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It was a fine spring day in 1857.
The charming little town of Morzine, located in south-eastern Savoy (then an Italian province), was already well-known for its panoramic views of the Alps and the religious piety of the people who lived there. A ten-year old girl named Peronne Tavernier was eagerly preparing for her first communion when, on March 14 of that year, she reportedly saw a young girl falling into a river. Although the girl was unharmed, Peronne became increasingly uneasy during the day and, while at school, collapsed into a strange stupor where she reportedly "lay as one dead for some hours." After being carried home, she regained consciousness but collapsed again a few days later. Peronne's strange fits began occurring more frequently until April when she and another girl,were found unconscious together where they had been herding goats on the hillside. Afterward, both children began showing similar fits including strange behaviour while in a trance state. Eyewitnesses reported seeing the girls stretching out their hands and receiving an invisible letter. On awakening, they reported visions of the Virgin Mary and the Devil.
As the fits grew worse, the two girls both began swearing blasphemously and screaming that serpents were wrapping around them. The convulsions were so bad that three adult men were needed to hold Peronne down. More remarkably, they began accusing several men in the village of "bewitching" them and made predictions that others would be possessed as well. Peronne also predicted her father's death from witchcraft (he did die shortly afterward but the cause of death isn't recorded). Other people in the village began to show similar symptoms including a fifteen-year old girl named Julie Plagnat who went into convulsions and claimed to be possessed by seven devils. Julie also cut herself severely with a hatchet during one of her seizures (one of her possessing devils claimed responsibility). Although the parish priest was actually skeptical about the possession cases, the villagers loudly complained about his disbelief.
Peronne's brother, Joseph Tavernier, grew despondent after his father's death and claimed that the Devil was preventing him from eating. Joseph resisted any attempt at forced feeding and eventually starved to death. Over the course of the next few months, more than twenty-seven cases of demonic possession were recorded in Morzine. The symptoms were rarely the same in each case. While some reported being chased by black dogs that only they could see, others reported visions of men being transformed into animals. There were also cases of villagers "speaking in tongues". When a physician was sent to Morzine to examined one of the possessed women, he reported that "the devils in her" taunted him by saying that his medicine was useless and only exorcism could drive them out.
As panic grew over the possession cases, suspicion fell on those villagers who Peronne and the others had accused of witchcraft. One elderly shoemaker in particular, Jean Berger, was attacked by an angry mob armed with scythes and nearly killed. Others were forced to close their businesses out of fear since many villagers were demanding that the "magicians" be burned to end Morzine's suffering. The main suspect was a defrocked priest who had been driven out of Morzine years before and had supposedly cursed the town as a result. Despite a bizarre ceremony performed by the villagers to kill the ex-priest (who was in hiding in Geneva), there was no relief from the possessions. Even exorcisms did little to calm the villagers.
By 1860, France had annexed Savoy and the French government took an interest in the odd happenings in Morzine. The government dispatched two prominent psychiatrists to examine the cases in depth. One of them, Dr Constans, was the inspector-general of lunatic asylums across France who wrote the first scientific analysis of the Morzine possession epidemic. Of the one hundred and twenty cases of possession that were reported, Constans examined sixty-four in depth and concluded that there was no set pattern to the possession cases. While the overwhelming majority of cases were women, they varied widely in age and the symptoms that they presented. Some spoke in voices while others showed bizarre convulsions (including acrobatic leaps that astonished the ones watching). Dr. Constans had the worst cases sent to asylums and threatened the other villagers with heavy fines but the epidemic dragged on.
Finally, by 1865, the French government had enough of the strange happenings in Morzine. Dr. Constans returned with a full detachment of soldiers and a replacement priest for the Morzine parish. Armed with full police powers by the French government, Constans declared martial law on the town. All accusations of sorcery were punished with heavy fines and villagers showing signs of possession were ordered to return to normal or face exile. As before, the worst cases were sent to asylums and the rest were scattered as far from Morzine as possible. Although the government measures were harsh, they apparently did the trick. Despite reports of fresh outbreaks in other parts of France where the worst cases had been sent, the Morzine epidemic was essentially over.
But not completely. A few years later, Professor Joseph Tissot, a philosophy professor from Dijon, visited Morzine to research the epidemic and its aftermath.While Tissot noted that the government action had been effective in bringing the town under control, there were still some remaining possession cases. In a remarkable series of experiments, Tissot carefully examined these cases (he even secretly dosed them with holy water to observe their reaction) and concluded that the possessions were due to simple hysteria. He also examined the eyewitness reports and Tissot wrote about his findings in a book which has since become a classic of early skepticism.
As you might expect, the skeptical tone of the book offended many of those churchmen who had believed that the Morzine epidemic was real. Some of them even argued that the holy water test had failed because Satan was too cunning to fall for such a trick! While Tissot's book stirred up controversy, it died down quickly enough. As Tissot had prophetically pointed out, the expansion of the main road into Morzine ended the isolation that had encouraged the epidemic and the town settled down to becoming just another rural village.
While there have been other episodes of mass hysteria before and since, the Morzine epidemic represents one of the first case to be formally studied from a scientific perspective. Given the rash of anti-witch hysteria currently occurring in other parts of the world, it seems more important than ever to recognize the dangers of suggestion and superstition when allowed to go to extremes.
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