Frank Podmore

Well-known psychical investigator and distinguished author. Elected to the Council of the SPR in 1882 and served for an unbroken period of 27 years. For eight or nine years he held, jointly with Frederic Myers, the office of the honorary secretary. He was a collaborator with Myers and Edmund Gurney in "Phantasms of the Living".

The Second French Commission

 - Frank Podmore -

          SUCH WERE the conceptions of Animal Magnetism which up till 1820 or thereabouts held the field as an explanation of the phenomena of the somnambulic trance, and which, even after a juster and more philosophic view had been propounded, continued to flourish for many years, and still linger not merely in the remoter bypaths of human experience. The inauguration of a new era in the science is due to Alexandre Bertrand, a young Paris physician, who, in 1823, published his "Traite du Sonmambulisme". In this, and another work published in 1826, "Du Magnetisme Animal en France", he reviews the work and theories of his predecessors, and puts forward an explanation of the multifarious phenomena which does not greatly differ from that held at the present time.

He begins by relating the artificial trance with spontaneous noctambulism, the somnambulic states associated with certain diseases, and the states of ecstasy epidemic from time to time in religious communities. The various phenomena observed by his predecessors - the magnetic crisis; the sensations of heat and cold; the influence of the baquet and the iron rod; the tree at Busancy; the stream of light seen by Tardy's somnambules; the conduction by iron, the reflection from mirrors, the dissipation by copper; the effects of wax, silk, wet cords, etc., as observed by Petein - the whole machinery on which the earlier writers relied as demonstrating the existence of a fluid - celestial, magnetic, or electriche sweeps away in a word by attributing the results to the imagination of the subject, preternormally alive to the least suggestion, by word, look, gesture, or even unexpressed thought, from the operator. It is not necessary to follow Bertrand in detail through the steps of his argument. His theory of suggestion is the modern theory, and by it, as we know, are explained most of the phenomena which to the earlier observers appeared most inexplicable. Indeed, it is surprising how modern Bertrand's book is. It might have issued within the last decade from the Hopital Civil at Nancy. It would need but a slight change in names, dates, and other unessential particulars to make it fit the times. For the magnetic crisis we should now substitute the three classic stages of the trance as observed in Paris, and for the names of Petetin and Deleuze those, say, of Charcot and Gilles de la Tourette. The transfer of diseases, the influence of magnets and metals, the presence of a nerve atmosphere have all been demonstrated as conclusively within recent years at the Salpetriere or the Charite as they were more than a hundred years ago at Busancy or Lyons; whilst the most brilliant results of Tardy de Montravel have been outshone in modern Paris by Dr. Luys, Colonel de Rochas, and M. Baraduc. For modern scientific appliances have enabled these later observers to claim that they can photograph the fluid which the earlier writers could only take on trust from their somnambules. And to complete the parallel, the scientific world, and the mass of medical men in this country, at any rate, are hardly more concerned about the whole business than they were sixty or a hundred and twenty years ago. As has been said of another subject:

"Hic liber est in quo quaerit sua dogmata quisque 
Invenit et pariter dogmata quisque sua."

It is no doubt this uncertainty - or rather this certainty that the observations will vary with the preconceptions of the observer - which has throughout the last three or four generations repelled the great majority of thinking men from the investigation. That Bertrand himself, had he lived, would have done much to dispel this prejudice and to win recognition for the subject among his scientific contemporaries seems probable; his premature death in 1831, in his thirty-sixth year, was an irremediable loss.

But for our immediate purposes even the revolution which Bertrand essayed in the attitude of science to the subject of artificial somnambulism is of less importance than his views on the supersensible phenomena of the trance. For this free critic of his predecessors' results, amongst so much else which he destroyed, left this part of their observations intact. Partly from his own experiments, but mainly from facts communicated to him by other observers and from authentic records in the past, he found himself constrained to believe that Petetin and the rest had been justified in their belief in action at a distance, and in the existence, in certain cases, of a faculty of acquiring information which had not passed through any known sensory channel. As may be inferred from the critical character of his mind, Bertrand had not come to this conclusion lightly. He was, of course, keenly alive to the influence of the imagination in such cases, and devised various experiments in order to exclude such influence. That he seems to have been less alive to the possibility of hyperaesthesia is, of course, to be regretted; but such experiments as the following can hardly be thought to be capable of explanation by that cause. Bertrand heads the chapter from which this extract is taken, "Communication sympatique des symptomes des maladies." He records three experiments on somnambules who had the faculty of describing correctly the diseases from which other persons were suffering. 

To test this power he brought to the first somnambule a patient of his own whom she had never seen. The chief affection in this case was asthma. The somnambule, after being placed in rapport with the invalid, shortly presented all the symptoms of a severe asthmatical attack; she then proceeded to describe with great accuracy various minor ailments and pains, and finally, a particular skin affection, the existence of which was almost certainly known to no one but the patient and her physician.

He made two similar observations on another somnambule. The second I give in his own words:

"Voici une troisieme observation faite sur la meme somnambule, et qui ne paraitra pas moins remarquable que les precedentes. Je n'avais pas prepare cette epreuve: le hasard me la fournit. J'etais aupres de la somnambule, que je magnetisais endormie sur son lit, quand je vis entrer un de mes amis accompagne d'un jeune homme blesse depuis peu de temps en duel, et qui avait recu une balle dans la tete; il etait encore malade de sa blessure, et venait pour consulter. On me le dit a voix basse, sans parler du genre de la blessure; et comme la somnambule parut disposee a donner la consultation qu'on lui demandait, je la mis en rapport avec le blesse, et me bornai A lui demander de declarer ce qu'il avait.(1) Elle parut chercher un instant, puis elle dit en s'adressant le parole a ellememe: "Non, non, ce n'est pas possible; si un homme avait eu une balle dans la tete, il serait mort." - "Eh bien!" lui dis-je, "que voyez-vous donc?" - "Il faut qu'il se trompe," me dit-elle; "iI me dit que monsieur a une balle dans la tete."(2) Je I'assurai que ce qu'elle disait etait vrai, et lui demandai si elle pouvait voir par ou la balle etait entree, et quel trajet elle avait parcouru. La somnambule reflechit encore un instant, puis ouvrit la bouche, et indiqua avec le doigt que la balle etait entree par la bouche, et avait penetre jusqu'a la partie posterieure du cou; ce qui etait encore vrai. Enfin elle poussa l'exactitude jusqu'a indiquer quelques-unes des dents qui manquaient dans la bouche, et que la balle avait brisees.

(1) Je n'ai pas besoin de dire avec quel soin on doit eviter de faire aux somnambules des questions qui puissent leur indiquer les reponses qu'ils doivent faire.

(2) "Il" = not the patient, but the inner voice which seemed to the somnambule to speak from her stomach. 

Cette observation ne me laissa rien a desirer, puisque d'ailleurs j'etais sur que la somnambule n'avait eu d'avance aucune connaissance de la personne qu'on lui avait amenee, et qu'elle n'avait pas ouvert les yeux depuis l'instant ou le blesse etait entre dans la chambre. Au reste, quand elle l'aurait vu, la balle etant entree dans la bouche sans faire aucune lesion aux tegumens exterieurs, il lui aurait ete impossible d'acquerir d'un coup-d'oeil toutes les connaissances qu'elle montra sur la nature de la blessure.(3)

(3) Traite, etc., pp. 232-4.

Bertrand cites a few observations of his own indicating action at a distance; but he admits that what indications he has himself seen of this faculty, though sufficient to justify him in giving due credence to the observations recorded by other persons on whose accuracy he could rely, were not in themselves conclusive. His explanation of the phenomenon is the precise reverse of Puysegur's. When the somnambule responds to the passes of an unseen magnetiser, the effect is attributed not to a physical, but to a mental cause - transmission des pensees.

He cites, moreover, the testimony of several contemporaries, amongst them two Paris physicians of some note, Georget, who had been converted by What he had seen from materialism to a belief in the existence of the soul, and Rostan, the author of the article on "Animal Magnetism" in the new Dictionary of Medicine, a physician of Aix, Despine, and one or two others, all of whom claimed to have witnessed phenomena-reading with the fingers or toes, the back of the head, etc. - which compelled belief in some preternormal faculty of vision. Unfortunately in none of the cases cited are the particulars given sufficient to enable us to judge whether all sources of error were excluded.(4)

(4) A. Bertrand, "Du Magnetisme Animal en France", p. 454.

It will be seen that the phenomena of somnambulism were exciting considerable attention in the medical circles of Paris at this time. From 1820 onwards, indeed, there had been several exhibitions in the Paris hospitals, designed to illustrate action at a distance and insensibility to pain. If the results in the first case were dubious, the demonstrations of anaesthesia were not lacking in cogency. The insensibility of the patients was frequently tested by the application of moxas. The moxa, we learn, produced burns, the exact dimensions of which are given, involving the whole thickness of the skin. The unhappy patients betrayed no sign of consciousness. These experiments are amongst the earliest indications of the recognition of anaesthesia as an accompaniment of the induced trance.(5)

(5) It is not a little remarkable that at a time when anaesthetic drugs were wholly unknown the induction of anaesthesia in the trance appears not to have attracted the attention of the early magnetists. They do, indeed - e.g. in the Reports of 1784 and the discussions which followed - take note of the numbness in the limbs which occasionally accompanied the trance, but this was generally attributed to the constrained attitude or, as by Deleuze, to the fact that the lower limbs were generally not included in the passes, and thus escaped the vitalising influence of the fluid ("Histoire critique", vol. i. p. 149). This singular omission is, of course, but another illustration - if another is needed - of the fact that in Hypnotism the observer finds what he looks for.

But at this time (1820-1825) not only the medical world, but Paris in general, and indeed the whole country, were busied with the marvels of the magnetic trance. A bi-monthly journal, the "Annales du Magnetisme Animal", had been started in Paris in 1814, which after a short interruption reappeared as the "Bibliotheque du Magnetisme Animal". This came to an end in 18 19, and was replaced by the "Archives du Magnetisme Animal", under the editorship of Baron d'Henin de Cuvillers. There were, moreover, professional clairvoyantes in plenty, as we learn from casual references in writings of this period, who seem to have found in the practice of clairvoyant diagnosis and treatment of disease a lucrative occupation. The Abbe Faria claimed that he had entranced more than five thousand persons.(6) Nor was the interest in it confined to France. The Academy of Berlin in 1821 proposed a prize for the best essay on the subject; a prize for which Bertrand would have contended, but unluckily his essay arrived too late.(7) In Russia a Commission appointed by the Emperor in 1815 had reported in its favour. In Prussia and Denmark the efficacy of magnetism had been recognised, and its exercise confined by law to members of the medical profession. In fact, throughout Northern Europe, but especially in Germany, the new treatment seems to have been widely practised. It was only the land of the immortal Newton "qui dans la culture des sciences, suivant la marche severe de l'experience et de l'observation, a dedaigne jusqu'a present de s'occuper de magnetisme."(8)

(6) Bertrand, "Du Magnetisme Animal", p. 248.
(7) Ibid., Preface, p. 8.
(8) Foissac, "Rapports et Discussions" (Paris, 1833), p. 41.

On the 11th October, 1825, a young doctor, P. Foissac, who had for some time past occupied himself with the study of the somnambulic trance, wrote to the Medical Section of the Royal Academy of Medicine at Paris asking them to appoint a Commission to investigate the subject anew, and offering to lend a somnambule for the purpose of experiment. The Section proceeded in the matter with due circumspection. They appointed a committee of five to consider the question whether it was suitable for the Academy to concern itself with the question or no. On the 13th December, 1825, this committee reported by the mouth of M. Husson, and recommended the Section to undertake the inquiry. The reading of the preliminary report was followed by a heated discussion, which was prolonged over the next three sittings. There is no need to analyse the debate in detail. The arguments of the opponents are by now sufficiently familiar. In the course of the fourscore years which have intervened they have been reproduced, it may be hazarded, with local modifications in the annals of every medical society in the civilised world. It was pointed out that Mesmer was a quack, and Puysegur a man without scientific education; from Germany and the Scandinavian countries, where the doctrine was most rife, had notoriously proceeded too many extravagant systems and erroneous beliefs, alike in medicine and philosophy. Some of the speakers had studied the subject for years, and were convinced that all the phenomena, "or at least nine-tenths of them," were due to illusion and fraud; it would be beneath the dignity of the Academy to undertake the inquiry, for the subject was an altogether unprofessional one, and had fallen into the hands of quacks and charlatans, who made a lucrative living out of their alleged clairvoyance; moreover, it was a very difficult subject, to investigate, since so many of the phenomena depended on the good faith of the subject; and if all that was said of it were proved true, it would still not be of the smallest use in medicine - let the physicists or somebody else take it up. Last, and most singular argument of all, there were such grave moral dangers arising from the abuse of the magnetic influence that it would be most undesirable for any responsible body of trained investigators to have anything to do with such a disagreeable business.

The supporters of the motion had, as may be imagined, the best of the argument; they had also the majority of the votes, and the recommendation was finally carried by thirty-five to twenty-five. The Commission commenced its inquiry at once, but owing to various causes did not actually present its Report until June, 1831, five and a half years after its appointment.

The Commission reported, in effect, that the alleged phenomena were genuine, and in particular that the peculiar state called somnambulism, though of comparatively rare occurrence, was well authenticated. Time had not permitted them to investigate with precision the therapeutic relations of magnetism, but they had seen enough to satisfy them of its importance as an adjunct to medical science.

But the most interesting and most controvertible of the Commission's findings related to the supernormal aspect of the phenomena. They reported that the characteristic effects of the magnetic state could be produced in the patient without his knowledge, by the mere will of the operator; that certain clairvoyants could distinguish objects placed before them when their eyes were fast closed and normal vision was impossible; that they could occasionally diagnose the diseases of other persons with whom they were placed in rapport; and that they could also predict with great exactness more or less distant pathological changes in their own organisms.

Unfortunately the extracts from the detailed experiments given in the Report furnish little support for any of these conclusions, except, indeed, the last. The power of somnambules to predict to the minute the occurrence, even weeks ahead, of epileptic crises and the like, seems fairly well established. But it is doubtfully to be explained, as even Bertrand essays to explain it, as an inference from a quickened perception of organic processes. It is in most cases probably not an inference at all, still less a prevision. What really happens, no doubt, is that the patient subconsciously sets his organism to explode in epileptic crisis, mania, and so on, and himself subconsciously attends to the fulfilment of the prediction. It is thus analogous to the carrying out of an hallucination suggested to him by the operator - as we have seen in recent times at Nancy - with this difference, that the suggestion is given by the patient to himself. But the false interpretation placed on phenomena of this kind undoubtedly contributed much in the early days to the disrepute of Magnetism in scientific circles.

As regards the operation of the magnetiser's will without the knowledge of the patient, several observations are quoted, of which the best are two cases in which Foissac himself, concealed in another room and at a distance of ten or twelve feet from the subject, with two closed doors intervening in one case and one in the other, succeeded in inducing the sleep in a few minutes.

The experiments on which the proof of vision without eyes were supposed to rest are obviously inconclusive. The subjects' eyes (two persons were found to possess the power of seeing under these conditions) were closed, so that the lashes interlaced, and the eyelids were seen by all present to be pressed together. On one occasion the lids were held down by the fingers of one of the experimenters. Under these conditions the somnambules - for they were apparently in a genuine somnambulic trance - could describe, though not without some difficulty, objects placed before them. But it was observed that the eyeballs moved, as if following the object, as in the act of normal vision. Moreover, the subject failed to read with the pit of the stomach, or through a closed envelope; and the intervention of a screen or a bandage over the eyes interrupted the performance. There can be no reasonable doubt that the "clairvoyants" in these experiments - who may have been perfectly innocent of intentional deception in the matter - did actually see with their fleshly eyes, and in a perfectly normal though somewhat unusual way. One of the committees of the Society for Psychical Research had the opportunity in 1884 of experimenting with a "clairvoyant" youth, "Dick, the pit lad," whose performances were conducted in much the same way, except that in the later case the eyes were bandaged in a manner which to the untrained spectator seemed completely effectual. Dr. Hodgson subsequently, with his eyes bandaged in the same way, and under like conditions, succeeded in seeing objects held up before him.(9)

(9) See Journal of the S.P.R. for June, 1884.

On the whole, it cannot be said that, apart from their unanimous testimony to the reality and importance of the phenomena in general, this second French Commission added much to our knowledge of the subject, or much, it is to be feared, to their own reputation. Their observations were few and inadequate, and their conclusions were not carefully framed, nor in all cases well established. It is noteworthy that though the elements of a philosophical explanation of the whole problem had been put forward some few years previously by Bertrand, with much literary skill and abundance of apt and cogent illustrations, Bertrand's name is not mentioned in the Report, and his theories are dismissed in a line.

M. Foissac, in publishing the Report,(10) triumphantly pointed out that Magnetism, after being so long a subject of derision, had at last, after a strife of fifty-seven years, been rehabilitated before the first medical society in Europe.

(10) "Rapports et discussions de l'Academie Royale de Medecine sur le Magnetisme Animal". Paris, 1833.

He may be counted happy in that he could not foresee how many rehabilitations, by or in spite of how many learned societies, would be needed before the next fifty-seven years were completed.

Source: Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism by Frank Podmore (2 vols) (London: Methuen, 1902.)

Other articles by Frank Podmore...

Home | About Us | Latest News | Biographies | Articles | Experiments | Photographs | Theory | Online Library | Links | Recommended Books | Contact Us | Glossary | Search


Some parts of this page The International Survivalist Society 2002