Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

English naturalist, evolutionist, geographer, anthropologist, and social critic and theorist. Awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Dublin in 1882 and Oxford University in 1889, and important medals from the Royal Society in 1868, 1890 and 1908, the Société de Geographie in 1870, and the Linnean Society in 1892 and 1908. Received the Order of Merit from the Crown in 1908.

The Opposition to Hypnotism and Psychical Research

 - Alfred Russel Wallace -

Speak gently of the new-born gift, restrain the scoff and sneer,
And think how much we may not learn is yet around us here;
What paths there are where faith must lead, and knowledge cannot share,
Though still we tread the devious way, and feel that truth is there.
- Anon (1844)

Sleep, sleep on! forget thy pain;
My hand is on thy brow,
My spirit on thy brain;
My pity on thy heart, poor friend;
And from my fingers flow
The powers of life, and like a sign,
Seal thee from thine hour of woe.
- Shelley

          ALTHOUGH the subjects to be now discussed have made some progress in the last quarter of the century, this was preceded by a long period of ignorance, accompanied by the most violent opposition, extremely discreditable to an age of such general research and freedom of inquiry in all other branches of human knowledge. A brief outline of the nature of this opposition will be interesting; and may serve as a warning to those who still put faith in the denunciations of the public press, or of those writers who pose as authorities without having devoted any serious study to the subject.

The phenomena of Animal Magnetism, often termed Mesmerism, and now Hypnotism, were discovered by a physician of Vienna named Mesmer about the year 1770. He applied it to the treatment of disease, and obtained great popularity in Paris, where he came to practise. His knowledge of the subject was, however, necessarily limited, and his interpretation of the facts often erroneous. A Government Commission was appointed in 1785, consisting of physicians and scientists (including Lavoisier, Franklin, and other eminent men) who, finding that many of the phenomena, alleged by Mesmer to be due to a special form of magnetism, could be produced in the patients by suggestion, reported against his alleged powers, and the subject soon fell into disrepute.

Early in the present century, however, the phenomena again occurred in the practice of some physicians in Paris and elsewhere, a few of whom devoted much time to the study, and obtained evidence of the most perfect thought-reading, true clairvoyance, and many other apparently superhuman powers. Many medical men became satisfied of the genuineness of these strange occurrences, and the amount of interest they excited in the scientific and medical worlds is shown by the fact, that the article "Magnetisme" in the Dictionnaire de Medecine, published in 1825, treated the subject in a serious spirit, and recognised the whole of its phenomena as being undoubtedly genuine. The writer, Dr. Rostan, declares that he had himself examined a clairvoyante who, when he placed his watch at the back of her head, told the time indicated by it, and even when he turned the hands round without looking at them, was equally successful.

Of course those who had no opportunity of investigating the subject under favourable conditions, could not accept such marvels, and imputed them to clever trickery; and in order to determine authoritatively how much truth there was in the statements of the Animal Magnetisers, the Academie Royale de Medecine, in 1826, appointed a committee of eleven members, all, of course, medical men, and presumably capable and impartial, to inquire into the whole subject experimentally. Nine of the members attended the meetings and experiments during five years; and in 1831 they delivered a full and elaborate Report, which was signed by the whole nine, and was therefore unanimous. This Report (published in the Archives Generale de Medecine, vol. xx.) gives the details of a large number of experiments, and concludes with a summary of what was considered to be proved, together with some weighty observations. As this Report is very little known, and has been completely ignored by almost all writers adverse to the claims of the magnetisers, I will give some of the more important portions of it, as translated by Dr. Lee in his work on Animal Magnetism.

Report of the Commission of the Academie Royale de Medecine on Animal Magnetism

"Conclusions and General Remarks."

"The commission has reported with impartiality that which it had seen with distrust; it has exposed methodically that which it has observed under different circumstances, and which it has followed up with an attention as close as it is continued. It has the consciousness that the statements which it presents to you are the faithful expression of that which it has observed. The obstacles which it has met with are known to you; they are partly the cause of the delay which has occurred in presenting the report, although we have long been in possession of the materials. We are, however, far from excusing ourselves, or from complaining of this delay, since it gives to our observations a character of maturity and reserve which should lead you to confide in the facts which we have related, without the charge of prepossession and enthusiasm with which you might have reproached us if we had only recently collected them. We add that we are far from thinking that we have seen all that is to be seen, and we do not pretend to lead you to admit as an axiom, that there is nothing positive in magnetism beyond what we mention in our report. Far from placing limits to this part of physiological science, we entertain, on the contrary, the hope that a new field is opened to it; and guaranteeing our own observations, presenting them with confidence to those who, after us, will occupy themselves with magnetism, we restrict ourselves to drawing the following conclusions, which are the necessary consequence of the facts the totality of which constitutes our report."

A considerable proportion of these "conclusions" relate to points which are either unimportant or now undisputed, such as the mode of magnetising, the proportion of persons who can be magnetised, the influence of expectation, the variety of the phenomena produced, the possibility of simulation, the nature of the magnetic sleep, the therapeutic effects produced and their importance, and other similar points. The following paragraphs give the more important of the "conclusions" referring to those points which are still doubted or denied by a considerable number of men of science.

"It has been demonstrated to us that the magnetic sleep may be produced under circumstances in which the magnetised have not been able to perceive, and have been ignorant of, the means employed to occasion it."

"When a person has been already magnetised, it is not always necessary to have recourse to contact, or to the 'passes,' in order to magnetise afresh. The look of the magnetiser, his will alone, has often the same influence. In this case one can not only act upon the magnetised, but throw him completely into the sleep, and awaken him from this state without his being aware of it, out of his sight, at a certain distance, and through closed doors."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

"We have seen two somnambulists distinguish with closed eyes the objects placed before them; they have designated, without touching them, the colour and name of cards; they have read words written, or lines from a book. This phenomenon has occurred even when the eyelids were kept closed by the fingers."

"We have met with two somnambulists who possessed the faculty of foreseeing acts of the organism, more or less distinct, more or less complicated."

"We have only met with one somnambulist who could indicate the symptoms of the diseases of three persons with whom she was placed in relation. We had, however, made researches on a considerable number."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

"The commission could not verify, because it had no opportunity, the other faculties which magnetisers had stated to exist in somnambulists. But it has collected, and it communicates to the Academy, facts sufficiently important to induce it to think that the Academy ought to encourage researches on magnetism as a very curious branch of psychology and natural history.

"Certainly we dare not flatter ourselves that we shall make you share entirely our conviction of the reality of the phenomena which we have observed, and which you have neither seen, nor followed, nor studied with or in opposition to us. We do not therefore exact from you a blind belief in all that we have reported. We conceive that a great part of the facts are so extraordinary that you cannot grant it to us: perhaps we ourselves should have refused you our belief, if, changing places, you had come to announce them before this tribunal to us, who, like you at present, had seen nothing, observed nothing, studied nothing, followed nothing of them.

"We only require you to judge us as we should have judged you, that is to say, that you remain perfectly convinced that neither the love of the wonderful, nor the desire of celebrity, nor any interest whatever, has influenced our labours. We were animated by motives more elevated, more worthy of you - by the love of science and by the wish to justify the hopes which the Academy had conceived of our zeal and devotedness."

(Signed) BOURDOIS DE LA MOTTE (President),
HUSSON (Reporter)."

It is hardly possible to have a weightier or more trustworthy report than this one, showing in every line the care and deliberation of the members of the commission, while their competence and honesty are above suspicion. The same general conclusions as to the reality and importance of animal magnetism were arrived at by some of the most eminent physicians in Russia, Denmark, Saxony and other countries; while the entire report of the French Commission was translated into English in 1836, and published in Mr. Colquhoun's Isis Rerelata.

In 1837, however, in consequence of many accounts of clairvoyance then occurring in various parts of France, the Academie de Medecine offered a prize of three thousand francs to any one who should prove his ability to read without use of the eyes. The daughter of a physician at Montpelier - Dr. Pigeaire - possessed this power, as testified by many persons of repute; and, in consequence of this offer, he brought her to Paris. Many persons saw her in private, and several physicians - MM. Orfila, Ribes, Reveille-Parise and others - certified the fact of her clairvoyant powers. But the members appointed by the Academy - less experienced than those of the Commission of 1831 - began by making stipulations as to the complete enclosure of the clairvoyant's head, to which her father would not consent, and thus the opportunity of officially testing this lady was lost(1). Others presented themselves, but none succeeded. The result was therefore purely negative, but as there were in some cases suspicions of imposture or attempts at imposture, the report was, of course, against the existence of clairvoyance. This was only what might have been anticipated by all who had really investigated the subject. Professor William Gregory, of the University of Edinburgh, after twenty years' study of animal magnetism and an extensive personal experience, wrote as follows:

(1) The method usually adopted was to bind a linen cloth over the eyes, to cover this with cotton-wool, and over all a black velvet mask, which was held to be a complete test by Arago and other observers. This, however, the commissioners would not even try.

"In regard to clairvoyance, I have never seen it satisfactorily exhibited except quite in private; and in this point my experience has simply confirmed the statements made by the best observers. I feel confident that every one who chooses to devote some time and labour to the investigation, may meet with it, either in his own cases or those of his friends."

In his Letters on Animal Magnetism Professor Gregory gives several indisputable cases tested by himself. Dr. Haddock, Major Buckley, Sir Walter Trevelyan, Miss Martineau, Dr. Esdaile, Dr. Lee, and Dr. Elliotson, have all obtained evidence of the most convincing kind, much of which has been published; while many eminent physicians and men of science on the Continent obtained equally convincing results - all confirming the positive evidence of the French Commission of 1831, and proving that the negative results of the Commission of 1837 were due to the inexperience and prejudices of the members. Yet, notwithstanding this cumulative proof, modern writers against the higher phenomena produced by hypnotism, appear to be either totally ignorant of the existence of the five years' inquiry and elaborate report of the first commission of the Academie de Medecine, or confound it with the second commission, which gave a purely negative report on one limited phase of the phenomena!

Thus, the late Dr. W. B. Carpenter, in his volume on Mesmerism, Spiritualism, etc., Historically and Scientifically Considered (Longmans, 1877), writes as follows:

"It was in France that the pretensions of mesmeric clairvoyance were first advanced; and it was by the French Academy of Medicine, in which the mesmeric state had been previously discussed with reference to the performance of surgical operations, that this new and more extraordinary claim was first carefully sifted, in consequence of the offer made in 1837 by M. Burdin (himself a member of that Academy) of a prize of 3,000 francs to any one who should be found capable of reading through opaque substances."

Neither here, nor in any part of his volume, does Dr. Carpenter show any knowledge of the existence of the Commission of 1825-31, which really "first carefully sifted" the varied phenomena of Animal Magnetism, including numerous cases of clairvoyance, and decided that they were genuine.

In the last edition of Chambers' Encyclopædia, a publication remarkable for the great ability of its contributors and the impartial treatment of disputed questions, we find in the article "Animal Magnetism" the following passage: " Despite the unfavourable report of the French Commission of 1785, as well as of a later one in 1831, and other subsequent exposures" ... indicating that the writer was unacquainted with the favourable report of 1831, and confused it with the negative report of 1837-40. And this ignorance is confirmed by the statement, a little further on, that "no scientific observer has yet confirmed the statements of mesmerists as to clairvoyance, reading of sealed letters, influence on unconscious persons at a distance, or the like," - a statement the exact opposite of the fact, since the nine members of the commission of the Academy of Medicine, Professor Gregory and the other gentlemen mentioned above, as well as a large number of physicians and others on the Continent, must surely be held to be, individually and as a whole, "scientific observers," or the term can have no meaning. Buchner, Spitta, and other antagonistic continental writers, also appealed to the commission of 1784 as having exposed "the swindle of magnetic cures," apparently in complete ignorance of the report of 1831 and Buchner also refers to the commission of 1837 as reporting against clairvoyance, without any reference to the more weighty report of 1831 in its favour.

One more example as to the mode of treatment of evidence for the reality of clairvoyance. Dr. Carpenter describes some of his own visits to Alexis and Adolphe Didier, accompanied by Dr. Forbes; and because they saw nothing which was to them absolutely conclusive, he leads the reader to think that nothing really conclusive had ever been obtained. But Dr. Lee, a physician of repute, and therefore presumably as good a witness as Dr. Carpenter or Dr. Forbes, in his well-known work on Animal Magnetism, devotes twenty-two pages to an account of his own personal experiments with Alexis at Brighton in 1849, including such a number and variety of striking tests as to entirely outweigh any number of negative results like those of Dr. Carpenter. And in addition to these, other special tests of the most stringent character have been published, two of which may be here given. Sergeant Cox, in his What Am I? (vol. ii. p. 167) describes a test by a party of experts of whom he was one. A word was written by a friend in a distant town, and enclosed in an envelope, without any one of the party knowing what the word was. This envelope was enclosed successively in six others of thick brown paper, each sealed. This packet was handed to Alexis, who placed it on his forehead, and in three minutes and a half wrote the contents correctly, imitating the very handwriting. Let any one compare Dr. Carpenter's explanation of how he supposed such readings were done, and he will see how completely inadequate it is as applying to tests such as that of Sergeant Cox and scores of other inquirers.

The next test is furnished by the experience of the greatest of modern professional conjurers, Houdini, who, at the request of the Marquis do Mirville, had two sittings with Alexis. His account, as quoted by Dr. Lee, is as follows. After describing what took place at the first sitting, he says: "I cannot help declaring that the facts here reported are perfectly exact, and that the more I reflect upon them, the more impossible do I find it to class them with those which constitute the object of my art." (May 10th, 1849.)

"At the second séance I witnessed still more surprising events than at the first, and they no longer leave any doubt in my mind respecting the clairvoyance of Alexis. I tear off the envelope of a pack of cards I brought with me. I shuffle and deal with every precaution, which, however, is useless, for Alexis stopped me by naming a card which I had just placed before him on the table. 'I have the king,' said he. 'But you know nothing about it, as the trump card is not turned up.' 'You will see,' he replied; 'go on.' In fact, I turned up the ace of spades, and his card was the king of spades. The game was continued; he told me the cards which I should play, though my cards were held closely in my hands beneath the table. To each of the cards I played he followed suit, without turning up his cards, which were always perfectly in accordance with those I led. I therefore returned from this séance as astonished as one can be, and I am convinced that it is quite impossible that chance, or any superior skill, could produce such wonderful results." (May 16th, 1849.)

Now the point which I wish to submit to my readers is, whether the method of argument and discussion adopted by the most eminent opponents of Animal Magnetism, is either honest, or scientific, or even rational. We do not ask them to accept blindly any of the facts reported, or to refrain from any criticism, however severe, which is founded upon a fair consideration of all the available evidence. But in this matter, as I have here shown by a few striking examples, the public mind is influenced by the omission to state the case fairly; by putting forth the weakest instead of the strongest facts and arguments; and by the denial that any good and trustworthy evidence exists. What should we think of the man who discussed any of the disputed questions of recognised science in this way, who either ignorantly or wilfully omitted all reference to the most careful researches of the most eminent writers on the subject and while professing to instruct and enlighten the public, led them to believe that such researches did not exist? Such a man would at once lose all claim to be considered an authority on any subject, and his future writings would be treated with deserved neglect. It is because, during the greater part of the century, this most important and most interesting inquiry has been treated in so unworthy a manner by men of reputation in other departments of research, that we are compelled to class the opposition to the phenomena of mesmerism, and especially to the reality of clairvoyance, as constituting one of the exceptions to the steady march of most branches of science throughout the century.

We now come to the consideration of a practical application of animal magnetism, the opposition to which was even more virulent and more unjustifiable than that just described. The subject of Mesmerism, as it began to be termed, was first introduced into this country by Mr. Richard Chenevix, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who published a series of papers in the London Medical and Physical Journal in 1829. He also exhibited the phenomena to numerous medical men, among others to Dr. Elliotson, who afterwards became one of the chief teachers of the science. The Professor of Physiology at King's College, Dr. Mayo, also upheld and wrote upon it in the medical journals Baron Dupotet came to London and again demonstrated the main facts, as did numbers of public lecturers, affording ample opportunities for experiment and observation.

In 1829, M. Cloquet, one of the most eminent surgeons of Paris, amputated a cancerous breast during the mesmeric sleep, the patient being entirely insensible to pain, although able to converse. Teeth were extracted, and many other operations, some very serious, such as the extirpation of a portion of the lower jaw in the hospital of Cherbourg, were performed in France. About twelve years later, operations in the mesmeric trance began to be performed in England; but, notwithstanding the numerous cases already reported from France, supporting the fact of insensibility to pain, as fully described by the Academy of Medicine, they were received with general incredulity by the medical profession, while the most outrageous accusations were made against all who took part in them.

On the 22nd of November, 1842, at the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, an account was read of the amputation of the thigh during the mesmeric trance. The patient was a labourer who had suffered for five years with neglected disease of the left knee, the slightest motion of the joint being attended with extreme pain. Before the operation he had had no sleep for three nights. He was mesmerised by Mr. W. Topham, a barrister, and operated upon by Mr. W. Squire Ward, surgeon, in the District Hospital of Wellow, Nottinghamshire. During the whole operation, lasting twenty minutes, the patient remained in perfect repose, the placid countenance never changing, while no muscle of the body or limbs was seen to twitch. He awoke gradually and calmly, and on being questioned, declared that he knew nothing that was being done, and had felt no pain at all. He recovered perfectly, and had not a single bad symptom.

Then followed a violent discussion. Mr. Coulson said the non-expression of pain was a common thing, and he had no doubt the man had been trained to it. Several declared that the man shammed. One declared he would not have believed the facts had he witnessed them! Then the great men of the profession spoke. Dr. Marshall Hall, the investigator of reflex-action, declared that it was a case of imposition, because the sound leg should have contracted when the diseased leg was cut. The case, therefore, contradicted itself. Sir Benjamin Brodie believed that the man must have been naturally insusceptible of pain. He also agreed with Dr. Marshall Hall that the other leg ought to have moved, and he was quite satisfied with the two French reports against mesmerism. Mr. Liston and Mr. Bransby Cooper made fun of the subject; but Dr. Mayo declared it was a paper of great importance, and should not be ridiculed. Mr. Wood, who had assisted at the amputation, vouched for the complete accuracy of the whole account, and pointed out that before the operation the patient had suffered intense pain, and that during the operation he not only showed no sign of pain, but no sign of resistance to the expression of pain. Dr. Elliotson also pointed out the illogical nature of the objections; but the opponents, who were all completely ignorant of the subject at the next meeting refused confirmation of the minutes, which were therefore expunged!

Here we have extreme ignorance in high places, denying facts which had been observed again and again by men as honest and trustworthy as themselves. It was these men, and others equally ignorant, who accused the operators of bribing their patients not to exhibit pain; who accused Dr. Elliotson of "polluting the temple of science"; and who ejected this eminent physician from his professorship in the University of London, because he persisted in studying the phenomena of mesmerism and in publishing the results of his experiments. He was, however, soon justified in the eyes of all the more honest members of the profession by the publication of so many cases of painless operations as to compel their acceptance as facts(2); while he was supported by Dr. Esdaile, who gave an account of more than 300 operations performed by himself and other surgeons in the hospitals of Calcutta, which were confirmed by a commission appointed to inquire into them by the Bengal Government, and by the Governor-General himself. The reports of these cases showed that the patients were equally subject to the charge of imposition because they did not exhibit reflex-action in the opposite limb; and Dr. Elliotson made this point the subject of some justifiable ridicule. He says: 

"It is really lamentable to know that this Asiatic practised imposition as boldly as the female in Europe. The Indian was convicted through the self-same piece of ignorance. He too was unaware that he ought to have moved his right elbow-joint, if he felt nothing while his left was being cut off; and so he did not stir it. The dark races are just as wicked and just as ignorant of physiology as the white."

(2) Numerous Cases for Surgical Operations without Pain in the Mesmeric State, by John Elliotson, M.D., F.R.S., London 1843.

The facts, however, accumulated so rapidly and were so well attested, that a few years later Dr. Noble, Sir John Forbes, and Dr. W. B. Carpenter accepted them; thus admitting that the great men who denied them were wholly in the wrong, and that they had displayed ignorance and prejudice in their accusations of imposture and bad faith. But just when the great importance of mesmerism in rendering the most serious operations painless, and at the same time greatly assisting the patient's recovery, was fully acknowledged, the discovery of anaesthetics occurred; and this physiological agent, being more easy to apply and more certain to act upon all patients, soon led to the neglect of mesmerism. With this neglect the old prejudices and incredulity revived; and, although its soothing and remedial influence in disease was quite as well established as its use in surgery, it soon fell into disuse, and the great majority of medical men came to look upon it as either disreputable or altogether a delusion. For nearly half a century it remained in abeyance, till its study was revived in the French hospitals, where all the phenomena described by the early mesmerisers have been re-observed, together with some others even more extraordinary.

During the latter portion of the century, the study of these and other obscure psychical phenomena has become more extended, and in every civilized country societies have been formed for investigation, and many remarkable works have been published. One after another, facts, long denied as delusions or exaggerations, have been admitted to be realities. The stigmata, which at different times have occurred in Catholic countries, are no longer sneered at as priestly impostures. Thought-transference, automatic-writing, trance-speaking, and clairvoyance, have been all demonstrated in the presence of living observers of undoubted ability and knowledge, as they were demonstrated to the observers of the early part of the century and carefully recorded by them. The still more extraordinary phenomena - veridical hallucinations, warnings, detailed predictions of future events, phantoms, voices or knockings, visible or audible to numerous individuals, bell-ringing, the playing on musical instruments, stone-throwing, and various movements of solid bodies, all without human contact or any discoverable physical cause - still occur among us as they have occurred in all ages. These are now being investigated, and slowly but surely are proved to be realities, although the majority of Scientific men and of writers for the press still ignore the cumulative evidence, and ridicule the inquirers. These phenomena, being comparatively rare, are as yet known to but a limited number of persons; but the evidence for their reality is already very extensive, and it is absolutely certain that, during the coming century, they too will be accepted as realities by all impartial students and by the majority of educated men and women.

The great lesson to be learnt from our review of this subject is, distrust of all a priori judgments as to facts; for the whole history of the progress of human knowledge, and especially of that department of knowledge now known as psychical research, renders it certain, that, whenever the scientific men or popular teachers of any age have denied, on a priori grounds of impossibility or opposition to the "laws of nature," the facts observed and recorded by numerous investigators of average honesty and intelligence, these deniers have always been wrong(3).

(3) For a discussion of this point with illustrative cases see my Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, pp. 17-29.

Future ages will, I believe, be astonished at the vast amount of energy and ignorance displayed by so many of the great men of this century in opposing unpalatable truths, and in supposing that a priori arguments, accusations of imposture or insanity, or personal abuse, were the proper means of determining matters of fact and of observation in any department of human knowledge.


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