Original script by NICK BROWNLEE
From the audio series “WELL WEIRD, WITH ADRIAN CLAYPOLE“
It’s a question which has transfixed mankind since the dawn of conscious thought, one which arguably forms the basis of all organised religion.
Is there life after death? And if so, is it possible to prove it?
Mediums and spiritualists claim to hear voices from beyond the grave. But are they merely offering comfort to the grieving, hope that a loved one continues to live on in some supernatural form?
True proof requires scientific rigour. But when it comes to believing the truth, who is to say scientists are not as susceptible to hope as the rest of us?
In 1903 pioneering research into radioactivity at the University of Paris earned Marie and Pierre Curie a Nobel Prize for Physics. Yet in the same year, some 900 miles away in Marie Curie’s homeland of Poland, another husband and wife team were engaged in groundbreaking scientific research of their own.
Bazyli and Radomila Niemcyk were research chemists at the University of Lodz. For over 15 years they had been conducting a Chemical Study of the Hibernating Gland of the Hedgehog, recording the changes the creature undergoes during Winter Sleep.
It was thankless, often frustrating work. But in recent weeks they had been aided in their research by a 22-year-old postgraduate student named Bogdan Krakowski.
Tall, dark haired, and with a sportsman’s physique, Bogdan was some 25 years younger than Bazyli and Radomila. But his energy and enthusiasm breathed new life into the project – and Bazyli in particular was taken with the younger man’s willingness to debate the burning topics of the day.
He wrote: “Despite his youth, Bogdan has proved himself a most lively and entertaining conversationalist, Bazyli wrote in his diary. He is not only well versed in the latest scientific arguments, but his sphere of interest extends to the arts and all manner of philosophical discourse.”
A subject of particular interest to both men was the age-old conundrum of whether there is life after death.
Bazyli was a pragmatist. As far as he was concerned, death was the end and there was nothing beyond it but oblivion.
Bogdan, by contrast, expressed sincere regret that the scientific community did not treat the concept more seriously.
What if death, he argued, was merely the jumping off point for the soul – the body a temporary container used to transport a man’s essence between different dimensions of time and space.
The subject came to dominate conversation between the two men to the extent that one night Radomila suggested a bizarre pact.
In the absence of any formalised scientific investigation, she said, Bazyli and Bogdan should instead set their own criteria for proving once and for all the existence of life after death.
To wit, a sign, known only to the three of them, that would be transmitted to the rest in the event that one or other should die.
The sign, it was agreed, would be in the form of a message spoken through a medium:
The message would consist of just three Latin words: Credunt Essere Vera – ‘Believe It To Be True’.
With that, the two men shook hands, their pact confirmed.
Two days later, on May 10 1903, Bazyli was struck down by a mystery illness. The symptoms we now know are consistent with those of systemic mycobacteriosis, a debilitating disease caused by handling infected hedgehogs.
Today he would be easily cured by modern antibiotics – but in 1903, Bazyli’s condition resulted in him being confined to an isolation ward for two months, subjected to painful enemas and scourging, and hung by his ankles from a special frame for three hours a day in order to encourage blood flow to the extremities.
According to his diary, what sustained Bazyli during those long, lonely weeks was the knowledge Radomila and Bogdan were continuing the vital hedgehog research without him.
But on the evening of July 3, the day before he was due to be discharged, Bazyli was visited by Professor Lech Sitko, head of the Chemistry Faculty at Lodz University, with some dreadful news.
There had, he reported, been a terrible accident. A huge explosion in one of the laboratories. Radomila and Bogdan were missing, presumed dead.
Defying his doctors’ orders, Bazyli raced to the chemistry department. There, he was greeted by a terrible scene.
He wrote: “The laboratory was indeed destroyed, as if by a mighty hand, he wrote. Smouldering wood and shards of broken glass everywhere. Nothing recognisable. And all around, hanging from ceiling beams, clinging to walls, scattered across the floor, small pieces of charred flesh. Human or hedgehog – it was impossible to tell.”
The shock of sudden death, viewed from deep within the numbing chasm of grief, can provoke many irrational reactions.
But Bazyli Niemcyk remained first and foremost a scientist. And despite his grief, nothing altered his perception that death is the end and there is nothing beyond it.
Until one day, barely a week after the accident, there was a knock at the door. The visitor introduced herself as Madam Dubcek, a medium who claimed to have a message “from the other side”.
Despite his initial cynicism, Basily’s mind spooled back to the pact he, Radomila and Bogdan had made together.
And as a man of science, he found himself compelled to find out the truth once and for all.
The two held hands over a table and, slipping into a trance, Madame Dubcek endeavoured to summon the spirits of the dead. After several minutes, her eyes rolled back into her head – and in an unearthly voice she uttered the three words that only two other people could possibly know:
“Credunt Essere Vera!”
From then on, Bazyli’s behaviour becasme increasingly erratic. In his diary he writes of destiny, of carrying out the ultimate scientific experiment. Within weeks he had quit his job at the university and sold his house.
And then one day in August 1903, a woman out walking her dog in woodland on the outskirts of the city came across a grisly spectacle: the body of a man hanging by his neck from the bough of a tree.
When the police cut him down they discovered a letter in his pocket, addressed to Professor Sitko of the Chemistry Faculty at the University of Lodz.
My Dear Sitko, it read, Death is but an illusion. Life is merely a gateway to another existence. I know this now. I have proof. Irrefutable proof. But as a man of science it remains my duty to investigate further. By the time you read this letter, I will have embarked on a voyage of discovery to another dimension. Seek out the woman named Madame Dubcek – and we shall talk again. Faithfully yours, Bazyli Niemcyk
Is life merely a gateway to another existence?
At the moment of his death, Bazyli Niemcyk believed this to be the case. And who knows? Perhaps he was right.
But if he was, he has yet to confirm it.
Sitko did indeed pay a visit to Madame Dubcek. And, thinking he was the police she immediately confessed to being Babs Wazinski, an out of work actress.
A couple had hired her to play the part of a medium, she said, and given her 50 zloty to recite those three Latin words.
When asked to identify the couple, all Wazinski could say was that in her opinion the woman was old enough to be the man’s mother.
Radomila and Bogdan immediately became the subject of a major manhunt. But this was 1903: there was no CCTV, no phone tracking, none of the technological aids available to today’s detectives.
After two fruitless months the search was ended. The official verdict was that the pair had indeed perished along with 300 hedgehogs in that laboratory explosion.
Except six months later Bogdan Krakowski handed himself in. Under interrogation he freely admitted his part in the deception, claiming that he and Radomila had fallen in love and eloped in order to set up a mobile poodle parlour in Smolensk.
The medium had been her idea, Bogdan said. Radomila knew that if Bazyli thought there was life after death, his curiosity would get the better of him – leaving them free to lead their lives together.
“Deep down he is a good man,” she had told Bogdan. “But he is also a very stupid man.”
But with Bazyli gone, the romance had soon turned sour. According to Bogdan, Radomila was insufferable – nagging him from dawn till dusk and treating him as little more than a sex slave at night. She had also put on weight, he said.
And when Radomila announced she had offered board and lodging to a 19-year-old circus performer named Aleksander, Bogdan realised his days were numbered.
Radomila Niemcyk was soon apprehended and she too confessed. At their trial, they argued that they had acted out of love and that they had not intended for Bazyli to take his own life.
The judge disagreed and sentenced them to death. Still protesting their innocence, Radomila and Bogdan were dragged to the town square and crushed beneath five hundredweight of turnips – a traditional form of execution in Poland until the late 1970s.
Science has opened many doors to our greater understanding of the world in which we live. Yet death remains a door that is stubbornly locked.
Many have sought the key, but without success. What lies behind the door, it seems, must remain tantalisingly out of reach of the living – its contents known only to the dead…