Jean Delisle (17th–18th c.) was a French blacksmith, fraudulent alchemist, and rogue. Jean Delisle—which may not have been his real Christian name—was born to a peasant family in Provence, France. Delisle was uneducated and never learned to read or write. He earned a living as a blacksmith. He developed a reputation for rudeness and fanaticism. His schemes earned him an unhappy ending to his life.
He is said to have learned the alchemical arts during service to an unknown gentleman who received the secret of the philosopher’s stone from l ascaris. The master fell into disrepute with King Louis XIV and was forced to flee France. He went to Switzerland, taking Delisle with him. But at a mountain pass near Savoy, Delisle murdered his master and robbed him, allegedly stealing a large quantity of transmuting powder.
Delisle returned to France is disguise as a pilgrim. He spent the night at an inn, where he met a married woman whose surname was Aluys (or Alnys). According to lore, the two fell madly in love, and Aluys left her domestic life and went off with Delisle. They lived quietly together for five or six years in Provence, near Barjarumont in the parish of Sylanes. In about 1706, rumours circulated that Delisle was in possession of the Philosopher’s Stone and was turning lead, iron, and ordinary pumps and shovels into gold or silver. He was about 35 years of age.
In a letter written on November 18, 1706, by the prior of Chateauneuf, M. de Cerisy, to his cousin the vicar of St. Jacques du Hautpas, de Cerisy reported eyewitness accounts by the bishop of Senes and other esteemed citizens. They said that Delisle accomplished his transmutations by heating the ordinary metals and pouring over them his mysterious mixture of powder and oil. When he drew them out, they appeared to be a pale gold. Delisle also transmuted steel into gold and turned base metals into silver. Eyewitnesses, often initially skeptical, came away convinced that Delisle was not committing fraud. It was said that the oil was gold or was silver that was reduced to that state by Delisle who left it exposed to the rays of the sun for long periods of time. Delisle told people that it took him six months to make his preparations. The powder, he said, was composed of simple substances, mostly the herbs Lunaria major and minor.
Some of Delisle’s gold reportedly was refined in Paris, and three medals were struck from it. Jewelers in Lyons were said to be impressed by it, and a merchant in Digne bought 20 pounds of it.
Delisle was said to make nails that were part gold, part silver, and part iron. The prior said in his letter that he had been promised one and that he had seen a nail of gold reportedly made by Delisle; it was now possessed by the prior’s brother-in-law, who had witnessed the transmutation. The prior also saw an ingot of gold made out of pewter, possessed by the baron and baronness de Rheinwald.
Delisle’s unsuspecting clients did not realize that he accomplished his transmutations with the help of a double-bottomed crucible and a hollow wand.
The superintendent of the French royal court household sent some of Delisle’s ingots to the king, who summoned Delisle to an audience. Delisle declined with an astonishingly rude answer: The climate was not right for his herbal preparations, he loved his liberty, he had no politeness, and he spoke French badly. He was ordered to appear in royal court in Paris. This time Delisle said he would comply willingly and would come in the spring; he needed time to collect his materials to make an experiment for the king of converting lead into gold.
On January 27, 1707, the prior de Cerisy wrote again to his cousin to report that with the help of Delisle, he had himself made a nail that was half iron and half silver and had used the oil-and-powder mixture to transmute a piece of lead into gold. The prior dined with Delisle and told him that if he would divulge his secret to King Louis, he could “humble all the enemies of France.” De Cerisy described Delisle as “the miracle of art.”
Meanwhile, Delisle, despite his summons to court, continued to defraud people. A local resident named de la Palu who had no money for dowries for his middle-aged daughters took him in to live in his chateau after Delisle promised to make the daughters the richest in the province before he left for the royal court.
Whether or not Delisle ever made good on that promise is not known; most likely, he did not. He succeeded, however, in delaying his trip to Paris for two years, despite being assured safe conduct.
Suspicious of fraud, the French minister of fi nance, Desmarets, wrote to the bishop of Senes to try to fi nd out what was the truth. The bishop replied that initially he had suspected Delisle of fraud and for three years had tried to expose him but without success. He now believed him to be a genuine alchemist.
Delisle was summoned to court a third time, but again he delayed with one excuse or another. The bishop, who had personally guaranteed that Delisle would comply, now worried about repercussions against himself from the court. He arranged for Delisle to be arrested in June 1711. Delisle was taken away to Paris to be imprisoned in the Bastille.
Enroute, Delisle’s guards plotted to extort the riches they thought he possessed. Delisle was led to believe that he would be allowed to escape. In fact, the guards meant to let him get away, then pursue him, and shoot him dead. They would then take the Stone to Paris and tell Desmarets that Delisle was killed trying to escape.
The plan nearly succeeded. Deslisle was allowed to run, and then one of the guards shot him in either the thigh or the head (accounts differ). They could not complete the killing because of the timely arrival of peasants. Instead, the guards had to carry Delisle, wounded and bleeding, on to Paris. He was placed in a dungeon in the Bastille. He went into frenzies and repeatedly tore his bandages off.
The bishop of Senes visited Delisle, who claimed he could not make the secret powder—he had only been given some by an Italian philosopher, and he had used it all up in Provence.
Some accounts say that Delisle never got up from his sick bed and died in prison. Others say that he was forced to perform his alchemical experiments in his cell. After a short period of time, Delisle refused to continue. His mental condition worsened, and after nearly a year in prison, he died from his wounds or, by some accounts, poisoned himself.
- Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1932.
- Waite, Arthur Edward. Alchemists Through the Ages. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolph Steiner Publications, 1970.