Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/May 1877/Mesmerism, Odylism, Table-Turning, and Spiritualism I
THE aphorism that "history repeats itself" is in no case more true than in regard to the subject on which I am now to address you. For there has been a continuity from the very earliest times of a belief, more or less general, in the existence of "occult" agencies, capable of manifesting themselves in the production of mysterious phenomena, of which ordinary experience does not furnish the rationale. And while this very continuity is maintained by some to be an evidence of the real existence of such agencies, it will be my purpose to show you that it proves nothing more than the wide-spread diffusion, alike among minds of the highest and of the lowest culture, of certain tendencies to thought, which have either created ideal marvels possessing no foundation whatever in fact, or have by exaggeration and distortion invested with a preternatural character occurrences which are perfectly capable of a natural explanation. Thus, to go no further back than the first century of the Christian era, we find the most wonderful narrations, alike in the writings of pagan and Christian historians, of the doings of the Eastern "sorcerers" and Jewish "exorcists" who had spread themselves over the Roman Empire. Among these the Simon Magus slightly mentioned in the book of Acts was one of the most conspicuous, being recorded to have gained so great a repute for his "magic arts" as to have been summoned to Rome by Nero to exhibit them before him; and a Christian father goes on to tell how, when Simon was borne aloft through the air in a winged chariot in the sight of the emperor, the united prayers of the apostles Peter and Paul, prevailing over the demoniacal agencies that sustained him, brought him precipitately to the ground. In our own day, not only are we seriously assured by a nobleman of high scientific attainments that he himself saw Mr. Home sailing in the air, by moonlight, out of one window and in at another, at a height of seventy feet from the ground; but eleven persons unite in declaring that Mrs. Guppy was not only conveyed through the air in a trance all the way from Highbury Park to Lamb's Conduit Street, but was brought by invisible agency into a room of which the doors and windows were closed and fastened, coming "plump down" in a state of complete unconsciousness and partial deshabille upon a table, round which they were sitting in the dark, shoulder to shoulder.
Of course, if you accept the testimony of these witnesses to the aërial flights of Mr. Home and Mrs. Guppy, you can have no reason whatever for refusing credit to the historic evidence of the demoniacal elevation of Simon Magus, and the victory obtained over his demons by the two apostles. And you are still more bound to accept the solemnly-attested proofs recorded in the proceedings of our law courts within the last two hundred years, of the aërial transport of witches to attend their demoniacal festivities; the belief in witchcraft being then accepted not only by the ignorant vulgar, but by some of the wisest men of the time, such as Lord Bacon and Sir Matthew Hale, Bishop Jewell, Richard Baxter, Sir Thomas Browne, and Addison, while the denial of it was considered as virtual atheism.
The general progress of rationalism, however, as Mr, Lecky has well shown, has changed all this; and to accept any of these marvels we must place ourselves in the mental attitude of the narrator of Mrs. Guppy's flight, who glories in being so completely unfettered by scientific prejudices as to be free to swallow anything, however preposterous and impossible in the estimation of scientific men, that his belief in "spiritual" agencies may lead him to expect as probable.
If time permitted, it would be my endeavor to show you, by an historical examination of these marvels, that there has been a long succession of epidemic delusions, the form of which has changed from time to time, while their essential nature has remained the same throughout; and that the condition which underlies them all is the subjection of the mind to a dominant idea. There is a constitutional tendency in many minds to be seized by some strange notion which takes entire possession of them; so that all the actions of the individual thus "possessed" are results of its operation. This notion may be of a nature purely intellectual, or it may be one that strongly interests the feelings. It may be confined to a small group of individuals, or it may spread through vast multitudes. Such delusions are most tyrannous and most liable to spread when connected with religious enthusiasm: as we see in the dancing and flagellant manias of the middle ages; the supposed demoniacal possession that afterward became common in the nunneries of France and Germany; the ecstatic revelations of Catholic and Protestant visionaries; the strange performances of the Convulsionnaires of St.-Médard, which have been since almost paralleled at Methodist "revivals" and camp-meetings; the preaching epidemic of Lutheran Sweden, and many other outbreaks of a nature more or less similar. But it is characteristic of some of the later forms of these epidemic delusions that they have connected themselves rather with science than with religion. In fact, just as the performances of Eastern magi took the strongest hold of the Roman mind when its faith in its old religious beliefs was shaken to its foundations, so did the grandiose pretensions of Mesmer—who claimed the discovery of a new force in Nature, as universal as gravitation, and more mysterious in its effects than electricity and magnetism—find the most ready welcome among skeptical votaries of novelty who paved the way for the French Revolution; and this pseudo-scientific idea gave the general direction to the doctrines taught by Mesmer's successors, until, in the supposed "spiritualistic" manifestations, a recurrence to the religious form took place, which, I think, may be mainly traced to the emotional longing for some assurance of the continued existence of departed friends, and hence of our own future existence, which the intellectual loosening of time-honored beliefs as to the immortality of the soul has brought into doubt with many.
I must limit myself, however, to this later phase of the history, and shall endeavor to show you how completely the extravagant pretensions of mesmerism and odylism have been disproved by scientific investigation; all that is genuine in their phenomena having been accounted for by well-ascertained physiological principles; while the evidence of their higher marvels has invariably broken down when submitted to the searching tests imposed by the trained experts whom I maintain to be alone qualified to pronounce judgment upon the matter.
Nothing is more common than to hear it asserted that these are subjects which any person of ordinary intelligence can investigate for himself. But the chemist and the physicist would most assuredly demur to any such assumption in regard to a chemical or physical inquiry; the physiologist and geologist would make the same protest against the judgment of unskilled persons in questions of physiology and geology; and a study of mesmerism, odylism, and spiritualism, extending over more than forty years, may be thought to justify me in contending that a knowledge of the physiology and pathology of the human mind, of its extraordinary tendency to self-deception in regard to matters in which its feelings are interested, of its liability to place undue confidence in persons having an interest in deceiving, and of the modes in which fallacies are best to be detected and frauds exposed, is an indispensable qualification both for the discrimination of the genuine from the false, and for the reduction of the genuine to its true shape and proportions.
And I further hold, not only that it is quite legitimate for the inquirer to enter upon this study with that "prepossession" in favor of the ascertained and universally admitted laws of Nature which believers in spiritualism make it a reproach against men of science that they entertain, but also that experience proves that a prepossession in favor of some "occult" agency is almost sure to lead the investigator to the too ready acceptance of evidence of its operation. I would be the last to affirm that there is not "much more in heaven and earth than is known to our philosophy;" and would be among the first to welcome any addition to our real knowledge of the great agencies of Nature. But my contention is, that no new principle of action has any claim to scientific acceptance, save upon evidence as complete and satisfactory as that which would be required in any other scientific investigation.
The recent history of Mr. Crookes's most admirable invention, the radiometer, is pregnant with lessons on this point. When this was first exhibited to the admiring gaze of the large body of scientific men assembled at the soirée of the Royal Society, there was probably no one who was not ready to believe with its inventor that the driving round of its vanes was effected by light; and the eminent physicists in whose judgment the greatest confidence was placed, seemed to have no doubt that this mechanical agency was something outside optics properly so called, and was, in fact, if not a new force in Nature, a new modus operandi of a force previously known under another form. There was here, then, a perfect readiness to admit a novelty which seemed so unmistakably demonstrated, though transcending all previous experience. But after some little time the question was raised whether the effect was not really due to action of heat upon the attenuated vapor of which it was impossible entirely to get rid; and the result of a most careful and elaborate experimental inquiry, in which Nature has been put to the question in every conceivable mode, has been to make it, I believe, almost if not quite certain that the first view was incorrect, and that heat is the real moving power, acting under peculiar conditions, but in no new mode.
No examination of the phenomena of spiritualism can give the least satisfaction to the mind trained in philosophical habits of thought, unless it shall have been, in its way, as searching and complete as this. And when scientific men are invited to dark séances, or admitted only under the condition that they shall merely look on and not inquire too closely, they feel that the matter is one with which they are entirely precluded from dealing. When, again, having seen what appears to them to present the character of a very transparent conjuring trick, they ask for a repetition of it under test-conditions admitted to be fair, their usual experience is that they wait in vain (for hours it may be) for such repetition, and are then told that they have brought an "atmosphere of incredulity " with them, which prevents the manifestation. Now, I by no means affirm that the claims of spiritualism are disproved by these failures; but I do contend that, until the evidence advanced by believers in those claims has stood the test of the same sifting and cross-examination by skeptical experts that would be applied in the case of any other scientific inquiry, it has no claim upon general acceptance; and I shall now proceed to justify that contention by an appeal to the history of previous inquiries of the like kind.
It was about the year 1772 that Mesmer, who had previously published a dissertation "On the Influence of the Planets on the Human Body," announced his discovery of a universal fluid, "the immediate agent of all the phenomena of Nature, in which life originates, and by which it is preserved;" and asserted that he had further discovered the power of regulating the operations of this fluid, to guide its currents in healthy channels, and to obliterate by its means the tracks of disease. This power he in the first instance professed to guide by the use of magnets; but having quarreled with Father Hell, a Professor of Astronomy at Vienna, who had furnished him with the magnets with which he made his experiments, and who then claimed the discovery of their curative agency, Mesmer went on to assert that he could concentrate the power in and liberate it from any substance he pleased, could charge jars with it (as with electricity) and discharge them at his pleasure, and could cure by its means the most intractable diseases. Having created a great sensation in Bavaria and Switzerland by his mysterious manipulations, and by the novel eftects which they often produced, Mesmer returned to Vienna, and undertook to cure of complete blindness a celebrated singer, Mademoiselle Paradis, who had been for ten years unsuccessfully treated by the court physician. His claim to a partial success, however, which was in the first instance supported by his patient, seemed to have been afterward so completely disproved by careful trials of her visual powers, that he found himself obliged to quit Vienna abruptly, and thence proceeded to Paris, where he soon produced a great sensation. The state of French society at that time, as I have already remarked, was peculiarly favorable to his pretensions. A feverish excitability prevailed, which caused the public mind to be violently agitated by every question which it took up. And Mesmer soon found it advantageous to challenge the learned societies of the capital to enter the lists against him; the storm of opposition which he thus provoked having the effect of bringing over to his side a large number of devoted disciples and ardent partisans. He professed to distribute the magnetic fluid to his congregated patients from a baquet or magnetic tub which he had impregnated with it, each individual holding a rod which proceeded from the baquet; but when the case was particularly interesting, or likely to be particularly profitable, he took it in hand for personal magnetization. All the surroundings were such as to favor, in the hysterical subjects who constituted the great bulk of his patients, the nervous paroxysm termed the "crisis," which was at once recognized by medical men as only a modified form of what is commonly known as an "hysteric fit;" the influence of the imitative tendency being manifested as it is in cases where such fits run through a school, nunnery, factory, or revivalist-meeting, in which a number of suitable subjects are collected together. And it was chiefly on account of the moral disorders to which Mesmer's proceedings seemed likely to give rise that the French Government directed a scientific commission, including the most eminent savants of the time—such as Lavoisier, Bailly, and Benjamin Franklin—to inquire into them. After careful investigation they came to the conclusion that there was no evidence whatever of any special agency proceeding from the baquet; for not only were they unable to detect the passage of any influence from it that was appreciable, either by electric, magnetic, or chemical tests, or by the evidence of any of their senses; but, on blindfolding those who seemed to be most susceptible to its supposed influence, all its ordinary effects were produced when they were without any connection with it, but believed that it existed. And so, when in a garden of which certain trees had been magnetized, the patients, either when blindfolded, or when ignorant which trees had been magnetized, would be thrown into a convulsive fit if they believed themselves to be near a magnetized tree, but were really at a distance from it; while, conversely, no effect would follow their close proximity to one of these trees when they believed themselves to be at a distance from any of them. Further, the commissioners reported that, although some cures might be wrought by the mesmeric treatment, it was not without danger, since the convulsions excited were often violent and exceedingly apt to spread, especially among men feeble in body and weak in mind, and almost universally among women; and they dwelt strongly also on the moral dangers which, as their inquiries showed, attended these practices.
Now, this report, although referring to a form of mesmeric procedure which has long since passed into disrepute, really deals with what I hold to be an important principle of action, which, long vaguely recognized under the term "imagination," now takes a definite rank in physiological science; namely, that in individuals of that excitable nervous temperament which is known as "hysterical" (a temperament by no means confined to women, but rare in healthy and vigorous men), the expectation of a certain result is often sufficient to evoke it. Of the influence of this "expectancy" in producing most remarkable changes in the bodily organism, either curative or morbid, the history of medicine affords abundant and varied illustrations; and I shall presently show you that it operates no less remarkably in calling forth movements which, not being consciously directed by the person who executes them, have been attributed to hypothetical occult agencies.
I shall not trace the further history of Mesmer, or of the system advocated by himself; contenting myself with one ludicrous example of the absurdity of his pretensions. When asked in his old age by one of his disciples why he ordered his patients to bathe in river-water in preference to well-water, he replied that it was because river-water is exposed to the sun's rays; and when further asked how these affected it in any other way than by the warmth they excited, he replied, "Dear doctor, the reason why all water exposed to the rays of the sun is superior to all other water is because it is magnetized—since twenty years ago I magnetized the sun!"
In the hands of some of his pupils, however, animal magnetism, or Mesmerism (as it gradually came to be generally called), assumed an entirely new development. It was discovered by the Marquis de Puysegur, a great landed proprietor, who appears to have practised the art most disinterestedly for the sole benefit of his tenantry and poor neighbors, that a state of profound insensibility might be induced by very simple methods in some individuals, and a state akin to somnambulism in others; and this discovery was taken up and brought into vogue by numerous mesmerizers in France and Germany, while, during the long Continental war, and for some time afterward, it remained almost unknown in England. Attention seems to have been first drawn to it in this country by the publication of the account of a severe operation performed in 1829, by M. Cloquet, one of the most eminent surgeons of Paris, on a female patient who had been thrown by mesmerism into the state of somnambulism; in which, though able to converse with those around her, she showed herself entirely insensible to pain, while of all that took place in it she had subsequently no recollection whatever. About twelve years afterward, two amputations were performed in our own country—one in Nottinghamshire, and the other in Leicestershire—upon mesmerized patients, who showed no other sign of consciousness than an almost inaudible moaning; both of them exhibiting an uninterrupted placidity of countenance, and declaring, when brought back to their ordinary state, that they were utterly unaware of what had been done to them during their sleep. And not long afterward Dr. Esdaile, a surgeon in Calcutta, gave details of numerous most severe and tedious operations performed by him, without the infliction of pain, upon natives in whom he had induced the mesmeric sleep—the rank of presidency surgeon being conferred upon him by Lord Dalhousie (then Governor-General of India), "in acknowledgment of the services he had rendered to humanity." The results of minor experiments performed by various persons, desirous of testing the reality of this state, were quite in harmony with these. Writing in 1845, Dr. Noble, of Manchester (with whom I was early brought into association by Sir John Forbes in the pursuit of this inquiry), said:
This "mesmeric sleep" corresponds precisely in character with what is known in medicine as "hysteric coma;" the insensibility being as profound, while it lasts, as in the coma of narcotic poisoning or pressure on the brain; but coming on and passing off with such suddenness as to show that it is dependent upon some transient condition of the sensorium, which, with our present knowledge, we can pretty certainly assign to a reduction in the supply of blood caused by a sort of spasmodic contraction of the blood-vessels. That there is no adequate ground for regarding it as otherwise than real, appears further from the discovery made not long afterward by Mr. Braid, a surgeon practising at Manchester, that he could induce it by a very simple method, which is not only even more effective than the "passes" of the mesmerizer, but is, moreover, quite independent of any other will than that of the person who subjects himself to it. He found that this state (which he designated as hypnotism) could be induced in a large proportion of individuals of either sex, and of all ranks, ages, and temperaments, who determinately fix their gaze for several minutes consecutively on an object brought so near to their eyes as to require a degree of convergence of their axes that is maintainable only by a strong effort.
The first state thus induced is usually one of profound comatose sleep; the "subject" not being capable of being roused by sensory impressions of any ordinary kind, and bearing without the least indication of consciousness what would ordinarily produce intolerable uneasiness or even severe pain. But, after some little time, this state very commonly passes into one of somnambulism, which again corresponds closely on the one hand with natural, and on the other with mesmeric, somnambulism. In fact, it has been by the study of the somnambulism artificially induced by Mr. Braid's process that the essential nature of this condition has been elucidated, and that a scientific rationale can now be given of a large proportion of the phenomena reported by mesmerizers as having been presented by their somnambules.
It has been claimed for certain mesmeric somnambules, however, that they occasionally possess an intelligence altogether superhuman as to things present, past, and future, which has received the designation "lucidity;" and it is contended that the testimony on which we accept the reality of phenomena which are conformable to our scientific experience ought to satisfy us equally as to the genuineness of those designated as "the higher," which not only transcend but absolutely contradict what the mass of enlightened men would regard as universal experience. This contention, however, seems to me to rest upon an entirely incorrect appreciation of the probative force of evidence; for, as I shall endeavor to prove to you in my succeeding lecture, the only secure basis for our belief on any subject is the confirmation afforded to external testimony by our sense of the inherent probability of the fact testified to; so that, as has been well remarked, "evidence tendered in support of what is new must correspond in strength with the degree of its incompatibility with doctrines generally admitted as true; and, where statements obviously contravene all past experience and the universal consent of mankind, any evidence is inadequate to the proof, which is not complete, beyond suspicion, and absolutely incapable of being explained away."
Putting aside for the present the discussion of these asserted marvels, I shall try to set before you briefly the essential characters which distinguish the state of somnambulism (whether natural or acquired) on the one hand from dreaming, and on the other from the ordinary waking condition. As in both these, the mind is in a state of activity; but, as in dreaming, its activity is free from that controlling power of the will by which it is directed in the waking state; and is also removed from this last by the complete ignorance of all that has passed in it, which is manifested by the "subject" when called back to his waking self, although the events of one access of this "second consciousness" may vividly present themselves in the next, as if they had happened only just before. Again, instead of all the senses being shut up, as in ordinary dreaming sleep, some of them are not only awake, but preternaturally impressible; so that the course of the somnambulist's thought may be completely directed by suggestions of any kind that can be conveyed from without through the sense-channels which still remain open. But, further, while the mind of the ordinary dreamer can no more produce movements in his body than his impressions on sense-organs can affect his mind, that of the somnambulist retains full direction of his body (in so far, at least, as his senses serve to guide its movements); so that he acts his dreams as if they were his waking thoughts. The mesmerized or hypnotized somnambule may, in fact, be characterized as a conscious automaton, which, by appropriate suggestions, may be made to think, feel, say, or do, almost anything that its director wills it to think, feel, say, or do; with this remarkable peculiarity, that its whole power seems concentrated upon the state of activity in which it is at each moment, so that every faculty it is capable of exerting may become extraordinarily intensified. Thus, while vision is usually suspended, the senses of hearing, smell, and touch, with the muscular sense, are often preternaturally acute, in consequence, it would seem, of the undistracted concentration of the attention on their indications. I could give you many curious instances of this, which I have myself witnessed, as also of the great exertion of muscular power by subjects of extremely feeble physique; but as they are all obviously referable to this one simple principle, I need not dwell on their details, preferring to narrate one which I did not myself witness, but which was reported to me on most trustworthy authority, of a remarkable manifestation of a power of imitative vocalization that is ordinarily attainable only after long practice. When Jenny Lind was singing at Manchester, she was invited by Mr. Braid to hear the performances of one of his hypnotized subjects, an illiterate factory-girl, who had an excellent voice and ear, but whose musical powers had received scarcely any cultivation. This girl, in the notic state, followed the Swedish nightingale's songs in different languages both instantaneously and correctly; and when, in order to test her powers, Mademoiselle Lind extemporized a long and elaborate chromatic exercise, she imitated this with no less precision, though unable in her waking state even to attempt anything of the sort. Now, I wish you to compare this case with another, which was reported about the same time upon what seemed equally unexceptionable testimony. When Miss Martineau first avowed her conversion to mesmerism, the extraordinary performances of her servant J—— were much talked of; and, among other marvels, it was asserted that she could converse, when in her mesmeric state, in languages she had never learned, and of which she knew nothing when awake—the particular fact being explicitly stated that Lord Morpeth had tested this power and had found it real. Now, you will readily perceive that, supposing the testimony in these two cases to have been exactly the same, its probative force would have been very different. For the first of them, though unprecedented, presented no scientific improbability to those who were prepared, by their careful study of the phenomena of hypnotism, to believe that the power of imitative vocalization, like any other, might be intensified by the concentration of the "subject's" whole attention upon the performance. But it seemed inconceivable that an uneducated servant-girl could understand what was said to her in a language she had never learned; still more, that she should be able to reply in the same language. And the only possible explanation of the fact, if fact it was, short of a miracle, may have lain either in her having learned the language long before and subsequently forgotten it, or in her being able by "thought-reading" (which is maintained by some, even at the present time, to be one of the attributes of the mesmeric state) to divine and express the answer expected by Lord Morpeth. But the marvel was entirely dissipated by the inquiries of Dr. Noble, who, being very desirous of getting at the exact truth, first applied for information to a near relative of Miss Martineau, and was told by him that the report was not quite accurate; for, on Lord Morpeth putting a question to J—— in a foreign language, J—— had replied appropriately in her own vernacular. Her comprehension of Lord Morpeth's question, however, appeared in itself strange to be suggestive of some fallacy; and having an opportunity not long afterward of asking Lord Morpeth himself what was the real state of the case. Dr. Noble learned from him that when he put a question to J—— in a foreign language she imitated his speech after a fashion by an unmeaning articulation of sound.
On the lesson which this case affords as to the credibility of testimony in regard to what are called the "higher phenomena" of mesmerism, I shall enlarge in my succeeding lecture, and at present I shall only remark that it was shown by careful comparison between the phenomena displayed by the same individuals, when "mesmerized" in the ordinary way, and "hypnotized" by Mr. Braid's process, that there was no other difference between the two states than that arising from the special rapport between the mesmerizer and his subject; and that this was clearly explicable by the "expectancy" under which the "subject" passed into the state of second consciousness. For Mr. Braid found himself able, by assuring his "subjects" during the induction of the coma, that they would hear the voice of one particular person and no other, to establish this rapport with any person he might choose; the case being strictly analogous to the awaking of the telegraph-clerk by the clicking of his needles, of the doctor by his night-bell, or of the mother by her infant's cry, though all would sleep soundly through far louder noises to which they felt no call to attend. And thus, as was pointed out long since by Dr. Noble and myself, not only may the general reality of the mesmeric somnambulism be fully admitted, but a scientific rationale may be found for its supposed distinctive peculiarities, without the assumption of any special "magnetic" or "mesmeric" agency.
It is affirmed, however, that proof of this agency is furnished by the power of the "silent will" of the mesmerizer to induce the sleep in "subjects" who are not in the least aware that it is being exerted; and, further, to direct from a distance the actions of the somnambule. Doubtless, if satisfactory proof of this assertion could be furnished, it would go far to establish the claim. But nothing is more difficult than to eliminate all sources of fallacy in this matter. For while it is admitted by mesmerizers that the belief that the influence is being exerted is quite sufficient in habitual somnambules to induce the result, it is equally certain that such "sensitives" are marvelously quick at guessing from slight intimations what is expected to happen. And it has been repeatedly found that mesmerizers who had no hesitation in asserting that they could send particular "subjects" to sleep, or could affect them in other ways, by an effort of silent will, have utterly failed to do so when these subjects were carefully kept from any suspicion that such will was being exerted. Thus, Dr. Noble has recorded the case of a friend of his own, who, believing himself able thus to influence a female servant whom he had repeatedly mesmerized, accepted with the full assurance of confident faith a proposal to make this experiment in Dr. Noble's house instead of his own. The girl, having been sent thither with a note, was told to sit down in Dr. Noble's consulting-room while the answer was being written; her chair being close to a partially-open door, on the other side of which her master, whom she supposed to be elsewhere, had previously taken up his position. Although this gentleman had usually found two or three minutes sufficient to send the girl to sleep when he was in his own drawing-room and she was in the kitchen, the two being separated by intervening walls and flooring, yet when he put forth his whole force for a quarter of an hour within two feet of her, with only a partially-closed door between them, it was entirely without result; and no other reason for the failure could be assigned than her entire freedom from expectancy. So, in another case, in which Mr. Lewis (accounted one of the most powerful mesmerists of his time) undertook to direct the actions of his somnambule in the next room, according to a programme agreed on between himself and one set of witnesses, while the actions actually performed were recorded and timed by another set, there was found to be so complete a discordance between the programme "willed" and the actions really executed as entirely to negative the idea of any dependence of the latter upon the directing power of the mesmerizer—the supposed relation having obviously grown up under the habitual repetition of a certain succession of performances (such as I had myself frequently witnessed), which the somnambule supposed himself expected to go through in the same order. A converse experiment, performed by Dr. Elliotson himself, satisfied him that expectancy would take the place of what he maintained to be the real mesmeric influence. Having told one of his habituées that he would go into the next room and mesmerize her through the door, he retired, shut the door, performed no mesmeric passes, but tried to forget her, walked away from the door, busied himself with something else, and even walked into a third room; and, on returning in less than ten minutes, found the girl in her usual sleep-waking condition. The extreme susceptibility of many of these "sensitive" subjects further accounts for their being affected (without any intentional deceit) by physical impressions which are quite imperceptible to others: such as slight differences in temperature, when two coins are presented to them, of which one has been held in the hand of the mesmerizer; or two wineglasses of water, into one of which he has dipped his finger for a short time. But the belief that he has transmitted his influence in any mode is quite sufficient to produce the result, as was shown in an amusing case recorded by M. Bertrand, whose treatise on "Animal Magnetism" (Paris, 1826) is by far the most philosophical work extant on the subject. Having occasion to go a journey of a hundred leagues, leaving a female somnambule under the treatment of one of his friends, M. Bertrand sent him a magnetized letter, which he requested him to place on the stomach of the patient, who had been led to anticipate the expected results—mesmeric sleep, with the customary phenomena, supervened. He then wrote another letter which he did not magnetize, and sent it to her in the same manner, and with the same intimation. She again fell into the mesmeric sleep, which was attributed to the letter having been unintentionally impregnated by M. Bertraud with the mesmeric fluid while he was writing it. Desiring to test the matter still further, he caused one of his friends to write a similar letter, imitating his handwriting so closely that those who received it should believe it to be his—the same effect was once more produced.
And so it was with the large number of experiments that were made within my own knowledge during the twenty years' attention that I gave to this subject, with a view to test the mesmerizer's power of inducing any of the phenomena of this state without the patient's consciousness. Successes, it is true, were not unfrequent; but these almost invariably occurred when the experiments were made under conditions to which the parties had become habituated, as in the case of Dr. Noble's friend. For his performances were so continually being repeated to satisfy the curiosity of visitors, that Dr. Noble's call at his house would have been sufficient to excite, on the part of the "subject," the expectancy that would have thrown her into the sleep. But when such expectancy was carefully guarded against, the result was so constantly negative as—I will not say to disprove the existence of any special mesmeric force, but to neutralize completely the affirmative value of the evidence adduced to prove it. For I think you must now agree with me that, if "expectancy" alone is competent to produce the results, as admitted by the most intelligent mesmerizers, nothing but the most rigid exclusion of such expectancy can afford the least ground for the assumption of any other agency. And my own prolonged study of the subject further justifies me in taking the position that it is only when the inquiry is directed, and its results recorded, by skeptical experts, that such results have the least claim to scientific value. The disposition to overlook sources of fallacy, to magnify trivialities into marvels, to construct circumstantial myths (as in the case of Miss Martineau's J—— and Lord Morpeth) on the slightest foundation of fact, and to allow themselves to be imposed upon by cunning cheats, has been so constantly exhibited by even the most honest believers in the "occult" power of mesmerism, as, not only in my own opinion, but in that of my very able allies in this inquiry, to deprive the unconfirmed testimony of any number of such believers, in regard to matters lying beyond scientific experience, of all claim to acceptance. In fact, the positions taken in regard to mesmerism by my friend Dr. Noble, as far back as 1845, and more fully developed by myself a few years later on the basis of Mr. Braid's experiments, and of my own physiological and psychological studies, have not only in our own judgment, but by the general verdict of the medical and scientific world, been fully confirmed by the subsequent course of events, the history of which I shall next proceed to sketch.
- This discussion, in which the subjects are considered historically and scientifically, is an expansion of the lectures delivered at the London Institution.
- British and Foreign Medical Review, April, 1845.
- Mr. Braid's peculiar success in inducing this state seemed to depend partly upon his mode of working his method, and partly upon the "expectancy" of his subjects. Finding a bright object preferable, he usually employed his silver lancet-case, which he held in the first place at ordinary reading-distance, rather above the plane of the eyes; he then slowly approximated it toward the middle point, a little above the bridge of the nose, keeping his own eyes steadily fixed upon those of his "subject," and watching carefully the direction of their axes. If he perceived their convergence to be at all relaxed, he withdrew the object until the axes were both again directed to it; and then again approximated it as closely as was compatible with their continued convergence. When this could be maintained for a sufficient length of time upon an object at no more than about three inches' distance, the comatose state generally supervened.
- Mr. Lewis was challenged to this test-experiment, in consequence of his assertion that he had repeatedly induced the mesmeric sleep, and had directed the operations of his somnambules, by the exertion of his "silent will," from a distance. His utter failure to produce either result, however, under the scrutiny of skeptical inquirers, obviously discredits all his previous statements, except to such as are ready to accept without question the slenderest evidence of the greatest marvels.
- British and Foreign Medical Review, vol. xix.
- "Principles of Human Physiology," fourth edition, 1853; and Quarterly Review, October, 1853.