1844 | Tynemouth

Under a Spell

Harriet Martineau explores mesmerism.

From the early summer of 1839, I was, till this autumn, a prisoner from illness. My recovery now, by means of mesmeric treatment alone, has given me the most thorough knowledge possible that mesmerism is true.

This is not the place in which to give any details of my disease. It will be sufficient to explain briefly, in order to render my story intelligible, that the internal disease, under which I have suffered, appears to have been coming on for many years; that after warnings of failing health, which I carelessly overlooked, I broke down while traveling abroad in June 1839—that I sank lower and lower for three years after my return and remained nearly stationary for two more, preceding last June. During these five years, I never felt wholly at ease for one single hour. I seldom had severe pain, but never entire comfort. A besetting sickness, almost disabling me from taking food for two years, brought me very low, and together with other evils, it confined me to a condition of almost entire stillness—to a life passed between my bed and my sofa. Everything was done for me that the best medical skill and science could suggest, and the most indefatigable humanity and family affection could devise, but nothing could avail beyond mere alleviation. My dependence on opiates was desperate. My kind and vigilant medical friend—the most sanguine man I know and the most bent upon keeping his patients hopeful—avowed to me last Christmas, and twice afterward, that he found himself compelled to give up all hope of affecting the disease, of doing more than keeping me up, in collateral respects, to the highest practicable point.

Surrounded as I was by relations and friends who, knowing nothing of mesmerism, regarded it as a delusion or an imposture, it was morally impossible for me to entertain the idea of trying it while any hope was cherished from other means. After my medical friend’s avowal of his hopelessness, however, I felt myself not only at liberty but in duty bound to try, if possible, the only remaining resource for alleviation.

The Magic Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880.

The Magic Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880. Nizhny Novgorod state Art Museum, Russia.

Deep as are my obligations to my faithful and skillful medical friend, for a long course of humane effort on his part, no one kindness of his has touched me so sensibly as the grace with which he met my desire to try a means of which he had no knowledge or opinion, and himself brought over the mesmerist under whom the first trial of my susceptibility was made. Last winter, I wrote to two friends in London, telling them of my desire to try mesmerism and entreating them to be on the watch to let me know if anyone came this way of whose aid I might avail myself. They watched for me, and one made it a business to gain all the information she could on my behalf, but nothing was actually done, or seemed likely to be done, when in June a sudden opening for the experiment was made, without any effort of my own, and on the twenty-second, I found myself, for the first time, under the hands of a mesmerist.

On Saturday, June 22, Mr. Spencer Hall, a lecturer on and practitioner of mesmerism, and my medical friend came, as arranged, at my worst hour of the day, between the expiration of one opiate and the taking of another. By an accident, the gentlemen were rather in a hurry—a circumstance unfavorable to a first experiment. But result enough was obtained to encourage a further trial, though it was of a nature entirely unanticipated by me. I had no other idea than that I should either drop asleep or feel nothing. I did not drop asleep, and I did feel something very strange. Various passes were tried by Mr. Hall; the first that appeared effectual, and the most so for some time after, were passes over the head, made from behind—passes from the forehead to the back of the head, and a little way down the spine. A very short time after these were tried, and twenty minutes from the beginning of the seance, I became sensible of an extraordinary appearance, most unexpected, and wholly unlike anything I had ever conceived of. Something seemed to diffuse itself through the atmosphere—not like smoke, nor steam, nor haze, but most like a clear twilight, closing in from the windows and down from the ceiling and in which one object after another melted away till scarcely anything was left visible before my wide-open eyes. First, the outlines of all objects were blurred; then a bust, standing on a pedestal in a strong light, melted quite away; then the opposite bust; then the table with its gay cover, then the floor, and the ceiling, till one small picture, high up on the opposite wall, only remained visible, like a patch of phosphoric light. I feared to move my eyes, lest the singular appearance should vanish, and I cried out, “O! deepen it! Deepen it!” supposing this the precursor of the sleep. It could not be deepened, however, and when I glanced aside from the luminous point, I found that I need not fear the return of objects to their ordinary appearance while the passes were continued. The busts reappeared, ghostlike, in the dim atmosphere, like faint shadows, except that their outlines and the parts in the highest relief burned with the same phosphoric light. The features of one, an Isis with bent head, seemed to be illumined by a fire on the floor, though this bust has its back to the windows. Wherever I glanced, all outlines were dressed in this beautiful light, and so they have been at every seance, without exception, to this day, though the appearance has rather given way to drowsiness since I left off opiates entirely. This appearance continued during the remaining twenty minutes before the gentlemen were obliged to leave me. The other effects produced were, first, heat, oppression, and sickness, and for a few hours after, disordered stomach—followed in the course of the evening by a feeling of lightness and relief, in which I thought I could hardly be mistaken.

On occasions of a perfectly new experience, however, scepticism and self-distrust are very strong. I was aware of this beforehand, and also, of course, of the common sneer—that mesmeric effects are “all imagination.” When the singular appearances presented themselves, I thought to myself, “Now, shall I ever believe that this was all fancy? When it is gone, and when people laugh, shall I ever doubt having seen what is now as distinct to my waking eyes as the rolling waves of yonder sea, or the faces round my sofa?”

There was no other agreeable experience on the second afternoon. Mr. Hall was exhausted and unwell, from having mesmerized many patients; and I was more oppressed and disordered than on the preceding day, and the disorder continued for a longer time; but again, toward night, I felt refreshed and relieved. How much of my ease was to be attributed to mesmerism and how much to my accustomed opiate, there was no saying, in the then uncertain state of my mind.

In the past, men created witches; now they create mental patients.

—Thomas Szasz, 1970

The next day, however, left no doubt. Mr. Hall was prevented by illness from coming over, too late to let me know. Unwilling to take my opiate while in expectation of his arrival, and too wretched to do without some resource, I rang for my maid and asked whether she had any objection to attempt what she saw Mr. Hall do the day before. With the greatest alacrity she complied. Within one minute the twilight and phosphoric lights appeared, and in two or three more a delicious sensation of ease spread through me—a cool comfort, before which all pain and distress gave way, oozing out, as it were, at the soles of my feet. During that hour, and almost the whole evening, I could no more help exclaiming with pleasure than a person in torture crying out with pain. I became hungry and ate with relish for the first time for five years. There was no heat, oppression, or sickness during the seance, nor any disorder afterward. During the whole evening, instead of the lazy hot ease of opiates, under which pain is felt to lie in wait, I experienced something of the indescribable sensation of health, which I had quite lost and forgotten. I walked about my rooms and was gay and talkative. Something of this relief remained till the next morning, and then there was no reaction. I was no worse than usual—and perhaps rather better.

Nothing is to me more unquestionable and more striking about this influence than the absence of all reaction. Its highest exhilaration is followed, not by depression or exhaustion, but by a further renovation. From the first hour to the present, I have never fallen back a single step. Every point gained has been steadily held. Improved composure of nerve and spirits has followed upon every mesmeric exhilaration. I have been spared all the weaknesses of convalescence and carried through all the usually formidable enterprises of return from deep disease to health with a steadiness and tranquillity astonishing to all witnesses. At this time, before venturing to speak of my health as established, I believe myself more firm in nerve, more calm and steady in mind and spirits than at any time of my life before. So much, in consideration of the natural and common fear of the mesmeric influence as pernicious excitement, as a kind of intoxication.


Harriet Martineau

From Letters on Mesmerism. Having become known in the early 1830s for her Illustrations of Political Economy and in the late 1830s for her travel-inspired work of sociology, Society in America, Martineau was diagnosed with a uterine tumor in 1839. Bedridden at her brother-in-law’s house, she began to explore mesmerism, created by Franz Anton Mesmer in the 1770s, and became an advocate of its physical and mental boons. “The principle of life itself,” she wrote, “appears to be fortified by mesmeric influence.”