You Will Obey!

Isn’t it Hypnotic?

Notes on some more research from A History of Hypnotism by Alan Gauld. Though mesmerism was the rage in Europe from 1784-89, there seems little doubt that the French Revolution and general political upheavals slowed its introduction into Britain and the United States. Once it arrived however, it “set the brush ablaze” in the US, catching on more slowly in Britain. Gauld theorizes:

In the United States, authority in professional, intellectual, educational, and religious matters had not yet become highly institutionalized, centres of advanced learning were scattered, and a habit of individual thinking flourished even among the less well educated. Such a country was bound at a certain level to be more open to new social, religious, intellectual, and medical ideas than was Britain with its entrenched professional, intellectual and political establishments. Between 1830 and 1850 the eastern United States was a ferment of new ideas, new movements and new cults, many of a reformist or utopian character, and was uplifted by an almost euphoric optimism as to the prospects for improving man’s lot in this world or assuring his comfort in the next. The literary and intellectual side of these movements met and merged with the New England transcendentalism which grew up along with Unitarianism as the older style of Puritanism began to lose its grip on the American mind. (179)

Gauld notes that Emerson and most “eminent literary persons” took a poor view of mesmerism. It had stronger affinities with the more popular reform and progressive movements, including women’s suffrage, the abolitionists, child labor movements, socialism, Fourierism, “communitarianism,” free love, vegetarianism, penal and educational reform, homeopathy, phrenology, and Swedenborgianism (180). Gauld refers the reader to Orestes Brownson’s autobiographical novel The Spirit-Rapper (1854) for further details.

Ten years prior to the introduction of photography, hypnotism came into the country in much the same fashion— through a series of lectures by Joseph du Commun, a teacher of French at the US Military Academy at West Point, in 1829. It didn’t catch on until another French lecturer Charles Poyen St. Sauveur, author of Progress of Animal Magnetism in New England (1837), began private instruction in mesmerism in March of 1836. It spread quickly, mostly through lecturers trained by Poyen (181). Early supporters included Francis Wayland, President of Brown University, and J.C. Brownell, Episcopal bishop of Connecticut. It gained an intellectual base, and early accounts are filled with both with cures and references to clairvoyance (182). Mesmerism also gained a foothold in New Orleans, were a group began to meet in the late 1830s, founding the Sociét&#0233l du magnétisme de la Nouvell-Orléans in April 1845. By 1848, it had 71 members (183).

Robert H. Collyer began attracting audiences of 500-1000 in Boston and New York in the early 1840s. Samuel Gregory, an advocate of medical education for women published Mesmerism, or Animal Magnetism and its Uses in 1843 (183). A class of “professional magnetizers” grew up quickly, with one contemporary estimate citing two hundred of them in Boston alone by 1843. Many of the practioners were also allied with phrenology, following Dr. Johann Spurzheim who died in New York in 1832 (185). Mesmerism became quickly entangled with phrenology. Of these early “missionary” hypnotists, the theories of J.S. Grimes seems most in keeping with other social trends.

Grimes called the mesmeric fluid etherium, and proposed that hypnotism worked through a practitioner’s ability to connect his etherium with a passive subject, to “induct” them into a state, or by playing upon the organ of the subject’s Credenciveness. “Credenciveness is ‘a conforming social propensity. The whole group which it belongs have this peculiar character, that they all tend to conform to the wishes, feelings, actions, commands, and assertions of others’” (186). Stage hypnotism appears to have developed in the late 1850s.

In the later Victorian era, mesmerism became closely connected with the spiritualist movement, and with Christian Science. Gauld ties this to the tendency in Puritanism towards “conversion experiences” and with the growth of scientism— “The American mesmerists were the first to encourage popular audiences to abandon a scriptural based theology in favour of psychological principles said to govern an individual’s ability to inwardly align himself with a higher spiritual order” (194).