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Observations placeholder

Aymar Vernay, Jacques - Dowsing to find murderers



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Jacques Aymar: The Divining Detective by Michael R. Lynn Professor of History at Purdue University, North Central. http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/dowsing.html

At 10:00pm on the 5th of July 1692 thieves broke into the Lyonnais wine shop owned by Antoine Boubon Savetier and his wife, bludgeoned them to death with a billhook, and escaped with approximately five hundred livres. When the local authorities made no progress on the case a wine dealer from Dauphiné stepped forward and recommended the services of Jacques Aymar, a peasant known to have solved an equally difficult murder case.  With little choice the authorities called on Aymar's help.  He arrived in Lyon, inspected the site of the murder, and immediately started off on the trail of the culprits.

Aymar first led police out of Lyon and down the Rhône River where he tracked the killers to the home of a gardener.  Once there Aymar confidently announced that three people had committed the crime, he indicated the table where they had sat, and pointed out the wine bottle they had used, information corroborated by the gardener's children.

Aymar then led the police to the town of Beaucaire where he followed the trail to the local jail and directly to one of the inmates who just one hour earlier had been arrested for petty larceny.  This man, Joseph Arnoul, a nineteen year old from Toulon and easily identified because of a hunchback, denied the accusation of murder.  Nonetheless, the guards arrested him and took him back to Lyon where witnesses identified him.  At that point Arnoul confessed and named his two accomplices, one called Thomas and the other Andre Pese, both notorious criminals based in Toulon.

Aymar went back to work: he continued following the trail, first to Toulon, where he led the police to the very inn where the suspects recently had dined, and then to the sea, where they had boarded a ship.  Undeterred, Aymar obtained his own vessel and tracked them along the coast until it became clear that they were heading towards Genoa.  Since he and his police escort lacked the authority to make an arrest in a foreign city, they decided to return home.  For his part, Joseph Arnoul claimed that his accomplices had committed the actual murder.  Nonetheless, he was tried, found guilty and executed by being broken on the wheel on 30 August 1692.

Jacques Aymar's spectacular feat of detection made him an instant celebrity; and it immediately sparked a huge controversy.  Aymar had tracked down the killers with an unconventional approach: he had used a divining rod, a forked stick usually used to find underground springs and ores, to locate the murderer.

The art of dowsing, or rabdomancy, had deep roots and its proponents often pointed to Jacob's rod, as well as that of Moses, as early examples of divining rods.  Its first appearance in early modern Europe came, however, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when German miners apparently practiced dowsing in order to locate appropriate places to dig.

At the end of the seventeenth century, diviners claimed to use their talents for a wide variety of purposes.  Dowsers were supposedly capable of tracking thieves and murderers, discovering forgotten land boundaries, finding buried treasures, identifying the fathers of abandoned children, and determining if a man or a women had committed adultery or, alternately, if they still retained their virginity.

It is not known how Aymar came to find that he possessed dowsing capabilities, but the area around Dauphiné had a reputation for producing dowsers and it is likely that he initially learned of his abilities through the imitation of others.

Aymar first came to realize he could use his dowsing abilities to solve crimes in 1688 when, while out searching for water, he felt his divining rod turn so sharply that he believed he had found a major spring.  When the workmen dug down, however, they found not water but the body of a local woman, missing for the last four months, buried inside a barrel.  That she had been murdered was certain since the cord used to strangle her was found with her body. Aymar went to the former home of the murdered woman and directed his rod at each person there; but it only moved towards one of them, the widower, who immediately fled thus establishing both his guilt and Aymar's ability to track criminals.

In calling on Aymar to assist them, the authorities in Lyon were not being overly credulous or gullible; before using Aymar, they had put his talents to the test.  They buried the murder weapon, along with several similar tools, and asked Aymar to determine not only where it lay hidden, but also which of the several tools was the true weapon.  Aymar accomplished this task twice, the second time while blindfolded.  With his abilities proven to the satisfaction of the local state representatives, Aymar received temporary legal powers and a number of guards to accompany him as he tracked down the three men responsible for the murders.

How did people explain Aymar's success?  

Some scholars undertook historical studies and collected stories, citations, and anecdotes designed to legitimize, or discredit, rabdomancy through an exploration of its antiquity and its association with either Christian or pagan rituals.

Astrologers concentrated their attention on the confluence of stars and planets present at the births of dowsers.  A problem arose for these astrologers, however, when they discovered that Aymar was not an Aquarius, as they had supposed, but a Virgo and that others who exercised the power of dowsing were born at all times of the day and night, in all seasons, and under every different configuration of the planets.

Some doctors offered a physiological explanation for dowsing based largely on Aristotelian natural philosophy.  They proposed that dowsers were akin to human magnets with the divining rod itself acting like the needle of a compass.  In effect, the dowser could focus on the vapors left behind after an individual passed by.  This would cause a physical, and frequently visible, reaction in the dowser and his rod.  Aymar even claimed to become ill when tracing particularly violent crimes.

Natural philosophers shifted this physical explanation to incorporate the new mechanical philosophy into their theories.  Savants suggested that people left behind them small, but very strongly constituted, corpuscles as they passed. A dowser could read the matter left behind by certain individuals just as a hand would remain warm for some time after removing the source of the heat. 

The attack against dowsing came most strongly from clergy.  Theologians concentrated on an assumed diabolical intervention into the affairs of people on Earth by those associated with dowsers.  In an age still replete with witches and sorcerers, these arguments were very persuasive.

After his success in Lyon, Aymar participated in several other experiments intended to  verify and explain his abilities.  In one experiment, the Lieutenant-Général in Lyon, Matthieu de Sève, hid three écus under one of several hats on a table in his library and asked Aymar to find the money, something Aymar accomplished easily.  He also asked Aymar to try and determine where, in his library, twenty-five écus had been stolen some seven or eight months earlier.  Aymar first indicated the cabinet in which he had kept the money and then proceeded to trace the thief back to the servants’ quarters and to his very bed (even indicating the side of it on which he had usually slept, information corroborated by his former bedmate).

In 1693, Henri-Jules, the Prince de Condé, invited Aymar to come to Paris and submit to a series of tests. In one experiment, Aymar had to determine the amount and type of various metals buried in a garden.  In another case, Aymar successfully identified the man who had stolen and eaten several trout from a basin in the Prince's gardens, but he also badly misidentified a boy as the man's accomplice. 

The experimenters also led Aymar to the rue Saint-Denis, the site of a recent and especially brutal murder.  The victim, reportedly stabbed fifteen or sixteen times, had bled profusely on the street.  Aymar's divining rod did not move at all even though he passed over the exact spot of the murder several times.  This test was flawed, Aymar claimed, both because the murderers had already been caught and because his talent only allowed him to detect premeditated crimes and not crimes of passion.

Nonetheless, throughout all of these experiments, both fair and foul, Aymar performed far below the expectations of Condé and the other witnesses.  He returned to Dauphiné a humiliated man and reports indicated that some time elapsed before he recovered all of his dowsing skills.
In spite of these attacks many people still stood behind Aymar, at least for discovering water and ore deposits.  Some individuals, however, did not even give up their belief in the moral utility of dowsing.  

During the Revolt of the Camisards (1702-1705), for example, Aymar helped the Catholic side hunt down some Huguenots accused of murder.  He successfully completed this task and, at his word, a number of rebels were executed.  As late as 1706 Aymar appeared in Lyon to help local officials with a difficult criminal case.  But the ability of dowsers to solve crimes had already begun to fade and Aymar never played as prominent a role as he had in the 1690s.

The source of the experience

Aymar Vernay, Jacques

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps