Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain

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Across Victorian Britain, in castles and cottages, rectories and pubs, and even hospitals and churches, thousands of women and hundreds of men were put into mesmeric trances. Apparently reasonable human beings twisted into bizarre postures, called out in unknown languages, and placidly bore assaults that should have caused unbearable pain. The Victorians were literally entranced - mesmerized - with this phenomenon. Alison Winter's cultural history considers this pervasive pursuit as a central aspect of Victorian culture. Winter describes who was entranced, who did the entrancing, why mesmerism was such a compelling experience to so many, and how to others it became powerful evidence of fraud and "unscientific" behavior. Her account traces the history of mesmerism as it moved through Victorian society. As a result, Mesmerized is both a social history of the age and a lively exploration of the contested territory between science and pseudoscience. It provides an illuminating and original perspective on the Victorian social body and on 19th-century culture in general.
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Editorial Reviews

Rosemary Ashton
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.... Inpeccably researched.
Sunday Telegraph
A cultural history of the phenomenon that swept Victorian Britain and induced otherwise seemingly rational people to engage in behavior that violated all standards of society. Winter history, California Institute of Technology explores who entranced whom and why mesmerism was so compelling to some and so repellant to others. She also considers what the episode can teach us about relations between science and society a century later. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
An exploration of Victorian culture that views mesmerism as a reflection of human interaction, gender differences, medical and scientific dilemmas, and relations of power and authority in Britain and colonial India. Conceived of by the 18th-century physician Franz Anton Mesmer, the technique of one person's control over the mind and body of another reached England in the 1830s and remained, according to Winter (History/California Institute of Technology), at the center of Victorian public attention for three decades. The initial propagators of mesmerism were traveling lecturers. They organized public demonstrations in which a subject (usually female) was put in a trance, induced when the mesmerist passed his hands along her body. The trance caused paranormal reactions, including clairvoyance, extraordinary sensitivity, and suspension of pain. Some mesmerists were skilled enough to diagnose and even treat a patient during a seance; a hospital was set up to sponsor experiments testing the healing properties of mesmerism. Perhaps the most fascinating proof of mesmerismns medical effectiveness was a series of public surgical operations held to remove tumors and limbs: throughout, patients felt no discomfort. The spread of mesmeric pain suppression techniques stimulated research into anaesthetic substances; mesmerism was eventually superseded by ether. Yet along with the medical establishment, the clergy vehemently opposed this psychic practice. (Some priests saw a threat in the potential explanation of Jesus' miracles as acts of mesmerism.) Even after mesmerismns demise in Britain, it was practiced in India (where it resembled indigenous healing methods). Mesmerism helped to changeEnglish medical practices and contributed to the rise of women as public figuresnfor many female patients (Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett) regarded their sickness and mesmeric treatment as a source of authority. A captivating inquiry into a bizarre and neglected mystical phenomenon.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226902234
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 1,259,466
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Alison Winter is associate professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain and Memory: Fragments of a Modern History.

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Read an Excerpt


Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain

By Alison Winter

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-90219-6

Chapter One

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 seance Lafontaine's patient held the live wires of a
battery for ten minutes after the same voltage had mademembers 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."

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

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."


Excerpted from Mesmerized
by Alison Winter
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: An Invitation to the Seance 1
1 Discovery of the Island of Mesmeria 15
2 Animal Magnetism Comes to London 32
3 Experimental Subjects as Scientific Instruments 60
4 Carnival, Chapel, and Pantomime 79
5 The Peripatetic Power of the "New Science" 109
6 Consultations, Conversaziones, and Institutions 137
7 The Invention of Anesthesia and the Redefinition of Pain 163
8 Colonizing Sensations in Victorian India 187
9 Emanations from the Sickroom 213
10 The Mesmeric Cure of Souls 246
11 Expertise, Common Sense, and the Territories of Science 276
12 The Social Body and the Invention of Consensus 306
Conclusion: The Day after the Feast 345
Notes 355
Bibliography 409
Index 453
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