London 1838

Who controls who?

Mesmerism is still being spread by a network of believers. Its most prominent champion in Britain is Dr John Elliotson, professor at University College Hospital.

His dramatic demonstrations of mesmeric powers draw the likes of Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday. His prize subjects are Elizabeth and Jane Okey, two young servant girls he has been treating for epileptic seizures.

Scroll down

The Okey sisters were extraordinarily susceptible, slipping rapidly into trance states where they manifested quite different personalities. Elliotson could make them fall into stupor merely by waving a finger.

Touching magnetised metals or even water sent them into a trance in which they spontaneously mirrored each other’s actions.

Elliotson’s demonstrations were crowded with doctors and dignitaries. The Okey sisters seemed to enjoy the attention – especially in their disinhibited trance states, when they teased the gentlemen and sat in their laps.

The medical journal The Lancet had been reporting the demonstrations with interest. But its editor, Thomas Wakley, suspected deception. He requested a private demonstration at his house, where he took control.

Gallery: Hypnotised women

Wakley’s experiments produced very different results

12 July 1838
Thomas Wakley @scourgeofquackery
“Careful investigation and a consideration of all experiments have convinced us that the phenomena are not real, and that animal magnetism is a delusion”
12 July 1838
John Elliotson @magneticfluids
“Mr. Wakley fulminated forth what he called experiments on a subject of which he is as ignorant as of Latin, French or mathematics”
12 July 1838
Thomas Wakley @scourgeofquackery
“Animal magnetism is one of the completest delusions the human mind ever entertained”
12 July 1838
John Elliotson @magneticfluids
“These phenomena, I know to be real, to be independent of imagination or any other cause to which other persons are pleased to ascribe them”
12 July 1838
Thomas Wakley @scourgeofquackery
“The medical schools with which mesmerism is connected must be speedily and irreparably ruined, unless the moral quackery is at once put down by the governors”
12 July 1838
John Elliotson @magneticfluids
“As a gentleman in the first place, and a physician in the next, I feel myself compelled at once to resign my office of Professor of the Principles and Practice of Medicine”
12 July 1838
Charles Dickens @oldcuriosityshop
“With regard to my opinion on the subject of mesmerism, I have no hesitation in saying that I have watched Dr Elliotson’s experiments from the first… and that after what I have seen with my own senses, I should be untrue both to him and to myself, if I should shrink for a moment from saying that I am a believer”
12 July 1838
Harriet Martineau @womanofletters
“Those who know mesmerism to be true from their own experience are now a very large number…the great majority who know nothing of the matter laugh at it as a nonsense or a cheat”

Wakley’s verdict

“The ‘science’ of mesmerism, like the ‘science’ of fortune-telling, will always carry on a precarious existence wherever there are clever girls, philosophic bohemians, weak women and weaker men, but it can no longer affront the common sense of the medical profession.”

Mesmerism was banished to the margins. Elliotson started his own journal, The Zoist, to publish new evidence for it.

Please help us by telling us what you thought of this digital story

Next:

Mind over matter

Find out more in Wellcome Library
Show