The most astonishing scene in Alison Winter’s book takes place in the Calcutta Native Hospital in 1846. All the employees, right down to the cook, have been taught to “mesmerize” patients to the point where they are in a state of complete anesthesia. (To mesmerize may be to hypnotize, a question to which I’ll return.) A man is lying on his back. The mesmerizer sits at his head behind him, leaning over, making almost face-to-face contact, his right hand reaching down to the pit of the man’s stomach, his left hand making passes close to the face, over and over again, for hours, sometimes for six hours a day.

The patient goes into a deeper and deeper sleep. He has a horrible tumor on the scrotum, common enough in India at that time, in which liquid fills the membrane surrounding the testicle. When the patient seems completely unconscious, after a process that may last several days, he is tested by being touched with a red-hot coal. If he remains oblivious, the Scottish surgeon is summoned, one James Esdaile, who had taught himself mesmeric anesthesia by reading a pamphlet from England, and then discovered that the hospital servants could do the tedious mesmeric work as well as he could. Esdaile enters, in sea boots and a sou’wester, to keep out the blood. He slices off the tumorous scrotum. He and his Indian assistants tie up the veins. In one case the patient weighs 114 pounds after the operation; beside him is a tumor weighing 103.

For eight months during 1846, Esdaile performed seventy-three “painless surgical operations” of various kinds on mesmerized Indians, including the occasional amputation, or operation for cataracts, but most commonly the removal of scrotal tumors. All these events were seen by witnesses. Ten such “treatments” were formally observed by a government committee of three doctors and three laymen, who judged most of them to be both painless and successful.

There are two ways to talk about such events: we can say what we may think was going on, or we can describe what actors themselves said was going on. Winter talks their language, and I will try to do so, too. To begin with, Esdaile thought of himself as using mesmerism, or animal magnetism. Not hypnotism. Alison Winter has very little to say about hypnotism. The practice and the word “hypnotism” (from the Greek hupnos, “sleep”), in the beginning, “neurohypnotism,” were created by another Scottish surgeon, James Braid, working in Manchester. Braid watched a demonstration of mesmerism in 1841, tried it out, and in the mid-1840s developed his own ideas. He thought he could strip away all the nonsense surrounding mesmerism and systematically produce its hypnotic effects. Alan Gauld, the author of a veritable encyclopedia of hypnotism, carefully distinguishes between mesmerism and hypnotism as practiced by Braid and those who came after him. He takes it to be an open question whether the same effects were being observed in both forms of “putting someone to sleep.”1

Most histories agree that it was James Braid who commenced the scientific study of trance phenomena. But what is “scientific”? That is one of the great subthemes of Winter’s book, a theme as germane to the recent wars over the truth and objectivity of science as it is to a study of Victorian Britain. She puts mesmerism at the center of the Victorian fight to define science.

But, first, what is the difference between mesmerism and hypnotism? “Braid’s ‘hypnotism,”‘ writes Winter, perhaps expressing her distaste by putting the very word in quotes, “…removed from mesmerism its magnetic fluids, the sexual associations that attended the ‘passes,’ and the personal relationship between mesmerist and subject explicit in the claim that one person’s body, mind, or will impinged on another’s.” Braid could hypnotize a person by getting him or her to focus on almost anything monotonous, a candle flame, the sound of dripping water, a pendulum, the unblinking stare of the hypnotist—or the passes of the mesmerist. Hypnotism abounds with not very impressive theories, but it was, and is, an extraordinarily non-theoretical activity. Braid just found you can do these things.

Mesmerism, in contrast, began with an elaborate theory. It is named after the Viennese physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815), who regarded himself as a firm disciple of Isaac Newton. This was at a time when Europeans and Americans were just beginning to glimpse the fundamental facts about electricity and magnetism. Benjamin Franklin began his electrical researches in 1746, but the Italian physicist Alexander Volta did not get a constant current to flow (by inventing the battery) until 1800, and that is as good a date as any for the beginning of practically everything we now take for granted about the relation of electricity to magnetism. It was an exciting but not an easy beginning: for although electricity and magnetism had been vaguely connected for a very long time, it took twenty years before the Danish scientist Hans Christian Oersted thought to put a magnetic compass needle under a conductor carrying an electric current, with the result that the needle was suddenly deflected at right angles to the conductor. Directly afterward, in an amazing sequence of lectures, the French physicist André Ampère invented electromagnetic theory on the spot. Electromagnetism in the form of Maxwell’s equations is the one thing, according to Steven Weinberg,2 that we may really have got almost right about the universe. But before 1800, everything was up for grabs, and Mesmer grabbed at magnetism and Newtonian action at a distance.


Animal magnetism, as he called it—referring less to animals than to the invisible anima or soul—was the power that could be exerted by one person on another through certain procedures, the passes over the body. The magnetizer could certainly put people to sleep, creating “artificial somnambulism.” He could heal many types of illness, and also bend many subjects to his will. The Newtonian idea was that all empty space was filled with aether, an invisible fluid. It was widely believed that the magnetism of a lodestone, which acted at a distance to attract iron, needed some such fluid to transmit its force. Mesmer added the idea of a new magnetic fluid through which animal—as opposed to metallic—magnetism could be transmitted.

Mesmer himself was not much into putting people to sleep; that was the work of Armand Marie Jacques de Chastenet, the marquis de Puységur, a large landowner and a colonel in the artillery. Puységur worked wondrous cures. It was he, indeed, who really put animal magnetism on the intellectual map of Europe, and many historians regard Mesmer as merely a bit player. “Mesmerism,” Winter tells us, was for a long time intended as a slur word, indicating quackery; the true believers wrote of animal magnetism, and were firmly convinced that the magnetizer was exerting a force akin to both gravity and metallic magnetism on his subjects.

In the 1780s the French scientific elite, appalled by the popular success of Mesmer and his acolytes (he himself had moved to Paris), arranged for two commissions to examine mesmerism. The Académie des Sciences and the Académie de Médecine together rebutted the claim that there was action at a distance of a magnetic sort, while leaving completely unexplained the cures and all the other bizarre phenomena associated with Mesmer, which the commissions did not contest. The greatest chemists of the age, or maybe of all time, served on those commissions and so did Ben Franklin, an expert on electricity if anyone was (but no one was). Mesmerism was made doctrina non grata, and went underground, becoming a subject of pamphlets for working men. The establishment had denounced mesmerism, so mesmerism, with its ability to produce deeply emotional reactions in a crowd, became an anti-establishment force in its own right. It was sometimes manipulated, but, perhaps partly because people could become uninhibited in a mesmeric circle, it was a way for the powerless to give vent to spontaneous demonstrations of revolt. Mesmerism was the very opposite of reason, and thus became a powerfully subversive political agency at the end of the “age of reason”—a history told long ago by Robert Darnton in a now classic study.3

Alison Winter has written a study similar to Darnton’s but on Britain, between 1837 and 1862, the high point occurring in 1845-1846. That was not only the time that Esdaile was operating: one can get the impression that half the events so vividly narrated in this book took place right around those two years. This is a social history of early Victorian Britain. The Queen died in 1901, and Winter’s history of animal magnetism peters out long before that. Yet it is one of her theses that in the later part of Victoria’s reign the social currents of mesmerism were transformed into a new rage for psychic experiments, telepathy, mediumship. Indeed the very word for the sitting of a medium, “séance,” was transferred from its use to describe a session of mesmerism.

I had no idea of the extent of animal magnetism in the nation that, for a short time, really did rule the waves, and was also producing almost all the steel in the world, mining most of the coal, manufacturing a good deal of the cloth, and creating, both in reality and myth, the dominant image of the time, the steam locomotive. Not to mention Britain’s involvement with the rest of the world. Alison Winter writes of the connections between animal magnetism and sleep, opium, Karl Marx, and the opium of the people. We could add the foulest among foul incidents in British imperial history, the Opium Wars, 1841-1842. Just at the moment that the British were making a good stab at running the universe, with all the insecurity and domestic upheaval that involved, they became obsessed by the extraordinary way in which one person could eerily control another. They thought, or feared, that they were witnessing the direct action of one mind on another’s body. Animal magnetism became a populist metaphysics, usually associated with a populist radicalism in politics. (You could try comparing New Age enthusiasms in the US, the home of the image of the age, the personal computer.)


Animal magnetism shows up in every social class. Winter’s book opens with Jane Carlyle, wife of the sage, at a tea party in 1844 experiencing the power of a mesmerist of lower social station than herself, and fighting his mind with hers, to a standoff. Many famous people who had an interest in animal magnetism, or actually practiced it, pass through Winter’s pages, including Dickens, Darwin, Huxley, Herbert Spencer, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, and Wilkie Collins. I’m glad to say that the skeptical Michael Faraday tried to fend it off as he did later the activity of the spiritualist mediums. He was not very successful. But the real story is about all the people we have not heard of.

Mesmerism arrived in London in 1837 for a second time, for it had of course been known from the earlier days of Mesmer himself. In France, animal magnetism, despite its dismissal by the elite, had survived not only as a subversive movement, as argued by Darnton, but also, after 1815, it had reemerged as a very vital activity. Notable scientists—Winter cites Laplace and Cuvier—said that the phenomena of animal magnetism were possible after all. In 1826 some experimenters, including Baron Charles Dupotet de Sennevoy, persuaded the Académie de Médecine to convene a new commission. The report was favorable. The commission was particularly impressed by an account of a “painless operation,” the excision in 1828 of a cancerous breast from one Madame Plantin. The French experience with animal magnetism in these times has just been retold in two large volumes—a total of 1,218 pages—by Bertrand Méheust, and, as we shall see, Méheust’s account converges, in his second volume, with the final episode of Winter’s narrative, namely the transformation of the magnetizers into spiritualists.4

It was Dupotet who brought mesmerism to London, in 1837. He invited those prosperous enough to pay a fee to witness his demonstrations of magnetic sleep. Things picked up after a long slow start, and, as in Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” “thick and fast they came at last, and more, and more, and more,” until there were innumerable popular demonstrations and private séances by a growing host of magnetizers, traveling showmen, and fashionable London doctors.

The images of mesmerism almost immediately became metaphors. Winter reproduces one of the first cartoons to appear in Punch, in 1841. Its title is “Animal magnetism, or, Sir Rhubarb Pill mesmerizing the British Lion”—“Pill” referring to Sir Robert Peel, who became prime minister for a second time in 1841. There is plenty more of the same; in 1843 we see the young Queen mesmerizing Louis-Philippe, King of France, into signing a treaty that strongly favors her kingdom over his. The metaphor of mesmerizing was understood by all.

But this was a time when the physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries, unable to effect many cures, were beginning to organize themselves as elite groups of experts. In addition, entire groups of new experts were organizing themselves in learned societies: geographers, statisticians, meteorologists, zoologists, botanists. The British Association for the Advancement of Science, with its distinct sections for distinct branches of knowledge, was founded in the 1830s, and it soon was engaged in close collaboration with the new industrialists. The new, more professional, universities began to be established, beginning with University College, London, which was to be the site of many of the trials of magnetism. The very word “scientist” was put into circulation by the mandarin polymath William Whewell in 1834. These people loathed what they saw as the quackery and superstition of the traveling magnetizers. They also, Winter argues, feared the apparent power of one person to influence another. They did not want mind and body to interact in such mysterious ways. And they particularly did not want to think that vital emanations from people of the lower classes were able to affect the minds and bodies of their betters.

The situation was not that there was science on the one hand, and pseudo-science on the other. Science, as Wilson shows, was defining itself, in part by trying to exclude mesmerism. Interestingly this is also a central theme of the new book by Bertrand Méheust I have already mentioned. There is no reason to believe that either author has heard of the other’s work, but they both apparently share the contemporary urge to find out how science became the Establishment, a group of institutions and a body of practices able to define the very nature of knowledge. In the case of Méheust, however, there is another subtheme that has been discussed in France for quite some time: the ambivalent relationship between science (and this includes, in France, psychoanalysis) on the one hand and hypnotism on the other—an ambivalence that goes right back to the two royal commissions of 1784.5

Winter has much to say about power in this book. The magnetizers are mostly men; the magnetized are mostly women. There is a complex interplay here, because the vast proportion of the magnetizers were of relatively humble social station, although eccentric landed gentry as well as physicians, surgeons, barristers, and ministers of religion also engaged in experiments and sometimes succeeded. But more often they employed a magnetizer. The standard woman for an exhibition of magnetism would be a servant girl, but there are also cases of women of more elevated station being hypnotized by men who are beneath them. That is why Winter makes much of the tension between Jane Carlyle and the magnetizer who dropped “his aitches.” Mrs. Carlyle could feel his power producing a strange shudder throughout her being; but she would not allow herself to succumb to his will. Many of the superb illustrations in Winter’s book show the physical relationship between the magnetizer and the magnetizee; we see how the passes are made, the way in which each partner sat, and we are made to see in these arrangements quite evident power relationships.

Winter takes James Esdaile’s surgery in the Calcutta Native Hospital as a perfect example of the way in which power and animal magnetism interact. The men who are anesthetized by a team of magnetizers are all “natives.” Their magnetizing is orchestrated by a Scot, who uses Indian employees and then performs the surgery. It appears that the method was seldom used on a European in India. Is this, then, the ultimate example of how mesmerizing is an act of power of one person over another, something especially easy in an imperial setting? I think Winter also should have taken account of the fact that in many Indian cultures, mind- body relationships were conceived very differently from the way they were in the Cartesian world or Victorian England. If mind and body are fundamentally distinct, you tend to resist one acting on the other, unless you are overwhelmed into what some would call a hysterical overreaction. One imagines that for many of the Indian patients, in contrast, mesmerism seemed perfectly natural. Whatever is going on in trance states, it surely helps people to believe in, and to acquiesce in, the proceedings. I am acquainted with a distinguished physician who works both in Montreal and the far north of Canada. He experiments with hypnotism for pain control in both regions. Results are very much better with Inuit people. Is it a matter of his supreme power? Surely, but also Inuit don’t, even now, have our hang-ups about the possibilities of mind and body freely intermingling with each other.

Pain is one of the puzzling minor themes of Winter’s book. She argues that anesthesia changed our sensibility to pain, changed the meaning of pain. Moreover, and this is her wholly original point, mesmerism played an essential part in that transformation. The standard story is that in 1846 a Boston dentist, William Morton, pioneered the use of ether in minor surgery on the jaw, followed by a tooth extraction. In fact his partner, Horace Wells, had for some time been trying mesmeric anesthesia, but he could not mesmerize anyone, let alone practice painless tooth extraction. So in 1845 he turned to nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which he used on himself with great success, and he at once went public before an audience, announcing a “new era in tooth pulling.”

The experiment on Wells’s wretched patient was a disaster. “The patient’s sensitivity to pain,” Winter writes, “remained undiminished.” Wells retired in humiliation, and after Morton’s success the next year, he committed suicide. Winter observes that recreational use of both ether and nitrous oxide had been common for a long time. She suggests that the idea of using them for surgery was actually prompted in reaction to mesmeric practice. The medical profession by and large wanted something purely chemical, not mental; it wanted neither action at a distance from the body, nor magnetic fluid, nor quacks. Ether was a godsend.

Clearly we still have some pretty bizarre attitudes toward pain, none better illustrated than by the contretemps over marijuana in California. The citizens of that state have voted to legalize the use of marijuana by medical prescription, which would be appropriate both to alleviate pain in diseases of age such as arthritis and to counteract the side effects of the powerful medicines to treat AIDS. But the state attorney general has invoked federal statutes to prevent distribution of marijuana to the ill. (One could plead historical precedent here; we have it on the authority of Herodotus that the Scythians used hemp for pain.)

We also have had a lot of horror stories about physicians who, because of what appears to be a moral attitude, underprescribe pain medicine for the terminally ill. We ought not to look back on Victorians with any smug certainty that we have sorted out the morality of pain. But at least we take it for granted that, in favorable conditions, pain can be controlled. Strong drink and opium notwithstanding, that was not an option until, let us say, 1845. And conventional medical men, Winter implies, did not care much about stopping pain. They did not experiment with nitrous oxide and ether until they were threatened by mesmeric anesthesia.

As so often happens, a single dramatic case, in November 1842, brought mesmeric anesthesia to the fore in Britain, just as the case of Mme. Plantin had done years before in France. The leg of a Nottingham laborer was amputated by a respected local surgeon after days of magnetizing by a local barrister. The patient moaned slightly while his thigh was cut through and he had hardly any memory of discomfort later. Unlike Mme. Plantin, he lived for another thirty years. The medical professions were in a quandary. Winter shows that doctors of various kinds were very much criticized; as we now say, they could not cure anything. If they rejected mesmerism they rejected a medical procedure that people believed really worked to control pain. But if they joined the mesmerists they would be joining a lot of riffraff; that would wreck their ambitions for raising the status of their professions.

Winter could have strengthened her case for medical indifference to pain by noting that in 1800, the most influential British scientist, Sir Humphry Davy, experimented with laughing gas, intending to relieve some local pain. He wrote, “As nitrous oxide, in its extensive operation, seems capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage in surgical operations in which no great effusion of blood takes place.” Nor does Winter add that in 1818 Faraday, who was to become as public a figure as Davy, showed that ether had similar effects. The surgeons paid no heed; these gases remained recreational. (Winter includes some illustrations of student parties.) Only when mesmeric anesthesia became more and more frequently used did doctors turn to chemical anesthesia, nitrous oxide, ether, with chloroform first being used in 1847. Thus, she argues, the practice of anesthesia arose largely because the doctors wanted to keep out the magnetizers, and not because of an intrinsic interest in pain control.

Her next point is that neither ether nor chloroform had a better track record than magnetism. Magnetism was not expelled from surgery because it was known to be less effective. Only with the advent of the ether inhaler in 1876 did ether become relatively safe, and it then displaced chloroform in many types of operations. Chloroform had killed quite a few people. Of course, to make judgments about what actually happened, we need information about two factors, the efficacy of the particular method of anesthesia used and the survival rate of the patients after an operation. Winter is not able to provide conclusive measures of either factor, but she does pose a serious skeptical doubt about the history of anesthesia.

But far and away the most interesting suggestion made by Winter is that our entire attitude to pain changed with the advent of anesthetics. “The ether anesthetists,” she writes, “were able to secure tacit agreement from their audience that they controlled the experimental situation. Pain was treated as unproblematic because it had become the property of the surgeon, to be ‘conquered’ by the anesthetic apparatus at will.”

I suspect more changed than that. Pascal once wrote that to cease to meditate upon one’s own death is to cease to be fully human. I have come across similar attitudes today, for example among admirers of Heidegger. But for a great many of us, our own death is not the big problem. Pain is. I truly fear a grim and painful dying. And perhaps that self-conscious fear of pain is a consequence of the possibility of alleviating pain (combined with the fact that we can be kept alive under conditions of great pain for far longer than ever before in human history).

What happened to mesmerism? Was it simply vanquished by the new scientism? Was it undone by the fact that its most telling practical application, anesthesia, was supplanted by ether and chloroform? Undoubtedly there is no single thing that happened. Jonathan Miller has argued that the transition to Braid’s hypnotism was critical, and that there is an unsuspected road from Braid’s practice to modern cognitive science, particularly in the identification of the autonomous nervous system.6 Both Winter and Méheust trace a different lineage. Mesmerism passed into another world, populated by spirits that came knocking in mid-century and then went on to turn tables and make themselves present in flying accordions, mediums, clairvoyants, telepathy, stories of survival after death. There is much particular evidence for this line of descent. Some of the alleged phenomena of animal magnetism recurred in spiritism. Clairvoyance was a standard facet of a mesmeric show, and the same word continued to be used for the ability of psychics to see what was going on, or is to come, without the use of their eyes. And the social arrangements persisted; the very word “séance” came to be used for an afternoon with a medium conversing with the dead.

Psychic research attracted some of the best scientific minds of the day. In France, Charles Richet won a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1913. But in 1882 he began a long series of experiments on telepathy using randomized trials. Randomization is now a staple of good scientific method; it was quite literally invented by Richet for these experiments. “A method,” he wrote in 1884, “which is extremely rare in the sciences, the method of probabilities.” He crowned his career with a voluminous treatise on metempsychosis (transmigration of souls), published in 1922: forty years of solid work in parapsychology. In England, the physicist and chemist Sir William Crookes was perhaps an even more notable contributor to the sciences, but he was an equally avid psychical researcher. And so on, in a long list of scientific luminaries. Their theorizing can be used to argue for a continuum between mesmerism and psychic research. Unlike mesmerism, hypnotism had no need of that mysterious Newtonian fluid, the aether, but the aether was integral to the electromagnetism of the day, and the scientists wanted to explain the possibility of telepathy and clairvoyance by vibrations in the aether.

Most Americans today believe in some psychic phenomena while rationalists routinely dismiss all that as pseudoscience. Certainly it is a field that invites frauds and dupes, but the problem is not that it is pseudo, but that extraordinarily careful and detailed experimentation establishes (to my satisfaction) that although there are a lot of weird happenings in this world, there are no stable phenomena of the sort anticipated in parapsychology. Mesmerism, hypnotism, trance, suggestion, or whatever it is that we are concerned with here are not like that. The classic phenomena of these states can be reproduced pretty reliably. Some are, in practice, not repeatable; no one will ever again try to amputate a leg at the thigh when the patient is sedated only by magnetic passes. But there remain a great many indubitable and stable phenomena of which we have almost no precise understanding, and these include hypnosis, trance states, the abject willingness to accept various forms of authority. Very probably hypnotism requires the hypnotist and the person hypnotized to collaborate. Both have to know how to play certain roles. Maybe, in considering hypnotism, we are concerned only with an extreme form of the role-playing that characterizes most human relationships. But here is a group of real phenomena that we surely do not understand. If Winter is correct in saying that spiritism absorbed the magnetic tradition, then that, in my opinion, was our loss.

This Issue

March 18, 1999