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Curious Visual Guides to Victorian Pseudoscience

D. Younger, "Full, concise instructions in mesmerism" (1887)
“The Cataleptic State in D. Younger’s “Full, concise instructions in mesmerism” (1887) (all images via Widener Library, Harvard University)

What if all your woes could be healed by some good thinking? Back in the 19th century, mesmerism was all the rage, merging nicely with the DIY Victorian parlor entertainment and hefty dose of quack medicine making the rounds — from questionable experiments in electricity to phrenology.

Chauncy Hare Townshend, "Facts in mesmerism" (1841)
Chauncy Hare Townshend, “Facts in mesmerism” (1841)

A couple of books recently digitized by Harvard University’s Widener Library offer some curious visuals for the ideas of “animal magnetism” that originated with German physician Franz Anton Mesmer. On Harvard’s The Shelf library blog, Todd Bachmann shared some details on the since-debunked theory that sickness could be ameliorated by this specialized hypnosis. Bachmann mentions, among others, a book by poet Chauncy Hare Townshend from 1841 called Facts in mesmerism: With reasons for a dispassionate inquiry into it and D. Younger’s 1887 Full, concise instructions in mesmerism (falsely termed hypnotism), curative magnetism, and massage with brief hints on natural medicine, etc., with illustrations showing various phases of mesmeric treatment. Younger, who was coming a bit under the wire for the mesmerism craze’s lifespan, wrote:

The results I have been able to accomplish by this natural method of treatment, in conjunction with the various herbal remedies I recommend, have, in many cases, been most surprising, never failing to afford relief, and often effecting a permanent cure, after all the usual orthodox methods have been tried in vain.

As James Kennaway recounted this July in the Paris Review, Mesmer and those who followed him would “often used music in their treatments, favoring in particular the ethereal and uncanny sound of the glass armonica, which uses friction to produce tones in a series of graduated glass bowls.” However, the Townshend book goes further and transposes some flute music one subject performed under mesmerism while sleepwalking. It’s as erratic as you might expect.

Even Charles Dickens was a fan: this 1845 letter at the Morgan Library exclaims his interest as “a believer [but] I became so against all my preconceived opinions and impressions.” The pseudoscience stretched slightly into the 20th century, though it peaked in the middle of the preceding century, with bizarre experiments like preserving corpses with mesmerism (you can see a supposed example of one from 1913 here). Below you can check out some of the images from the two books where trances were employed for good health.

D. Younger, "Full, concise instructions in mesmerism" (1887)
D. Younger, “Full, concise instructions in mesmerism” (1887)
D. Younger, "Full, concise instructions in mesmerism" (1887)
D. Younger, “Full, concise instructions in mesmerism” (1887)
D. Younger, "Full, concise instructions in mesmerism" (1887)
D. Younger, “Full, concise instructions in mesmerism” (1887)
D. Younger, "Full, concise instructions in mesmerism" (1887)
D. Younger, “Full, concise instructions in mesmerism” (1887)
D. Younger, "Full, concise instructions in mesmerism" (1887)
D. Younger, “Full, concise instructions in mesmerism” (1887)
D. Younger, "Full, concise instructions in mesmerism" (1887)
D. Younger, “Full, concise instructions in mesmerism” (1887)
D. Younger, "Full, concise instructions in mesmerism" (1887)
D. Younger, “Full, concise instructions in mesmerism” (1887)
Chauncy Hare Townshend, "Facts in mesmerism" (1841)
Chauncy Hare Townshend, “Facts in mesmerism” (1841)

Read more about 19th century mesmerism books at Harvard University Library’s The Shelf.

h/t Slate Vault

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