ased on the life of medium Eusapia Palladino, The Witch of Napoli by Michael Schmicker brings to life the darkened drawing rooms and turbulent politics of turn-of-the century Italy. The Witch of Napoli plunges into the story of Allesandra Poverelli, an Italian peasant woman who rises to the height of fame as a medium in late 19th century/early 20th century Europe.
“Born to the blood” as a strega (an Italian witch), for the sensual, tough, vivacious Allesandra, mediumship is more than a calling. It’s a means to escape her abusive husband. Her story is told through the eyes of the love struck young photographer chronicling her journey. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it’s little wonder this book has made it to the Kindle Top 100. It’s impossible to put down (or at least until your Kindle runs out of battery, which is what happened to me).
This fascinating and fun read piqued my interest in the inspiration for Allesandra, the real-life Italian medium and spiritualist who inspired the story, Eusapia Palladino ( January 1854 – May 1918). Palladino astonished audiences with amazing feats of psychokinesis and mediumship. But were it not for the help of amateur occultist Doctor Ercole Chiaia, she might have remained a second-tier medium, struggling in Naples.
On August 9, 1888, Chiaia penned an open letter to the famous criminologist and psychiatrist, Cesare Lombroso, daring him to investigate the medium. Though Lombroso initially ignored the letter, its publication launched Euspasia’s career. Here’s Chiaia’s letter:
“She is 30 years old and very ignorant; her appearance is neither fascinating nor endowed with the power with modern criminologists call irresistible; but when she wishes, be it day or night, she can divert a curious group for an hour or so with the most surprising phenomena. Either bound to a seat or firmly held by the hands of the curious, she attracts to her the articles of furniture which surround her, lifts them up, holds them suspended in the air like Mahomet’s coffin, and makes them come down again with undulatory movements, as if they were obeying her will. She increases their height or lessens it according to her pleasure. She raps or taps upon the walls, the ceiling, the floor, with fine rhythm and cadence. In response to the requests of the spectators something like flashes of electricity shoots forth from her body, and envelops her or enwraps the spectators of their marvelous scenes. She draws upon cards that you hold out, everything that you want — figures, signatures, numbers, sentences, by just stretching out her hand toward the indicated place.
“If you place in the corner of the room a vessel containing a layer of soft clay, you will find after some moments the imprint in it of a small or large hand, the image of a face (front view or profile) from which a plaster cast can be taken. In this way portraits of a face at different angles have been preserved, and those who desire so can thus make serious and important studies.
“This woman rises in the air, no matter what hands tie her down. She seems to lie upon empty air, as on a couch, contrary to all the laws of gravity; she plays on musical instruments — organs, bells, tambourines — as if they had been touched by her hands or moved by the breath of invisible gnomes. This woman at times can increase her stature by more than four inches.
“She is like an India rubber doll, like an automaton of a new kind; she takes strange forms. How many legs and arms has she? We do not know. While her limbs are being held by incredulous spectators, we see other limbs coming into view, without her knowing where they come from. Her shoes are too small to fit these witch-feet of hers, and this particular circumstance gives rise to the intervention of a mysterious power.”
Two years later, unable to ignore the acclaimed medium any longer, Lombroso deigned to investigate Palladino. His report validating her results astonished Europe and skyrocketed Palladino’s career. And although later skeptics caught her at times cheating, the mystery as to her authenticity didn’t dampen her notoriety. The more people wrote how she contrived to cheat, the more interest grew in the woman.
Believers claimed the medium only cheated when the spirits were slow to come — she was a consummate show-woman, after all — but that much of the spiritual phenomena she produced was real, defying explanation. In 1910, Palladino admitted to a reporter that she used trickery in her seances, but it wasn’t her fault. Her sitters “willed” her to act.
Michael Schmicker’s The Witch of Napoli was apparently written originally as a screen treatment and later expanded to a novel. I’d love to see this story — real or fake — make it to the big screen.
About the Author
Other books in the Riga Hayworth series of urban fantasies include: The Metaphysical Detective, The Alchemical Detective, The Shamanic Detective, The Infernal Detective and The Elemental Detective. Kirsten is also the author of Steam and Sensibility and Of Mice and Mechanicals, steampunk novels of magick and suspense.
Find her at http://kirstenweiss.com and @KirstenWeiss