Thursday, January 14, 2010

Medium or Trickster?

The Odious Women Tour:  Illusionist, medium, levitator, and trickster, Eusapia Palladino (1854 - 1918) lived during an epoch that blazed with the determination to prove the supernatural through science.  To that end, all manner of scientists and writers, including Pierre and Marie Curie as well as Arthur Conan Doyle, sought out Eusapia – and paid her prohibitive fees – for the sake of finding an answer to the impassioned question of the time:  Was she a fraud?

Palladino was born in a mountain village near Bari.  Her mother died during childbirth.  Her father then sent her to be raised at a neighboring farm until the age of twelve, when he was murdered by brigands.  With no living relatives, a family from her village that had moved to Naples took Palladino in.

The family at that time was engaged in holding regular séances, something very common with the rise of Spiritualism (the belief that the spirits of the dead could be contacted through mediums).  When Eusapia was invited to join these séances, she proved able to levitate objects:  tables rose, chairs danced, glasses clanked, and bells rang.  Thereafter, the family invited all their friends to witness Eusapia’s tricks.

But these gifts, as told by Palladino, also tormented her.  Palladino explained that she saw ghosts staring at her.  Also, her clothes and bed-covers would be stripped from her in the middle of the night. 

Fiercely independent, Palladino left the family to work as a laundress.  She then married twice, the first time to a conjuror whose name is unknown.  Her second marriage was to a Neapolitan merchant whom Palladino helped in his shop while conducting séances in the evenings.

In 1888, Palladino first made headlines when a Professor Ercole Chiaia of Naples wrote an open letter to eminent scientist and spirit-doubter, Caesar Lombroso.  Describing Palladino, he said she was “… an invalid woman who belongs to the humblest class of society.  She is nearly thirty years old (actually by 1888 she would have been 34 – my italics), and very ignorant;  her appearance is neither fascinating nor endowed with the power which modern criminologist call irresistible;  but when she wishes, be it day or by night, she can divert a curious group for an hour or so with the most surprising phenomena.”

Not exactly a clipping to bring to a class reunion.  But from that letter forward, Palladino was pushed into the limelight, with venerable intellectuals asking her to display her skills.  Cesare Lombroso asked her to perform a battery of séances in Milan during which time he made careful scientific observations.  Palladino was then invited to cities across Europe.  She traveled to Warsaw, Vienna, Munich, Cambridge, and St. Petersburg, among others.  She even displayed her skills in front of Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris.  Pierre Curie reported that he saw:   ”…tables raised from all four legs, movement of objects from a distance, hands that pinch or caress you, and luminous apparitions.” 

But many intellectuals also caught Palladino cheating.  Whenever she resorted to tricks, her clients bitterly complained about her high fees.  Palladino, in her own defense, noted that her impatient intellectual clientele put too much pressure on her to perform.  That's what caused her to cheat.

Did she think of herself as a fraud?  And how did she view this high-society interest in her skills? Hereward Carrington’s biography tells a story that perhaps reveals more: 

Eusapia says she possessed diamond earrings and bracelets set with emeralds, massive chains and rings with precious stones. Her rich acquaintances Sardou, Aksakoff, Richet, Ochorowicz, Semiraski, Flammarion, knowing her Neapolitan taste for gold ornaments, had loaded her with many gifts. For better security she put these treasures into a sort of strong box in her shop.

"One night," she said, "I had a horrible dream: I saw a man, of whom I saw not only the face, but all the details of his clothes, with an old hat, a handkerchief round his neck, check trousers; he came into the shop and forced open the box, whilst two companions watched at the door."

The impression was so strong that she awoke her husband and told him that the shop was being robbed. He paid no attention; but she got up about two o'clock, went into the shop and assured herself that there were no thieves there. But to set her mind at rest she took her precious jewels and carried them to her room, where she shut them up in a piece of furniture after counting them one by one. 

What was her alarm next day when she encountered, near the door of the house, an individual identical in appearance with the person she had dreamed of! Worried by this thought, she went to consult a police functionary whom she knew, but he excused himself, saying: "I cannot, dear Madam, undertake to act as policeman of dreams, but if you wish to make your mind easy take your jewels to the bank…”

After several decades of intense interest in her abilities, in 1909 Palladino traveled to America where she was invited to show off her talents at Harvard.  There, a pre-eminent psychologist observed her séances and found her to be a fraud.  For whatever reason, his publication sounded the death knell of her international popularity.  While she may have continued her séances from 1910 onward, we know nothing of what happened to her except that she died in 1918 of unknown causes in an apartment house on via Benedetto Cairoli.

(The street along which she lived and died.  The exact apartment number is unknown.)


(The English cemetery adjacent to the street where Eusapia lived.)

(The Magic Cafe along the street where Eusapia lived.  I went inside and asked if they had ever heard of her, but the barista and two customers only shrugged.)

Suggested Reading:
Carrington, Hereward.  Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena
Doyle, Arthur Conan.  The History of Spiritualism


Gil said...

Very interesting story thanks for posting. Do you know the name of the street where she lived? The reason I ask it looks like I street I was on off via Toledo. I know, they all look the same!

Barbara said...

Hi Gil!

She lived on via Benedetto Cairoli. It's very near the Botanical Gardens. It's closer to Piazza Gharibaldi than via Toledo.

She also held seances for the "Fielding Report" that took place at the Hotel Victoria near the National Archeological Museum. I haven't been there yet, but plan to check it out too.


Gil said...


Thanks! This sounds like another place to visit this Summer.

Barbara said...

Hi Gil! Okay -- just found out that the Hotel Victoria where Eusapia held her seances no longer exists. It used to be by the train station.

As to visiting the place -- the cemetery is interesting and if you happen to walk from the train station at Piazza Gharibaldi going in the direction of the Botanical Gardens, you will get much more of a gritty/back-roads glimpse of Naples.

For short visits, I'd recommend skipping it. But if you know Naples well and want something new, this is a great find.

Don't forget to try some excellent coffee twists down the street at Caffe Vanvitelli too! (Post on that coming soon.)