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“On the road from the City of Skepticism, I had to pass through the Valley of Ambiguity” – Adam Smith

Epilepsy.  St. Vitus' Dance.  Religious mania.  Shaken, not stirred.

Epilepsy. St. Vitus’ Dance. religious mania. Shaken, not stirred.

We can all superficially agree with that most beloved of common sense skeptic maxims coined by sociologist and CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) co-founder Marcello Truzzi that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”.  Where we might quibble is on the interpretation of which phenomena are to be regarded as “extraordinary” and which are merely “trivial”.  Were you to tell me that The Back Street Boys were artistic geniuses, I might regard that as an extraordinary statement and demand some sort of incontestable way to verify the truth of your supposition.  Given, I may have a deep rooted bias towards boy bands, and to my understanding we have been led to believe that Backstreet’s back, alright, but it strikes me as highly unlikely.  The point is, when you proceed from assumptions that certain classes of phenomena are unquestionably reasonable, and others are by default unreasonable, you have predetermined the universe of your skepticism.  And what bothers me most is that our contemporary advocates of a skeptic stance towards anomalistic phenomena are wholly convinced of the superiority of their philosophical modernity.  Correction, what irritates me is that skeptics are smugly convinced that skepticism derives from an enlightened, scientific modernist viewpoint and that alternate perspectives on what constitutes the “extraordinary” are atavisms.   Skepticism as a lifestyle choice has ancient roots dating back to the Greek philosophical school of Pyrrho of Elis (365-275 BC), but skeptics themselves have always been a reflection of whatever the current gospel of knowledge happened to be.  Thus it is no surprise that in the infamous 18th Century A.D. possession case of George Lukins a.k.a. the Yatton Daemonaic, then as now, the self-proclaimed skeptics emerged to cast aspersions at the common interpretations, and offer up even more convoluted explanations that nonetheless adhered to the current constellation of accepted truths among the intellectual set, no matter how significant the contortions required to accomplish this actually were.  Cheeky bastards.

George Lukins was a modest, church-going tailor in the village of Yatton (Sommerset, England) who was nonetheless periodically possessed by the devil between 1760-1778 A.D.  Apparently, poor Lukins was the unfortunate recipient of what can only be described as a “supernatural slap” during his performance in a Christmas pageant.  Since that fateful day, Lukins personality changed substantially, and he himself insisted that he was routinely tormented by seven demons living inside him.  Among his atypical behaviors were an extreme inclination towards violence, curious inhuman voice changes, routine barking, and the singing of an inverted Te Deum (an early Christian hymn).  Of course, most folks initially assumed he had quite literally gone barking mad, handing him over to the physicians at St. George’s Hospital.  Finding nothing wrong with him, the medical community was baffled and were unable to relieve his suffering.  Now maybe its infernal arrogance that humans rarely pay attention to the obvious, but Lukins mentioned that since he was possessed by seven demons, the only solution would be an exorcism conducted by seven priests.  The Church of England took note, and Reverend Joseph Easterbrook (an associate of the Anglican theological powerhouse Reverend John Wesley) set about assembling the required clergymen.  Easterbrook also penned a letter published in the June 11, 1778 Bristol Gazette explaining the details of the case.

About eighteen years ago the unfortunate subject of this epistle, going about the neighborhood with other young fellows, acting Christmas plays, suddenly fell down senseless, and was with great difficulty recovered. When he came to himself, the account he gave was, that he seemed at the moment of his fall to have received a violent blow from the hand of some person, who, as he thought, was allowed thus to punish him for acting a part in the play. From that moment, he has been subject, at different periods, to fits of a most singular nature. The first symptom is a powerful agitation of the right hand, to which succeed terrible distortions of the countenance. The influence of the fit then commences. He declares in a roaring voice that he is the devil, who with many horrid execrations summons about him certain persons devoted to his will, and commands them to torture this unhappy patient with all the diabolical means in their power. The supposed demon then directs his servants to sing. Accordingly the patient sings in a different voice a jovial hunting song, which having received the approbation of the foul fiend, is succeeded by a song in a female voice, very delicately expressed; and this is followed, at the particular injunction of the demon, by a pastoral song in the form of a dialogue, sung by, and in the real character of, the patient himself. After a pause and more violent distortions, he again personates the demon, and sings in a hoarse, frightful voice another hunting song. But in all these songs, whenever any expression of goodness, benevolence, or innocence, occurs in the original, it is changed into another of its opposite meaning; neither can the patient bear to hear any good words whatever, during the influence of his fit, but is exasperated by them into the most shocking degrees of blasphemy. Neither can he speak any expressions of this tendency, whilst the weakness of his fits is upon him; but is driven to madness by their mention. Having performed the songs, he continues to personate the demon, and derides the attempts which the patient has been making to get out of his power, saying, that he will torment him more and more to the end of his life, and that all the efforts of parsons and physicians shall prove fruitless. And inverted Te Deum is then sung in the alternate voices of a man and woman, who with much profaneness thank the demon for having given them power over the patient, which they will continue to exercise as long as he lives. The demon then concludes the ceremony, by barking fiercely, and interspersing many assertions of his own diabolical dignity. Then the fit subsides into the same strong agitation of the hand that introduced it, and the patient recovers, but utterly weakened and exhausted. At certain periods of the fit, he is so violent, that an assistant is always obliged to be at hand, to restrain him from committing some injury on himself; though to the spectators he is perfectly harmless. He understands all that is said and done during his fits, and will even reply sometimes to questions asked him. He is under the influence of these paroxisms generally near an hour, during which times his eyes are fast closed. Sometimes he fancies himself changed into the form of a brute, when he assumes all the motions and sounds that are peculiar to it. From the execrations he utters it may be presumed, that he is or was of an abandoned character, but the reverse is the truth; he was ever of a remarkably innocent and inoffensive disposition. Every method that variety of persons have suggested, have been exerted without success; and some years ago he was sent to St. George’s Hospital, where he remained about twenty weeks, and was pronounced incurable. Of late, he has every day at least three, and sometimes nine of these fits, which have reduced him to great weakness; for he cannot hear any virtuous or religious expression used without much pain and horror. The emaciated figure that he presents, the number of years that he has been subject to this malady, and the prospect of want that lies before him, through being thus disabled from following his business; all preclude the suspicion of imposture (Priest,1824, p386-387).

Needless to say, this litany of strangeness inspired great interest among the unwashed, but newspaper-reading masses, and became a Cause célèbre at the time.  Lukins was “taken to Bristol, and seven Methodist clergymen, after a long and revolting scene in the vestry-room of Temple church, declared that they had cast the devil out of him” (Hunt, 1885, p235).  A set of fourteen Methodist ministers had decided to undertake the exorcism of Lukins, presumably a back-up squad of seven additional clergymen was deemed prudent in case things got out of hand.  The progression of the exorcism was minutely detailed by eyewitnesses, so even though the whole affair occurred late in the 1700’s, we have a complete transcript.

On Friday morning, June 13, fourteen gentlemen, accompanied by George Lukins, met at the vestry- room at Temple Church at eleven o’clock, to pray for the relief of this afflicted man, when the following ceremony took place : —

  • They began singing a hymn, on which the man was immediately thrown into strange agitations (very different from his usual seizures), his face was variously distorted, and his whole body strongly convulsed. His right hand and arm then began to shake with violence, and after some violent throes, he spake in a deep, hoarse, hollow voice, personating an invisible agent, calling the man to an account, and upbraiding him as a fool for bringing that silly company together: said it was to no purpose, and swore ”by his infernal den” that he would never quit his hold of him, but would torment him a thousand times worse for making this vain attempt.
  • He then began to sing in his usual manner (still personating some invisible agent), blaspheming, boasted of his power, and vowed eternal vengeance on the miserable object, and on those present for daring to oppose him ; and commanded his ” faithful and obedient servants ” to appear and take their stations.
  • He then spoke in a female voice, expressive of scorn and derision, and demanded to know why the fool had brought such a company there? And swore “by the devil” that he would not quit his hold of him, and bid defiance to, and cursed all, who should attempt to rescue the miserable object from him. He then sung, in the same female voice, a love song, at the conclusion of which he was violently tortured, and repeated most horrid imprecations.
  • Another invisible agent came forth, assuming a different voice, but his manner was much the same as the preceding one. A kind of dialogue was then sung in a hoarse and soft voice alternately, at the conclusion of which, as before, the man was thrown into violent agonies, and blasphemed in a manner too dreadful to be expressed.
  • He then personated, and said, “I am the great devil” and after much boasting of his power, and bidding defiance to all his opposers, sung a kind of hunting song, at the conclusion of which he was most violently tortured, so that it was with difficulty that two strong men could hold him (though he is but a small man, and very weak in constitution); sometimes he would set up a hideous laugh, at other times bark in a manner indescribably horrid.
  • After this he summoned all the infernals to appear, and drive the company away. And while the ministers were engaged in fervent prayer, he sung a Te Deum to the devil in different voices, saying, “We praise thee, O devil; we acknowledge thee to be the supreme governor, etc.”
  • When the noise was so great as to obstruct the company proceeding in prayer, they sang together a hymn suitable to the occasion. Whilst they were in prayer, the voice which personated the great devil bid defiance, cursing and vowing dreadful vengeance on all present One in the company commanded him in the name of the great Jehovah to declare his name, to which he replied, “I am the devil.” The same person then charged him in the name of Jehovah to declare why he tormented the man? To which he made answer, “That I may shew my power amongst men.”
  • The poor man still remained in great agonies and torture, and prayer was continued for his deliverance. A clergyman present desired him to endeavour to speak the name of ”Jesus,” and several times repeated it to him, at all of which he replied ”devil.” During this attempt a small faint voice was heard saying, “Why don’t you adjure”, on which the clergyman commanded, in the name of Jesus, and in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I command thee, evil spirit, to depart from this man; which he repeated several times, when a voice was heard to say, ”Must I give up my power” and this was followed by dreadful howling. Soon after another voice, as with astonishment, said, “Our master has deceived us.” The clergyman still continuing to repeat the adjuration, a voice was heard to say, ”Where shall we go” and the reply was, “To hell, thine own infernal den, and return no more to torment this man.” On this the man’s agitations and distortions were stronger than ever, attended with the most dreadful howling that can be conceived. But as soon as this conflict was over, he said, in his own natural voice, “Blessed Jesus!” became quite serene, immediately praised God for his deliverance, and, kneeling down, said the Lord’s Prayer, and returned his most devout thanks to all who were present. The meeting broke up a little before one o’clock, having lasted nearly two hours, and the man went away entirely delivered, and has had no return of the disorder since (Timbs, 1875, p207-209). 

You’ve got to appreciate them Christian Demons.  They’re always so chatty and forthcoming.  Makes them easier to exorcise, unlike the scarier preternatural predators and parasites that lurk out there unnoticed.  Demons on the other hand want to make a splash and be recognized for their talents.  That’s why there are so many in Hollywood, after all.  Luckily, after eighteen years of diabolical torment, George Lukins was successfully exorcised, and went on to live an unremarkable and decidedly non-infernal life.  Rev. Easterbrook accompanied Lukins to the exorcism and put together a thorough report for his patron Rev. John Wesley, and was known to have remarked that many would doubt his detailed account of demonic possession in “this era of modern skepticism” (mind you this was 1778).  And Easterbrook could not have been more prescient, for the skeptics, just as they do today, emerged to declare themselves enlightened, and the rest of the universe to be populated with the ranks of the superstitious, craven lunatics, and the easily deceived.  In a July 1788 letter to Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, self-assured skeptics confidently asserted the the George Lukins possession undoubtedly “originated in a complication of epilepsy and St. Vitus’s dance afflicting a person of a weak mind, early impressed with an idea that the disease was the effect of a power which the devil had obtained over him.  From this source may be deduced all the subsequent history, however wonderful.  During the paroxysms, the mind partaking of the agitation of the body, the miserable object, in a preternatural voice uttered a variety of the most horrid and blasphemous expressions in the character of the devil and his imps, agreeable to the original impression constantly present to his mind” (Gentleman’s Magazine, 1788, p609).  Wow.  I mean, just, wow.  Evidently, to those cultivated skeptics who weren’t present, the George Lukins case was most parsimoniously explained by a cocktail of epilepsy, St. Vitus’ Dance (which those same skeptics would probably dispute ever resulted in bands of folks traipsing about Europe doing a deadly disco groove), and predisposition towards religious ideation.  To most skeptics, any old explanation will do as long as it is as remote from the common interpretation as is possible, from swamp gas, to nostoc, to a condensation of luminiferous ether, or whatever twisted scientific source of all wisdom happens to be en vogue.  A certain noted doctor and man of letters named Dr. Ferriar of Manchester authored a paper on “popular illusions and medical demonolgy” in which he confidently asserted that Lukins was obviously pretending to be possessed.  For eighteen years.  Mimicking ongoing physical agony.  Nearly starving himself to death.  In addition to which Ferriar pointed out that none of the standard indicators of possession noted in the Maleus Malificarum were present, and thus most reputed demonologists would have washed their hands of the patient. Consider the convoluted logic involved in that argument.  Lukins was faking.  But even if Lukins wasn’t faking, he wasn’t showing the symptoms we expect from possession by the standards of a book the enlightened 18th Century scientists regards as a laughable, if not downright dangerous.  Sigh.

Try this on for size.  Guy starts acting weird.  Doctors find nothing wrong with him.  Guy says he’s possessed by demons.  Exorcism completely cures him after 18 years.  Personally, although I’d be loath to come to any conclusions about what a “demon” actually is, I’d go with the demon explanation.  Its more practical.  Evidently, skepticism with regards to strange phenomena hasn’t progressed much since the 18th Century, since this sort of interplay is still common, it’s just that scientists and skeptical inquirers have stronger, albeit unrelated arguments, such as, “You’re crazy.  You didn’t see aliens.  How do I know?  Because science works, that’s how.  Wanna see the sheep I just cloned”? One essential vanity of mankind is that we regard whatever age we live in as “the modern”, and this is often the basis of how we categorically distinguish between the possible and impossible.  Our skepticism knows only the bounds of our currently accepted truths.  Better to adhere to Bertrand Russell’s notion of a proper natural philosophy, when he said, “Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance”.  And just in case, stay out of Yatton.

References
Hunt, William, 1842-1931. The Somerset Diocese, Bath and Wells. London: Society for promoting Christian knowledge, 1885.
Priest, Josiah, 1788-1851. The Wonders of Nature And Providence, Displayed: Compiled From Authentic Sources, Both Ancient And Modern, Giving an Account of Various And Strange Phenomena Existing In Nature, of Travels, Adventures, Singular Providences, &c. Albany: J. Priest, 1824.
Timbs, John, 1801-1875. Signs Before Death: A Record of Strange Apparitions, Remarkable Dreams, &c. A new ed., enl. and carefully cor. London: W. Tegg & co., 1875.
Gentleman’s Magazine.  “The Narrative of the Extraordinary Case of George Lukins”.  Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, Volume 58:2.  London: E. Cave,1788.

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