Monday, September 23, 2019

Wiertz's Visions - Who Was The Head?


In September of 1847, a gruesome triple murder was committed in Brussels, Belgium: three women were bludgeoned to death and their throats sliced during the commission of a robbery of their home. The culprits were determined to be a carpenter named François Rosseel (also spelled Rosseels) and a baker named Guillaume Vandenplas (also spelled Van den Plas or Vandenplace.)

Rosseel was born in Zedelghem in 1819, and Vandenplas born in Vossem in 1821. In 1847 both men were in financial straits, with Vandenplas reportedly contemplating suicide over his condition. Rosseel had been in prison before, where he had met Vandenplas and another man named Sylvestre: he conceived a plan rob the house of his landlady, and invited both men to join in his scheme. Only Vandenplas accepted the offer. (Sylvestre refused, and later reported the invitation to the police; this is how Rosseel and Vandenplas were caught.)

The crime was extremely well known at the time, referred to simply as l'assassinat de la place Saint-Géry. The trial began on February 8th of 1848. They were sentenced on February 12th, and the execution took place at dawn on the 18th. Vandenplas was killed first, followed by Rosseel. Their heads were taken to be examined for phrenological purposes, the results of which can be read here (in French.)

The first reference connecting these men to Antoine Wiertz's experiment of the severed head, is in an 1860s museum catalogue of his work. The way it is written does not quite explicitly name this execution as the one he attended for his magnetic experiment but later sources declare it to have been the one at which his story takes place. Wiertz appears to have been following the newspaper reports of the case, brewing the idea for his experiment as he read of the investigation and the penalty given to the culprits.

Interestingly, I have seen no indication that either Rosseel or Vandenplas was married, which conflicts with certain portions of Wiertz's vision. Could it be that Wiertz did not really make the psychic connection he believed? Or was it a different execution he attended?

Study of a severed head, by Wiertz. No date.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Visions of a Guillotined Head - A Communication with the Dead through Energy Work

Antoine Wiertz was a popular Belgian artist of the 19th century. He painted a variety of subjects, many of which were perfectly pleasant, but the ones for which he is best known are dark subjects like a trainee witch, a vanitas and a premature burial. He was successful in his lifetime and has a museum in Brussels dedicated solely to his artwork.

One of Wiertz's most famous works was a triptych called, in English, The Visions of a Guillotined Head.  Sadly the original painting is now in poor condition (Wiertz wanted a paint that would resemble the matte look of a fresco, and to this end he created a paint medium which did not hold up well with time.) The art style is meant to resemble the works of Peter Paul Rubens

But perhaps more interesting than the painting itself is the story of how the artist did his research into what it's like to be decapitated. I have translated from the original French given in a 19th century catalogue of his paintings.

Visions of a Guillotined Head*

[*literally translated, "Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head" though the former is the more typical English title for the piece.]

Triptych: First Minute - Second Minute - Third Minute.
1853. Matte painting, oil. Height, 2 meters, 65. Length 1 meter, 70.

"Perhaps my tableau will someday serve as an argument against the death penalty, I hope."
(Letter to a friend, 1853.)

First Minute. - On the Scaffold.


"Just recently, some heads fell under the scaffold. It was on this occasion that the author of these paintings had the idea to do research on this question:

IF THE HEAD SEPARATED FROM THE TORSO STILL RETAINS FOR SEVERAL SECONDS THE ABILITY TO THINK?

Here is the story of an experiment made upon the subject.

... Accompanied by Mr. *** and by M. D., learned in the experiments of magnetism, I was conducted onto the scaffold: there I did beg M. D. to employ the novel means which he believed proper for placing me into rapport with the severed head. M. D. consented to this. He made some preparations and we waited, not lacking emotion, for the fall of a human head. 

Scarcely had the fatal hour tolled when the terrible blade, after having rattled the whole machine with its collapse, sent the head of the victim rolling through the frightful red sack. 

At this instant, our hair stood on end, but it was no time to back down. M. D. ... took me by the hand (I was under his magnetic influence) that he might conduct me to the pulsating head and I said: "What do you feel? What do you see?" 

The emotion hindered his immediate response, but all at once full of an extreme agitation, I myself cried out: "Horror! The head is thinking." I wished then to extricate myself from all this I was experiencing, but I was fixed like under the weight of a terrible nightmare. Through the head the victim was thinking, was seeing, was suffering. And me, I saw what he saw, understood what he thought, felt what he suffered. How long would it continue? Three minutes, I was told. The victim must have felt like it was three centuries. 

That which the dead man thus suffered, no human speech could communicate. I will confine myself here to transcribing the incoherent, often disorganized, answers to the questions addressed by me in those moments where I found myself in some way affiliated with the severed head.

Here are his responses:

A horrible noise buzzes in his head.

It is the sound of the blade descending.

The victim thinks that he has been struck by lightning and not the blade.

How strange a thing! The head is here, under the scaffold, and it believes itself to still be above, being part of the body and still waiting for the blow that shall separate it from the trunk. 

A horrible suffocation! 

He can no longer breathe!

This state is caused by the apparition of a gigantic, supernatural hand that weighs like a mountain upon the head and the neck.

The asphyxia becomes more violent.

The monstrous hand presses ever deeper.

The victim chokes.

A cloud of fire passes before his eyes.

All is red and burning...

The merciless hand is managing to crush the neck with still greater violence.

The victim thinks of fighting against it; he seeks to disengage it; his hands seize upon this terrible hand, they writhe, they tear... all in vain!

By God, what a situation! The walls of the throat are fused from the pressure... it is done...

The ferocious, unpitying hand, what could it be? The subject comes to recognize it... ermine and royal purple wash over the fingers.

Oh! Torments even more horrific are approaching!


Second Minute. - Under the Scaffold.




The pressure is becoming a slicing.

Only then is the victim made aware of his circumstance.

He measures with his enflamed eyes the distance which separates his head from his body and he says to himself:

"My head is really cut off."

Now delirium redoubles his strength and energy.

In the victim's imagination, it appears to him that his head burns and spins over itself; that the universe crumples and turns alongside it, that a phosphorescent fluid circulates about his skull, melting them together.

In this midst of the horrible fever, an insensible, incredible, insane thought seizes upon this dying brain. 

Can you believe it? This man man whose head has been cut off conceives there still might be hope. The last remnants of boiling blood are stirred and swiftly they rush into every channel of life, trying to hang on.

In this moment, the victim thinks to extend his convulsing hands furiously towards the dying head.

I don't know what is signified by this imagined movement. Wait... I understand... it's horrible!

Oh my God, what is this life for which he fights until the final drop of blood is spent...?

That movement! Alas! It's the instinct we carry that hastens us to press our hands over a gaping wound to heal it. That movement! It is for that appalling design, to replace the head upon the torso, in order to conserve just a little more blood, just a little more life!

...I feel extremely unwell; I want for this to end...

Now some sufferings of another type begin, the moral suffering. A slew of images present themselves to the spirit of the man murdered by the guillotine, and he suggested these thoughts:

"I see my coffin, with me placed inside, thousands of worms waiting to devour me."

"The doctors surround me and examine my neck; it's doubtless for study. My judges are also there, but farther away, in a fine parlor... I see them seated contentedly at a table; they speak of unimportant things. Is that possible?"

"This same day I will be in the hospital, at least my head will; they'll make some very singular experiments of me; they will cut into my flesh; there will be a great deal of spectators. It's also today that I'll be buried. There won't be any prayers said for me; those who attend will flee and be frightened."

"I see my family; my wife is dead, dead of misery, my children surround her and weep."

"No matter how much I tell them to help me some, by replacing my head on my neck, that time is of the essence, that it'll be too late, that the blood is still flowing; they won't hear me. I see them holding far back; what are they doing? They are kneeling before some people who seem to laugh and dance."

"Oh my God! It's so they can plead for some bread."

"The smallest of my children is sitting near to me. Oh! How greatly I love this one. It is he; his curly blond hair, his rosy little cheeks... the poor thing sees me, smiles and comes to embrace me. Three times I have drawn him to my breast to smother him with kisses, three times our heads have vainly sought to meet. Alas! This one was too far away. "

"Now he retires, projecting cries of fright. He looks at his tiny hands, reddened by my neck."

...The eyes of the victim have rolled into their grisly orbit.

...They are fixed upon the sky; he seems to see the immense vault of the firmament split in two and the two parts to withdraw like massive curtains. Behind them appears in the dark infinities a blazing furnace, in which the stars seem to engulf and consume for all time.  It seems to him that the air is impregnated with a dust of fire, each grain of which responds to one of his miseries.  In the midst of the great brightness of the heavens he sees a dark, shapeless object which, with every heartbeat, advances and grows from the bosom of this strange phantom, resonating odious sneers which are prolonged and transform gradually into lamentable accents and sighs. A great darkness is extended from all sides. The black phantom has touched the feet of the victim. He feels it, heavy as lead, spreading across his frozen limbs... his whole body is turned to stone.

He is dead...

No, there's more.


Third Minute. - Into Eternity.



He is not yet dead; the head still thinks and suffers. 

Suffering fire that burns, suffering daggers that stab, suffering painful poison, suffering hacked off limbs, suffering torn entrails, suffering chopped and grinding of flesh, suffering limbs broiled with boiling oil, suffering rabid seizures. All these evils together cannot give any concept of what was suffered by the victim. When shall the frightful torments be over?

A dreadful doubt here chills the frightened victim: if he should die in this condition, will this state of suffering need to be endured, perhaps, for all eternity?

A horrible notion! The new phase into which he descends no longer makes sense to a living man. Everything declares here the presence of an unknown world. The clouds of outer space, their sinister glow, fleeing and vacillating, all this chaos, at last, in which is the ceaseless combat of the elements of life and death, in which all appalling things are regenerated into an eternal movement of rotation, could all of this be the future abode in which our souls, after death, must forever wander?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

At that moment, the suffering wretch is still preoccupied by worldly things.

In a dark corner he sees his corpse rotting and withering; then, that which is not for anyone but the spirits of another world to perceive, he sees how the mysteries of transformation are fulfilled. All the gases that made up his body, sulfurous, ammoniacal or alkaline, he sees them emerge from his putrefied flesh and then serve for the formation of other living beings. More distantly, the man who was killed by the blade sees, falling into an abyss of fire, the infamous guillotine with his executioner.

Is this latter appearance one of those effects due to the usual prescience of the dying? If the awful instrument of the guillotine should one day be annihilated, let God be praised.

Now, the human things are disappearing: they seem to be melting, little by little, into the darkness of a deep night, a light vapor still visible, but here it retreats, weakens, disappears... Everything is black... The guillotined man is dead.

In these final apparitions, some people observe the eternal punishment due to the guilty; others, more humane, think themselves to perceive in the cloud of the center the soul of the victim receiving from an angel the kiss of peace."

(Etoile Belge, 1st December 1863).

***

A Blast From the Past contains some additional details about the experiment and the victim, as well as a translation of a slightly different version of the above text.

There is also an old photograph of the triptych here which was taken before some of the decay was visible, hinting at a more even coloration and revealing some faded details.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

7 Holy Spirits Bath - Classic Hoodoo Bath


In modern hoodoo practice, it's not uncommon to take spiritual baths for purposes like drawing love or money. However, when writing Conjuration: Hoodoo Spells 1800-1920 I noticed that in the oldest spells, baths are only used for cleansing and purification. (Though drawing good luck might be an expected result of the bath, as once the victim was free from evil it could be supposed their good luck would be unlocked.)

These older baths were usually herb baths, or made from simple mixtures like salt, boiled pieces of silver and baking or washing soda. On a hunt to find the first commercial hoodoo baths, I found the 7 Holy Spirits bath from the 1944 O&B Catalogue. The advertisement is featured above. Clearly it's some kind of 7 bottle set, meant to be taken every other day.

The catalogue says little about the bath recipe, but as it happens, a sort of recipe is given in Lewis de Claremont's Ancient Book of Formulas. This book rarely gives complete conjure recipes, instead letting the reader know which "bouquet" fragrance blend to use when making oils (presumably de Claremont was selling these formulas or knew of some seller for them.) Cross-checking the fragrance blends for the bath with the fragrance blends for the anointing oils, we get the following formulas:

Seven Holy Spirit Baths
Day 1: Lovers, colored blue
Day 2: Commanding, colored red
Day 3: Van Van, colored yellow
Day 4: Indian Guide, colored green
Day 5: Temple, colored brown
Day 6: Uncrossing, colored green
Day 7: High Conquering, colored purple

The baths consisted of one ounce each soluble oil base with 4 drams of the fragrance added. De Claremont doesn't give his recipe for this oil base, but here is one from Jeanne Rose's Herbal Body Book:

  • Melt 1/4 cup hydrous lanolin and add slowly, mixing all the while, 1 1/2 cups alcohol in which 1 oz. essential oil has been dissolved.
  • Add slowly 1/2 cup alcohol in which 1 oz. essential oil has been dissolved.
  • Shake all together thoroughly. This substance is milky although the milkiness does not show in the bath and it will disperse immediately in the water.