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James Price


James Price in his laboatory

Count Cagliostro is often described as he last alchemist but James Price gets my vote. He might not have been historically the last of the alchemists but he certainly sounded the death-knell both of alchemy and of himself in a quite spectacular way.

Price was born in London in 1752 and graduated to Oxford where he excelled in chemistry, being elected into the Royal Society in 1781 at the age of twenty nine. He began experimenting with turning base metals into gold at home in Guildford. He claimed to have succeeded in turning mercury into silver and gold and performed a transmutation, allegedly, in front of a number of prominent people. He demonstrated that he could produce precious metals by mixing borax, nitre, and a red or white powder of his own devising (known as the powder of production) with fifty times its own weight in mercury and stirring the mixture in a crucible with an iron rod. Mixing in the red powder produced gold and the white powder, silver.

News of his experiments travelled and a sample of his gold was even received by King George the third.

Unfortunately, however, alchemy had fallen into disfavour with the society for close on a eighty years ever since Isaac Newton became president in 1703. Accordingly, the current president, Sir Joseph Banks, insisted that Price repeated his experiment in front of the Society. Price made various excuses including that he was exhausted from experimentation and that it cost 17 to make an ounce of gold which would only fetch 4.

The experiment was scheduled for the third of August 1783. Price rose in front of the assembled gathering of the Society (which only consisted of three persons because no-one else bothered to turn up).

Price obviously lacked confidence in the outcome of the demonstration but his presentation was stunning. Just before the experiment was due to commence he swallowed a bottle of prussic acid and dropped dead in front of his audience.

Bearing in mind that the ultimate goal of alchemy was not merely the tranmutation of base metals into gold but he transmutation of the soul, Price's demonstation could be said to have been ironically appropriate. He was considered to have lost his mind, and his passing symbolised the demise of European alchemy.

Acknowledgements and further reading:

Sean MartinAlchemy, the Philosopher's StoneWildwood House
Gilchrist, CherryAlchemy, The Great WorkThorsons
Innes, BrianThe Search For The Philosopher's Stone Orbis
Klossowski de Rola, StanislasAlchemy, The Secret ArtThames and Hudson
Redgrove, StanleyAlchemy Ancient and ModernAres

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Ken James 2008