If you’ve ever shared a house with a habitual sleepwalker, you may be familiar with the strange experience of having a conversation at 2 am with somebody who is fast asleep. One of my sisters went through a sleepwalking phase in childhood, and we soon became used to guiding her back to her bedroom, while saving the weirdest of her utterances for gleeful quotation at breakfast the next morning.
I now discover that – as somnambulists go – she was a mere amateur. The December 1816 issue of The London Medical Repository tells the story of a Dutch student, a Mr D., who was lodging with a family while studying.
On his arrival he warned his roommate that he should not be alarmed if he sometimes found him walking in his sleep. A few nights later the landlord was woken by an unusual noise, and went downstairs to investigate:
I found Mr. D., in his sleep, taking down some of his books, which had been sent him by his parents. I staid in the room some time, not chusing to wake him on the sudden. On further examination, I perceived he was employed in making a catalogue of them quite in the dark, and with as much precision as I could have done with a light; making no mistakes with regard to the titles of the books, the names of their authors, their respective editions, and where they were printed. On letting one of the books fall, the noise appeared to have startled him, and he hastily retired to bed.
He had no memory of the incident the next morning. He was capable of surprisingly elaborate tasks while asleep: he played chess and cards, and once wrote a letter to his professors – in Latin.
At another time, when he was to deliver a Latin oration in public, we heard him in his somnambulent state rehearse it aloud, as though the curators of the school were present; and as he was feeling for the desk to lay his thesis upon, Mr. H. stooping a little before him, he laid it upon his neck, supposing it to be the rostrum. When he had finished his oration, he bowed to the audience and to the curators, as if present, and then retired.
On another occasion, after he had gone to bed, the landlord’s daughter began to play the piano. Mr D. arrived in the room with a score, pointed to a favourite piece and placed it on the music stand for her to play. When she had done so, Mr D. and the family all applauded. He then left the room hurriedly, having apparently just woken up and realised that he was undressed.
For the most part his behaviour when asleep was calm and rational, although there was one notable occasion when this was not the case:
He supposed one night that he must fight a duel with one of his former fellow-students at Utrecht, and asked Mr. H. to be his second; the hour was fixed, the ground measured, and when the signal was given, down fell Mr. D. as mortally wounded, and requested to be put to bed, and a surgeon to be sent for immediately. As a surgeon of our acquaintance… desired to see him in his somnambulent state, we sent for him. When he asked Mr. D. where he was wounded, he put his hand to his left side, saying “here, here— here is the ball.” “I am come to extract it,” said the Surgeon; “but before I begin the operation, you must take some of these drops which I have brought with me.” After that, making some great pressure upon the side where Mr. D. said he was wounded, the Surgeon said the ball was out. Mr. D. felt at his side—” so it is,” he said; “I thank you for your skilful operation. Is my antagonist dead?” he asked; and when they told him he was living, joy beamed in his countenance; and it appeared as if that joy awakened him.