The history of the paranormal is littered with mysterious individuals who at times seemingly came out of nowhere to baffle and beguile, before fading off into the mists of time. These people step out from beyond the fringes of what we know to demonstrate abilities or phenomena beyond our comprehension, tease us with answers to the unknown realms that lurk on the periphery, and then are forgotten to leave their mysteries swirling in the wake of their departures. Such cases are often murky, sometimes frustratingly lost to time, and always baffling. One such case of a particularly mysterious historical case of such a puzzling person is that of a poor peasant girl in France, surrounded by strange, ghostly phenomena, who would go on from her humble life to become a great unsolved mystery.
The tale revolves around an Angelique Cottin, who in 1846 was a young, 14-year-old peasant girl living in the village of Bouvigny, near La Perrière, France, when her life and that of those around her would be forever changed as she launched herself into the realm of legendary unexplained mysteries. In January of that year, Angelique was at work weaving silk into gloves on a large wooden weaving frame when the whole thing began to shiver and shake with increasing intensity, before actually sliding across the floor, despite is heavy weight and the fact that that no one was touching it except Angelique just moments before. It was noticed that when Angelique approached the frame it would seem to actually retreat from her, almost as if it were a living thing recoiling from her presence, which was all enough to unsettle the others who were with her at the time. The frightened witnesses to the inexplicable event told adults, but at the time no one believed them.
In the coming days more similar phenomena began to follow Angelique around, such as chairs moving out of her way and even at one point a table that seemed to levitate in the air in her presence. There were also papers that would flutter and blow away near her, as if by a gust of wind, and pens or other small objects would also dance about or retreat from her touch. Angelique’s parents, as well as local residents, witnessed these incidents and rumors began to swirl that the girl was possessed by the Devil. Her parent’s would subsequently bring her to a local priest for an exorcism, but her problem was deemed to be more of a physical phenomenon rather than the work of the Devil for reasons that are unclear, and she was sent home in a doctor’s care.
The doctor in question went in rather skeptical of the outlandish stories he had heard, but he would soon witness these odd phenomena for himself, and they would indeed steadily grow in intensity. Objects would be flung from her lightest touch with great force, when she sat in a chair it would rattle and buck to the point that even a grown man couldn’t hold it down, a heavy table was seen to lift and hover in the air in front of startled witnesses, and other furniture would also shake, quake, and move about when the girl was near it. On one occasion a heavy container flew through the air with a man sitting upon it. Angelique’s bed would also often levitate, shake, or move about while she was in it, and the activity in general was noticed to be more pronounced and stronger at night.
Other phenomena that gravitated towards her were cold gusts that would whip up in her presence even though no windows were open, and perhaps most unsettling of all was that those who made contact with the girl would often receive potent electrical shocks that would send them reeling, and this would sometimes happen even if they didn’t touch her at all. On some occasions these various phenomena would be joined by convulsive fits that Angelique would experience, which were at times so fierce that she was injured by her wild flailing, and during which no one could seem to calm her or hold her down. Oddly, it was noticed that metal objects were not affected by these mysterious forces, and they were also negated by simply standing on a carpet or waxed cloth, while the phenomena conversely got much more powerful when she stood on bare earth.
All of this continued relentlessly, sometimes ceasing for a couple of days only to come back seemingly even more violent. At this point it was decided that there was not much they could do for her, and the attending doctor suggested submitting Angelique, who was now being widely called “The Electrical Girl” and the “Poltergeist Girl,” for scientific testing of her powers by academics. For this purpose, Angelique was taken to the big city of Paris, where she was examined by an M. Cholet and Dr. Sanchon, and later the physicist Francois Arago, all appointed by the Académie des Sciences. The researchers were quickly able to observe all manner of phenomena from the girl, most notably her seemingly electrical charge and ability to repel and move objects simply by touching or brushing up against them, to the point that Arago would later write that Angelique could “’touch no object without breaking it or throwing it upon the ground.” Dr. Sanchon would say of some of the various observed strangeness:
A chair which I was holding as firmly as possible with my foot and both hands, was suddenly torn from my grasp when she sat upon it. A little strip of paper which I balanced on my finger was blown away several times as though by a sudden rush of wind. A dining-table of considerable size, and quite heavy, was several times displaced and pushed by the mere contact of the girl’s clothes. A small paper wheel, placed vertically or horizontally upon its axis, received a rapid motion from the emanations which proceeded from the child’s wrist and elbow-joint. A very large and heavy sofa, on which I was seated, was violently pushed against the wall when the young girl placed herself beside me. A chair held to the ground by strong persons, on which I sat in a manner so as to occupy but half of it, was suddenly pushed from under me when the girl sat upon the remaining half. A remarkable fact is, that each time the chair was raised; it seemed to adhere to the girl’s clothes; she followed it for an instant, and then disengaged herself. Two little balls of elder-wood, or small pieces of quill suspended by a silk thread, were disturbed, attracted, and finally separated one from the other. The girl can hardly touch anything with her left hand without causing it to be thrown some distance; when her clothes come in contact with pieces of furniture, she attracts, displaces, and finally overturns them.
Other oddities were observed about these powers that seemed to cling to Angelique. For instance, it was noticed that these strange manifestations almost always occurred in the evening, after she had eaten and between the hours of 7 and 9 PM, and that her left hand was more powerful and thrumming with this crackling, inscrutable energy than her right, with the left side of her body in general noticeably warmer at all times. It was also noticed that she had a strange relationship with magnets, able to cause magnetic needles to move to follow her arm without even touching them, and it was also found that it she was to touch the north pole of a magnet she would receive a powerful, repulsive shock, whereas touching the south pole produced no effect at all. With regards to Angelique’s reactions to what was happening to her it was noted that she was constantly very nervous, and that the onset of the phenomena caused in her great fear and panic. Sanchon would say of this:
As soon as it becomes manifest, she rapidly endeavors to escape, as though repulsed by some contrary force. It is only when she thinks of nothing, or when her thoughts are otherwise engaged, that the phenomenon is most sudden and intense. Each phenomenon is marked by extreme fright in the girl, flight, and a general air of alarm.
Arago would come to the conclusion that Angelique’s powers had something to do with some sort of electromagnetic phenomenon, possibly triggered through some mental trauma or malady, and he would write of the case in an article in The Journal des debates on February of 1846. At this point, Arago was thoroughly convinced that the phenomena were real, and that there were mysterious forces beyond our understanding at work roiling within Angelique, to the point that he strongly urged the formation of formal committee of enquiry to examine the girl and corroborate his own findings, but they were mostly unable to observe the varied phenomena that Arago had spoken so enthusiastically about. The only thing the rather skeptical committee was able to witness that might have been unexplained phenomena was that chairs that Angelique sat on would shake and vibrate, often violently, but even this they were skeptical of, and the committee would write:
It was affirmed that Mdlle. Cottin exercised a most intense action of repulsion upon bodies of all kinds whenever a portion of her garments touched them. Accounts were even given of heavy tables being overturned by the simple contact of a silk thread. No effect of this kind was manifested before the committee.
In the narratives communicated to the Academy it was affirmed that a magnetized needle, under the influence of the girl’s arm, performed rapid oscillations, and finally fixed itself quite far from the magnetic meridian. When tried before the committee, a needle, delicately suspended in the same way and under the same circumstances, experienced neither permanent nor momentary displacement.
The committee need not enumerate these useless attempts. It will simply content itself with declaring that the only one of the alleged facts which was realised before them was that concerning the sudden and violent movements of chairs in which the young girl seated herself. Upon serious suspicions arising as to the manner in which these movements occurred, the committee has decided that they shall be submitted to an attentive examination. It frankly announces that the investigations tended to discover the fact that certain habitual manœuvres hidden in the feet and hands could have produced the observed fact.
The lack of spectacular displays that the other scientists had witnessed was then explained away by M. Cholet as possibly stemming from her somehow losing her abilities, and he informed the committee that they would be informed when the powers returned in full force. However, as of April of 1846 it seemed that the enigmatic forces that had surrounded Angelique were apparently gone, either dissipated or dormant, and because of this no further tests could be conducted, at least not in their controlled, clinical setting, which stirred up a great amount of skepticism in the committee, and they would give a rather damning conclusion on the whole matter, saying:
M. Cholet now declared that the young girl had lost her powers of attraction and repulsion, and that we should be notified as soon as they were restored. Many days have passed since, yet the committee has received no intelligence. We have learned, however, that Mdlle. Cottin is daily received in drawing-rooms where she repeats her experiments. After having fully weighed the circumstances, the committee is of the opinion that the communications transmitted to the Academy on the subject of Mdlle. Angélique Cottin should be considered as never having been sent in.
Interestingly, in the meantime although she had supposedly lost her abilities Angelique was travelling about with her family putting on shows where she would cause objects to move and jump just as she supposedly always had. It is believed that at this point even by those who had studied her that she had probably resorted to trickery to try and make some money off of her reputation, but to them this did not mean the powers were never real. Arago would adamantly insist for the rest of his life that they had witnessed powers of the human mind that we can only begin to guess at, and he maintained the conclusion that, as he says, “under peculiar conditions, the human organism gives forth a physical power which, without visible instruments, lifts heavy bodies, attracts or repels them, according to a law of polarity, -overturns them, and produces the phenomena of sound.”
In the end, it is hard to know how much of Angelique Cottin’s powers were real or how much weight to give to the story. It is obvious that she failed her tests by the committee, but could this have possibly really been because they were fading by that time? If so, how could she manage to continue displaying them for money to crowds? Was she at that point tricking them with sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors? Did she ever have these powers to begin with? It is perhaps tempting to write it all off as a sham pulled off by Angelique and her family, but it is known that she was quite carefully studied and witnessed to perform these feats in front of the doctors and researchers who did vouch for and were dumbfounded by her abilities. Could she have so easily and consistently fooled these trained professionals?
While we will probably never know if Angelique’s powers were real or not, it is interesting to think about if they were, as it ties in nicely with a prevalent theory in paranormal circles that some ghostly and poltergeist activity could be caused by the vast power of the human mind lashing out at the outside world, be it intentionally or subconsciously. If this is indeed true, then the Cottin case could possibly be a prime example of this in action, as the phenomena on display seem to obviously have come from her, for whatever reasons, they have all of the hallmarks of poltergeist activity, and they could most certainly be mistaken for ghostly phenomena. In this sense, this is an important case worth considering when talking about the nature of what poltergeists are in the first place. Unfortunately, there is little we can do to unravel just what was going on in this perplexing historical case and we are left with many questions. What exactly happened here and if these forces orbiting Angelique were real then what were they and why did they suddenly stop? What unleashed them and where did they come from? Is this a case of mind powers, ghosts, just a fraud that got a bit too out of hand, or something else entirely? There is no way to really know, and the case of Angelique Cottin serves as a good case study for the paranormal researcher and skeptic alike.