ARTICLES

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 English Mesmerists

 - Frank Podmore -

          AS WE have already seen, the phenomena of Animal Magnetism attracted little attention in this country, alone of European nations, for the first twenty five years, at any rate, of the last century. Not, indeed, but that some echoes of the marvellous doings of Mesmer and his disciples had reached England. One Dr. Bell, Professor of Animal Magnetism and member of the Philosophical Harmonic Society of Paris, founded in 1782, had, in 1785, after attending a course of lectures by Bergasse and Duval Despremenil and passing a sufficient examination, received from that society under the hands of its president and council a certificate setting forth his competence to teach and practise the science. Equipped thus "by patent from the first noblemen in France," he returned to his native land, and proceeded to give lectures and practical demonstrations in many of the chief towns of the United Kingdom. His book(1), dedicated to the pupils of his different classes, contains a fair exposition of Mesmer's teachings, such as we have already found in the writings of the earliest French Magnetists. Beginning with a dissertation on general ideas of motion, it proceeds to a consideration of magnetism at large, and as affecting the human body in particular. He gives a full description of the large oaken tub, eight feet across, which he himself used as a baquet, and incidentally mentions various points of difference between this apparatus and that used by "our society in Paris." In his treatment he is careful to begin by placing the patient with his back to the north; and he makes liberal use of artificial magnets and of magnetised water. Further, he gives instructions for magnetising, not the sick only, but a shilling or a guinea, rivers, rooms, trees, and other inanimate objects, referring in this connection to the results which he had witnessed "at the late Marquisses de Puysegur's and Tissard's seats." It is interesting to note that he claims to have observed somnambulism as early as 1784; and that amongst the phenomena of the trance he describes how some of his patients can see in the dark, can tell what is going on in another room, and can diagnose and prescribe for their own diseases and those of others. There is one curious touch, which marks off Dr. Bell from generous enthusiasts, such as were Puysegur and many of the early French Magnetisers. He recommends his disciples to have as little to do as possible with scrofula, cutaneous eruptions, and consumption; such diseases were very dangerous to treat. In the first two cases the magnetiser may contract the disease, in the last he may impart too much of his own vital force to the sufferer.

(1)" The General and Particular Principles of Animal Electricity and Magnetism", etc., by Monsieur le Docteur Bell, 1792. Entered in Stationers' Hall.

Bell was followed in 1788 by a pupil of D'Eslon, one de Mainauduc, who remained in this country for some years, teaching and holding private demonstrations. In the last decade of the eighteenth century many other professors of the art of Mesmerism sprang up in London and the provinces, and appear to have found the profession profitable - Holloway, Miss Prescott, Loutherbourg, and others. The last-named lecturer's demonstrations at Hammersmith in 1790 were so crowded that three thousand persons are reported to have attended on one evening(2). The craze, however, seems to have died out in a few years without leaving any serious traces even on popular belief, and without apparently producing any effect on scientific opinion.

(2) "Animal Magnetism" etc., by George Winter, M.D. Bristol, 1801.

In 1798 Perkins' "Metallic Tractors" came upon the scene; and after that date all interest in Mesmerism seems to have completely disappeared. At any rate, we hear little more of it in this country for a full generation. In 1828 Richard Chenevix, F.R.S., an Irish gentleman who had resided for some years on the Continent, and had there frequent opportunities of witnessing the magnetic treatment, came to this country and gave demonstrations before a large number of persons in London, Dublin, and elsewhere. Amongst those who witnessed his experiments were Faraday, Sir B. Brodie, Dr. Henry Holland, Dr. Prout, and many other medical men(4).

The interest excited, however, appears to have been short lived, and five years later J. C. Colquhoun complains in "Isis Revelata"(3) that, "of late our medical men seem liable to the reproach of having almost entirely neglected the most important labours of their professional brethren upon the Continent," i.e. in connection with Mesmerism.

(3) See his articles on "Mesmerism, improperly denominated Animal Magnetism," published in the London Medical and Physical Journal of 1829.
(4) "Isis Revelata: an Inquiry into the Origin, Progress, and Present State of Animal Magnetism". Edinburgh, 1833.

In 1837 "Baron" du Potet, who had assisted seventeen years previously at some experiments in action at a distance at the Hotel Dieu in Paris, came to London to practise Mesmerism. He obtained an introduction to Elliotson, whose interest in the subject had already been awakened by Chenevix. Elliotson allowed du Potet in the first instance to mesmerise several patients at University College Hospital. Shortly afterwards, however, he undertook the mesmeric treatment of the patients himself, and succeeded in evoking the somnambulic state and many singular phenomena in connection with it, notably in two sisters named Okey. The matter caused some stir. Many men of science and other persons of distinction, including even royal personages, came to the hospital to see the marvels. So great was the crowd that Elliotson applied to the Council for permission to hold demonstrations in one of the theatres of the college. Permission was refused, and he was finally requested, in the interests of the hospital, to discontinue the practice of Mesmerism within its walls. He replied by resigning, in the autumn of 1838, his professorship and severing his connection with the hospital.

The objection of the hospital authorities to the use of Mesmerism was not altogether ill-founded. Elliotson had not, indeed, confined himself to using the mesmeric sleep as an auxiliary in therapeutics. He claimed to demonstrate many other phenomena of a dubious kind, especially the extraordinary influence of metals and other substances in conveying and enhancing the virtues of the mesmeric effluence. Gold, silver, platinum, water, and the moisture of the skin were found to transmit it; copper, zinc, tin, pewter, etc., unless wet, were non-conductors. Of the conductors, nickel and gold were said to be the best; but the mesmeric influence as transmitted by nickel was of an extremely violent and even dangerous character. Some of the most striking effects were produced by gold: thus, if a sovereign, mesmerised by being retained in the operator's hand, were placed in the hand of one of the Okeys, it would cause cramp, either local or general, trance, or coma, the effect being, it was alleged, strictly proportioned to the strength of the original dose of mesmeric fluid communicated to the metal. Analogous effects were observed if a sovereign was placed successively in the hands of several hospital patients and thence transferred to the hand of the sensitive, the effect produced in the latter varying in strength with the state of the patients' vitality. If mesmerised sovereigns were placed in a pewter vessel, the influence would be gradually transmitted to the sensitive's hand. In stooping to pick up a mesmerised sovereign from the floor, the Okeys would suddenly become cataleptic, as their hands approached the metal, and remain fixed in a stooping position. Dr. Herbert Mayo records(5) a still more striking experiment. It sufficed for the Mesmerist to gaze intently at a stone mantelpiece, and to place a sovereign on the spot where his gaze had fallen, for the metal to become imbued with the mesmeric virtue and to produce the characteristic reactions with a sensitive subject.

(5) "Lancet", 1st Sept., 1838.

Water and other substances could also be mesmerised the sensitives had prevision of the course of their own diseases; and transposition of sensation, to the pit of the stomach or the general surface of the skin, was also occasionally observed. Mr. Thomas Wakley, editor of the "Lancet", had at first opened his columns to the recital of these "beautiful phenomena," as Elliotson was wont to call them. But in the month of August, 1838, he determined to test them for himself. On the 16th and 17th of that month Elliotson brought the two Okeys to Wakley's house, and there, in the presence of several medical men, a series of experiments were made. On the first day the violent contortions and muscular cramp, which were the characteristic results of contact with mesmerised nickel, were produced when the nickel - unknown to Elliotson and most of the company - was safe in the waistcoat pocket of one of the spectators. It was shown in a further series of experiments that unmesmerised water could produce sleep, whilst water which had been carefully mesmerised had no effect; and that whilst three or four mesmerised sovereigns could be handled with impunity, well-marked catalepsy was produced when Jane Okey stooped to pick up a sovereign which had merely been warmed in hot water, without human contact at all(6).

(6) Ibid., 1st Sept., 1838.

Some little triumph in a successful demonstration of this kind is no doubt permissible. The experiments so far as they went were conclusive enough. But Mr. Wakley's jubilation appears to us at once ill-natured and excessive. It was ill-natured, for he had not "exposed" the Okeys, and his insinuations against their honesty were apparently without justification. So far as can be discovered, neither he nor anyone else showed any valid reason for doubting the good faith of these two girls. It was excessive, because his experiments were not, as he supposed, conclusive against the claims of Mesmerism; they were conclusive merely against certain fanciful and extravagant theories of Dr. Elliotson. However, Mr. Waklely's views as to the value of his demonstrations appear to have found acceptance with the profession generally. His article is commonly referred to by contemporary writers as the exposure at once of the Okeys and of the pretensions of the Mesmerists; and the columns of the "Lancet" and other medical journals were closed for some time to come against the partisans of the new science.

In all the circumstances it is perhaps scarcely a matter for wonder that Elliotson in the course of the next few years seems to have made but few converts. The interest in the subject, indeed, appears again to have been in some danger of flickering out, when in 1841 another Frenchman, La Fontaine, came to this country on a lecturing tour. He met with striking success, especially in the provinces; and it is to his demonstrations that many of the writers on Mesmerism of that time, including Braid himself, owed their first impulse to investigate. The next few years saw the appearance of many lecturers on the subject in this country, and of a very considerable literature.(7)

(7) Exclusive of the books already mentioned, the chief works consulted in drawing up this account of the English Mesmerists have been:
Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend, "Facts in Mesmerism". London (second edition), 1844. The first edition appeared in 1839.
James Braid, M.R.C.S.E., "Neurypnology" (London, 1843); "The Power of the Mind over the Body" (1846); "Magic, Witchcraft, Animal Magnetism", etc. (1852).
W. Newnham, M.R.S.L., "Human Magnetism". 1845.
Spencer T. Hall, "Mesmeric Experiences". 1845.
Harriet Martineau, "Letters on Mesmerism". 1845.
Reichenbach's Researches, translated by Gregory. 1850. (A preliminary sketch of Reichenbach's results had been published by Gregory in 1846.)
W. Gregory, M.D., Professor of Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh, "Letters on Animal Magnetism" 1851.
J. W. HaddockM.D., "Somnolism and Psycheism". Second edition. 185 1.
James Esdaile, M. D. "Natural and Mesmeric Clairvoyance". 1852.
Edwin Lee, M.D., "Animal Magnetism". 1866.
Ashburner, "Philosophy of Animal Magnetism". 1867.
Sir John Forbes, "Illustrations of Modern Mesmerism". 1845.
And the "Zoist" and "Phreno-Magnet, passim".


In the year 1843 there appeared for the first time two periodicals devoted to the subject: the "Zoist", under the direction of Drs. Elliotson and Engledue, which continued until 1856; and the "Phreno-Magnet", edited by Spencer T. Hall, which lasted for one year only. Of the "Phreno-Magnet", which represented the popular side of the movement, without serious pretensions to science of any kind, something will be said later. In the first instance it will be convenient to consider the views held by the medical Mesmerists-Elliotson, Esdaile, Haddock, etc. - and of other writers, such as Gregory and Townshend, who may fairly be classed with them. Apart from the purely medical aspect of the question - the efficacy of Mesmerism as a therapeutic agent and in relieving pain, to which the pages of the "Zoist" are mainly devoted-the Mesmerists of that date lay stress upon three main classes of phenomena - 1) certain physical effects regarded as proving the actual transmission of a fluid or physical force from the operator or from inanimate substances to the subject; 2) Phreno-Mesmerism; 3) community of sensation and clairvoyance.

1) As already indicated, all the writers on Mesmerism at this period, with the solitary exception of Braid, had inherited from the Animal Magnetists the conception of a physical effluence passing from operator to subject as the agent in producing the mesmeric sleep. This effluence was, indeed, no longer conceived of as identical with the hypothetical magnetic fluid, though analogies between the phenomena of Mesmerism on the one hand and those of electricity and magnetism on the other were generally recognised. The mesmeric fluid was by most identified with the hypothetical nervous or vital fluid. The act of mesmerising was commonly supposed to involve a flow from the active organism, or that of superior vitality, to the passive or less highly vitalised. The weight on the eyelids felt by the patient, the pricking, the slight feeling of cold, and other subjective sensations were adduced as evidence of this physical effluence; and the mesmeric coma itself was by some regarded as the result of a determination of nervous fluid to the brain(8). The fluid, being identical, or at least closely associated with the nervous force, was, like it, under the control of the will. The fluid formed an aura, or nerve atmosphere, round the human body. It was further capable of impregnating inanimate substances, and by them being communicated in turn to the sensitive. Elliotson himself claimed to have formulated no theory as to the nature of the mesmeric agency. But his belief in mesmerised metals and the other phenomena exhibited by the Okeys certainly points to some conception such as that above indicated as being provisionally, at all events, accepted by him. And other writers of the time, Esdaile, Townshend, Gregory, Haddock, Newnham, and the rest, had no such reserve. They were satisfied that there was a physical effluence of some kind. Esdaile, in particular, made frequent use of mesmerised water as a medicine or an anaesthetic, both for internal and external application. Again, a patient could be thrown into mesmeric catalepsy by clasping the arms of a chair on which the operator had breathed, or by merely walking across a portion of the floor which the operator had impregnated with his mesmeric virtue by the same method(9). Other experiments showed that the force could, in certain cases, be reflected from a mirror. But action at a distance, unknown to the patient - since the effects produced could not in such a case be attributed to the imagination - was commonly regarded as a crucial proof of physical transmission of force. All the writers cited give numerous instances, some of which will be quoted in the next chapter, of patients in another room or another house being entranced without their knowledge that the experiment was being made. Esdaile claims to have succeeded, at the first attempt, in catalepsing, in open court, three natives who were wholly ignorant of his intentions. One of these patients, moreover, was actively conversing with the judge and Moulavies whilst the experiment was being made.(10)

(8) Esdaile, op. cit., p. 236.
(9) Esdaile, op. cit., pp. 126, 127; Newnham, op. cit., p. 320; and elsewhere.
(10) Op. cit., pp. 67-9.


Further, various substances were supposed to act on the sensitive by their intrinsic virtues. The north pole of the magnet attracted, the south pole repelled. Diamonds and opals produced agreeable sensations; the emerald was unpleasing, and the sapphire positively painful(11). But with the publication in 1845 of Reichenbach's researches, and their introduction in the following year to this country by Professor Gregory, the few scattered observations on manifestations of the kind last referred to received independent and apparently overwhelming confirmation. Baron von Reichenbach himself was a man of scientific attainments; a chemist and metallurgist of some repute. His subjects were very numerous, and he estimated that one-third of the people whom he tried were sensitive in some degree. In the second part of his work he gives a list of nearly sixty persons with whom he had obtained results. The list included, besides many ladies of title, a baron, a chevalier, a councillor, professors of physical science, several physicians, two curators of museums, and many other persons of good position and education. The majority of these persons were experimented with in the normal state, though some of the best subjects were spontaneous somnambules and cataleptics. Reichenbach claimed to show that all these persons were, in a greater or less degree, susceptible of receiving various sensations from magnets, crystals, and practically all other substances in the universe in their degree - the planets and fixed stars themselves not excepted. For the effluence assumed to produce these sensations he proposed the name odyle, or odic force. The sensations were broadly of two kinds - vague feelings of temperature, which were either pleasant or unpleasant, and quite definite perceptions of light and colour. The latter required a higher degree of sensitiveness in the percipient. Magnets, crystals, and the human body excited sensations of the vague kind in the highest degree, and all other bodies in their electro-chemical order; potassium and the metals generally exciting warmth and a disagreeable feeling, oxygen and the electro-negative bodies coolness and a pleasurable sensation. But the effects of the odylic light were even more striking. The human fingers radiated light; so did the poles of the magnet - each pole in a fairly strong magnet being capped with flames, reddish yellow from the south pole, and bluish green from the north. A similar polarity was observed in the luminous emanations from crystals. Each elementary substance had its distinctive light, the metals being most conspicuous. Copper, iron, bismuth, nickel, mercury, osmium, rhodium, tellurium, etc., had a red glow, each differing, however, from the other; in lead, cobalt, palladium, etc., the flame was blue; silver, gold, cadmium, diamond, shone white, etc., etc. A sensitive could even see the glow of the odylic matter over the bodies of the sick in hospitals; and a column of faintly luminous vapour would hover over a newly made grave(12). This odylic radiance was capable of illuminating other objects. It produced no effect on a thermometer, but it could be concentrated by a lens, reflected from a mirror, and was liable to be absorbed by the glass of the percipient's spectacles. To those who could see it the luminous appearance was so distinct, and so lasting, that one or two artists who happened to be amongst the Baron's sensitives drew what they saw. The English translation is enriched by reproductions of such drawings, showing magnets, a human hand, a flower, a lady's face, and other objects illuminated by their own odylic radiance.

(11) Townshend, op. cit., p. 152.
(12) A similar phenomenon was attested, and a similar explanation offered, by the alchemists. Thus Maxwell (De Medicina Magnetica, Book 1 p. g), "Ex dictis caussa manifesta videtur cur circa sepulcra violenta morte interemtorum spectra obversentur: nam spiritu vitali humidoque radicali nondum plane dissoluto anima haeret, et exhalationibus hoc spiritu humidoque impregnatis formam humanam tribuit."


The obvious good faith and apparent care with which Reichenbach's experiments had been performed; their elaborate and varied nature; the large number of his witnesses; their unimpeachable respectability and extraordinary unanimity; his imposing lists of chemical substances arranged in odyIodynamic order; his diagrams showing the diurnal variations of the odylic force in the human body, and all the display of scientific machinery in his work were calculated to produce a profound impression on the English Mesmerists. Elliotson, Gregory, Haddock, and others at once experimented on Reichenbach's lines, and found that their somnambules also could experience the required sensations, in due gradation of strength, from various electro-negative and electro-positive bodies; and could see flames of the appropriate colour proceeding from the human body, the poles of a magnet, or anything else that was presented to them.

Against a theory so abundantly supported by experiment, argument and demonstration were alike used in vain. Bertrand had already, more than twenty years before, indicated the true explanation of the similar phenomena observed in his own day. Braid now, working on independent lines, arrived at a like conclusion. In his "Power of the Mind over the Body" he contends that the whole of the phenomena are explicable as due to the subjects' imagination, acting on slight hints unconsciously furnished by the experimenters. He is by no means desirous, indeed, of belittling the work of Reichenbach or his English translator. "Better-devised experiments," he says, "or a more laborious and painstaking effort ... I have never met with in any department of science."(13) But he points out that the observers were not sufficiently on their guard against two sources of error: the extraordinary acuteness of the organs of the special senses and the enhanced receptivity of the mind in the somnambulic condition. He describes a number of experiments made by himself on private persons, some wide awake, some when hypnotised, in which all the characteristic results described by the Mesmerists appeared, when no magnet or other odylic substance was acting, and failed to appear when such agents were present, in each case in accordance with the suggestion given to the sensitive. Thus, to quote a few experiments, without actually touching the skin he drew the handle of a pair of scissors slowly down the hand of a lady patient, who was wide awake at the time and watching the process with interest. She felt a chilly aura, spasmodic twitching of the muscles, and other symptoms. He then requested her to place her other hand on the table and to turn her head away. She did so, and in a short time similar sensations were experienced in the other hand without the application of the scissors. This lady's husband, also wide awake, at Braid's request extended one hand and turned his head. The aura, pricking, and spasmodic twitching were observed, Braid then remarked, in an audible whisper, to the wife, that she would soon see the muscles contract and the hand gradually clench itself. The predicted result duly followed. In neither of these cases had anything whatever been applied to the hand; Braid had been an inactive spectator, and the results were due wholly to the imagination of the patients. In other cases a cataleptic condition of the hand and arm was produced by similar suggestive processes, without the intervention of any physical agent. In the same way Braid found that his subjects could see no flames from the most powerful magnet until warned what to look for; and would then see flames and coruscations from a wooden box or the bare surface of the wall. Nay, Braid's portmanteaukey and pendent ring, by means of appropriate suggestion, would medicine to a sweeter sleep than all the drowsy syrups of the East; and would prove in turn as potent to dispel it as the archangel's trump.

(13) Op. cit., p. 4.

How little the persons whose views he criticised were affected by Braid's arguments and demonstrations may be inferred from two facts. In the Preface contributed by Gregory to his full translation of Reichenbach's "Researches" (1850) he deals at some length with objectors and objections, devoting many pages to arguing against imposture as an explanation of the results; but Braid's name is not mentioned, and the theory of imagination guided by unconscious suggestion is not included amongst the hypotheses which he essays to refute. And again, in the thirteen volumes of the Zoist, from 1843 to 1856, during which period the whole of Braid's books were published, some of them passing through two or three editions, I can find his name mentioned but two or three times, and then only to give Elliotson the opportunity of exalting "the old-established modes of mesmerising" at the expense of "the coarse method practised by Mr. Braid."(14)

(14) "Zoist", vol. iii. p.345. In vol. ix. p.316 a pamphlet of Braid's is cited with other books at the head of a review, but the reviewer does not mention Braid's name in the course of his article. I have come across one or two other incidental references (see especially vol. xi. pp.391, 395), but Braid's name does not appear in the index of the "Zoist" at all. This is, indeed, not conclusive as to its absence from the text. The Mesmerists paid scant attention to such minor matters as indices and dates. It is a trifling point, but none the less "significant of much," that whilst each of Braid's books has a good index, none of the books here quoted by Colquhoun, Newnham, Reichenhach, Esdaile, Townshend, Haddock Gregory, etc., have any index at all; and the index to the "Zoist" is meagre and extremely inaccurate, whilst the proof-reading was so careless that the French quoted is often quite unintelligible.

2) Elliotson had been from an early period an enthusiastic phrenologist. He had in 1824 founded the Phrenological Society of London, and was in 1843 the President of that society and on the Council of the Phrenological Association. The "Zoist" itself had as a sub-title, 'A journal of Cerebral Physiology and Mesmerism.' Mesmerism, indeed, gave powerful aid to the science of phrenology; for it was soon found that if in the somnambulic state the patient's head was touched by the finger of the Mesmerist, each of the organs mapped out by Gall and Spurzheim could be made to yield a prompt and characteristic reaction. It is not a little curious to note that some of the medical journals of the day in their comments on the movement lamented that a comparatively respectable study should be contaminated by its alliance with the absurdities of Mesmerism. Naturally, in the hands of the Mesmerists, abundant proof was soon forthcoming of the truth of phrenology. Perhaps almost too abundant, for an American Phreno-Mesmeristas will be seen later, took occasion to discover one hundred and fifty new organs and to demonstrate them past dispute on the heads of his somnambules. With Elliotson, it should be pointed out, phrenology connoted a rather crude materialism; all mental phenomena, according to him, were "produced" by the brain, much as bile is produced by the liver; and he frankly used this weapon to combat the belief "in a certain thing called Soul and immaterial "and" the useless belief of the immortality of this Soul."(15)

(15) Ibid., vol. iii. P1). 423, 424.

It was natural that this particular development should not find favour with all the supporters of Mesmerism. Townshend discreetly evades all mention of the subject. Newnham devotes a chapter to "the pretensions of Phreno-magnetism," and whilst apparently admitting some of the phenomena, suggests that they may be due to thought-transference between the operator and subject. But Braid, sceptical of the "higher phenomena" of Mesmerism generally, expressed himself in his earlier writings as "quite certain as to the reality" of these particular manifestations. In his Neurypnology he records, in brief, twenty five out of forty-five cases in his own practice in which he had produced demonstrations of phreno-hypnotism; and expresses himself as satisfied that in most of these forty-five cases the patients knew nothing of phrenology, and that the manifestations were evoked "simply by contact or friction over certain sympathetic points of the head and face, without previous knowledge of phrenology, trickery, or whispering, or leading questions." A single illustration may be quoted:

A gentleman who had been present at a previous demonstration "was so much astonished and gratified with what he had seen that he begged I would try one of his daughters. I hypnotised the eldest, and all the manifestations came out quite as decidedly as in her cousin. Under 'adhesiveness' and 'friendship' she clasped me, and on stimulating the organ of 'combativeness' on the opposite side of the head, with the arm of that side she struck two gentlemen (whom she imagined were about to attack me) in such a manner as nearly laid one on the floor, whilst with the other arm she held me in the most friendly manner. Under 'benevolence' she seemed quite overwhelmed with compassion; 'acquisitiveness,' stole greedily all she could lay her hands on, which was retained whilst I excited many other manifestations; but the moment my fingers touched g conscientiousness,' she threw all she had stolen on the floor, as if horror-stricken, and burst into a flood of tears. On being asked, 'Why do you cry?' she said, with the utmost agony, 'I have done what was wrong, I have done what was wrong.' I now excited 'imitation' and 'ideality,' and had her laughing and dancing in an instant. On exciting 'form' and 'ideality,' she seemed alarmed, and when asked what she saw, she answered, 'The D--I.' 'What colour is he?' 'Black.' On pressing the eyebrow and repeating the question, the answer was 'red,' and the whole body instantly became rigid, and the face the most complete picture of horror which could be imagined. 'Destructiveness,' which is largely developed, being touched, she struck her father such a blow on the chest as nearly laid him on the floor. Had I not endeavoured to restrain her, he must have sustained serious injury. Having now excited 'veneration,' 'hope,' 'ideality,' and 'language,' we had the most striking example of extreme ecstasy, and on being aroused she was quite conscious of all that had happened, excepting that she had heard music, and had been dancing. Her 'philo-progenitiveness' was admirable."(16)

(16) "Neurypnology", PP.135, 136.

Braid from the first rejected the phrenological explanation of the phenomena. He believed the results were due to stimulation of the nerves of the scalp, either as calling into play muscles associated with the expression of certain emotions, or, quantitatively, as producing different emotional reactions according to the varying sensibility of the part of the integument affected. But if we can place any confidence in Braid's description of the results attained, and can share his conviction that the subjects were ignorant of the position of the phrenological organs and of the results to be expected, the real interest of the matter for us is that no adequate explanation on physiological lines has yet been offered. Modern physiology would probably find it easier to reject Braid's facts than to accept his tentative explanations.(17)

(17) "Neurypnology" was published in 1843. In reviewing some years later the whole subject of Hypnotism ("Magic, Witchcraft", etc., third edition, 1852), Braid makes, so far as I can discover, no explicit mention of phrenology - an omission the more significant since he had devoted much space in his earlier work to records of experiments in this direction. From a passage on page 71, however, it may perhaps be inferred that, in looking back on the matter, he was not quite satisfied with the conditions under which the results were attained. Possibly more than he supposed was due to previous training of a subconscious kind, and much also to inadvertent suggestion on his own part and that of the spectators.

(3) Finally, the chief writers on Mesmerism of this period, again with the exception of Braid, believed in "community of sensation," that is, the ability of certain somnambules to share in the sensations, especially those of touch, taste, and pain, experienced by a person in rapport with them; and also in clairvoyance. Clairvoyance, as used by the writers of this time, covered two different classes of phenomena: 1) perception of objects near at hand, but placed in a position (e.g. behind the patient's back, or in a closed box) where normal vision would be impossible; and 2) travelling clairvoyance, or the vision of scenes at a considerable distance alleged to be unknown to the percipient and often to any person present.

Elliotson himself, whilst accepting apparently the phenomena of community of sensation at an early stage in his investigations, remained until 1841 doubtful as to the reality of the alleged "seeing with the eyes closed," and was not satisfied of the reality of travelling clairvoyance until 1844; even as late as 1845 he had never met with an instance of the faculty in a case of his own.(18) Esdaile also, though he has no doubt of the reality of the phenomena, even in 1852 had himself witnessed but a single case of clairvoyance.(19)

(18) See "Zoist", vol. ii. P. 477, and vol. iii. p. 107.
(19) "Natural and Mesmeric Clairvoyance", p. 96. London, 1852.

But numerous instances of the alleged faculty, as exercised both at close quarters and at a considerable distance, were published by Townshend, Gregory, Haddock, and others in their books and in the columns of the "Zoist" itself. An attempt will be made in the two succeeding chapters to estimate the significance of the phenomena reported under this head. For the present purpose it is sufficient to note that belief in the mesmeric trance was at this time associated, in the writings of nearly all its leading adherents, with belief in community of sensation and clairvoyance; and few were found to imitate Elliotson's wise reserve in the matter, and speak only of what they had seen and tested for themselves.

It will be seen that Mesmerism came before the British public unfairly handicapped. Even the bare fact of the trance itself - which, as Bertrand had already shown, manifested close affinities to various spontaneous states, some of them by no means rare - could hardly win its way to recognition, weighted as it was with a mass of dubious and incredible phenomena, and forced to subserve ill-considered and grandiose theories, which were hardly less extravagant when they avowedly confined themselves to the physical world than when they frankly leapt the barrier and proclaimed themselves transcendental. Many of the phenomena on which these speculations were based were obviously capable, as Wakley and Braid had shown, of being explained as due to imposture or imagination. The effects were unquestionably in most cases subjective, and it made little difference as regards the proof of a new physical agency whether the feelings which the subject claimed to experience were really felt or deliberately simulated. Most of the medical journals of the day seem to have adopted the less charitable view, as on the whole the easier interpretation of what they witnessed. I cannot find any justification for this assumption of fraud, even in such a case as the Okeys. But when applied, as it was commonly applied, to demonstrations of painless surgery, the assumption becomes preposterous. Indeed, one cannot help suspecting a certain confusion of thought somewhere. The Okeys imagined they felt peculiar sensations from mesmerised metals, or else they pretended to feel - what did it matter, since in either case there was nothing to feel! But the argument was not of universal validity. To the man whose leg was cut off during the trance it obviously mattered a great deal whether he imagined he felt no pain or only pretended to feel none. Nor was the distinction without interest of a more general kind, for if the patient in such a case imagines he feels no pain, there is no pain to feel; and in the days before the introduction of anaesthetics that was no light matter.

The opposition of the medical profession to the employment of Mesmerism in order to give relief from the pain of surgical operations is one of the most singular episodes in the history of science. James Esdaile, a Scotch surgeon practising in Calcutta who had had his attention drawn in 1845 to the subject, and had found that the natives of India were remarkably susceptible to mesmeric influence, performed many extensive and severe operations on patients during the trance. His proceedings naturally excited attention in India, and the medical profession, whilst laughing at Esdaile for his folly, freely insinuated that the alleged insensibility was simulated. The "Calcutta Medical Journal", for instance, described his patients as "a set of hardened and determined impostors." In January 1846, Esdaile reported to the Calcutta Medical Board the results of seventy-five operations - the removal of monstrous tumours, amputations of limbs, etc. - performed without pain, and offered to demonstrate the reality of the influence. Finding his application ignored, he appealed later in the same year direct to the Government. A small committee of investigation was appointed, which, as the result of observations on ten cases, reported that "by the mesmeric method sleep could be so deepened as to permit of the performance of severe surgical operations without pain, according to the declarations of the patients." Further than this the committee declined to go, but they expressed strong doubts as to the expediency of extending the mesmeric treatment generally. The Governor-General, however, on the receipt of the report, placed Esdaile in charge of a small hospital, that he might have full opportunity for pursuing his researches, and shortly afterwards appointed him Presidency Surgeon. But the general introduction of chloroform and other anaesthetics a year or two later caused popular interest in Mesmerism to cease. The feeling of the profession on the subject is aptly illustrated by an utterance of Dr. Duncan Stewart, one of the official visitors to Esdaile's Mesmeric Hospital, "It is time to throw away mummery and work above board, now that we have got ether."(20)

(20) See Esdaile's "Natural and Mesmeric Clairvoyance" and other works, and the "Zoist", passim.

In this country the determined antagonism of the medical profession found similar expression. The Okeys, and, in fact, mesmeric subjects generally, were habitually referred to by medical men as impostors; the "Lancet" expressed the opinion that Mesmerism would always flourish "wherever there are clever girls, philosophic Bohemians, weak women, weaker men."(1) One Madame Plantin, whose breast had been removed in Paris by M. Cloquet, in the mesmeric trance, died a few days after the operation. There were English surgeons who did not scruple to say that the strenuous efforts which she made to conceal her anguish during the operation had hastened her death.(21) The first considerable operation performed in England in the mesmeric trance took place in 1842 at Wellow, in Nottinghamshire, the patient being one James Wombell, whose leg was amputated above the knee. Mr. Topham, a London barrister, was the Mesmerist, and the operation was performed by Mr. Squire Ward, M.R.C.S. An account of the case was read before the London Medical and Chirurgical Society at their meeting on November 22nd, 1842. The paper was received with much disfavour, many of the medical men present expressing their opinion that the alleged insensibility was simulated, and that Wombell had been trained to bear pain without betraying any signs of it. In the interval before the next meeting the authors published the paper on their own account,(22) and the Society gladly took advantage of this breach of etiquette to expunge all notice of the discreditable transaction from their minutes. But this was not enough for the opponents of Mesmerism. It was freely stated by medical men in the public Press and elsewhere, whenever the subject of Mesmerism was under discussion, that James Wombell had subsequently confessed to a wicked deception; that he had in fact felt the whole pain of the operation, but to gain his private ends had successfully concealed his feelings at the time. Elliotson took the trouble in 1843 to get a statement signed by the man himself and witnessed by the clergyman of the parish, giving the lie to the slander(23) Eight years later it was revived. At a meeting of the same Society on December 10th, 1850, Dr. Marshall Hall "begged leave to communicate a fact of some interest to the Society ... He understood that this man (Wombell) had since confessed that he had acted the part of an impostor." Mr. Topham wrote to ask Dr. Hall for his authority. Dr. Hall replied, "The fact ... was communicated to me by a gentleman whom I have known for the third part of a century, and whom I regard as among the most honourable and truthful of men." Dr. Hall refused to give up the name of his informant "without reserve," and he concluded his letter by calling upon Mr. Topham to take note:

(20) "Lancet", Sept. 15th, 1838.
(21) "Zoist", Vol. i. p. 209. For other illustrations of the incredulity with which the facts of hypnotic anaesthesia were first received by medical men, see Moll, "Hypnotism" (English trans., London, 1890), P. 329.
(22) "Account of a case of successful amputation of the thigh during the mesmeric state". London, 1843.
(23) "Zoist", Vol. i. p. 210.

"That I shall never cease to raise my voice against everything derogatory to my profession, whether originating unhappily within its ranks, or coming intrusively from without. That I am of opinion that, in these days of multifarious folly and quackery, every member of my profession is called upon in honour to do the same.

"That you will be pleased to consider this as a final communication."

Dr. Hall, however, wrote to his informant, asking him upon what evidence he had made the statement, and published in the "Lancet", together with a copy of the above-cited letter to Mr. Topham, the following extract from his still unnamed correspondent's reply:

"The confession of the man was distinctly and deliberately stated to me by a person in whom I have full confidence. It was in Nottinghamshire that I was told the fact, last August, and I fully believe it."

Dr. Marshall Hall had perhaps heard in his youth that a statement could be established in the mouths of two or three witnesses, and may have thought that he was fulfilling the Scripture by multiplying the links in his chain of anonymous tradition. The evidence, in fact, seems to have been good enough for the Medical and Chirurgical Society, for at a later meeting the president refused to hear Dr. Ashburner and Dr. Cohen when they rose to refute the slander; and the Lancet and other papers, in reporting the incident, expressed approval of the chairman's firmness and impartiality.(24)

(24) "Lancet", Dec. 28th, 185o, and March 1st, 1851. See also "Zoist", vol. ix. pp. 88-106, where a full account of the incident is given.

Such, then, was at this time the attitude of the medical Press and the articulate members of the profession to Mesmerism. Some doctors even went further, and whilst denying the reality of Mesmerism, did not scruple to state that Mesmerists habitually used their influence for the basest purposes. (25)

(25) See, for instance, the "Harveian Oration" for 1848, by Dr. Francis Hawkins; and Elliotson's comments, "Zoist", vol. vi. PP. 399-405. Similar charges are frequently made in the medical literature of the time.

But it must be admitted that the attitude of Elliotson, the champion of the English Mesmerists, and those of his chief associates, was not conciliatory. The following epithets (omitting the names, which are given in full in the original) are taken at random from the index of the "Zoist": "Dr.--, his laughable folly; Dr.--, his ignorance and folly; absurdity, nonsense, remarkable folly, folly and falsehood, discreditable conduct, untruth, egregious folly, sad conduct, false reports, stupid obstinacy, slobbering childishness," etc., etc. Nor were these hard words reserved for the opponents of Mesmerism. Elliotson and his colleagues on the "Zoist" resented so deeply Newnham's criticisms on the theory of Phreno-Mesmerism that they could not trust themselves to review his book, and that task is assigned to another.(26) On the other hand, whilst Elliotson and Engledue found themselves by no means in complete sympathy with Townshend, Sandby, and other clergymen, the columns of the "Zoist" are apparently freely open to their contributions. Of the attitude of the "Zoist" to Braid we have already spoken.

(26) "Zoist", vol. iii. 13. 3.

There was yet another section of Mesmerists at this time, represented by Spencer T. Hall, whose relations with the "Zoist" were far from cordial. Hall was not, apparently, a man of any scientific training. His attention was first drawn to Mesmerism by attending a lecture given by La Fontaine in Sheffield, in 1841 or 1842. Thereafter he devoted himself enthusiastically to the new science, and in 1843 - the year which saw also the appearance of the "Zoist" - he started a monthly journal, the "Phreno-Magnet", which, however, ran for one year only. In 1844 Spencer Hall was invited by her physician to mesmerise Harriet Martineau. He did so with conspicuous success, as told by Miss Martineau in her "Letters on Mesmerism."

In the "Phreno-Magnet" we come in contact with the popular side of the movement. The men whose writings we have hitherto considered were possessed of some scientific attainments, or at least of scholarship and literary faculty. The pages of the "Zoist", in particular, were mainly concerned with the therapeutic aspect of Mesmerism, and the other phenomena observed, however misinterpreted, were still valued primarily for their scientific interest. But the writers in the "Phreno-Magnet" were of a different class; their interests and activities were less restrained. Few of the persons who contributed to its pages were medical men, or, indeed, possessed special qualifications of any kind for the study(27) In the pages of the "Phreno-Magnet", as in the other writings of the period, are found numerous instances of community of sensation and travelling clairvoyance, but the records are not sufficiently detailed or exact to be of much value as evidence. Spencer Hall describes himself as a lecturer on Phrenopathy; and a large space in his organ is taken up month by month with chronicles of lectures delivered by the editor and others in various towns in the United Kingdom. In a retrospect published in December, 1843, Hall estimated that during the past year no fewer than three hundred persons had lectured and experimented in public in Great Britain, Ireland, and America, and this propagandist movement was concerned primarily, not with Mesmerism as a healing art, but with the science of Phreno-Mesmerism, or Phrenopathy. The phenomena on which the new "science" of Phreno-Mesmerism was founded had been before the world since 1841 or 1842. The honour of the first discovery was disputed, in America by Dr. Buchanan, Dr. Collyer, and the Rev. Laroy Sunderland; and by H. G. Atkinson, better known as the "Mentor" of Harriet Martineau, and others, in this country. Dr. Collyer had, indeed, by this time (1843) already ceased to believe, on philosophical and anatomical grounds, in the science which he claimed to have founded;(28) and Laroy Sunderland could at least assume a certain quantitative credit in the matter, for he had added no fewer than one hundred and fifty new organs to those previously mapped out by orthodox phrenologists. Some correspondents of the "Phreno-Magnet" bettered this record, and related that they had already tested and proved the existence of nearly two hundred organs.(29) Amongst these new faculties of the human mind which were thus given a local habitation we find acquativeness (sic), human nature, insanity, discontentment, opposiveness, love of pets; organs for shooting with crossbow, skating, aerostation, slinging, spearing, pulling, sculling, and many other manly sports; also two organs relating to a deity and a future state respectively.

(27) It is to be noted that James Braid wrote in December, 1842, just before the appearance of the first number, to express his interest and sympathy. (Phreno-Magnet p. 25.) 
(28) "Psychology, or the Embodiment of Thought", by R. H. Collyer, M.D. Philadelphia, 1843.
(29) Op. tit., P. 52, etc.

Dr. Collyer, who had been a pupil of Elliotson's at University College Hospital, by no means relinquished with his belief in mesmero-phrenology his interest in Mesmerism, or, as he called it, Animal Magnetism. From the pamphlet already referred to we find that he laboured in the United States to make it known as a solemn truth, which must revolutionise the false philosophy of the past, and open to man the secret of immortality. His title-page is adorned with a diagram representing two persons looking into a bowl of molasses, with dotted lines radiating from their foreheads to a point on the surface of the fluid. The experiment illustrated by this diagram is thus described: The subject was requested by Dr. Collyer to look into the bowl, the doctor doing the same. "When," he writes, "the angle of incidence from my brain was equal to the angle of reflection from her brain, she distinctly saw the image of my thought at the point of coincidence."

As already indicated, there was little sympathy between the medical Mesmerists and the supporters of the "Phreno-Magnet". The first number of the "Zoist", under the heading of "The Lecture Mania," contains some severe reflections on the ill-judged proceedings of a certain Mr. Brooks, who had been giving popular lectures followed by demonstrations of Phreno-Mesmerism on persons taken at hazard from the audience. Spencer Hall is characterised in the same article as "a gentleman influenced by good motives," but without scientific education. The writer of the article feared that the extravagance and want of judgment shown by the popular advocates of Mesmerism would prejudice the whole subject. The fear may have been justified, though to us now it seems to matter little whether the advocates of Phreno-Mesmerism taught that the mind expressed itself by means of twenty or two hundred organs, or whether the mesmeric effluence was demonstrated by radiation from a crystal or reflection from a bowl of treacle. Weighted, however, though it was with such dubious theories and disputable facts, it can hardly be doubted that in the ordinary progress of events the trance and the suggestion-phenomena generally would ultimately have won recognition, and that the accessory marvels would gradually have dropped out of sight as the part played by the imagination in their production became more clearly demonstrable. Indeed, in April, 1852, Gregory was able to congratulate the readers of the "Zoist"(30) on the fact that Sir D. Brewster and others, instead of ascribing the trance, anaesthesia, and other phenomena to imposture, had now publicly admitted their reality, and explained them as due to suggestion acting on the impressible organism of the sensitive. That having reached this point, the further advancement of the study should have been retarded for more than a generation was due to two special causes, the full effect of which could not at that time have been foreseen.

(30) "Zoist", Vol. X. p.1 etc.

The discovery in the years 1846-7 of the anaesthetic properties of ether and chloroform, and their rapidly growing use in medical practice, deprived the mesmeric trance of its most obvious utility. What effect that discovery had in checking the interest which had been aroused in Calcutta in Esdaile's mesmeric clinique we have already seen. If the effect was less marked in this country, it was only because the practice of operating in the trance was much less common, and had excited less attention. But another circumstance which did more to discredit Mesmerism throughout the civilised world was the gradual spread of the belief in Spiritualism, and the absorption by that movement of many of those who had been pronounced advocates of Mesmerism. Elliotson and his chief associates, indeed, for many years resisted the new doctrines, and in the later volumes of the "Zoist"(31) we find several articles dealing with the absurdities of the spirit-rappers. But from the outset many of the leading advocates of Mesmerism - Townshend, Sandby, Gregory,(32) J. W. Jackson, H. G. Atkinson - were disposed to see in table-turning and other physical manifestations the operation of the mesmeric or neuro-vital fluid; whilst others, sooner, as Ashburner, or later, as Elliotson himself, became converted to Spiritualism. In Elliotson's case the process of conversion did not stop at this point. Before his death he renounced his former materialism and embraced Christianity.(33) Again, of the American authors whose names figure so largely in the "Phreno-Magnet", we find several who were afterwards prominent as Spiritualists.

(31) Especially, vols. xi. and xii.
(32) Gregory appears to have been all but converted to the spiritualistic doctrine. In an interesting letter from him dated October, 1857, and published in the "Spiritual Magazine, 1865, pp. 451-3, occurs the phrase, "The higher phenomena appear to me to render the spiritual hypothesis almost certain." His widow, Mrs. Makdougall Gregory, for many years, until her death in the early eighties, held regular spiritualist sťances, and her house was a place of meeting for the converts of the new faith.
(33) See obituary notice of Elliotson in the "Morning, Post", Aug. 3rd, 1868.


So that from causes largely accidental and external to itself Mesmerism for a time lost whatever hold it had succeeded in gaining on the attention of sober-minded persons, and passed out of sight, until the labours of Liebeault, and later those of Bernheim at Nancy, of Charcot at the Sapetriere, and of Heidenhain at Breslau, once more brought the subject into prominence
.

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

 

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