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The Seeress Of Prevorst






Modern spiritism, as every student of that fascinating if elusive
subject is aware, dates from the closing years of the first half of the
nineteenth century. But the celebrated Fox sisters, whose revelations at
that time served to crystallize into an organized religious system the
idea of the possibility of communication between this world and the
world beyond, were by no means the first of spiritistic mediums. Long
before their day there were those who professed to have cognizance of
things unseen and to act as intermediaries between the living and the
dead; and although lost to sight amid the throng of latter-day claimants
to similar powers, the achievements of some of these early adventurers
into the unknown have not been surpassed by the best performances of the
Fox girls and their long line of successors.

Especially is this true of the mediumship of a young German woman,
Frederica Hauffe, who in the course of her short, pitiful, and tragic
career is credited with having displayed more varied and picturesque
supernatural gifts than the most renowned wonder-worker of to-day. Like
many modern mediums she was of humble origin, her birthplace being a
forester's hut in the Wuertemberg mountain village of Prevorst; and
here, among wood-cutters and charcoal-burners, she passed the first
years of her life. Even while still a child she seems to have attracted
wide-spread attention on account of certain peculiarities of temperament
and conduct. It was noticed that though naturally gay and playful she
occasionally assumed a strangely intent and serious manner; that in her
happiest moments she was subject to unaccountable fits of shuddering and
shivering; and that she seemed keenly alive not merely to the sights and
sounds of every-day life but to influences unfelt by those about her.
This last trait received a sudden and unexpected development when, at
the age of twelve or thirteen, she was sent to the neighboring town of
Loewenstein to be educated under the care of her grand-parents, a worthy
couple named Schmidgall.

Grandfather Schmidgall was an exceedingly superstitious old man, with a
singular fondness for visiting solitary and gloomy places, particularly
churchyards; and he soon began to take the little girl with him on such
strolls. But he discovered, much to his amazement, that though she
listened with avidity to the tales he told her of the romantic and
mysterious events that had occurred within the somber ruins with which
the countryside was liberally endowed, she was reluctant to explore
those ruins or wander among the graves where he delighted to resort. At
first he was inclined to ascribe her reluctance to weak and sentimental
timidity, but he speedily found reason to adopt an altogether different
view. He noticed that whenever he took her to graveyards or to churches
in which there were graves, her frail form became greatly agitated, and
at times she seemed rooted to the ground; and that there were certain
places, especially an old kitchen in a nearby castle, which he could not
persuade her to enter, and the mere sight of which caused her to quake
and tremble. "The child," he told his wife, "feels the presence of the
dead, and, mark you, she will end by seeing the dead."

He was, therefore, more alarmed than surprised when one midnight, long
after he had fancied her in bed and asleep, she ran to his room and
informed him that she had just beheld in the hall a tall, dark figure
which, sighing heavily, passed her and disappeared in the vestibule.
With awe, not unmixed with satisfaction, Schmidgall remembered that he
had once seen the self-same apparition; but he prudently endeavored to
convince her that she had been dreaming and sent her back to her room,
which, thenceforward, he never allowed her to leave at night.

In this way Frederica Hauffe's mediumship began. But several years were
to pass before she saw another ghost or gave evidence of possessing
supernormal powers other than by occasional dreams of a prophetic and
revelatory nature. In the meanwhile she rejoined her parents and moved
with them from Prevorst to Oberstenfeld, where, in her nineteenth year,
she was married. It was distinctly a marriage of convenience, arranged
without regard to her wishes, and the moment the engagement was
announced she secluded herself from her friends and passed her days and
nights in weeping. For weeks together she went without sleep, ate
scarcely anything, and became thin, pale, and feeble. It was rumored
that she had set her affections in another quarter: but her relatives
angrily denied this and asserted that once married she would soon become
herself again.

They were mistaken. From her wedding day, which she celebrated by
attending the funeral of a venerable clergyman to whom she had been
warmly attached, her health broke rapidly. One morning she awoke in a
high fever that lasted a fortnight and was followed by convulsive
spasms, during which she beheld at the bedside the image of her
grandmother Schmidgall, who, it subsequently developed, was at that
moment dying in distant Loewenstein. The spasms continuing, despite the
application of the customary rude remedies of the time, it was decided
to send for a physician with some knowledge of mesmerism, which was then
becoming popular in Germany. To the astonishment of those who thronged
the sick room, the first touch of his hand on her forehead brought
relief. The convulsions ceased, she became calm, and presently she fell
asleep. But on awaking she was attacked as before, and try as he might
the physician could not effect a permanent cure. To all his "passes" she
responded with gratifying promptitude, only to suffer a relapse the
moment she was released from the mesmeric influence.

At this juncture aid was received from a most extraordinary source,
according to the story Frederica told her wondering friends. With benign
visage and extended hand, the spirit of her grandmother appeared to her
for seven successive nights, mesmerized her, and taught her how to
mesmerize herself. The results of this visitation, if not altogether
fortunate, were at least to some extent curative. There were periods
when she was able not merely to leave her bed but to attend to household
duties and indulge in long walks and drives. But it was painfully
apparent that she was still in a precarious condition.

From her infancy she had always been powerfully affected by the touch of
different metals, and now this phenomenon was intensified a
thousand-fold. The placing of a magnet on her forehead caused her
features to be contorted as though by a stroke of paralysis; contact
with glass and sand made her cataleptic. Once she was found seated on a
sandstone bench, unable to move hand or foot. About this time also she
acquired the faculty of crystal-gazing; that is to say, by looking into
a bowl of water she could correctly describe scenes transpiring at a
distance. More than this, she now declared that behind the persons in
whose company she was she perceived ghostly forms, some of which she
recognized as dead acquaintances.

Unlike her grandmother, these new visitants from the unknown world did
not provide her with the means of regaining her lost health. On the
contrary, from the time they first put in their appearance she grew far
worse, suffering not so much from convulsive attacks as from an
increasing lassitude. She complained that eating was a great tax on her
strength, and that rising and walking were out of the question. Unable
to comprehend this new turn of affairs, her attendants lost all
patience, declared that if she had made up her mind to die she might as
well do so as at once, and tried to force her to leave her bed. Finally
her parents intervened, and at their request she was brought back to
Oberstenfeld.

Here she found an altogether congenial environment, and for a while
showed marked improvement. Here too, and in a most sensational way, her
mediumship blossomed into full fruition. She had been home for only a
short time when the family began to be disturbed by mysterious noises
for which they could find no cause. A sound like the ringing of glasses
was frequently heard, as were footsteps and knockings on the walls. Her
father, in particular, asserted that sometimes he felt a strange
pressure on his shoulder or his foot. The impression grew that the
house, which was part of the ancient, picturesque, and none too well
preserved cathedral of Oberstenfeld, was haunted by the spirits of its
former occupants.

One night, shortly after retiring to the room which they shared in
common, Frederica, her sister, and a maid servant saw a lighted candle,
apparently of its own volition, move up and down the table on which it
was burning. The sister and the servant saw nothing more; but Frederica
the next instant beheld a thin, grayish cloud, which presently resolved
into the form of a man, about fifty years old, attired in the costume of
a medieval knight. Approaching, this strange apparition gazed
steadfastly at her, and in a low but clear tone urged her to rise and
follow it, saying that she alone could loosen its bonds. Overcome with
terror, she cried out that she would not follow, then ran across the
room and hid herself in the bed where her sister and the servant lay
panic-stricken. That night she saw no more of the apparition: but the
maid, whom they sent to sleep in the bed she had so hurriedly vacated,
declared that the coverings were forcibly drawn off her by an unseen
hand.

The next night the apparition appeared to Frederica again, and to her
alone. This time it seemed not sorrowful but angry, and threatened that
if she did not rise and follow she would be hurled out of the window. At
her bold retort, "In the name of Jesus, do it!" the apparition vanished,
to return a few nights later, and after that to show itself to her by
day as well as by night.

It now informed her that it was the ghost of a nobleman named Weiler,
who had slain his brother and for that crime was condemned to wander
ceaselessly until it recovered a certain piece of paper hidden in a
vault under the cathedral. On hearing this, she solemnly assured it that
by prayer alone could its sins be forgiven and pardon obtained, and
thereupon she set herself to teach it to pray. Ultimately, with a most
joyous countenance, the ghost told her that she had indeed led it to its
Redeemer and won its release; and at the same time seven tiny
spirits--the spirits of the children it had had on earth--appeared in a
circle about it and sang melodiously. Nor did they leave her until the
protecting apparition of her grandmother interrupted their thanksgivings
and bade them be gone.

Whether or no the happy ghost notified others in kindred plight of the
success that had attended her efforts, it is certain that, if the
contemporary records are to be accepted, the few short years of life
remaining to her were largely occupied in ministering to the wants of
distressed spirits. Phantom monks, nobles, peasants, pressed upon her
with terrible tales of misdeeds unatoned, and begged her to instruct
them in the prayers which were essential to salvation. There was one
specially importunate group, the apparitions of a young man, a young
woman, and a new-born child wrapped in ghostly rags, which gave her no
peace for months. The child, they said, was theirs and had been murdered
by them, and the young woman in her turn had been murdered by the young
man. Naturally, they were in an unhappy frame of mind, and until she was
able to send them on their way rejoicing their conduct and language were
so extravagant that they appalled her more than did any other of the
numerous seekers for grace and rest.

The dead were not the only ones to whom she ministered. Side by side
with the gift of ghost-seeing and ghost-conversing, and with the no less
remarkable gift of speaking in an unknown tongue and of setting forth
the mysteries of the hereafter, she developed the peculiar faculty of
peering into the innermost being of spirits still in the flesh,
detecting the obscure causes of disease, and prescribing remedies.
Strange to say, her own health remained poor, and gradually she became
so feeble that from day to day her death seemed imminent. But her
parents were resolved to do all they could for her, and at last
bethought themselves of placing her in the hands of the much talked of
physician, Justinus Kerner, who lived in the pleasant valley town of
Weinsberg and was said to be an adept in every branch of the healing
art, notably in the mesmerism which alone appeared to benefit her. To
Kerner, therefore, she was sent; and it is not difficult to imagine the
delight with which she exchanged the gloomy mountain forests for the
verdant meadows and fragrant vineyards of Weinsberg.

Kerner, who is better known to the present generation as mystic and poet
than as physician, was justly accounted one of the celebrities of the
day. Eccentric and visionary, he was yet a man of solid learning and an
intense patriot. It was owing to him, as his biographers fondly recall,
that Weinsberg's most glorious monument, the well named Weibertrube, was
not suffered to fall into utter neglect, but was instead restored to
remind all Germans of that distant day, in the long gone twelfth
century, when the women of Weinsberg, securing from the conqueror the
promise that their lives would be spared, and that they might take with
them from the doomed city their most precious belongings, staggered
forth under the burden not of jewels and treasure but of their husbands,
whom they carried in their arms or on their backs. Thus was a massacre
averted, and thus did the name of "Woman's Faithfulness" attach itself
to the castle in the shadow of which Kerner spent his days. But at the
time of which we write neither the castle nor poetry held first place in
his thoughts; instead, he was absorbed in the practice of his
profession. And so, with the ardor of the enthusiast and the sympathy of
the true physician, he welcomed to Weinsberg the sufferer of whom he had
heard much and of whom he was to become both doctor and biographer.[M]

It was in November, 1826, that he first met her. She was then
twenty-five, and thus had been for six years in a state of almost
constant ill health. Her very appearance moved him profoundly. Her
fragile body, he relates in the graphic word picture he drew, enveloped
her spirit but as a gauzy veil. She was extremely small, with Oriental
features and dark-lashed eyes that were at once penetrating and
"prophetic." When she spoke his conviction deepened that he was looking
on one who belonged more to the world of the dead than to the world of
the living; and he speedily became persuaded that she actually did, as
she claimed, commune with the dead.

Less than a month after her arrival at Weinsberg, and being in the
trance condition that was now frequent with her, she announced to him
that she had been visited by a ghost, which insisted on showing her a
sheet of paper covered with figures and begged her to give it to his
wife, who was still alive and would understand its significance and the
duty devolving upon her of making restitution to the man he had wronged
in life.

Kerner was thunderstruck at recognizing from her description a Weinsberg
lawyer who had been dead for some years and was thought to have
defrauded a client out of a large sum of money. Eagerly he plied
Frederica with questions, among other things asking her to endeavor to
locate the paper of which the ghost spoke.

"I see it," said she, dreamily. "It lies in a building which is sixty
paces from my bed. In this I see a large and a smaller room. In the
latter sits a tall gentleman, who is working at a table. Now he goes
out, and now he returns. Beyond these rooms there is one still larger,
in which are some chests and a long table. On the table is a wooden
thing--I cannot name it--and on this lie three heaps of paper; and in
the center one, about the middle of the heap, lies the sheet which so
torments him."

Knowing that this was an exact account of the office of the local
bailiff, Kerner hastened to that functionary with the astonishing news,
and was still more astonished when the bailiff told him that he had been
occupied precisely as she said. Together they searched among the papers
on the table; but could find none in the lawyer's handwriting.
Frederica, however, was insistent, adding that one corner of the paper
in question was turned down and that it was enclosed in a stout brown
envelope. A second search proved that she was right, and on opening the
paper it was found to contain not only figures but an explicit reference
to a private account book of which the lawyer's widow had denied all
knowledge. Still more striking was the fact, according to Kerner's
narrative, that when the bailiff, as a test, placed the paper in a
certain position on his desk and went to Frederica, pretending that he
had it with him, she correctly informed him where it was and read it off
to him word by word.

Although the sequel was rather unsatisfactory, inasmuch as the widow
persisted in asserting that she knew nothing of a private account book
and refused to yield a penny to the injured client, Kerner was so
impressed by this exhibition of supernatural power that, in order to
study his patient more closely, he had her removed from her lodgings to
his own house. Thither also, as soon as he learned that their presence
seemed to increase her susceptibility to the occult influences by which
she was surrounded, he brought her sister and the maid servant of the
dancing candle episode.

Then ensued greater marvels than had ever bewitched the family at
Oberstenfeld. Invisible hands threw articles of furniture at the
enthusiastic doctor and his friends; ghostly fingers sprinkled lime and
gravel on the flooring of his halls and rooms; spirit knuckles beat
lively tattoos on walls, tables, chairs, and bedsteads. And all the
while ghosts with criminal pasts flocked in and out, seeking consolation
and advice. Only once or twice, however, did the physician himself see
anything even remotely resembling a ghost. On one occasion a cloudy
shape floated past his window; and on another he saw at Frederica's
bedside a pillar of vapor, which she afterward told him was the specter
of a tall old man who had visited her twice before.

But if he neither saw the ghosts nor heard them speak, it was
sufficiently demonstrated to him that they were really in evidence. The
knocking, furniture throwing, and gravel sprinkling were the least of
the wonders of which it was permitted him to be a witness. Once, when
Frederica was taking an afternoon nap, a spirit that was evidently
solicitous for her comfort drew off her boots, and in his presence
carried them across the room to where her sister was standing by a
window. Again at midnight, after a preliminary knocking on the walls, he
observed another spirit, or possibly the same, open a book she had been
reading which was lying on her bed.

Most marvelous of all, when her father died she herself enacted the role
of ghost, the news of his death being conveyed to her supernaturally and
her cry of anguish being supernaturally conveyed back to the room where
his corpse lay, in Oberstenfeld, and where it was distinctly heard by
the physician who had attended him in his last moments. After this
crowning piece of testimony the good Kerner felt that no doubt of her
unheard of powers could remain in the most skeptical mind.

Judge, then, of his dismay and grief when he saw her visibly fading
away, daily growing more ethereal of form and feature, more weak in body
and spirit. It was his belief that the ghosts were robbing her of her
vitality, and earnestly but vainly he strove to banish them. She herself
declared, with a tone of indescribable relief, that she knew the end was
near, and that she welcomed it, as she longed to attain the quiet of the
grave with her father and Grandfather and Grandmother Schmidgall. When
Kerner sought to cheer her by the assurance that she yet had many years
to live, she silenced him with the tale of a gruesome vision. Three
times, she said, there had appeared to her at dead of night a female
figure, wrapped in black and standing beside an open and empty coffin,
to which it beckoned her. But before she died she wished to see again
the mountains of her childhood; and to the mountains Kerner carried her.
There, on August 5, 1829, peacefully and happily, to the singing of
hymns and the sobbing utterance of prayers, her soul took its flight.

But, unlike Kerner, who hastened back to Weinsberg to write the
biography of this "delicate flower who lived upon sunbeams," we must
shake off the spell of her strange personality and ask seriously what
manner of mortal she was. This inquiry is the more imperative since the
doings of the tambourine players and automatic writers, of whom so much
is made in certain quarters to-day, pale into insignificance beside the
story of her remarkable career.

Now, in point of fact, the evidence bearing out the claim that she saw
and talked with the dead is practically confined to the account written
by the mourning Kerner, whom no one would for a moment call an
unprejudiced witness. Already deeply immersed in the study of the
marvelous, his mind absorbed in the weird phenomena of the recently
discovered science of animal magnetism, she came to him both as a
patient and as a living embodiment of the mysteries that held for him a
boundless fascination, and once he found reason to believe in her
alleged supernormal powers, there was nothing too fantastic or
extravagant to which he would not give ready credence and assent.

His lengthy record of "facts" includes not only what he himself saw or
thought he saw, but every tale and anecdote related to him by the
seeress and her friends, and also includes so many incidents of
supernaturalism on the part of others that it would well seem that half
the peasant population of Wuertemberg were ghost seers. Besides this,
detailed as his narrative is, it is lacking in precisely those details
which would give it evidential value; so lacking, indeed, that even such
a spiritistic advocate as the late F. W. H. Myers pronounced it "quite
inadequate" for citation in support of the spiritistic theory.

Nevertheless, taking his extraordinary document for what it is worth,
careful consideration of it leads to the conclusion that it contains the
story not so much of a great fraud as of a great tragedy. It is obvious
that there was frequent and barefaced trickery, particularly on the part
of Frederica's sister and the ubiquitous servant girl; but it is equally
certain that Frederica herself was a wholly abnormal creature, firmly
self-deluded, one might say self-hypnotized, into the belief that the
dead consorted with her. And it is hardly less certain that in her
singular state of body and mind she gave evidence not indeed of
supernatural but of telepathic and clairvoyant powers on which she and
those about her, in that unenlightened age, could not but put a
supernatural interpretation.

It is not difficult to trace the origin of the nervous and mental
disease from which she suffered. Kerner's account of her childhood shows
plainly that she was born temperamentally imaginative and unstable and
that she was raised in an environment well calculated to exaggerate her
imaginativeness and instability. Ghosts and goblins were favorite topics
of conversation among the peasantry of Prevorst, while the children with
whom she played were many of them unstable like herself, neurotic,
hysterical, and the victims of St. Vitus's dance. The weird and uneasy
ideas and feelings which thus early took possession of her were given
firmer lodgment by her unfortunate sojourn with grave-haunting
Grandfather Schmidgall. After this, it seems, she suffered for a year
from some eye trouble, and every physician knows how close the
connection is between optical disease and hallucinations. Then came a
brief period of seeming normality, the lull before the storm which
burst in full force with her marriage to a man she did not love. From
that time, the helpless victim of hysteria in its most deep-seated and
obstinate form, she gave herself unreservedly to the delusions which
both arose from and intensified her physical ills--ills which after all
had a purely mental basis. "If I doubted the reality of these
apparitions," she once told Kerner, "I should be in danger of insanity;
for it would make me doubt the reality of everything I saw."

It does not affect this view of the case that she unquestionably
cooperated with her conscienceless sister and the servant girl in the
production of the fraudulent phenomena to which Kerner testifies. Their
cheating was probably done for the sole purpose of making sure of the
comfortable berth in which the physician's credulity had placed them.
Hers, on the other hand, was the deceit of an irresponsible mind, of one
living in such an atmosphere of unreality that she could readily
persuade herself that the knockings, candle dancings, book openings, and
similar acts were the work not of her own hands but of the ghosts which
tormented her. Indeed, researches of recent years in the field of
abnormal psychology show it is quite possible that she was absolutely
ignorant of any personal participation in the movements and sounds which
caused such wide-spread mystification. Sympathy and pity, therefore,
should take the place of condemnation when we follow the course of her
eventful and unhappy life.





Next: The Mysterious Mr Home

Previous: The Ghost Seen By Lord Brougham



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