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THE OPINIONS ENTERTAINED THAT A GHOST WAS A
MATERIAL PRODUCT, SUI GENERIS.
“ These were their learned speculations,
In very early times, we find philosophers inclined to doubt if apparitions might not be accounted for on natural principles, without supposing that a belief in them was either referable to hallucinations, to human imagination, or to impositions that might have been practised. At length Lucretius attacked the popular notion entertained of ghosts, by maintaining that they were not spirits returned from the mansions of the dead, but nothing more than thin films, pellicles, or membranes, cast off from the surfaces of all bodies like the exuviæ or sloughs of reptiles.
An opinion, by no means dissimilar to that of the Epicureans, was revived in Europe about the middle of the 17th century. It had its origin in Palingenesy, or the resurrection of plants, a grand secret known to Digby, Kircher, Schot, Gafferel, Vallemont, and others. These philosophers performed the operation of Palingenesy after the following manner :
:-They took a plant, bruised it, burnt it, collected its ashes, and, in the process of calcination, extracted from it a salt. This salt they then put into a glass phial, and mixed with it some peculiar substance, which these chemists have not disclosed. When the compound was formed, it was pulverulent, and possessed a bluish colour. The powder was next submitted to a gentle heat, when its particles being instantly put into motion, there then gradually arose, as from the midst of the ashes, a stem, leaves, and flowers; or, in other words, an apparition of the plant which had been submitted to combustion. But as soon as the heat was taken
away, the form of the plant, which had been thus sublimed, was precipitated to the bottom of the vessel. Heat was then re-applied, and the vegetable phænix was resuscitated ;-it was withdrawn, and the form once more became latent among the ashes. This notable experiment was said to have been performed before the Royal Society of England, and it satisfactorily proved to this learned body, that the presence of heat gave a sort of life to the vegetable apparition, and that the absence of caloric caused its death.
Cowley was quite delighted with the experiment of the rose and its ashes, and in conceiving that he had detected the same phenomenon in the letters written with the juice of lemons, which were revived on the application of heat, he celebrated the mystic power of caloric after the following manner :
Strange power of heat ! thou yet dost show,
And all the flourishing letters stand in rows. The rationale of this famous experiment made on the ashes of the rose was attempted by Kircher. He supposed that the seminal virtue of every known substance, and even its substantial form, resided in its salt. This salt was concealed in the ashes of the rose. Heat put it in motion. The particles of the salt were quickly sublimed, and being moved about in the phial
. like a vortex, at length arranged themselves in the same general form they had possessed from nature. It was evident, then, from the result of this experiment, that there was a tendency in the particles of the salt to observe the same order of position which they had in the living plant. Thus, for instance, each saline corpuscle, which in its prior state had held a place in the stem of the rose-slip, sympathetically fixed itself in a corresponding position when sublimed in the chemist's vial. Other particles were
subject to a similar law, and accordingly, by a disposing affinity, resumed their proper position, either in the stalk, the leaves, or the flowers; and thus, at length, the entire apparition of a plant was generated.
The next object of these philosophers was to apply their doctrine to the explanation of the popular belief in ghosts. As it was incontestably proved, that the substantial form of each body resided in a sort of volatile salt, it was perfectly evident in what manner superstitious notions must have arisen about ghosts haunting churchyards. When a dead body had been committed to the earth, the salts of it, during the heating process of fermentation, were exhaled. The saline particles then each resumed the same relative situation they had held in the living body, and thus a complete human form was induced, calculated to excite superstitious fear in the minds of all but Palingenesists.
It is evident from the foregoing account, that Palingenesy was nothing more than a chemical explanation of the discovery which Lucretius had made, with regard to the filmy substances that he had observed to arise from all bodies.
Yet, in order to prove that apparitions might be really explained on this principle, the experimentum crucis was still wanting. But this deficiency was soon supplied. Three alchymists had obtained a quantity of earth-mould from St Innocent's church, in Paris, supposing that this matter might contain the true philosopher's stone. They subjected it to a distillatory process. On a sudden they perceived in their vials forms of men produced, which immediately caused them to desist from their labours. This fact coming to the knowledge of the Institute of Paris, under the protection of Louis XIV., this learned body took up the business with much seriousness, and the result of their labours appears in the Miscellania Curiosa. Dr Ferrier, in a volume of the Manchester Philosophical Transactions, has been at the trouble of making an abstract of one of these French documents, which I prefer giving on account of its conciseness, rather than having recourse to the original dissertation.
“ A malefactor was executed, of whose body a grave physician got possession for the purpose of dissection. After disposing of the other parts of the body, he ordered his assistant to pulverize part of the cranium, which was a remedy at that time admitted in dispensatories. The powder was left in a paper on the table of the museum, where the assistant slept. About midnight he was awakened by a noise in the room, which obliged him to rise immediately. The noise continued about the table, without
visible agent; and at length he traced it to the powder, in the midst of which he now beheld, to his unspeakable dismay, a small head with open eyes staring at him; presently two branches appeared, which formed into arms and hands; then the ribs became visible, which were soon clothed with muscles and integuments ; next, the lower extremities sprouted out, and when they appeared perfect, the puppet (for his size was small) reared himself on his feet; instantly his clothes came upon him, and he appeared in the very cloak he wore at his execution. The affrighted spectator, who stood hitherto mumbling his prayers with great application, now thought of nothing but making his escape from the