On the 10th of November, 1812, during the fatal retreat from Russia, Commandant Tascher, desiring to bring back to France the body of his general, who had been killed by a bullet, and who had been buried since the day before, disinterred him, and, upon putting him into a landau, and noticing that he was still breathing, brought him to life again by dint of care. A long time afterward this same general was one of the pall bearers at the funeral obsequies of the aide-de-camp who had buried him. In 1826 a young priest returned to life at the moment the bishop of the diocese was pronouncing the De Profundis over his body. Forty years afterward, this priest, who had become Cardinal Donnett, preached a feeling sermon upon the danger of premature burial.
I trust I have now sufficiently prepared the mind of the reader for an examination of the phenomena of the voluntary suspension of life that I shall now treat of.
The body of an animal may be compared to a machine that converts the food that it receives into motion. It receives nothing, it will produce nothing; but there is no reason why it should get out of order if it is not deteriorated by external agents. The legendary rustic who wanted to accustom his ass to go without food was therefore theoretically wrong only because he at the same time wanted the animal to work. The whole difficulty consists in breaking with old habits. To return to the comparison that we just made, we shall run the risk of exploding the boiler of a steam engine if we heat it or cool it abruptly, but we can run it very slowly and for a very long time with but very little fuel. We may even preserve a little fire under the ashes, and this, although it may not be capable of setting the parts running, will suffice later on to revivify the fireplace after it has been charged anew with fuel.
We have recently had the example of Dr. Tanner, who went forty days without any other nourishment than water. Not very long ago Liedovine de Schiedam, who had been bedridden for twenty years, affirmed that she had taken no food for eight of them. It is said that Saint Catharine of Sienna gradually accustomed herself to do without food, and that she lived twenty years in total abstinence. We know of several examples of prolonged sleep during which the sleeper naturally took no nourishment. In his Magic Disquisitions, Delvis cites the case of a countryman who slept for an entire autumn and winter. Pfendler relates that a certain young and hysterical woman fell twice into a deep slumber which each time lasted six months. In 1883 an enceinte woman was found asleep on a bench in the Grand Armee Avenue. She was taken to the Beaujon Hospital, where she was delivered a few days after while still asleep, and it was not till the end of three months that she could be awakened from her lethargy. At this very moment, at Tremeille, a woman named Marguerite Bouyenvalle is sleeping a sleep that has lasted nearly a year, during which the only food that she has had is a few drops of soup daily.
What is more remarkable, Dr. Fournier says in his Dictionary of Medical Sciences that he knew of a distinguished writer at Paris, who sometimes went for months at a time without taking anything but emollient drinks, while at the same time living along like other people.
Respiration is certainly more necessary to life than food is; but it is not absolutely indispensable, as we have seen in the cases of apparent death cited in our previous article. It is possible, through exercise, for a person to accustom himself, up to a certain point, to abstinence from air as he can from food. Those who dive for pearls, corals, or sponges succeed in remaining from two to three minutes under water. Miss Lurline, who exhibited in Paris in 1882, remained two and a half minutes beneath the water of her aquarium without breathing. In his treatise De la Nature, Henri de Rochas, physician to Louis XIII., gives six minutes as the maximum length of time that can elapse between successive inspirations of air. It is probable that this figure was based upon an observation of hibernating animals.
In his Encyclopedic Dictionary, Dr. Dechambre relates the history of a Hindoo who hid himself in the waters of the Ganges where women were bathing, seized one of them by the legs, drowned her, and then removed her jewels. Her disappearance was attributed to crocodiles. One woman who succeeded in escaping him denounced the assassin, who was seized and hanged in 1817.
A well known case, is that of Col. Townshend, who possessed the remarkable faculty of stopping at will not only his respiration, but also the beating of his heart. He performed the experiment one day in the presence of Surgeon Gosch, who cared for him in his old age, two physicians, and his apothecary, Mr. Shrine. In their presence, says Gosch, the Colonel lay upon his back, Dr. Cheyne watched his pulse, Dr. Baynard put his hand upon his heart, and Mr. Shrine held a mirror to his mouth. After a few seconds no pulse, movement of the heart, or respiration could be observed. At the end of half an hour, as the spectators were beginning to get frightened, they observed the functions progressively resuming their course, and the Colonel came back to life.
The fakirs of India habituate themselves to abstinence from air, either by introducing into the nostrils strings that come out through the mouth, or by dwelling in subterranean cells that air and light never enter except through narrow crevices that are sometimes filled with clay. Here they remain seated in profound silence, for hours at a time, without any other motion than that of the fingers as the latter slowly take beads from a chaplet, the mind absorbed by the mental pronunciation of OM (the holy triune name), which they must repeat incessantly while endeavoring to breathe as little as possible. They gradually lengthen the intervals between their inspirations and expirations, until, in three or four months, they succeed in making them an hour and a half. This is not the ideal, for one of their sacred books says, in speaking of a saint: "At the fourth month he no longer takes any food but air, and that only every twelve days, and, master of his respiration he embraces God in his thought.
At the fifth he stands as still as a pole; he no longer sees anything but Baghavat, and God touches his cheek to bring him out of his ecstasy."