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Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Sugar Out of Nowhere

     A major intention of this blog was to rescue unusual stories which were likely to be overlooked and forgotten. Now it seems that every time I decide I have run out of material, and it is time to put the blog into hibernation, something new comes up. For example, I have just finished reading an undeservedly neglected book, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Herbert Thurston. Fr. Thurston embodied the unusual combination of Jesuit priest and member of the Society for Psychical Research. He investigated mediums, ghosts, and poltergeists, and between 1919 and 1938 he examined the evidence for extraordinary, even paranormal phenomena associated with nuns, monks, and other mystics. I could spend a lot of time on these issues, but what caught my eye was the case of a young woman who was definitely not a saint. However, I have in the past written about "apports", or objects which appear out of thin air during poltergeist infestations, one of which involved the mysterious appearance of sugar. This present case bears some resemblance, although no poltergeist activity was involved. It is best that I quote Thurston's own words.
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     It was the case of a girl of eighteen subject to frequent hysterical attacks, who in 1840 was a patient in a religious institution in Normandy. According to the detailed account written by the chaplain, this girl, when in a state of trance, received, or pretended to receive, lumps of sugar and other dainties from some mysterious source. The sugar undoubtedly was there, but where it came from nobody could find out. They repeatedly searched her and everything belonging to her, but discovered nothing. The sugar never became visible until it was quite close to her hands (On ne le voyait que losqu'il était très près des mains), and she declared that it came from heaven and was given to her by our Blessed Lady, or by the Infant Jesus, or by St. John the Baptist. Thinking she might have some confederate in the institution in which she was detained, they removed her to another house, but the phenomena did not cease. On the contrary, under the new conditions the sugar appeared more frequently than before, and she is said to have received it as often as twenty times in an hour. The girl also professed to be marked with the stigmata [ie of Christ's wounds], not in the hands, but in the breast and in the feet. A trickle of blood came from the wounds every Friday.
    In order to make sure [says the account from which I quote] that she had not made the wounds herself and had done nothing to re-open them, the foot was tightly bandaged, the bandage being sewn up in such a way that she could not have removed it without betraying the fact. Further, an unconsecrated host [a communion wafer] was placed under the bandage to prevent her stabbing the wound undetected by means of a pin or needle, but on the Friday evening it was found that blood had flowed from the wound, that the bandage had not been moved or interfered with, and that the host was quite intact just as it had been placed there.
     This girl [the chaplain goes on] is not a Saint, she a appears to be half-witted, but of that I have my doubts. There is reason to think her both spiteful and sly.
     Obviously in this case everything points to imposture, and the precautions adopted to detect it were probably quite inadequate.
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     The source quoted by Thurston was P. J. C. Debreyne, Essai sur la Théologie Morale (Paris, 1843, 2nd Edit.), pp 424-6. However, judging from the 1845 edition published by Google Books, the correct pages were 345-7. Thurston's summary is a pretty good paraphrase of the French. The chaplain, in fact, witnessed the phenomenon with his own eyes, and tasted the sugar, which was of high quality.
     Thurston's opinion that "everything points to imposture" appears to be based on his "gut reaction", but is it true? Let us examine the case more closely.
     The girl experienced some of the stigmata. In his chapter on the subject, Thurston concluded, correctly in my opinion, that this sort of thing is psychosomatic ie it is the effect of the mind on the body. After all, if a savage can will himself to die because a witchdoctor points a bone at him, a "civilised" person should be able to will herself to bleed.
     Secondly, the sugar apports appeared during what Thurston calls a "trance", and the chaplain somnabulisme ie sleepwalking. In other words, an altered state of consciousness, probably without much awareness of her surroundings. This does not, of course, rule out imposture. She might, literally, have not known what she was doing.
     However, for imposture to work, three conditions must have been present: she must have been adept at sleight of hand, she must have first hidden the objects on her person, and she must have obtained them in the first place.
    Sleight of hand is a difficult skill, and requires considerable practice - but perhaps she learned it early in life. Hiding the sugar cubes on her person would not have been easy, considering that her clothing and effects were searched. Also, remember that she alternated between normal consciousness and the "trance". If the imposture occurred during a trance state, then presumably so did the hiding. Wouldn't you expect the girl to find the sugar herself and wonder about it?
     As far as obtaining the sugar goes, remember that she lived in a hospice under supervision. She could only obtain it herself from the pantry, or some confederate who was in on the act. In the latter case, the confederate would have to deliver it to her during her normal state of consciousness so that she could consume it during a trance. I'm sure you can see some of the complications involved. In any case, one would expect the staff to notice the diminution of the sugar store. Also, when they moved her to a new hospice, she would have to learn where the sugar was kept and find a new method of obtaining it or find a new confederate. Yet the phenomenon actually increased when she was transferred.
    No, it appears we still have a serious mystery on our hands. Also, as mentioned before, similar apports have occurred during poltergeist infestations, and poltergeists are often thought to be the outworkings of the subconscious mind.

   I intend, at a later date, to deal with another aspect of Thurston's book, namely levitation. Indeed, I originally intended to discuss a lot of his examples. However, it became obvious that this would require paraphrasing large sections of his work, because he is at pains to establish the accuracy of the reports studied, as well as citing similar apparently paranormal phenomena in completely secular settings, thus reducing the likelihood that they are "miraculous".
   I would suggest, therefore, that you read the book yourself. It can be downloaded for free. (Don't confuse it with a book of the same title by Montague Summers.) Some of the phenomena are truly extraordinary, although fully documented, so as:
  • faces glowing, such as reported for Moses in the Bible,
  • bodies producing perfume,
  • people, both religious and secular, apparently immune to fire or molten metal,
  • corpses which do not decay, and which even bleed when cut,
  • seeing without eyes,
  • living without eating (again, with both religious and secular examples), and
  • most extraordinary of all: the multiplication of food, as with the Biblical feeding of the five thousand, but which nevertheless is better attested than you might think.
    Read it all.


  1. Very interesting, except that Thurston's book isn't to be downloaded for free at the link.

    Best regards,

    Theo Paijmans

    1. Thanks for pointing it out. The truth is, I did download it for free, but when I went to look for it online, I couldn't find the link I had used. The only advice I can give is to do an online search for the PDF.

  2. I couldn't find your e-mail address, but I would very much appreciate it if you could mail me the pdf of Thurston's work, as I would very much like to study it - and I can't download it from the link you posted here.

    Best regards,

    Theo Paijmans

  3. Sorry for the delay in responding. I suggest you give me your e-mail address as a comment. Since it has to be approved by me before it is published, I will not reveal it to the world.