Feb 03, 2023 I Brent Swancer

Mesmerism, Mind Control, and Mysterious Crimes

The human mind is, rather than space or the deepest depths of the ocean, often seen to be the true last frontier of science. Despite all of our centuries of studying it and delving into what makes us tick, there is a vast sea of things we do not understand about what drives our behavior and powers our behavior and concious senses. The human brain and mind often seem to be just as alien and impenetrable as any far away world, which makes it all the more fascinating when we come across stories that delve into its various workings and idiosyncracies. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries there was a big interest in these powers of the mind, and one area that saw a lot of coverage was the idea that it could be shaped, manipulated, and even coaxed into committing crimes. 

In the 1770s, Franz Mesmer, a physician from Austria, was deeply into using magnets to treat patients with all manner of ailments. He believed that by opening a patient’s vein just enough to let a little blood out, he could stop the bleeding by passing magnets over the wound, and that this could be applied to other illnesses, injuries and ailments as well. In 1774, Mesmer was carrying out a treatment using magnets on a woman patient of his. At some point during the procedure he came to the conclusion that there was a mysterious fluid flowing through her, and that he could alter its flow and behavior through magnets and even his own will. He would go on to call this fluid and its manipulation “Animal Magnetism,” or “mesmerism,” and he would come up with a complex and elaborate theory on how it all worked. It was all based on the basic concept that there was an invisible natural force possessed by all living things, including humans, animals, and vegetables, that took the form of what he called “vital fluid,” permeating us and coursing through us, and that the manipulation of this force could have myriad effects of patients' bodies and minds. One London publication would describe of this vital fluid:

Modern philosophy has admitted a plenum or universal principle of fluid matter, which occupies all space; and that as all bodies moving in the world, abound with pores, this fluid matter introduces itself through the interstices and returns backwards and forwards, flowing through one body by the currents which issue therefrom to another, as in a magnet, which produces that phenomenon which we call Animal Magnetism. This fluid consists of fire, air and spirit, and like all other fluids tends to an equilibrium, therefore it is easy to conceive how the efforts which the bodies make towards each other produce animal electricity, which in fact is no more than the effect produced between two bodies, one of which has more motion than the other; a phenomenon serving to prove that the body which has most motion communicates it to the other, until the medium of motion becomes an equilibrium between the two bodies, and then this equality of motion produces animal electricity.

Franz Mesmer

It was claimed that through the use of mesmerism one could cure sickness or conversely cause it, heal wounds, produce physical effects such as vomiting, headaches, or disorientation, cause feelings of intense heat, trembling, trances, and seizures, conjure illusions or hallucinations, and even influence a person’s mind or do one’s bidding, as the fluid also had a profound effect on the brain. The concept became popular at the time, and Mesmer began attracting students to him to learn the technique as well as patients seeking his services. In the late 1770’s Mesmer moved to Paris, where he continued to see patients and his animal magnetism began to pick up more practitioners who were known as magnetizers, and there was also the creation of the Societies of Harmony in France, where members paid to join and learn the practice of magnetism. By the early 1800s it was all the rage across Europe and even the United States, and despite an increasingly skeptical community who saw it more the product of quackery and charlatans more than anything else its popularity would not wane. Mesmer’s displays of his techniques were often very dramatic and weird, and one report of one such session reads:

His patients were received with the air of mystery and studied effect. The apartment, hung with mirrors was dimly lit. A profound silence was observed, broken only by strains of music which occasionally floated through the rooms. The patients were seated around a sort of vat which contained a heterogeneous mixture of chemical ingredients. With this, and with each other, they were placed in relation by means of cords, or jointed rods, or by holding hands; and among them slowly and mysteriously moved Mesmer himself, affecting one by a touch, another by a look, a third by passes with his hand, a fourth by pointing with a rod. One person became hysterical, then another; one was seized with catalepsy; others with convulsions; some with palpitations of the heart, perspirations, and other bodily disturbances.

He would go on to claim that this vital fluid could achieve all manner of spectacular effects and could hold power over others, one of these being a state that was called “crisis,” in which the patient was under complete magnetic control. One early account explains of this mysterious state:

The animal magnetism theory purported that the "crisis" created two effects: first, a state in which the individual is completely reduced under Magnetic influence, although he should seem to be possessed of his senses, yet he ceases to be an accountable creature and a second "remarkable" state, which would be conferred upon the magnetized subject … namely that of perfect and unobstructed vision … in other words, all opacity is removed, and every object becomes luminous and transparent

In its heyday, mesmerism had a good deal of influence over medical practices and hundreds of books were written on the subject between 1766 and 1925. It would also form the basis for the practice of hypnotism, which remains popular to this day. However, one dark aspect of the popularity of mesmerism during these days, and later hypnotism, is that they also produced all manner of strange tales of people allegedly being mind-controlled by mesmerism and made to commit crimes against their will, which posed quite the conundrum for the courts, who struggled to figure out just what to do with such cases and how to prosecute them. These bizarre cases were especially prevalent in the later 19th century, when there was a sort of resurgence in mesmerism and the related hypnotism, and Karl Bell, of the University of Portsmouth has written of it:

It was in this later nineteenth-century context that learned debates and sensationalized claims about hypnotism gained medical and public attention. Developing from its origins in the reinvigorated interest in mesmerism in the 1830s and 1840s, late nineteenth-century hypnotism attempted to make itself more palatable to contemporary scientific thought. Surgeon James Braid had tried to grant hypnotism a scientific distance from the supernatural stigma that still clung to mesmerism, shifting the explanation of the trance state from external invisible fluids to a psychological state to which the subject consented. Yet, unable to completely extract itself from its occult resonances, hypnotism also became a cause for concern about crime, culpability and the loss of will at the fin de siècle. This was given a degree of respectability in the late 1880s as the British medical profession briefly flirted with but ultimately rejected the idea of using hypnotism in medical practice. 

Openly debated in the British Medical Journal, this respected publication was not above talking up the potential for hypnotic crimes. Its editor, Ernest Hart, claimed the hypnotised would become ‘blindly, actively obedient to your wildest orders or most bizarre suggestions’ and this fed concern that a person could be induced to commit a crime whilst in a hypnotic state or even via posthypnotic suggestion. Crimes committed by a hypnotised subject would effectively work around the law for they were committed unknowingly, without will or intention. In such circumstances, the subject was merely a tool of the true criminal, the hypnotizer. The British Medical Journal was obviously not the means by which most people became aware of hypnotism, its potential dangers, or its legal ambiguities. These notions entered into popular consciousness through the sensationalist claims made by newspapers, pamphlets, short stories and novels in the 1880s and 1890s, perhaps the most popular of which was George De Maurier’s novel, Trilby.

There are many examples of such cases coming before courts throughout the late 19th century, and one of them revolves around a woman named Adelaide Cole, who lived in Brunswick Place, London. On the afternoon of 7th August 1862, Elizabeth Free, who was a servant in the household, was horrified to come across the Coles’ fifteen-month old child Charles lying in a pool of blood on the floor with its throat cut. Since Mrs. Cole was the last one to have been seen with the child and had indeed carried him to his room just minutes before the discovery of the body, she was arrested on suspicion of murder and brought to trial. Witnesses at Mrs. Cole’s trial would paint a picture of her as a warm and caring mother, but that she had been prone to drinking and having some weird spiritual beliefs. It was claimed that she had in the days leading up to the murder complained of hearing the voices of evil spirits, and she had often made arcane gesticulations with her hands. These claims were verified by a physician by the name of Dr. John Rogers, who stated in court:

On the evening of the murder she told me she was full of evil spirits, and asked me to cure them; and on the Saturday following she told me she was haunted by evil spirits, and that she saw the spirits murder the child before her eyes, and the next moment she denied the child's death altogether, and insisted … that it was crying in the next room.

Although this seemed to be an obvious murder, Mrs. Cole would insist that she had been mesmerized by the evil spirits, and that she had not been in control of her body or her senses during the crime. She claimed that they had put her into a trance and controlled her mind, and so she could not be held accountable. Whether the court really believed this or not, amazingly she was found not guilty because she had been “decidedly insane at the time this act was perpetrated.” Another case also come to us from 1862, when on Sunday, April 13th of that year a Charles Tilbrook brutally assaulted his elderly grandmother with a razor and a stick at her home on Charles Street, Westminster, leaving her grievously injured. In court he would explain that the old woman had been using her “devilish arts” to hypnotize him and make him act against his will, and it was because of this that he had felt there was no choice other than to attack her to break her magnetic spell over him. He would state:

I did not intend to take her life; I only intended to draw some of her blood. It is evident she is connected with the devil. There have been persons connected with the devil who have done things of witchcraft, though it is not believed in at this day. She should not have that power over me which she has done with her … arts …The reason I took upon me to revenge my own wrongs, was because I expected I should get very little redress from the law, because people consider themselves so much enlightened in these days that they do not believe in such a crime, but I do.

In this case, the court seemed to work from an assumption that his actions had been the consequence of irrational superstition rather than evidence of mental illness, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. In another case, in February of 1891, a man by the name of William Burns suddenly and violently attacked his wife Louisa with a hammer and chisel without reason in their home in Horseferry Road, Westminster. During the trial, Louisa testified that her husband had recently been paranoid that he was being followed, and “several times alluded to being under the influence of mesmerism.” In his own defense, Burns would state, “I believe I have been mesmerised; in fact, I know I have … I was mesmerised yesterday with sixpence on the mantelpiece and bits of elastic and old rags.” Despite this, the jury rejected the claim of temporary insanity, and he was found guilty and imprisoned. 

On April 25, 1876 there was a case in which the neighbors of a surgeon named Dr. Charles Grimes were woken to the sounds of Grimes throwing around items, dragging furniture, tearing up floorboards, and generally acting like “quite the maniac.” It was completely out of character for the normally level-headed, mild mannered doctor, and it got even stranger when police arrived and Grimes flew into a fit, brandishing a gun and firing at officers to injure two policemen. When he was finally wrestled to the floor and apprehended, he insisted to police that someone on the floor was trying to mesmerize him, and that there were even wires from the room below to his room that somehow aided the mesmerist’s influence over him. He would be found not guilty, but it was decided that he had suffered a temporary bout of insanity and he was detained for a time. 

In another rather bizarre case, in September of 1908, Tom Wallis Rogers, a 40-year-old “magnetic healer, medical, hypnotist, and mesmerist” was arrested for defrauding an Emma Elizabeth Ling out of her money. Ling had a glass eye due to having lost her real one in an accident some years before, and Rogers had claimed to her that he could grow her a new one with his magnetic powers for a price. In court he challenged even medical professionals who assured him that growing a new eye was impossible, citing his 15 years of experience doing just such a thing and his mastery of the laws of magnetism, and proclaiming, “The opinion of the medical profession upon a matter wherein they have no education or experience, whereon they have not even thought, is worthless.” William Norwood East, deputy medical officer at Brixton Prison, would deem Rogers to be completely delusional, saying:

He told me he is capable of giving people new hearts, liver, and kidneys; that he can raise the dead; that he can break bones and heal them in five minutes by putting his finger on them; he says that by placing his finger on the bones they melt, then on his removing his finger they solidify and become like shell; … I believe all these are genuine insane delusions. He is of unsound mind and incapable of knowing the nature and quality of his offence.

Rogers was found guilty and his powers of magnetism and mesmerism were apparently not enough to prevent him from being sentenced to nine months' imprisonment for deception. At the time, it could not be decided whether he was actually insane or not, as the legal rules for accusing someone of insanity were still nebulous and ill-defined. It was an era in which courts were still often confronted with cases concerning mesmerism and the occult for which there was no concrete way to reach a verdict of insanity and not a lot of precedents. Indeed, it was still not even clear on what the definition of insanity even was, or what caused such delusional, deranged behavior. Bell has said of this conundrum and its relation to the Rogers case:

One senses Rogers may have been punished for his direct challenge to both the legal charge and the still malleable boundaries between orthodox and heterodox sciences at the turn of the twentieth century. Ultimately, the use of occult beliefs as a signifier of mental instability reveals the limitations of late-Victorian mental science. Delusion was not the initiating cause of mental illness but merely a symptom of such. As Henry Maudsley declared, it was ‘not in our power to explain psychologically the origin and nature’ of delusions, merely ‘to establish their existence as facts of observation, and to set forth the pathological conditions under which they are produced.’ In court it was sufficient for medical expert to signify that ideas of bewitchment, spirit, mesmeric or hypnotic influence were indicative of delusion and not probe any deeper. As such, medical testimony sought to reduce the occult to a mere fictive element in a mental scientific narrative that alluded to but could not ultimately specify the nature of the mental defect. The workings and failings of the mind remained as unknown as the occult itself.

In a later case from August of 1910, George Gordano Hackshaw, a 33-year-old decorator, got into an intense physical altercation with his younger brother William. The fight ended in William’s death, although Hackshaw claimed that he had not meant to kill his brother, and he was arrested on the charge of manslaughter. In custody, he claimed that his brother had been hypnotizing him and his wife, and even when he was being held in prison he claimed that he also had hypnotic powers and had been in a mesmerized trance at the time of the crime. His attending physician, Sydney Dyer, would say of this: 

He can by some magnetic power diagnose by his own feelings the different ailments of the other prisoners in the ward, as he feels exactly the same pains as they have. Of late he has had a lot of trouble with his head; that his dreams have been so terrifying that he is kept awake all night; that this has been going on for some five months, and that it is entirely due to hypnotic influences exercised over him by his brother and others

Hackshaw would eventually be deemed “guilty, but insane.” Were all of these people in cases like this and others like them really insane? Or was there perhaps something more to this? Is it all really just illusions and fantasy, or were these people really under the influences of forces we cannot comprehend? Whether any of it is true or not, hypnotism and its animal magnetism ancestor continue to be a popular area of study and practice, and depite much debate on its actual use and efficiacy, it all provides a compelling and often rather spooky look into the powers of the human mind, a realm that sometimes feels as alien as some other planet. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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