The Philosopher's Stone by Albany Poyntz

How was the world ever brought to believe that students, in rags, possessed the power of producing gold, when the misery of their personal condition was so apparent? How could individuals, in the enjoyment of competence, ever be tempted to own themselves in the pursuit of chimerical opulence? How could an enlightened century give birth to so monstrous a delusion?

The alchemists, though not comprised among sorcerers, and requiring a separate notice, rivalled them in the pretence to magic; for their volumes abound in recipes for raising the dead, universal elixirs, the regeneration of old people, the transformation of the ugly into the beautiful, and even the creation of men and animals, without other aid than that of a few cinders and herbs!

Such miracles, however, were insignificant compared with the science of producing gold; which, according to some was known to Job. The philosopher’s stone is said, by certain legends, to have been the origin of his fortune; and his poverty to have been occasioned by its loss. These alchemists do not explain how he came to forfeit the scientific powers which had originally produced the stone; such details being beneath the notice of the grand science.

The philosopher’s stone was, on the contrary, a creation of the fourteenth century, and much accredited among the scientific men of that day. Raymond Lully, Nicholas Flamel, Arnaud de Villeneuve, Paracelsus, and several others, were initiated into the secret. Nicholas Flamel was a celebrated alchemist, and having acquired an immense fortune, it was attributed to the philosopher’s stone, which of course stimulated the cupidity of the proselytes of alchemy. Eager was their pursuit of a study which was to endow them with boundless wealth; and these lunatics found coadjutors in persons of weak and credulous mind, while wiser men diverted themselves by sustaining their hopes, and affecting conviction of their success. Such was Van Helmont, who published his belief in the existence of the philosopher’s stone, protesting that he had seen it, and tasted it; that with a grain, he had produced several marks of pure gold.

The ardour with which conjectural sciences are adopted, proves a serious injury to positive science. Many learned men asserted the possibility of the transmutation of metals; among others, the famous Pica of Mirandola. Alchemists, however, were not unanimous concerning the principles of the art. Some placed its origin in Heaven, and looked upon the rays of the sun as its primitive source; the quintessence of which was called, in their gibberish, the powder of projection. Others maintained that its elements existed throughout every department of nature, constituting the active principle of the universe. Some ascribed the principle to the metals themselves. Mercury presented itself to them as the agent for producing silver, according to the properties we have already described with reference to miraculous showers. According to them, mercury had only to be condensed, its mobility fixed, and its different parts coagulated, to create silver. But by far the greater number indulged in still wider speculations. Most of those who attempted the pursuit were brought to want and wretchedness; and one of them observed, in his last moments, that he could not imagine a bitterer curse to bequeath than the love of alchemy!

All, however, were not martyrs to the art. Many of its advocates perambulated the world, finding dupes in Princes, Kings and Emperors, who paid dearly for their imaginary discoveries. These mountebanks were the only real possessors of the philosopher’s stone. After the treaty of Westphalia, in 1648, the Emperor Ferdinand was convinced that he had converted half a pound of mercury into gold by means of a philosophical tincture; and in commemoration of the event, had a medal struck, bearing the effigy of a youth with a face like a sun, shooting forth rays. On the reverse was inscribed, “Glory to God for deigning to impart to his humble creatures a portion of his infinite power.”

The mountebank to whom this transmutation was attributed, by name Richthausen, was created a Baron; and repeated his experiments before the Elector of Mayence and many other Sovereigns. His name was long celebrated in Germany; but his end is unknown. It is well known that Cardinal de Richelieu witnessed several experiments in pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, generously rewarding the operator. This may have been an expedient of his Eminence in order to secure the services of these adroit individuals; who, admitted into the bosom of illustrious families, became a source of useful information. Voltaire relates that he saw one, Damusi, Marquis of Conventiglio, handsomely remunerated by certain rich noblemen, after producing, in their presence, two or three crowns of gold.

No one has written more to the purpose on the subject of alchemists, than Fontenelle. “Nothing but the blindness induced by avidity,” says he, “could induce the belief that a man, possessing the power of making gold, must receive gold from another, before he can exhibit his art. How can such a person stand in need of money? Nevertheless, these mountebanks, by their fanatical conduct, mysterious language, and exorbitant promises, far from rendering themselves objects of suspicion, acquire the utmost influence. Without deciding upon the impractibility of making gold, experience teaches us that the extreme difficulty of the operation must render it unavailable in practice, if not in theory. But supposing that by the means of a sulphur of gold, completely separated from other principles, the point were gained by applying it to silver, so as to produce a mass of gold of the same weight and volume, what would be the result beyond a curious experiment effected at an enormous cost?”

In this appreciation of alchemy, Fontenelle expresses himself with the scrupulousness worthy the philosopher who said that he would not have opened his hand had it been full of truth. In this instance he opens it partially, admitting an experimental possibility which he knew did not exist.

Not only Kings and Emperors, but even the populace, delighting in the marvellous, believed in the existence of the philosopher’s stone; choosing to attribute several sudden accumulations of wealth to this mysterious source. Raymond Lullé had become rich by farming the duty imposed by Edward III. upon the exportation of wool from England to Flanders. Arnaud de Villeneuve, an eminent physician and chemist, effected cures by specifics only known to himself, which were highly requited. Nicholas Flamel enriched himself by seizing the ledgers of the Jews when expelled from France; their creditors preferring a settlement with him, to paying their liabilities into the exchequer; in return for which, he effaced their names from the registers.

These mountebanks are now known to have made use of a hollow cane, the extremity being plugged with wax, by introducing which into the crucible, on pretext of stirring up the different matters, as the wax melted the gold fell out, and the miracle appeared to be accomplished.

Others had their crucibles lined with a substance which yielded to the action of the fire, when the gold concealed behind it appeared. These clumsy tricks of legerdemain succeeded for several centuries; but credulity flits round error, as the moth is attracted by the flame of the taper, and is at length annihilated.

In the beginning of the last century, a well-known Princess was the victim of an absurd fraud. Being famed for her humanity, a wounded soldier knocked at the door of her palace, and solicited hospitality. Having been nobly received, on recovering from his wounds, he desired to offer some acknowledgment of gratitude previous to his departure. This man pretended to be possessed of three reeds, which, being placed in a crucible, converted mercury into gold. These reeds he pretended to have discovered in a ruined Abbey in Wurzbourg; a fact which he disinterestedly communicated to the Princess; who, in return, loaded him with marks of munificence. When, however, her Highness proceeded to apprize the Bishop of Wurzbourg of the treasure concealed in his diocese, no such Abbey as the one described by the crafty soldier was found to be in existence. This kind of philosophers’ stone is not a new invention, and there is little chance of the secret being lost.

There are still many persons engaged in the decomposition and transmutation of metals;—viz: the coiners of base money. Even the Academy of Sciences of Paris has still one member devoted to the miracles of the crucible—Baron Cagnard de la Tour; who has made many wonderful experiments on the nature and reproduction of diamonds.