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Custom and Myth

Page: 68

corpuscules. From this time the question became the playing ground of the Cartesian and other philosophers. The struggle was between theories of ‘atoms,’ magnetism, ‘corpuscules,’ electric effluvia, and so forth, on one side, and the immediate action of devils or of conscious imposture, on the other. The controversy, comparatively simple as long as the rod only indicated hidden water or minerals, was complicated by the revival of the savage belief that the wand could ‘smell out’ moral offences. As long as the twig turned over material objects, you could imagine sympathies and ‘effluvia’ at pleasure. But when the wand twirled over the scene of a murder, or dragged the expert after the traces of the culprit, fresh explanations were wanted. Le Brun wrote to Malebranche on July 8, 1689, to tell him that the wand only turned over what the holder had the intention of discovering. {190} If he were following a murderer, the wand good-naturedly refused to distract him by turning over hidden water. On the other hand, Vallemont says that when a peasant was using the wand to find water, it turned over a spot in a wood where a murdered woman was buried, and it conducted the peasant to the murderer’s house. These events seem inconsistent with Le Brun’s theory of intention. Malebranche replied, in effect, that he had only heard of the turning of the wand over water and minerals; that it then turned (if turn it did) by virtue of some such force as electricity; that, if such force existed, the wand would turn over open water. But it does not so turn; and, as physical causes are constant, it follows that the turning of the rod cannot be the result of a physical cause. The only other explanation is an intelligent cause—either the will of an impostor, or the action of a spirit. Good spirits would not meddle with such matters; therefore either the Devil or an impostor causes the motion of the rod, if it does move at all. This logic of Malebranche’s is not agreeable to believers in the twig; but there the controversy stood, till, in 1692, Jacques Aymar, a peasant of Dauphine, by the use of the twig discovered one of the Lyons murderers.

Though the story of this singular event is pretty well known, it must here be briefly repeated. No affair can be better authenticated, and our version is abridged from the ‘Relations’ of ‘Monsieur le Procureur du Roi, Monsieur l’Abbé de la Garde, Monsieur Panthot, Doyen des Médecins de Lyon, et Monsieur Aubert, Avocat célèbre.’

On July 5, 1692, a vintner and his wife were found dead in the cellar of their shop at Lyons. They had been killed by blows from a hedging-knife, and their money had been stolen. The culprits could not be discovered, and a neighbour took upon him to bring to Lyons a peasant out of Dauphiné, named Jacques Aymar, a man noted for his skill with the divining rod. The Lieutenant-Criminel and the Procureur du Roi took Aymar into the cellar, furnishing him with a rod of the first wood that came to hand. According to the Procureur du Roi, the rod did not move till Aymar reached the very spot where the crime had been committed. His pulse then rose, and the wand twisted rapidly. ‘Guided by the wand or by some internal sensation,’ Aymar now pursued the track of the assassins, entered the court of the Archbishop’s palace, left the town by the bridge over the Rhone, and followed the right bank of the river. He reached a gardener’s house, which he declared the men had entered, and some children confessed that three men (whom they described) had come into the house one Sunday morning. Aymar followed the track up the river, pointed out all the places where the men had landed, and, to make a long story short, stopped at last at the door of the prison of Beaucaire. He was admitted, looked at the prisoners, and picked out as the murderer a little hunchback (had the children described a hunchback?) who had just been brought in for a small theft. The hunchback was taken to Lyons, and he was recognised, on the way, by the people at all the stages where he had stopped. At Lyons he was examined in the usual manner, and confessed that he had been an accomplice in the crime, and had guarded the door. Aymar pursued the other culprits to the coast, followed them by sea, landed where they had landed, and only desisted from his search when they crossed the frontier. As for the hunchback, he was broken on the wheel, being condemned on his own confession. It does not appear that he was put to the torture to make him confess. If this had been done his admissions would, of course, have been as valueless as those of the victims in trials for witchcraft.

This is, in brief, the history of the famous Lyons murders. It must be added that many experiments were made with Aymar in Paris, and that they were all failures. He fell into every trap that was set for him; detected thieves who were innocent, failed to detect the guilty, and invented absurd excuses; alleging, for example, that the rod would not indicate a murderer who had confessed, or who was drunk when he committed his crime. These excuses seem to annihilate the wild contemporary theory of Chauvin and others, that the body of a murderer naturally exhales an invisible matière meurtrière—peculiar indestructible atoms, which may be detected by the expert with the rod. Something like the same theory, we believe, has been used to explain the pretended phenomena of haunted houses. But the wildest philosophical credulity is staggered by a matière meurtrière which is disengaged by the body of a sober, but not by that of an intoxicated, murderer, which survives tempests in the air, and endures for many years, but is dissipated the moment the murderer confesses. Believers in Aymar have conjectured that his real powers were destroyed by the excitements of Paris, and that he took to imposture; but this is an effort of too easy good-nature. When Vallemont defended Aymar (1693) in the book called ‘La Physique Occulte,’ he declared that Aymar was physically affected to an unpleasant extent by matière meurtrière, but was not thus agitated when he used the rod to discover minerals. We have seen that, if modern evidence can be trusted, holders of the rod are occasionally much agitated even when they are only in search of wells. The story gave rise to a prolonged controversy, and the case remains a judicial puzzle, but little elucidated by the confession of the hunchback, who may have been insane, or morbid, or vexed by constant questioning till he was weary of his life. He was only nineteen years of age.

The next use of the rod was very much like that of ‘tipping’ and turning tables. Experts held it (as did Le Père Ménestrier, 1694), questions were asked, and the wand answered by turning in various directions. By way of showing the inconsistency of all philosophies of the wand, it may be said that one girl found that it turned over concealed gold if she held gold in her hand, while another found that it indicated the metal so long as she did not carry gold with her in the quest. In the search for water, ecclesiastics were particularly fond of using the rod. The Maréchal de Boufflers dug many wells, and found no water, on the indications of a rod in the hands of the Prieur de Dorenic, near Guise. In 1700 a curé, near Toulouse, used the wand to answer questions, which, like


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