site logo

The Seeress Of Prevorst

Scary Books: Historic Ghosts And Ghost Hunters

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

ore 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


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


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.