medium was the notorious Eusapia Paladino, who has been detected more than once in the most flagrant trickery.  It is true that Mr. W. T. Stead, the well known London editor and occultists, says that though Eusapia has sometimes cheated, she has also very often performed, under strict “test conditions,” feats which cannot be explained away.  But anything she has to do with remains eternally open to suspicion.  All the same, the bulk of the people who haunt the Musee Spirite accept the casts with childlike faith—a fact which makes the ordinary man feel that spiritualists are not always quite so careful as they ought to be.

    Curious, also, are the drawings and paintings, said to have been executed under spiritual guidance, which litter the tables and cover the walls.  These sometimes represent human faces and figures in various strange poses, and with odd accompaniments of flaming aureoles or other fantastic unhuman additions.  Sometimes they consist merely of decorative designs utterly devoid of any apparent significance.  One of the pictures is authenticated by the famous Princess Karadja of Stockholm, who writes: “This picture, which I take to represent John the Baptist, was drawn by my hand in the dark in five minutes while I was under the influence of the spiritual presence who has most helped me in my life.  In my normal condition I am not an artist.”

    Nor, by the evidence of the picture, would the princess appear to be an artist under spiritual influence.

Spooks Are Not Good Artists.

    Sometimes work supposed to have been executed under unearthly guidance has a certain strange “intensity,” like work that might be done in an opium dream, but in no single case is it artistically good.  In fact, the spirits seem to have the peculiarity of being able to spoil a really good artist when they get hold of him.  Among the pictures on the walls of the Musee Spirite are some crayon drawings shown by M. Desmoulins, well known in Paris as an etcher, whose admirable work won for him his decoration as an officer of the Legion of Honor.  Yet this accomplished artist, a man of the highest position in the intellectual life of France, exhibits with pride at the Musee Spirite worthless work which, he is persuaded, he executed under spirit guidance.  It is certain that before he took to dabbling in spiritualism he would have looked on the feeble things with utter contempt.  His delusion reminds one of the case of Luther R. Marsh, the brilliant New York lawyer, who fell under the spell of the fraudulent medium, who chose to call herself Madame Dis Debar.  M. Desmoulins is more fortunate than Mr. Marsh, in that he gets his “spirit-pictures” without the aid of his checkbook, but it is pitiable nonetheless to see so able an artist suffering from such delusions.

    Most of the purely decorative designs at the Musee Spirite are the work of a silk weaver of Lyons, a poor man, named Darmedru, who, it is said, has not had the slightest artistic education.  Except when, as he says, the spirit moves his hand, he himself remaining in a state of semi-unconsciousness, he can not draw the simplest object or invent any decorative plan.  He believes that his “guiding influence” is his son, who died at the age of twenty while a student at the City Art Schools.  The young man, according to the father and mother, sends them every day communications from the other world, both by means of table and by guiding the mother’s hand to write.  Madame Darmedru is a woman of ordinary public school education; she finds a certain difficulty in composing a letter on the ordinary affairs of life; but when her dead son, as she believes, guides her hand, she fills sheet after sheet without difficulty.  These “messages” consist mostly of spiritual instruction and advice and affectionate reminiscences.

Wonder-Working Aissaouas.

    In connection with the congress there were given various séances exhibiting phases of practical occultism.  One Sunday there was a mass meeting of all the sections in the vast general assembly hall to witness a demonstration of thaumaturgy by a group of Aissaouas from the exposition.  These casophonously named persons are members of Moorish-Arab tribes who continue in upper Egypt the traditions of practical occultism, which, as they tell me, their forefathers long ago learned from the mystics of the remote Indian peninsula.  And truth to tell, their exhibition that day at the congress was very extraordinary, eminently calculated to send the most convinced skeptic home wondering.  These Aissaouas are commonplace looking persons in the normal state; just like any “dagoes” selling fruit in New York or Chicago, except for their oriental costumes.  But while they are engaged in doing their “stunts” they become formidable.  On the floor before them, as they crouch, a small censer sends up smoke clouds of heavy perfume, which is supposed to intoxicate the performers to the wonder-working point.

    As the thick clouds of fragrant blue smoke arise an extraordinary change comes over the “fakirs.”  The musicians begin a low, plaintive eastern sing-song beating time upon their instruments; in a few moments they are shouting at full voice a wild, rapid guttural chant and banging their drums in a kind of frenzy.  The barbaric music seizes the audience, too; one sees that people are turning pale and half rising in their seats, as if under the impression of some strange enchantment; one hears women giving that peculiar kind of half groan, half scream that the negroes of the south emit at a religious revival.  And all the while, the fakir who is to show forth the wonderful powers of his tribe is whirling to the music in a mad, irregular dance that absolutely fascinates one’s gaze.  His condition increases every second; he foams at the mouth, yells like a lunatic, and every now and then flings himself over to the censer to drink in through the nostrils and mouth great draughts of the heavy, coiling smoke.  There comes a moment when he seems like a being of another world, some world where madness reigns supreme.  His eyes are starting out of his head, his veins stand out like strong blue cords on his forehead and on his bare arms and chest.  He bites savagely at the floating ends of his long robe—and all the time he whirls and yells, bounding over the platform like a panther.  Then he is ripe for his experiment; he is incapable of feeling pain.  A groan of horror goes up from the whole audience as he flings himself upon a basketful of venous snakes, plunges his arm in, clutches a mass of the coiling, slimy serpents, flings them all about him, stuffs them into his mouth, biting the savagely, and rolls himself over among them in an uncontrollable fury.  It is disgusting, and many people in the audience go out horrified and sick, but it is fascinating all the same.  They return for the next experience.

    This time it is the two musicians who give an exhibition, while the snake dancer, after drinking some potion to quiet his nerves, returns to prove to the audience that he has not been harmed by the snakes he has handled so violently in his drunken frenzy.  Though, by way of parenthesis, it would be a remarkably courageous snake that would have presence of mind enough to defend itself against the attacks of a being in such a state of furious dementia.

    The musicians repeat the extravagant contortions with which the first performance began.  They bang their instruments with an intensity that increases every moment, and constantly they inhale the heavy perfume.  Suddenly, when the desired fury has seized them in turn, they fling away their tambourines, and, yelling like demons, bound all over the platform, snatching up different weapons which lie littered over the floor.  One of them thrusts a dagger full into his eye and leaves it sticking there, while he capers about singing what one might take for a chant of victory of some tribe of savage warriors.  The other transfixes his tongue with four slim-bladed stilettos and immediately afterwards jabs a long knife apparently at random into his stomach.  It seems as they do these things, that they feel an intense need of some violent physical sensation to counteract the exalted mental state into which they have brought themselves.  A long gurgle of satisfaction followed always on the in-thrust of the weapon into the flesh.

    The last act was perhaps still more curious.  One of the men took a long, stout nail with a sharp point, placed it over the top of his skull, then beat it hard in with a heavy wooden block.  He rose suddenly, as if in convulsions, and careered around the stage for several minutes with the nail sticking out of his head, while his comrades pounded their tambourines and raised the roof with a loud sonorous song.  Finally the man sank down, exhausted.  His dark bronze skin had turned to a sickly gray, and his eyes glittered strangely.  A young member of the congress pulled the nail from his head.  It came out with difficulty and the blood spurted.  One of the troop then made passes over the head and breathed on the spot.  When he withdrew there was only a slight roughness on the skin of the scalp to show where the nail had been.


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