Wendy Moore | The Daily Mail | April 14, 2017
Like an ethereal creature from another world, the pretty young woman glided down the dimly lit hospital ward. It was too dark for Elizabeth Okey to see the faces of the sick men and, crucially, she couldn’t read the charts pinned up above their beds.
Accompanying her was a 46-year-old doctor, John Elliotson, who held her hand in a firm grip, while a nurse trailed closely behind them. Elizabeth never once slackened her pace — but as she passed two of the beds, the doctor felt her shudder violently. The nurse also heard her whisper each time: ‘There’s Jack.’
It was only after they had left the ward that Elizabeth revealed what she’d seen: the figure of Death, clad in a white robe. Except that she didn’t call him the Grim Reaper; she called him Jack.
Dr Elliotson immediately wrote down the names of the two patients she had singled out, sealed the paper and handed it to the hospital apothecary.
By the next morning, the whole of University College Hospital (UCH) in London was in uproar. The apothecary had gossiped about Elizabeth’s predictions to anyone who would listen, causing panic among the patients.
The medical students who, meanwhile, were queuing up to take a look at Elizabeth were in a state of wild excitement.
Because, astonishingly, this 17-year-old slip of a girl had been right. The first patient she’d picked out had died overnight and the second was about to expire any minute.
So, was Elliotson on the trail of an extraordinary scientific phenomenon — or the victim of one of the biggest deceptions in medical history?
The doctor himself had no doubts. As one of the foremost physicians of the 1830s, he had been conducting experiments on hypnosis for the past year, most of them with Elizabeth as his subject. Indeed, she had been in a trance when she entered the all-male ward.
Had she really seen the Grim Reaper? Of course not. That was just a trick of the mind. Nevertheless, Elliotson was completely convinced that she had somehow smelt or sensed imminent death.
And if hypnosis could do that, then what other amazing feats could it accomplish? He was determined to find out.
A year before that experiment, in 1837, Elizabeth had been taken to UCH by her parents in a desperate attempt to find a cure for her epilepsy.
She was having a fit every day, followed by a severe headache, and was no longer able to work as a housemaid.
Then 16, she was so slight that she seemed little more than a child. She was also beguilingly pretty. A medical student described her as having ‘full dark eyes and long black lashes’ — so long that when she lowered her eyes, it was impossible to tell if she was awake or asleep. After she was admitted, Elliotson tried the usual barbaric practices of his era.
Every two or three days he would open a vein and drain off half a pint of blood.
And every day he dosed her with noxious metal-based compounds. She became paler and more tired, and her seizures started to feature nausea and delirium. As Elliotson understood only too well, her future looked bleak.
Unlike most physicians of his time, Elliotson had a questing mind and had already made significant medical breakthroughs. These included discovering the cause of hay fever, treating goitres (swelling of the thyroid gland) with iodine and conducting the first British trials of quinine to treat malaria.
His successes irked many of his peers. When he became one of the first doctors to use a stethoscope, colleagues mocked him savagely. Unquestionably, Elliotson — who was good-looking and always dressed in the height of fashion — had a knack of rubbing them up the wrong way. His self-belief frequently bordered on arrogance and he didn’t care if he upset the medical establishment.
In any case, he knew he could count on the unwavering loyalty of his good friend Thomas Wakley, a radical MP and founding editor of an influential medical weekly called The Lancet.
A fellow crusader in the campaign for medical reform, Wakley had publicised Elliotson’s discoveries and reprinted all his lectures in full, making him one of the best-known physicians in the country.
Mesmerism, the 19th-century term for hypnotism, was named after Franz Mesmer, a German physician, who had developed a theory about the existence of ‘animal magnetism’, an invisible force exerted by living organisms.
But it was all but unknown in Britain in 1837, and when a French showman — the self-styled Baron Dupotet — came over in that year to display his hypnotic skills, only Elliotson was intrigued.
Might mesmerism help his patients, he wondered. With many of them apparently incurable or dying, it was worth a try.
So he invited Dupotet to UCH that July and introduced him to 24-year-old Thomas Orton, an epileptic stable groom.
The baron fixed the groom with an unblinking stare and moved his hands slowly up and down in front of Orton’s face.
Within ten minutes, Orton seemed to be fast asleep. After allowing him to slumber for several minutes, the baron woke the groom by moving his hands in a horizontal direction.
For three months, Dupotet repeated this daily — and that’s all it took. Orton was discharged, apparently cured. So were several young female patients admitted with ‘nervous’ conditions.
Elliotson was converted: he learnt the Frenchman’s methods and immediately started putting other patients, including Elizabeth Okey, into trances.
Some were miraculously cured, including a child who had been paraplegic for nine months. Soon, he noticed that Elizabeth was more profoundly responsive than others. Not only were her trances deeper but, after a few weeks of daily sessions, a strange transformation came over her.
Suddenly, she would open her eyes in mid-trance and begin to chatter, tell jokes, sing risque songs and mimic her fellow patients. She was seemingly asleep and awake at the same time.
When returned to her normal state, she had no recollection of what she had done. Eager to share these developments, Elliotson started inviting selected guests to witness how Elizabeth behaved under hypnosis. News spread quickly and there was soon a constant flow of visitors to see her in Ward 3.
Charles Dickens, who had just published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was one of many luminaries who came to huddle around Elizabeth’s hospital bed.
He was so enthralled that he came back a few weeks later and asked Elliotson to teach him how to hypnotise people himself. Eventually, there were so many spectators that Elizabeth had to appear in the UCH lecture hall, where she sat on stage, oblivious to the men peering at her through opera glasses.
She had become the hottest ticket in town.
Convinced that mesmerism was a physical force, like electricity, the doctor was eager to chart its characteristics.
Could it be made to bend around corners, like light waves? Or be reflected in mirrors?
For one experiment, Elliotson and two friends huddled at one end of the hospital’s 180ft main corridor making trance-inducing hand movements into a mirror that was angled towards Elizabeth, sitting with her back to them at the far end.
When she lapsed into her usual trance, the doctor jubilantly recorded that the ‘mesmeric rays’ could, indeed, be reflected.
He also tried mesmerising a glass of water — and as soon as Elizabeth took a sip, she froze as if turned to stone. A few weeks later she managed to lift an 80lb weight without obvious strain. To show mesmerism could banish pain, Elliotson invited guests to watch as Elizabeth had a needle and thread pushed through the back of her neck. To their amazement, she chatted away, seeming not to notice.
On another occasion, Elliotson subjected her to a powerful electric current for three minutes. Again, she didn’t react.
But when several spectators touched the current themselves, none could stand it for longer than 30 seconds.
In February 1838, Elizabeth’s younger sister Jane, then 15, was unexpectedly admitted to UCH, delirious and also suffering from epilepsy. To Elliotson’s delight, she was even more susceptible to mesmerism than her sister.
When he put her in a trance, Jane seemed to turn to marble, while her face became ‘truly heavenly’. She could even mesmerise herself by extending her fingers towards her face.
Was she acting? Had Jane become jealous of Elizabeth’s celebrity and decided she wanted to share the limelight?
Reporters who attended the mesmerism sessions were divided, though with hindsight there seems little doubt both sisters were genuinely hypnotised.
Egged on by the doctor, they may well have extended their repertoire. Most of their ‘acting,’ however, was probably subconscious, arising from a desire to please him and fulfil his expectations.
It certainly never occurred to Elliotson that the sisters could be complete frauds, even though he had caught other patients apparently cheating.
Bizarrely, Elizabeth had alerted him, claiming that a patient called Charlotte Bentley and three others were impostors.
So Elliotson cooked up a trick: while Charlotte was apparently entranced, he loudly asked for a dirty syringe used to administer enemas to be put into her mouth.
At once, Charlotte opened her eyes and jumped up.
Her reaction may have been genuine — even in deep hypnosis, everyone has their limits. But, faking or not, she was speedily discharged along with the three other ‘cheats’.
This helped turn the tide of public opinion, with some newspapers denouncing mesmerism as quackery.
Elliotson’s colleagues were also sceptical — and they were increasingly fed up with all the visitors clogging the wards.
And what of Wakley, Elliotson’s good friend at The Lancet? At the height of mesmerism mania, he had become deeply uneasy.
To assuage his doubts, the doctor offered to stage a scientific trial at Wakley’s home in Bedford Square in Camden, North London.
It was Elliotson’s belief that some materials could be mesmerised, and the tests involved small pellets of nickel — which Elliotson believed was susceptible to mesmerism — and lead, which he thought wasn’t.
He handed pellets of both metals, one after another, to Elizabeth. No reaction. The experiment was repeated several times; still no reaction.
Finally she became transfixed after touching a ‘mesmerised’ nickel pellet.
This wasn’t good enough for The Lancet editor, so the experiment was repeated.
Unknown to Elliotson, however, the editor handed only lead pellets to Elizabeth — who went into an obliging trance only when she heard someone whisper: ‘Take care; don’t apply the nickel too strongly.’
The game was up. Wakley gravely informed his old friend he had been ‘entirely deceived’ by an impostor. Elliotson, for his part, accused Wakley of deception.
Then Elliotson departed on a planned holiday, leaving Elizabeth in Bedford Square. She was having violent spasms and was too poorly to be moved.
It never crossed Elliotson’s mind that Wakley would carry on doing tests. Alas for poor Elizabeth, after another gruelling day of experiments, she was found to be wrong just as many times as she was right.
Dr Elliotson had been tricked, Wakley declared in a thundering attack in The Lancet. There was no such thing as mesmerism and the Okeys were nothing more than calculating deceivers.
Elliotson had been hoist by his own petard. By insisting that mesmerism was a physical force that could influence metal and water, he had lost credibility.
Yet Wakley was equally remiss. In using Elliotson’s ludicrous theory as the sole basis for his series of tests, he had failed to address hypnotism’s genuine medical potential.
When Elliotson returned from holiday, he was furious. Far from backing down, he said he had tried to explain the discrepancies in the tests, but Wakley had been ‘too dull to understand’.
The friendship between the two medical mavericks was over. But the doctor soldiered on.
The Okey girls were encouraged to drift around the wards, diagnosing ailments — by no means always accurately.
Then came Elliotson’s infamous experiment in which Elizabeth correctly singled out patients who were about to die.
As far as his colleagues were concerned, this was the final straw. The hospital’s ruling body ordered that Elizabeth should be discharged and mesmerism banned forthwith.
Elliotson resigned, his medical career and glittering reputation in ruins.
He was saved a few days later by a knock on his door: a surgeon had brought a patient in her early 20s who was suffering from non-stop violent hiccups.
Once Elliotson had hypnotised her, however, the hiccups ceased. It was a remarkable cure — and as news of it spread, patients began lining up at his door.
Once again he gave demonstrations with the Okey sisters, though now in his drawing room.
Over the next few years they became doyennes of high society, staying with the writer Frances Trollope, whose son Anthony would become one of the most prolific novelists of the century.
By that point, their epilepsy — assuming it had ever existed — was completely cured. They both went on to marry and lead full lives.
And Elliotson? He became a darling of the literary world: those who referred to mesmerism in their works included Dickens, Robert Browning, William Wordsworth, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte.
Dickens became a close friend, taking Elliotson on holiday and making him godfather to his second son. Even Prince Albert was said to be a supporter. Within a year or two, despite The Lancet’s continuing attacks, hundreds of other doctors around the country were using mesmerism. And in 1842, several hypnotised patients had their legs amputated without feeling a thing.
Hundreds more such operations followed. Mesmerism was triumphantly back in business. Everyone wanted it, and orthodox doctors worried that they could no longer compete.
Then in 1846, an American surgeon discovered the anaesthetic properties of ether.
After removing a man’s leg while he was deeply asleep, the leading British surgeon Robert Liston exclaimed: ‘This Yankee dodge, gentlemen, beats mesmerism hollow!’
It did for a while, but ether also caused serious side-effects. By the end of the year, doctors had moved on to chloroform, which was more palatable even if it occasionally killed the patient.
Appalled that deaths were being hushed up, Elliotson tapped his influential friends to help fund what became a hugely popular mesmerism infirmary.
The poor flocked to it, and in 1854 alone a third of the patients went home cured.
Some of their diseases were psychological, for which hypnotism can be very effective. But others, including neuralgia, chronic pain, asthma, digestive problems, epilepsy and paralysis, had physical causes.
One theory is that hypnotism worked on these conditions because it had a placebo effect, like dummy pills that a patient believes will make him better. And there may have been an element of that.
But many of the patients had previously been treated by conventional doctors with useless remedies that they believed in just as much. And there had been no placebo effect then.
Mesmerism enjoyed its zenith in the 1850s, bringing relief to thousands who preferred its gentle, holistic approach to the brutality of conventional remedies. After that, however, traditional practices gradually regained the ascendancy.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that mesmerism reawakened under a new guise: hypnotism and hypnotherapy.
Since the Eighties, imaging scans have indicated that unique activity occurs in the brains of people under hypnosis.
Several studies have also revealed that patients operated on under combined hypnosis and anaesthesia suffer less pain, nausea, fatigue and anxiety; need fewer drugs; suffer milder complications; and return to work up to two weeks earlier.
Meanwhile, every year a few brave souls facing major operations still opt for hypnosis without anaesthesia.
The medical potential of hypnosis, however, remains widely undervalued and largely untapped. Indeed, were Wakley and Elliotson alive today, they would find that mainstream medicine and hypnosis remain almost as far apart as ever.
- ADAPTED by Corinna Honan from The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound by Wendy Moore (Weidenfeld, £18.99), to be published on April 27. © Wendy Moore 2017. To order a copy, visit mailbook shop.co.uk; tel: 0844 571 0640.