“You will do just what I tell you” – the controversy of stage hypnosis

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Diana Grace Rains-Bath

Newspaper report on Diana Grace Rains-Bath.

At Brighton hippodrome in December 1948, an 18 year old girl, Diana Grace Rains-Bath, volunteered to be hypnotized on stage by the Russian born American hypnotist, Ralph Slater who wrote the 1950’s classic book “Hypnotism and Self Hypnosis”.

Duly rendered unconscious, Slater ceased demonstrating on her for a moment and she roused. ‘He ran back to her, seized her neck with both hands and shook her head forward saying ‘sleep’ in a most commanding voice’, an action that she later claimed hurt. Slater then declared:

You are going to be like a little baby that is going to be frightened and crying for its mother.

Though initially Rains-Bath appeared unscathed from the incident, within 10 days or so she felt ‘clouded’, lost interest in everything, became miserable and had long fits of crying.


Newspaper clipping: 'Major's daughter to sue hypnotist'

Newspaper clipping from the Blacker archive.

Her misery continued, it was reported later in the court case, for 18 long months. Her parents concluded that her illness was a direct result of the hypnosis and they pursued a lawsuit against Slater on the grounds of negligence for not releasing her from her hypnotic state of mind, violence from the alleged ‘throttling’ and damages for lost earnings as a result of her time off work for anxiety neurosis. They won the case, but not without several retrials between March and September 1952. Slater was forced to leave the country in October that year.

This alarming story comes to light in the recently digitized papers of Carlos Blacker, who was then working as Adviser on population and medico-social questions for the Medical Office of Health. In correspondence with Dr Barnet Strauss MP and Dr S Van Pelt of the British Society of Medical Hypnosis he discussed banning the use of stage hypnotism for public entertainment, particularly on the younger and more vulnerable. Blacker’s views were quite clear on the issue:

These stage exhibitions can be quite revolting, and I have the impression that some at least of the people who make money out of them are exceedingly unpleasant people.

He and his correspondents concluded that amateur and stage performances using hypnosis had given the subject ‘a bad name’ and that so-called ‘hypnotic healers’ were a ‘grave menace to the public’ (in a letter from Strauss about hypnosis, 10th March 1966). Their proposed bill became law as the Hypnotism Act in 1952, though not without delay: firstly, King George VI happened to die on 6th Feb that year, an event that took greater priority in the House of Lords; secondly, the long-drawn out case of Slater, which took place around the same time, forced an embargo on the story. The original Act that Blacker contributed to was amended in 1976 following a young woman’s death after she had been hypnotized on stage.

Stage hypnosis in action. Press cutting from Picture Post, 31 May 1952.

Stage hypnosis in action. Press cutting from Picture Post, 31 May 1952.

Slater’s case is not the only alarming story revealed in Blacker’s archive: his papers also refer to the puzzling story of 18 year old Elizabeth Yates whose repeated lapses into unconsciousness baffled doctors. They couldn’t determine whether the factory worker was still under the influence of hypnosis by the stage hypnotist, Alexander Clark, or whether she was allergic to the song ‘So Tired’ that she was singing when she fell asleep. The conclusion to the case is sadly not revealed in Blacker’s papers.

Reassuringly, a licence is required to perform stage hypnosis today in the UK and the practice is strictly monitored. Only Israel has banned it entirely.

The digitised Blacker archive is free to access as part of the Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics online resource. To read the digitised correspondence from the Blacker archive, you need a Wellcome Library member login, or you may login with a Twitter, Facebook, Google or OpenID account. The login screen will appear when you open a digitised item from the catalogue or another webpage.  The correspondence with Van Pelt and Strauss on ‘Stage performance of hypnotism‘ includes letters, and published articles.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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