The Divining Rod by Albany Poyntz

The superstition of the divining rod prevailed only a century and a half ago. The following story concerning it, is too curious to be omitted. In the year 1692, a vintner of Lyons and his wife were murdered in their cellar, their assassins making away with their money. All attempts to discover the culprits were vain, till a simple Dauphinese peasant, named Jacques Aymar, boasted that, with the aid of a simple hazel twig, he could discern the assassins. Having visited the scene of the murder, rod in hand, it became agitated; and on following its indications till he reached the right bank of the Rhone, Aymar entered the house of a gardener, where three bottles stood on the table; when, lo! the rod instantly intimated that the bottles had been emptied by the assassins! Two children of the house owned that three ill-looking men had been there; on which Aymar began to obtain some credit. Traces of three men were found imprinted on the sand by the river-side; and, persuaded that they had embarked, Aymar followed them, inquiring as he proceeded, and detecting the spots where they had halted, to the astonishment of those who accompanied him.

At the Sablon, the rod becoming agitated, Aymar announced that the assassins were evidently in the camp; and his divining rod led him as far as the gate of the prison of Beaucaire; which being opened, twelve of the fifteen prisoners confined were brought before him. But the divining rod was motionless till the approach of a certain humpbacked prisoner, who declared his utter ignorance of the crime committed at Lyons. On the indications of the rod, however, the hunchback being conducted to the gardener’s house was recognised as having been one of the party. At length he confessed his guilt; protesting, however, that he was an involuntary spectator, and did not participate in the murder. Having furnished Aymar with information concerning the direction the assassins had taken, he traced their steps to an inn at Toulon, where they had dined the previous evening. On finding that the culprits had put to sea, he also embarked and followed the course of their boat to its landing-place. But on reaching the frontier, all further trace of them was lost.

This wonderful story afforded a topic of discussion to the whole kingdom. So many persons bore testimony to the truth of the story, that it was impossible to doubt it; the more so, that Aymar followed it up with exploits equally wonderful. He detected several thieves, as well as the places where they had concealed their booty; and as a test of his powers, the lady of the chief officer of police possessed herself, by stealth, of the purse of one of her friends, and begged him to come to her and detect the thief. Aymar instantly declared that they were amusing themselves at his expense.

The Prince de Condé, who, far from being superstitious, had greater faith in his Field-Marshal’s baton than the divining rod, could not resist his curiosity to witness the feats of Aymar, and sent for him to Paris. As soon as he recovered the fatigues of his journey, he was conducted to a bureau, from which something of considerable value had disappeared; but whether or not the magnificence of the place annihilated the power of the divining rod, the charm was gone! Holes were dug in various parts of the garden, in which were deposited gold, copper, stones, and other substances. But the rod failed to point out the hidden treasure. In the interim, a pair of silver candlesticks having been stolen from Mademoiselle de Condé, Aymar’s rod pointed out a goldsmith’s shop, the master of which being accused, was highly indignant. Thirty-six livres were forwarded, however, the following morning as the price of the objects; and it was supposed that Aymar had resorted to this expedient, with the view of re-establishing his reputation. But it was all in vain! The divining rod had lost its reputation, and Jacques Aymar was pronounced to be an impostor.

At his own request, however, he accompanied the King’s advocate to a street in which a murder had been committed; and the result being unsatisfactory, Aymar was considered either a mountebank, or a man following, with new pretensions, the old trade of recovering for reward the stolen goods, in the abstraction of which he had participated.

Science becomes dangerous in the hands of empirics, as weapons in the hands of children. About forty years ago, a German doctor revived the marvels of the divining rod, grounding his system upon the phenomena of galvanism. But the philosophy of Volta disdained such an association. Pleasantly exposed to ridicule in the admirable pages of the antiquary, it is now estimated as on a par with the charm once supposed to be inherent in the rope by which a human being had suffered the sentence of the law. It is still proverbial with the vulgar, that any singularly lucky person “carries a bit of hangman’s rope in his pocket.”

Uninquiring incredulity is as great a proof of weakness as over credulousness. The following instance of that incomprehensible foresight which flashes upon the brain of certain individuals, under the name of presentiment, passed under the notice of Gratien de Sémur.

Madame de Saulce, the wife of a rich planter of St. Domingo, was residing in France about the time of the Revolution. Her husband occasionally visited his native country, leaving his lady at Paris, who was a woman of sense and piety, by no means of a nervous temperament. During the last voyage of her husband, being engaged at cards at an evening party, she suddenly uttered a shriek, and sunk on her chair, exclaiming, “Monsieur Saulce is dead!” Her friends crowding about her, attempted to tranquillize her by their remonstrances, till by degrees she recovered her reason. So powerful, however, had been the sensation or presentiment, that she had no peace till she obtained news of her husband.

A favourable letter arrived; but, alas! the date was anterior to that of her vision. And soon afterwards, one of the friends present at the scene of Madame de Saulce’s ejaculation, received a communication from a stranger in St. Domingo, requesting him to communicate to that lady the distressing news of her husband’s decease. Monsieur de Saulce had been assassinated by his negroes, on the very day and hour of her fatal presentiment. The event occurred in the presence of at least twenty persons; and till the day of her death, the widow remained a prey to sorrow mingled with awe and consternation.

In the Memoirs of the great Sully will be found the record of the presentiments of assassination, which oppressed the mind of Henry IV. “The King,” says he, “had the strongest presentiment of his dreadful destiny. As the moment of his coronation approached, his alarm and consternation increased; and in answer to my remonstrance, he exclaimed: ‘In spite of all you can urge, this ceremony is most distasteful to me. My heart assures me that some misfortune will be the result.’ After uttering these desponding words, he sank back, overcome by gloomy anticipations; and remained tapping the case of his spectacles, absorbed in gloomy reverie.”

The presentiment of Henri IV. of his approaching assassination, is confirmed by the testimony of L’Etoile and Bassompierre, who, in their Memoirs, relate the same particulars; and the fact is as historically established as the evil dream of Calphurnia, and the denunciation of the soothsayer to Julius Cæsar, on a parallel occasion.