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Mirin Dajo: Wonderman

Just after the Second World War, the Dutchman Mirin Dajo made himself into a living enigma, as his body was able to be pierced repeatedly, without suffering any internal injury or even bleeding. Sixty years on, the world has largely forgotten what he did, even who he was.

Philip Coppens

The phenomenon of apparently reality-altering displays is notoriously long. For many, this is purely conjuring, sleigh of hands or coincidence; for others it is evidence of a higher force at work, if not a “plan” of something above – God? – making itself known to us below.
Anyone visiting the idyllic Peruvian town of Arequipa will visit the Monastery Santa Catalina, which was home to a remarkable woman, Sister Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo. Her cell is more impressive than others (she was, after all, prioress) and she became known for her accurate predictions of death and disease and was credited with healings, including the severely inflicted painter who painted the sole portrait of her. When she died in January 1668, she was not embalmed because her body did not reek of death; when she was exhumed ten months later, her body had not deteriorated, remaining as fresh and flexible as the day she died. Since her death, she has been credited with several miracles and as such, in 1985, Pope John Paul II made her a saint.
Stories of miracles – healings that are accomplished mainly through devout praying of those who are sick to one or more saints – are difficult to substantiate and seem to sit largely within a religious framework, such as the miraculous healings that occur in sites such as Lourdes. They tell more about those that prayed for good health than about the saints themselves. The miracle, it seems, is that mind can alter matter and that if you believe your body can be healed, the body will heal.

Still, some saints seemed to display super-human qualities within their lifetime: Ignatius of Loyola apparently levitated in Barcelona in 1524 and so did St Teresa of Avila, who described the event as such: “You see and feel it as a cloud, or a strong eagle rising upwards and carrying you away on its wings.” None of these accounts, though “investigated” and apparently “accepted” by the Catholic faith, hold much weight for a 21st century sceptical mind. The Vatican continues to use a strange mixture of religion and science to accept or deny these “miracles”.
But what happens if reality-defying features do not fall – or no longer fall – within the bailiwick of religion? In the 1970s, Uri Geller’s psychic abilities were repeatedly (even ad nauseum) tested and confirmed in many of the world’s leading laboratories, yet we remember him most for his spoon-fights with his sparing partner James Randi, a man who seldom if ever focuses on the more difficult to contest psychic feats that Geller performed in the most scientific of conditions.
Geller was however not the first or only person in modern times that defied the laws of physics, as defined by “scientists”. What Geller was to physicists, the Dutch “Wonderman” Mirin Dajo was to doctors. On June 23, 1947, the day before the world would officially enter what would become known as the “UFO age” (with the UFO sighting of Kenneth Arnold), Time Magazine reported on this “Miracle Man”. It stated: “In times of stress ‘miracle men’ have a habit of bobbing up with ‘messages’ for a world in search of signs and wonders. Some swallow swords, some are buried alive, some sleep on tacks. Others – the more conservative kind – merely possess ‘supernatural powers.’ Last week Zurich was agog over the latest miracle man. Nightly at the Corso, the city's largest music hall, a 35-year-old Dutchman named Mirin Dajo stood stoically while an assistant seemed to push swords and spears through his chest. ‘I am no artist,’ Dajo said, ‘but a prophet. If you believe in God, your will can dominate your body. People wouldn't believe me if I started to talk. But after seeing my invulnerability they will.’ The act was a great success. So many people fainted that waiters demanded payment of checks before each performance.”

Today, Dajo is ill-remembered, if only because he was a rather localised phenomenon, contained to the Netherlands and Switzerland, for little more than two years, almost sixty years ago. Still, in 1947, headlines read that he was "like a second Messiah!" One person who witnessed one of his performances reported: "Mirin Dajo stands silently in the middle of the room, bare to the waist. In the twinkling of an eye an assistant steps behind him and rams the blade with full force in the back of his body, in the latitude of his kidney. Deathly silence. Open-mouthed, students and doctors of medicine examine the Dutchman. No doubt: an 80 centimetre long foil is stuck in his naked waist and juts out on his front side with more than a handbreadth! Over and above that no single drop of blood flows. They had never seen something similar before..."
Like Geller was tested by physicists, Dajo was repeatedly tested by doctors, if only because they were required to give him the necessary permits to perform. A Swiss doctor, Hans Naegeli-Osjord, hearing of Dajo's alleged talent, invited him on May 31, 1947 to the Zurich Cantonal hospital, where doctor Naegeli-Osjord himself, doctor Werner Brunner, the chief of surgery at the hospital, and a number of other doctors, students and journalists would test him. As usual, Dajo stripped to the waist, was pierced by a rapier through the heart, lung and kidneys, and did not bleed or feel anything. Dajo was then asked to allow an x-ray to be taken with the rapier still in place. He agreed, though the doctors wondered how they would transport him to the x-ray theatre, as a stretcher was obviously ill-suited to transport a man whose upper body had a rapier through it. Not to worry, Dajo said, he could walk to the x-ray theatre with the foil still in place. The result of the x-ray undeniably showed that Dajo was pierced through several vital organs, yet without any ill effect or internal damage. Of course, it could just be that with the rapier still inside, little trauma had been caused and that massive internal bleeding would commence once the steel blade was withdrawn. The doctors prepared for this likelihood. But when the steel blade was withdrawn, it became once again apparent that only the smallest of traces remained visible on the skin, with no blood and only a minimal amount of body fluid running out of the openings. The tiny wounds were cleansed, but Dajo and his assistant knew that even if they were not cleaned, no infection would occur.

Dajo’s display in Zurich was not the only such display in Switzerland, there were more demonstrations in front of a medical audience in Basel and Bern. In Basel, he allowed the doctors themselves to pierce him. As before, there was no harm. Some of these tests were filmed and Frontier Sciences Foundation recently showed the footage at its 2003 Frontier Symposium in Amsterdam, as well as at the 2004 Nexus Conference in the same city. The footage shows one doctor turning his head away; some believe he did so because he wanted to make sure that Dajo and his assistant did not “hypnotise” him; others interpret that the man could not look at what he was seeing, as it indeed defied our consensus of what is and what is not “possible”. In fact, whereas Dajo never came to any harm, members of the audience often fainted and during one performance in Switzerland, one member of the audience apparently suffered a heart attack, so great was the stress the audience was placed under. At another demonstration in the Corso in Zurich, the sword accidentally struck a bone while it was pushed through Dajo, resulting in several ladies in the auditorium fainting when they heard the noise. As a consequence of such incidents, the licence for public displays was withdrawn; Dajo was now only allowed to perform in closed auditoria, which he actually considered to be a blessing, as though it seemed to be a restriction, it actually allowed Dajo to address his audience and preach his message. And that was what it was all about, he argued.

Dajo began his life as Arnold Henskens, on August 6, 1912, in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. He was known as “Nol” to his friends and Nol pursued a career in the “Beaux Arts”, specifically sketching and drawing; in his twenties, he became the team leader of a design bureau. That seems all very mundane. There had been, however, a number of unusual experiences in his youth, but like so many others, he did not realise what they were or mean. Some did stand out: for several nights in a row, he had visions of his niece Hannie, who had recently died; he drew a portrait of her, trying to capture the vision he had of her. Later, he drew a portrait of a deceased aunt who had lived her entire life in South Africa and whom he had never known. Nol was able to draw her portrait with details that were soon to be confirmed by photographs; somehow, Nol’s portrait of a woman he had never seen corresponded with how the woman actually looked. It suggested that he had extrasensory perception. Most intriguingly, he found out that in the morning, he would often wake up in his bed, his hands and sheets dirty from drawing, and his studio in a mess. He then saw that without his own knowledge, he had been drawing in his sleep, returning to bed – all of this unconsciously and apparently without ever waking up.
Though intriguing, such exploits are in themselves not too extraordinary and not always signs of telepathic or other abilities. But when Nol turned 33 years old, something happened in his life. In fact, it was “nothing more” than him realising that his body was invulnerable.

Such “realisations” should of course be taking with due consideration. Perhaps the confusion over his nightly exploits had resulted in psychologically unbalancing a man who, as team leader, was often under great stress at work to deliver on sometimes harsh deadlines. He knew that if he were to tell his immediate family, he would not be believed. Others whom he did tell, did not believe either. How could he convince the world that he was indeed physically invulnerable? He decided to give up his job and go to Amsterdam, where he hung around pubs and invited people to push dagger-like objects through his body. He became a wandering solo freak show, but it did earn him money, money which he desperately needed, as he was now without a regular income and had not yet told his parents about him quitting his job or the career – or mission – he wanted to pursue.
Though Dajo would become known for his radical “body piercings”, his first demonstration actually involved him eating a piece of glass and a half dozen razor blades. After all, daggers or swords were not customary ingredients in a street café in the heart of Amsterdam. He ate them without any problem and Dajo later stated they apparently never left his body through the usual exit, which made him conclude that once eaten, they some disintegrated or dematerialised inside his body.
Notoriety – fame – was what Dajo was after. In that respect, he was once again very much like Geller and both began their careers as stage attractions, for it seemed to be the only medium through which they could get notoriety. But in the case of Dajo, it was not so much a desire to show off what he could do; it was more that he wanted to show the world that there was more to this reality than what most people had accepted reality to be. For him, his invulnerability was stage one; stage two was Dajo informing his audience that he was a man with a mission, which involved preaching to the world that they should abandon their materialistic ways, that they should realise that there was a higher force out there – the Source… God – which was working through him and which had given him this invulnerability, as a clear sign that something greater was out there. He was preaching a message of peace – he wanted world peace, as Man’s materialistic ways would lead him towards misery and war.

It was around this time that Nol became “Mirin Dajo”, a name he adopted as in Esperanto, it means “wonderful”. Like others at his time, he felt that Esperanto was a mechanism through which Mankind could be united, as it would break down the communication barriers that existed between the various nations. One language, one world.
Dajo still performed in pubs, but now needed an agent, someone who was able to give him bigger audiences; audiences to whom he could show his invulnerability and preach his message. He would use the entertainment industry and the theatres as his church; the stage would be his pulpit, where he would preach his message. He found an agent, who informed him that he needed licences to perform in public. He was therefore taken to the University in Leyden, where the likes of Professor Carp, dr. Bertholt and dr. Stokvis were amongst the first to scientifically test his performance; they gave him a licence, though only for closed clubs, because of the nature of the “act”. Indeed, the doctors felt that certain audiences could not cope with the extreme nature of Dajo’s display… and they would be proven right.
Equally, Dajo was largely only allowed to display his invulnerability and not speak, which led to frustration on his behalf as one was the precursor to the other, and more important part of the message he had to impart on the world. The same disillusionment initially occurred in 1947, when he left the Netherlands and began to perform in Switzerland. Again, doctors granted him a licence, but again, it was only for the show, not the lecture, though we already noted that this changed soon afterwards.

Dajo had a number of assistants, whose main if not only task was to put the “steel instruments” through his body. Early on in his career, he sat waiting for the bus to Amsterdam and his neighbour, Jan Dirk de Groot, sat next to him and realised that his next door neighbour was the man who had become the talk of the nation. Soon Dajo invited de Groot to become his only assistant; soon, the two became inseparable friends. De Groot thus learned that there was more to Dajo than what people saw on stage. He learned that Dajo had several “guardian angels” (apparently at least three in total, each seemingly taking over after a time from the previous one), who frequently told Dajo what to do, i.e. what specific tests he had to subject his body to. Most of these tests occurred off-stage. One exercise was to place his body on ice, before the hair on his chest would be removed with a blow torch. Another exercise involved washing himself with boiling water, which did not even turn his skin reddish, let alone burn it. De Groot realised that Dajo was often pierced up to fifty times in one single day; some days, the number was over 100. Sometimes, the instrument went through his lungs, or his heart, sometimes through his spleen, sometimes through several organs all at once. Each time, no harm came to him. On occasion, de Groot was asked to pull and push the instrument, while inside, sideways, as if to try and cause greater damage to the internal organs. Nothing. De Groot was often boxing on Dajo’s body, only injuring his own hands, but not harming Dajo in any way. On one occasion, the blade was heated to extreme temperatures before it pierced the body, but apart from some hissing when it went through his stomach (Dajo had shortly before eaten), nothing happened. One blade was even sprinkled with a poison, another was rusty, again to no ill effect. As most of this occurred in private, few people knew and some did not believe what they saw on stage. They therefore asked to pierce Dajo three times with hollow, 8mm wide tubes, the ends of which would be connected to a water supply, which turned Dajo into a human fountain. The photographic evidence speaks for itself. And whereas doctors in Zurich were surprised he could stand, let alone walk with a dagger inside him, later Dajo went outside and began to jog in the park, running several laps in front of the astonished medical assembly.

De Groot saw the private Dajo and began to understand what was truly going on. For De Groot, Dajo was a man who was the instrument of a higher force, who appeared to him in various forms, sometimes materialising, sometimes “merely” speaking to him telepathically. Parallels with Geller and his exposure to enigmatic lights and mysterious voices are, of course, once easily made. Some have rejected this bond with such entities as negative, for it seems to negate free will. Indeed, Dajo was to do as they said and De Groot has drawn various parallels with guardian angels, specifically as described by Socrates and the French cineast Jean Cocteau, both of whom stated that they lived according to the desires of their guardian angels, who were able to appear to them and advise if not direct the course of their life. Deviation from this path was not appreciated by these entities.
Apart from invulnerable, De Groot claims that Dajo was telepathic and could heal. When in Switzerland, one evening, De Groot could not reach his family back home and became worried, upon which Dajo said he should not be and should just phone them at 8am in the morning; he told De Groot that they were playing cards and would be so until 2am. In the morning, De Groot confirmed that Dajo had been correct. Various people came to Dajo, asking to be healed. One man in Holland was suffering from severe headaches and Dajo healed him, an event that occurred in the presence of a doctor. After the healing, the doctor remarked: “Boy, that’s all suggestion, we work with those things too.” To which the patient replied: “Doctor, if that is so, why did you operate on me three times and gave me all of those powders and pills and why did you not heal me with suggestion?” upon which the doctor is said to have left the house. During another display, one medical student explained the Dajo phenomenon away as hypnosis and wrote as such in a monthly magazine, though there was no evidence whatsoever that hypnosis, either self-hypnosis or mass hypnosis, was involved.

So what was going on? Like Geller, Dajo’s body had a special relationship with metal. In fact, De Groot and others reported that on occasion, something inside Dajo’s body seemed to bend the daggers, even turning them into semi-corkscrews, though this was the exception, rather than the rule.
Dajo himself said that the weapon did not go through him, but that he went through the weapon. There was a division of his body, whereby the area through which it went became “lighter”, “less physical” and hence the body did not get injured, as there was nothing “solid” to injure. De Groot claims that during one test, Dajo actually became physically invisible and remained so until his emotions took the better of him and he “materialised”, naked, in the middle of winter, on a beach where several people were walking and saw him totally naked, before Dajo quickly put back on his clothes.
Dajo and De Groot believed that Dajo was able to change the composition of his body, altering its density and even annihilating it totally from within the visible universe. This is reminiscent of an episode in Geller’s novel Ella, in which during one of her tests (based on Geller’s laboratory tests, some of which remain classified) a video camera records the event, whereby a frame by frame analysis reveals that Ella’s body seems to phase in and out of existence, being totally absent on some and not on other frames, as if her body vibrates so fast that our eyes do not see it, but not fast enough to trick the camera.
With modern research constantly pushing our understanding and revealing how our mind is indeed tricked all the time when it comes to the perception of colour, motion, etc., we should perhaps indeed wonder whether not all of our bodies “vibrate” as such, but some perhaps so fast that it becomes noticeable by cameras – which would bring new meaning to the concept by those who claim to be operating on “higher – faster? – frequencies”.

Dajo was physically invulnerable, or at least to an extent. De Groot reports how during one walk, Dajo broke his arm. This is clearly evidence that he was vulnerable. Yet De Groot claims that Dajo repositioned it and immediately could reuse the arm as if – and most likely – no longer broken. It ties in with other statements of both men that Dajo only was “superhuman” when he was “demanded” to be; Dajo was able to lead a normal life and had normal bodily sensations; only during training or his performances did he become invulnerable, suggesting he could turn it on and off.
Like Jesus, Dajo’s mission lasted approximately three years. Like Jesus, a lot of questions remain about the circumstances of his death. In Switzerland, the voices told Dajo to eat a steel needle, which a doctor would later surgically remove, without narcosis. On May 11, 1948, Dajo did as his spiritual guides told him to do and a doctor consented to surgically remove the needle, though the procedure was performed under narcosis, on May 13, 1947. Indeed, the dagger remained inside for two days. About ten days later, Dajo lay down on the bed, while De Groot went to collect his wife from the airport. When they returned, they found Dajo still on the bed. De Groot knew that Dajo often meditated, or had out of body experiences and then, as now, he checked whether Dajo had a pulse, which he had. The following day, Dajo was still in bed; he had never been in such an extended trance state, but again, Dajo was breathing and had a pulse. On the third day, De Groot checked again, but this time, there was no pulse or breathing. Dajo was pronounced dead on May 26, 1948, his death having occurred approximately 12 hours before De Groot had discovered his death.
An autopsy was performed almost immediately (even though the law stated that a period of three days had to pass before one was performed) and this revealed that Dajo had died of an aortic rupture – a verdict contested by De Groot and the surgeon, but whereby both were unable to officially contest it, if only because De Groot was a foreign national. In retrospect, De Groot realised that Dajo had known he would die soon: when he left the Netherlands some months before, he told De Groot he would not see his country again. And he told De Groot that he should not assist him when he swallowed the steel needle; if he had, De Groot would have been liable for prosecution.

Dajo believed that he was there to bring a mission of peace, but it is clear that his sudden death and the short period in which he stunned the world was not at all as powerful as, for example, the three years that Jesus preached before he died. If anything, Dajo’s death was a welcome event for those doctors who could now forget about him and the challenges he posed, though some doctors were so convinced that they wrote and spoke about Dajo and the challenges he had posed.
Geller equally failed – or was asked to fail – from the perspective as a man that would change the world in its perception of our reality. But Geller, in his novel Ella, creates a semi-autobiographical character, Ella, who does succeed where Dajo, Geller and so many others have so far failed. And, indeed, we should see these failings not so much as their own, but perhaps equally failures of the controlling entities. Dajo does indeed seem to have a “test”, a trial balloon, to see whether or not the world was “ready” for this – and after three years, the experiment was apparently cancelled.
In the novel, Ella does show the world and the world is convinced. But Ella’s message is in no respect different from Ignatius of Loyola, Geller or Dajo: she states that prayer was a vital component and that through prayer, our reality could and would be changed. Dajo did not have the medium of television, but Geller had – and still has – and in the 1970s demonstrated that change was possible, if people believed what they saw. In the end, prayer is little more than directed thought… void of doubt. Faith and prayer formed the backbone of people like Sister Anna and Ignatius of Loyola. Irrelevant of whether Jesus or not existed or his status of Son of God, their unquestionable belief and allegiance and prayer made them “supermen”… But only one Dutch superhero called himself “Wonderman”.