The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
Dangerous Popular Delusions
Dangerous Popular Delusions.
The account of the death of the Welsh fasting girl by starvation, reveals a phase in human nature of a very saddening kind, and should teach a lesson to many beyond the precincts of that remote district in Wales, where this poor young victim to avarice and fraud has perished.
It is a great error to suppose that the days of imposture and delusion have passed away, or that the progress of science, and the increased facilities afforded for the acquisition of knowledge suffice to protect every class of minds from the current impositions of the day. It is, moreover, a remarkable fact, that the mode in which a community receives, and punishes, on detection, the various offenders against honesty and truthfulness in this particular, is not at all in proportion to the enormity of page 35 the offence, or to the gravity of the consequences thereby induced.
The nimble-fingered thimble-rigger and card-sharper, who fleeces his victims by cunningly surrounding his proceedings with circumstances which induce the one party to believe that he has noticed something which has been unobserved by the other, merely relieves some silly follow of what he might have applied to some more harmless purpose, is dealt with summarily by the police, takes his place at the treadmill, and resumes his occupation on his release. This person is an acknowledged cheat, has no place in what is called "society," and his influence is therefore nil.
But let a plausible character assume the title of Professor, take the Hall of an Institution, call his vagaries séances and charge his dupes so much a head for admission, and he will succeed in inducing some persons, not entirely without education, to take the Chair at such exhibitions, and thus to aid him in his knavery by giving him their countenance and their money. To such an extent was this system carried on, not very long ago, in this city, that an individual of this description, after having been spoken of as a very wonderful person, and having distinguished himself by various other eccentricities, completed his harvest and left his patrons to reflect upon his honesty and their own folly. It cannot be too widely known that the encouragement of delusions of the kind practised by the individual alluded to, has, in many instances, led to absolute insanity, and that many a sensitive mind has been permanently destroyed by fostering delusions of this description. It is but just to state that all those whose education and scientific acquirements entitled their opinions to any consideration on subjects of this kind, discountenanced the fraud when it was in the ascendant, and cautioned the public against it.
A still more dangerous deception is encountered, when a person, being a member of a learned profession, observing a tendency on the part of the unthinking portion of the multitude, to repudiate the principles of the profession of which he is a member, in favour of some worn-out fanatical theory, takes advantage of the ignorance of persons who are utterly incompetent to form any rational opinion on the subject and forms a profitable alliance with these extremely silly people.
The consequences of such an alliance may easily be imagined; many have lost their lives, whilst many more have languished under the steady and insidious advances of disease, simply from neglecting to avail themselves of those rational principles of science, which are supported by the experience, and have received the sanction and approval of ages, and which are applied by the government of every civilised country, not only for the benefit of every soldier and sailor in their service, but of even the humblest pauper that may be received into their hospitals.page 36
Nothwithstanding the numerous catastrophes that have occurred under the influence of this revolting infatuation, there are persons who not only give themselves up to it, but endeavour to induce others to follow their example, and who may, therefore, so far as the tendency of their delusion operates, be far more reasonably looked upon as "dangerous lunatics" than the unhappy individual who, whilst labouring under some other form of delusion, inflicts a few bruises and scratches upon his attendants, is put under proper restraint and consigned in due form to an asylum.
The delusions referred to, it will be observed, are self-inflicted by those who suffer under them, and are not sanctioned or encouraged by any competent or responsible authority; but, in the case of the Welsh girl, to which reference has been made, it seems that four trained nurses, under the sanction of the authorities of Guy's Hospital undertook to watch the child, and thus deterred her from taking the food which would have preserved her life. Such continued watching must necessarily have indirectly caused her death, and it seems that a heavy responsibility must therefore rest upon the hospital "Authorities." That any respectable medical men could be found to take part in any such proceeding is indeed extraordinary. Knowing as they must have done that it was simply impossible that the child's life could be sustained without food, they ought resolutely to have declined to take any part in an experiment at once so repugnant to right feeling and so indubitably based upon imposture.