At the age of forty-seven, Professor Cesare Lombroso was one of the most celebrated scientists in Italy. His book, Criminal Man (L'Uomo Delinquente) had made him an object of discussion throughout the world. What made it so controversial was Lombroso's theory that the criminal is a degenerate "throw-back" to our cave-man forebears—a kind of human ape. According to this view, a man born with these tendencies can no more help committing crime than a born cripple can help limping. It gave violent offense to the Catholic Church, which has always felt that "sin" is a matter of choice; but it also upset psychologists who liked to feel that man possesses at least an atom of free will. Lombroso regarded free will as something of a myth. In 1876, when Criminal Man was published, he looked upon himself as a thorough-going materialist.
Six years later, his skepticism received a severe setback. He was asked to investigate the case of a girl who had developed peculiar powers. In fact, it sounded too silly to be taken seriously. According to her parents, she could see through her ear and smell through her chin. When Lombroso went to see her, he expected to find some absurd deception.
he was a tall, thin girl of fourteen, and the trouble had begun when she started to menstruate. She began sleep-walking, and developed hysterical blindness. Yet she was still able to see through the tip of her nose, and through her left ear. Lombroso tried binding her eyes with a bandage, then took a letter out of his pocket and held it a few inches away from her nose; she read it as if her eyes were uncovered. To make sure she was not peeping under the bandages, Lombroso held another page near her left ear; again, she read it aloud without difficulty. And even without the bandage, she would not have been able to read a letter held at the side of her head.
Next he tried holding a bottle of strong smelling salts under her nose; it did not make the slightest impression. But when it was held under her chin, she winced and gasped. He tried substances with only the slightest trace of odor—substances he could not smell if he held them two inches away from his own nose. When they were under her chin, she could identify every one of them.
If he still had any doubts, they vanished during the next few weeks when her sense of smell suddenly transferred itself to the back of her foot. If disagreeable smells were brought close to her heel, she writhed in agony; pleasant ones made her sigh with delight.
This was not all. The girl also developed the power of prediction. She was able to predict weeks ahead precisely when she would have fits, and exactly how they could be cured. Lombroso, naturally, did not accept this as genuine prediction, since she might have been inducing the fits—consciously or otherwise—to make her predictions come true. But she then began to predict things that would happen to other members of the family; and these came about just as she had foretold.
In medical journals, Lombroso found many similar cases. One girl who developed hysterical symptoms at puberty could accurately distinguish colors with her hands. An eleven-year-old girl who suffered a back wound was able to hear through her elbow. Another pubescent girl could read a book with her stomach when her eyes were bandaged. Another hysterical woman developed X-ray eyes, and said she could see worms in her intestines—she actually counted them and said there were thirty-three; in due course she excreted precisely this number of worms. A young man suffering from hysteria could read people's minds, and reproduce drawings and words written on a sheet of paper when his eyes were tightly bandaged.
Excerpted from Poltergeist, by Colin Wilson