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“These days, there are angry ghosts all around us – dead from wars, sickness, starvation – and nobody cares. So you say you’re under a curse? So what? So’s the whole damn world” – Jigo, Princess Mononoke


A hung jury?

Cideville is a quaint farming village in Normandy, France near the only slightly larger town of Yerville, part of the Seine-Inférieure region, thirty-five miles from Havre, and 80 miles northwest of Paris.  Cideville has always been a sleepy little hamlet, but in the winter of 1851, it was at the center of a curious defamation trial involving accusations of sorcery and the predations of an inconsiderate (yet musically talented) poltergeist.  This was a rare instance where the accused witch was the plaintiff and the priest was the defendant, and ultimately everything got blamed on an angry ghost.

Father Jean Tinel was the Curé of Cideville, a parish priest entrusted with the souls of the good people of the town, and sadly, beginning in November 1850, he found his parsonage beset by disturbances of an inexplicable character centering on two young pupils in his household, Gustave Lemonnier (age 12) and Bunel (age 14).  Gustave and Bunel were known to be of amiable dispositions, the sons of respectable parents who had entrusted Tinel with preparing the youths for entry into the priesthood.  Beginning in late November 1850 – usually in whatever room the boys were in – strange rapping sounds were heard and objects flew about of their own accord.

Gustave Lemonnier, the younger of the pupils, aged twelve, said that raps began when he was alone, on November 26th, and continued.  He saw knives, blacking-brushes, a roasting spit, and M. Tinel’s breviary leave their places and go through the window-panes. All sorts of objects flew about. He was struck in the face by a shoe, a candlestick, and by a black hand which afterwards disappeared up the chimney. A sort of human shape, dressed in a blouse, which appeared to be a spectre, followed him about for a whole fortnight. We learn from another witness that the child said that this spectre was only fifteen inches high. Once an invisible force pulled him by the leg, his comrade sprinkled some holy water, and the force let go; then a child’s voice was heard crying, “Pardon, mercy.” Notwithstanding all these disquieting events he did not ask to be allowed to go home (Podmore, 1908, p152-153).

Obviously, such spectral shenanigans were a bit disconcerting, but young Gustave and Bunel were priests-in-training, so it seems like they recognized that one of the job requirements was doing battle with evil spirits.  Now, poltergeists have been known to land people in the loony bin or hospital, but rarely do they wind up in the courtroom.  Legal trouble started when Gustave reported that the phantom in the blouse bore a remarkable resemblance to a shepherd swain (swain being a generic term for a “country youth”, which is a little bit odd since Thorel was aged 40 at the time) from nearby Anzouville-l’EsveDal named Felix Thorel, to whom Tinel had introduced the boys.  Bunel reported that his compatriot Gustave had a “nervous attack” and lost consciousness immediately after meeting Thorel, making the apparent similarity of the apparition even more suspicious.  To make matters worse, rumor had it that Thorel had boasted of his powers as a sorcerer.

This was enough to convince Father Tinel that something was awry at the Circle K.  He accused Thorel of producing the bizarre phenomena in his parsonage and tormenting his two pupils.  By Tinel’s account Thorel promptly knelt and begged his and the boy’s pardon, but Tinel was not feeling particularly charitable.  Priests don’t dig the sorcery thing.  Tinel demanded that Thorel’s employer (unsurprisingly named Mr. Pain) dismiss the shepherd.  Not entirely satisfied that Thorel had been thoroughly reprimanded, Tinel beat him with a stick “to the effusion of blood”.  Poor Thorel was now accused of sorcerous nefariousness, bloody, and unemployed.  This was mid-19th Century France, so they weren’t burning witches anymore and the occasional beating of the underclass was nothing to write home about.  What you really didn’t want was to be unemployed and indigent in Normandy.  “Thereupon Thorel, having lost his place as shepherd in consequence of such suspicions, brought suit for defamation of character against the curate, laying the damages at twelve hundred francs. The trial was commenced before the justice of the peace of Yerville on the 7th of January, 1851” (Owen, 1860, p272).  And it was at this trial that the bizarre details of the poltergeist’s behavior were described and written down for all posterity in the records of the court, including a parade of notable and respected witness to the strange goings on in the Tinel household.  Tinel and his students were deposed, outlining the character of the poltergeist activity after the initial rappings.

On Tuesday, the 26th of November, 1850, as the two children were at work in one of the rooms in the upper story of the parsonage, about five o’clock in the afternoon, they heard knockings, resembling light blows of a hammer, on the wainscoting of the apartment. These knockings were continued daily throughout the week, at the same hour of the afternoon. On the next Sunday, the 1st of December, the blows commenced at mid-day; and it was on that day that the curate first thought of addressing them. He said, “Strike louder!” Thereupon the blows were repeated more loudly. They continued thus all that day. On Monday, December 2, the elder of the two boys said to the knockings, “Beat time to the tune of Maitre Corbeau,” and they immediately obeyed. The next day, Tuesday, December 3, the boy having related the above circumstances to M. Tinel, he, (Tinel,) being much astonished, resolved to try, and said, “Play us Maitre Corbeau,” and the knockings obeyed. The afternoon of that day, the knockings became so loud and violent that a table in the apartment moved somewhat, and the noise was so great that one could hardly stay in the room. Later in the same afternoon, the table moved from its place three times. The curate’s sister, after assuring herself that the children had not moved it, replaced it; but twice it followed her back again. The noises continued, with violence, all that week (Owen, 1860, p272).

It’s rare to find a poltergeist that will take requests from your playlist, and if it wasn’t for the various ghostly assaults that followed, it might have just been an intriguing novelty.  Alas, poltergeists are temperamental critters, and the earnestness with which it made its presence known escalated.  Witnesses emerged to attest to the ensuing nastiness that plagued Father Tinel’s humble home.  A M. de Bagnel testified to hearing particular requested tunes beaten by the rappings, and that he could in no way discern the origin.  Another local notable named August Huet, a neighboring proprietor along with the Curate of Limsey and another gentleman, heard similar rappings and were convinced the young boys could not have produced the sounds themselves.  The poltergeist obligingly beat time to the tune of Au Claire de la Lune upon request.  The Mayor of Cideville reported he watched as a set of fireplace tongs and a shovel flew across the room.  The Curate of Saussay testified that upon visiting Tinel’s parsonage he saw hammers and bread move by themselves in manners he could not explain, emphasizing that in regards to the veracity of his testimony that he would Je le signerais de mon sang (“sign it with his own blood”).  A local aristocrat, the Marquis de Mirville, having heard of the disturbances, resolved to investigate them.  Initially he heard scratchings and rappings, but undaunted he resolved to experiment, and described his experience to the court.  The transcripts of the testimony of the Marquis de Mirville outline his findings.

Last Wednesday I went to the Presbytery of Cideville and said to the ’cause,’ “When you wish to reply affirmatively rap once; when you wish to reply negatively rap twice.” Immediately a rap was heard. “Then you will be able to tell me how many letters there are in my name” Eight raps were heard, the last more distinct than the others, apparently to make one understand that it was the last.  “My baptismal name now?” Reply, five raps.  “And now my fore-name which figures on the register of the Civil List, and which no one has hitherto called me by.”  Immediately, seven raps; “and the names of my children, first the eldest;” Five raps,—quite correct, she is called Aline.  “That of the youngest?” Nine raps, a mistake, immediately rectified, for seven raps were struck. She is called Blanche. “Now let us pass to my age; strike as many raps as I have years.” Instantly the raps succeeded each other with such rapidity that I was obliged to stop them in order to count them, and I demanded more slowness; forty-eight raps were then heard very distinctly, the forty-eighth being more accentuated than the others.  “That is not all. How many months do you reckon between the first of January of this year, and the moment I shall be forty-nine?” Three very loud raps and one faint one followed. “What does the faint one mean? Probably half a month?”  One rap. “Good!  But it is not finished. How many days now between that half month and my birthday?” Nine raps, the last being more accentuated. Perfectly correct, I shall be forty-nine on the 24th of April of this year…”Let us pass on to the place of my abode. How many letters are there in its name?”  Eight raps; “and in the name of my Commune? Be careful not to make the usual mistake.”  Ten raps were heard. Now I live in the Commune of Gomerville, the name of which is often written with two m’s, a mistake not made by the ’cause.’ It was demonstrated to me by this, that I had to do with an old acquaintance—I hope not a friend. “Let us pass to music; you are said to be a musician, the other day you sang the first part of Rossini’s Stabat, they say; since you know the first part you ought to know the second part, the bass part Pro peccatis suae gentis; let me hear it.”  Instantly the mysterious agent rapped the rhythm of the first two bars correctly enough, but in the third committed an irregularity which slightly spoiled the rhythm. On my remarking this, it began again, corrected the mistake, and the passage was recognisable. Two or three popular airs, such as, J’ai du bon Tabic, Maitre Corbeau, etc…were articulated rapidly and without any mistake. The other pieces from the Italian repertoire which I demanded, were perfectly an- known to it.  “Come,” I said to it, “you are a poor dilettante. Now follow me if you can.” I then hummed a waltz from Guillaume Tell. It listened at first without doing anything; then followed me exactly while I sang it; and several times during the morning, when we were no longer thinking of it, it came back to the same piece and tried to execute it alone (Lang, 1904, p458-459).

Personally, I think the Marquis’ expectation for the musical acumen of dead guy were overly optimistic, and frankly, were I a specter, I would probably have thrown something at him for his snarky commentary, but one can only expect the merest modicum of social restraint from a 19th Century French aristocrat.  They were just getting over the Revolution after all.  Over a dozen additional witnesses were called, and swore to either experiencing the musical machinations of the poltergeist, objects inexplicably flying about the parsonage, or Tinel’s angry encounter with Felix Thorel.  Final judgement was rendered on February 15th, 1851, the learned judge concluding that the extraordinary phenomena at the Presbytery of Cideville “remain unknown”.  This is of course, a rather irritating official judgement and didn’t really help Thorel.  As Thorel himself had reportedly taken credit for sorcerous activities that caused the poltergeist activity at Tinel’s parsonage, as well as showing contrition before witnesses on two occasions, the court concluded that the defamation suit was frivolous.  Thorel was ordered to pay six Francs in court costs and sent packing.  Meanwhile, there was still a poltergeist to deal with.  Tinel’s superiors in the church ordered the two young students to be removed and situated with another teacher, and immediately the poltergeist activity in the Tinel parsonage ceased.

There are a few lessons here.  First, don’t sue for libel when you’ve gone around singing your own praises as a powerful sorcerer.  Even if you aren’t responsible for local occult activity, you’ll probably be blamed for it.  Second, music does seem to soothe the savage beast and unfortunately few people have tried the musical approach to communicating with a poltergeist.  Third, poltergeist activity always spirals into throwing stuff.  Or getting sucked into a television.  Or some such unsavory end.  Sure, maybe it’s entertaining at first, but inevitably dealing with the angry spirits involves projectiles.  I’m sure there is some sort of obscure fourth lesson about not being a peasant in Normandy.  There’s also a lesson here for poltergeists as well, and it comes from Aristotle, who said, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy”.  Evidently, we don’t get any better at it when we’re dead.

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