Article on Mesmerism

by Bob Walsh

The August 2012 issue of History of Psychology also has a feature on Mesmerism. Here’s the abstract of “Credibility, respectability, suggestibility, and spirit travel: Lurena Brackett and animal magnetism,” by Sheila O’Brien Quinn:

In the 1830s, when 20-year-old medical student Charles Poyen (1815–1844) began the demonstration tour that led to the popularization of animal magnetism in New England, he met with considerable resistance from both the medical profession and the general public. Skeptics argued that the phenomena apparently demonstrated during mesmeric sessions were so extraordinary that they had to be the result of intentional deception. The deception argument was bolstered by referencing the then popular prejudices against the working-class women who served as mesmeric subjects. Conveniently, these prejudices included belief in a special talent for deception that was not found in women from more respectable backgrounds. Mesmerists defended themselves against accusations of dishonesty by publicizing the achievements of Lurena Brackett (1816–1857), a young woman who escaped the prejudices associated with the working-class mesmeric subjects but still demonstrated apparently extraordinary mesmeric phenomena. The well-publicized story of Lurena regaining her sight during mesmeric séances is acknowledged as important in establishing the popularity of mesmerism in the United States. Lurena’s supporters argued that her respectable background made deception impossible. This article uses Shorter’s work on the history of hysteria and Trembinski’s analysis of the history of trauma to argue that some of the seemingly extraordinary phenomena observed during a mesmeric séance can be better understood with reference to conversion disorder and the concept of hypnotic suggestion rather than intentional deception. While Lurena’s respectability made her audience ready to accept her credibility, a conversion disorder would have produced the physical symptoms that responded so convincingly to mesmerism.

via And of course you can always learn more about the history of hypnosis 🙂