Sunday, January 06, 2019

The worlds of spirits

In the year of his death, Richard Baxter, a preeminent Puritan, published The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits. As he explains:

When God first awakened me, to think with preparing seriousness of my condition after death, I had not any observed doubts of the reality of spirits, or the immortality of the soul, or the truth of the gospel…But when God had given me peace of conscience, Satan assaulted me with those worse temptations…I still saw that to be an atheist was to be mad. But I found that my faith of supernatural revelation must be more than a believing man, and that if it had not a firm foundation and rooting, even sure evidence of verity, surely apprehended, it was not like to do those great works that faith had to do, and to overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to make my death to be safe and comfortable. Therefore I found that all confirming helps were useful…And finding that almost all the atheists, Sadducces and infidels, did seem to profess, that were they but sure of the reality of the apparitions and operations of spirits, it would cure them, I thought this the most fruitable helped for them...  (Preface).

I confess, very many cheats of pretended possessions have been discovered, which hath made some weak, injudicious men think that all are such. Two sorts of persons have oft been found deceivers: (i) persons prepared and trained up purposely by Papist priests to honor their exorcisms; (ii) Lustful, rank girls and young widows, that plot for some amorous, precacious design, or have imaginations conquered by lust. 

Tis hard to know by their words or signs when it is a devil, and when a human soul that appeareth…we are not fully certain whether these aerial regions have not a third sort of wights, that are neither angels (good or fall) nor souls of men, but those called fairies and goblins… (chap. 1).

It's a mixed bag. I think a few of his examples are just ecclesiastical legends (e.g. incubi and succubi, blood-sucking imps, the devil's familiars). Some may reflect ignorance of botany which undergoes legendary embellishment (e.g. Glastonbury thorn).

Likewise, the primitive state of 17C medicine invites misdiagnosis in some cases. And some folk medical treatments aggravate the condition. For instance, some cases might have a natural explanation (e.g. gallstones, kidney stones). By the same token, some people might have undiagnosable conditions, by 17C standards, that result in mental illness. 

He cites reports of grain falling from the sky (chap 10). Perhaps that has a natural explanation. 

They don't understand the nature of lightning. He also mentions a case of ball-lightning (chap. 8). From what I've read, that remains a mysterious phenomenon.  

He mentions the case of a maid who was hexed by having a pin thrust in her thigh. It's well-documented, and more examples like that might demonstrate malicious spells, but he only gives one example. 

He mentions a few cases of xenoglossy. That would be evidence for spirit-possession, but his examples aren't well-documented. 

More impressive are cases of people spitting up pins, needles, knives, shards of glass. There may be natural explanations why some people are motivated to swallow sharp objections. In some cases it might be staged, although that's a very hazardous hoax. And there are ways to detect imposture.

What's harder to explain naturalistically is how they could swallow and cough up such objects without incurring fatal internal bleeding. And these aren't single incidents, but repeated. 

Likewise, objects levitating and flying in a room have no natural explanation. 

I find his collection of anecdotes is quite uneven. That reflects his limited access to relevant reports. I think modern scientific knowledge renders some of his examples dubious. Conversely, modern science and telecommunications cast a far wider net, so the available evidence for miracles and occult phenomena is much greater than Baxter had at his disposal. 

With those caveats in mind, I'll quote what struck me as the more uncanny examples: 

Mary Hill, a maid of about 18 years of age…was taken very ill, and being seized with violent fits, began to vomit up about two hundred crooked pins…About a fortnight after, she began to vomit up nails, pieces of nails, pieces of brass, handles of spoons, and so continued to do so for the space of six months and upwards.

The persons bound over to give evidence, were Susanna Belton, and Ann Holland, who upon their oaths deposited, that they hooked out of the navel of the said Mary Hill, as she lay in a dead fit, crooked pins, small nails, and small pieces of glass…Whereupon Mr. Francis Jesse, and Mr. Christopher Brewer declared, that they had seen the said Mary Hill to vomit up several times crooked pins, nails, and pieces of glass, which they also produced in open court, and to the end, they might be ascertained it was no imposture, they declared, they had searched her mouth with their fingers before she did vomit…That to prevent the supposition of a cheat, I had caused her to be brought to a window, and having looked into her mouth, I searched it with my finger…For my farther satisfaction, I got some at my own charge to sit up at nights with her, and watch her mouth, and see it was kept close shut. Whist this was done, the vomiting of nails ceased, and that for thirteen nights successively; but when it was neglected, she would be sure to bring up something of nails or some such stuff (chap. 3).

I doubt not but abundance of reports of such matters have no better causes than are here mentioned, even the mistake of the ignorant; but that there are true as well as false report of such things, is past all reasonable cause of doubting. I will begin with the most convincing instance…the Devil of Mascon.

And what wonder if such things that are talked of but a few days, be forgotten after fifty or sixty years…They may go to my kinsman, William Baxter, now schoolmaster…could it be counterfeit, and never contradicted in fifty or sixty years (I remember not just the year) that in a city, so many of both religions for so many months together might crowd at a certain hour into the room, and hear a voice answering their questions, and telling them things far off, and to them unknown; and disputing with a papist officer of the city, and the whirling him oft about, and casting him on the ground, and sending him home distracted. 

Several letters to Mr. Richard Baxter, in relation to an apparition in the house of Lt. Col. Bowen…But the night following, the gentlewoman, with several other godly women, being in the house, the noise of whirlwind began again, with more violence than formerly, and the apparition walked in the chamber, having an insufferable stench, like that of a putrified carcass, filling the room with thick smoke, smelling like sulfur, darkening the light of the fire and candle, but not quite extinguishing it…striking them so that the next morning their faces were black with the smoke, and their bodies swollen with bruises. 

Mr. Maur. Bedwell's inclosed letter…One night was very remarkable, and had not the Lord stood by the poor gentlewoman and her two maids, that night they had been undone; as she was going to bed, she perceived by the impression on the bed, as if some body had been lying there, and opening the bed, she smelt the smell of a carcass somewhere dead, and being in bed (for the gentlewoman was somewhat courageous) upon the tester, which was of cloth, she perceived something rolling from side to side, and by and by, being forced out of bed, she had not time to dress herself, such cries and other things almost amazing her, but she (hardly any of her clothes being one) with her two maids, got upon their knees by the bedside to seek the Lord, but extremely assaulted, oftentimes she would by somewhat which felt like a dog under her knees, be lifted a foot or more high from the ground; some were heard to talk of the other side of the bed, which one of the maids hearkening to, she had a blow upon the back. Diverse assaults would be made by fits; it would come with a cold breath of wind, the candles burn blew and almost out; horrible screechings, yelling, and roarings, within and without the house, and smells of brimstone and powered, and this continued from some nine at night to some three the next morning…fires have been seen upon the house, and in the fields. 

And he sent me this narrative here following, at Brightling in Sussex…The house, though it burned down to the ground it flamed not…They abide under a hut; the goods are thrown upside down, Peuter-dishes, knives, brickbats strike them, but hurt them not…Ministers came to pray with them, when a knife glanced by the breast of Mr. Bennet…a wooden tut came flying out of the air…likewise a horseshoe…and it was observed of its own accord to rise again and fly to the man, and struck him in the midst of a hundred people (chap 2).

A husbandman, who was tormented in one of his sides, and at least felt a nail of iron under the whole skin, which the surgeon cut out, but his pain still increased so that in impatience he cut his throat, and died…when he was opened, they found in his stomach a long, round piece of wood, and four knives of steel, partly sharp, and partly toothed like saws, and two sharp pieces of iron, every one above a span long, and a ball of hair.

A little girl in the ninth year of her age…[she] vomited needles, pins, pieces of glass windows, nails, an iron knife a span long…For these things could not possibly come out of her body. For how could it be, that the pricking of so many pins, should bring up no blood? How could a sharp knife come up the narrow throat of a young child, without cutting the passage?…she caught my hand, and put it to her throat. Feel, sir, said she, a pin without a head coming up, and which will come out presently. I felt, and immediately when I thought verily I held it fast betwixt my fingers of my left hand within her throat, I perceived it to be forced violently from me, and presently seeing the child avowing to spit, I received it in my right hand…In like manner, I have frequently at other times, felt the ends of points, while they were yet in the very orifice of her stomach, and while they were coming up, and ready to come out of her mouth (chap 5).

In my weakness…there suddenly rose upon one of the tonsils of my throat a round tumor, seeming to me as hard as a bone, and about as big as a great pease, or small button, half out of the flesh, and half in…I had constantly felt it (and too oft looked at in the glass). As soon as I had preached and spoken those words, I felt no more of it. As I came out of the pulpit, I put my finger in my mouth to feel it, but could feel nothing: I hasted home to the glass and saw [nothing] (chap. 10).


  1. The phantom battle of Edgehill seems to be a pretty convincing example of the supernatural.

    It was investigated at the time and a pamphlet was published soon after the (alleged) event.