“Beware Greeks bearing gifts” – Virgil

I hate humidity.

Contrary to popular opinion, the “Electric Girls of Smyrna” were not an ABBA cover-band, although in retrospect it might have been a more lucrative way to go into show business. Sadly, ABBA would not emerge as a pop sensation for another 133 years and were Swedish.  Not that there is anything wrong with that.  They make good meatballs and cheap furniture. Try as I might, I cannot confirm the actual names of the Electric Girls, but they were Greek, from Smyrna on the Aegean coast of Anatolia (the modern city of İzmir, Turkey since about 1930).  Smyrna was originally a Greek colony with the advantage (or disadvantage, depending on your perspective) of being a snazzy port city with good connections to inland river routes, which is why it got successively conquered by the Lydians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, recaptured by the Greeks in World War I, and finally occupied by the Turkish Army at the end of the Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922). The Electric Girls of Smyrna arrived on the scene much too early.  This is why you always need a good agent.  Their contributions to the mysteries of psychokinesis (influencing physical objects without physical contact) were later overshadowed by the much more popular “Electric Girl of France”, Angelique Cottin in 1846.

In November 1839, the Electric Girls of Smyrna arrived in Marseilles, France, ready to capitalize on their apparent superpowers in an effort to amass a great fortune and perhaps retire comfortably to a nice Greek Island.  This was the heyday of curiosity about Spiritualism, Mesmerism and animal magnetism, so they must have figured they should strike while the iron was hot.  This period in time dovetailed with the burgeoning field of stage magic as entertainment as well as the professionalization of skepticism (as a response to the strange claims of Spiritualists).

Immediately on their arrival, several persons, including various men of science, and professors, visited them and ascertained the following phenomena: First, “The girls stationed themselves facing each other, at the ends of a large table, keeping at a distance from it of one or two feet, according to their electrical dispositions. Second, “When a few minutes had elapsed, a crackling, like that of electric fluid spreading over gilt paper, was heard, when, Third, “The table received a strong shake, which always made it advance from the elder to the younger sister. Fourth, “A key, nails, or any piece of iron placed on the table, instantaneously stopped the phenomena. Fifth, ”When the iron was adapted to the under part of the table, it produced no effect upon the experiment. Sixth, “Saving this singularity, the facts observed constantly followed the known laws of electricity, whether glass insulators were used, or whether one of the girls wore silk garments. In the latter case, the electric properties of both were neutralized. Such was the state of matters for some days after the arrival of the young Greeks; but, Seventh, “The temperature having become cooler, and the atmosphere having loaded itself with humidity, all perceptible electric virtue seemed to have deserted them” (Rogers, 1853, p100-102)

You just can’t trust the weather, but it’s fascinating to note that the electrical properties of the girls seemed to follow patterns consistent with natural laws of electricity and magnetism.  This is of course the problem with a lot of strange phenomena – when they are inconsistent with our understanding of the natural world, they are declared to be obviously non-existent, a hoax, or a parlor trick.  When the phenomena is perfectly consistent with physical laws, the anomaly is similarly declared to be a hoax or parlor trick.  Talk about having it both ways.  As a consequence, the Electric Girls presumably returned to Smyrna and were never to be heard from again.

One may conceive the melancholy of these girls, and the disappointment of the two Greeks, their relations, who have come with them in order to share their anticipated wealth – Marseilles Letter, Sept. 1839 (The Mirror, 1839, p262).

Talented stage magicians have long been able to simulate psychokinetic effects, thus for a good century or so we’ve pretty much assumed that such manifestations of strange talents are mere hokum.  There is a certain arrogance in imagining that because we can reproduce an effect through natural means or simple trickery, that no such effect might exist in another form.  Sleight of hand is as much a tool of the huckster as it is of the skeptic.  We can sleep comfortably having restored order to our little universe, but as Charles Baudelaire said (repeated in reference to Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects), “The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist”.

Rogers, E. C. Philosophy of Mysterious Agents, Human and Mundane: Or, The Dynamic Laws And Relations of Man. Embracing the Natural Philosophy of Phenomena Styled “spiritual Manifestations”. Boston: J. P. Jewett and Company, 1853.
“The Electric Girls of Smyrna”. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, And Instruction v34. London, J. Limbird, 1839.
“The Electric Girls of Smyrna”. Niles’ National Register v36. Washington City: William Ogden Niles, 1839.