"A revelation. Drawing on an astoundingly rich store of archival material from museums, libraries, hospitals and record offices, Alison Winter sets out in her beautifully (and often comically) illustrated study to prove how central mesmerism was to the Victorian way of life." -- Rosemary Ashton, Sunday Telegraph

"An accessible account of one of the most overlooked episodes in the history of medicine and popular culture. . . . Winter combines a flair for storytelling with a scrupulous attention to historical evidence, offering a history at once intellectually satisfying and, well, mesmerizing." -- Publishers Weekly

"A truly enlightening study in combining social history with the history of medicine as she explores the mesmeric forces present in nineteenth-century Britain and its colonies. . . . Through this wonderful journey into the 'Island of Mesmeria,' Winter presents mesmerism as reflective of Victorian society itself. . . . Anyone with an interest in Victorian society, politics, or history will find this work remarkable." -- Booklist


An excerpt from
Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain
by Alison Winter

Making Mesmeria

When mesmerism became prominent in the early 1840s, it was once again a prominent foreign magnetist who brought it into public view: the French traveling showman Charles Lafontaine. He was an exotic character, dressed in black, with a "well-set muscular frame," dark hair, and a "bold, powerful, and steady" eye. At a time when facial hair was unfashionable, his "profuse" beard "descended to his breast." People initially assumed he was either a "deluded mystic or a designing quack," but they flocked to his shows anyway.

The key to his persuasiveness lay in the initial test he used to prove the trance real: the absence of sensation. "Insensibility," as it was called, was less vulnerable to charges of fraud than were other effects. Physical tests could be, so to speak, calibrated on members of an audience. By trying the force of an electric battery or the power of smelling salts on themselves, people could be satisfied that they could pretend not to feel pain. During one séance Lafontaine's patient held the live wires of a battery for ten minutes after the same voltage had made members of the audience recoil immediately. When "pins" were thrust into the "vulnerable parts," large electric shocks were run through the body, pistols shot next to the ear, ammonia held under the nose, and fingers held directly above the flame of a candle, it was hard for onlookers to claim that an apparent lack of sensation was an act of fraud. (Skeptics did eventually make such claims, as I will discuss below, and the result was a variety of conflicts that sometimes became physical battles over the subject's body.) Once Lafontaine had established an audience's confidence in the trance state, other experiments became more plausible. At this stage witnesses were presented with acts of clairvoyance, prescience, and "traction."

Following Lafontaine's example, domestic lecturers embarked on the lecture circuit, inflicting upon their subjects an armory of tortures. Lecturers often chose to bring reliable patients with them, because it was hard to predict whether someone would respond to the mesmeric influence, and even those who did often did so only after several trials. One journalist counted as many as fifty patients traveling in a single entourage. Audiences became familiar with the routines of mesmeric shows, and they grew skilled in evaluating the plausibility of the mesmeric subjects. So widespread was this lecturing empire that it became lucrative to give traveling lectures against the practice.

For a few pennies one could attend demonstrations in temperance halls, rented rooms, mechanics' institutes, and halls of science. A shilling bought admission to permanent public science institutions, such as London's Adelaide Gallery, Polytechnic Institution, and other central venues. Public houses and inns also boosted business by hiring lecturers who were passing through town. In central London W. H. Halse offered electric therapy and mesmerism at Chancery Lane, near the Inns of Court, and Messrs. Hughes and Hagley gave morning and evening sessions in the Assembly Rooms near Regents Park. Henry Brookes and Spencer Hall (independently) advertised from premises on Pall Mall, down the street from Buckingham Palace, St. James's, and the Royal Society of London. Mesmerists may have taken particular pride in colonizing the neighborhood of Thomas Wakley, who thought he had banished them in 1838. Bedford Square sank progressively into the magnetic state. In 1845 the mesmerist N. Hale hung out his shingle there, and a few years later, the London Mesmeric Infirmary installed its premises nearby.

Lecturers passed through towns within a few days' ride of the larger cities and the major ports. Workingmen were taught the "mutual influence of mind and body" in Lynn, near Liverpool. In Darlington and Hartlepool, south of Newcastle, they saw phreno-magnetic displays and bought illustrated, locally produced works to follow up the experiments in home trials. . . . In Chard, Somerset, the townspeople were well acquainted with popular accounts of electricity and magnetism by the time William Davey arrived to teach them that "FACTS ARE STUBBORN THINGS"(fig. 28). Equipped with several experimental subjects and two phrenological busts (disproportionately represented, one assumes, on the broadsheet), he was confident of convincing his audience of "Mesmeric Sleep, Rigidity of the Limbs, Power of Attraction and Repulsion, and the Transmission of Sympathetic Feelings."

Figure 28--posterPositioning his own image between two oversized phrenological heads, and above the announcement that "facts are stubborn things," William Davey encouraged prospective audiences to expect that the powerful truths of mesmerism and phrenology would force people to acknowledge their reality. (Poster Collection, Somerset Records Office. Courtesy Somerset Archives and Record Service)

Individual lecturers covered a substantial geographic area and addressed large groups of people at one time--from a few dozen to a few thousand. They inspired long-running disputes and experiments in local communities, as well as the founding of mesmeric classes for workingmen and others wishing to determine the facts for themselves. Local newspapers reported dramatic amateur experiments. A woman in the vicinity of Bradford was put into the mesmeric state by her uncle and could not be roused until four days later, when her desperate family called in a mesmerist; and a "practical joke" went badly wrong in Manchester when a boy sank deep in a trance and could not be awakened for days. One H. Brookes, based in Kent, figured prominently in lectures and controversies throughout the southeast of England. Over the course of several months he appeared in a number of towns around Kent, passed through London to Reading and elsewhere in Berkshire, then Bristol and its neighboring towns, and finally Hereford and Worcester. In contrast, the lecturer and autodidact poet Spencer Hall, after learning mesmerism from Lafontaine, toured the Midlands and north (though also London), taking in Liverpool, Nottingham, Leicester, Halifax, Northampton, Newcastle, and Edinburgh, and drawing audiences of up to three thousand people.

Defining the Powers of Body and Mind

There were several common features to the human powers developed during these demonstrations. One was a spectacle of human beings intimately connected to each other by invisible influences. Another related to the puppetlike state of the mesmeric subject: the human and the mechanical were not exactly the same thing, but disturbingly interchangeable. And the human psyche itself was shown to be elastic and progressive. It could be enhanced to explore hitherto inaccessible regions, from the inside of the body to the exotic landscapes of distant lands.

Mesmeric experiments drew upon, and contributed to, commonly held beliefs about the mind. They portrayed thought as the exercise of separate mental faculties. There was a mutual relation between mental and physical powers, and mind and brain were likened to an electric machine. Mesmerism also suggested connections between people that ran contrary to the stereotyped images we have of Victorian bodies as self-contained, discrete in their own skulls and skins. People's identities extended beyond the visible border of the body, flowing into one another.

One of the most powerful phenomena was that of "phreno-mesmerism," developed in 1842 or 1843. Phrenological examinations involved tactile contact, as trained individuals felt the contours of the skull to "read" social attributes. Mesmerists manipulated the skull, too, but with more ambitious intent. They wanted to "excite" particular organs. When mesmerists touched the place on a subject's skull corresponding to a particular phrenological organ, the entranced person manifested the appropriate sentiments. One curious Edinburgh clergyman placed his daughter in a magnetic trance and then touched the places on her head corresponding to different phrenological organs: "Benevolence being excited, she put out both her hands, and with a kind expression of countenance, seemed to wish to shake hands with every one. Tune--she immediately began to hum . . . Time being touched, she beat with her feet . . . Veneration--she immediately put her hands together in the attitude of prayer . . . Destructiveness, she pulled at and tore her dress." In Nottingham an artisan tried phreno-mesmerism on the family maid: when he touched the phrenological organs of language and conscientiousness, "she began to confess to having stolen something, which I at once stopt as I did not wish her to expose herself." When he touched devotion and adoration, her face "would have been a grand subject for the painter or sculpter."

Mesmerism, combined with phrenology, made for wonderful theater. The Reverend Dr. Eden, for instance, advertised a number of different kinds of mental spectacle at the Banbury Mechanics' Institute: performances of mesmeric insensibility, trials on members of the audience, and a well-rehearsed patient who displayed "the beautiful Mesmeric Attitudes." Phreno-magnetic displays such as the last item on this list gave an exotic air to established theatrical conventions, such as the "tableau vivant," which put on display idealized psychological traits or classic forms of interaction. And the public musical concert, a relatively new cultural form, both took from and gave to mesmerism. In one display a hypnotic subject was placed en rapport with the celebrated singer Jenny Lind. She then followed Lind through the "difficult roulades and cadenzas, for which she is famous."

One of the most common features of phreno-mesmeric displays was the diagnosis of mental potential that could allow parents to "quicken in their children those powers that are productive of virtue." Many such experiments were carried out in public halls, inns, and improving institutions. Here one could publicly study and debate the relationship between "the several faculties, principles, and passions." Phreno-mesmerism was a particularly important phenomenon because it offered the first means of giving experimental proofs of the relationship between parts of the brain and particular behaviors. Audiences at mesmeric lectures were familiar with the various phrenological organs and the behaviors associated with them. Familiar mental faculties (such as "veneration") were displayed as phrenological organs, and new ones discovered. The repertoire reflected the ideals of social interaction of the constituency involved. For instance, one workingmen's community discovered the organ of "good fellowship." Phreno-magnetic displays sometimes reflected and celebrated a prevailing social or political status quo. They could also have implications for social change. When mesmerism enhanced the mental powers of an individual of humble birth, experimenters speculated that one could somehow find a way to make these changes permanent. One experiment in phreno-mesmerism could raise the possibility of large-scale cultural engineering. As one mesmerist put it, if mesmeric effects could be "rendered permanent and carried into the natural state," they would give society a "mighty engine for man's regeneration, vast in its power and unlimited in its application, rivalling in morals the effects of steam in mechanics."

These powerful influences bound human beings to each other intimately, if invisibly. It was commonly claimed that communication consisted in the transfer of vital fluids between two bodies, that people's minds and souls touched each other (immaterially) in mysterious ways. Demonstrations could display forms of interpersonal communication and influence that seemed to dissolve the boundaries between two people or to subsume one person's identity in another's. The manipulations of the mesmerist produced a form of mental ventriloquism or puppetry that developed a "rapport" between mesmerist and subject. In many demonstrations, the subject shared the sensations of the mesmerist, though "somewhat modified in intensity," spoke words conceived in his mind, and moved her limbs mechanically according to his movements.

According to mesmerists, the forces that produced these displays were the basis of the most fundamental of connections between individuals, "the agent of all our actions and emotions." Most mesmerists located the cause of these effects in an inequality between mesmerist and subject. Mesmerism was portrayed as an expression of where strength and weakness, or superiority and inferiority, lay in society. The particular social claims varied widely--as widely as did Victorians' own understandings of the possibilities and proprieties of social relations. Most experimenters and lecture audiences thought mesmerism would teach them something about the nature of social relations, but they brought with them different expectations about what the phenomena could mean, and drew a variety of conclusions from what they saw.

Inhabitants of the town of Halliwell, near Bolton, learned from one W. E. Hartley that magnetic effects required the patient to have an "inferior amount of brain" to the mesmerist. Similarly, one Mr. Beattie told the inhabitants of Bury that the phenomena he could produce required "a certain inferiority of physical and nervous power on the part of the patient." Yet another artisan mesmerist told the social superiors he took as his patients that one person's ability to mesmerize another proved the mesmerist's "moral and mental superiority" to the subject. More sweeping claims were made about magnetic and electric sympathies, weaving them into the social, natural, and spiritual order. Several lecturers argued that electricity or magnetism was the means by which God regulated nature. Ethnographies of mesmeric phenomena--identifying them in Scottish "second sight," for instance, or the ostensible power of "Eskimos" to throw themselves into a "sleep on the approach of danger"--would provide a basis for a scientific explanation of what might otherwise have been dismissed as superstition or false testimony in other cultures or classes.

Along with this portrayal of people in sensitive interaction with each other and the surrounding environment came another that might seem at odds with a science of sympathy: a similarity between human and mechanical systems. Many lecturers represented the human body as an electric machine, or as containing a machine within it. The Liverpool mesmerist Mr. Reynoldson taught that human influence was rooted in muscular energy; according to the visiting American lecturer Robert Collyer, human relationships consisted in "nervo-electric influence," and the Devonshire lecturer William Davey said the brain was a "powerful battery."

These claims were not a coherent body of theory but a loosely connected set of inferences from common beliefs about physical forces. For instance, readers of the People's Phrenological Journal tacitly accepted the notion that nervous influence could be concentrated in parts of the body by magnetic passes. They were debating among themselves "where this power [was] generated" when the mesmerist F. S. Merryweather joined the discussion. Mesmerism, he suggested, showed that the brain had both the "positive and negative powers of electricity" because, "through the medium of the nerves, [it] has the power of attracting or repulsing." The blood, Merryweather continued, was capable of carrying electric charge. It was therefore plausible that altered states of mind were produced by the attraction of an "over quantity of blood" to the head when the brain, considered as the "galvanic battery," was "overcharged."

Mechanism was part of the performance as well as the theory of mesmerism. Mesmerized subjects, ventriloquists' dolls, and inanimate "human automata" were literally interchangeable on the popular stage, and mesmeric displays alternated with puppetry and ventriloquism in an evening's show. For instance, "The clairvoyant lady," advertised as having appeared many times at the "London Mesmeric Institution," accompanied a ventriloquist who promised to "unite" the impressive combination of "Art, Science, Mechanism, Electricity, Chemistry, Earth, Air, Fire, Water"--and "Money." One automaton's "bosom" heaved as if "naturally influenced by the lungs." One might wonder, upon reading promises of "rapid changes of character! . . . Imitations extraordinary" at the Regent Gallery, whether these involved a ventriloquist or a phreno-mesmeric subject. It would not be clear whether an advertised "family of human automata" were made of living tissue or of wood. Mesmerism, ventriloquism, and puppetry all made living objects appear inanimate and inanimate objects come to life.

Of course, there was a fundamental difference between puppetry and mesmerism. One involved a lifeless object, the other a sentient being. People felt a consequent disorientation when the two practices were combined or when one resembled the other. Indeed, the language people used to describe the mesmeric state suggests that this disorientation played a part in the compelling, disturbing effect of the displays. A mesmeric subject could appear "as a piece of breathing organization, possessed of no independent powers, thinking, feeling, knowing, only through [the mesmerist's] will." One nervous witness to a trial in Leicester foretold that there would be "animated beings standing in the street like galleries of lifeless statues." The tests of insensibility mesmerists carried out were said to show not only an "absence of sensation" but even an absence "of being."

This difficulty in distinguishing between the spiritual and the natural, and between the animate and the inanimate, is eloquently expressed in many fictional accounts of this period. One of the most striking examples was Edgar Allen Poe's "Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar," in which the lines were blurred between life and death, the animate and the inanimate, and even truth and fiction. In Poe's story a dying man asked to be placed in the mesmeric trance during his final moments. When this was done, he died, yet remained sentient. After enduring a state of "articulo mortis" for months, he implored the mesmerist to awaken him, and after a few mesmeric passes (as he cried out "dead! dead!") he suddenly rotted away into "a nearly liquid mass of detestable putrescence." When Poe's story was published in Britain, its audience took it seriously as an assertion of fact. The Hampshire Advertiser, for instance, reproduced the story, advising readers that it had been printed in a respectable American magazine, and leaving it to them to decide how credible it was. The reception of Poe's story exemplifies the sense of the uncanny that attached to representations of altered states of mind, leading them time and again to be associated with "death in life." Readers were willing to consider the possibility that mesmerism could redraw the line between life and death.

These phenomena took on greater significance from prevailing concerns over the place of humanity in a society increasingly dominated by machines. The possibility of transmuting living and nonliving beings has a very long history, but these shows involved a distinctly Victorian formulation of the issue of the role of physical forces in the production and manipulation of living phenomena. Reactions to mesmerism are reminiscent of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This novel, which was partially inspired by her husband's forays into mesmerism, voiced an increasingly prevalent unease about the consequences of manipulating the powers of life. Like Dr. Frankenstein, the mesmerist used his control over imponderable forces to usher the subject into and out of deathlike states. Lecturers sometimes made fairly obvious use of Shelley's story--for example, one W. Richardson's advertising broadsheet of January 1846 featured a castle whose pointed towers were assailed by jagged lightning bolts. Audiences often recalled the novel when reflecting on the issues mesmerism raised. Among the effects he promised the inhabitants of Huddersfield was an electro-magnetic engine that would give "the appearance of LIFE TO A DEAD BODY" (see fig. 31).

Figure 31--posterIn this broadsheet (c. 1846) a gratuitous castle tower and jagged lightning bolts advertise Mr. W. Richardson's electrifying lectures. Note that he also promises to create the "appearance of life" by running shocks through a corpse (species unspecified). (Kirklees Libraries and Museums.)

Of course, mesmerism not only produced insensibility and forms of ventriloquism, but could also expand the powers of perception and cognition. Like the satirical Madame La Reveuse whose inspiration they had been, mesmerized clairvoyants could see events, people, and places at a geographical or chronological distance. Surveying the familiar land of Britain with a new inner eye, clairvoyants created and discovered their own country and other territories as domains of "Mesmeria." One new "territory" was the inside of the body. The stethoscope, thermometer, and percussion techniques allowed doctors an indirect means of exploring the inside of the living body, but clairvoyants claimed to see (through their closed eyes) diseased tissues and blocked canals. Magnetic subjects also claimed to be able to establish sympathetic links with people who were far away geographically or chronologically (thereby performing their "happiness, joy, [or] grief").

A popular focus for this was the lost explorer John Franklin, whose whereabouts and status (living or dead) were the object of much speculation during the 1840s. One subject described her mind moving toward his over "icy mountains and the polar seas." So popular was this experiment that before she could reach him she claimed to have met "'the spirits of two clairvoyants' who had been sent, one from England, and the other from some distant country," to check on him. They were returning from their visit and could report that he was "safe and well," and would return in five months.

Part of the power of these displays was their blending of the domestic and the exotic. Mesmerism provided a literal form of armchair traveling, as the wilds of northern Canada could be visited in one's own parlor during the narratives of a clairvoyant. Such a juxtaposition formed the dramatic structure of Wilkie Collins's and Charles Dickens's play about Franklin, The Frozen Deep. The first act takes place in the home of the family left behind by a lost explorer; the second in the "frozen deep" where he and his crew are stranded. The two parts of the play are held together, as it were, by mesmeric forces: at the end of the first act, a servant in the household conveys to the rest of the family that she has been placed in contact with the explorers through the agency of "Scottish second sight." Dickens and Collins were both interested in mesmerism, and doubled up their performance of this play with Elizabeth Inchbald's eighteenth-century farce, Animal Magnetism.

As in the case of Elizabeth O'Key, the clairvoyant's assertion of access to knowledge was not philosophical but empathetic. Clairvoyant knowledge was a direct transmission of natural (or other) truths through the mind of the subject and out into the public arena of the mesmeric trial without any intervening art or analysis. The Liverpool clairvoyant mentioned above drew support from people who argued that her story contained elements that only expert mariners and explorers could have known. Better-known examples of this form of communication and knowledge include Harriet Martineau and, in fiction, one of the climactic moments of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, in which the heroine hears the despairing cry of the hero echoing in her mind despite the scores of miles that separate them. The more unintended the psychic event, and the more ignorant and artless mesmeric subjects were thought to be, the more their claims could be trusted.

The clairvoyant feats were the most debated of all mesmeric phenomena, although as far as I have been able to tell, their claims were never published in mainstream scientific works. For example, the major astrological journal of this period used the young clairvoyant Elizabeth Andrews as a scientific instrument to explore one of the most absorbing scientific issues of the 1840s: the nebular hypothesis. After being placed in the mesmeric trance, she was requested to "travel" mentally to the Andromeda, whereupon she described a complete system of planets and stars--all inhabited. There the millennium had already begun, and different planets served different roles in the punishment, education, and reward of inhabitants.

One might discount such activities as isolated curiosities or as a sort of cultural excrescence--a by-product of Victorian attitudes to the mind, but not an influence or stimulant to those attitudes. And no single individual had the prominence of the familiar luminaries of Victorian intellectual life. But Victorians did not view these displays as individual events isolated from one another; they had a cumulative authority. One reason was that the lecturers' mobility gave the impression that they were ubiquitous in early Victorian society. The national presence of the platform mesmerists gave individual magnetic displays a greater significance than they might otherwise have had. Many people would have understood from what they read in the regional and national press that they were participating in a nationwide controversy. The results of a trial in one community would impact another, because lectures carried with them local news clippings describing their triumphs, and they quoted from them on broadsheets and circulated them during lectures. Everyone knew the name of eminent scientific figures like Michael Faraday and famous doctors like Thomas Wakley, but huge crowds, from "York to the Isle of Wight" and from "Dover to Plymouth" had actually seen and learned from the traveling lecturers in person. In being everywhere the lecturers could not be considered "marginal" in any straightforward sense of the term. Instead of languishing on the fringes of Victorian cultural life, they suffused it.

The Body as a Battleground

One could write an entire monograph on the hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of mesmeric battles that were fought in the public spaces of England, Scotland, and Ireland during the 1840s. For my purposes it must suffice to examine a small number of them in some detail in order to understand how a consensus was reached, or failed to be reached, about both the credibility of the mesmerist and the reality of the phenomena he displayed.

Judging from the boastful advertising broadsheets, one might think that Victorian audiences were dazzled into uncritical acceptance of the mesmerist's assertions. Lecturers promised an extraordinary range of effects, and so confident were they, that witnesses could have their money back if they were not satisfied. But the actual shows describe tumultuous, embattled scenes. One unfortunate lecturer visiting Ipswich in 1843 made the crucial mistake of accepting a challenge from members of the audience to attempt to mesmerize them. They had suspected that the phreno-magnetic subject he had brought with him was a fraud, and demanded that he try his hand on someone else. After he failed to mesmerize four volunteers from the audience, there was a "great uproar," and people demanded their admission fee returned. After a "long and angry altercation" he reluctantly agreed. Even so, one "clamorous opponent" was not satisfied and demanded that the lecturer hand over "his coat and hat!" He retained his clothing, but was "almost bewildered" by being "hustled and assailed by showers of peas," and narrowly escaped being "kicked into the street."

Figure 32--posterThis broadsheet offered instructional demonstrations by W. J. Vernon and his professional mesmeric clairvoyant Adolphe Kiste (1844). (Purland scrapbook, National Library of Medicine.)

But such skepticism could also be transformed into resounding confidence by the end of such a demonstration, if events developed along different lines. One early example was the visit the London mesmerist W. J. Vernon paid to the Greenwich Literary Institution in January 1844. Vernon had become well known from the many demonstrations he had given in London (see fig. 32, an advertising broadsheet from this period). The institution's hall was crowded with over a thousand people, including "magistrates, gentry, and professional and scientific men." An entranced mesmeric subject was brought on stage, and Vernon proposed to carry out tests and experiments on him. Before he could even begin, however, violent arguments, "indescribable confusion and uproar," erupted among members of the audience as to whether the subject was truly entranced and more generally whether mesmerism was a sham. One enraged individual picked up a stick, ran to the stage, and struck the patient's hand with such a powerful blow that it resounded "above the buz [sic] and noise of the meeting." The patient seemed not to feel a thing. The subject's attacker was taken away by police, and the mesmeric experiments proceeded with the full support of the community.

During the next few weeks Greenwich and nearby towns were consumed with mesmeric controversy, as mesmerists and their opponents battled it out in public, and the Greenwich residents gave mesmerism a warmer welcome than it received in Ipswich. In one incident, for instance, a local surgeon's efforts to discredit mesmerism backfired badly. The audience, who had welcomed the mesmerist H. Brookes some days earlier, grew restless as J. Q. Rumball began to describe how mesmerists could fake magnetic phenomena. He struggled to keep their attention, but when Brookes himself entered, the exercise was futile. Amid great applause Brookes accused Rumball of "wilfully perverting the truth" and of failing to admit that he himself had experienced mesmeric phenomena (in an experiment that had been reported in a local paper). Rumball reluctantly accepted that he had indeed experienced something during a mesmeric trial, but "no wonder," when "a fellow kept poking his fingers in his eyes for nearly an hour." After this response the audience's demands for "experiments," which had begun some time earlier, grew overwhelming. When a magnetic subject was brought on stage, Rumball "quitted the hall" in outrage and humiliation. The experiments proceeded--to the audience's apparent satisfaction--without him.

Rumball was a specimen of a new breed of scientific lecturer: the "antimesmerist." They showed how mesmeric phenomena could be faked, on the assumption that the possibility of fraud made mesmerists' burden of proof heavier. Now they would have to prove that particular kinds of fraud had not been perpetrated. The antimesmerist T. S. Blackwell lectured on "mesmerism--a deception!!!" at the Marylebone Literary and Scientific Institution in 1844; the better-known Maskyline and Cooke, antimesmerists and "anti-spiritualists" of the 1870s and 1880s, provide a later example. The convention of displaying as mysterious artifice a phenomenon that had been represented as natural law became well established during the second half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, if there had not been a preexisting culture that claimed for itself the distinction of discovering mesmerism's (and later spiritualism's) extraordinary phenomena, the feats of Houdini, who got his start by following the examples of Rumball, Blackwell, Maskyline, and Cooke, might have had much less of an impact. These debates helped establish a convention for discrediting experimental phenomena by showing that it was possible to create them fraudulently--not that in fact such a fraud had occurred. Magicians of the twentieth century have employed this convention to powerful effect and, in recent decades, have even used it to intervene in laboratory science.

Such altercations were taking place all over Britain. Antimesmerists stepped onto the mesmeric stage and entered into battle--sometimes literally--with the mesmerist for supremacy over the minds of the mesmeric subjects. Rather than shunning the demonstrations, and rather than offering polite refutations of their claims, local doctors engaged in violent struggles before audiences, sometimes even physically attacking mesmeric subjects with the goal of revealing frauds through inflicting pain. In Bolton the argument of W. E. Hartley, that one person influenced another by "corpuscular exhalation" in the same way as the lodestone affected iron filings, provoked "rather hard words" with a local surgeon, a Mr. Robinson. Their exchange triggered a "storm" of public disputation. In another town the local doctors were reported to have come to the theater "in a gang," intervening in the proceedings with "clamour, clapping, yells and hisses." One advertisement's pleas that participants keep their tests of the mesmeric subject "in accordance to the laws of humanity" gives some indication of the violence one could expect at these demonstrations.

Some doctors exchanged their oath "to do no harm" for the mesmerist's goal of mastering the subject. At one Norwich demonstration, a furious doctor suddenly took out a lancet and "ran it deeply into the patient's finger under the nail into the quick." While the boy gave "no expression of pain" at the time, he "suffered a good deal after he was awakened." This was clearly an attempt to "master" the mesmeric subject by forcing him to betray himself (since the doctor assumed the trance was voluntarily feigned). Such hostile maneuvers followed a principle with a long history: that one could reveal people's true nature by inflaming the passions. But this history could work to the advantage of mesmerists. In appealing to it, opponents helped establish the historical validity of tests like the one above, which, judging from the reactions of audiences throughout the period, often supported rather than undermined the phenomena.

Battles of the kinds I have described revealed profound anxieties. For some onlookers mesmerism was a dramatic subversion of the moral and social order. One outraged commentator claimed that it was a means of tearing down all the "social fences in society." Experiments that produced these fears most acutely tended to be ones that addressed a crucial unresolved point.

One of the best examples of this is the experience of Jane Carlyle (wife of Thomas) at a mesmeric conversazione. Carlyle recounted to her uncle how she and her husband had arrived at an afternoon tea party to find a mesmerist at work on a young lady who lay before the assembled witnesses, unconscious, "the image of death." "No marble was ever colder, paler, or more motionless." The magnetizer was also able to place her body in rigid positions, "horrid--as stiff as iron." The man, who dropped his h's and had "dark animal-eyes," nevertheless claimed that mesmeric influence "consisted of moral and mental superiority." After several such feats, the magnetizer asked if his audience was convinced. Although both Carlyles conceded the reality of the phenomena, Jane denied that "any one could be reduced to that state without the consent of their own volition." To emphasize her point, she challenged him to try to mesmerize her without her consent. The mesmerist asked if she thought he could not; she replied, "Yes . . . I defy you!" He then took one of her hands in one of his and darted the other toward it: "I looked him defiantly in the face as if to say, you must learn to sound your H's Sir before you can produce any effect on a woman like me! and whilst this or some similar thought was passing thro' my head--flash--there went over me from head to foot something precisely like what I once experienced from taking hold of a galvanic ball--only not nearly so violent--I had presence of mind to keep looking him in the face as if I had felt nothing and presently he flung away my hand." If the experience refuted her theory of a consenting will, she concluded it also put paid to his claims that the phenomena were an index of moral or intellectual status: he "was superior to me in nothing but animal strength as I am a living woman!" She argued that her ability to "hinder him from perceiving that he had mesmerised me" proved "my moral and intellectual superiority." For Carlyle the experience had profound implications. Had she not been able to control her body's response to the lower-class mesmerist she would have been conceding his power--and, perhaps, his subversive claims. Carlyle's was a dramatic but by no means an unusual case. In town halls and living rooms people engaged in confrontations about the nature of the social hierarchy using this formal means of examining the impact they could make upon one another.

The point at issue between Carlyle and her mesmerist was more fundamental than whether he could produce an effect in her body. How could one tell if such an effect had been produced? And what significance would the phenomena have if one could agree that they were real? These two individuals were engaged in a contest with each other, but they were playing by different (though in each case well-articulated) rules. By his rules he won and didn't know it; by hers she won, and part of her triumph was that he did not know the true reason for her victory. This is one of ways that mesmerism became a means of affirming or destabilizing social relations. When people entered into mesmeric disputes, they often did not agree on what game they were playing and how to determine the victor. As Carlyle's story suggests, this ambiguity was what propelled some people into the mesmeric fray. Had they agreed on the rules, there would been little motivation to take part in the battle.


Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 112-30 of Mesmerized by Alison Winter, published by the University of Chicago Press. (c) 1998 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Alison Winter
Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain
©1998, 478 pages, 23 halftones, 59 line drawings
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-90219-7
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-90223-4

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