Root of Hypnosis in USA


As the 1840s decade drew toward its close, the question was arising whether mesmerism would continue to evolve to­ward a scientific rationale of its proce­dures and results that would enable it to be gradually drawn into regular medical use and practice; or whether it would veer off toward a heightened sensationalism and resulting discrediting. Regrettably the latter proved to be the case, setting back the arrival of a true hypnotherapy disci­pline in America for a hundred years.

The major share of responsibility for this setback lies on the shoulders of J. Stanley Grimes and John Bovee Dods. Their erro­neous conceptions and ability to propa­gate them to vast deluded audiences are the saddest chapter in the story of hypno­tism’s attempts to gain medical and aca­demic recognition and acceptance in 19th Century America.

Grimes was in his late thirties, a profes­sor of medical jurisprudence at Castleton Medical College in western Vermont, when he was caught up in the mesmerist fervor of the early 1840s. He was soon on a regular circuit as an itinerant mesmerist, up and down the Hudson Valley, attracting large crowds with spectacular presenta­tions of mesmeric phenomena as exhib­ited by willing volunteers from his audiences. At Poughkeepsie in 1843 one of his demonstrations was the impetus for the career of Andrew Jackson Davis, of whom more later, another of the dead-end roads of error that American mesmerism was increasingly diverted into in mid-cen­tury.

For himself, Grimes found the explana­tion for mesmerism in his premise that the universe was interconnected in all its parts and motions by a very thin and invisible yet material substance he called the etherium. Through it there ran electrical currents that manifested as light, heat, gravitational and magnetic attraction, and the mental emanations by which the mes­

merist influenced the minds of his sub­jects and made them carry out his com­mands. Through it also, individual minds shaped the head bumps that revealed their character and traits; Grimes being as devoted a phrenologist, as he was a mesmerist.

To grasp and properly direct all these varied effluents of the etherium, amounted to a science, which he termed “Etherology”; and published in 1850 a ponderous manual of its theory and prac­tice, titled Etherology and the Phreno- Philosophy          of Mesm. Scarcely however had the book appeared, when he altered his interpretation of mesmeric ac­tivity within the human body. What really took place, he now insisted, was that the minute electrical currents that science had started to discover were being constantly produced within the body’s tissues and or­gans, were concentrated by the magnetizer’s mental power into a single surge that conveyed and imposed his will upon his subject. Mesmerism and its effects were thus a function of electro-biology, Grimes asserted.

The notion was however not original with him, though the name may have been—it is by no means certain who first used the term “electro-biology.” The con­cept of it is usually credited to William Scoresby of Liverpool in England, who had been a whaler and explorer in the Arc­tic as well as a noted investigator of the earth’s magnetic currents. Experiencing in the 1830s a profound religious conver­sion, he became an Anglican clergyman and also a fervent convert to mesmerism, which he called “zoistic (i.e. animated) magnetism”—virtually the same term as Mesmer’s “animal magnetism.” The very same electro-magnetic currents that shaped the earth’s magnetic fields, and to which the compass needle responded, were—so Scoresby preached—at work in our bodies, and could be put to healing and constructive use by a skilled magne tizer. It was a doctrine that gained a rather limited following in England, but a con­siderably larger though short-lived one in the United States. Here it was loudly dis­seminated and defended by Grimes and several others, most notably by Dr. H. G. Darling, a professor of physiology at the New England Medical Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts. This latter per­son was so carried away by his enthusi­asm for electro-biology that he decided, along with a few followers including one H. E. Lewis who was billed as being of “African descent,” to go and carry its gospel to a wider public in England than its native adherents there had been able to gain.

The Darling mission, as we may call it, arrived in England early in 1851 and re­mained there for over a year. It had a highly successful run of several months, drawing large crowds and creating a gen­eral sensation. Dr. Darling used small discs of copper and zinc to produce the electric currents that he claimed were what induced his subjects into mesmeric trances, which differed from those gener­ally observed elsewhere in that the sub­jects remained conscious and fully recalled afterward how they had not been able to resist doing whatever they were told while mesmerized.

Eventually the novelty of the Darling mission’s presentations were off, and the public attention was diverted to the even more enticing new fad of spiritualism, which by the end of 1852 had cast mes­merism in Britain totally into the shade. Opposition had also been rising from the ranks of doctors and educators, who feared that mesmerism would sooner or later adversely affect the health and sanity of those who submitted to it. The Darling mission packed its bags and returned to America, where spiritualism—that had started from the rapping and table-tipping by two sub-teen girls in upstate New York in 1847—was also displacing mesmerism as a public infatuation, though not without a final headlines-making manifestation of the electro-biological variety, expressed through the lectern-thumping ministry of John Bovee Dods.

He had been pastor of the church in Provincetown on Cape Cod, of the re­cently founded Universalist denomination that had sprung up in New England in a reaction to that area’s long adherence to a rigid and frigid Calvinism. The Universal­ist belief in the eventual salvation of all people, perhaps even the Devil himself, strongly appealed to Dods; and when in the general excitement over mesmerisi|i in the 1840s he began experimenting with self-taught induction techniques, the ease with which he got his subjects to obey his commands suggested to him that here was a God-bestowed way to reach into the in­nermost selves of people, and not only heal most of their diseases of mind and body, but also to exert a direct influence for good on their actions and behavior.

Leaving the pulpit for the lecture circuit in the late 1840s, Dods was soon attracting large crowds across New England and the Middle Atlantic states, with his increas­ingly extravagant claims for the universal efficacy of his “electric psychology,” as he term his version of mesmerism. Actually it was essentially the same as the electro­biology of Grimes and Darling, but by calling it differently he aimed at putting himself across to his audiences as some one unique and unbeholden to any one else—though at the same time insisting that any who cared to really apply them­selves to learning his techniques could achieve the same successful results as he was getting in his demonstrations.

His lessons—a series of five two-hour sessions—were modestly priced at $10.00 for men and $5.00 for ladies, considering that he asserted the “electrical, i.e. mes­meric state” into which his pupils could place just about any one, was the moral and physical equivalent of the “new birth” experience of religious converts, but went even further in straightening out the men­tal, spiritual and bodily kinks that kept people from functioning full and properly.

This was heady stuff indeed; small won­der that Dods packed the house, at a thou­sand persons a night with standing room only, in a six-lecture series at Boston’s Marlboro Chapel. Invited by such distin­guished names as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Sam Houston, he spoke to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on February 16, 1850, telling the nation’s assembled lawmakers that simply by staring fixedly at a small disc of silver, zinc and copper, people could be carried by the electric current emanating from it, into the elec­trical state wherein lay “the promise of the renovation of the world and the ush­ering in of the millennial dawn.”

Dods had the oratorical skills, and the commanding forcefulness of presence and physique, that make his hearers take him and his vast assertions at face value. He was less credible in print. Enough was already known about the nature of elec­tricity to enable readers to quickly discern that his whole theory of mesmerically controlled electrical currents pervading the human body and brain had no scien­tific basis or plausibility. It was thus prob­ably a mistake for Dods to publish, as he did in 1850, a book-length collection of seventeen of his lectures. Immensely pop­ular at first (it quickly ran through three editions) it became in a year or two a weapon in the hands of his rivals and crit­ics, who pointed out the absurdities in it. Whatever success he had achieved in the way of mental or physical cures, had been simply—-as it has been through the entire history of mesmerism and hypnotism— the result of directed suggestion.

As word began to spread of his failures in treating major illnesses, Dods’ audi­ences fell off and he was soon forgotten by a public that had became enraptured by the seductions of spiritualism which offered something that hypnotism could not match—communication with the dead.

Only in Andrew Jackson Davis did spir­itualism confront, briefly, a serious rival from the mesmerist camp. A teen-age cobbler in the Hudson Valley, he was re­cruited as a mesmeric subject by Dr. Lyons, a fellow townsman, who in 1843 attended one of Grimes’ lectures and de­cided to try magnetizing on his own. Young Davis quickly proved a remark­ably adaptable subject. Soon he was diag­nosing and prescribing for illnesses while in the mesmeric state, and clairvoyantly visiting other locations and reading blind­folded from books. He hired himself out as a professional trance subject to several of the itinerant magnetizers roaming across New England, and further devel­oped his powers. Soon he was channeling messages of help and advice from the spirit world, and in March 1844—when he was just 18 years old—he declared that the ancient Roman physician Galen and the 18th Century scientist-mystic Em­manuel Swedenborg had appeared to him while he was mesmerized and told him that he was destined to be a uniquely great healer and teacher. Acting on this inspira­tion, he announced that starting in the following year, 1845, he would deliver— while mesmerized—a series of lectures on a range of topics, from the diagnosis and cure of diseases to the past,, present and future state of the universe. He actu­ally went through with this grandiose pro­gram, in a rented hall in New York City, accompanied by the faithful Dr. Lyons (whose magnetizing services were how­ever rarely called on any more, as by this time Davis had become proficient at in­ducing himself into the mesmeric trance) and a clergyman named William Fish- bough who took down the substance of the lectures in writing and compiled them into a book.

Published in 1847 under the title The Principles of Nature, it was a formidable 786 pages in length, of a densely written subject matter nearly though not quite in­comprehensible to a present-day reader, but having a vast appeal to a public that had been exposed to the seductive gospels of Phrenology and Mesmerism, and would soon clasp to its collective breast the even more entrancing one of Spiritu­alism. The printing presses could hardly keep up with the demand for this and later hefty volumes that emanated from Davis’ subconscious mind—one called The Har- monial Philosophy went through twenty editions—but as what Davis communi­cated came more and more from alleged spirits of the illustrious dead, he gravi­tated into the spiritualist fold, becoming a trance medium rather than a subject of mesmeric trance. He died in 1910 at the age of 84, still with thousands of follow­ers, few of whom any longer realized that his career had a beginning with mes­merism.

At this remove in time it is hard to judge the worth of Davis’ reported communica­tions while in trance. He is said to have spoken on occasion in classic Greek, He­brew, Latin and Sanskrit. Some of his philosophical meanderings have odd an­ticipatory hints of evolution—more than a decade before Darwin—and of relativity, long before Einstein. Yet he was barely lit­erate and had only the scantiest of educa­tion. Some who heard his lectures or read the books compiled from them, said that had he been well educated, Davis would have rivaled Swedenborg as a communi­cator from the spirit world. One who held that opinion was George Bush, a professor of Hebrew at New York University, self­qualified practitioner of “occult therapy,” and adherent of the Church of the New Jerusalem founded late in the previous century by the followers of Swedenborg.

Bush had attended some of the itinerant magnetizers’ demonstrations of putting people in a state of trance, and had be­come convinced that mesmerism was a di­vinely ordained method that would eventually enable everyone to traverse the spirit world and talk familiarly with an­gels, as Swedenborg had done. He rushed to get this conviction into print in a book he titled Mesmer and; but Davis’ hefty opening volume was already in the book stores while Bush was still correcting the proofs of his own work. Hastily scanning this unexpected rival’s seven hundred-odd pages, he recognized- -or thought he did—in it a further confir­mation of mesmerism as the key to understanding and following the Swedish master. He hurriedly wrote an appendix on “The Revelation of Andrew Jackson Davis,” and inserted it into Mesmer and Swedenborg, which for a few months had its own flurry of fame, alongside Davis’ book. Indeed for a short time it seemed as if the Swedenborgian communion of the New Jerusalem would swallow up the great majority of the mesmerist crowd. Then as the word began to spread of the Fox sisters’ discovery of communicating with the departed, the public abandoned its infatuation with the rather abstruse tenets of Swedenborg, and rushed to take up this newest sensation.

The result was that the decade of the 1850s was barely under way before all the enthusiasms of the preceding decade— phrenology, mesmerism, and Swedenbor- gianism—had been overwhelmed by the spiritualist craze. And when that too started to lose its initial fervor, those who left it tended to go back to the more estab­lished denominations in religion, and to traditional medical treatments. Only in Andrew Jackson Davis’ blend of mes­merism with spiritualism, did mesmerism as a therapy survive to some extent; and even there it faded out as time went on. Hypnotism, as it now began to be more commonly called, became for nearly the entire remainder of the 19th Century in America almost exclusively the preserve of stage hypnotists, whose farcical demon­strations did nothing to raise it in the es­teem of the educated and cultivated ranks of society, or of the medical profession.