Spiritualism, Mesmerism and the Occult, 1800-1920

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By | The Researcher’s View

Dr Shane McCorristine is a Marie Curie Fellow (COFUND, Irish Research Council) at NUI Maynooth and University of Cambridge. McCorristine is an interdisciplinary historian who is currently writing up a project on embodiment and disembodiment in British Arctic exploration. Here he discusses some cases from his new edited collection of primary sources, Spiritualism, Mesmerism and the Occult,1800-1920, which includes material from the Wellcome Library’s collections.

In 1848 the English writer Catherine Crowe (1790-1872) published a book entitled The Night Side of Nature; Or,Ghosts and Ghost-seers which proved remarkably successful, going through 16 editions in the space of six years. In it Crowe sought to examine and bring together a whole range of experiences and phenomena which contemporary German romantic Naturphilosophen identified as part of the Nachtseite, or ‘Night Side of Nature’. ‘We are in this condition’, Crowe wrote,

for a certain number of hours out of every twenty-four; and as, during this interval, external objects loom upon us but strangely and imperfectly, the Germans draw a parallel betwixt these vague and misty perceptions, and the similar obscure and uncertain glimpses we get of that veiled department of nature, of which, while comprising as it does, the solution of questions concerning us more nearly than any other, we are yet in a state of entire and wilful ignorance. For science, at least in this country, has put it aside as beneath her notice, because new facts that do not fit into old theories are troublesome, and are not to be countenanced.

The new facts which Crowe believed were so troublesome to nineteenth-century science and philosophy included apparitions, second-sight, presentiments, mesmerism, somnambulist visions, and the marvels of the unconscious, all of which, taken together, seemed to point to a critical mass of evidence which could fundamentally change the way the human psyche was understood. Another way in which these heterodox phenomena – today generally placed within the remit of “parapsychology” – were connected was in the attitudes of many influential members of the scientific, cultural, psychological, and medical establishments towards such psychic phenomena. These attitudes ranged from out and out scepticism, to open-minded curiosity, to satirical derision, to extensive investigation and experimentation. In some cases, as in the ambivalence of the Victorian novelists Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) and Charles Dickens (1812-70), these attitudes could even co-exist in the same individual.

This idea of the night side of nature was something I came back to again and again when writing my monograph Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-seeing in England, 1750-1920 (2010). As I visited archives and libraries in Ireland and Britain I began to amass primary source examples of Crowe’s ‘veiled department of nature’ and when Pickering and Chatto asked me to edit a collection of documents on the theme of the supernatural I jumped at the chance to create a Pandora’s Box of weird and wonderful texts.

My point of departure for this project was Crowe’s criticism of the ‘pharisaical scepticism which denies without investigation’. Sensing the ‘signs of the times’, Crowe believed investigation and debate were key to the success of a new modern approach to supernatural otherworlds: observation and data accumulation were deemed essential to challenging the entrenched opinions of scientists, psychologists, physicians, and other sceptics. Tracking this urge to investigation (and counter-urges to debunk and disenchant) in the nineteenth-century public sphere introduced me to a rich documentary corpus of reports, debates, and personal narratives on the subjects of spiritualism, witchcraft, telepathy, mesmerism, dreams, and the marvels of the unconscious. The collection comprises of five volumes of documents with critical introductions, notes, and index. The volumes are arranged thematically and cover Apparitions, Spectral Illusions and Hallucinations; Mesmerism and Hypnotism; Spiritualism and Mediumship; Telepathy and the Society for Psychical Research; Dreaming and Dissociation.

In the collection I wanted to integrate recent critical studies on psychical research and allied fields with materials from archives like Wellcome to offer the researcher a wide selection of voices on a variety of subjects connected to the supernatural and psychical. I have had the pleasure to introduce the account of an Italian psychical researcher who attempted to telepathically induce dreams in a Paduan family in the 1890s; a dream journal of Sophia Elizabeth de Morgan containing allegorical and spiritual visions; and selections from the minute books of the Ghost Club, a gentleman’s club of amateur investigators which included William Crookes, William Butler Yeats, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Coloured diagram pasted inside the cover entitled, 'Talismans and magical images made from the twenty-eight Mansions of the Moon. Pen and ink watercolour by Francis Barrett, 1801. Wellcome Images L0037435

Coloured diagram pasted inside the cover entitled, ‘Talismans and magical images made from the twenty-eight Mansions of the Moon, etc. etc.’, from Francis Barrett, ‘The Magus or Celestial Intelligencer: being a compleat system of Occult Philosophy…’ (MS.1072) Wellcome Images L0037435

I am particularly grateful to the Wellcome Library for granting me permission to use some documents in the collection. These include a handwritten manuscript (MS.1073) by the astrologer and balloonist Francis Barrett (d. 1814) which offers advice to the student of occultism on how to invoke, question and dismiss spirits. Barrett writes as a Christian and is particularly concerned that the initiate converse only with good spirits and seek knowledge rather than wealth. Another manuscript I accessed was MS.5100, ‘Thoughts on Communication between the Living and the Dead’ by the English physician and Syro-Egyptian-enthusiast William Holt Yates (b. 1802). Yates was also interested in examining the pitfalls of intercourse with spirits, but in contrast to Barrett held that ‘Astrology, Necromancy, Witchcraft, and Magic’ were innately sinful and blasphemous practices.

The strangest manuscript I encountered in Wellcome, however, was something quite different indeed. It was the diary (MS.1405) of a retired major in the Bengal Cavalry named William Buckley (d. 1852) who recorded in great detail his daily experiments in mesmerism with his (mostly female) patients. Buckley was known in the late 1840s for the claim that over the years he had produced clairvoyance in 148 subjects who read (with extra-sensory perception) 36,000 words enclosed in boxes and the mottoes contained in 4,860 nutshells – a staggering level of amateur investigation. Buckley’s unique method of investigating clairvoyance captured the attention of many of his contemporaries and he gained the dubious honour of a Punch satire, which asked:

Do you think MAJOR BUCKLEY could magnetise the Custom house officials, so as to give them the ability to see inside of trunks? You have yourself known some persons in a state of “lucidity”, you say, describe the interior of the human trunk. If it is in the power of the gallant MAJOR to develop this faculty in the persons in question, it is desirable that he should be employed by Government to enable them to ascertain the contents of ladies’ boxes, without rummaging the boxes and spoiling the things. But I am afraid that, in order to obtain clairvoyance, the MAJOR would require subjects with a much more delicate system than that of Custom House officers.
"Punch's Pencillings - No. VI - Animal Magnetism; Sir Rhubarb Pill mesmerising the British Lion." Punch Volulme 1, Page 67, 1841. Wellcome Images L0028102

“Punch’s Pencillings – No. VI – Animal Magnetism; Sir Rhubarb Pill mesmerising the British Lion.” Punch Volulme 1, Page 67, 1841. Wellcome Images L0028102

While cases like this could easily be taken as ridiculous, for scholars like Steven Connor the “supernatural”  ‘was no alternative or other world, but rather an image, annex or extension of the imposing, ceaselessly volatile real world of the nineteenth century’. Therefore, when speaking of supernatural otherworlds – whether of apparently immaterial phenomena such as dreams, visions, marvels, apparitions, or thought-transference – we intervene in social and cultural debates intrinsic to the emergence of “western modernity”, or more accurately, modernities. This would be to work against the legacy of evolutionary and survivalist theories of belief which dominated intellectual debates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Similarly, in contrast to earlier scholars who, like Keith Thomas in his Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), felt the need to show how ‘intelligent persons’ now ‘rightly’ disdain the supernatural, research since the cultural turn in the 1980s has demonstrated the extent to which strategies of re-enchantment, magical thinking, and secular magic survive, adapt, and evolve, spectre-like, within and through modernity, not simply as occult or atavistic doubles. By the nineteenth century, my work has suggested, it was evident to many that things like dreams, ghosts, and other occult forces could no longer be seen as purely external, objective, or transcendental entities, but rather as complex signs of dynamic psychology and inner disturbance.  
Spiritualism, Mesmerism and the Occult, 1800–1920 (Pickering & Chatto, 2012) is available now

Author: Dr Shane McCorristine

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