Prior to the eighteenth century ventriloquism was often thought to be related to some spiritual force. The study of ventriloquism and France’s Royal Academy of Sciences did not come together until the Academy decided to study the subject in 1773. What piqued the Academy’s interest about ventriloquism was a well-known ventriloquist named Monsieur St. Gille.
St. Gille was a grocer who lived near Paris at St. Germain-en-Laye. Apparently, he possessed “astonishing powers” when it came to ventriloquism. The Abbé de la Chapelle heard so much about St. Gille’s marvelous powers, he decided to visit him and discover how St. Gille was able to produce such phenomena, and for that reason he called upon St. Gille.
After some preparations, St Gille received him. A half hour then passed where St. Gille entertained the Abbé with stories about his unusual talents. Just as the Abbé got comfortable, he was suddenly called by his name and title in a voice that seemed to come from the rooftop of two or three houses distant. The Abbé was astonished. He then collected himself and asked St Gille if he had just demonstrated his skills.
St. Gille only smiled. Then as the Abbé was pointing into the distance where he thought he had heard the voice and asking how the voice had come from so far, he was answered by another voice that seemed to come from a corner of the room and from under the floor boards. In short, the voice seemed to come from anywhere that St. Gille’s desired.
The more the phenomena continued, the more astounded was the Abbé. He was also astounded to see that St. Gille’s lips did not move and that he appeared absolutely mute. Moreover, the Abbé attested to the fact that St. Gille created the voice with apparently no change in his countenance.
Another event with St. Gille proved to be just as amazing. It began when St. Gille was returning home and sought shelter in a neighboring monastery because of an approaching storm. When he entered, he found some friars in mourning as they had lost one of their brothers, who they considered to the “ornament” of their society.
St. Gille visited their brother’s tomb as the friars discussed the scanty honors the poor man had received. At that moment, a booming voice came from the roof. The astonished brethren were shocked to hear a reproach from the Heavens. The voice chastised them for wishing their dear departed brother should receive more honors. The voice was so shocking, it rendered the friars speechless. Eventually, however, they regained their tongues, gathered together, and decided to tell the rest of the community about this marvelous event.
St. Gille tried to dissuade them and told them they would look like fools, or even worse, visionaries. So, instead the friars decided to call everyone together and reiterate their complaints hoping the voice would speak again. Soon everyone arrived, and when their complaints began anew, the voice renewed its reproaches. It astonished everyone present. In fact, the brethren fell to their knees, vowed to change, and chanted a De profundis in full choir, all the while the voice continued to occasionally speak.
Afterwards, the Prior discussed with St. Gille what had happened. The Prior argued against the modern skeptics and philosophers who believed there were no ghosts or apparitions. By this time, St. Gille realized he had gone too far and tried to persuade the friars about what had really happened. They insisted they knew what they had heard, and they would not believe him until he returned to the church and they personally witnessed how he had deceived them.
The Abbé told the Royal Academy of Sciences about St. Gille’s astonishing powers, including the friar incident. The Academy members wanted to see St. Gille talents for themselves and they wanted to discover how ventriloquism actually worked. So, a plan was devised whereby St. Gille’s powers would be tested using a large party of commissioners from the Academy. The plan was for St. Gille and the commissioners to dine in the open forest near St. Germain-en-Lay on a certain day.
It was decided that except for one clueless lady, who was called the Countess de B—, everyone else present would know about the experiment. The Countess was selected as the proper victim because she knew nothing of ventriloquism and had never heard of St. Gille. The only thing the Countess was told was that an aerial spirit had lately been heard in the forest and that the commissioners planned to visit the forest to ascertain whether the spirit was fact or fiction.
On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, the commissioners and the Countess assembled. Soon, the aerial spirit began to address the Countess in a voice that seemed to come from everywhere. Sometimes it was over head, sometimes from the ground, sometimes from far away distances, sometimes from the trees, and sometimes even from under her feet. Moreover, the spirit was extremely gallant and praised her unabated for two hours.
At the end of the two hours, the Countess was firmly convinced that the aerial spirit existed. However, the behavior of the commissioners soon created suspicion in her mind, and, at length, their plot was exposed. The Countess then learned the truth about St. Gille, and although she knew no aerial spirit existed, she claimed that she was “mortified only in being awakened from such a delicious delusion.”
As for the commissioners, St. Gille deceived one of them too. Prior to joining the commissioners in the forest, St. Gille was walking abreast with one particular commissioner. The commissioner believed his associate, who was a hundred yards away, called out to him to return as quickly as possible. The commissioner’s valet also heard the voice and replied, “Yes, Sir.” However, in reality, it was St. Gille who had deceived them.
Besides the test in the forest, other tests related to ventriloquism and St. Gille were conducted by the Academy. The Academy eventually discovered that the stomach “played no part in the production of ventriloquism, and that it was caused solely by a certain constriction of the throat which was acquired by habit.” Thus, the mysteries related to ventriloquism began to fade.
As word spread about the Academy’s findings, the idea of ventriloquism became more commonly known. By the end of the 18th century, the Academy’s studies helped ventriloquism move from some sort of spiritual experience to a form of entertainment. People found they could witness ventriloquism being performed at traveling funfairs, in market towns, and eventually at theatres. Also interesting was the fact that at this time most ventriloquists rarely, if ever, used dolls and instead made their voice appear to emanate from somewhere far away.
- International Record of Medicine and General Practice Clinics, Volume 60, 1894
- The Annual Register, or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, 1774