When Mesmerism Came to America

Max Nelson at the NYRB:

Hypnotist mesmerising a patient, c1795. (Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Cynthia Gleason, a weaver at a Rhode Island textile mill, went into her first trance in the fall of 1836. According to her mesmerist, a French sugar planter and amateur “animal magnetist” named Charles Poyen, she had been suffering for years from a mysterious illness; he called it “a very serious and troublesome complaint of the stomach” in one account and “a complicated nervous and functional disease” in another. For months Poyen had been giving lectures insisting that mesmerists like himself had mastered a technique for putting people in somnambulistic trances, curing their diseases, and managing their minds. When Gleason’s physician called him in to make magnetic “passes” over her body with his hands, Poyen wrote in his dubiously self-serving memoirs, she said she’d “defy anyone to put her to sleep in this manner.” But after twenty-five minutes, “her eyes grew dim and her lids fell heavily down.

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