Friday, 6 January 2017

An Abridged Addition to the Legend of Bessler's Wheel

Here, very much abbreviated, is the first portion of some additional information concerning the life of Johann Bessler that has not been published yet.  This isn't the kind of thing I usually post but I thought it might be of interest, I hope you enjoy it

Bessler relates how he was forcibly inducted into the army where he worked as a medic.  During his time there he met and fell in love with a very attractive girl who happened to be the daughter of the Mayor of Annaberg. This man, Dr Christian. Schuhmann, was the head of a family which shared the Mayoral position in alternate years with the head of another powerful family.  Schuhmann was also the town physician and held a number of other influential positions within the local community.  His wife, Barbara Schuhmann, a person we shall be meeting again much later in Bessler's life, and who became a veritable thorn in his side, was involved with the local ancient practise of conjuring ghosts to help find buried treasures.  A superstitious belief in such things was not unusual then. Her maid, was Rosina Kuntzmann, also known as Angerin, someone we know from existing accounts of Bessler's life, and her malicious gossip about him. She assisted her employer in all kinds of sorcery which included the use of dead bodies to conjure ghosts, casting spells and forcasting the sex of unborn children by tasting the mother's urine!

Some local people spread the news that Bessler and the mayor's daughter, also called Barbara, had been seen kissing, under a tree in the mayor's orchard -  Barbara and her sisters were the subject of much gossip in the town, and are described as having a fairly liberal attitude to sex.  Indeed Barbara is believed to have accepted an invitation to spend the night in the nearbye army barracks.  Whether this was with Bessler I do not know, but it is possible.

Some children playing in the cellar of an abandoned house in the town, discovered the body of a dead new-born baby, which immediately set tongues wagging and rumours spread that it belonged to either the mayor's wife or one of her daughters.  In time an official investigation was launched and continued for fifteen years, attempting to prove that the mayor's wife was guilty of infanticide and that she took part in black magic ceremonies which required a child's body as part of the proceedings.

One of the chief sources of gossip was Rosina the maid, and Dr Schuhmann, irritated by the constant accusations decided to take action against Rosina, and arranged to have her imprisoned in the deepest, darkest cellar at the town hall and told her that she would not be released until she had learned not to gossip. The mayor also used his position to frustrate and prolong the official investigation into the infanticide thus protecting both his wife and himself from arrest.

Rosina wrote piteous letters from prison, to her former employer, begging for forgiveness and promising never to gossip about her employers again.  These letters still exist and subject to the resolution of some difficulties in storing them in good condition they can still be read.  Eventually Barbara Schumann persuaded her husband to order Rosina's release and she was duly allowed to return to her duties as Barbara's maid.

Predictably, further accusations against the mother, Barbara, ensued, involving her and the increasing number of reports that the town's people had begun to suffer from hallucinations, laughing and dancing insanely, frothing at the mouth and vomiting in the street.  Naturally the gossip pointed the finger at Barbara Schuhmann, accusing her of doing a deal with the devil, hence the strange behaviour of the local people. 

Finally Barbara's daughter also began to suffer similar symptoms.  It was at this point that Bessler appeared on the scene.  He claimed that despite Dr Schuhmann's best efforts, only he, Johann Bessler, could cure her of her malady and as a reward he requested permission to marry Barbara, and of course receive a dowry.  How much of this part is accurate or whether it has been romanticised by Bessler himself, is unclear, but there is a suspicion that the daughter was pregnant, possibly by Bessler, and that therefore Dr Schuhmann had nothing to lose if Bessler cured her, and took responsibility for the unborn child.  He may have thought that Bessler could not possibly cure his daughter, and therefore there was no problem in agreeing a deal that he might not have to accede to.

But Bessler's experience as an army medic and assistant to a quack doctor, had allowed him to confront a number of illnesses for which there was little information. He had, however had the good luck to learn the cause of this strange affliction which was affecting the town of Annaberg.  We know these days, of the problem of a fungus which, under certain conditions, usually damp,  grows on rye and related plants, and can cause ergotism in humans.  Ergotism can cause convulsive symptoms including painful seizures and spasm, diarrhea, itching, mental effects including mania, or psychosis, headaches, nausea and vomiting.  These symptoms are easily diagnosed these days but in the 1700s a belief in witchcraft was still prevalent and many believed the sufferers from convulsive ergotism to be possessed by demons.  A similar hypothesis has been advanced to explain the actions of the townsfolk of Salem, Massachusets in the late seventeenth century, many of whom suffered accusations of witchcraft and stood trial and many of them were put to death.

Bessler had come across such afflictions before and had learned that the cure was very simple; with-hold rye bread for several hours and the symptoms disappear.

to be continued...



  1. Very interesting John. Thanks. Looking forward to part two.

  2. Yes, thanks for the biographical material, John. I'm currently proofreading the chapter where I give a condensed version of the Bessler story. To prevent confusion, however, I am not giving the name of Bessler's mother-in-law or her various "hobbies" and just stating his new wife's name was Barbara. You raise many tangential issues here which I will also be skipping because I feel they aren't really pertinent to his discovery of a design for a working imbalanced pm wheel. They may, however, be of interest to those who want to get a fuller picture of the types of personalities and early 18th century beliefs that Bessler was exposed to. Basically, it was a world that combined the various philosophies of religions, mysticism, and the then newly developing sciences and Bessler was well acquainted with all of them. The uneducated masses still explained genetic disorders as "curses from God" that afflicted the children of evil people. The sudden mysterious onset of an illness could be the result of the victim being "hexed" by a witch. Occasionally executing a local suspected of practicing witchcraft had the therapeutic effect of calming the nerves of the masses and explained why a particular problem suddenly stopped. But, if the "witch" was married to someone with money, an exception would always be made. Probably most of the lower class people viewing Bessler's wheels would have preferred to believe that they were propelled by angels or demons rather than trained animals or an actual mechanical system. There will probably today, three centuries later, be a certain percentage of our "educated" population which will believe the same thing when Bessler wheels are successfully duplicated in the coming years.

  3. if bessler use magnets maybe this is how??


  4. You guys might like to check what Grimer has discovered on

  5. Ok I give up. What has Grimer discovered. Please give a link to what you are talking about. The limited nature of your clues leave me wanting...


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