Papus and Maïtre Philippe
Gérard Encausse, or ‘Papus’, was feeling very confident towards the end of 1894 and had good cause to be in view of his record over the past few years as a populariser of occult theory and practice.
He had qualified as Doctor of Medicine a week before his 29th birthday, and as if in confirmation of his change of status had put aside his girlfriend of the past five years, the feminist Anna Wolska, and was engaged to marry a relatively wealthy widow, Mathilde Ignard Theuriet. She had however brought with her what Gérard regarded as a particularly tiresome obsession.
Mathilde’s family came from near Lyons, where, like many in that city, they had been much impressed by a local healer, Monsieur Nizier Philippe, whom many referred to as Maïtre (or ‘Master’). In fact so impressed was Mathilde that she was for ever talking about him, presumably assuming that Gérard, with his magical and medical interests, would be impressed and interested as well.
But Gérard was more disturbed by the fascination the old fellow had made on Mathilde and suspected he might have established some kind of magnetic link with her; indeed he had proved himself a very successful social climber. Born into conditions of extreme poverty in a little village in Savoy on 25th April, 1849, his parents, Joseph and Marie Philippe lived with their five children lived in a tiny cottage adjoining a stable, with one room below and two above, subsisting off a small plot of land, a few sheep and some vines.
Nizier’s early life was no doubt much the same as that of other village children, helping to look after younger siblings, working in the fields and herding the sheep – a task that could be eased by expression of his unusual powers. According to his younger brother Auguste his brother could draw a ring round a flock of sheep with a piece of wood and none would cross the invisible barrier.
Such tales began to worry the village curé, who wondered whether the child had become subject to demonic powers through having been ineffectively baptised. At the age of seven he astonished everyone by reviving a child who had fallen from a roof and lay unconscious, and he was also said to have cured another child of double vision. Whilst at ten years of age he told a sick woman that she could only expect a recovery if she returned a sum of stolen money – and so it proved.
He was bright enough to learn to read and write and as he showed some interest in religious matters might perhaps have found a future in the priesthood. There was even talk of a bright light having being seen in his vicinity on 31st May 1862, when at the age of thirteen, he took his first communion. And after this it was realised that he could perform cures, and thus perhaps not surprising that it was felt best that he leave the village, along with his strange powers, and where the old curé wondered if the whole family ought to be put on the papal index.
Fortunately his mother had a brother who ran a butcher’s shop in the city of Lyons, and he went to live there with his uncle’s family, earning 30 francs a month for helping in the shop and making deliveries.
His uncle found him to be hard working, energetic and keen to learn, and a good example to his son. He attended a school each afternoon run by two Marist fathers who prepared students for various examinations, and from whom he obtained a ‘certificate of grammar’ along with some instruction in chemistry.
As he grew older he spent his nights reading, and his room was full of books about animal magnetism, which was widely practised in France, although he did not follow these methods in later life. “I don’t know much about animal magnetism or occultism” he later told a journalist, “I liked to study books in which learned theorists wrote of hypnosis and spiritism, but was never successful in repeating their experiments. Although this did not prevent me from accomplishing my mission to help and to cure the poor as well as the great in this world.”
He seems to have started very early on this. A man, a Monsieur Grandjean, who was later to become a relation by marriage, had been suffering from pains in his neck which, his doctor decided, needed an operation. He had gone to Lyons for this and was sitting on a seat near the hospital feeling very depressed when a young boy came up, who sat beside him and asked why he was looking so sad. After at first trying to get rid of him, the man relented and told him, whereupon the boy went into a nearby shop and came out with an old book which he gave to him, telling him to burn a few pages and rub the painful part with the ashes. Which he did and was cured.
A big city like Lyons provided an ideal location for Philippe to develop his powers and to practise them openly, and when he was 22 years old, in 1869, he enjoyed a reputation as a healer, from which date we begin to find attestations of cures signed by the sick, legally witnessed with postage stamp, name and address and signature. And when in August 1870, after the declaration of the Franco-Prussian war, he was called up for the army, 500 people protested at the prospect of losing his services.
Nonetheless he was still drafted, only to be soon discharged on account of an old hand injury. Whatever curative powers he had did not seem to apply to himself, because cutting up some meat in his early days in the butcher’s shop, the knife slipped and cut the tendons between the thumb and fore finger of his left hand, leaving him with a permanent stiffness - which proved something of a blessing when war broke out and he was considered unfit to fire a gun.
His reputation now became a concern to the local medical profession, and he was put under police surveillance, whereupon he decided to study medicine formally and seek qualification as an ‘Officier de Santé’ or Officer of Health. From the beginning of the 19th century medicine was practised at two levels in France. Doctors could practise medicine and surgery anywhere but Officers of Health, after a shorter course, could practise in a more limited way in country districts. To this end Nizier Philippe enrolled on a series of courses at the Lyons Faculty of Medicine between November 1874 and July 1975, attending the clinics of Professor B. Teissier at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital.
Here he was much admired for comforting the sick, but profoundly irritated others, particularly when advising qualified surgeons not to operate. One day, on discovering a patient weeping because he was about to have his leg amputated, he effected a cure before the operation could take place. This was too much for the surgeon to tolerate, with the result that, after a formal complaint, he was barred from the hospital and refused further enrolment on the grounds of being “a charlatan practising occult medicine”.
This did not however stop him from continuing to practise and cure people privately however, including the grand daughter of a wealthy widow, Jeanne Julie Landar, “of irreproachable morals but delicate health”, who attended his clinics and was apparently cured by him of tuberculosis. As a consequence the two were married in 1877, she aged 18, he 28.
The marriage made him comfortably well off, the family having several town houses in Lyons, and a country château on the heights of Arbresle, with a vast terrace and beautiful plane trees. The couple went to live in one of the town houses and produced a daughter Jeanne Marie Victoire on 11th November 1878. A son Albert-Benoit was born on 10th November 1880 but died in a small pox epidemic at the age of three months. Infant death was not uncommon in those days, nor did Nizier Philippe seem able to cure nearest and dearest or, in later years, himself.
From the date of his marriage Nizier Philippe set up as a chemist and from 1879 had a laboratory where he produced various products of his own devising – such as Philippine, a hair restorer, and Dentifrice Philippe, a powdered or liquid dentifrice, and a blood cleansing tonic called Rubathier (named after the hamlet of his birth). Or again huile viperine for the relief of growths or tumours. His reputation began to extend beyond France and into high society, particularly to Tunisia and Italy, and a number national and foreign distinctions came his way, including, in January 1885, a diploma from the Red Cross.
When not travelling he spent a full social life at home. He was elected town councillor from 1882 to 1888, deputy mayor from 1882 to 1884 and made head of the fire brigade (capitaine des pompiers) from 6th March 1884, an important civic post in French society, that included an impressive official uniform!
From 1885 he opened a regular clinic at 35 rue Tête-d’Or, Lyons, consisting of several floors, separated from the road by a little garden and a high wall, where every day, Saturdays and holidays excepted, he held a healing session from two oclock until four in the presence of up to eighty people of all social classes, addressing each person in turn, who told him their problem, either privately or to the general assembly. He answered questions, or would simply say, “Heaven will grant what you desire,” when apparently miraculous cures might occur. He might tell an unfortunate cripple to stand, and immediately they would walk round the hall, cured, tears streaming from their eyes. As for payment, he typically asked only that they say nothing spiteful against a neighbour for an hour, a day, or a week, or that they abandon a legal action or reconcile a quarrel.
Regarding him as a charlatan who deprived them of a good part of their clientel, the doctors of the town had him summonsed several times for “illegal use of medicine”. He was found guilty on 3rd November 1887 and fined 15 francs. In 1890 he was again prosecuted and ordered to pay 46 fines of 15 francs each. Then in 1892 brought before the court twice, acquitted the first time, and on the second 29 fines of 15 francs.
Eventually the doctors gave up pursuing him in this way, there were even some who passed their more difficult cases on to him. As for official recognition as a “doctor of medicine” he did obtain, by correspondence, some kind of qualification from the University of Cincinnati in America for a thesis on “Principles of hygiene to be applied in pregnancy and child birth”. But it was only after the turn of the century, in Russia, that he was awarded qualifications that had any value in the eyes of some of the French medical profession, after the Tsar had commissioned him with the rank of general in the Russian army and assigned him an important mission in the sanitary inspection of ports.
This was the individual against whom, in the latter part of 1894, Papus found himself ranged in the regard of his wife. And determined to sort things out by magical means!
Papus had a small magical cabinet set up in his lodgings – albeit, according to his friend Paul Sédir, a somewhat untidy and dusty one, with a second hand looking glass to serve as a magic mirror (rather than an elaborate concave or convex one) and an old naval sabre (the kind popularly known as a ‘pot stirrer’) as a magic sword.
Having traced a magic circle and lit the incense, he baptised a strip of wood (apparently in gypsy rather than ecclesiastical fashion) with the name of Maître Nizier Philippe. Chanting a conjuration he took up his sabre with the intention to hack the lath to pieces and Monsieur Philippe’s assumed powers along with it.
But as he raised his arm so he felt the weapon wrenched from his hand!
Despite his strength, for he was an athletic young man and a keen swordsman, he was forced to drop the weapon, and after a short struggle fell to the floor himself, mortified and in tears.
Which is how his friend Paul Sédir found him when he happened to call half an hour later.
From that day forward it appears that Gérard Encausse decided to meet Maïtre Philippe and continue to see him a great deal, recognising him to be his “spiritual master”, as opposed to his “intellectual master” (who was the highly regarded reclusive sage Saint-Yves d’Alveydre - of whom more later).
Eventually Papus introduced his two favourite young associates Marc Haven and Paul Sédir to Maïtre Philippe and his family, on a hastily convened meeting on a platform at a Parisian rail terminus. An event that proved to be something of a life changer for them.