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
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
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.