Historical essay
Mesmerism, (Im)propriety, and Power Over Women’s Bodies

Mesmerism, (Im)propriety, and Power Over Women’s Bodies

Sarah A. Adler

Mesmerism had promise. According to accounts of popular demonstrations and parlor séances of the 1830s through the 1850s, a subject in mesmeric sleep was immune to external stimuli; she (and it was often a girl or woman) couldn’t feel the pain of needles pricking her skin, smell pungent salts held under her nose, taste vinegar poured into her mouth, or hear someone screaming in her ear. Her only sensory input came from that of her (almost always male) operator. If a man could manipulate the vital fluid German physician Anton Mesmer claimed existed in the human body through passing his hands over a woman’s body, the possibilities were endless. Advocates insisted surgeons could use mesmerism as an anesthetic — an appreciable innovation in the years before ether.1 Sugar planter and mesmerist Charles Poyen advocated its use as a management tool on the plantation and in the factory. Others hoped to solve crimes, diagnose disease, or allow subjects to visit faraway places without leaving home.2

But if mesmerism could entertain, anesthetize, and control, its promise was inextricable from its danger. Mesmerism transferred power over female bodies from protective male relatives to operators, threatening early nineteenth-century gendered constructs of virtue and honor.3

Illustration of the Mesmeric Aura. (Wellcome Library)

This anxiety over mesmerism’s questionable propriety played out in American newspapers. An 1839 article dismissed the practice, explaining:

[gblockquote]Suppose it be true:—and see the consequences. By a single wave of the hand, we deprive a female of all sense, and throw her into such a profound sleep that the teeth may be pulled out of her head without the slightest consciousness on her part. Should such a power on the one side, and such susceptibility on the other, be once established, no female in the realm, however high or low her station, would be one day safe from the machinations of the wicked and licentious! In short, the whole foundations of society would be broken up, and every fence of virtue and honor would be levelled in the dust!4[/gblockquote]

If mesmerism worked as advertised, its power imbalance created too much opportunity for abuse. The practice was a threat to every woman, and the men who should protect them.

An article in the medical journal The Lancet echoed this sentiment. It noted that mesmerism “acts most intensely on nervous and impressionable females,” and asked, “What father of a family, then, would admit even the shadow of a mesmeriser within his threshold? Who would expose his wife, or his sister, his daughters, or his orphan ward, to contact of an animal magnetiser?” Because of the threat mesmerism posed to women, The Lancet recommended honorable men shun its practitioners as if they were “the uncleanest of the unclean.”5

It was not only supposed professional operators with dubious motives that posed a threat. Like spiritualism after it, mesmerism offered opportunities for laymen. Amateurs tried mesmerizing friends or family after attending public demonstrations or reading how-to guides such as Practical Instruction in Animal Magnetism. An 1842 article described one peril of this experimentation. It claimed a man successfully mesmerized a female friend; however, after the initial session, the woman began falling into the trance at random. Because of the powerful connection between operator and subject, only he could wake her from the trance. The man reported, “The fact is, I am now at G.’s, where I am under the necessity of awaking [sic] Miss E., the subject of my experiments, from what is called the Mesmeric state every morning, and often several times during the day.”6 This man’s exclusive power over his subject required his constant presence at her home, a socially precarious situation for an unmarried couple in 1842.

Mesmeric therapy. A group of mesmerised French patients (Wellcome Library)

If mesmerism threatened the status quo, there were those who considered it a positive development. An 1840 humorous story is one of the rare sources where readers hear from the female subject, albeit a fictional one. In the story, a young man, Judgment Scrapps, was engaged to a woman named Clara. When Judgment returned home after two years abroad, he found a handsome man with his fingers on Clara’s head, her mother and sister watching from the sofa. Judgment “rushed into the room, and catching the dog by the throat, laid him prostrate.”7 Clara explained the man was Dr. Feeler, a phrenologist. Judgment apologized to Dr. Feeler and set about preparing for his and Clara’s wedding. Later, Judgment again visited Clara’s house, “secretly hoping that the accursed phrenologist had been extending his examinations in other regions.”8 Sneaking up to the window, Judgment looked inside and saw a different man again employed in some untoward touching of his beloved. Judgement explained:

[gblockquote]She was seated in the old-fashioned easy chair, leaning back, while her eyes were closed, as if in conscious shame at her degraded situation; and he was standing over her, making motions that almost stifled me with mortification and rage. He seemed to be rubbing his dirty digits up and down over her soft velvet cheeks; those cheeks I had so often kissed; cheeks that now blushed with guilty passion! Annon, the rascal passed his hands over her full, heaving bosom. Yet I had resolution enough to await the result. The scoundrel kneeled—ay, kneeled to her!—and passed his hands up and down each side even to her very feet!9[/gblockquote]

Judgment barged into the room as before, fists swinging. Clara and her sister intervened, crying, “Animal magnetism! Animal magnetism! It was nothing but Animal Magnetism!” Judgment replied, “Ay, ay, I saw it was!”10

After the mesmerist and Judgment duked it out, Clara informed her betrothed that she was calling off their wedding. She said, “This is not the first time your absurd jealousy has brought you in a situation most ridiculous. You will doubtless ere long learn, Sir, that the science of Animal Magnetism is an exalted and innocent one.”11 The story ends with Judgment’s lament: “I lost that girl, merely because I was ignorant of the extent to which modern science had been carried; because I had not then learned, that undue familiarity with the female sex might be extenuated, by the forced ‘march of the age.’”12

Through the fictional Clara, who insisted that “a woman may submit to the process from pure love of knowledge, without compromising her dignity, her modesty, or her honor!”, this story satirizes female empowerment to comment on the purported scientific progress threatening to cuckold fathers, brothers, and husbands.13

Today we might wonder how so many people fell under mesmerism’s spell – both literally and figuratively. The idea of manipulating magnetic fluid in the body to put someone into a trance doesn’t hold up to modern mainstream medicine.14 The urge to debunk or dismiss the practice is easier to understand when we consider the stakes. There were those — including Benjamin Franklin, who led a French investigatory commission on mesmerism in 1784 — who opposed mesmerism because it didn’t pass scientific muster.15 But as these and other primary sources illustrate, other detractors labelled mesmerism as improper to defend their claim to women’s bodies. Faced with the prospect of their control being shifted to operators, warnings of mesmerism’s moral dangers became a smokescreen for the thing they truly feared: the cuckolding of America’s traditional patriarchal class.


  1. For more information on the greater context of mesmerism as an anesthetic, see Paul Shin, “Remembering Anesthesia: Mesmerism and the Public Culture of Science in Nineteenth-Century America,” PhD diss., Yale University, 2014, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing (3580860); and Alison Winter, “Ethereal Epidemic: Mesmerism and the Introduction of Inhalation Anaesthesia to Early Victorian London,” Social History of Medicine 4, no. 1 (April 1991): 1–27. Return to text.
  2. The relationship between mesmerism and labor as well as the phenomenon of “traveling somnambulism” are explored at length in Emily Ogden, Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018). Return to text.
  3. Mesmerism’s popularity coincided with early battles over women’s rights in the United States. During this time, women gained (limited) rights to own property in some states. They also lost access to legal abortion. Return to text.
  4. “Animal Magnatism,” Native American, February 2, 1839. Return to text.
  5. Quoted in Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 110. Return to text.
  6. “A Curious Case of Animal Magnetism,” Sunbury American, April 2, 1842. Return to text.
  7. Ibid. Return to text.
  8. Ibid. Return to text.
  9. Ibid. Return to text.
  10. Ibid. Return to text.
  11. Ibid. Return to text.
  12. Ibid. Return to text.
  13. Ibid. Return to text.
  14. Alternative medicine is another story. A woman I know claimed an acupuncturist/chiropractor friend realigned her body through techniques that sounded remarkably similar to mesmerism, and there are certainly some similarities between mesmerism and reiki. Return to text.
  15. Mesmerism was a precursor to spiritualism, which enjoyed popularity and a similar amount of skepticism in the United States and Europe during the latter half of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Illusionist Harry Houdini was perhaps the most famous skeptic of spiritualist séances and wrote an exposé on the practice in 1924 called A Magician Among the Spirits. Return to text.

Featured image caption: A practitioner of mesmerism using animal magnetism on a woman who responds with convulsions. (Courtesy Wellcome Images)

Sarah A. Adler is a Washington, DC-based early career historian interested in 19th- and 20th-century US culture.