A topic that seems to crop up every so often amongst my religious primary sources in the 19th century is an interesting topic which has little or nothing to do with my PhD research on love & religion – yet is too fascinating a topic not to notice. This is the topic of mesmerism, or ‘animal magnetism’ as it was often called. This practice of a type of ‘clairvoyance’ which advertised itself as able to view and change the constitution of bodies and minds was an interesting practice. While such a practice seems obviously a scandal to most in the 21st century, it wasn’t so clear-cut in the 19th century. This may be unsurprising given the apparent and rising tension between sciences and religion in the middle of this century – mesmerism seems to be viewed as an extension of the latter.
Mesmerism is defined by its proponents in the 19th century as a type of electricity in the mind which needs can be manipulated in order to directly influence the recipient. Dr John Bovee Dodds describes it as ‘spiritual electricity’ and a part of universal laws instituted by God himself, in which people with more ‘nervo-vital fluid’ can influence (and thereby assist) those with less nervo-vital fluid – the fluid passes from one brain to the other.
While Dodds was an apparent advocate of this position, it was viewed quite sceptically by the scientific community. A late 19th century article in the British Medical Journal indicates that mesmerism is a deception, and that its namesake – Franz Mesmer – was a swindler whose ‘mysticism was allied to the love of money.’
In 1846, an article in the Provincial Medical & Surgical Journal describes an attempt to perform an experiment, by the bank of Messrs Ball and Co. They issued a cheque for £100 and stored it in the bank in an envelope with a handwritten note. All who practiced mesmerism were called upon to give minute details of the cheque itself, and confirm the writing on the handwritten note. While many revelations were received from both England and America, none were correct. The six month ‘due date’ was even extended to allow for a lady professor of mesmerism to have time to ‘prepare for clairovoyance.’
An article in the ‘Scientific American’ in 1850 suggested that the practice constituted many truths and errors and called for a formal scientific enquiry to observe them. While scepticism existed, there was still evident concern over writing it off completely.
One of the most significant criticisms of this practice was that the connection between the mesmeriser and the effects on his/her patient could never be tangibly proven. Interestingly, this does not appear to be an issue for its proponents, who argue that many parts of the natural order seen ‘incomprehensible’ to us, and that many scientific discoveries were spurned at their advent (such as Copernican Theory). There seems to be a ‘mystical religiosity’ which is coterminous with this view – perhaps surprising, since one might not expect to find such stark examples of belief in ‘magic’ to be prominent in the post-enlightenment era.
Nonetheless, it seems that those who advocated it sincerely described it as having quasi-spiritual functions; it was almost a religious practice – which to write off completely could be interpreted as ‘limiting’ God’s hand in this magical practice.
Amongst religious dissenters, you found many who were persuaded by this practice. Samuel Pearce, a pious Baptist minister, was convinced he had some ability to mesmerise. In a letter to his wife, he describes his experience as a mesmerist in which he successfully manipulated a woman into raising her hand for a couple of hours. He asserts
“I think I could remove a swelling, or disperse a slight tumor…”
Jane Attwater, another Baptist, who caught wind of Pearce’s exploits found it to be a shambolic deception, and was dismayed to hear of his involvement in such practices.
“I am sorry they to whom we so much look up to should suffer themselves
to be so deceived.”
Pearce’s son, whilst compiling his memoirs, notes that perhaps Pearce’s mesmerist powers ‘played a little part in his extraordinary influence over his audiences’ – a seemingly coy reaction to Pearce’s mesmerist ability and his documented popularity amongst listening congregations.
Another story of mesmerism is told by a Quaker in the mid 19th century who visited an exhibition of mesmerism, in which a young teenage woman presented ‘clairovoyant tendencies’ by manipulating information out of audience members. The author of this account went away persuaded by her ability, despite the apparent influence of her answers by her father. At one point during the event, she gives the incorrect answer about the manufacturer of an audience member’s hat and is told by her father to try again.
“The exhibitor took up a gentleman’s hat, & asked the name of the maker…She answered – Baynes. Camberwell. Her father replied somewhat testily, ‘No, you are erring – it is not Camberwell. Think again –‘ she replied ‘Cambridge’ – …cried the gentleman, ‘it is all true!’…
It is apparent that while some dissenting Christians found mesmerism to be an obvious con, religiosity seemingly caused other individuals to resist rejecting it outright – lest they mislabel an actual work of God in their midst. This is an avenue of research that demands more study, and I hope that the connection between 19th century religiosity and magic might be explored more in the future…
- Samuel Pearce (Angus Oxford Archives)
- Jane Attwater (Angus Oxford Archives)
- Howard Family (London Met Archives)
- Scientific American, Vol. 5, No. 40 (June 22, 1850)
- Provincial Medical & Surgical Journal (1844-1852), Vol. 10, No. 22 (June 3 1846)
- The British Medical Journal, Vol 2, No. 675
- ‘Six Lectures on the Philosophy of Mesmerism’ by John Bovee Dodds (1843).