Mysteries of the Mind 2: Mesmerism Mania in Britain

When the British first encountered mesmerism, they were unimpressed

Mesmerism spread to Britain in the 1780s. The establishment were sceptical. They saw mesmerism as unscientific, and worse, un-English. The Frogs and the Krauts might go in for such effeminate mumbo-jumbo, but John Bull was not going to fall for such nonsense. Despite this, the political classes got quite hysterical about it during the revolutionary wars. They worried that the French were using ‘magnetic spies’ to pry into the minds of British.

Mesmerism was re-born in Britain during the 1830s and 1840s when several popular books on the subject started a craze dubbed ‘mesmeric mania’. The salons of high society delighted in mesmerism and even Charles Dickens had a dabble. Many people think of mesmerism as an eccentric pursuit by the fringes of Victorian society, but for about 20 years it was all-pervasive and inescapable in every aspect of British life.

The working classes were just as fascinated by mesmerism as the wealthy. Mesmeric showmen toured the country giving demonstrations. Mesmerism’s appeal was obvious. It was exciting, mysterious and wonderfully meritocratic. Anyone could mesmerise. There was no need for expensive training or membership of exclusive professional bodies. Mesmerism was used as a cheap form of medicine for the poor and also a way to explore paranormal phenomena, such as clairvoyance. It could also be deliciously subversive. Men who dropped their aitches could mesmerise duchesses, throwing the whole social order into glorious disarray. Some socialist groups actually promoted mesmerism as part of a radical political agenda.

A poster for a mesmeric show

The remarkable capabilities of a mesmerised woman

The medical profession, though, remained vehemently opposed to mesmerism. John Ellitson, senior physician at University College Hospital and respected medical author, was eager to experiment. He found mesmerism helped many of his patients so he began lecturing on it. This caused a mighty row with the hospital authorities and ended his career. The hospital didn’t care whether mesmerism worked or not. They simply felt that it was disreputable and a threat to their status. Thomas Wakley, editor of The Lancet, said that mesmerists ought to be shunned ‘more than lepers, or the uncleanest of the unclean.’ Wakley had no such qualms about the ludicrous pseudo-science of phrenology.

The medical profession even dismissed mesmerism’s use for surgical anaesthesia. Hundreds of operations were carried out using mesmeric pain relief in the 1830s and 40s. At one colonial hospital in India mesmeric anaesthesia caused the death-rate to plummet by 50%. The medical establishment simply ignored this evidence and claimed that all the patients had been faking it! Ellitson asked in despair ‘How long will you refuse to spare a single wretched patient the pain of your instruments?’

As it turned out, not long. Mesmerism made the infliction of pain surgery seem like an avoidable trauma, rather than a simple fact of life. Mesmerism inspired surgeons to experiment and by the 1850s ether and chloroform were being widely used. 

The use of Ether rendered mesmeric anaesthesia redundant

The mesmeric craze died out in the 1850s. Chemical anaesthesia rendered it redundant in operations and the public had moved on to a new craze for seances, ouija boards and spiritualism. It took many years for mesmerism, or hypnosis as it was later called, to be taken seriously and recognised as tool with great potential for psychological healing. In the meantime the mesmerism craze was practically written out of history as a silly and embarrassing episode. This was unfair, as mesmerism had in fact spared many patients from pain and suffering.

Find out more: most of the information in this post comes fromRobin Waterfield’s excellent book Hidden Depths: the Story of Hypnosis

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