Seton (or Sethon) Alexander (d. ca. 1604)
Seton (or Sethon) Alexander (d. ca. 1604)
One of the very few alchemists, reportedly, who succeeded in the great experiment of the transmutation of metals. He was said to have taken his name from the village of Seton, in the vicinity of Edinburgh, Scotland.
In the year 1601, the crew of a Dutch vessel was wrecked on the coast near Seton's dwelling, and he personally rescued several of them, lodged them in his house, and treated them with great kindness, ultimately sending them back to Holland at his own expense. In the following year, he visited Holland and renewed his acquaintance with at least one of the shipwrecked crew, James Haussen, the pilot, who lived at Arksun.
Haussen, determined to repay Seton for the hospitality he had received in Scotland, entertained him for some time in Haussen house, and to him Seton disclosed the information that he was a master of the art ofalchemy and proved his words by performing several transmutations. Haussen could not keep this information to himself and confided it to Venderlinden, a physician of Enkhuysen, and showed him a piece of gold that had been transmuted from lead. Venderlinden's grandson, in turn, showed it to the celebrated author D. G. Morhoff, who wrote a letter concerning it to Langlet du Fresnoy, author of the Histoire de la Philosophie Hermétique (3 vols., 1742).
Seton visited Amsterdam and Rotterdam, traveled by sea to Italy, then went through Switzerland to Germany, accompanied by Wolfgang Dienheim, a professed skeptic of alchemy, whom Seton convinced of the error of his views at Basel, before the eyes of several of its principal inhabitants. Dienheim described Seton, and the pen picture he made resembles a typical Scot of the seventeenth century. "Seton," Dienheim said "was short but stout, and high coloured, with a pointed beard, but despite his corpulence, his expression was spiritual and exalted." "He was," added Dienheim, "a native of Molier, in an island of the ocean."
Seton demonstrated several experiments of importance. In one of these the celebrated physician Zwinger himself brought the lead that was to be transmuted. A common crucible was obtained at a goldsmith's, and ordinary sulphur was bought on the road to the house where the experiment was to take place. Seton handled none of these materials and took no part in the operation except to give those who followed his directions a small packet of powder that transformed the lead into the purest gold of exactly the same weight. Zwinger appears to have been absolutely convinced of the genuine nature of the experiment, for he wrote an account of it to his friend Dr. Schobinger, which appears in Lonig's Ephemerides.
Shortly after this Seton left Basel and, changing his name, went to Strasbourg before traveling to Cologne, where he lodged with Anton Bordemann, who was something of an alchemist himself. In this city, Seton was sufficiently imprudent to exhibit his alchemical skill openly, on one occasion producing six ounces of gold through the application of one grain of his magical powder. The incident seems to have made an impression on at least one of the savants of Cologne, for Theobald de Hoghelande in his Historiœ Aliquot Transmutationis Mettalicœ, which was published in Cologne in 1604, alluded to it.
Seton then went to Hamburg and traveled south to Munich, where something more important than alchemy engaged his attention: he eloped with the daughter of a citizen of that city. Christian II, the young elector of Saxony, had heard of Seton's brilliant alchemical successes and invited him to his court, but Seton, reluctant to leave his young wife, sent his friend William Hamilton (probably a brother-Scot) instead, with a supply of the transmuting agent.
In the presence of the whole court, Hamilton undertook and carried through an experiment with complete success, and the gold manufactured resisted every known test. This excited the elector's desire to see and converse with Seton himself, and a pressing invitation, which amounted to a command, was dispatched to Seton, who, unable to refuse, came to the electoral court.
He was received there with every mark of honor, but it soon became evident to him that Christian II had only invited him for the purpose of learning his secret, but Seton, as an adept in the mysteries of alchemy, remained true to his calling and flatly refused to gratify the elector's greed.
In the end the elector ordered him to be imprisoned in a tower, where he was guarded by forty soldiers. There he was subjected to every conceivable species of torture, but it failed to extort from him his methods. The elector at last ceased the torture.
At this point, Michael Sendivogius, a Moravian chemist who happened to be in Dresden, heard of Seton's terrible experiences and possessed sufficient influence to obtain permission to visit him. Himself a searcher after the philosophers' stone, he sympathized with the adept, and proposed to him that he should attempt a rescue. Seton agreed to this and promised that if he were fortunate enough to escape, he would reward Sendivogius with his secret.
The Moravian traveled back to Cracow, where he resided, sold his property, and returned to Dresden. He lodged near Seton's place of confinement, entertaining the soldiers who guarded the alchemist and judiciously bribing those who were directly concerned in his imprisonment.
At last he judged that the time was ripe to attempt Seton's rescue. He feasted the guards and they were soon in a condition of drunken carelessness. Sendivogius hurried to the tower in which Seton was imprisoned, but found him unable to walk through the severity of his tortures. He therefore supported Seton to a carriage, which they reached without being observed. They halted at Seton's house to pick up his wife, who had in her possession some of the all-important powder, and sped to Cracow, which they reached in safety.
When quietly settled in that city, Sendivogius reminded Seton of his promise to assist him in his alchemical projects, but was met with a stern refusal. Seton explained to him that it was impossible for him as an adept to reveal to his rescuer the terms of such a great mystery. The health of the alchemist, however, had been shattered by the torture he had suffered, and upon his death he presented the remains of his magical powder to his preserver.
The possession of this powder made Sendivogius more eager than ever to discover the mysteries of alchemy. He married Seton's widow, perhaps with the idea that she was in possession of her late husband's occult knowledge, but she was absolutely ignorant of the matter.
Seton left behind him a treatise entitled The New Light of Alchymy, which Sendivogius published as his own. In its pages he thought he saw a method of increasing the powder, but he only succeeded in lessening it.
With what remained he posed as a successful alchemist. In his own country of Moravia, he was imprisoned, but escaped. His powder was rapidly diminishing, but he still continued his experiments. Pierce Borel, in his work Tresor de Recherches et Antiquites Galoises et Françoises (1655), mentioned that he saw a crown piece that had been partially dipped into a mixture of the powder dissolved in wine, and that the part steeped in the elixir was gold, porous, and was not soldered or otherwise tampered with.
The powder expended, Sendivogius degenerated into a charlatan, pretending that he could manufacture gold, and receiving large sums on the strength of being able to do so. He survived until the year 1646 when he died at Parma at the age of eighty-four. Seton's book The New Light of Alchymy would appear to deny that the philosophers' stone was to be achieved by the successful transmutation of metals. It stated:
"The extraction of the soul out of gold or silver, by what vulgar way of alchymy soever, is but a mere fancy. On the contrary, he which, in a philosophical way, can without any fraud, and colourable deceit, make it that it shall really tinge the basest metal, whether with gain or without gain, with the colour of gold or silver (abiding all requisite tryals whatever), hath the gates of Nature opened to him for the enquiring into further and higher secrets, and with the blessing of God to obtain them."