The Wonderful Corot by Edward Page Mitchell
On the twentieth of May, 1881 (said John Nicholas, in the smoking
room of the Gallia), I spent the day and part of the night at the house
of my good friend Scott Jordan, President of the Bloomsburgh and
Lycoming Railroad. Jordan has a place in one of the charming suburban
neighborhoods a few miles out of Philadelphia. His character deserves a
He is an intensely superstitious, intensely practical man--a type of
a class much more numerous than people will readily believe. Half a
dozen railroads, conceived, built, equipped, and run to the profit of
their legitimate owners, bear witness to his honesty and sound business
sense. If further evidence of his worldly judgment is wanted, it may be
found in a safe full of marketable securities. In his power of managing
men and handling complicated enterprises, Scott Jordan comes nearer to
my idea of Thomas Brassey than does any other capitalist-contractor I
know. His name on a Board of Direction is a guarantee of conservative,
prudent, yet never timid management. I wish he would undertake the
comptrollership of my modest finances, to the last dollar I possess. He
is a companionable old gentleman, and likes to be considered as a man
of taste. He is in the full sense a man of the world while concerned
with the affairs of this world, yet he spends nearly half his life in
another--a strange world where banjos play and bells ring without human
hands, where ghostly arms are stretched forth from behind the curtains
of the unknown, and dim forms belonging to every age of history meet
face to face.
Jordan's house is the happy hunting ground of all the professional
charlatans in the spirit-raising line. They fasten to him like
leeches--the rappers, the test mediums, the healing mediums, the
physical-manifestation people and the rope tiers, the clairvoyants, the
controlled of every sort, male and female, young and old, prosperous
Jordan has told me that these gentry cost him twelve or fifteen
thousand dollars a year. When they come to his door he welcomes them as
aids in his tireless investigation of truth. They live like princes in
his establishment; every morning brings its honorarium for the
performance of the night before. Jordan royally entertains his
Egyptians and Greeks until he detects them in some piece of imposture
cruder than usual. Then he talks to them like a grieved parent, ships
them off with a free pass over one of his railroads, and is all ready
to go through the same process with the next corner.
You will understand now, gentlemen, that I had looked forward with
considerable interest to my visit to Jordan's house.
Although the family was entertaining several professionals, I found
that I was the only social guest. I make this distinction, but Jordan
never does. You can hardly help liking the old fellow the better for
the magnificent old-school courtesy with which he treats the seediest
humbug of the lot.
"It is they who condescend," he is accustomed to say, somewhat
pompously, "when they honor me with their company; for do they not
bring with them the kings and great poets and artists and the wisest
and best of every century?"
And if Jordan's testimony is accorded the same weight in this matter
as it would have in any railroad suit in any court in Pennsylvania, the
wisest and best of every century, from Socrates down to George
Washington, have, in fact, visited his private cabinet.
At the dinner table I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. John Roberts
and his brother William, the celebrated cabinet mediums; fellows with
villainous faces. I was also presented in due form to Mr. Helder, a
gentleman of consumptive appearance, who is said to possess remarkable
developing powers; a fat lady whose name I have forgotten, but who
practices medicine under inspiration of the eminent Dr. Rush; Mrs.
Blackwell, the materializing medium, and her daughter, introduced as
Mrs. Work, a young lady with black eyes, said to be a flower and
modeling medium of rare promise. At no time did I see any Mr. Work.
I thought the flower and modeling medium looked at me with not
unkind eyes during dinner. The behavior of the other professionals
indicated suspicious reserve. They furtively watched me, as if trying
to guess the depth of my penetration. I contrived to drop a few remarks
that seemed to encourage them. Jordan was jovial, and wholly
unconscious of all this byplay.
In my friend's library after dinner, there was the usual jugglery,
with the gas turned halfway down. A small extension room, separated by
a portiere from the library, served as a cabinet. William Roberts
suffered me to tie him with a clothesline. He produced some of the
commoner manifestations, and then declared that the conditions were
unfavorable. At Jordan's urgent request, Mrs. Blackwell went into the
cabinet. Hands and vague white faces were shown between the curtains.
The lights were turned still lower. Mrs. Work touched the piano,
singing in a very musical voice, "Scots wha hae" and "Coming through
the Rye." The persistent repetition of these airs finally elicited a
full-length figure in a cloud of white, and the apparition was
pronounced to be Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary withdrew and reappeared
several times. At last, as if gaining courage, she ventured forth from
the cabinet, advanced a yard or more into the room, and curtsied.
Jordan called my attention in a whisper to the supernal beauty of her
face and apparel. In a reverent voice he inquired if she would permit a
stranger to approach. A slight inclination of Mary's head granted the
boon. I stood face to face with the Queen; she allowed my hand to rest
lightly for a second upon one of the folds of mull that draped her
form. Her face was so near mine that even in the dim light I could see
her eyes shining through the eye holes of her absurd papier-mache
The impulse to seize Mary and expose the ridiculous imposture was
almost irresistible. I must have raised my hands unconsciously, for the
Queen took fright and disappeared behind the portiere. Mrs. Work
hastily left the piano and turned up the gas. In the glance that she
gave me I read a piteous appeal.
Jordan's face was beaming with satisfaction. "So beautiful," he
murmured, "and so gracious!"
"Yes, beautiful," I repeated, still looking at the flower and
modeling medium; "beautiful and uncommonly gracious!" "Thanks!" she
whispered. "You are generous."
Half ashamed of myself as the voluntary accomplice of vulgar
tricksters, I listened with growing impatience to Jordan's ecstatic
account of other materializations not less marvelous and convincing
than this of Mary, Queen of Scots. The mediums had returned to the
ordinary occupations of evening leisure. The younger Roberts and Mr.
Helder were playing backgammon, conversing at the same time in low
voices. The fat representative of Dr. Rush was asleep in her chair.
Mrs. Work was crocheting. Her mother was sipping brandy and water--a
necessary restorative, Jordan was careful to tell me, after the draft
made upon her vital forces by the recent materialization of Mary. The
situation would have been thoroughly commonplace had it not been for
occasional rattling detonations, or successions of sharp raps,
apparently in the ceiling, in the partition walls, all over the
furniture, and underneath the floor.
"They are playful tonight," said Roberts, looking up from his
"Yes," said Mrs. Work's mother, as she stirred her brandy and water.
"They are very fond of Mr. Jordan. They hover around him always.
Sometimes, when my inner vision is clearer, I see the air full of their
beautiful forms, following him wherever he goes. They love and reward
him for his great interest in them and us."
"Mr. Jordan," said I, "do you never find yourself imposed on?"
"Oh, often," he replied. "Frequently by wicked spirits; frequently
by fraudulent mediums."
"There are frauds in every profession, you know," said Mrs.
"There would be no paste diamonds," suggested Helder, "if there were
no real diamonds."
"And your repeated discoveries of imposture," I persisted, "have not
shaken your faith?"
"Why should they?" replied the railroad president "Nine hundred and
ninety-nine experiments with negative results prove nothing; but the
one-thousandth case, if established, proves everything. Demonstrated
once, the possibility of communication with disembodied spirits is
A fusillade of raps in every part of the room greeted this
"I grant that," said I. "Prove one instance of the interference of
spirits in the affairs of men and you have established the whole
"But you believe," he rejoined, with a smile, "that the thousandth
and absolutely authentic instance will never be proved; and meanwhile
you reserve the right to explain away all such things as you have seen
tonight by the hypothesis of jugglery."
"I'm sure the gentleman doesn't think that," insinuated Mrs.
Blackwell, who had now finished her brandy and water.
"Nevertheless," continued Jordan, "the one-thousandth instance may
happen, may happen at any time, and may happen to you. Come and see my
I tried to keep a grave face while my host did the honors of a score
or more of Raphaels, Titans, Correggios, Guidos, and what not, all
painted in his own house by mediums under inspiration. Jordan's old
masters make a collection probably unlike any other on earth. When he
demanded what I thought of the internal evidence of their authenticity,
I was able to reply with perfect truthfulness that nobody could mistake
From this amazing trash I turned with feelings of relief to a
landscape hanging in the hallway. "I moved it out here," said Jordan,
"to make room for that superb Carracci, 'Daniel in the Lion's Den'--the
large canvas you particularly admired."
I looked at the old gentleman to see if he was in earnest. Then I
looked again at the glorious landscape.
Here was no painted fiction, but truth itself: A clump of rounded
willows, seen by early morning light and seen again in the perfectly
calm water of the canal or sluggish stream which they overhung; a
skiff, resting partly on the water and partly on the wet grass of the
nearer bank; beyond, an indistinct distance and the outline of a
château tower with the conical Burgundian peak; a marvelous humid
atmosphere of blue and mist, a soft light enveloping everything and
caressing everything. No painted fiction, I say, but a window through
which anyone having eyes might survey nature in her eternal truth.
I said: "That comes nearer to the supernatural than anything I have
ever seen. It is worth all your old masters together."
"You like it?" said he. "It is well enough, I suppose, though of a
school for which I have no particular fancy. It was painted here about
a year ago by a spirit who did not choose to identify himself."
"Nonsense," said I, for this passed all endurance, "Corot has been
dead six years."
Jordan led the way back into the library. "Mrs. Work," said he, "do
you remember the circumstances under which the large landscape in the
hall--the hazy green one--was painted?"
"Certainly," replied the young lady, looking up from her needles; "I
recollect very well. It was painted through me."
In claiming the authorship of this wonderful work of genius, she
used the matter-of-fact tone in which she would have acknowledged a
stork and sunflower in crewel, or a sleeping pussy cat in Berlin
"And you are an artist yourself--that is to say, when not in the
"Oh, yes," she replied, returning my gaze with unflinching eyes; and
thereupon she produced from one of Mr. Jordan's portfolios a
preposterous bunch of lilacs in water color. Meanwhile, Jordan had been
rummaging in his desk. He now brought forth an account book. "Here we
have it," he said, "all set down in black and white." In the middle of
a page of similar memoranda I read this item:
1880, May i3--Pd. M. A. Work for painting done under control; large
view (trees, stream, boat, etc.)...$25.00
"All I can say, madam," I exclaimed, turning to Mrs. Work, "is that
Knoedler or Avery would have been most happy to pay you ten thousand
dollars for that Corot, for Corot it is, and a masterpiece at
"Good night," said Jordan, a little later, when I rose to retire.
"After what you have already experienced I need hardly warn you not to
be disturbed by any noises you may hear in your bedroom." A hailstorm
of raps punctuated his sentence. "They hover, hover around," Mrs.
Blackwell was saying, as I left the library; "but in this house it is
I went to bed thoroughly bewildered. Was there, after all, behind
this wretched jack-in-the-box jugglery something incomprehensible,
unexplainable, unspeakable--something which the jugglers themselves
understood no better than their dupes? When I thought of Mary, Queen of
Scots, ogling me through her pasteboard mask, and of Jordan's rhapsody
over her unearthly beauty, the problem seemed too ignoble to engage an
intelligent man's attention for a single minute; but there was the
Corot. The whole machinery of raps, hands, ropes, apparitions, guitars,
Raphaels, Correggios, and Carraccis was almost childish in its
simplicity; but there again was the Corot. Every train of logical
thought, every analytical process led me back to the marvelous
One of three things must be true: The picture was a commonplace
daub, like the old masters, and I was laboring under a strange delusion
or hallucination in regard to its merits. Or, Mrs. Work and her
accomplices had procured a Corot unknown to connoisseurs and had sold
it for one five-hundredth part of its market value, to bolster up a
petty deception. Or, the landscape was a marvel and the manner of its
production a miracle. The first supposition was the most plausible, yet
I was not disposed to accept it at the expense of my self-possession
and judgment; no doubt daylight would confirm my estimate of the
picture. The second supposition involved a degree of
folly--disinterested and expensive folly--on the part of these precious
mediums that did not tally with my observations of their character. To
accept the third supposition was, of course, to accept the theory of
the spiritualists. Thus reasoning I fell asleep, and was awakened,
about half-past two o'clock, by a muffled hammering directly beneath my
Now, gentlemen, what followed passed very rapidly, but every
incident is distinct in my memory, and I ask you to reserve judgment
until you have heard me through.
The noise came from the room under mine. As nearly as I could judge,
this was the library. Notwithstanding Jordan's advice, I determined to
see what was the matter. I jumped into my trousers and cautiously
proceeded toward the stairway. At the head of the stairs a door opened
as I passed and a hand was laid upon my shoulder.
"Don't go down!" was eagerly whispered into my ear. "Don't go down!
Return to your chamber!"
A white figure stood before me. It was the flower and modeling
medium in her nightdress, her black hair all loose.
"Why should I not go down?" I demanded. "Are you afraid that I shall
embarrass the spirits in their carpenter work?"
She spoke hurriedly and with evident excitement: "You believe it all
a fraud, but it isn't. There's fraud enough, Lord knows, for mediums
must live; but, then, there are things--once in a while, not
often--that stun us."
"Tell me the truth about the Corot."
"As truly as I stand here, it was produced in the way we said--on my
easel, with my brush held in my hand, yet not by me. I can tell you no
more, for I know no more." The noise of pounding downstairs
"And if I go down, shall I encounter one of the mysteries that you
"No, but you will run into great danger. It is for your own sake I
ask you not to go." By this time I was in the lower hall.
Downstairs I discovered the Roberts brothers holding a seance at
Jordan's plate closet, while the developing medium, Mr. Helder, with a
dark lantern in his hand, was developing the combination lock of
In my brief and not victorious struggle with the three rascals I
must have received some hurt upon the head. My eyes were half blinded
with blood. With a vague idea of shouting for help at the foot of the
stairs, I staggered back into the lower hall, closely pushed by two of
the mediums. I heard one of them whisper, "Hit hard! It's got to be
done," and saw a heavy iron bar raised and aimed at my head.
At this moment I stood directly in front of the Corot. Even in the
imperfect light, that wonderful glimpse of nature opened beside me like
a window in the wall. In another instant the crowbar would have buried
itself in my skull. Then there reached my ears a cry from the head of
the stairs, where I had left the flower medium standing, "Jump! Jump
into the picture! For God's sake, jump!"
Resting one hand upon the frame, as upon a window sill, I launched
myself against the canvas. The weapon descended, but I was already
beyond its range. I fell, fell, fell, as if falling through infinite
space, yet partially borne up by invisible hands. Then I found myself
upon the wet grass of the canal bank. I jumped into the skiff and
hurriedly poled it across the stream; and then, having reached the
other bank, I fainted dead away under the willows.
When I came to my senses I was lying in snowy linen in the
Hôtel Dieu at Dijon, with a good sister to take care of me. Here
is a translation of the entry in the hospital books:
1881, May 21--Received from Monsieur the Mayor of Flavigny an
Unknown, found early this morning, unconscious, and only partially
clad, on the bank of the canal of Burgundy, near the limits of the
arrondissement. Injuries--Severe scalp wound and slight fracture of the
right parietal bone. Property--One pair of trousers, one nightshirt,
pair slippers. Means of identification--None.
Gentlemen, that is the end of my statement of facts. I am now on my
way back to America. I shall establish the interference of spirits in
human affairs by affording conclusive evidence that a wonderful picture
was painted by a dead artist; that this picture was used by the spirits
in my behalf as a way of escape out of mortal danger, and that, by the
most extraordinary instance of levitation on record, I was borne bodily
more than three thousand miles in a few seconds.
Do not laugh just yet. To the scientific world and to all
fair-minded investigators of the truth of spiritualism, I shall soon
offer in the way of evidence:
1. The register of the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia for May 19,
1881. I stopped there on my way to visit Jordan. My name will be found
under that date.
2. The testimony of Mr. Jordan and his family that I was with them
at Bryn Mawr on May 20, 1881, up to eleven o'clock at night.
3. The duly attested record of my admission to the hospital at
Dijon, France, on May 21, 1881.
4. The wonderful picture now in the possession of Jordan.
Dear Sir: In reply to your note of inquiry, I beg leave to say that
our common friend, Mr. John Nicholas, has been under my care for more
than a year, with the exception of two months spent in the Côte
d'Or in charge of another medical attendant.
The facts in his unfortunate case are accurately set forth (up to a
certain point) in his own narrative, as outlined by you. Mr. Nicholas'
recollection is not trustworthy in regard to events happening after he
had suffered a severe blow on the head in his encounter with
As to the value of his estimate of the merits of the picture upon
which his delusion is founded, I cannot speak. I have never seen it. It
may be well to say, however, that prior to his departure for France,
Mr. Nicholas was in the habit of attributing the picture to an American
artist, some years ago deceased. As he used to tell the story, it was
not to Burgundy but to Wissahickon Valley that he was transported by
I also beg leave to say that this mania does not affect his sanity
in all other respects; nor do I see reason to despair of his entire
HORACE F. DANIELS, M.D.