Besides the “wealthy heir” profession, no business is better than alchemy, the business of turning cheap metals into gleaming gold. For centuries, untold thousands searched vainly for the elusive ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that could transmute lead or mercury into gold. Millions believed in this weird pseudo-science. Even Isaac Newton devoted more of his writings to alchemy than to math and physics.
A Grain of Truth
Where the idea came from, no one knew. Some claimed it was developed by Noach. Others argued that Moshe brought the secret from Egypt. Truth to say, the idea of transmuting cheap metals into gold holds more than a grain of truth, since just as modern science says that all elements are built from the same building blocks of protons, neutrons, and electrons, so alchemists argued that lead and gold were intrinsically the same, and that by removing the impurities of iron or mercury one could lay bare the pure gold lurking underneath. Of course, the problem was how to achieve this.
Typical of these searchers was Denis Zachaire, a sixteenth century Frenchman, who recorded his frenetic efforts in an autobiography:
“I received from home the sum of two hundred crowns for the expenses of myself and master; but before the end of the year, all our money went away in the smoke of our furnaces. My master, at the same time, died of a fever, brought on by the parching heat of our laboratory, from which he seldom or never stirred.
“I returned home at the age of twenty- five, and mortgaged part of my property for four hundred crowns. This sum was necessary to perform an operation of the science, which had been communicated to me by an Italian at Toulouse. The weight of the gold I drew out of my furnace was diminished by one-half since I put it in, and my four hundred crowns were very soon reduced to two hundred and thirty.
“I once more mortgaged my paternal lands for four hundred crowns, the whole of
which I determined to devote to a renewal of my search for the great secret. The Abbe contributed the same sum; and, with these eight hundred crowns, I proceeded to Paris, a city more abounding with alchemists than any other in the world…
“I remained for a month, almost unknown; but I had no sooner begun to frequent the amateurs of the science, and visited the shops of the furnace-makers, than I had the acquaintance of more than a hundred operative alchemists, each of whom had a different theory and a different mode of working. There was not one among them who had not some excuse for his failure; but I was deaf to all their speeches. Of our eight hundred crowns, there remained but one hundred and seventy-six.”
To hide his embarrassment, Zachaire claimed that he, of all others, eventually transmuted mercury into gold, ultimately retiring in Switzerland.
Rulers and kings took a lively part in the proceedings, sometimes for and sometimes against.
In 5164/1404, England declared the artificial production of gold a felony, due to the concern that an alchemist might furnish endless wealth to some tyrant who would enslave the country. Fifty years later, King Henry VI took the opposite tactic, granting commissions to people to discover the Philosopher’s Stone “to the great benefit of the realm, and the enabling of the king to pay all the debts of the Crown in real gold and silver.” Nobles and petty sovereigns would often invite an alchemist to their palaces and throw him into a dungeon until he produced enough lucre for his ransom. They waited in vain, and many a poor fraud sat in prison for perpetuity.
The Road to Rags
On their part, many alchemists would take up residence in a gullible noble’s home and deceive him with tricks of the trade described in a 5482/1722 report of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris, abridged here:
“The trick to which they most often had
recourse, was to use a double-bottomed crucible, the under surface being of iron or copper, and the upper one of wax, painted to resemble the same metal. Between the two, they placed as much gold or silver dust as was necessary for their purpose. They then put in their lead, quicksilver, or other ingredients, and placed their pot upon the fire. Of course, when the experiment concluded, they never failed to find a lump of gold at the bottom.
“The same result was produced in many other ways. Some of them used a hollow wand, filled with gold or silver dust, and stopped at the ends with wax or butter. With this, they stirred the boiling metal in their crucibles, taking care to accompany the operation with many ceremonies, to divert attention from the real purpose of the maneuver. They also drilled holes in lumps of lead, into which they poured molten gold, and carefully closed the aperture with the original metal. Sometimes they washed a piece of gold with quicksilver. When in this state they found no difficulty in palming it off upon the uninitiated as an inferior metal, and very easily transmuted it into fine sonorous gold again, with the aid of a little aquafortis.
“Others imposed by means of nails, half iron and half gold or silver. They pretended that they really transmuted the precious half from iron, by dipping it in a strong alcohol. Nothing at one time was more common than to see coins, half gold and half silver, which had been operated upon by alchemists, for the same purposes of trickery.”
For honest alchemists, searching for the Philosopher’s Stone was a road to poverty and frustration.
An extreme example of this type was the Italian Bernard of Treves, who inherited a vast fortune. From the age of 14 to 85, he squandered almost all his wealth on charlatans who were always delighted to help him in return for free hospitality and the chance to siphon off the gold he poured into his experiments. On one occasion, when they claimed that 42 marks of gold mixed with salt, copperas, aquafortis, eggshells, mercury, lead and dung, would increase five fold, the 42 marks mysteriously dwindled to 16.
Shortly before his death at the age of 85,
the impoverished Bernard wrote that he had discovered the secret at last – to be satisfied with one’s lot!
As to why the philosopher’s stone was sought after being discovered so many times, alchemists explained that each person had to invest his own sweat for the secret. For this reason too, the literature was always replete with riddles and double talk.
Alchemy was also associated with the search for prolonged or eternal life. The twelfth century alchemist Artephius claimed to be a thousand and twenty-five years old and many believed him. In the next century, Arnold de Villeneuve, concocted a longevity recipe that involved, among other things, fattening up chickens with a special diet including snakes, and eating them once every seven years washed down by white wine.
The Baal Shem Tov of London
Many alchemists were convinced that Jews were deeper into the secret than anyone else was. Nicholas Flamel of fourteenth century France who chanced upon an ancient book written, the book claimed, by “Abraham, patriarch, Jew, prince, philosopher, priest, Levite, and astrologer,” convinced himself that this book was a secret repository of Jewish wisdom that Titus stole from the Temple. After wearying himself over the book’s cryptic illustrations for 21 years, his wife persuaded him to find a learned rabbi to do the job. He left Paris in search of one (leaving his precious book behind lest it be stolen), but unfortunately the wise Jew he came across died on the way back. Acting on a hint the Jew had dropped, Flamel allegedly produced a large quantity of gold from mercury in March 5242/1382 when he was eighty years old, and produced huge quantities of gold until his death at the age of 116.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a speculator bought the house he had lived in and almost tore it to pieces in the hope of finding hidden gold. He ended up with nothing but heavy repair bills.
Many Jews busied themselves with alchemy. One of the best known is R. Chaim
Shmuel Falk (5468/1708-5542/1782). In about 5496/1736, we find him in the home of Alexandre Leopold Antoine, a count of the Holy Roman Empire. Only 27 years old, R. Falk had been banished from several German states for performing feats beyond people’s comprehension. Eventually, R. Falk made his way to London where, despite Rav Yaakov Emden’s accusing him of being a Frankist, he merged into the Spanish/Portuguese Jewish community and became known as the Baal Shem Tov of London due to his practical Kab-
bala and use of holy Names.
Wondrous legends sprang up about him. People said he had treasures buried in nearby Epping Forest, and once, when his carriage wheel came loose, it followed him all the way into the forest. Coal shortages never bothered him, because he produced all he wanted by means of three shirts and a shofar. Rumors spread that he saved the Great Synagogue of London from a nearby fire by inscribing four letters on the door.
Many readers are more familiar with Falk than they realize. The well known depiction of the Baal Shem Tov that hangs in
many a sukkah is actually a portrait of the Baal Shem Tov of London painted by the American artist, John Copley.
Transmutation died down during the nineteenth century in the face of rapid scientific progress, only to resurface in 5661/1901, when the famous physicist Ernest Rutherford and his colleague, Frederick Soddy, discovered that radioactive thorium automatically “transmutes” itself into radium by casting off part of its nucleus.
“Rutherford, this is transmutation!” Soddy called out when he made the discovery.
“For – sake Soddy,” Rutherford retorted. “Don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our head off as alchemists.”
Nowadays, the precious metals rhodium and ruthenian, are produced by nuclear fission, with silver as a by-product. Gold has been produced from mercury since 5701/1941, but at non-competitive cost. The art of converting rags to riches still lies beyond our grasp.
(Partial source: Mackay, Charles. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, 1840.)