Seton (or Sethon) Alexander (d. ca. 1604)
One of the very few alchemists, reportedly, who succeeded
in the great experiment of the transmutation of metals. He was
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Seton (or Sethon) Alexander
1389
said to have taken his name from the village of Seton, in the vicinity
of Edinburgh, Scotland.
In the year 1601, the crew of a Dutch vessel was wrecked on
the coast near Seton’s dwelling, and he personally rescued several
of them, lodged them in his house, and treated them with
great kindness, ultimately sending them back to Holland at his
own expense. In the following year, he visited Holland and renewed
his acquaintance with at least one of the shipwrecked
crew, James Haussen, the pilot, who lived at Arksun.
Haussen, determined to repay Seton for the hospitality he
had received in Scotland, entertained him for some time in
Haussen house, and to him Seton disclosed the information
that he was a master of the art of alchemy and proved his words
by performing several transmutations. Haussen could not keep
this information to himself and confided it to Venderlinden, a
physician of Enkhuysen, and showed him a piece of gold that
had been transmuted from lead. Venderlinden’s grandson, in
turn, showed it to the celebrated author D. G. Morhoff, who
wrote a letter concerning it to Langlet du Fresnoy, author of
the Histoire de la Philosophie Hermétique (3 vols., 1742).
Seton visited Amsterdam and Rotterdam, traveled by sea to
Italy, then went through Switzerland to Germany, accompanied
by Wolfgang Dienheim, a professed skeptic of alchemy,
whom Seton convinced of the error of his views at Basel, before
the eyes of several of its principal inhabitants. Dienheim described
Seton, and the pen picture he made resembles a typical
Scot of the seventeenth century. ‘‘Seton,’’ Dienheim said ‘‘was
short but stout, and high coloured, with a pointed beard, but
despite his corpulence, his expression was spiritual and exalted.’’
‘‘He was,’’ added Dienheim, ‘‘a native of Molier, in an island
of the ocean.’’
Seton demonstrated several experiments of importance. In
one of these the celebrated physician Zwinger himself brought
the lead that was to be transmuted. A common crucible was obtained
at a goldsmith’s, and ordinary sulphur was bought on
the road to the house where the experiment was to take place.
Seton handled none of these materials and took no part in the
operation except to give those who followed his directions a
small packet of powder that transformed the lead into the purest
gold of exactly the same weight. Zwinger appears to have
been absolutely convinced of the genuine nature of the experiment,
for he wrote an account of it to his friend Dr. Schobinger,
which appears in Lonig’s Ephemerides.
Shortly after this Seton left Basel and, changing his name,
went to Strasbourg before traveling to Cologne, where he
lodged with Anton Bordemann, who was something of an alchemist
himself. In this city, Seton was sufficiently imprudent
to exhibit his alchemical skill openly, on one occasion producing
six ounces of gold through the application of one grain of
his magical powder. The incident seems to have made an impression
on at least one of the savants of Cologne, for Theobald
de Hoghelande in his Historiœ Aliquot Transmutationis Mettalicœ,
which was published in Cologne in 1604, alluded to it.
Seton then went to Hamburg and traveled south to Munich,
where something more important than alchemy engaged his
attention he eloped with the daughter of a citizen of that city.
Christian II, the young elector of Saxony, had heard of Seton’s
brilliant alchemical successes and invited him to his court, but
Seton, reluctant to leave his young wife, sent his friend William
Hamilton (probably a brother-Scot) instead, with a supply of
the transmuting agent.
In the presence of the whole court, Hamilton undertook and
carried through an experiment with complete success, and the
gold manufactured resisted every known test. This excited the
elector’s desire to see and converse with Seton himself, and a
pressing invitation, which amounted to a command, was dispatched
to Seton, who, unable to refuse, came to the electoral
court.
He was received there with every mark of honor, but it soon
became evident to him that Christian II had only invited him
for the purpose of learning his secret, but Seton, as an adept
in the mysteries of alchemy, remained true to his calling and
flatly refused to gratify the elector’s greed.
In the end the elector ordered him to be imprisoned in a
tower, where he was guarded by forty soldiers. There he was
subjected to every conceivable species of torture, but it failed
to extort from him his methods. The elector at last ceased the
torture.
At this point, Michael Sendivogius, a Moravian chemist who
happened to be in Dresden, heard of Seton’s terrible experiences
and possessed sufficient influence to obtain permission
to visit him. Himself a searcher after the philosophers’ stone,
he sympathized with the adept, and proposed to him that he
should attempt a rescue. Seton agreed to this and promised
that if he were fortunate enough to escape, he would reward
Sendivogius with his secret.
The Moravian traveled back to Cracow, where he resided,
sold his property, and returned to Dresden. He lodged near
Seton’s place of confinement, entertaining the soldiers who
guarded the alchemist and judiciously bribing those who were
directly concerned in his imprisonment.
At last he judged that the time was ripe to attempt Seton’s
rescue. He feasted the guards and they were soon in a condition
of drunken carelessness. Sendivogius hurried to the tower in
which Seton was imprisoned, but found him unable to walk
through the severity of his tortures. He therefore supported
Seton to a carriage, which they reached without being observed.
They halted at Seton’s house to pick up his wife, who
had in her possession some of the all-important powder, and
sped to Cracow, which they reached in safety.
When quietly settled in that city, Sendivogius reminded
Seton of his promise to assist him in his alchemical projects, but
was met with a stern refusal. Seton explained to him that it was
impossible for him as an adept to reveal to his rescuer the terms
of such a great mystery. The health of the alchemist, however,
had been shattered by the torture he had suffered, and upon
his death he presented the remains of his magical powder to
his preserver.
The possession of this powder made Sendivogius more
eager than ever to discover the mysteries of alchemy. He married
Seton’s widow, perhaps with the idea that she was in possession
of her late husband’s occult knowledge, but she was absolutely
ignorant of the matter.
Seton left behind him a treatise entitled The New Light of Alchymy,
which Sendivogius published as his own. In its pages he
thought he saw a method of increasing the powder, but he only
succeeded in lessening it.
With what remained he posed as a successful alchemist. In
his own country of Moravia, he was imprisoned, but escaped.
His powder was rapidly diminishing, but he still continued his
experiments. Pierce Borel, in his work Tresor de Recherches et Antiquites
Galoises et Françoises (1655), mentioned that he saw a
crown piece that had been partially dipped into a mixture of
the powder dissolved in wine, and that the part steeped in the
elixir was gold, porous, and was not soldered or otherwise tampered
with.
The powder expended, Sendivogius degenerated into a
charlatan, pretending that he could manufacture gold, and receiving
large sums on the strength of being able to do so. He
survived until the year 1646 when he died at Parma at the age
of eighty-four. Seton’s book The New Light of Alchymy would appear
to deny that the philosophers’ stone was to be achieved by
the successful transmutation of metals. It stated
‘‘The extraction of the soul out of gold or silver, by what vulgar
way of alchymy soever, is but a mere fancy. On the contrary,
he which, in a philosophical way, can without any fraud, and
colourable deceit, make it that it shall really tinge the basest
metal, whether with gain or without gain, with the colour of
gold or silver (abiding all requisite tryals whatever), hath the
gates of Nature opened to him for the enquiring into further
and higher secrets, and with the blessing of God to obtain
them.