Witchcraft Trial of 1851


Witchcraft trialBy Andrew Lang

Perhaps the last trial for witchcraft was the case of Thorel v. Tinel, heard before the juge de paix of Yerville, on January 28, and February 3 and 4, 1851.  The trial was, in form, the converse of those with which old jurisprudence was familiar.  Tinel, the Curé of Cideville, did not accuse the shepherd Thorel of sorcery, but Thorel accused Tinel of defaming his character by the charge of being a warlock.  Just as when a man prosecutes another for saying that he cheated at cards, or when a woman prosecutes another for saying that the plaintiff stole diamonds, it is really the guilt or innocence of the plaintiff that is in question, so the issue before the court at Yerville was: ‘Is Thorel a warlock or not?’  The court decided that he himself had been the chief agent in spreading the slander against himself, he was non-suited, and had to pay costs, but as to the real cause of the events which were attributed to the magic of Thorel, the court was unable to pronounce an opinion.

This curious case has often been cited, as by Mr. Robert Dale Owen, in his Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, but Mr. Owen, by accident or design, omitted almost all the essential particulars, everything which connects the affair with such transactions as the witch epidemic at Salem, and the trials for sorcery before and during the Restoration.  Yet, in the events at Cideville, and the depositions of witnesses, we have all the characteristics of witchcraft.  First we have men by habit and repute sorcerers.  Then we have cause of offence given to these.  Then we have their threats, malum minatum, then we have evil following the threats, damnum secutum.  Just as of old, that damnum, that damage, declares itself in the ‘possession’ of young people, who become, more or less, subject to trances and convulsions.  One of them is haunted, as in the old witchcraft cases, by the phantasm of the sorcerer.  The phantasm (as in Cotton Mather’s examples) is wounded, a parallel wound is found on the suspected warlock.  Finally, the house where the obsessed victims live is disturbed by knocks, raps, flight of objects, and inexplicable movements of heavy furniture.  Thus all the notes of a bad affair of witchcraft are attested in a modern trial, under the third Empire.  Finally, some curious folklore is laid bare, light is cast on rural life and superstition, and a singular corroboration of a singular statement, much more recent than the occurrences at Cideville, is obtained.  A more astonishing example of survival cannot be imagined, of survival, or of disconnected and spontaneous revival and recrudescence.

There was at Auzebosc, near famous Yvetot, an old shepherd named G—-: he was the recognized ‘wise man,’ or white witch of the district, and some less noted rural adepts gave themselves out as his pupils.  In March, 1849, M. Tinel, Curé of Cideville, visited a sick peasant, and advised him to discard old G., the shepherd magical, and send for a physician.  G. was present, though concealed, heard the curé’s criticisms, and said: ‘Why does he meddle in my business, I shall meddle in his; he has pupils in his house, we’ll see how long he keeps them.’  In a few days, G. was arrested, as practicing medicine unauthorized, was imprisoned for some months, and fancied that the cure had a share in this persecution.  All this, of course, we must take as ‘the clash of the country side,’ intent, as there was certainly damnum secutum, on establishing malum minatum.

On a farm near the curé’s house in Cideville was another shepherd, named Thorel, a man of forty, described as dull, illiterate, and given to boasting about his powers as a disciple of the venerable G.  Popular opinion decided that G. employed Thorel to procure his vengeance; it was necessary that a sorcerer should touch his intended victim, and G. had not the same convenience for doing so as Thorel.  In old witch trials we sometimes find the witch kissing her destined prey.   Thorel, so it was said, succeeded in touching, on Nov. 25, 1850, M. Tinel’s two pupils, in a crowd at a sale of wood.  The lads, of fifteen and twelve, were named Lemonier and Bunel.  For what had gone before, we have, so far, only public chatter, for what followed we have the sworn evidence in court of the curé’s pupils, in January and February, 1851.  According to Lemonier, on Nov. 26, while studying, he heard light blows of a hammer, these recurred daily, about 5. p.m.  When M. Tinel, his tutor, said plus fort, the noises were louder.  To condense evidence which becomes tedious by its eternal uniformity, popular airs were beaten on demand; the noise grew unbearable, tables moved untouched, a breviary, a knife, a spit, a shoe flew wildly about.  Lemonier was buffeted by a black hand, attached to nobody.  ‘A kind of human phantasm, clad in a blouse, haunted me for fifteen days wherever I went; none but myself could see it.’  He was dragged by the leg by a mysterious force.  On a certain day, when Thorel found a pretext for visiting the house, M. Tinel made him beg Lemonier’s pardon, clearly on the ground that the swain had bewitched the boy.  ‘As soon as I saw him I recognized the phantasm which had haunted me for a fortnight, and I said to M. Tinel: “There is the man who follows me”.’  Thorel knelt to the boy, asked his pardon, and pulled violently at his clothes.  As defendant, perhaps, the Curé could not be asked to corroborate these statements.  The evidence of the other boy, Bunel, was that, on Nov. 26, he heard first a rush of wind, then tappings on the wall.  He corroborated Lemonier’s testimony to the musical airs knocked out, the volatile furniture, and the recognition in Thorel of the phantom.  ‘In the evening,’ said Bunel, ‘Lemonier en eut une crise de nerfs dans laquelle il avait perdu connaissance.’

Leaving the boys’ sworn evidence, and returning to the narrative with its gossip, we learn that Thorel boasted of his success, and said that, if he could but touch one of the lads again, the furniture would dance, and the windows would be broken.  Meanwhile, we are told, nails were driven into points in the floor where Lemonier saw the spectral figure standing.  One nail became red hot, and the wood around it smoked: Lemonier said that this nail had hit ‘the man in the blouse’ on the cheek.  Now, when Thorel was made to ask the boy’s pardon, and was recognized by him as the phantom, after the experiment with the nail, Thorel bore on his cheek the mark of the wound.

This is in accordance with good precedents in witchcraft.  A witch-hare is wounded, the witch, in her natural form, has the same wound.  At the trial of Bridget Bishop, in the court of Oyer and Terminer, held at Salem, June 2, 1692, there was testimony brought in that a man striking once at the place where a bewitched person said the shape of Mrs. Bishop stood, the bewitched cried out, that he had tore her coat, in the place then particularly specified, and Bishop’s coat was found to be torn in that very place.  Next day, after Thorel touched the boy, the windows broke, as he had prophesied.  Then followed a curious scene in which Thorel tried, in presence of the maire, to touch the Curé, who retreated to the end of the room, and struck the shepherd with his cane.  Thereupon Thorel brought his action for libel and assault against the Curé.  Forty-two witnesses were heard, it was proved that Thorel had, in fact, frequently accused himself, and he was non-suited: his counsel spoke of appealing, but, unluckily, the case was not carried to a higher court.  In a few weeks the boys were sent to their homes, when (according to the narrative) there were disturbances at the home of the younger lad.  Thus the Curé lost his pupils.

A curious piece of traditional folklore came out, but only as hearsay, in court.  M. Cheval, Maire of Cideville, deposed that a M. Savoye told him that Thorel had once been shepherd to a M. Tricot.  At that time Thorel said to one of two persons in his company: ‘Every time I strike my cabin (a shelter on wheels used by shepherds) you will fall,’ and, at each stroke, the victim felt something seize his throat, and fell.  This anecdote is curious, because in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research is a long paper by Dr. Gibotteau, on his experiments with a hospital nurse called Berthe.  This woman, according to the doctor, had the power of making him see hallucinations, of a nature more or less horrible, from a distance.  She had been taught some traditional feats of rural sorcery, among others that of making a man stumble, or fall, as he walked.  The doctor does not make any allusion to the Cideville affair, and it seems probable that this trick is part of the peasant’s magical repertoire, or, rather, that the peasant warlocks boast of being able to perform the trick.  But, if we can accept the physician’s evidence, as ‘true for him,’ at least, then a person like Berthe really might affect, from a distance, a boy like Lemonier with a haunting hallucination.  To do this is witchcraft, and for crimes of this kind, or on false charges of this kind, poor Mrs. Bishop was burned at Salem in 1692.

At the lowest, we have all the notes of sorcery as our rude ancestors knew it, in this modern affair.  Two hundred years earlier, Thorel would have been burned, and G., too, probably, for the Maire of Cideville swore that before the disturbances, and three weeks after G. was let out of prison, Thorel had warned him of the trouble which G. would bring on the Curé.  Meanwhile the evidence shows no conscious malignity on the part of the two boys.  They at first took very little notice of the raps, attributing the noises to mice.  Not till the sounds increased, and showed intelligence, as by drumming tunes, did the lads concern themselves, much about the matter.  At no time (it seems) did they ask to be sent home, and, of course, to be relieved from their lessons and sent home would be their motive, if they practiced a fraud.  We may admit that, from rural tradition, the boys might have learned what the customary phenomena are, knocks, raps, moving tables, heavy objects sailing tranquilly about a room.  It would be less easy for them to produce these phenomena, nor did the people of all classes who flocked to Cideville detect any imposture.

A land surveyor swore that the raps went on when he had placed the boy in an attitude which made fraud (in his opinion) impossible.  A gentleman M. de B. ‘took all possible precautions’ but, nevertheless, was entertained by ‘a noise which performed the tunes demanded’.  He could discover no cause of the noise.  M. Huet, touching a table with his finger, received responsive raps, which answered questions, ‘at the very place where I struck, and beneath my finger.  I cannot explain the fact, which, I am convinced, was not caused by the child, nor by any one in the house.’  M. Cheval saw things fly about, he slept in the boy’s room, and his pillow flew from under his head.  He lay down between the children, holding their hands, and placing his feet on theirs, when the coverlet of the bed arose, and floated away.  The Marquis de Mirville had a number of answers by raps, which staggered him very much, but the force was quite feeble when he asked for portions of Italian music.  Madame de St. Victor felt herself pushed, and her clothes pulled in the curé’s house, when no one was near her.  She also saw furniture behave in a fantastic manner, and M. Raoul Robert de St. Victor had many such experiences.  M. Paul de St. Victor was not present.  A desk sailed along: paused in air, and fell: ‘I had never seen a movement of this kind, and I admit that I was alarmed’.  Le Seigneur, a farmer, saw ‘a variety of objects arise and sail about’: he was certain that the boys did not throw them, and when in their company, in the open air, between Cideville and Anzooville, ‘I saw stones come to us, without striking us, hurled by some invisible force’.  There was other confirmatory evidence, from men of physic, and of the law.

The juge de paix, as we have seen, pronounced that the clearest point in the case was ‘the absence of known cause for the effects,’ and he non-suited Thorel, the plaintiff.

The cause of the phenomena is, of course, as obscure for us as for the worthy magistrate.  We can only say that, when precisely similar evidence was brought before judges and juries in England and New England, at a period when medicine, law, and religion all recognized the existence of witchcraft, magic, and diabolical possession, they had scarcely any choice but to condemn the accused.  Causa patet, they said: ‘The devil is at the bottom of it all, and the witch is his minister’.

The affair of Cideville by no means stands alone in modern France.  In 1853, two doctors and other witnesses signed a deposition as to precisely similar phenomena attending Adelaide Françoise Millet, a girl of twelve, at Songhien, in Champagne.  The trouble, as at Cock Lane, began by a sound of scratching on the wood of her bed.  The clerk of the juge de la paix, the master of the Douane, two doctors, and others visited her, and tied her hands and feet.  The noise continued.  Mysterious missiles pursued a girl in Martinique, in 1854.  The house, which was stormed by showers of stone, in Paris (1846), entirely baffled the police.  There is a more singular parallel to the Cideville affair, the account was printed from the letter of a correspondent in the Abeille of Chartres, March 11, 1849.  At Gaubert, near Guillonville, a man was imprisoned for thefts of hay, the property of a M. Dolléans.  Two days after his arrest, namely, on December 31, 1848, the servant of M. Dolléans had things of all sorts thrown at her from all directions.  She fell ill, and went into hospital for five days, where she was untroubled.  On her return, in the middle of a conversation, ribbons and bits of string would fly at her, and twist themselves round her neck, as in the case of Francis Fey, of Spraiton, given by Aubrey and Bovet.  Mademoiselle Dolléans carefully watched the girl for a fortnight, and never let her out of her sight, but could not discover any fraud.  After about a month the maid was sent home, where she was not molested.  Naturally we see in her the half-insane cunning of hysteria, but that explanation does not apply to little Master Dolléans, a baby of three months old.  The curse fell on him: however closely his parents watched him, pots and pans showered into his cradle, the narrator himself saw a miscellaneous collection of household furniture mysteriously amassed there.

The Abeille of Chartres held this letter over, till two of its reporters had visited the scene of action, and interviewed doctors, priests, and farmers, who all attested the facts.  Happily, in this case, an exorcism by a priest proved efficacious.  At Cideville, holy water and consecrated medals were laughed at by the sprite, who, by the way, answered to the name of Robert.