The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:

2016 February 29


Hyland C. Kirk served in the Fourth New York Heavy Artillery during the Civil War, and is remembered today (if at all) for compiling a 660-page oral history of his regiment, published in 1890. In civilian life, he became the principal of the Phelps Union and Classical School, but had a successful side-career as an author and essayist with a futuristic bent. His writings (fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry) generally blend current science with borderline occultism; he discusses evolution and devolution, the fourth dimension, the possibility of physical immortality, always hinting at connexions between the latest technical developments and the dreams of the mystics. One of his works is a pamphlet arguing that Christopher Columbus was Jewish; it is characteristic of Kirk's approach that, in a time when Columbus was viewed as a proto-Enlightenment rationalist hero, he focuses on the Admiral's cryptic, megalomaniacal religious writings.

"Electro-biology" was topic right up Kirk's alley: a legitimate branch of science (albeit one that failed to pan out after 1920) with an unavoidable aura of weirdness. Many advocates of electro-biology were at pains to dissociate themselves from "psychical research", but Kirk has no hesitation about declaring famous early cases of "telekinesis" (or, according to some, of Poltergeisten) to be both authentic and rationally explicable as evolutionary parallels to the adaptations of the electric eel!


By Hyland C. Kirk.
[ Popular Science 36, 76 (1889)].
Kirk's words are in bold

HON. J. W. DOUGLASS, a lawyer of Washington, D. C, formerly Commissioner of Internal Revenue, after reaching his office one morning, to relieve the pressure on his foot, took off one of his new boots and sat at his work, his legs crossed in the customary legal form, his stockinged foot swinging freely. It happened to swing over the waste-basket, when, to his exceeding surprise, every piece of paper, string, and scrap in that receptacle, as if impelled by a writ of habeas corpus, rose up and clung to his foot.

He brushed off the scraps and tried it again, and again that peremptory mandamus or process of attachment seemed to issue from his pedal extremity, and again the "poor white trash" of the waste-basket joined issue with the stocking. He was in a condition of excellent health and spirits that morning, and in a mood for experimenting: he removed his remaining boot, and secured a similar result with the other foot ; when, congratulating himself on the fact that he seemed to be a very attractive person, he returned to his work.

An incident of this kind, though more startling in its outcome, is related as occurring in the same city more than eighty years ago, in a letter of a United States Senator, Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell. The letter is dated at Washington, March 17, 1802. He says :

"A very singular occurrence has happened to General Dayton, of Elizabethstown, one of the New Jersey Senators. He pulled off his stockings of silk, under which were another pair of woolen gauze, just as he was going to bed. The former were dropped on the small carpet by the bedside, and the latter were thrown to some distance near its foot. Electrical snaps and sparks were observed by him to be unusually prevalent when he took off his stockings. He slept until morning, when the silk stockings were found to be converted to coal, having the semblance of sticks and threads, but falling to pieces on being touched. There was not the least cohesion. One of the slippers, which lay under the stockings, was considerably burned. One of the woolen garters was also burned in pieces --- the carpet was burned through to the floor, and the floor itself was scorched to charcoal. It was a case of spontaneous combustion --- the candle having been carefully put out, and there being very little fire on the hearth, and both of them being eight feet or more from the stockings."

Dr. R. D. Mussey, Professor of Surgery in Dartmouth College, in the American Journal of Medical Sciences for January, 1838, gives an account of a Mrs. B---, a married lady about thirty years of age, residing in Grafton County, New Hampshire, who gave out sparks and snaps continuously for some thirteen weeks, when this power was entirely lost and did not return again. The discovery of this faculty was a great surprise to the lady, and subsequently caused her some annoyance. Though Mrs. B--- wore a silk dress at the time of the commencement of the phenomenon, this was exchanged for cotton and flannel successively without affecting the result ; and the manifestations were found to be due to the lady's own person, and not to the clothing or other conditions. Dr. Mussey's account is supported also by Dr. W. Hosford, the lady's family physician.

Phenomena of this sort, when manifested, do not seem to be confined to any one portion of the human body, though occasionally localized. A Capuchin friar is mentioned by Dr. Schneider, whose scalp was a veritable reservoir of electricity. Whenever he removed his cowl, a number of "shining, crackling sparks " would pass from his bald pate ; and this phenomenon, which was definite and strong while the monk was in good health, continued perceptible after three weeks' illness.

The case of Angélique Cottin has been frequently referred to. She was a French peasant girl, fourteen years of age, and pos- sessing excellent health at the time her singular powers were dis- covered. She resided in the Commune of La Perrière, department of Orne, and with three other young girls was engaged in knitting ladies' silk-net gloves. Suddenly the oak weaving-frame was thrown down. The girls put it up ; and almost instantly it was again upset. It was soon discovered that, whenever the girl Cottin touched her warp, the frame was agitated, would move about, and then, without apparent cause, be thrown violently back. Subsequently chairs, tables, lighted fire-wood, brushes, books, tongs, shovels, scissors, and other metallic articles were all set in motion whenever this girl approached them. The girl was very imperfectly educated and her friends were of limited intelligence, so it was not remarkable that, in 1846, such phenomena should be attributed to sorcery. The case was investigated by a number of scientific gentlemen, including M. Arago, who were shocked, as well as startled, and gave surprising accounts of her powers. Some time after, however, she was taken to Paris and examined by the savants of the Academy, and nothing of a surprising character was discovered. She had simply lost the power she formerly possessed.

Although the pictures in this 2-minute video may show Angélique Cottin, they are not in the right chronological order. By "a man called Argo" the videographer means the great physicist (and President of the Second Republic) François Arago.

The manifestations of Miss Lulu Hurst, of Georgia, will be recalled. A tall, large-boned, well-developed, good-looking country girl, reared on a farm, without any knowledge of occult forces, and among people almost wholly uninterested in scientific subjects, suddenly seems to possess a peculiar force, and the furniture begins to manifest unusual qualities when Miss Hurst is present, phenomena occurring not unlike those attributed to the French girl of La Perrière. This power, which was considerable in the outset, gradually waned, until her public exhibitions were quite unsatisfactory.

Lulu Hurst in action.

The writer was one of the committee who, on her first appearance at Wallack's Theatre, New York, had opportunity to investigate Miss Hurst. One test was as follows : Three gentlemen, among whom was a professor of athletics, each using both hands, held a billiard-cue above their heads in the air ; Miss Hurst, by placing her hands flat on the top of the cue, brought it down without apparent muscular effort. At that time all power of repelling articles without contact seemed to have left her ; but her success in collapsing umbrellas held by a reporter, and in lifting and repelling chairs by lightly touching them, was quite extraordinary. During these performances she kept up a low, nervous giggle, and did not seem especially fatigued at the close.

Other Georgia women developed similar powers about the same time, or shortly after Miss Hurst's peculiarity became known. Miss Mattie L. Price, living in the same neighborhood, was one of these, and Mrs. C F. Coleman, wife of the superintendent of the Atlanta cotton-factory, was another.

These accounts all appear the more credible from the fact that an examination proves every human being, and in fact every animal organism, to be in some degree a producing battery of electricity. Du Bois-Reymond, Nobili, and Matteucci have, by numerous experiments, determined the existence of electric currents in the nerves and muscles ; by means of delicate tests, Becquerel has detected electricity in the capillaries and other minute tissues ; Engelmann, Volkmann, Hermann, and others, have experimentally determined something of the conditions under which various tissue-currents are manifested ; and it is more than probable that this subtile fluid is being constantly generated in the processes of digestion, circulation, respiration, and secretion.


The electric fishes --- the torpedo, the silurus, the gymnotus, and the ray --- are the only animals, it is true, possessing a special apparatus for the production of electricity ; yet the cell-structure and disks of their batteries have been developed from ordinary cells and tissues common to animal life. Other animals sometimes evince like powers. An acquaintance of the writer, some years ago, in California, came upon a splendid specimen of rattlesnake which he determined to capture. With a forked stick he succeeded in pinning his snakeship to the ground just as he had reached a hole. The snake seemed to be securely caught, but with a convulsive effort he not only entered the hole, but gave my friend an electric shock which he recalls as one of the strongest he ever received.

We are largely ignorant of the conditions necessary to the storage of this force in the human organism, but good health seems to be one. When their power is dissipated by repeated shocks, electric fish exhibit all the lassitude of weary human beings. The writer once handled a gymnotus, in Fulton Market, whose shock was hardly perceptible; yet, when vigorous, they are known to kill horses and mules by their powerful discharges.

It is said that any person in good health may convert his lower extremities into electric batteries, by wearing two pairs of silk stockings, preferably a black pair over white. After wearing them but a short time and removing them together, an attempt to separate the two colors will manifest a resistance of several pounds.

Atmospheric conditions have much to do with electricity in the body. In several cases, notably those of Angélique Cottin and Mrs. B--- of New Hampshire, this power was first discovered during the imminence of a thunder-storm.

Human electrometers are sometimes met with. A young man named William Chapman, of Providence, R. I., was stunned by the shock of a stroke of lightning which struck his father's house. The current passed through his body and went out at his right heel, which was painful for some time afterward. On every occasion of a thunder-storm since then he feels, hours before the time, a tingling pain in the heel. Young Chapman would be a valuable acquisition to the Signal Service as a portable electrometer, and, if he can do as well as he is said to have done on certain occasions, he would be ahead of any device that science has yet lighted upon to foretell an electrical storm.

A remarkable instance of the salutary effects of atmospheric electricity on the human body is told by the Wolverhampton correspondent of the London Times. He states that during a thunder-storm a collier named Bates, who had lost his sight through an accident, was being led home, when a .flash of lightning was reflected on the spectacles he was wearing to conceal his disfigurement. After the peal of thunder which followed he complained of pain in his head. The next moment, to his surprise, he found that he had regained possession of his eye-sight. The occurrence caused considerable excitement in the locality.

Since the date of Galvani's discovery, there have been many persons sufficiently bold to assert the identity of electricity and life. Even before that period, the observance of electric phenomena in man had been a subject of popular interest. In his History of Electricity, Priestley relates that drawing a spark from a living body "makes a principal part of the diversion of gentlemen and ladies who come to see experiments in electricity." (Doubtless the diversion was not lessened by the fact that the "electrical kiss" was a favorite form of the experiment!)

The excitement in Paris, Edinburgh, and other cities, following the application of galvanic electricity to dead bodies, was of a very startling character, many supposing that the secrets of life were about to be yielded up by this wonderful fluid. Bonaparte, it is said, after witnessing experiments in voltaic electrolysis, remarked to his physician, Corvisart : "Here, doctor, is the image of life ; the vertebral column is the pile, the liver is the negative, the bladder the positive pole." Though much has been discovered since that statement was made, but a modicum of the truth probably is known.

Perhaps the developed man of the future, in his physiological relations to the universe, may exemplify the magnet, whose forces are exerted constantly as received without seeming detriment to its substance.

Electrotherapist's office, ca. 1900.