OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fourth Series (1887-92)
by Henry Steel Olcott
EXPERIMENTS WITH DR. BERNHEIM
WE now come to the experiments. The reader will please observe that I did my best to keep the judicial frame of mind, giving no clue as to my own beliefs, and in copying the account I ponder over each detail in the light of subsequent experience, with the desire to say nothing which shall be open to adverse criticism. My first visit was to the Faculté de Médecine, where I found the eminent Professor, Dr. H. Bernheim, who received me most courteously. His appearance is very attractive, his manners suave and refined. In stature he is short, but one forgets that in looking at his rosy face, kind and cheerful eyes, and intellectual forehead. His voice is sympathetic and perfectly attuned to his gestures. I mention these personal details because they have much to do with Dr. Bernheim’s marvellous success as a hypnotiser, as I saw with my own eyes. The Professor obligingly gave me two hours of his overcrowded time that afternoon, and we discussed the issues between his and Charcot’s schools. He expressed very strong incredulity about the reality
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of his great rival’s tripartite hypnotism, declaring that his (Charcot’s) hysteriacs were all under the control of suggestion. The next morning, by appointment, I met him in his clinic at the Hôpital Civil, and spent the entire morning in the different wards, following him from bed to bed, and watching and recording his hypnotic treatments and demonstrations. The reader will kindly understand that hypnotism is used here only as an auxiliary to pharmaceutical and dietetic prescriptions, not as a substitute. He was, of course, attended by his chief subordinate, Dr. Simon, chief de clinique, and also by Dr. Voirin, Dr. Sterne, and others—all skilled and erudite hypnotists. I learnt more about practical hypnotism from watching him that one morning than I had from all my book-reading; and having myself had to deal with several thousand Indian patients in the way of therapeutic suggestion, or mesmeric healing, his looks, tones, and gestures possessed for me a world of significance. I made up my mind that he was one of the most consummate actors I ever encountered. While he was telling his patients that they were this or that, or would feel one or the other sensation—they watching him closely every instant—there was not a tone of his voice, a change of his countenance, or a movement of his body which did not seem to confirm the, sometimes preposterous, ideas he suggested, and no patient looking at him could have had the least suspicion that the Professor did not believe what he was telling him or her to believe for their good.
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Dr. Bernheim first led the way to ward II in the men’s department. He comes to a patient, tells him to look at him for a moment, tells him to sleep, the patient does so; he recalls him to consciousness, produces by suggestion muscular contraction, with insensibility to pin-pricks, and then silently presenting his hand to either side of the head, to the back and to the forehead, the patient’s head or trunk quickly inclines towards the operator’s hand, as a suspended needle towards an approaching magnet. Suggestion, simple suggestion by gesture, the Professor explains.
In bed No.4 lies a patient not hitherto hypnotised. He is put to sleep almost immediately, the Professor saying in a low, persuasive voice, something like the following: “You have pain now? Yes? But it will pass away; see, it lessens; your eyes grow heavy, heavy; yes, they . . . grow . . . heavy . . . and you feel like sleep . . . ing. It is good for you to sleep . . . sleep . . . good . . . good . . . Now you sleep . . . Do you understand? . . . sleep . . . sleep!” And it is done: in less than three minutes he is asleep. The Doctor tests him by suddenly lifting an arm and letting go. If the patient is not asleep he will naturally keep the arm suspended, not knowing what the Doctor wishes of him. If asleep, the arm will fall heavily as soon as let go. If the eyelid be lifted, the eyeball is seen rolled upward and fixed. Stick a pin into him anywhere, he does not feel it: he is an inert, unresisting carcase that you may carve and cut, burn and pinch.
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as you choose, without his knowledge that aught is transpiring.
While we were at this bed another patient, an asthmatic and very sensitive man, entered the ward and saluted the Professor. The latter simply said “Sleep!” and there, in his tracks, as he stood, he fell into obliviousness. Then the least hint that he saw, felt, heard, or tasted anything was instantaneously accepted. The Doctor, pointing to me, said: “You met this gentleman yesterday on the Place Dombasle and he lost something.” The patient said yes, he recollected it all, and thereupon invented a scene to fit the suggestion. Glibly he said I had lost my purse, the police were called, he searched for and found the purse; I had given him two francs as a reward, he had spent the money for liquor, got drunk, was engaged in a quarrel, and waked up this morning, somehow, in the hospital, feeling bad, with headache and a bad taste in his mouth!
Dr. Bernheim went to another patient, a convalescent, a person of good character, hypnotised him in an instant, and told him that when he came to himself again he would watch until we had gone to the extreme end of the ward, and then cautiously go to another man’s bed, on the opposite side of the room, and steal something from him. Awaking him, the Professor led us on from bed to bed until we had reached the end of the ward, where we stopped as if engaged in looking at another patient, but in reality keeping an eye upon the one under a suggestion to act criminally.
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Thinking us unmindful of him, he rose, looked right and left as if to see if the coast were clear, swiftly crossed to the bed indicated by the Doctor, stole some small object, which he concealed in his hand, returned to his own bed, and thrust it under his pillow. The Doctor then returned, and, putting on a severe expression, demanded what he had been doing over at the opposite bed; saying he was convinced that he had stolen something, and thus for the first time had become a thief. The man’s face flushed, his eyes fell, but presently he looked the Doctor squarely in the face and denied that he had taken anything. “Why do you lie to me, my man? I saw you go and take something.” The victim tried, but in vain, to stick to the falsehood, and as the Doctor moved towards the bed, he anticipated him, drew the stolen object—a snuff-box—from beneath his pillow, and stood looking like a detected thief. Being pressed to say why he had done it, whether it was voluntary or because of suggestion, he said he had done it entirely of his own accord without the Doctor’s prompting: he had seen the box lying there, fancied it, and went and took it. The Doctor then rehypnotised him, told him to forget the entire transaction, and forbade him to receive such a criminal suggestion again from anybody whatsoever. Thus, the Doctor told me, he killed in the germ any possible evil effect the suggestion might otherwise subsequently have had upon the man’s moral sense. Let my readers take warning and invariably counteract and extirpate any wrong predisposition they may have engendered by
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suggestion in a hypnotised or mesmerised patient’s mind while under their control, otherwise they incur an awful responsibility.
In bed No. 14 lay a square-built, pale-complexioned, blue-eyed man, suffering from rheumatic knee-joint. The joint was stiff and greatly swollen, and so painful that the man could not bear even the weight of the bed-clothes. He was passing sleepless nights, racked with pain. Within two minutes Professor Bernheim had thrown him into the hypnotic lethargy; insensible to everything, he let us touch, press, pound, and raise his inflamed knee. He was told in few words that the acute inflammation would begin to subside, the pain would be gone, he could bear touching and handling it, and could bend and unbend the bad knee as well as he ever could. He was awakened, yawning as if from sound natural sleep, and seeing us about his bed, seemed surprised, and looked inquiringly from one to another: evidently he had forgotten all that had passed. “And how are you, my man?” asked the Professor; “how is your knee?” “Knee?” echoed he; “why, M. le Docteur, it is as before.” “No, you are mistaken, my man; the pain is gone.” The patient thought, felt his knee, found no pain there, and joyfully said to the patient in the next bed: “Vraiment c’est partie, la douleur aiguë!” (Really, the sharp pain is gone.) “And now you can move it,” continued the Professor. “Impossible, M. le Docteur,” rejoined the sufferer. Assured that he could, and ordered to try, he very cautiously extended the foot, then more and
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more until the leg was straightened. He cried out to all his neighbors to see the miracle, and we moved on. The whole thing had not occupied five minutes. I saw the man daily for a week after that, and there was no relapse, and he was rapidly convalescing.
The epileptic young man in bed 3 bis of ward IX was the subject of an interesting experiment. He was easily hypnotised while in the act of eating his dinner, just brought him. The Doctor made him keep on eating while asleep, and while we stood by he finished his meal and the plate was removed. But he kept on eating, “dining with Duke Humphrey,” as if the plate and food were still there. After letting him go on thus for a quarter of an hour he was awakened, and at once cried out for his dinner, denying that he had eaten it, and complaining of being so hungry that he had cramps in the stomach. Though the empty plate was shown him, he still disbelieved, and charged the nurse with having stolen his dinner. At last he was again hypnotised, told to recollect having eaten, reawakened, and then, when asked if he was hungry, said he had eaten quite enough and was satisfied.
An old man in bed 12 was hypnotised and told that yesterday he was in Paris and had been electrified. It was curious to watch the development of this suggestion. He went on to tell us that he had been in Paris, and, crossing the Place de la Concorde, he had seen a man there with an electrical apparatus and had taken a shock. The memory of it was so vivid that he again grasped the terminal tubes of the battery,
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again felt the current running through him; he writhed and twisted until he could bear (the maya) no longer; tried, but could not let go the tubes; cried out to be released, was released, and fell back in bed exhausted, with the perspiration oozing out all over his forehead and wetting his hair. It was reality itself, yet nothing but an illusion—the product of a suggestion. For some minutes after being awakened he kept rubbing his arm, and complaining of the pain that had been caused by an electrical treatment he had undergone. The illusion was then removed and he was once more comfortable.
In the female ward No. xiii was a young woman of 24, a hysteriac, who had undergone a long course of suggestive therapeutics. She was a fidgety and quick-tempered person, and in her neurotic crises apt to be troublesome and rebellious to the house surgeon when he would try to hypnotise her. He had treated her successfully, but had failed to destroy her waking sensitiveness to touch and contact with a magnet. Upon coming to her bed, Dr. Bernheim hypnotised her and made the suggestion that upon awakening she would see a pretty bouquet of flowers on her bed. Being awakened, she saw it, smelt the visionary flowers, and went through the motions of putting the bouquet into the empty glass on her bed-table. Suddenly she fell into a hysterical crisis, whereupon the gentle-faced, kind-looking Doctor showed his latent decision of character. The more she rebelled against taking his suggestions, the more positively and peremptorily
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he repeated them; the more she thrashed around, the sterner grew his voice; at last the wild rebel succumbed, and he imposed upon her whatsoever suggested idea he chose.
The young woman in bed 1 of female ward xiii was a most interesting subject. Her name we will call Hortense; she was unmarried, not bad-looking, had a sweet smile, was very sensitive, and evidently a young person of unblemished character. She was subject to gastric pains and insomnia. At the first word from the Doctor she slept as calmly as a child. He told her she had taken from the postman a letter from her sister, and, being requested to read it, went on fluently composing a letter in German (she is of Alsace). The Doctor then suggested a basket of fine peaches; she saw them, and generously proceeded to distribute them among us. Then a dog covered with mud was suggested; she drew her tidy skirts about her and tried to drive it away. Then the Doctor gave us a splendid example of the wonderful fact of “inhibition”. He told her when hypnotised, that upon awaking she would neither see him, feel his touch, nor hear his voice; he should seem to her as if absent. Awakened, Dr. Simon asked her where Dr. Bernheim was, saying that all of us had stepped away for a moment, leaving him by her chair. She looked at each one of us in turn, Dr. Bernheim among the rest, and said she did not know; he must have gone into the other ward. “But I am here, Hortense; do you not see me?” said the Doctor in a rather
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loud tone. She seemed deaf to his voice, although he actually stood beside her, and went on chatting with Dr. Simon. Then Dr. Bernheim bawled into her ear; he passed his hand over her face, pinched her ear, tickled her nostril and the corner of her eye with a feather; then he scratched the cornea with a knifepoint, lifted a side of her dress and pricked her on the leg below and above the knee, but she showed no sign that she either saw, heard, or felt what he was doing. But when Dr. Simon made as if he would lift the other side of her skirt to examine the other limb, she blushed from offended modesty and pushed his hand away. It was most evident that Dr. Bernheim had, for the time being, been obliterated so far as her senses were concerned. The reader will now understand the value of the statement I made in the first chapter of “O.D.L.” in the Theosophist for March, 1892 (footnote), on the alleged sudden disappearance of a Coptic adept from the sofa whereon he was sitting in H. P. B.’s room at Cairo. There is no difference whatever between that and Dr. Bernheim’s case as regards the psychological principle involved; both are examples of “inhibition” of the senses; but there is this difference in detail, that our hypnotist audibly speaks his command, while the Eastern adept simply thinks it.
But Hortense afforded us another and still more serious bit of instruction. Dr. Bernheim said, pointing to me: “Do you know this gentleman?” “No, sir,” she replied; “I see him now for the first time.” The Doctor told her she was mistaken; that she had met
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me in the street the day before; that I had taken a fancy to have her as a mistress, had agreed upon a salary of fcs. 100 per month, and had actually paid her fcs. 25 on account of the first month’s salary. The girl’s face first expressed indignation that she should be taken as such a person; but she pondered over it as though testing the story by memory, her face changed, a less noble expression came across it, she looked at the Doctor and myself attentively and then said: “Why, certainly, how could I have forgotten it? It all comes back to me now.” Saying so, she rose and told me she was ready. “Ready for what?” asked Dr. Bernheim, “To go with monsieur.” “But, Hortense, reflect a moment; you cannot do that, you are a virtuous girl; and then, again, what will your sister and other relatives think?” “I care nothing for my family,” she petulantly cried; “they are nothing to me. The gentleman spoke to me very kindly yesterday, he offers me a good salary, has paid me something on account; so I shall go with him.” “But where?” asked Dr. B. “Wherever he likes,” she said. “And do what?” “Whatever he wishes.” Saying nothing, I moved away towards the door of the ward, went down the corridor, and descended two or three steps of the grand staircase. Hortense followed at my heels without a word. I stopped on the stairs and asked her where she was going. “With you, monsieur,” she replied. “Ah! yes; now I remember,” I said; “but first let us return for a moment, as I did not bid Dr. Bernheim good-bye.” She followed me
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back, Dr. Bernheim dehypnotised her, ordered her to forget all that had passed, and we went on to another bedside. I saw her on several following days, but she showed no sign of anything of an unusual nature having passed between us. I asked the Professor if he really believed that the young woman would have followed me to my hotel and abandoned herself to me. He replied that most certainly she would, and cases of the sort had already come before the legal tribunals; the moral nature was in such cases completely paralysed for the time being. The suggestion would ultimately wear off, but meanwhile the victim would be absolutely powerless to protect herself. I commend the subject to the attention of people, female or male, old or young, who thoughtlessly permit themselves to be hypnotised by the first comer. Here we have seen a virtuous girl compelled to surrender herself to a strange man’s pleasure, and an honest man turned into a thief and a liar. Beware the hypnotiser whose perfect purity and benevolence of purpose and experimental skill are not known to you. There is less risk in entering a tiger’s den unarmed than in exposing yourself indiscriminately.
Professor Bernheim made other experiments for me, but the above will suffice to show his great skill and his exceeding kindness to his Indian visitor. We lunched together that day, and his conversation was extremely interesting and instructive, as may be imagined. As his plans were all made to take his family to Switzerland the next morning, he could not pursue a full course of experiments with me as he
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desired, but obligingly turned me over to Drs. Simon and Sterne, with whom I completed, so far as I could, the researches which led me to Nancy. They principally related to the problem of metallotherapy (the alleged pathological effect of certain metals upon contact with the skin of persons of different temperaments), and to the action of drugs at a distance. Dr. Burcq, of Paris, first called the attention of the Faculté de Médecine to the former, and gave it its name, while Dr. Luys, Director of La Charité Hospital, was the godfather of the latter.
In my article upon the Salpêtrière researches I reported a single experiment made for me by Dr. Guinon upon a woman in whom muscular contraction of the arm was provoked by laying a gold coin upon her wrist, but at Nancy our experiments were much more serious. I had with me an English sovereign, a silver 1 franc piece, a copper sou, a silver 2 franc, an American (gold) quarter-eagle, and a sugar cough-lozenge. All were wrapped in paper, and, of course, indistinguishable from each other. We tried them twice upon the turbulent hysterical girl, several times upon Hortense, also upon another female patient, and upon a boy of 9 years in the Children’s Ward, No.7; we tried them both wrapped and uncovered, and neither of them produced the least effect unless it was suggested by the doctors that this metal would do so and so, and the others something else. Upon suggestion, gold made one patient laugh, another weep; silver made one sing, caused a blister on another; and copper,
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similarly, made one sneeze, another cough. In one case, the patient being put to sleep, there was no effect either from the coins or the sugar lozenge, even when suggestion was resorted to, the reason being—as I was told—that the patient had sunk so deep into catalepsy that even the Doctor’s suggestions did not reach her inner consciousness. With Hortense the most excellent subject in the hospital, no normal effect followed the application of either metal, but when she was told that the lozenge was gold and would burn her, she instantly pitched it off and began rubbing her arm, upon which a redness of the skin was observable at the point of contact. In the case of the troublesome girl, she seemed at first sensitive to gold and silver, but indifferent to copper, while they were visible to her, but when wrapped in paper and indistinguishables all proved equally inert. I varied all these experiment, many times, always with the same result. The Nancy school, as before remarked, ascribe the Salpêtrière results of this kind to pure suggestion, and of course it would be fair for me to apply the same rule to their own tests; their disbelief in metallotherapy being as potential in influencing their hypnotic patients to resist the action of metals, as the contrary belief of Professor Charcot’s school might cause the hypnotised patients to be sensitive to metals. But how about my own case? If anything, I inclined to the theory of Burcq and Charcot, that metals do affect persons; in fact, I might even go further and say I actually believe it; yet the Nancy patients, though given over
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to me to experiment upon as I chose, and by me tested and tried in many ways, were not acted upon by my gold, silver, or copper coins, and were powerfully affected, upon suggestion, by the simple, inert tablet of sugar! I leave it, therefore, with the Scotch verdict, “Not proven.”
It will be seen that the question is a very delicate one, and we are very far from having got to the bottom of it. The experiments at Nancy are interesting and important, but so we may say have been the very numerous observations made by different mesmeric experimentalists on the effects of metallic substances upon their subjects. It cannot be at all certain that a physician of the standing of Dr. Burcq could have been utterly mistaken as to the influence of metals upon sick patients having been so marked as to warrant his reporting them to the Academy of Medicine as the basis for a new system of therapeutics. Then, again, there are many persons who, on touching brass, taste its peculiar aura on their tongues; furthermore, what are we to say as to the well-known fact that a globule of mercury held in the palm of the hand will sometimes produce salivation? Last of all, there are the delicate and multifarious researches of Baron von Reichenbach, whose eminence as a metallurgical chemist is historical, and about whose discoveries something will be said in the next chapter.