J.G. Millingen on Ventriloquism (1839)

Compiled by Steven Connor. as part of The Dumbstruck Archive, a continuing, online supplement to Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

This peculiar faculty was well known to the ancients. Hippocrates verily believed that there did exist individuals who could draw a voice from their belly. He speaks of the wife of Polimarchus, who, being affected with a quinsy, spoke in this manner; hence this power was called Engastrimysm. Plato gives us the history of Euricles, who mentions three persons whom St. Chrysostom and Oecumenius considered to be endowed with a heavenly gift. Caelius Rhodoginus describes an old woman [148-9] of Rovigo who used to deliver her oracles in the like manner, and who was never so eloquent as when stripped to the skin, when she would answer most accurately all the questions put to her by a familiar who attended upon her, and was called Cincinnatulus. Anthony Vandael, a physician of Harlem, considered ventriloquism as a supernatural power, enabling the voice to proceed "ex ventre inferiore et partibus genitalibus;" and he describes a woman of seventy-three years of age, called Barbara Jacobi, who used to ventriloquise with an imp of the name of Joachim, who would weep most piteously, or fall into roars of laughter, and sometimes danced and sun with remarkable grace and elegance, according to the depressing or exhilarating nature of Mrs. Jacobi's communications. In the Septuagint the Hebrew word Ob is rendered by Engastrimythos; and it was supposed that the Pythoness who evoked Samuel had recourse to this power. Oleaster, Grand Inquisitor of Portugal, in a work published at Lisbon in 1656, mentions a woman of the name of Cecilia who was brought before the court, and expressed herself in a ventriloquial voice, which she said was that of one Peter John, who had been dead for many years; but Peter John pleaded in vain for his hostess, for, despite his abdominal eloquence, she was sentenced to be transported. Whether Peter John accompanied her in exile is not stated. In 1643, Dickinson mentions a man at Oxford, who was called the King's Whisperer, and who expressed himself most clearly without opening the mouth or moving the lips. This faculty has frequently been employed in various speculations. In the sixteenth century Borden [sic] relates the story of a valet of Francis I., named Brabant, who thus persuaded the mother of a young girl he courted to grant her consent to their marriage as speedily as possible, if she wished her husband's soul to get out of the torments of purgatory: after marriage, however, he was disappointed in his pecuniary expectations, and he applied his powers of ventriloquism to terrify a rich banker of Lyons, of the name of Corner, to bestow a rich fortune upon his wife; for which purpose he assumed the voice of Corner's father, who supplicated him to give the money as the only means of sending his poor consuming soul to paradise.

One of the most celebrated ventriloquists was a grocer of St. Germains [sic], one St. Gilles; but he applied the faculty he possessed to benevolent purposes. Being called to reclaim a newly-married young man from a disgraceful connexion, which rendered his wife most unhappy, his supernatural voice, supposed to come from heaven, succeeded; and he was equally fortunate in bringing to a sense of propriety one of the most sordid misers of his time.

St. Gilles was not so felicitous in a trick he played to some monks, vainly attempting to prove the absurdity of their superstitious notions. One of the community had lately dies, and, according to custom, the deceased was laid out in the church, and his brethren, grouped around him, were pouring forth prayers for the repose of his soul, when St. Gilles, throwing his voice into the coffin, returned them all the thanks of the departed friar for their supplications on his behalf. The astonished monks were most edified at this miraculous event; and their prior, who knew St. Gilles to be a freethinker, endeavoured to impress upon his mind the wonder that he himself had performed, and to inveigh most earnestly against the impiety and incredulity of modern philosophers, who entertained sceptic ideas concerning miracles. After a long exhortation, our ventriloquist burst into a fit of laughter, and avowed the deception he had practised: to convince the brotherhood of the veracity of his assertion, he gave them various specimens of his skill, - but to no purpose; he was called an infidel, a scoffer, an atheist, and, had it been in Spain, the stake would in all probability have rewarded his perilous frolic, or his stiff-necked impiety in refusing to believe in his own miracles.

It is now pretty generally admitted that ventriloquism simply consists in a slow and gradual expiration, preceded by a strong and deep inspiration, by which a considerable quantity of air is introduced into the lungs, which is afterwards acted upon by the flexible powers of the larynx and the trachea: any person therefore, by practice, can obtain more or less expertness in this exercise; in which, although not apparently, the voice is still modified by the mouth and the tongue. Mr. Lespagnol, in a very able dissertation on this subject, has demonstrated that ventriloquists have acquired by practice the power of exercising the veil of the palate in such a manner, that, by raising or depressing it, they dilate or contract the inner nostrils. If they are closely contracted, the sound produced is weak, dull, and seems to be more or less distant; if, on the contrary, these cavities are widely dilated, the sound is strengthened by these tortuous infractuosities, and the voice becomes loud, sonorous, and apparently close to us. Thus, any able mimic who can with facility disguise his voice, with the aid of this power of modifying sounds, may in time become a ventriloquist.

J.G. Millingen, Curiosities of Medical Experience, 2nd edn. (London: Richard Bentley, 1839), p. 150.