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The Dowsing Detective

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The Dowsing Detective


Psychic detectives are not a modern phenomenon writes GEOFFREY ELGAR. Just over 300 years ago a French dowser tracked criminals for hundreds of miles.


Towards the end of the 17th century, a young stonemason from Saint Marcellin in the French province of Dauphine caused great controversy. Jacques Aymar Vernay (right) is believed to be the first person to have tracked down criminals by use of the dowsing rod. Dowsing or divining - the art of locating water, minerals or other hidden objects hidden in the ground - was already well-established. The practice was known to the ancient Greeks and other early peoples, yet was not seriously developed until the 16th century when it became widespread in France in spite of opposition from Catholic Church authorities who believed it had associations with witchcraft. Martin Luther included the use of the rod in his list of acts which broke the First Commandment. In the French vernacular, the word for 'dowser' is 'sourcier' (ie the finder of sources of streams) and by eliminating the 'u', the word becomes 'sorcier,' meaning sorcerer or witch.


On 25 July 1692, a brutal murder took place in Lyon; a wine-merchant and his wife were slain with a serpe (a billhook or scythe) in their cellar at Place-Neuve-Saint-Jean. A rifled strongbox was found at the couple's apartment; écus, gold louis and a silver belt were missing. The murderers had panicked and fled.


Local people were shocked and remembered talk of Aymar (as he was generally known). At this time he was aged 30 and, over a period of 20 years, had gained a reputation for being able to find anything - people as well as water and minerals. At the age of 18, he located the body of a woman who had been killed and hidden in a wine barrel for four months. His dowsing rod had twitched when pointed at her husband and he promptly confessed to the crime.


In 1692, the King's Procurator brought Vernay to Lyon, to the scene of the crime. According to contemporary accounts, Aymar walked around the cellar and quickly located where several items, including the murder weapon, were buried. Onlookers gasped as his stick twisted violently in his hands when passed over the spot where the two bodies had lain. Vernay himself was said to have nearly fainted.


He then made his way through the streets, carrying some of the murdered couple's clothes and followed by a curious and excited crowd. They came to a city gate leading to a bridge over the river Rhône, but it was locked for the night. The following day, Aymar crossed the river with three officers and, guided by the rod, made their way downstream.


The group were turned back from an army camp for lack of papers of authority and they eventually came to a gardener's house. Inside, the rod twisted over an empty wine bottle, some chairs and a table. Aymar declared that they were looking for three fugitives; they had broken into the house and consumed a litre (2 pints) of wine. This was confirmed by the gardener's children.


The chase continued southwards along the Rhône valley for over 150 miles (241km) to Beaucaire, a small town lying at the base of a rocky cliff on the edge of the Camargue, and to the gates of the local prison. The co-operative warden ordered a line-up of 13 recently-convicted prisoners. Aymar passed each one with his dowsing rod and it moved when he stood in front of a young, lame hunchback who had been jailed an hour earlier for petty larceny.


Aymar was convinced the man had taken part in the murders at Lyon but was not the chief offender. The hunchback was taken back to Lyon. At first he denied ever having visited the city but, when taken to the scene of the crime, he broke down. He claimed he had not committed the murders but had been paid by the two slayers, southerners from Provence, to help them carry away their spoils.


The search for the criminals resumed. This time, Aymar, accompanied by a troop of archers, reached Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. With the aid of his rod, he determined that the fugitives had eaten at a particular inn and embarked on a boat for the Italian port of Genoa. As the officers were not permitted to go beyond the confines of France, and Aymar was worried about how the Italian Inquisition would treat a dowser (despite the precaution of certificates confirming he was a good Catholic), the search was abandoned at this point.


The arrested hunchback was discovered to be a pirate from Toulon. He was tried before 30 judges and condemned to be broken alive on the wheel - possibly the last person in Europe to be executed this way. His death sentence was read out in front of the wine-cellar and executed in front of a large crowd.


It was widely believed at that time that violent actions and even objects left persistent traces on their environment and that objects retained traces of their owners or people who had handled them. 'Reading' those traces is, today, known as psychometry. But Aymar's feat of following a trail for the better part of a week over hundreds of miles through crowded streets, over flowing water, and later on horseback, is not easily explained. Aymar repeated the feat in other areas, leading to the capture of other criminals.


Experiments showed that the rod would work for others too. Soon, misgivings were voiced, maintaining that if the method was relied upon to decide questions of guilt or innocence, it could lead to injustices. Pierre Lebrun, a priest of oratory, wrote to Father Nicolas Malebranche, the famous Cartesian scholar, informing him of "a strange practice that seems to have taken over nearly the whole population of Grenoble and the Dauphine." What concerned Lebrun was belief that a dowsing rod acted selectively, moving over something the user specifically wanted to find and nothing else - eg when seeking water it would ignore metal and vice versa. Malebranche was against the art being used to find material objects or deciding moral questions, whereas Lebrun tended to support its use in tracing water or minerals.


Furious public controversy ensued. Aymar was summoned to Lyon on 3 September 1692 to be tested by the distinguished physician Pierre Garnier before witnesses. A report was published - Philosophical Treatise - in which Garnier claimed that Aymar's achievements were due to natural causes. He argued that tiny particles of matter exhaled by murderers at the moment of the crime were of a different pattern to those normally emitted. They acted by penetrating the skin of the dowser to cause fermentation in his blood, increasing his heartbeat and causing convulsions. In his view, the corpuscles did not affect the rod directly but passed into the pores of the hand, exerting pressure and causing the rod to twist. He coined two new terms, anticipating what is known today as a magnetic field: 'murderous matter' (particles detected at the scene of the crime) and 'felonious matter.'


Garnier was supported by Dr Pierre Chauvin who, in a letter, declared that the corpuscles remained in the vicinity, no matter how much the wind or other causes could have moved them. Chauvin disagreed about the particles directly affecting the dowser, suggesting, instead, that they stimulated his "animal instincts" causing the unconscious flexing of the finger muscles.


Soon afterwards, the Abbé de Vallemont, Pierre le Lorrain, opposed these theories in his book Occult Physics, or Treatise on the Divining Rod. It caused a sensation when published in Paris in 1693. De Vallemont believed that the dowsing process could be a great boon to mankind. Aymar was brought to Paris by the Prince de Condé to be tested once again, this time by members of the Academy of Sciences. Six holes were dug in a garden; four were filled with different metals, the fifth with gravel, and the sixth left empty, and all grassed over. Aymar located the gravel and the empty hole, but not the metals.


Aymar also failed to trace the murderer of an archer-sentry, killed by a swordsman a few days before. Significantly, his rod failed to turn over the exact spot where the victim had lain. Aymar claimed that the rod would not move if the swordsman had been angry or drunk when the attack occurred, or if he had already confessed.


The explanation seemed unconvincing and Father Lebrun was quick to seize the opportunity. He brought out a book of his own, Letters which expose the illusion of Philosophers in regard to the Divining Rod, published anonymously in Paris in 1693. He made use of information passed to him by his superior, Cardinal le Camus of Grenoble, who opposed the use of dowsing to decide moral questions. A mandamus, or writ, was issued against the rod.


A series of letters, some anonymous, began to appear in the popular Paris weekly Mercure Galant. In April 1693, a Letter on the Occult Philosophy of the diving Rod was followed in August by The Divining Rod justified and its action shown to be Natural by Claude Corniers. They reveal that Aymar was, unfortunately, easily led into situations which compromised him. Le Camus told how a number of people had persuaded the dowser to walk along their streets in order to tell if the ladies of any houses had "soiled their honour". He wrote that the result of this "dowser-voyeurism soon spread through the town, causing so much slander and calumny, and creating such an uproar in several families, that the Devil had good cause to rejoice."


In 1694 another priest, Claude François Menestrier, included an essay on the subject in his book The Philosophy of Enigmatic Appearances, inviting letters from anyone who could provide information about how dowsing worked. He concluded that the rod could answer questions about past and present happenings but was unreliable for predictions. He, too, opposed its use in determining innocence or guilt.


To Lebrun's dismay, the first popular guide - The Rod of Jacob by Jean Nicolas - was a best-seller. He toiled for years to produce another anti-dowsing book, Critical History of Superstitious Practices, in 1702 and, no doubt, he was encouraged when de Vallemont's book was placed on the Inquisition's prohibited list on 26 October 1701.


But dowsing flourished in France, regardless, as a large number of priors, abbots and curates, as well as the Bishop of Grenoble, studied the art and practised it themselves. Aymar returned home where he continued to obtain results, though he was never able to completely re-establish his reputation. From being a national hero, he gradually drifted into obscurity. He nevertheless deserves a place in the history of dowsing for having extended its use to the location of human beings, even if, after 300 years, the exact methods by which he was able to achieve this are still open to debate.


'The Dowsing Detective' by Geoffrey Elgar

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