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Didier and Robert-Houdin

Mary Rose Barrington has posted below on the encounter between the clairvoyant Alexis Didier and the magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. On its own, the story is worth retelling, but Mary Rose has added an entertaining twist: a sceptic's recent and quite desperate attempts to explain it away (March 23, 'The clairvoyant, the magician and the proto-psi-cop). This is Randi's Million Dollar Challenge in reverse, without the cash, obviously, and without the histrionics. Many thanks, Mary Rose.

The clairvoyant, the magician and the proto-psi-cop

by Mary Rose Barrington

Alexis Didier was born in 1826 and died 60 years later in 1886.   He flourished mainly in the decade between 1840 and 1850, and the encounter between Alexis, the clairvoyant, and Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the magician, took place in 1847.  But with the psi-cop, Michel Seldow, we reach quite recent times.

 Alexis Didier was usually referred to as Alexis, partly because he started practising as a clairvoyant as a 16 year old, and partly because his brother Adolphe also practised in the same line, but Alexis was the more gifted.  Before saying more, let me mention that all the material related here has been gleaned from a remarkable book by Bertrand Meheust published this year and entitled Un Voyant Prodigieux, 'A Prodigious Clairvoyant.' I hope it will appear in English before too long.

Gifted is an understatement, and prodigious is not an overstatement, because if psychics were given artistic ratings in the same way as other creative artists, Alexis would be one of the few in the genius class.  I must try to illustrate this before taking the matter further, because the extraordinary quality of his clairvoyance must be appreciated to some extent to make it worth while exploring the lengths to which psi-deniers will go to discredit genuine demonstrations of paranormal cognition. 

If Alexis had practised 50 years later then we should expect to have reports from dedicated psychical researchers whose names are familiar to us, because he gave sessions in England as well as in France.   But creditworthy investigators existed before 1882, and there were publications that dealt with the less frequented corners of inquiry. One of these was The Zoist, the editor of which was Dr. John Elliotson, a professor of medicine at University College.  Elliotson was a man of great integrity who actually ruined his career by persistently supporting the claims made for mesmerism. It was very appropriate that The Zoist should have published a report about Alexis, because Alexis's mediumship  manifested solely when he was put into a mesmeric trance - magnetised, to use the contemporary description. 

Today a hypnotic state is usually evidenced by sticking needles into the entranced person, or telling he can't raise or lower his hand, or making him dance with a broomstick or forget the number 7, in other words by exhibiting the hypnotist's power over him; but in the early 19th century mesmeric trance was more likely to be proved by the subject giving demonstrations of clairvoyance.       Alexis was in fact called a 'sonnambule,' a sonnambulist, rather than a clairvoyant, the psychic gift being bound up with the mesmerised state and proving that there was such a thing as a mesmeric trance.   It seems odd to prove the existence of something strange but supposedly normal, the hypnotic state, by displays of paranormal faculties, but there it is. 

The report from which I am going to quote to show what Alexis could do  was sent in to The Zoist by a friend of Elliotson, the Rev. Chauncey Hare Townsend, who had a session with Alexis in 1851while he was visiting Paris.  Usually Alexis was mesmerised by Jean-Bon Marcillet, his mentor and business partner in the clairvoyant enterprise, but as Townsend was himself a mesmerist Marcillet on this occasion let Townsend take over, and left him alone with Alexis as soon as he was satisfied that Alexis was in trance.  This at a stroke eliminates the inevitable mutterings that Alexis was being prompted by Marcillet, who had in any case met Townsend for the first time an hour or two earlier in the evening.

Another factor that can be eliminated is that Alexis spent the previous night researching the life of Townsend, because the session took place within a few hours of this meeting, and with no interval between the two events.  Marcillet caught Alexis on his way home from the theatre, and secured his agreement to an immediate session, as Townsend was leaving Paris the next day. 

Townsend had a cautious attitude to Marcillet and Alexis, which was fully justified, bearing in mind that they both made a comfortable living from Alexis's demonstrations, and before his own encounter Townsend was more than half inclined to assume that Alexis was a trickster.   But not afterwards, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Townsend's report runs to eight pages, out of which I shall pick some highlights to give the flavour of a session with Alexis. He started by asking Alexis to use his distant viewing faculty to visit Townsend's house.  'Which one?'  Alexis asked, 'You have two, one in London and another in the country.'  Townsend specified the country house.  Alexis gave a very good description of the exterior of the house and the garden, which was not a typical English country house, because it was in Italy;  but it is not until we get to the interior that things become precise beyond any expectations. 

Alexis said he saw a lot of pictures on the walls of the living room, all modern except two; of those two one was a seascape and the other had a religious theme.  At this point Townsend says that he felt a frisson, because Alexis's description was absolutely right; that was enough for a frisson, but then  Alexis continued.  'There are three figures in this painting, an old man, a woman and a child?  Is it the virgin Mary?   No, she is too old.  The woman has a book on her knees, and the child is pointing to something in the book.  And there is a distaff in the corner.'   Townsend confirmed that the painting represented St. Anne teaching the virgin Mary to read, and there was a distaff (yarnwinder) in the corner.     

Townsend then asked what the picture was painted on.  After some thought Alexis said it was on stone;  he said he would examine the back, and then said that it was grey or nearly black.  Townsend says that the picture was in fact painted on black marble.  But Alexis was not finished.  'Hallo,' he said 'It's concave.' If Townsend had felt a shiver before, it was this detail that must have had him weak at the knees, because the black marble was indeed concave, and had presented a big problem for the framer.  

Visiting the town house Alexis gave a very full description of a Grinling Gibbons mirror in the drawing room above the mantelpiece.  'The mirror' he said 'is small in comparison with the frame. The frame has flowers, fruits, and other sculptured features.'  Then suddenly he said 'I can see a portrait reflected in the mirror..... the woman has a red flower on her dress; she is wearing a black or rather dark brown.   There are two children.  It's another religious subject, a holy family.'  He then correctly identified the painting as a Raphael, and Townsend confirmed that the name of Raphael appeared on the painting.

Alexis then went on to give a full description of the paintings on either side of the Raphael, one of a storm at sea and the other a painting by Morland, the interior of a stable, showing a man with a wheelbarrow and a grey horse lying down.  All correct in every detail. And on it goes.  This is a sample of a sample, and it is by no means the most sensational of reports about Alexis.

Faced with demonstrations of this sort the introduction of a skilled magician seems fairly otiose, for what sort of conjuring could enable Alexis to describe an ornate mirror in Townsend's house and the portrait reflected in it, and the pictures on either side of the portrait. The only plausible theory would be that far from putting Alexis into a hypnotic trance Marcillet put all the sitters into that state and made them imagine the whole sitting.  But I must be careful:  words uttered in jest may turn up as a fully fledged denialist theory one day.  It has happened.

Nevertheless, people have always held the opinion of magicians in high regard, and in 1847, some four years before the encounter with Townsend, a very eccentric demonologist, the Marquis de Mirville, commissioned the celebrated magician Robert-Houdin to attend a sitting with Alexis as an expert and give him a written report and opinion.

De Mirville does not mention the offer of a fee, but there may have been an understanding between them on this point.  De Mirville stated only that Houdin was delighted to accept the invitation,  asking if he could bring his wife.  Houdin had been responsible for unmasking a sonnambulist called Prudence, and he had declared that all sonnambulists  (meaning mesmerised clairvoyants) were frauds.  He was not expecting to change his mind.

And so to de Mirville's account of the sitting attended at his request by Houdin.  Sittings with Alexis usually started with him being blindfolded and performing various feats such as playing a game of cards, which he always won.  On this occasion Houdin arranged the blindfold himself and then, using his own pack,  laid out ten cards on the table, face down - which, to his great surprise, Alexis named correctly.   This test was repeated three times, with the same result, causing Houdin to turn pale and utter bewildered exclamations.  

Houdin then removed the blindfold, which didn't seem to be doing anything useful, and took a book from his pocket, asking Alexis to cite some words from two-thirds the way down page 8.  Alexis quoted the words 'after this sad ceremony.'   At this point there was a notable 'failure' of mediumship  -  because those words in that seqence were actually written two-thirds the way down the adjoining page 9.

I shan't give every detail of this sitting, but it can be said that Alexis succeeded in every other test given to him, including some more interesting items than simple down-through clairvoyance.   He identified a hair as belonging to Houdin's son, and gave some assurances about his state of health.   He identified the writer of a letter handed to him by Houdin, and told him, to his immediate annoyance, that the friend who had written the letter was engaged in an act of treachery against him.  We shall hear the outcome of that later.  When the sitting was over Houdin said to de Mirville that if he knew a trickster who could perform marvels such as those of Alexis he would admire him even more as a trickster than as an agent of the unknown.

Houdin kept his word to the Marquis:   He subscribed to de Mirville's report the following attestation:   ' ..... I am bound to state that the facts reported above are absolutely correct and that, the more I think about it, the more impossible is it for me to class them among the activities that comprise my art and works.'  

De Mirville continued to relate that two weeks after that memorable sitting he received a letter from Houdin dated 16th May 1847, in which Houdin described how he had attended a further sitting with Alexis, this time bringing with him a friend of 'calm judgment.'   Houdin  says that on this occasion he took even more stringent precautions, and the results were more miraculous than at the first sitting.  To quote: '...And it leaves me in no doubt as to the clairvoyance of Alexis.'

He went on to describe a bizarre game of cards in which Alexis made it clear that he knew the identity of the cards that would turn up for his own hand, and he also knew the cards held by Houdin and clutched in his hand under the table.   Houdin doesn't say who won, but as Alexis advised him about which cards he should play it doesn't make much difference.  In capital letters Houdin wrote:  I came away from that sitting as amazed as it is possible to be, and convinced that it is absolutely impossible that either chance or sleight of hand could ever produce such wonderful effects.'      It does sound, doesn't it, like a ringing endorsement, one that would be difficult to turn round and represent as a dismissive put-down   -  but the devices of the psi-denier are boundless, as we shall see.

Houdin himself left the psi-denier a window of opportunity, because though he published various works after those two encounters he refrained from making any reference to Alexis, and that window was opened wide by Michel Seldow in a book published in 1971 entitled Vie et secrets de Robert-Houdin. 

The meeting with Alexis and subsequent reports are dealt with in a section curiously and inaccurately entitled 'Robert-Houdin and the phantoms.'  The author finds himself painfully poised on Morton's fork, because while he would not attribute any discreditable agenda to his hero, Houdin, he apparently could not live with the idea that Houdin had truly endorsed the clairvoyance of Alexis.     So how did Michel Seldow propose to airbrush Houdin's words of support out of history?      

By a number of inconsistent theories.  One was that any correct statements made were due to chance; another that any tests successfully met were the fruits of chicanerie;  another that there was such a high degree of inaccuracy in the results that there was really nothing to explain.   Seldow would be demeaning Houdin if he were to suggest that he had been taken in by Alexis, so while assuming that Marcillet was obviously assisting Alexis in fraud he does not propose any methodology.  He would have had quite a problem in succeeding where Houdin himself had failed.  And was the master magician incapable of fitting an effective blindfold?   Or placing cards face down?

And what about the book-reading, the book being held closed by Houdin throughout.  Ah - well, Alexis did have to touch the book, and rub his hand over it.   Doesn't that show that citing a phrase to be found on page 8 was a trick?   But the rather inconsistent clinching stroke from Seldow is that the phrase that should have been on page 8 was actually on page 9, showing that, regardless of the trick involved in touching the book, the test was a total failure.   The words 'after this sad ceremony'  that were found two-thirds the way down page 9 might, he asserts, be on any page in any book that you happened to pick up at random.  Either way, there was no clairvoyance, and when de Mirville talks about the look of stupefaction on Houdin's face this was in fact the look of a man who was with difficulty restraining himself from breaking out into laughter.   [I'm not making this up]. 

The crucial problem for Seldow was of course how to get round those clear statements of support.   His solution was, one has to concede, imaginative.  He declares that Houdin did not mean what he had said.   Now why would that be?   Seldow's answer is that he was telling De Mirville a fairy tale to make him happy, poor mad Marquis, and Houdin was in too much awe of the aristocracy to make any adverse comment when his endorsement of Alexis was published for all to see.  But he had other kindly motives.  He was also sorry for the two pathetic mountebanks, Alexis and Marcillet, and would not want to deprive two struggling colleagues of their livelihood. The allegedly struggling Alexis was at the time a clairvoyant of international renown, and he was making a very good living from mediumship, as Houdin well knew.   It is indeed fanciful to imagine that the unmasker of the unfortunate Prudence would have been so indulgent to the prosperous duo of Marcillet and Alexis.

So how deferential was Houdin to de Mirville?  Sorry for him enough to commit himself to public ridicule if he vouched for mediumship that he knew to be fraudulent, and which might be exposed as such at any time?   Did he imagine that his expert opinion would remain confidential?   That is not how it reads. It is clear that de Mirville wrote a report not for himself but addressed to the world at large, and Houdin's endorsement is not addressed to De Mirville as a private communication but as a confirmation of De Mirville's announcement.  And, 64,000 question,  what about Houdin's letter reporting on his second sitting?  

If you can imagine for a moment that after the first sitting, when he had been commissioned to report to De Mirville, Houdin felt obliged to tell the Marquis what he wanted to hear, is it conceivable that having once committed himself to a false position he would seek out a second sitting, and write to De Mirville confirming his first opinion in even stronger terms?  For while his first endorsement said in effect that what Alexis did was not conjuring, the second said that Houdin was convinced that Alexis had demonstrated true clairvoyance. Could any reasonable person believe that the second sitting and Houdin's positive verdict on it was written to please de Mirville.

And, of course, de Mirville's report was very rapidly communicated to the world.  Within six months the entire text of his account of the sitting and the two statements by Houdin were published, first in the Revue d'anthropologie catholique,  and then in la Gazette de France, where it appeared headlined on the front page.   Following this exposure the expert opinion of Houdin was widely cited in publications by mesmerists, doctors and also by psychical researchers in France and in England. In 1854 there it was all over again in de Mirville's book Spirits and their Fluid Manifestation.  Never was there the slightest cautionary hint from Houdin that his statements should  not be taken at face value.   

But we don't have to rely entirely on publications by de Mirville and the supposed immunity of the aristocrat from contradiction.  In 1860, well within Houdin's lifetime, André-Saturnin Morin, a lawyer, politician and writer published a work entitled Du magnetisme et des sciences occultes - Mesmerism and the occult sciences - in which he records a personal meeting with Houdin who not only confirmed his earlier statements but added a lot of detail about the sittings he attended.  He told Morin about how he had made an amusing hobby out of watching charlatans claiming paranormal powers and then performing the same tricks, but doing them more skilfully; but when de Mirville introduced him to Alexis he was confounded.

Morin relates, in quotation marks, Houdin's account of the blindfolding followed by the card games.  He said that what Alexis said to his wife about the loss of their child was perfectly correct, and that they were stupefied.   The most interesting new information to emerge was that there was another person present, a sceptically inclined Dr. Chomel (identified by Bertrand Méheust as probably a prominent member of the Academy of Medicine), who presented a small box to Alexis for psychometry.  After feeling it Alexis said that it contained a medal; 'It was given to you in strange circumstances.  You were a poor student, living in a garret in Lyon.  A workman you had helped found this medal in the rubbish, thought that you might like it and climbed your six staircases to offer it to you.'  All that, said Houdin, was true, and certainly was not the sort of thing that could be guessed or correspond by chance.   Indeed not.

As the presence of Chomel was not mentioned by de Mirville it looks as if either Houdin or Morin conflated the first and second sittings, because Chomel could well fit the descrition of the friend with sound judgment whom Houdin asked to bring with him to the second sitting.   The other item of considerable interest is Houdin's statement to Morin about Alexis's warning not to trust the writer of the letter Houdin had given Alexis.  Houdin said that he had reacted angrily, but Alexis had persisted.  Three months later, Houdin told Morin, the good friend turned out to be treacherous, and he had been trying to get Houdin's assistants to betray his secrets.  So Alexis had been right in insisting, against Houdin's protests,  that the writer of the letter presented to him was a false friend.   There we have confirmation that de Mirville's narratives were genuine, that Houdin was convinced by Alexis's clairvoyance, and we learn that there was a sterling witness present who also received convincing proofs.     So Houdin was not humouring de Mirville; and far from wanting to burst out laughing Houdin was duly dumfounded by the clairvoyance of Alexis.

There is one more independent reference to Houdin and his encounter with Alexis. This comes in a book by Maute de Fleurville published in 1873, Etudes sur le magnetisme  - Studies in Mesmerism.  He says that he once heard Houdin say: 'I could teach Alexis my skills, my tricks, and he would learn to perform them as I do... But never, never could I perform what he does; that is beyond imagination.'

Now all this would be well known to Michel Seldow, and armed with this knowledge no reasonable person could postulate that Houdin's testimonials were feigned;  but once you are committed to a fundamentalist faith reasonableness melts away.  And no faith seems to unseat reason more thoroughly than the wilder shores of psi-denial.  We must not be too polite to denounce this sort of absurdity in the roundest terms. And the roundest term for this sort of argument is not scepticism, with or without a k, but - rubbish.