Smith, Hélène (1861–1929)
Pseudonym of Catherine Elise Muller of Geneva, the medium
whose case caused much dissension among continental psychologists
for many years and was considered as the Dreyfus
case of science by some. Had Theodore Flournoy not written
his brilliant work Des Indes à la Planète Mars (English ed. as From
India to the Planet Mars, 1900), in which he psychoanalyzed and
presented the more mundane explanations of some of her
more extraordinary phenomena, she might have been acclaimed
as the greatest medium of her time, the first human
being to whom the glory was due of having established intelligent
communication with Mars and of having revealed the language
and writing of the red planet. Her work occurred, of
course, long before the modern triumphs of interplanetary research
and space probes that have revealed the actual nature
of the surfaces of Mars and Venus.
Smith’s father, a merchant, was a Hungarian who possessed
a remarkable facility for languages; her mother had sporadic
visions but showed no mediumistic powers. As a young girl,
Smith was always fond of indulging in daydreams. She used to
see highly colored landscapes, a lion of stone with a mutilated
head, and fanciful objects on pedestals. These visions made her
discontented. She asked her parents on one occasion whether
she was really their child or a changeling. When 14 or 15 years
old, she saw a bright light thrown against the wall of her room,
which then seemed to be filled with strange and unknown
She heard of Spiritualism for the first time in the winter of
1891–92. An acquaintance lent her the book D’Après la Mort by
Leon Denis. It excited her curiosity and led her to a Spiritualist
circle. At the second séance that she attended, her hand moved
automatically. Soon the table began to move and in April 1892,
a spirit communicated through typtology and said that he was
Victor Hugo, her guide and protector. His reign as a control
lasted undisturbed for about six months. Then another control
appeared, ‘‘Leopold,’’ who, against the warning of ‘‘Victor
Hugo,’’ forced the medium into trance and, after a struggle
lasting for a year, completely ousted his predecessor.
At this period Smith possessed every attribute of a powerful
medium. She produced telekinesis phenomena and strange
apports, found lost objects, predicted future events, saw spirit
visitors, clairaudiently heard their names, and received the explanation
of visions that unfolded before her eyes by raps.
Flournoy was admitted to her circle in the winter of
1894–95. The séances that he attended for five years alternated
with a series given to August Lemaitre and one Professor Cuendet,
vice president of the Geneva Society for Psychic Studies. In
his book From India to the Planet Mars (1900), Flournoy notes,
‘‘I found the medium in question to be a beautiful woman
about thirty years of age, tall, vigorous, of a fresh, healthy complexion,
with hair and eyes almost black, of an open and intelligent
countenance, which at once invoked sympathy. She
evinced nothing of the emaciated or tragic aspect which one
habitually ascribes to the sybils of tradition, but wore an air of
health, of physical and mental vigour, very pleasant to behold,
and which, by the way, is not often encountered in those who
are good mediums.’’
In describing her triple mediumship (visual, auditive and
typtological) he admitted
‘‘Speaking for myself alone . . . I was greatly surprised to recognize
in scenes which passed before my eyes events which had
transpired in my own family prior to my birth. Whence could
the medium, whom I had never met before, have derived the
knowledge of events belonging to a remote past, of a private
nature, and utterly unknown to any living person’’
The professor made good friends with the spirit control
‘‘Leopold.’’ The secret of his identity, which for a long time he
refused to reveal, was already known. He claimed to have been
Guiseppe Balsamo, alias Cagliostro. With the exception of
Flournoy, everybody believed in his existence as a spirit. Even
he admitted that ‘‘it would be impossible to imagine a being
more independent and more different from Smith herself, having
a more personal character, and individuality more marked,
or a more certain actual existence.’’
When ‘‘Leopold’’ wrote with Smith’s hand she held the pen
in a different way and her handwriting differed from her usual
calligraphy and showed the style of the last century. The voice
of ‘‘Leopold’’ was a deep bass. He had a strong, easily recognizable
Italian accent.
But Flournory was firm in his conviction that ‘‘there is no
reason to suspect the real presence of Joseph Balsamo behind
the automatisms of Mlle. Smith.’’ He traced the psychogenesis
of ‘‘Leopold’’ to a great fright that she had when ten years old.
She was attacked in the street by a big dog. She was terrified but
the terror was dispelled by the sudden appearance, as if by a
miracle, of a personage clothed in a long brown robe with flowing
sleeves and with a white cross on the breast who chased the
dog away and disappeared before she had time to thank him.
‘‘Leopold’’ claimed that this was his first appearance. Whenever
some unpleasant sight or a dangerous encounter lay in her
way the phantom always rose at a distance of about ten yards,
walked or glided in silence at the same rate as she advanced toward
him, attracting and fascinating her gaze in such a manner
as to prevent her turning her eyes away either to the right or
left, until she passed the place of danger.
Flournoy found some curious analogies between what is
known to us of Cagliostro and certain characteristics of ‘‘Leopold,’’
but he believed that they accorded well with the subliminal
medley. ‘‘Leopold’’ did not know Italian and turned a deaf
ear if anyone addressed him in that language. His handwriting
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Smith, Hélène
showed striking dissimilarities to that known of the real Cagliostro.
His answers to questions regarding his terrestrial existence
were evasive or vague. He did not furnish a single name,
date, or precise fact. He was, on the other hand, as archaic in
his therapeutics as in his orthography and treated all maladies
in an old-fashioned way. He claimed that his sentiments for
Smith were only the continuation of those of Cagliostro for
Marie Antionette.
Marie Antoinette was the first great romance of Smith’s
mediumship. Flournoy called it the ‘‘Royal Cycle.’’ It was
roughly outlined at séances in the house of Cuendet in December
1893. The announcement that Smith was the reincarnation
of the late queen was made by the table on January 30, 1894.
In the interval she had for some time believed herself to be the
reincarnation of Lorenze Feliciani. When, however, she was
told that Lorenze Feliciani only existed in the fantasy of novelist
Dumas, she quickly dropped this role.
There was less difference between the autograph of Cagliostro
and ‘‘Leopold’’ than between the handwriting of the real
Marie Antoinette and the somnambulistic one. The role of the
queen was acted in a very lifelike manner. Probably Smith’s
tastes for everything that was noble, distinguished, and elevated
made the task easier. In the surroundings of the queen, the
king was conspicuous by his absence. Three personages figured
most often. ‘‘Cagliostro’’ (‘‘ce cher sorcier’’), ‘‘Louis Philippe
d’Orleans,’’ and the ‘‘Marquis de Mirabeau.’’ They were discovered
reincarnated in two sitters M. Eugene Demole and M. August
de Morsier. For the spectators, the royal somnambulism
was the most interesting on account of the brilliancy and life of
the role and the length of time during which it was sustained.
But for lovers of the paranormal it was not in the least extraordinary.
The Hindu dream in which Flournoy was cast in the role of
Prince Sivrouka Nayaka began on October 16, 1894, eight
weeks before his admission to the circle. The Martian romance
dated from the same period and was to be attributed, in
Flournoy’s view, to an involuntary suggestion of one Professor
Lemaitre. In the Oriental Cycle, Smith was Simandini, the
daughter of an Arab sheik in the sixth century, and was courted
and married by Prince Sivrouka, lord of the fortress of Tchandraguiri
built in the province of Kanara, Hindustani, in 1401.
After many years of married life she was burned alive on her
husband’s funeral pyre.
In enacting the role of the Oriental princess, Smith spoke
Hindustani and wrote a few words in good Arabic. She did not
speak it. While recovering in trance the use of Hindustani,
which she formerly spoke at the court of Sivrouka, she appeared
to have forgotten her mother tongue. Her Hindustani
was a mixture of improvised articulations and of veritable Sanskrit
words well adapted to the situation. This means that it expressed
personal thought and was not merely a series of senseless
phrases. Besides Flournoy, Professor Seipel, another
investigator, also figured in the Oriental romance. He was an
Arab slave.
Historians appeared to be singularly ignorant of Kanara,
Sivrouka, and Simandini. One day, however, Flournoy accidentally
came across an old history of India by De Marles printed
in Paris in 1828 and found in it a confirmation of the main
facts. It was objected that De Marles was a very unreliable historian.
The fact was, however, that only two copies of the work existed
in Geneva, both covered with dust. Only in a combination
of absolutely exceptional and almost unimaginable circumstances
could the work have found its way into Smith’s hands.
Flournoy saw himself forced to admit that the precise historical
information given by ‘‘Leopold’’ and the language spoken
by ‘‘Simandini’’ defied normal explanation. He said
‘‘The Hindoo romance, in particular, remains for those who
have taken part in it a psychological enigma, not yet solved in
a satisfactory manner, because it reveals and implies in regard
to Hélène, a knowledge relative to the costumes and languages
of the Orient, the actual source of which it has up to the present
time not been possible to discover.’’
The Martian romance, one of the outstanding modern
claims of planetary travels, was the most striking of all. In November
1894, the spirit of the entranced medium was carried
to the planet Mars. She described the human, animal, and floral
life of the planet from night to night and supported her
story by writing in Martian characters and speaking fluently in
that language. Suggestive of xenoglossis, the characters were
unlike any written characters used on the Earth, and the language
had many characteristics of genuineness. From the
translation she furnished in French, Flournoy concluded that
the Martian language was a subconscious elaboration.
The vowels and consonant sounds were the same as in
French, and the grammar, the inflections, and the construction
were modeled on French. As a work of art Flournoy considered
the subconscious construction of this language infantile, as a
feat of prodigious transpose memory. The Martian descriptions
he found similarly childish and the landscapes suggested
Japanese lacquer and Nankin dishes.
Curiously enough, when the defects were pointed out to the
medium by Flournoy, her subconscious mind appeared to be
impressed and set a new task before itself. Not long afterwards
an Ultra-Martian romance developed and descriptions were
given of the life of still another, more distant planet (Uranus),
with grotesque inhabitants and a language totally different
from the former one and having apparently no relationship
with the known languages of the Earth.
The medium and the other investigators of the phenomena
did not share Flournoy’s view of the earthly origin of the Martian
romance. In articles published in the Annales des Sciences
Psychiques (in March–April and May–June, 1897), Lemaitre argued
for the extraterrestrial origin of Smith’s Martian language.
The medium’s defense was also taken up in an anonymous
volume (Autour des Indes à la Planète Mars) published
under the auspices of the Societé d’Etudes Psychiques de Genève
(1901). On the other hand, V. Henry, professor of Sanskrit
at the Sorbonne, completely vindicated Flournoy’s conclusions
in his book La Language Martien (1901) and showed how
the Martian words, with the exception of a residue of two percent,
were derived from known terrestrial words.
Flournoy did not stop at the claim that all the controls of the
medium were secondary personalities. He proposed that the
source of the incarnation dreams was to be found in the influence
Allan Kardec’s belief in reincarnation exercised on the
minds of various automatic writers. Flournoy also disputed the
paranormal character of the other manifestations. He stated
‘‘As to the Supernormal, I believe I have actually found a little
telekinesis and telepathy. As to lucidity and spiritistic messages,
I have only encountered some brilliant reconstructions,
which the hypnoid imagination, aided by latent memory, excels
in fabricating in the case of mediums.’’
At a séance in 1899, Smith had a vision of a village and a
landscape that she could not recognize. At the same time, an
old man whom she also saw possessed her hand and wrote
‘‘Chaumontet Syndic.’’ Later, further information was divulged.
The old man was syndic of Chessenaz in 1839. At another
séance these words came ‘‘Burnier, Curé de Chessenaz.’’
Flournoy made inquiries and found out there was a little village
named Chessenaz in Haute Savoie, that in 1839 the syndic of
the village was Jean Chaumontet, and the curé was named Burnier;
furthermore the signatures resembled the authentic signatures
of these two people. Nevertheless he dismissed the
case, as he found out that Smith had relations in a neighboring
village and had been to visit them.
To the physical phenomena of the mediumship he devoted
little attention. He was inclined to admit that a force may radiate
from the medium that may be capable of attracting or repelling
objects in the neighborhood. How such a force could be
employed to levitate a table, play on distant instruments, or apport
branches of trees, leaves of ivy bearing the name of the
Smith, Hélène Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
control, shells filled with sand and still wet from the sea, a
China vase full of water containing a rose, or Chinese money,
he did not even attempt to explain. The physical phenomena
did not last long and ceased at an early period.
In 1901, Flournoy published another extensive study on
some further developments in the Archives de Psychologie (Nouvelles
Observations sur un case de Somnambulisme avec Glossolalie).
He related that owing to the sensation that his previous work
created, Smith was inundated with letters and requests for sittings.
A rich American lady provided her with a life income.
Smith resigned her position and gave many sittings to her new
friends, but Flournoy and Lemaitre were not among the invited
ones. In the summer of 1900 there came a complete break.
Flournoy was no more accorded facilities for study. The material
that he dealt with in his new book hardly covered the period
of a year.
He stated that the Martian romance passed into oblivion,
but the Martian personalities ‘‘Astan钒 and ‘‘Ramier’’ were retained
as guides and interpreters in the exploration of the
Ultra-Martian and Uranian worlds. A Lunarian phase also developed
at a later period, with descriptions, language, and writing.
But of this Flournoy had no firsthand information. The
Ultra-Martian romance was accompanied by several painted
scenes. The writing was ideographic. Its curious hieroglyphs
did not express letters but words. The ideograms showed no resemblance
to the objects that they represented.
In this, Flournoy found another proof of infantile imagination.
This essential characteristic was omitted because the medium
strove to create something defying all analysis. The Uranian
language and writing differed totally from the UltraMartian.
But, stated Flournoy, the phonetic and alphabetic
system was a copy of the Martian, and the Uranian language
differed less from French than French from the languages of
the neighboring countries. The origin of the strange notion of
Lunarian inhabitants presumably sprung from Smith reading
an article in La Paix Universelle in which, after flattering allusions
to Smith, mention was made of the claims of certain yogis
of psychic visits to the inhabitants of that side of the moon that
is turned away from the Earth.
The duration of the astronomic cycle was not long. It was superseded,
after a complete break with the Spiritualists, by a religious
cycle in which Christ, the Virgin, the apostles, and the
archangels played the dominant roles. In 1903, a luminous vision
filled Smith’s room. ‘‘Christ’’ appeared and she heard the
voice of ‘‘Leopold’’ ‘‘You will draw him.’’ Two years later,
Smith began with crayon. This was later changed to oil. On
large wooden boards, in a state of trance, she executed 12 religious
Lemaitre stated in a study that, according to certain mediumistic
communications she had received, Smith was a reincarnation
of ‘‘Raphael,’’ or of ‘‘Michaelangelo’’; the medium herself,
however, did not accept his conclusion.
In May 1913, at the International Congress for Psychical Research
at Geneva, eight of her striking pictures were exhibited.
In a statement to Light (October 11, 1913) she said
‘‘On the days when I am to paint I am always roused very
early—generally between five and six in the morning—by three
loud knocks at my bed. I open my eyes and see my bedroom
brightly illuminated, and immediately understand that I have
to stand up and work. I dress myself by the beautiful iridescent
light, and wait a few moments, sitting in my armchair, until the
feeling comes that I have to work. It never delays. All at once
I stand up and walk to the picture. When about two steps before
it I feel a strange sensation, and probably fall asleep at the same
moment. I know, later on, that I must have slept because I notice
that my fingers are covered with different colours, and I do
not remember at all to have used them, though, when a picture
is being begun, I am ordered to prepare colours on my palette
every evening, and have it near my bed.’’
A brush was very seldom used in these pictures. She put on
the first coating of paint with her three middle fingers. For the
second coating, she moved the same fingers very lightly from
right to left and back, thus producing a very smooth surface.
The outlines were made by the nails and the sky with the palm
of her hand.
This last phase of Smith’s mediumship was exhaustively
dealt with by W. Deonna in his book De La Planète Mars en Terre
Sainte (1932). As the medium did not again subject herself to
scientific investigation, Deonna’s psychoanalytic examination
was based on the voluminous correspondence that Smith left
behind and on the paintings themselves. The religious cycle
was arrested in 1915 in its further progress by the shock that
the medium received when her dearest Italian friend died. Her
later years were dominated by visions and automatic communications
of and from this friend.
Deonna attached no particular value to the paintings. He
stated that their inspiration did not surpass the usual level of
religious imagery. The tableaus did not have an elevating effect,
indeed a striking mediocrity was often noticeable. But he
also admitted certain qualities and said that the paintings were
far above what Smith could produce normally. He looked for
an explanation to the regression of infantile memories. He offered
no explanation for certain paranormal features.
It was Smith’s habit to have photographs taken of the successive
stages of the pictures. To her utter despair, some of the
negatives of the painting ‘‘Judas’’ were spoiled. Her guardian
angel appeared and announced a miracle. Two days later, the
portrait began to fade out. The beards, the moustache, the
tears of Judas, and other details gradually disappeared until
the painting returned to the stage where it was last successfully
photographed. Then an inscription appeared ‘‘God’s will, November
18, 1913.’’ The photographs were taken again. The inscription
vanished and Smith finished the picture as before.
She always painted from visions. The eyes appeared first.
But Judas was painted into the landscape from the leg upward.
The visions were accompanied by luminous phenomena. They
began with a ball of light that expanded and filled the room.
This was not a subjective phenomenon. Smith exposed photographic
plates that indeed registered strong luminous effects.
But to Deonna, they had no scientific value as they were only
supported by the good faith of the medium.
The Smith case is, on perspective, one of the more important
in parapsychology. It illustrated many of the phenomena
encountered by parapsychologists as they dealt with Spiritualist
claims. Flournoy proved the equal of the task and was able,
through his long-term observation and study, to understand
the dynamics operating in Smith’s life. He was able to show the
mundane sources for her extraordinary material without falling
into name calling and charges of fraud and to present the
material fully without the need of an exposé format.
Flournoy, Theodore. Des Indes à la Planète Mars. English ed.
as From India to the Planet Mars A Study of a Case of Somnambulism
with Glossolalia. New York Harper, 1900. Reprint, New Hyde
Park, N.Y. University Books, 1963.
Maxwell, J. Metapsychical Phenomena Methods and Observations.
London Duckworth, 1905.