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The Strange Case of Death by Hypnosis

The phenomenon of hypnotism is still poorly understood by both the general public and scientists alike. Involving the use of hypnotic induction that takes many forms, the popular image being a swinging watch, the subject then supposedly goes into an altered state of mind or trance, during which they have a different conscious awareness than normal and heightened focus and concentration, which allows the hypnotist to achieve all sorts of purported effects. The hypnotist can allegedly decrease acute and chronic pain in the subject, cause them to relive past memories, even cause them to quit smoking or drinking, or to lose weight, but the most popular conception is that the subject is incredibly open to suggestion and that the hypnotist can make them do all manner of things they would not normally do. This particular use for hypnosis might be the most familiar for many people, with the image of the hypnotist making the subject bark like a dog, act like a chicken, and so on. To many people this is where hypnosis begins and ends, regarded as nothing more than a parlor trick, but there have been some cases where it seems that this power of suggestion is very real, and can also be very deadly.

It was the evening of November 8, 1909, and the Somerville Opera House, in Somerville, New Jersey, was packed with people there to see the show of prominent stage hypnotist Arthur Everton. As the hypnotist dramatically and theatrically stepped out on stage, his eyes scanned the crowd as he asked for a volunteer from the audience. In hypnotist acts people were typically hesitant to volunteer to be first. No one wanted to be first to go up there and be subjected to possibly very embarrassing acts, so the hypnotist usually employed what was called a “leader” or a “horse,” a person who worked with the hypnotist and volunteered to go first, the idea was that once someone went first others would more freely volunteer.

On this evening, Everton’s leader was a 35-year-old piano mover and former streetcar conductor by the name of Robert Simpson. The two had worked together on hypnotist acts for a while, and typically Simpson would volunteer, be hypnotized, and then pull in more people willing to do it. It was towards the end of the show and Everton had already had many people volunteer be hypnotized to do all manner of comedic things, but this was the grand finale and once again people had become reticent. Simpson raised his hand and volunteered. For this stunt, the plan was to hypnotize Simpson and command him to become rigid while lying horizontally across two chairs. An article in the New York Times would describe the act:

He made a few passes, told Simpson to be rigid, and he was. Everton then had attendants lay the body on two chairs, the head resting on one and the feet on the other, and stepped up on the subject’s stomach and then down again. Two attendants, acting under his orders, lifted Simpson to a standing posture, and Everton, clapping his hands, cried out ‘Relax!’ Simpson’s body softened so suddenly that it slipped out of the hands of the attendants to the floor, his head striking one of the chairs as he slid down.

The audience gasped, not sure if this was a part of the act or not, and some people even began to clap, but it soon became apparent that this was not an act as Everton hunched over the prone form and began frantically shouting for a doctor. In the meantime, Everton kept trying to snap Simpson out of his trance, but this was hard to do because he was dead. Indeed, county physician Dr. W. H. Long pronounced Simpson dead at the scene, but Everton did not agree that his assistant was actually dead. He told the doctor and authorities that he believed Simpson to still be in his trance, in a sort of deep state of suspended animation, and that he could revive him if given more time. He was allowed to try, but despite working for hours to try and bring Simpson back, nothing seemed to work, and Simpson remained dead.

Everton was brought to the local jail, charged with manslaughter and faced a stiff sentence, but he still refused to admit that Simpson was dead. He now pleaded with authorities to let him try one more thing, to allow him to call in a second hypnotist to succeed where he had failed. The bemused authorities figured they had nothing to lose and actually allowed Everton to reach out to his friend, a fellow hypnotist and Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, William Davenport. After Everton explained what had happened, Davenport agreed that Simpson might very well be still alive and in s frozen, cataleptic state, like suspended animation, and so he agreed to go there and try his hand at bringing the man back. When Davenport arrived at the morgue, he immediately went to work, using hypnotic commands on the corpse and saying, “Bob! Your heart! Bob! Your heart! Your heart is beating! Bob, your heart action is beginning. It is beginning. Oh I say, Bob, look, your heart is beginning to beat. Listen, Bob, your heart action is strong. Bob, your heart begins to beat.”

He would say things along these lines, repeating them for hours, using different tones and approaches ranging from friendly and jovial to commanding and even angry, but the heart did not beat, Simpson did not move or sit up or start breathing again, and he was still completely silent and still. To police it was beginning to become very obvious that the man was quite dead, but even then Everton continued to insist that the trance was deep but that he was actually alive as he was dragged off back to jail. In fact, he was still proclaiming Simpson to be alive even when the coroner came to the conclusion that the man had died instantly from a ruptured aorta. Luckily for Everton, the cause for the rupture could not be determined, and although the timing certainly seemed suspicious, there was no evidence that Everton had had anything to do with it, and so he was eventually released. One doctor would say:

Death was practically instantaneous and evidently occurred just as Simpson was coming out of the trance. Whether the strain he was put under when Everton stood on the body during its rigidity caused the rupture cannot be ascertained.

Everton would stop performing and fall into obscurity, before being arrested again, this time for smuggling liquor during Prohibition. During his arrest he allegedly even ranted that he could have stopped the police with hypnotism but had chosen not to. After this, he sort of disappeared into history, his ultimate fate unclear. Did he have anything to do with the death of his assistant? Was this just an incredible coincidence or did hypnosis actually kill him? There are many things we still don’t understand about hypnosis, so it is hard to say, leaving it to remain merely a weird historical oddity.