Popular Errors by Albany Poyntz

A popular error of the most fatal kind was the idea formerly prevalent that a drowned person, being overpowered by the quantity of water he had swallowed, was susceptible of restoration by suspending him with the head downwards, so as to force him to disgorge it. More persons owed their death to this stupid operation, than to the suspended respiration it was intended to restore. It is only during the present century that the experiments of the faculty all over the world have pointed out that the only course to pursue with persons taken insensible out of the water, is to restore circulation by warmth and friction of the extremities; and respiration, by the introduction of air into the lungs.

An equally strange legislative abuse connected with this subject, prevailed in Paris till within the last few years. A reward of twelve francs, or ten shillings was given to any person who saved another from drowning by extricating his body from the Seine, while a reward of six-and-thirty francs, or three times as much, was given to the person who rescued a dead body from the water! This was evidently conceived in the hygienic interests of a city, where the river water is in such extensive use for baths and drinking; but it was in point of fact offering a premium for murder: the morality of navigatory populations being in most countries at a low ebb.

Another French delusion fatal to human preservation, is the idea that the person who cuts down the body of another found hanging, legally involves himself in an accusation of murder; and nothing can be more injudicious than the harshness with which the proceedings of an inquest are often pursued; as if to justify the poltroonery of those whose first impulse on discovering a body is to go in search of witnesses of the circumstances attending the discovery, instead of lending immediate aid.

A more innocent, but not less groundless popular prejudice is, that which attaches itself to that most useful of domestic animals, the ass—the war-horse of the poor. In all countries, this sure-footed and faithful animal is adopted as an emblem of stupidity, from the patience with which it submits to punishment and endures privation. A pair of ass’s ears is inflicted upon a child in reproof of his duncehood; and through life we hear every blockhead of our acquaintance called an ass. Whereas the ass is a beast of great intelligence; and we often owe our safety to its sure and unerring foot beside the perilous precipice, where the steps of the man of science would have faltered.

The Fathers of the Church, and the Disciples of the Sorbonne, persuaded of the universal influence of the Christian faith, believed the dark cross on the back of the ass to date only from the day on which our Saviour made his entry into Jerusalem. The ass of the desart was an animal of great price. Pliny mentions that the Senator Arius paid for one the sum of four hundred thousand sesterces. Naturalists have frequently remarked the extraordinary dimensions of an ass’s heart, which is thought an indication of courage; and it is the custom of the peasantry of some countries to make their children wear a piece of ass’s skin about their person. The ass’s skin is peculiarly valuable, both for the manufacture of writing-tablets and drums; which may be the reason why a dead ass is so rarely seen. It is too valuable to be left on the highway. In many places, the ass serves as a barometer. If he roll in the dust, fine weather may be expected; but if he erect his ears, rain is certain. Why should not animals experience the same atmospheric influences as man? Are we not light-hearted in the sunshine, and depressed in a heavy atmosphere.

Louis XI., of France, was a great patron of the ass. His astrologers having failed in their predictions concerning the weather, he dismissed them, and substituted an ass in their place, as being more weather-wise. Certain physicians consider the emanations from the ass’s body to possess beneficial medical properties; while, in former days, the blood of the bull was considered poisonous.

The credulous Plutarch declared that Themistocles poisoned himself with bullock’s blood, upon the authority of the priests of Egina, who are also cited by Pliny; and this same bullock’s blood, esteemed poisonous, was also considered a moral purification;—sins being expiated by the sprinkling of the human body with the blood of the bull. On solemn occasions, when the criminal was a man of wealth and distinction, so that a bull was dedicated to his use, the blood was made to fall in a perforated vessel, and the criminal standing beneath, received the sacred aspersion upon his face and attire. The Emperor Julian submitted to this act of expiation. Bullock’s blood is now known to be as innocuous as that of other animals; and is extensively used in more than one manufacture.

During the Middle Ages, ground glass was supposed to act as an infallible poison; and was long known by the name of “Succession Powder.” Montfleury speaks of it in one of his comedies. One of the personages, showing a packet of it, observes: “Here is the making of many an heir!”

Portal, and several other French physicians, have asserted in their works, that ground glass is fatal to the swallower; and it is frequently used by the poor as ratsbane, mixed up with the compositions intended for the extermination of vermin. Jugglers were the first to controvert this error, by publicly swallowing it with impunity, a feat which Dr. Franck having witnessed, he immediately experimentalized on himself, and published the results as conclusive against the received opinion.

About the year 1810, a physician of Caen, named Sauvage, confirmed the opinion of Franck. A young lady under his care swallowed a quantity of powdered glass for the purpose of self-destruction without experiencing the least injury; upon which Sauvage tried experiments on various animals, administering ground glass to cats, dogs, and rats, on opening the bodies of which, he could not detect the smallest effect. Many similar experiments produced the same results. Dr. Cayol, in presence of his colleagues, swallowed a quantity of irregular fragments of glass. So, also, did Sauvage, without producing the smallest derangement of the digestive organs.

It is worthy of remark, that mountebanks often clear the way for the march of science; a proof that the most trivial observations may be the origin of the grandest results. Some students of Oxford, on visiting Newton, found him blowing bubbles from a straw, and considered the occupation childish. The philosopher was studying the theory of light.

Since we have alluded to mountebanks, let us devote a few more words to them. Jugglers have been known to swallow, not only pounded glass, but stones and knife blades. A celebrated Spaniard, accused by the Inquisition, proved his innocence by swallowing fiery coals without injury; and the savage found in the woods at Aveyron, devoured all sorts of fowls with their feathers. But these exploits will not bear comparison with those of the Molucca savage, of whom we read an account in a volume entitled: “The Testament of Jerome Sharp,” printed in 1786.

“I entered,” says the narrator, “with one of my friends, and found a man resembling an ourang-outang crouched upon a stool in the manner of a tailor. His complexion announced a distant climate, and his keeper stated that he found him in the island of Molucca. His body was bare to the hips, having a chain round the waist, seven or eight feet long, was fastened to a pillar, and permitted him to circulate out of the reach of the spectators. His looks and gesticulations were frightful. His jaws never ceased snapping, except when sending forth discordant cries, which were said to be indicative of hunger. He swallowed flints when thrown to him, but preferred raw meat, which he rushed behind his pillar to devour. He groaned fearfully during his repast, and continued groaning until fully satiated. When unable to procure more meat, he would swallow stones with frightful avidity; which, upon examination of those which he accidentally dropped, proved to be partly dissolved by the acrid quality of his saliva. In jumping about, the undigested stones were heard rattling in his stomach.”

The men of science quickly set to work to account for these feats, so completely at variance with the laws of nature. But before they had hit upon a theory, the pretended Molucca savage proved to be a peasant from the neighbourhood of Besançon, who chose to turn to account his natural deformities. When staining his face for the purpose, in the dread of hurting his eyes, he left the eyelids unstained, which completely puzzled the naturalists. By a clever sleight of hand, the raw meat was left behind the pillar, and cooked meat substituted in its place. Some asserted his passion for eating behind the pillar to be a proof of his savage origin; most polite persons, and more especially Kings, being addicted to feeding in public. The stones swallowed by the pretended savage were taken from a vessel left purposely in the room full of them; small round stones, encrusted with plaster, which afterwards gave them the appearance of having been masticated in the mouth. Before the discovery of all this, the impostor had contrived to reap a plentiful harvest.

Some time afterwards, a woman was exhibited near the Louvre, who devoured flints and slate with the utmost avidity. But the scientific world, forewarned by its former credulity, took no note of her peculiarities of appetite.

It is recorded in the Gazette of Health, that the Abbé Monnier, of St. Jean d’Angély, used in his youth to grind between his teeth fragments of stone for recreation, and even in his declining age, continued the custom. He would swallow a spoonfull during the day, and did not consider his dinner complete without them. He was always pale and emaciated, which was attributed to his singular diet. But his brother, who did not feed upon stones, was precisely of the same temperament and appearance. The Abbé lived till the age of ninety-eight. Diseased persons have been known to devour without injury, earth, stones, chalk, and plaster; and an eminent physician used to eat small lumps of plaster-of-Paris, as others swallow sugar-plums.

In the anatomical inquiries of Menelaus Winsemius, a Dutch physician, he relates that in his time, a peasant of Friesland was in the habit of swallowing flints, wood, glass, and live fish. In Wurtemberg, there was also a miller, who for money would swallow birds, mice, lizards, caterpillars, or fragments of glass and stone. He one day swallowed an inkstandish, with all its appurtenances. These feats were publicly attested by the Senate of Wurtemberg; after which, the man lived nineteen years, subsisting upon twelve pounds of food per diem. There is scarcely a fair throughout Europe at which such feats are not exhibited on a minor scale.