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Fiction: 'A Study in Psychology' by Harle Oren Cummins

A Study in PsychologyIn one corner of his solitary cell, with face buried in his hands, sat Jean Lescaut, wife poisoner, waiting for the morrow on which he would expiate his crimes.

Each hour as the sentry made his rounds, he saw the prisoner sitting in that same hopeless attitude and despair. A month before when he first heard his sentence he had raved and fought impotently. Night after night, and day after day he had paced his narrow cell like a caged animal, but now that was over. Already the shadow of the doom which was so near had fallen upon him.

Presently there was a sound of footsteps, and the prisoner heard two people in conversation coming down the corridor. But he did not stir; events of that day had no interest for him: he was to be electrocuted on the morrow. The steps stopped outside his cell, and he heard the attendant saying, "I am sorry, Doctor Van Home, but I can give you only an hour. Orders are orders, you know."The heavy barred door swung open, was closed and locked again, and the turnkey walked away. Jean Lescaut looked up wearily and without curiosity. He saw a tall clerical gentleman regarding him intently.

"Jean Lescaut," began the stranger, stepping close to the prisoner, "I have come here today to offer you the only thing on earth which you care for — liberty."

A quick flush of color dyed the prison pallor of the man in irons, then as quickly faded again.

"I am going to offer this to you," the doctor continued, "not because I think you innocent of the crime of which you were convicted, not because I have any friendship for you, or because I desire to defeat justice. The proposition I make you is purely in the interest of science. Have you ever been hypnotized?"

The prisoner shook his head.

"Have you ever seen anyone in such a condition?"

Lescaut nodded wearily. All this talk irritated him. He wished that the man would stop looking at him so intently and questioning him so much. It reminded him of that other day in the court room when the lawyer for the prosecution had looked at him in just such a way, and asked him so many questions that he had become confused and told many things that he had never intended to tell.

"If you have seen it done, so much the better. You have probably seen persons put under this influence and then undergo tests which you know would be a physical impossibility for them to endure otherwise. I have myself given subjects arsenic, telling them it was sugar, and they felt no bad effects. I have also burned with hot irons and thrust pins into the flesh of such persons without their feeling any pain.

"Now what I have to propose to you, Jean Lescaut, is this — tomorrow at noon you are to go to the electric chair where 1800 volts of electricity will be sent through your body. At eleven o'clock tomorrow I will come to your cell and put you into an hypnotic sleep. You will go to the chair, show all the symptoms and effects of a person electrocuted, and you will apparently be dead. In reality, however, you will only be asleep. And, as I can easily obtain your body from the prison doctor on the pretense of using it for dissection purposes, I can then awaken you."

The prisoner leaned over and clutched the doctor's arm so tightly that he winced. "And what then?" he whispered eagerly.

"Then, as I have just said, I will awaken you. I will have proven that a certain theory of mine is correct or false, and you will have obtained your liberty, for I shall not hinder you from going where you will after the experiment is over. But I must first try and see if I can get control of you. You may not be susceptible to my influence."

An hour later the turnkey came to inform Van Home that his hour had expired, and the preliminary trial must have been a success, for there was a smile of triumph on the doctor's face as he bade the prisoner good day.

* * *

Next day an hour previous to the time set for the electrocution of Jean Lescaut, Doctor Van Home again visited the prisoner in his cell. At twelve o'clock two attendants came and conducted him to the fatal room. The reporters and prison officials present remarked on the calmness of the doomed man. He walked to the chair without assistance, and submitted to the strapping down and adjusting of the sponges and electrodes without a tremor.

When all was ready the warden stepped to the side of the chair. "Jean Lescaut," said he, " I am about to give the signal for you to be sent into eternity. Have you anything to say?"

The man in the chair shook his head. The warden stepped back out of sight and made a sign to an assistant behind the screen. A switch was thrown on and the voltmeter registered that nearly 2000 volts of electricity were passing through the hooded figure in the chair. The warden held his watch in his hand, glancing first at it, then at Lescaut. At the end of eight seconds he made another sign, and the man at the switch cut off the current.

The prison doctor stepped up from one side and examined the body carefully. "Justice is satisfied. I pronounce Jean Lescaut dead," he said solemnly, and motioning to two of the attendants, he bade them carry away the body.

* * *

That night, in a dissecting room in the suburbs of Albany, a crowd of scientific men assembled at the invitation of Doctor Van Home to witness an important experiment. No one knew what that experiment was to be; but every one had accepted the invitation, for Van Home had a high reputation among his colleagues.

When the last expected guest had arrived, the doctor made a few remarks to the company. "I have invited you here tonight," he said, "to witness an experiment, which, if I am not mis- taken, I have the distinction of being the first to attempt. I have today taken the law in my own hands; but, if the theory on which I have been working is correct, justice will not be de- prived of its victim.

"Today, one hour previous to his electrocution, I hypnotized Jean Lescaut, the man who poisoned his wife, strangled his child, and who was sentenced to death last July. While under my influence I told him that the current of electricity which would be sent through his body would not kill him, but would only put him to sleep, from which tonight I would awaken him.

"After he was pronounced dead by the prison doctor, I secured his body for dissection, and have had it brought into the next room. Now, if a theory on which I have been working for the last year is correct, the impression which I left on his brain, has kept that electricity from producing death; and, at my command, Jean Lescaut, though to all appearances a corpse, will speak to us tonight."

There was a stir of expectation among the doctors present as Van Home stepped into the adjoining room. Presently he returned wheeling a light operating chair, over which a sheet was thrown.

"If everything should not happen in accordance with my theory, of course what happens tonight is under the seal of the profession," he observed quietly, as he lifted the cloth. "I wish you all to examine this body and state whether or not the man is dead."

The doctors crowded about the figure in the chair, and used every known means to detect the presence of life in the body. At the end of ten minutes every one declared that Jean Lescaut was dead, that it was impossible to discover a sign of life.

Dr. Van Home pushed the operating chair with its strange burden directly under the electrie light, turning the reflector so that the strong rays fell full on the pallid upturned face. He passed his hands lightly and rapidly over the man's temples.

"Jean Lescaut," he said slowly, "can you hear me?" There was no sign of life on the part of the sleeper, and Van Home repeated his question, speaking more sharply.

Then, hardened though they were by numberless horrible scenes at the operating table, many of the doctors shuddered; for, slowly, indeed so slowly that the motion was barely perceptible, the figure in the chair began to nod its head.

"Answer me," cried Van Home, raising his voice, and taking both the man's hands in his own. One of the doctors, younger than the others, raised the window and thrust his head out into the cold air. The room was becoming oppressive.

Slowly Jean Lescaut's mouth opened. The lips parted, but no sound came forth.

"Speak," cried Van Home sternly.

"I have been executed, I cannot speak. I am dead." The words came from the man in jerky, spasmodic sentences as if torn from him against his will.

"Tell me, I command you, what has happened since I left you this morning."

"I am dead," repeated the murderer in a dull, mechanical tone.

Dr. Van Home stepped once more to the chair. He held one hand firmly against the man's forehead. The other he reached down behind the head and pressed at the base of the brain.

Again the man began to speak, this time more rapidly than before, but in a harsh, cackling voice.

"They came and took me from my cell and put me in a chair. They strapped me down, and put sponges on my spine and on my ankles. Then they put ten thousand needles into my body, and I began to grow cold and numb. My heart stopped beating, and I could not breathe. And now I am dead."

"But you are breathing."

"And now I am dead," repeated the other mechanically.

Dr. Van Home loosened his hands from the man, and turned to the watching group.

"So far I have succeeded," said he. "So far my theory is correct. The electricity did not produce death in this man because his brain could not receive the sensation. Now I am going to bring him out of the hypnotic state and see if my theory is entirely correct."

He did not state what that theory was, but stepped back to the man in the chair and began speaking in a low tone. He took both eyelids, and rolling them up, looked straight into the sleeper's eyes.

"Jean Lescaut," he cried sharply, "come to yourself! You are no longer asleep."

For the first time the man moved his body slightly, as if trying to rise. Slowly a bright red spot began to appear on each pallid cheek. His eyes rolled down from under the lids, and the pupils began to dilate.

Then, suddenly, an awful horror came into his face, and without a word of warning, as if impelled by some unseen force, he leaped forward, and fell writhing and twisting on the floor over eight feet away. His arms and legs beat the air and floor for a minute convulsively, then stiffened into strange, grotesque positions.

Dr. Van Home knelt down beside the body and examined it carefully. Then he stood up and smiled, though he was very pale.

"Gentlemen," said he, "I was entirely correct in my theory. Had I not expected this ending, I would never have dared to thus violate the law and bring this man back to life. That deadly charge of electricity which was held back from acting by the influence of my hypnotism has at last accomplished its work, as you yourselves just saw. When the numbness produced by hypnotic sleep left the man's brain, nature began to act, and the shock to the nervous system was all the more powerful because the electricity had changed its form to a static charge. You need not fear; this time he is really dead."

And thus Jean Lescaut, wife poisoner and perpetrator of a dozen crimes, helped in his expiation of those crimes to advance the cause of science; and justice was not cheated, for the execution of his sentence was merely postponed the matter of a few hours.


First published in Welsh Rarebit Tales by Harle Oren Cummins (Mutual Book Company: Boston, 1902). Cummins (1877 - 1937) is best known for this collection. Supposedly an anthology, Cummins claims that all the stories within were dictated to him by his fellow club members after a particularly lavish club dinner gave everyone strange dreams. No evidence of this exists outside of the preface, but it makes for a nice story.

Illustration by R. Emmett Owen, from the original publication.