Charles MacKay:
Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds

Vol. III - Fortune Telling and Magnetisers

Chapter 64 - The Magnetisers - 6

Notwithstanding this sincere, and on the point of integrity, unimpeachable evidence in her favour; notwithstanding that she appeared to have no motives for carrying on so extraordinary and long-continued a deception, the girl was an impostor, and all these wise, learned, and contemplative men her dupes. It was some time, however, before this fact was clearly established, and the delusion dissipated by the clear light of truth. In the mean time various other experiments on the efficacy of the supposed magnetic power were tried in various parts of England; but the country did not furnish another epileptic girl so clever as Elizabeth Okey.

An exhibition of the kind was performed on a girl named Sarah Overton, at the workhouse of the parish of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. The magnetiser on this occasion was Mr. Bainbridge, the parish surgeon. It is but justice to him to state, that he conducted the experiments with the utmost fairness, and did not pretend to produce any of the wondrous and incredible phenomena of other practitioners. This girl, whose age was about twenty, had long been subject to epileptic fits, and appeared remarkably simple and modest in her manners and appearance. She was brought into the room and placed in a chair. About twenty gentlemen were present. Mr. Bainbridge stationed himself behind, and pointed his fingers at her brain, while his assistant in front made the magnetic passes before her eyes, and over her body.

It cannot be said that her imagination was not at work; for she had been previously magnetised, and was brought in with her eyes open, and in complete possession of all her faculties. No means had been taken to prevent interruption during the sitting; new visiters continually arrived, and the noise of the opening and shutting of the door repeatedly called from Mr. Bainbridge a request that all should be kept silent. The girl herself constantly raised her head to see who was coming in; but still, in direct contradiction to M. Dupotet, and, indeed, all the magnetisers, who have repeat over and over again, that interruption destroys the magnetic power, she fell into a deep sleep at the end of about twelve minutes. In this state, which is that called "Mesmeric Coma," she was quite insensible. Though pulled violently by the hair, and pricked on the arm with a pin, she showed no signs of consciousness or feeling. In a short time afterwards, she was awakened into the somnambulic or delirious state, when she began to converse freely with the persons around her, but more especially with her magnetiser. She would sing if required, and even dance in obedience to his command, and pretended to see him although her eyes were closely blindfolded with a handkerchief. She seemed to have a constant tendency to fall back into the state of coma, and had to be aroused with violence every two or three minutes to prevent a relapse. A motion of the hand before her face was sufficient to throw her, in the middle of a song, into this insensible state; but it was observed particularly that she fell at regular intervals, whether any magnetic passes were made at her or not. It was hinted aloud to a person present that be should merely bend his body before her, and she would become insensible, and fall to the ground. The pass was made, and she fell accordingly into the arms of a medical gentleman, who stood behind ready to receive her. The girl having been again aroused into the state of delirium, another person, still audibly, was requested to do the same. He did not; but the girl fell as before. The experiments were sufficient to convince the author that one human being could indubitably exercise a very wonderful influence over another; but that imagination only, and not the mesmeric fluid, was the great agent by which these phenomena could be produced in persons of strong faith and weak bodies.

Some gentlemen present were desirous of trying whether any of the higher mesmeric states, such as that of lucidity and clairvoyance could be produced. Mr. Bainbridge was willing to allow the experiment to be made, but previously expressed his own doubts upon the subject. A watch was then put into her bosom, the dial plate and glass against her skin, to ascertain whether she could see without the intervention of the organs of sight. She was asked what hour it was; and was promised a shilling if she would tell by the watch which had been placed in her bosom. She held out her hand for the shilling, and received it with great delight. She was then asked if she could see the watch? She said "no -- not a watch; she could see something -- something that was very pretty indeed." "Come, come, Sally," said Mr. Bainbridge, "you must not be so stupid; rouse up, girl, and tell us what o'clock it is, and I'll give you another shilling!" The girl at this time seemed to be relapsing into a deep sleep; but on being shaken, aroused herself with a convulsive start. In reply to further questions, she said, "she could see a clock, a very pretty clock, indeed!" She was again asked, five or six times, what the hour was: she at last replied that "it was ten minutes to two." The watch being then taken out of her bosom, it was found to be on the stroke of two. Every one present, including the magnetiser, confessed that there was nothing wonderful in the conjecture she had hazarded. She knew perfectly well what hour it was before she was brought into the ward, as there was a large clock in the workhouse, and a bell which rang at dinner time; she calculated mentally the interval that had since elapsed, and guessed accordingly. The same watch was afterwards advanced four or five hours, and put into her bosom without a word being said in her hearing. On being again asked what o'clock it was by that watch, and promised another shilling if she would tell, she still replied that it was near two -- the actual time. Thus, as Mr. Bainbridge had predicted, the experiment came to nothing. The whole case of this girl offered a striking instance of the power of imagination, but no proof whatever of the supposed existence of the magnetic fluid.

The Medical Committee of the University College Hospital took alarm at a very early period at the injury which might be done to that Institution, by the exhibitions of Okey and her magnetisers. A meeting was held in June 1838, at which Dr. Elliotson was not present, to take into consideration the reports of the experiments that had been published in the Medical Journals. Resolutions were then passed to the effect, that Dr. Elliotson should be requested to refrain from further public exhibitions of mesmerism; and, at the same time, stating the wish of the Committee not to interfere with its private employment as a remedial agent, if he thought it would be efficacious upon any of the patients of the Institution. Dr. Elliotson replied, that no consideration should prevent him from pursuing the investigation of Animal Magnetism; but that he had no desire to make a public exhibition of it. He had only given lectures and demonstrations when numbers of scientific gentlemen were present; he still continued to receive numerous letters from learned and eminent men, entreating permission to witness the phenomena; but if the Committee willed it, he should admit no person without their sanction. He shortly afterwards sent a list of the names of individuals who were anxious to witness the experiments. The Committee returned it to him unread, with the reply that they could not sanction any exhibition that was so entirely foreign to the objects of the Hospital. In answer to this, Dr. Elliotson reiterated his full belief in the doctrines of Animal Magnetism, and his conviction that his experiments would ultimately throw a light upon the operations of nature, which would equal, if not exceed, that elicited by the greatest discoveries of by-gone ages. The correspondence dropped here; and the experiments continued as usual.

The scene, however, was drawing to a close. On the 25th of August, a notice was published in the Lancet, to the effect, that some experiments had been performed on the girls Elizabeth and Jane Okey, at the house of Mr. Wakley, a report of which was only withheld in the hope that the Committee of Members of the Medical Profession, then sitting to investigate the phenomena of mesmerism, would publish their report of what they had witnessed. It was further stated, that whether that Committee did or did not publish their report, the result of the experiments at Mr. Wakley's house should certainly be made known in the next number of that journal. Accordingly, on the 1st of September appeared a statement, which overthrew, in the most complete manner, the delusion of mesmerism. Nothing could have been better conducted than these experiments; nothing could be more decisive of the fact, that all the phenomena were purely the results of the excited imaginations of the girls, aided in no slight degree by their wilful deception.

The first experiments were performed on the 16th of August, in the presence of Mr. Wakley, M. Dupotet, Dr. Elliotson, Dr. Richardson, Mr. Herring, Mr. Clarke, and Mr. G. Mills the writer of the published reports of the experiments at the University College Hospital. Dr. Elliotson had said, that nickel was capable of retaining and transmitting the magnetic fluid in an extraordinary degree; but that lead possessed no such virtues. The effects of the nickel, he was confident, would be quite astounding; but that lead might always be applied with impunity. A piece of nickel was produced by the Doctor, about three quarters of an ounce in weight, together with a piece of lead of the same shape and smoothness, but somewhat larger. Elizabeth Okey was seated in a chair; and, by a few passes and manipulations, was thrown into the state of "ecstatic delirium." A piece of thick pasteboard was then placed in front of her face, and held in that situation by two of the spectators, so that she could not see what was passing either below or in front of her. Mr. Wakley having received both the nickel and the lead, seated himself opposite the girl, and applied the lead to each hand alternately, but in such a manner as to lead her to believe that both metals had been used. No effect was produced. The nickel magnetised by Dr. Elliotson was, after a pause, applied in a similar manner. No results followed. After another pause, the lead was several times applied, and then again the nickel. After the last application of the nickel, the face of the patient became violently flushed, the eyes were convulsed into a startling squint, she fell back in the chair, her breathing was hurried, her limbs rigid, and her back bent in the form of a bow. She remained in this state for a quarter of an hour.

This experiment was not considered a satisfactory proof of the magnetic powers of the nickel; and Dr. Elliotson suggested that, in the second experiment, that metal should alone be tried. Mr. Wakley was again the operator; but, before commencing, he stated privately to Mr. Clarke, that instead of using nickel only, he would not employ the nickel at all. Mr. Clarke, unseen by any person present, took the piece of nickel; put it into his waistcoat pocket; and walked to the window, where he remained during the whole of the experiment. Mr. Wakley again sat down, employing both hands, but placing his fingers in such a manner, that it was impossible for any person to see what substance he held. Presently, on applying his left hand, the girl's vision being still obstructed by the pasteboard, Mr. Herring, who was standing near, said in a whisper, and with much sincerity, "Take care, don't apply the nickel too strongly." Immediately the face of the girl became violently red, her eyes were fixed in an intense squint, she fell back convulsively in her chair, and all the previous symptoms were produced more powerfully than before. Dr. Elliotson observed that the effects were most extraordinary; that no other metal than nickel could produce them, and that they presented a beautiful series of phenomena. This paroxysm lasted half an hour. Mr. Wakley retired with Dr. Elliotson and the other gentlemen into an adjoining room, and convinced them that he had used no nickel at all, but a piece of lead and a farthing.

This experiment was twice repeated with the same results. A third trial was made with the nickel, but no effect was produced.

On the succeeding day the experiments were repeated upon both the sisters, chiefly with mesmerised water and sovereigns. The investigation occupied about five hours, and the following were the results:--

1. Six wine glasses, filled with water unmesmerised, were placed on a table, and Jane Okey being called in, was requested to drink from each of them successively. She did so, and no effect was produced.

2. The same six glasses stood on the table, the water in the fourth having been subjected for a long time to the supposed magnetic influence. She was requested in like manner to drink of these. She did so, and again no effect was produced, although, according to the doctrine of the magnetisers, she ought to have been immediately fixed on drinking of the fourth.

3. In this experiment the position of the glasses was changed. There was no result.

4. Was a repetition of the foregoing. No result.

5. The water in all the glasses was subjected to the supposed magnetic influence from the fingers of Dr. Elliotson, until, in his opinion, it was strongly magnetised. Still no result.

6. The glasses were filled up with fresh water unmesmerised. No result.

7. The water was strongly magnetised in each glass, and the girl emptied them all. No result.

It would be needless to go through the whole series of experiments. The results may be briefly stated. Sovereigns unmesmerised threw the girls into convulsions, or fixed them. Mesmerised sovereigns sometimes did and sometimes did not produce these symptoms. Elizabeth Okey became repeatedly fixed when drinking unmagnetised water; while that which had been subjected to the powers of a supposed magnetic battery, produced no results. Altogether twenty-nine experiments were tried, which convinced every one present, except Dr. Elliotson, that Animal Magnetism was a delusion, that the girls were of very exciteable imaginations, and arrant impostors.

Their motives for carrying on so extraordinary a deception have often been asked. The question is easily answered. Poor girls, unknown and unnoticed, or, if noticed, perhaps despised, they found themselves all at once the observed of all observers, by the really remarkable symptoms of their disease, which it required no aid from magnetism to produce. Flattered by the oft-repeated experiments and constant attentions of doctors and learned men, who had begun by deluding themselves, they imagined themselves persons of vast importance, and encouraged by degrees the whims of their physicians, as the means of prolonging the consideration they so unexpectedly enjoyed. Constant practice made them at last all but perfect in the parts they were performing; and they failed at last, not from a want of ingenuity, or of a most wonderful power over their own minds, and by their minds upon their bodies, but from the physical impossibility of seeing through a thick pasteboard, or into the closed hands of Mr. Wakley. The exposure that was made was complete and decisive. From that day forth, magnetism in England has hid its diminished head, and affronted no longer the common sense of the age. M. Dupotet is no more heard of, the girls Okey afford no more either wonder or amusement by their clever acting, and reason has resumed her sway in the public mind.

A few more circumstances remain to be stated. Elizabeth Okey left the hospital; but was re-admitted some weeks afterwards, labouring under ischuria, a fresh complaint, unconnected with her former malady. As experiments in magnetism were still tried upon her privately, notwithstanding the recent exposure and the all but universal derision of the public, the House Committee of the hospital, early in December, met to consider the expediency of expelling the girl. Dr. Elliotson, on that occasion, expressed his opinion that it was necessary to retain her in the hospital, as she was too ill to be discharged. It was then elicited from the nurse, who was examined by the Committee, that Okey, when in the state of "magnetic delirium," was in the habit of prophesying the death or recovery of the patients in the ward; that, with the consent of Dr. Elliotson, she had been led in the twilight into the men's ward, and had prophesied in a similar manner; her predictions being taken down in writing, and given in a sealed paper to the apothecary, to be opened after a certain time, that it might be seen whether they were verified. Dr. Elliotson did not deny the fact. The nurse also stated more particularly the manner in which the prophecies were delivered. She said that, on approaching the bed of a certain patient, Okey gave a convulsive shudder, exclaiming that "Great Jacky was sitting on the bedclothes!" On being asked to explain herself, she said that Great Jacky was the angel of death. At the bedside of another patient she shuddered slightly, and said "Little Jacky was there!" Dr. Elliotson did not altogether discredit the predictions; but imagined they might ultimately be verified by the death or recovery of the patient. Upon the minds of the patients themselves, enfeebled as they were by disease and suffering, the worst effects were produced. One man's death was accelerated by the despondency it occasioned, and the recovery of others was seriously impeded.

When these facts became known, the Council of the College requested the Medical Committee to discharge Okey and prevent any further exhibitions of Animal Magnetism in the wards. The latter part of this request having been communicated to Dr. Elliotson, he immediately sent in his resignation. A successor was afterwards appointed in the person of Dr. Copland. At his inaugural lecture the students of the college manifested a riotous disposition, called repeatedly for their old instructor, and refused to allow the lecture to proceed; but it appears the disturbance was caused by their respect and affection for Dr. Elliotson individually, and not from any participation in his ideas about magnetism.

Extravagant as the vagaries of the English professors of magnetism may appear, they are actual common sense in comparison with the aberrations of the Germans. The latter have revived all the exploded doctrines of the Rosicrucians; and in an age which is called enlightened, have disinterred from the rubbish of antiquity, the wildest superstitions of their predecessors, and built upon them theories more wild and startling than anything before attempted or witnessed among mankind. Paracelsus and Bohmen, Borri and Meyer, with their strange heterogeneous mixture of alchymy and religion, but paved the way for the stranger, and even more extravagant mixture of magnetism and religion, as now practised in Germany. Magnetism, it is believed, is the key of all knowledge, and opens the door to those forbidden regions where all the wonders of God's works are made clear to the mind of man. The magnetic patient is possessed of all gifts -- can converse with myriads of spirits, and even with God himself -- be transported with greater rapidity than the lightning's flash to the moon or the stars, and see their inhabitants, and hold converse with them on the wonders and beauties of their separate spheres, and the power and goodness of the God who made them. Time and space are to them as if annihilated -- nothing is hidden from them -- past, present, or future. They divine the laws by which the universe is upheld, and snatch the secrets of the Creator from the darkness in which, to all other men, it is enveloped. For the last twenty or thirty years these daring and blasphemous notions have flourished in rank luxuriance; and men of station in society, learning, and apparent good sense in all the usual affairs of life, have publicly given in their adhesion, and encouraged the doctrine by their example, or spread it abroad by their precepts. That the above summary of their tenets may not he deemed an exaggeration we enter into particulars, and refer the incredulous that human folly in the present age could ever be pushed so far, to chapter and verse for every allegation.

In a work published in Germany in 1817, by J. A. L. Richter, entitled "Considerations on Animal Magnetism," the author states that in magnetism is to be found the solution of the enigmas of human existence, and particularly the enigmas of Christianity, on the mystic and obscure parts of which it throws a light which permits us to gaze clearly on the secrets of the mystery. Wolfart's "Annals of Animal Magnetism" abound with similar passages; and Kluge's celebrated work is written in the same spirit. "Such is the wonderful sympathy," says the latter, "between the magnetiser and the somnambulist that he has known the latter to vomit and be purged in consequence of medicine which the former had taken. Whenever he put pepper on his tongue, or drank wine, the patient could taste these things distinctly on her palate." But Kerner's history of the case of Madame Hauffe, the famous magnetic woman, "Seer" or "Prophetess of Prevorst," Will give a more complete and melancholy proof of the sad wanderings of these German "men of science," than any random selections we might make from their voluminous works. This work was published in two volumes, and the authenticity of its details supported by Gorres, Eschenmeyer, and other men of character and reputation in Germany: it is said to have had an immense sale. She resided in the house of Kerner, at Weinsberg; and being weak and sickly, was very easily thrown into a state of somnambulism. "She belonged," says Kerner, "to a world of spirits; she was half spirit herself; she belonged to the region beyond death, in which she already half existed. * * * Her body clothed her spirit like a thin veil. * * * She was small and slightly made, had an Oriental expression of countenance, and the piercing eyes of a prophet, the gleams of which were increased in their power and beauty by her long dark eyebrows and eyelashes. She was a flower of light, living upon sunbeams. * * * Her spirit often seemed to be separated from her frame. The spirits of all things, of which mankind in general have no perception, were perceptible to and operated upon her, more particularly the spirits of metals, herbs, men, and animals. All imponderable matters, even the rays of light, had an effect upon her when she was magnetised." The smell of flint was very agreeable to her. Salt laid on her hand caused a flow of saliva: rock crystal laid on the pit of her stomach produced rigidity of the whole body. Red grapes produced certain effects, if placed in her hands; white grapes produced different effects. The bone of an elk would throw her into an epileptic fit. The tooth of a mammoth produced a feeling of sluggishness. A spider's web rolled into a ball produced a prickly feeling in the hands, and a restlessness in the whole body. Glow-worms threw her into the magnetic sleep. Music somnambulised her. When she wanted to be cheerful, she requested Kerner to magnetise the water she drank, by playing the Jew's-harp. She used to say in her sleep, "Magnetise the water by seven vibrations of the harp." If she drank water magnetised in this manner, she was constrained involuntarily to pour forth her soul in song. The eyes of many men threw her into the state of somnambulism. She said that in those eyes there was a spiritual spark, which was the mirror of the soul. If a magnetised rod were laid on her right eye, every object on which she gazed appeared magnified.

It was by this means that she was enabled to see the inhabitants of the moon. She said, that on the left side of the moon, the inhabitants were great builders, and much happier than those on the right side. "I often see," said she to her magnetiser, "many spirits with whom I do not come into contact. Others come to me, and I speak to them; and they often spend months in my company. I hear and see other things at the same time; but I cannot turn my eyes from the spirits; they are in magnetic rapport with me. They look like clouds, thin, but not transparent; though, at first, they seem so. Still, I never saw one which cast a shadow. Their form is similar to that which they possessed when alive; but colourless, or grey. They wear clothing; and it appears as if made of clouds, also colourless and misty grey. The brighter and better spirits wear long garments, which hang in graceful folds, with belts around their waists. The expression of their features is sad and solemn. Their eyes are bright, like fire; but none of them that I ever saw had hair upon their heads. They make noises when they wish to excite the attention of those who have not the gift of seeing them. These noises consist of sounds in the air, sometimes sudden and sharp, and causing a shock. Sometimes the sounds are plaintive and musical; at other times they resemble the rustling of silk, the falling of sand, or the rolling of a ball. The better spirits are brighter than the bad ones, and their voice is not so strong. Many, particularly the dark, sad spirits, when I uttered words of religious consolation, sucked them in, as it were; and I saw them become brighter and quite glorious in consequence: but I became weaker. Most of the spirits who come to me are of the lowest regions of the spiritual world, which are situated just above our atmosphere. They were, in their life, grovelling and low-minded people, or such as did not die in the faith of Jesus; or else such as, in expiring, clung to some earthly thought or affection, which now presses upon them, and prevents them from soaring up to heaven. I once asked a spirit whether children grew after death? 'Yes,' replied the spirit,' the soul gradually expands, until it becomes as large as it would have been on earth. I cannot effect the salvation of these spirits; I am only their mediator. I pray ardently with them, and so lead them by degrees to the great Saviour of the world. It costs an infinity of trouble before such a soul turns again to the Lord.'"

It would, however, serve no good purpose to extend to greater length the reveries of this mad woman, or to set down one after the other the names of the magnetisers who encouraged her in her delusions -- being themselves deluded. To wade through these volumes of German mysticism is a task both painful and disgusting -- and happily not necessary. Enough has been stated to show how gross is the superstition even of the learned; and that errors, like comets, run in one eternal cycle -- at their apogee in one age, at their perigee in the next, but returning in one phase or another for men to wonder at.

In England the delusion of magnetism may for the present be considered as fairly exploded. Taking its history from the commencement, and tracing it to our own day, it can hardly be said, delusion though it was, that it has been wholly without its uses. To quote the words of Bailly, in 1784, "Magnetism has not been altogether unavailing to the philosophy which condemns it: it is an additional fact to record among the errors of the human mind, and a great experiment on the strength of the imagination." Over that vast inquiry of the influence of mind over matter, -- an inquiry which the embodied intellect of mankind will never be able to fathom completely, -- it will, at least, have thrown a feeble and imperfect light. It will have afforded an additional proof of the strength of the unconquerable will, and the weakness of matter as compared with it; another illustration of the words of the inspired Psalmist, that "we are fearfully and wonderfully made." If it serve no other purpose than this, its history will prove useful. Truth ere now has been elicited by means of error; and Animal Magnetism, like other errors, may yet contribute its quota towards the instruction and improvement of mankind.

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