On 10 January 2020 I attended a working meeting in Lisbon: it was hosted at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, designed by the architect Charles Correa at the point where the River Tejo meets the Atlantic (discover it here). During the meeting, Dr. Pedro Gouveia presented the recently published paper “3D Digital Breast Cancer Models with Multimodal Fusion Algorithms” (Sílvia Bessa, Pedro F. Gouveia, Fátima Cardoso, Maria Joäo Cardoso et al., The Breast, 3.1.2020). During the study, MRI and 3D surface scan were used to create 3D breast cancer models; these models will be uploaded in a headset that emulates “X-ray vision” during surgery by projecting 3D navigation data onto the surgeons’ retina: this will enable surgeons to actually “see” inside the human body, thanks to the superimposition of virtual reality reconstructions onto clinical images of a real patient, in real time.

With projects like this, science is fulfilling the old dream of seeing through solid surfaces – under the skin like 19th century magnetic somnambulists and through the walls like Superman. And I use the term “old” because at the beginning of 18th century, all over Europe rumors surfaced of a woman from Lisbon who could diagnose diseases and locate ground water and buried metals with naked eye, thanks to her “X-ray vision” abilities. Since 1725 the name of Doña Pedegache became popular, she was granted an annuity by the King and raised controversies on the scientific press.

Amazed by the impressive dialogue between present and past of Lisbon, focused on my two professional interests – mentalism and medicine – I spent the weekend looking for the traces left by the woman (on books and memories) and retracing the roads traveled by her during an exciting treasure hunt in Sintra.


Doña Pedegache, the Lisbon lady with X-Rays eyes

What was the public perception of paranormal phenomena in 18th-century Europe? Were our ancestors really more gullible than we were? Some answers emerge by examining the chronicles that speak of the woman with X-ray vision.

Doña Pedegache lives in Lisbon but the first newspaper to publish a report on her is French: in the Mercure de France (September 1725) an anonymous letter appears “on the extraordinary sight of a Portuguese woman” (1) . The author does not sign himself but declares that he is not an academic, so he will limit himself

to simply report the facts, without delaying to propose unnecessary reflections. In Lisbon there is a girl who has real lynx eyes – and I am not exaggerating; she has a view so penetrating that she finds water under the ground at whatever depth it flows; she did it and she does it every day […] and this attracts her an infinite number of rewards: but the greatest honor, which at the same time authorizes her to continue her activity, is that the king of Portugal needed water for a new construction and – after having had it searched in vain – he found several sources thanks to her, who used nothing but her own eyes to locate them. The Portuguese crown then granted her an annuity [...] and honored her with the title of Doña  (2) .

In addition to seeing underground, the girl “also sees inside the human body [...] sees the circulation of the blood, the digestive process” (3) ; this allows her to “discover diseases that escape the attention of the best doctors” (4) . The author of the letter insists that Doña Pedegache does not cure diseases: she merely diagnoses them – and is particularly good at recognizing venereal diseases, so much so that “many women, worried about the fatal effects of the libertinage of their spouses” (5) , bring them to her to be visited.

Despite the promise to limit himself to reporting the facts, once the report is concluded, the writer takes as much space to explain his opinions on the case. Convinced that many will believe that he invented everything, he wants to clarify that he is only reporting what a French gentleman who has just returned from Portugal has told him: as far as possible, he has tried to faithfully report what he has told him. The witness met the girl personally and was friend with her husband.

Now the question is just one level above, but remains open: does the unnamed witness tell the truth? The author of the letter does not answer directly but goes around the question in a masterly way:

As the saying goes, a beautiful lie that comes from afar, it becomes reality; but what interest could this man have in inventing such a story? [...] In any case, he showed me some letters received from Lisbon [...] in which he speaks of the girl. Be that as it may, I have decided to publicly tell a story that I believe is unprecedented: whether it is a fairy tale or not, I report it as they told me. I naively admit that I believed that the witness was in total good faith […] And I hope he will forgive me if I linger in these reflections – which I do en passant to justify what could be considered an excess of credulity by on my part [...] Pride prevents human beings from admitting that they are surprised at something that turns out to be false. So, it is true that in this case I believed until the last letter to the words of the witness... but since I am not good at extricating myself between true and false in cases like this, I conclude that the thing may be true, but it can also be false; I appeal to the scholars to help me understand [...] To deal with this case must be those who study Nature: they are the ones to explain this completely new phenomenon.  (6) 

In June 1728, the same journal published a second letter that downsized the case: Miss Pedegache did not use clairvoyance to find water but let herself be guided by the vapors that emanate near the land over the springs. According to the letter, the husband read the first letter and complained that he had not been involved in its drafting, finding it excessive in some points and deficient in others; the man is French, is a merchant and intends to return to his native country with his wife.

On the other hand, the new letter confirms the girl’s ability to “see in the human body as we see inside a bottle” (7) . She cannot see through the clothes, so the person to be examined must undress.

From the seventh month of pregnancy, Doña Pedegache knows how to distinguish whether the creature in the womb is male or female. This second text is more essential than the other: the author belittles some things and adds others, making the scene of clairvoyance more complex – but without going into the theme of the truth or not of the powers.

Two years later, the Description de la Ville de Lisbonne (8)  is lavish with details on the case. We discover that the husband is originally from Bayonne and that the girl’s powers have curious limitations: she must be fasting; when she avoids eating until late afternoon, she even comes to see through clothes – “but these are very rare lucky moments” (9) . Furthermore, between one quarter of the moon and the other, her eyesight is disturbed “by small atoms of yellow light that cause her eyes to tingle” (10)  The anonymous author of the book says he is convinced of the reality of Doña Pedegache’s powers:

as extraordinary as all this may seem, I will not allow myself to doubt what I have seen with my own eyes (11) .

His faith is also based on the honors that have been officially paid to her – by the King at first, who

granted her the title of Doña even before the wedding, which is far from usual in Portugal (12) .

The Description appeals to the principle of authority: if the King said it’s all true, who am I to question him?

In those days, Charles Fréderic de Merveilleux is in Lisbon; the man is writing a memorial of his travels through Europe. Completed the report of his stay in London, the man honors his surname (Merveilleux means Wonder) by celebrating the “wonderful” side of Lisbon and its surroundings. The problem is that he does it excessively, telling episodes that are so far-fetched that they seem to be taken from a B movie. Physicist Nicolas Witkowski suggests to pay attention when reading Merveilleux’s Memoires instructifs pour un voyageur ( 1738), because

The mix of reality and fantasy is at least disconcerting (13) .

According to Charles Fréderic de Merveilleux, in Portugal

everything is Mystery or Fetisserie, which means Spell or Magic. (14) 

Having said this, the man adds that in the surroundings of Sintra there is a luminous fountain that hides a treasure: a pity that the Portuguese are too superstitious and dare not look for it  (15) . During his explorations, he discovers a cave so luminescent that one can venture without a lamp (16)  but – just as a conspiracy-theory-addicted would write – the government prevented him from revealing its location, because it wants to exploit the cave to obtain gunpowder. A healer known as “the Bear” lives on the mountains overlooking the village  (17) : it is gigantic and it heals by passing hands on the body of the sick, as Franz Anton Mesmer will do half a century later using with animal magnetism; like many other psychics, the Bear cannot receive money in exchange for his “services” (it is the bond that anthropologists will call “anargirism”).

Recounting the magical side of the city of Lisbon, the author tells the story of Doña Pedegache without going into the subtleties of the debate relating to her powers; hastily, Charles Fréderic de Merveilleux writes that he will talk about it

without requiring the reader to believe my words, however much they are based on absolutely authentic stories. (18) 

The Mémories add an important piece to the story, reporting a long episode that involved the girl:

[Doña Pedegache] told me one of the most surprising facts; I was amazed just like the others who would later hear about it. As often happens, one night she dreamed of a fountain that stood near the village of Sintra; when she awoke, she described it in detail to her husband. (19) 

Together with Merveilleux, the couple reaches Sintra by carriage; the group spends two days looking for the fountain, without finding it. At 7 pm on the second day, when they are about to leave, the girl

made a scream, saying: here is the depression and the ground that I saw in the dream! (20) 

The Moorish fountain of Sintra, Portugal.
Photograph by Mariano Tomatis (11 January 2020).

She gets out of the carriage and runs towards a covered fountain “perfectly identical to the one told to her husband” (21) . Arriving on the spot, Doña Pedegache claims to see, under the floor, two pots full of gold. The ground is paved with stones, impossible to lift without the proper tools.

Merveilleux takes out a divining rod (because while the girl finds the water with the naked eye, he needs to use a wooden twig to feel the vibrations) and fits a silver coin into it. It is a test to check if there is silver underground, but the wand does not react.

But when I put a gold coin in the twig, the wand snapped with such impetuosity that the coin shot away from where I had put it and was attracted to the vault of the fountain. (22) 

Having confirmed that under the fountain there is a treasure in gold coins, Merveilleux plans to return to the place overnight. Waiting for dark

we raised one of the stones [of the floor], and the husband [...] having put his hand in the interstice, was convinced that he heard one of the pots we were looking for. I put my hand in too, and it seemed to me the same thing. (23) 

The plan of returning with a shovel and pickaxe fails because of a “rascal” servant, who spoils the news of the discovery to the King – perhaps in exchange for a reward. The treasure passes under the control of the Portuguese crown, which invites Merveilleux to participate in its digging as a simple witness.

The author does not bother to inform us about the fate of the two pots, going on to praise the “extraordinary [...] and lovable” Doña Pedegache. Compared to the reports drawn up on her so far, the Merveilleux memorial is the most passionate and least objective:

It has all the appearance of a sorceress, whose spells allow her to enchant men. (24) .

She has a twin sister: the two are so equal that, at times, Doña Pedegache’s husband has difficulty distinguishing them. Only one, however, has a lynx eye. Difficult to explain the reasons; perhaps the causes are physiological, given that the protagonist of our story rarely pooes (it can even take five or six weeks between one evacuation and another) while the twin without powers rarely pees (25) .

For the first time, the episode that started her powers is told; if it were a comic book, the story would be at the center of the first issue – the one that delves into the origins of the superheroine protagonist. The girl is not yet 5 years old. While a waitress is putting food on a plate, the little girl notices that the woman is pregnant. The waitress denies indignant, but after a few days the pregnancy is confirmed (26) . A few days later, the girl “sees” seven puppies in the body of a dog. On another occasion, while walking, she stops and says she sees – perpendicularly beneath her – a miner who is digging in the heart of the earth; the fact is confirmed (27) .

The chapter that Merveilleux dedicates to the case seems to be written as an advertising brochure for the woman: a long section is dedicated to her diagnostic skills, complete with a testimony of a recovered patient.

The doctors of Lisbon have dealt with her case by notifying her of quackery, but they had to quickly convince themselves that they were wrong. (28) 

The autopsies performed on some bodies confirm the girl’s visions. When a man suffers a bad fall, the woman sees “decanted blood”: the diagnosis allows the patient to heal himself with the right herbs and to recover completely. (29) 

It would be useless to tell many other facts that would demonstrate the truth of what I said about this extraordinary woman; it would not serve to convince those who were not yet convinced on the basis of what I have already written.  (30) 

Merveilleux concludes by explaining that her husband had tried to credit the case in the eyes of official science, proposing to accompany his wife to France at his own expense, to have her tested by the Paris Academy of Sciences. Scholars refused to consider the case, but the news did not upset the man excessively:

He reasoned that his wife is very beautiful, loves jewellery and the French are very capable of seducing women, nor do they tend to spare themselves when it comes to satisfying a passion; it would therefore have been unwise to expose oneself to the risks faced by a husband whose wife in Paris becomes the object of public courtship  (31) .

The case will be dealt with, many years later, by the Journal de Physique; in July 1772, a letter summarizes the case as told by Merveilleux in his memorial. Entire parts of the book are copied and pasted. The only unpublished element concerns a testimony of the Marquise de Sy. Died three years earlier, the woman would have seen Doña Pedegache read a sheet of paper through a matte panel one inch thick. The fact dates back to a few decades earlier: the Marquise would have told it in 1748 to Nicolas-Christiern de Thy, Count de Milly, who

authorized me to report it and that at the time he could not believe his own eyes. (32) 

After reading the letter, Count de Milly takes pen and inkwell and writes to the magazine to rectify:

I read in last July’s [letter] [...] that [...] I couldn’t believe my eyes, which is literally true; unfortunately the sentence could be misunderstood, and give the impression that I could not believe my eyes first – but then later I changed my mind; instead, I would like to declare that I am very far from believing in stories completely devoid of all likelihood, and I do not believe – from a scientific point of view – that what has been demonstrated by repeated experiments and that has obtained mathematical evidence: the case of Mrs. Pedegache […] goes hand in hand with the story of the Hungarian vampires, with the diviner’s wand, with mediumistic seances, succubus and nightmares and many other ridiculous tales, invented by some rascal or some naive, unworthy of attention of a real scientist. This is my profession of faith on the subjects we are talking about (33) .

From this moment on, the tracks of Doña Pedegache are permanently lost. Her case will be cited systematically as an example of “Mesmerism before Mesmer”, given that the clairvoyant qualities recurred in sleepwalkers throughout the 19th century as the result of “magnetic steps” (34) .

Her case is a milestone in the history of female mentalism. For some elements, it is a very emancipated woman: she earns the title of Doña herself, without having to wait for the arrival of a husband; discovers men who allow themselves “illicit pleasures” outside of marriage, to the detriment of their wives; unlike male diviners, she does without the phallic instrument that stands up in the presence of water: to unleash her paranormal qualities, her eyes are enough. One cannot help but think of the parallel – proposed by the surrealists – between the eye and the vagina: not surprisingly, when the eyelids are opened and the newborn comes out, the expression “coming to light” is used.

The little we know of her does not go down to soul level. She was probably born into a wealthy family, if we trust the detail of the waitress who serves meals when she is still a child. Together with the serious constipation, the constraint (perhaps conceived by her) of fasting to “see” better makes us think of a disturbance in eating behavior – due to who knows what trauma or simple predisposition. What we know for sure, about her fate, is that her name has been lost: Doña is the title received from a powerful man, Pedegache is the surname of another man – her husband – and no author ever took the bother to report in some chronicle the name of the woman or that of the father.

Since there is no street in Lisbon that reminds us of her, much less a cross or a plaque, I choose the monument that celebrates her.

The statue of Eça de Queiroz in rua do Alecrim 68, Lisbon, Portugal.
Photograph by Mariano Tomatis (11 January 2020).

The body is supported by the writer Eça de Queiroz (1845-1900); she is naked and beautiful as Merveilleux remembers her. The couple is portrayed on a statue in the heart of the Chiado district. In the intentions of the sculptor António Teixeira Lopes (1866-1942), who created the monument in 1903, the woman was an allegorical representation of the Truth and as such, like Doña Pedegache, she had no name. Having lived all her life on the border between true and false, reality and illusion, honesty and deception, our mentalist spreads her arms on a base that carries a sentence by de Queiroz (“Sobre a nudez forte da verdade / o mantle fantasy diáfano”):

On the strength of the naked truth, the diaphanous cloak of fantasy.

Read more

See the Dossier Doña Pedegache created by me on the )PmL People’s magic Library.


Notes

1. Anonymous, “Lettre écrite aux Auteurs du Mercure sur la vûe extraordinaire d’une femme Portugaise”, Mercure de France, September 1725, p. 2120.

2. Mercure 1725, pp. 2121-2.

3. Mercure 1725, p. 2122.

4. Ibidem.

5. Mercure 1725, p. 2123.

6. Mercure 1725, pp. 2123-4.

7. Anonymous, “Reponse au Mémoire envoyé à Lisbonne sur la femme à la vûe perçante”, Mercure de France, June 1728, pp. 1176.

8. Anonymous, Description de la Ville de Lisbonne , Pierre Praut, Paris 1730.

9. Anonymous 1730, p. 52.

10. Ibidem.

11. Ibidem.

12. Anonymous 1730, p. 53.

13. Nicolas Witkowski, “Merveilleux”, Revue culturelle “déliberé”, 13 December 2015.

14. Charles-Frédéric de Merveilleux, Mémoires instructifs pour un voyageur, Vol. 1, Amsterdam 1738, p. 103.

15. Merveilleux 1738, pp. 108 and 110.

16. Merveilleux 1738, p. 179.

17. Merveilleux 1738, p. 127.

18. Merveilleux 1738, p. 114.

19. Merveilleux 1738, p. 116.

20. Merveilleux 1738, p. 117.

21. Ibidem.

22. Merveilleux 1738, p. 118.

23. Merveilleux 1738, p. 119.

24. Merveilleux 1738, p. 120.

25. Merveilleux 1738, p. 124.

26. Merveilleux 1738, pp. 120-1.

27. Merveilleux 1738, p. 121.

28. Merveilleux 1738, p. 122.

29. Merveilleux 1738, pp. 123-4.

30. Merveilleux 1738, p. 124.

31. Merveilleux 1738, pp. 125-6.

32. Journal de physique, de chimie, d’histoire naturelle et des arts, Vol. 2, Paris, July 1772, p. 259.

33. Nicolas-Christiern de Thy comte de Milly, “Lettre adressée à l’Auteur de ce Recueil”, Journal de physique, de chimie, d’histoire naturelle et des arts, Vol. 2, Paris, September 1772, p. 431.

34. For example in Aubin Gauthier, Histoire du Somnambulisme chez tous les peuples, sous les noms divers d’extases, songes, oracles et visions, Vol. 2, Felix Malteste, Paris 1842, p. 198-9.

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