“I beheld a peasant woman seated on a couch, her eyes closed. She appeared about 50 years in age, had regular features, and wore a Norman bonnet on her head. The doctor told me to sit down facing her.”
The speaker is Mathieu Dreyfus, brother of Alfred Dreyfus, the young French Jewish army officer who at the beginning of 1895 was stripped of his rank, publicly humiliated, and sent to Devil’s Island for selling military secrets to Germany.
This Alfred was a deeply conservative man, a deeply patriotic Frenchman. He seems never to have had the smallest interest in religion; duty and honor were his substitutes for faith. Were he actually guilty of the treason for which he’d been condemned, he once said, his punishment–lifetime solitary confinement to a tropical hellhole in the middle of the ocean–would have been far too mild.
Of course he wasn’t guilty. He’d been framed.
In January 1895, when his brother Mathieu first met the peasant woman Léonie who was reputed to have strange powers, he was beginning a years-long, heartbreaking struggle to win back his brother’s freedom and reputation. The “Dreyfus affair,” as it came to be called, would become an international scandal concerning which the likes of Queen Victoria would weigh in. (“The Queen has learned with stupefaction the frightful verdict and hopes the poor martyr will appeal to the highest judges.”) But at the beginning it was only Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu, his wife Lucie, and a few friends who were on his side.
“She took my thumbs,” Mathieu wrote in his posthumously published memoir of “the affair,” “felt them in every direction, scratched them, and then told me slowly, searching for her words, with pauses and, occasionally protracted stretches of silence: ‘You are his brother, your wife is with you, you have two children, a little girl and a little boy; they are not with you; he is suffering a great deal.’ She then abandoned my hands and proceeded to speak as though she were in the presence of my brother. ‘Why are you wearing glasses? Who gave you those glasses?’ But, I said to her, my brother never wears glasses. He always wears a pince-nez. Aren’t you confusing glasses and a pince-nez?–‘No, no,’ Léonie shouted in anger, ‘I know what I am saying; I say glasses because they are glasses. You will go farther, much farther (and she made a gesture of horror), but you will return. That much is sure. I don’t know in how much time; we do not know about time, but it is sure, sure, that you will return.'”
Léonie was right about those glasses. It turned out that during his imprisonment, shortly before boarding the ship for Devil’s Island, Alfred had requested and received glasses to replace his pince-nez, which kept falling off his nose.
It was the first of many trips Mathieu would make to Le Havre, on the coast of Normandy, to meet Léonie. “At times she would say things that were implausible, even incomprehensible,” writes lawyer and historian Jean-Denis Bredin. “At other times what she said fascinated Mathieu. She declared that the true culprit was an officer in the Ministry of War, whose name she could not determine, but who was in contact with a German agent named Greber. She said that the document on the basis of which Alfred had been found guilty had been taken from the German embassy. She said that the guilty officer was a friend of Alfred Dreyfus to whom he had refused to lend money.
“At the beginning of February, Mathieu Dreyfus heard her say: ‘What in the hell are those documents they are showing secretly to the judges. Don’t do that; it isn’t right. If M. Alfred and Maitre Demange [Dreyfus’s lawyer] saw them, they would thwart their purpose.’ Dreyfus asked Léonie, ‘What do you mean by those documents?’ Léonie responded, ‘Documents that you do not know about that were shown to the judges; you will see later.'”
That was how Mathieu Dreyfus learned for the first time about the “secret file”–an envelope filled with documents, doctored to make them seem more damning, that were shown secretly to Dreyfus’s judges on the evening of December 22, 1894, and on the basis of which they voted unanimously to convict. No one knew the existence of that file except for the judges and whose who had prepared it for them. And Léonie.
Mathieu was impressed. So impressed that he brought Léonie to Paris and found a place for her first in his sister’s apartment, then in his own. His friend Dr. Gibert of Le Havre, who’d introduced him to Léonie, taught him (I’m quoting Bredin) “how to put Léonie in a hypnotic trance. Soon, Mathieu was putting her to sleep for several hours at a time, even for several days. And with Léonie the somnambulist, he would undertake numerous experiments which confirmed her astonishing faculties. …
“‘Often, through nothing more than prolonged contact with my hands, or with one of my hands … she perceived my physical or moral state (if I was well or poorly disposed), sometimes my thoughts, which were not always related to the matter under consideration … ‘”
And on one occasion in 1897, dispatched in trance to Devil’s Island to see what was happening to Alfred, she said, “Poor Monsieur Alfred, he can no longer see the ocean. They’ve built a stockade for him.” It was true, though neither Mathieu nor Léonie had any way–any normal way–of knowing it. Alfred’s jailers, fearing for some reason that he might try to escape, had built a stockade around his hut.
It’s an amazing story, which I haven’t seen referred to in any of the literature of the paranormal. That’s why I’m quoting it at such length here. At first sight it’s also a convincing story, especially given the unquestionable truthfulness of the man (Mathieu) who’s our source. But it has its problems.
The first is the one that skeptics habitually flag: we remember the successes of those who claim psychic powers, forget or dismiss their failures. “At times she would say things that were implausible, even incomprehensible,” says Bredin; and if we were to tot up these “implausible” revelations, which presumably never turned out to have any connection with reality, how would they compare in number with her “hits”? Would they turn out to be one or two errors here and there? Or would they overshadow the “hits” to the extent we might plausibly take the latter to have been a few lucky guesses amid a mass of unlucky ones?
It troubles me that she knows the name of the German agent but not that of the treasonous Frenchman who worked with him. This feels to me like Léonie covering her butt. No one could have laid hands on “Greber,” who may or may not have existed–his name occurs nowhere in the index of Bredin’s 628-page book. But if she had identified the French informer, and Mathieu had taken action on the basis of her revelations, they could both have gotten into serious trouble.
What Léonie did say about the “true culprit,” who turned out to be a slimy military officer and man-about-town named Esterhazy, seems mostly to have been wrong. Jean-Denis Bredin’s sketch of Esterhazy’s life and career prior to “the affair,” on pages 152-157, mentions no connection with the Ministry of War (although the Wikipedia article on him speaks of his having been “employed at the French War Ministry” a dozen years earlier, in 1882). A spendthrift and a passionate though not very successful gambler, Esterhazy scrounged enormous sums of money in “loans” from his multiple mistresses and from the wealthy Jews he tried to befriend, even while building contacts with the anti-Semitic movement. But if he ever knew Alfred Dreyfus, far less tried to borrow money from him, Bredin says nothing about it.
And the German to whom Esterhazy sold his information–often inaccurate or useless–was named Schwarzkoppen.
Mathieu is another problem. I don’t question that he was reporting the truth as he knew or remembered it. But how many years did that memory have to bridge? He died in 1930; his memoir was published posthumously, from his manuscript, in 1978. When did he write it? I don’t know, and it’s possible no one does, though scholars of “the affair” may want to correct me on that. But I suspect that the gap between event and memory was long enough for distortions to have entered in.
Is it possible, for example, that some cry of Léonie’s, “incomprehensible” to Mathieu at the time, was turned in retrospect into a prophetic announcement of the secret file shown to the judges in closed chamber? I don’t know. But before we put our trust in Léonie’s clairvoyant powers, the question needs at least to be asked.
There’s no doubt that Mathieu did trust her, absolutely. There’s also no doubt that he needed to. He was reeling, not only from the shock of his brother’s sudden downfall and disgrace, but from the anti-Semitic fury that had erupted in the heart of the enlightened society he’d loved and trusted. (Alfred Dreyfus at his degradation ceremony: “Soldiers, an innocent man is being degraded; soldiers, an innocent man is being dishonored. Long live France! Long live the Army!” The crowd’s answer: “Death to the Jew!”)
To stay sane, to keep on struggling against overwhelming odds for his brother’s freedom, he had to believe that powers from the Beyond, mediated through a salt-of-the-earth peasant woman, were on his side.
In the end Léonie’s reassurances came true. The good guys won, though not before “the affair” had torn French society apart, or revealed how deeply torn it already was. It’s an “affair” that may have its lessons, once differences have been duly noted, for our own torn and troubled nation. (On which see a recent column by one of my favorite commentators, the Parisian Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry: “Why America is coming apart at the seams.”) And maybe Léonie’s prophecy will come true also for us:
” … you will return. That much is sure. I don’t know in how much time; we do not know about time, but it is sure, sure, that you will return.”
by David Halperin
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