Ventriloquists by Albany Poyntz

Ventriloquists are a better order of jugglers than the Incombustibles. The feats of the latter are doubtless more surprising—the former, far more amusing. To behold a man expose himself to even the semblance of a cruel torture, affords a disgusting species of excitement; and such exhibitions as those we have described, the feat of swallowing naked swords, or the favourite practice of placing in contact with half-tamed beasts of prey a human being who submits to the risk for the sake of a scanty remuneration, is an order of public entertainment that does little honour to the taste of the listless spectator.

To witness feats of ventriloquism, on the contrary, is a diverting and harmless pastime; though, had Messieurs Comte and Alexandre exhibited their marvellous powers in the olden time, there is some probability that they might have been exposed to jeopardy as sorcerers and magicians, or to exorcism, as possessed of devils.

Ventriloquism derives its name from an error of the ancients. So far from being effected through the body, the mouth is the sole instrument of the art or faculty we call ventriloquism. The first inference formed on this subject was by the Greeks, who conceived the oracles of the Pythoness to consist of the emanation of the soul from the viscera; and as the lips of ventriloquists assumed the same form in the exercise of their art as those of the Pythoness during her pretended inspirations, they ascribed the effort to the same region of the body.

Archbishop Eustatius, in treating of the Witch of Endor, attributes the exploits of the magician Ob, in invoking the shade of Samuel, and obtaining a reply from the apparition, to a devil, or the power of ventriloquism. In the Book of the Septanti, the Witch of Endor is described as a ventriloquist.

Father Delrio, as an interpreter of the opinion of the ancients, and Henri Boguet, the great legist, declared from the bench, that all persons endowed with a natural power of ventriloquism, had hoarse, harsh voices, and that the spirit by which they were possessed, must be dislodged by exorcism.

In the earlier days of ventriloquism, from the Witch of Endor downwards, the art appears to have been almost peculiar to the female sex; though in our own times professed only by males. In the fifteenth century, Rolande du Vernois, accused of the exercise of ventriloquism, was condemned and burnt as a witch; and about the middle of the sixteenth, the inhabitants of Lisbon were amazed by the feats of a woman named Cecilia, who possessed the art of causing her voice to issue from her elbow, foot, or any other part of her body. In exhibiting this apparently preternatural power, she pretended to have an invisible colleague, named Pierre Jean, with whom she appeared to hold conversations; an exploit that exposed her to a charge of witchcraft. She was tried for magic, and exiled to the Island of St. Thomas, in remission of a sentence to be burnt alive.

In the same century, a little old woman who had very much the air of a witch, and whose voice appeared to issue from the centre of her body, made her appearance in Italy, where she was arraigned for sorcery; but her further history is unrecorded.

A female ventriloquist, named Barbara Jacobi, narrowly escaped being burnt at the stake in 1685, at Haarlem, where she was an inmate of the public hospital. The curious daily resorted thither to hear her hold a dialogue with an imaginary personage with whom she conversed as if concealed behind the curtains of her bed. This individual, whom she called Joachim, and to whom she addressed a thousand ludicrous questions, which he answered in the same familiar strain, was for some time supposed to be a confederate. But when the bystanders attempted to search for him behind the curtains, his voice instantly reproached them with their curiosity from the opposite corner of the room. As Barbara Jacobi had contrived to make herself familiar with all the gossip of the city of Haarlem, the revelations of the pretended familiar were such as to cause considerable embarrassment to those who beset her with impertinent questions.

The celebrated Thiémet used to exhibit at Paris a scene of a similar nature, afterwards copied in London in the Monopolylogues of Matthews. Having concealed himself in a sentry-box, which occupied the centre of his small stage, the distant sound of a horn became audible; then, the cry of a pack of hounds gradually approaching; during the intervals of which, a miller and his wife were heard familiarly conversing in bed concerning their household affairs. In the midst of their conversation, a knock was heard; and a strange noise became audible from without, entreating the miller to rise and show the way through the forest to a young Baron, who had lost the track of the hounds. The miller promised compliance; when an altercation ensued between him and his wife; the former wishing to rise, the latter preventing him with a declaration that she had not courage to be left alone in the mill. At length, the miller gets the better; and, having risen, is about to put on his clothes, when the sobs and cries of his abandoned spouse determine him to return to bed; and the scene used to terminate with a loud exclamation on the part of the lady when the cold knees of the miller apprized her of his return. This somewhat too familiar exhibition used to elicit roars of laughter from the most fashionable audiences; nor, till Thiémet issued from his sentry-box, could they be prevailed upon to believe that he had been alone.

Ventriloquism is, in truth, the working of a curious problem in acoustics; the art resulting from a careful computation of distances and effects in the science of sound. The resources afforded by such an art to the priesthood of antiquity, who were thus enabled to create an oracle wherever they thought proper, may easily be understood. When exercised with dexterity, it was no wonder that the bewildered populace should exclaim, like the Sybil of Cumæ, “Deus! ecce Deus!” Dodona and Delphos are now generally believed to have been simply the scene of a clever exhibition of ventriloquism. Fontenelle, and the learned Benedictine, Dom Calmet, have both written extensively on the subject; the latter, more especially, labouring to prove that a variety of marvels related by Lucian, Philostratus, Iamblicus, and other eminent authors, are easily explained by ventriloquism.

Many French historians attribute to the same origin the apostrophe of the pretended Spectre in the Forest of Mans, which so terrified the feeble Charles VI., as to deprive him of reason. Such was the opinion of the Abbé de la Chapelle; who, in 1772, published a volume on ventriloquism, in which, among other examples, he cites the wonderful faculty of a grocer named St. Gilles, residing at St. Germain en Laye; who, when visited by the Abbé, made his voice appear to issue from every part of the house. St. Gilles appears to have been a facetious personage as well as a skilful ventriloquist; for as he was one day walking in the forest of St. Germain, with a rich Prebendary, celebrated for his avarice and clerical abuses, a voice was heard to reproach him with his pluralities and covetousness, threatening to bury him under the ruins of his prebendal house, unless he reformed the errors of his ways. The grocer being careful to assume an appearance of the same terror that paralyzed his companion, the priest regarded this interposition as the voice of his good angel; and instantly proceeding to the nearest church, dropped the whole contents of his purse into the poor’s box; and on his return to Paris, devoted the remainder of his days to repentance and good works.

On another occasion, St. Gilles exercised his art in restoring family peace to a young couple. The husband who had abandoned a young and lovely wife, having accompanied him into the depths of the forest of St. Germain for a morning walk, was also addressed by a supernatural voice, threatening him with eternal punishment unless he renounced his dissolute habits, and returned to the bosom of domestic life; a stratagem which produced the happiest results.

One of the most skilful proficients in the art, appears to have been a Baron von Mengen, a German nobleman, as celebrated at Vienna, as St. Gilles in France. The Baron never appeared in society without carrying a doll in his pockets, with which he used to hold imaginary conversations. An English traveller, amazed by the wit and wisdom of the doll, became at length so excited by curiosity, as to insinuate his hand into the Baron’s pocket, in the hope of discovering his secret; when the doll instantly shrieked aloud, and bitterly reproached the Englishman for his breach of decorum. The amazement of the abashed foreigner increasing, the Baron produced his doll, and explained the nature of the mystery.

Philippe, a favourite actor of the Théâtre des Variétés, on his marriage with Mademoiselle Volnais, the actress, proceeded with her into Lorraine to visit an estate they had purchased; when the tenants having thought proper to favour them with a magnificent reception, in the course of the day, the bridegroom, deserting his place of honour, strolled out among the revellers. While he appeared to be only conversing in a grave manner with the Mayor of the place, to the dismay of the simple villagers, strange voices were heard to issue from tuns of wine, reproaching them with their excesses; and from wheelbarrows, reproving them for their idleness. The whole village fancied itself bewitched; while Philippe enjoyed, for the first time of his life, on his own account, a talent he had so often exercised for the amusement of others.

Comte, the best ventriloquist now extant, has performed a thousand similar exploits. When on his travels in Belgium, he caused the voice of Margaret of Austria, to issue from her tomb in the Church of Bron, addressing a reprimand to the verger. At Rheims, he was nearly the cause of depopulating the quarter of St. Nicholas, by causing voices to issue from a variety of graves in the church-yard; while at Nevers, he revived the miracle of Balaam, by enabling an overladen ass to reproach its master with his cruelty.

Another time, Monsieur Comte, when travelling by night in a diligence, the travellers of which had fallen asleep, roused them from their slumbers by a confusion of voices of robbers at the windows, calling aloud upon the postillions to stop. The greatest consternation prevailed; when Monsieur Comte offered to negociate for them with the robbers, and become the depositary of their purses for the purpose. Having alighted from the carriage for this object, he was heard conversing in the dark road with a variety of voices, breathing the most frightful threats; and the travellers considered themselves fortunate in being allowed to purchase their lives by the cession of all they had about them. When daylight broke, their adroit fellow-traveller restored their property; the mere mention of his name sufficing to explain the nature of the jest which had produced their alarm.

On another occasion, he preserved the statues and carvings of a village church from mutilation, by causing a voice to issue from the altar, commanding the forbearance of the rustic population. He was, however, very near falling a victim to the marvels of his art, at Fribourg; where the populace, asserting him to be a sorcerer, fell upon him, and would have thrown him into a heated oven to be consumed, but for the intervention of the authorities.

Nevertheless, in defiance of these well-known facts, ventriloquism still appears miraculous to the vulgar. Thirty years ago, the learned Abbé Fiard wrote a treatise to prove that the ancients were justified in their belief that it proceeded from spiritual possession. Fortunately, the great majority are content to accept it as a fertile source of recreation, without troubling themselves concerning the origin of the faculty.