No License to Heal
[Reader’s Digest, Mysteries of the Unexplained, 1982, contains many fascinating accounts of mysterious occurrences that are organized under the following headings: Beyond the Walls of Time, Unearthly Fates, Monsters and More, The Unquiet Sky, and In the Realm of Miracles. But in my opinion the single most interesting story—and one of the longest—concerns the career of Arigo, a Brazilian faith healer who died in 1971. The fact that the alleged healings were the subject of extensive scientific examination, and that they were not effected at a religious shrine or in an explicitly religious environment, perhaps makes Arigo an ideal subject of study for investigators who are open to the possibility of preternatural phenomena. Indeed, both the medical establishment and the Catholic Church were hostile to Arigo’s activities, which they tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to bring to an end. More information on Arigo can be found at the links at the bottom of this webpage. Some of the Internet commentary is friendly, some hostile, and some neutral. It is very interesting to compare these various commentaries in order to shed light, not on the controversial subject of faith healing, but on the even more controversial subject of evidence weighing! This webpage is linked to a quote from Cardinal De Retz, ‘We learn from experience that not everything which is incredible is untrue,’ which is found on the webpage “Miracles & Ghosts.”]
The story of the Brazilian healer Arigo, one of the most mystifying figures in the history of occult medicine, began with dreams, headaches, and a political campaign. It ended with a crowd of some 20,000 mourners and a controversy as unresolved today as it was when Arigo was alive.
Arigo’s given name was José Pedro de Freitas. He was a farmer’s son, born in the Belo Horizonte district of Brazil in 1918. His nickname, Arigo, by which he was known, was given him while he was still a child; it can be roughly translated as “country bumpkin.”
When he was at school, Arigo was occasionally troubled by strange hallucinations. He would see a blinding light and sometimes he would hear a voice speaking in a strange language. As a young man, Arigo went to work in one of the nearby iron mines and by the time he was 25 he had been elected president of the union local. After leading a strike in protest against the brutal working conditions, he was fired. Arigo next began to earn his living as the manager of a bar in the mining town of Congonhas do Campo.
The dreams that now began to plague him nightly, often leaving him with a severe headache, were more difficult to deal with than those of his adolescence. In them he saw the operating room of a hospital, where a stout, baldheaded man addressed a group of doctors and nurses in the same guttural voice that he had first heard as a child. Deeply disturbed by the insistence of the dreams and headaches, Arigo often went to pray for help at the church of Bom Jesus do Matosinho.
Then the dream doctor revealed his identity. He was Dr. Adolpho Fritz, he told Arigo, and he had died during World War I. His own work had been cut short by his death, and he had chosen Arigo, who was, he knew, a compassionate man, to continue it for him. Henceforward, he said, Arigo would only find peace by helping the sick and distressed people around him.
For several years the vivid nightmares and fierce headaches continued. Then, in 1950, events passed out of Arigo’s control.
Elections were being held that year, and one of the campaigners to visit Congonhas was Lúcio Bittencourt, a supporter of the iron miners in their struggle for better conditions. In Congonhas he met Arigo and was so impressed by his passionate advocacy of the miner’s cause that he invited him to attend a political rally in Belo Horizonte, the nearest city. When the rally was postponed, Bittencourt invited Arigo to spend the night at the hotel where he was staying, the Hotel Financial.
Unknown to Arigo, Bittencourt was suffering from lung cancer and his doctor had advised an immediate operation in the United States.
As Bittencourt was about to fall asleep that night, the door of his room opened and someone put on the light. It was Arigo; his eyes were “glazed,” and he was holding a razor. Strangely enough, Bittencourt was unafraid. Arigo began to speak in a thick German accent and in a tone quite unlike his ordinary voice. There was an emergency, he said; there would have to be an operation. Then Bittencourt lost consciousness.
When he came to, he found that his pajama jacket was slashed and bloodstained and that a neat incision had been made toward the back of his ribcage. He dressed and went into Arigo’s room.
At first Arigo thought Bittencourt was drunk. But in Bittencourt’s room he saw the incision and bloodstained pajamas and realized that an operation of some kind must have taken place. He had no memory, however, of going to Bittencourt’s room and denied having had any part in the bizarre affair. Shaken, Bittencourt caught the first available plane to Rio de Janeiro to see his doctor.
Now Arigo was afraid. Perhaps he had performed the operation while in some kind of trance; perhaps this was what the dreams and voices had been leading to. He could only pray that Bittencourt had come to no harm.
He did not have to wait long for news. The doctor had taken X-rays and was highly satisfied with the result of what he presumed was American surgery. The tumour had been removed, he explained to an astonished Bittencourt, “by a technique unknown in Brazil,” and the patient’s chances of recovery were now excellent. Then Bittencourt told his doctor what had happened, and not only his doctor but anyone who would listen. Newspapers all over Brazil carried the story.
In Congonhas, Arigo’s priest, Father Pernido, took the story seriously enough to warn him to perform no more operations. But how could he stop doing something he had no memory of having done, Arigo asked. Local spiritists hailed him as a genuine medium, but though he rejected their acclaim, the persistent visions of Dr. Fritz continued.
During the next six years Arigo saw as many as 300 patients a day and, to contain the crowds, had to move his “clinic” from his house to an empty church across the street. Then in 1956, under pressure from the medical establishment and the Catholic Church, he was charged with practicing “illegal medicine.”
“How do you go about your practice?” Judge Eleito Soares asked him.
“I start to say the Lord’s Prayer,” Arigo answered. “From that moment, I don’t see or know about anything else. The others tell me I write out prescriptions, but I have no memory of this.” He spoke earnestly.
“What about the operations?” the judge asked.
“It is the same with them. I am in a state I do not understand. I just want to help the poor people.”
“But you are doing what you are charged with, are you not?”
“I am not the one who is doing this,” Arigo replied. “I am just an intermediary between the people and the spirit of Dr. Fritz.”
The judge was unimpressed. Could Arigo make this Dr. Fritz appear in the courtroom for questioning? All over Brazil newspapers carried reports of the trial and numerous testimonies on Arigo’s behalf. According to J. Herculano Pires, a professor of the history and philosophy of education, it was “simply ridiculous to deny that the phenomenon of Arigo exists. Medical specialists, famous journalists, intellectuals, prominent statesmen have all witnessed the phenomena at Congonhas. We cannot possibly deny the reality of his feats.”
Despite the favourable publicity, Arigo was sentenced to 15 months in jail and fined 5,000 cruzeiros (approximately $270). The court of appeals later reduced the sentence to eight months and allowed Arigo a year of probation before beginning his imprisonment. During this period he would be allowed to leave Congonhas only with the judge’s permission and would have to stop his practice completely.
For a time he did stop his practice, and the headaches began again. After a while, since the local police seemed to look the other way, he began to see his patients covertly but, at least at first, refrained from operating. In May 1958 President Juscelino Kubitschek granted Arigo a presidential pardon.
In 1961 Kubitschek was no longer in office, and the religious and medical authorities again pressed for legal action against Arigo. But witnesses willing to testify on the prosecution’s behalf were hard to find, and for months the new investigation made little headway. Then, in August 1963, Arigo performed surgery on an American investigator, Dr. Andrija Puharich. The operation brought him back into the national headlines.
Puharich, an investigator of psychic phenomena who had a medical degree from Northwestern University in Illinois, had heard stories of Arigo’s remarkable cures and had come to Congonhas to see for himself. Arigo told him that he and his three companions were welcome to observe him for as long as they wished and to interview any of his patients.
On the first day of their investigation Puharich and his friends found a crowd of nearly 200 people waiting for Arigo to open his clinic at 7 a.m. After they had all filed into the abandoned church, Arigo told them that although it was Jesus who effected the cures he was credited with, he had no interest in the religious beliefs of those present. “All religions are good. Is this not true?” he said, then asked everyone to join him in repeating the Lord’s Prayer. After this, he withdrew into a private cubicle for a few moments.
When Arigo reappeared, Puharich was struck by the change in his manner. His bearing was now formal and commanding and his speech sharp. The interpreter noticed a heavy German accent in his Portuguese and a “sprinkling” of simple German words and phrases. Arigo summoned the investigators into his treatment room. “Come,” he said. “There is nothing to hide here. I am happy to have you watch.”
What Puharich saw that day staggered him. The first patient was an elderly man whom Arigo brusquely pushed against the wall. He then took a four-inch-long stainless steel paring knife and inserted it between the man’s left eyeball and eyelid, scraping and pressing upward into the socket with a forcefulness that Puharich found shocking. But the patient seemed quite unperturbed. At length Arigo withdrew the knife, noted a smear of pus on the blade, and told the old man he would get well. Then he wiped the blade on his shirt and summoned the next patient. Puharich examined the eye. He found no bleeding and no wounds. The operation had taken less than a minute.
Throughout the morning Arigo worked in this manner, never using an anesthetic or taking any precautions against infection. As far as the investigators could see, he employed no form of hypnotic suggestion. Bleeding was invariably minimal, and the patients appeared to feel no pain. More often than not, the treatment consisted only of the writing of a prescription, which Arigo did at high speed and without hesitation. At 11 a.m. he announced that the session was over and that he would be back that afternoon after he finished working his regular job in the government welfare office (so far as is known, Arigo never accepted payment of any kind for his medical work). As soon as he left the clinic, the German accent and imperious manner left him and his usual down-to-earth amiable character emerged again.
That evening Puharich and a journalist from São Paulo, Jorge Rizzini, set up a movie camera in the treatment room. If Arigo was a sleight-of-hand expert, they would try to catch his deception on film. That night Arigo worked until 1 a.m. In a single day he had treated some 200 people.
Puharich was completely baffled. He knew that a convincingly thorough study of this amazing man’s work would require far more time, money, and equipment than was presently available. What other tests could he make before he returned to the United States? On the inside of his right elbow was a small tumour, benign but annoying, known as a lipoma. Tomorrow, he decided, he would ask Arigo to remove it. He would be his own guinea pig.
Arigo unhesitatingly agreed to perform the operation. “Of course,” he said. “Has anyone here got a good Brazilian pocketknife to use on this Americano?” Several were offered, and Arigo quickly chose one. Puharich felt a sudden chill of alarm, but there was no way now for him to withdraw. He looked to see if Rizzini had the movie camera ready.
“Just roll up your sleeve, Doctor.”
Puharich did as he was told and braced himself to watch Arigo make the incision. Arigo, however, told him to look the other way.
Less than 10 seconds later Puharich felt Arigo slap something wet and slippery into his hand. It was the excised lipoma. Glancing down at his forearm, he saw a neat half-inch slit oozing the barest trickle of blood. There had been no pain at all.
That afternoon the Americans left Congonhas. Puharich kept a careful watch on the wound in his arm; Arigo had used no antiseptics, and he was on the alert for the first signs of blood poisoning. They never appeared. Despite the unhygienic conditions and the fact that no stitches had been used to close the incision, it healed quickly and cleanly.
In São Paulo, Puharich and his friends watched the movies Rizzini had taken. They could find no evidence of trickery in them. Soon the newspapers were again buzzing with Arigo’s name and details of his operation on the American doctor.
Now the courts were spurred into action, and on November 20, 1964, Arigo was sentenced to 16 months in jail. He was allowed to leave the courtroom only to say good-bye to his wife and children, for the sentence was to begin immediately. He went home, made his farewells, and waited for the police to come.
But not a single man in the Congonhas police force was willing to take Arigo to jail, and the state police were reluctant to drive through the crowd that had gathered outside his house. As the evening wore on, Arigo became impatient and finally walked over to the prison by himself.
Even in jail Arigo managed to carry on his work. After he quelled a riot, the warden gave him the freedom to leave whenever he wished. Arigo took advantage of this dispensation only rarely and always to visit the sick. While the guards looked the other way he began treating sick prisoners and then the crowds of people who waited in the alley outside.
Arigo was released from jail in November 1965. Soon afterward Puharich returned to Congonhas with a research assistant. His plan was to test Arigo’s ability to diagnose his patients’ complaints, an activity not likely to rouse the anger of the Brazilian Medical Society. In the test Arigo gave an immediate verbal diagnosis of each patient who stepped in front of him. Of 1,000 such patients, chosen at random, 545 had brought their official medical records with them. In 518 of these cases Arigo’s spontaneous diagnosis matched that of the patient’s own doctor.
How could he possibly make such diagnoses and state them in modern medical terminology, Puharich asked. “That’s easy,” Arigo said. “I just listen to what the voice of Dr. Fritz tells me and repeat it. I always hear it in my left ear.”
More tests of Arigo’s ability followed, this time employing a battery of instruments—an electroencephalograph, an electrocardiogram, X-ray and blood typing equipment, a microscope, tape recorders and cameras. Tests were made on the patients before, during, and after their treatment, and Arigo’s surgical technique was demonstrated for the cameras on a variety of tumours, cysts, cataracts, and other complaints.
The press discovered what was going on, and a horde of reporters and cameramen descended on Congonhas. It was impossible to continue the research. Puharich returned to São Paulo with his evidence and showed it to a number of interested professionals, including an ophthalmologist, a nuclear physicist, a medium, a psychiatrist, and a cardiologist. They could only agree that Arigo’s cures were a fact.
When he returned to New York, Puharich showed colour films of Arigo’s surgery to Dr. Robert Laidlaw, former director of psychiatry at Roosevelt Hospital. Laidlaw observed that Arigo’s face assumed a quite uncharacteristic expression when he operated, that his hands and fingers moved with astonishing speed and dexterity when he worked, even when he was looking elsewhere, and that the incisions he made seemed to “glue” themselves together without stitches. Laidlaw could not explain how Arigo had acquired surgical skills that were beyond the abilities of many trained surgeons. He too was baffled.
Against the possibility that Arigo was a skilled magician are the following facts: that he indisputably cured numerous people (or, to be quite precise, that numerous people experienced cures immediately or soon after his treatment); that he made real incisions, which bled little and healed despite the unhygienic conditions attending them; that his patients experienced little or no pain during or after his surgical procedures, despite the lack of anesthetics; that he was able to diagnose illnesses at a glance and write accurate prescriptions, despite having had little formal and no medical education; and that, so far as is known, he never accepted money for his medical work but supported his family by working at an ordinary job.
José Pedro de Freitas, known to the world as Arigo, died in a car accident on January 11, 1971.
Debunker of the para-normal James Randi demonstrates "psychic surgery" on Johnny Carson
Part I of 8 mm film of Arigo's surgery made by Dr. Andrija Puharich. I recommend setting the resolution at 480p, starting 4:25 minutes in, and watching in short segments if you are prone to queasiness.
Part II of 8 mm film of Arigo's surgery made by Dr. Andrija Puharich.
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