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Plato's GhostSpiritualism in the American Renaissance$

Cathy Guiterrez

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195388350

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195388350.001.0001

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(p.143) 6 Minds
Plato's Ghost

Cathy Gutierrez (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In promulgating trance states and multiple voices talking through particularly young women, Spiritualism had from the outset been skirting the territory of insanity. This chapter explores the rise of psychoanalysis in America and the contested value of trances and hypnosis. As mental health became increasingly medicalized, the religious value of different experiences of consciousness were contested. Spiritualists fought to protect their theological turf from the encroaching charges of insanity even as mediums were institutionalized and labeled as mad. Asylums in the nineteenth century frequently functioned to promote social norms, and women in particular who deviated from mainstream decorum or religiosity often found themselves imprisoned there. Spiritualists were no exception, and the movement that promoted progress and knowledge with the aid of the dead soon found itself an unwilling object of scientific scrutiny.

Keywords:   hysteria, Sigmund Freud, insanity, asylums, trances, monomania, hypnotism, Franz Mesmer, unconscious, Frederick Myers

In 1858, an unmarried seamstress recorded only as “C.” was admitted to an insane asylum. C. had increasingly been controlled by spirits that spoke through her. Many were violent, and some were even bent on inducing her to suicide. C. arrived at the asylum under her own volition, encouraged by her mother. After months of treatment that included horizontal restraints at night, a prototypical form of psychotherapy with a clearly sympathetic doctor, and a diet consisting largely of brandy, cod-liver oil, and beef consommé, C. was well enough to be sent back home. There is no question that C. regarded herself as suffering and that she welcomed the help of the “mad doctor” who treated her. There remains the question, however, of whether she was insane. C. maintained throughout her treatment that she was not a madwoman but rather an unskilled medium. She could not control the voices that spoke through her and was unable to reliably distinguish evil spirits from good ones. Her doctor, while never capitulating to the theological claims of Spiritualism, agreed: this was a battle not about proving phenomena but of naming them.

The Spiritualist movement that wanted more than anything the legitimation conveyed by empiricism had found its most formidable foe in its fondest desire: science. The movement that fostered self-induced trance states, multiple voices speaking through the instrument of a single body, auditory and visual manifestations from an unseen world, and women in particular uttering social and religious blasphemies, soon discovered that its (p.144) precious communications with heaven looked to some like sheer madness. Budding mediums and other religious rebels were institutionalized, new diagnoses sprang up to describe the spiritually insane, and American asylums filled to overflowing. As with the case of C., it was not the existence of alternative states of consciousness that was being debated but rather all other claims about them. What these states referred to, how they should be valued, whether they indicated proof of metaphysical claims or evidence of derangement, were all overtly contested during this period. In this final chapter I will analyze the heated and utterly self-conscious argument between Spiritualism and psychology. As I shall try to show, at stake in this debate was nothing less than what constituted a self and who got to determine that.

Where women utter subversions, trouble is usually afoot. In the mid-nineteenth century, social censure could be and often was delivered in the form of sanitized condemnation within a mental asylum. An article in Harper’s Weekly from 1857 reports that Spiritualism was causing an epidemic of insanity, noting that several hundred Spiritualists had already been institutionalized. Harper’s went further to call for the indictment of prominent Spiritualists, charging, “They are making lunatics every week. It is high time they were a subject of penal inquiry.”1 Although it is tempting to dismiss this as a bit of high-toned paranoia on the part of Harper’s, the fact is that Spiritualism does share several characteristics with schizophrenia, the nineteenth century’s precursor to multiple personality syndrome,2 as well as with the more generic brand of hysteria and its subsets in the nineteenth century ranging from monomania to neurasthenia. I will argue that Spiritualists went to great lengths to distinguish themselves from the patently mad, launching a full-fledged effort to differentiate between women who have numerous personalities talk through them and women who are constituted by numerous unwelcome personalities.

Contemporary scholarship on the history of psychology is currently embroiled in its own battle of naming. On one side is the camp we may designate as the social constructivists, headed up by the late Michel Foucault and formidably assisted by current scholars Elaine Showalter and Sander Gilman. The social constructivists tend to read the history of madness as the designating, outlawing, pathologizing, and managing of deviance. This does not necessarily entail the masterminding of society by evil geniuses, although insanity and enfeeblement have certainly been conscripted into service for such purposes. Rather, in Foucault’s masterwork on the topic, Madness and Civilization, he argues that burgeoning capitalism redefined the lazy and the poor as deviant and therefore mentally ill. The response, massive-scale institutionalization in workhouses and asylums in England and France, was in his view not (p.145) a benevolent gesture aimed at curing people but rather a socially acceptable reason to round up paupers and set them to menial labor for little or no financial reward. The social constructivists argue that it is the changing tides of morality and fashion, and not a medically real illness with roots in biology, that define madness. Contrary to some of the claims made by their critics, these scholars have never denied that there are biologically determined mental diseases or that people do not suffer when afflicted by a strictly social illness. They are pointing out that the field of psychology, perhaps more than any other discourse of health, is susceptible to misuse by judging, labeling, and incarcerating the merely different as inexorably diseased.

On the other side of this debate stand Edward Shorter and his followers who defend the objective reality of most mental illness and the authentic therapeutic intent behind psychology in general and the asylum system in particular. Shorter’s visceral dislike of Foucault comes through repeatedly in his 1997 landmark work, A History of Psychiatry. For his part, Shorter does not claim that the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness is entirely free of a social component. He makes a compelling case that the social versus the biological has been tearing at the very center of psychiatry from its inception and he is well aware that he and the social constructivists are re-creating on a scholarly level what has been festering on the therapeutic level since the beginning. He writes, “One vision stresses the neurosciences, with their interest in brain chemistry, brain anatomy, and medication, seeing the origin of psychic distress in the biology of the cerebral cortex. The other vision stresses the psychosocial side of patients’ lives, attributing their symptoms to social problems or past personal stresses to which people may adjust imperfectly.”3 This basic divide is replicated in the literature on the history of psychiatry.

What Shorter does maintain is the biological basis of mental illness in nearly all diagnosed cases. But the numbers involved should give one pause: in the United States alone, the number of patients in asylums grew almost sixfold in the fifty years between 1820 and 1870. By Shorter’s own estimation, the rapid increase in diagnosed lunatics made any hope of curing them simply impossible by 1880, and the numbers continued to rise for the next few decades.4 This staggering increase in lunacy was matched by similar explosions in Germany, France, and England, leaving the question of what could possibly account for it begging. According to Shorter, the wild upsurge among the institutionalized is attributable to a factual increase in mental illness.

Shorter proposes two primary reasons for the population explosion in asylums: the first he calls the “redistribution of illness.” In brief, he means that changing patterns of familial relations and social expectations of what could be tolerated at home account for some of the numbers. And this is undoubtedly (p.146) true: as the century wore on, and the middle class emerged as sufficiently moneyed and socially invested in cure rather than simple containment, many people who would previously have been quietly taken care of at home were instead institutionalized. The second leg of Shorter’s argument is that there was an actual increase in mental illness during this period. Specifically he cites neurosyphilis, alcoholic psychosis, and possibly schizophrenia, although he admits that this last one is a more tentative claim and that the data could yet overturn it. Neurosyphilis, the mental and physical breakdown during the final stages of syphilis, has been all but eradicated in modern times. Shorter argues that the current invisibility of syphilis-related disease is a prime reason that the social constructivists failed to notice a real increase of mental illness in the nineteenth century. His claims of an increase in alcoholic psychosis are also credible, as westward expansion frequently meant that corn, wheat, and other grain-based hard alcohols replaced the ubiquitous beer and wine of colonial days. His claim that consumption of alcohol vastly increased in the nineteenth century is dubious, however; social historians of the period have ably documented that the besotted country increasingly sobered up during the years preceding the Civil War.5

His claim of an increase in the occurrence of schizophrenia is unlikely; medical science has shown a strong probability that schizophrenia has a genetic basis and is therefore not prone to such an increase in diverse and mobile populations like America’s. Shorter calls for a reassessment of historical case files from the period by contemporary psychiatrists in an effort to determine once and for all whether the bursting seams of the asylums were best accounted for by a concomitant increase in insanity or by other forces in society. Some of the work done in that direction pertains directly to our topic of institutionalizing Spiritualists for religious mania. Before we get to that, however, we need to take a brief excursion into the meaning of the mind in America.

Insane in America

The history of madness in America, like that of medicine or even marriage, is one of a private affair becoming increasingly professionalized and made increasingly public over time. Insanity, however, bears a special relationship to the history of religions, as altered realities and unusual zones of consciousness have long been prime real estate for religion to stake its claims. Many have noted the nearly invisible line between prophets and madmen, and religion repeatedly calls into service what some call mad: hallucinations, heteroglossia, multiple selves, and the belief in the ultimate efficacy of words, gods, or one’s (p.147) own actions are all routinely supported and cultivated by religious pursuits. The approach to the ineffable and the designation of insanity are perennially locked in a hermeneutic competition that Spiritualism was about to uncomfortably discover.

Plato himself extols the virtues of madness in a number of dialogues, comparing it to the overwhelming sensation of love and the creative swoon brought on by the Muses. In the Phaedrus, madness is a gift from the gods: it is nothing short of the ability to recognize a higher order to truth than other mortals, making the true philosopher the maddest of them all. In his extended metaphor about recollection, in which a soul grows wings when it recalls the perfection it had known, Plato discusses four kinds of divine madness. The ability to prophesy, the relieving of grief by taking over the mind, and possession by the Muses constitute the first three divinely given uses of madness. The fourth is love.

Love for Plato is always in service of higher knowledge. Erotic love drives one to recollect the memory of the Forms, as the beauty radiated by the beloved reminds the soul of Beauty itself. Recollection seems like madness to those who retain their mundane perspective: “The fourth kind of madness [is] that which someone shows when he sees the beauty we have down here and is reminded of true beauty; then he takes wing and flutters in his eagerness to rise up, but is unable to do so; he gazes aloft, like a bird, paying no attention to what is down below—and that is what brings on him the charge that he has gone mad.”6 Madness is a shift of vision, a glimpse of the divine: the kinship between altered states and divinity would continue in America, with many agreeing that it was a gift from the gods.

In The Mad among Us, Gerald Grob makes the delightful decision to begin a discussion of American insanity with the unusual choice of Cotton Mather. The Massachusetts Puritan minister who is perhaps best known for his participation in adjudicating the Salem witch trials, Mather epitomizes a pivotal moment in the history of mental illness in America—he totters between explaining mental states as epiphenomena of God’s will and as organically based diseases inflicting individuals with no metaphysical reference to retribution or holiness. Mather’s then-unpublished treatise of 1724, The Angel of Bethesda, marks this shift by simultaneously advocating the inherently divine origin of insanity and its character as created by or at least contained in the individual: “These Melancholicks, do sufficiently Afflict themselves, and are Enough their own Tormentors. As if this present Evil World, would not Really afford Sad Things Enough, they create a World of Imaginary Ones, and by Mediating Terror, they make themselves as Miserable, as they could from the most Real Miseries.7 Grob argues that this shift in perception concomitantly (p.148) moved insanity out of an ontological category and into the realm of the operable: both in its inception and in its cure, madness could be manipulated by human intervention.

Insanity, then, stood alongside other social ills that could be addressed or even eradicated by benevolent families, Christian charity, and public policy. Impoverishment was insanity’s handmaiden from the beginning. Almshouses had begun as early as the seventeenth century, providing some sort of public support for the poor in colonial America. Workhouses stood alongside charity and more informal familial and local infrastructure to absorb the socially and economically marginalized; there is evidence that parishes largely helped women and children in financial need and that aid to the poor was frequently a stopgap measure to address an emergency rather than a long-term commitment.8 In the early eighteenth century, institutions devoted specifically to housing the insane began to be opened. The complicated relationship between controlling the population out of fear of insanity, the criminal element, or simply the need for order was negotiated at the interstices of jails, hospitals, charities, and private homes. No single ideology prevailed in the years before the Revolution, and the common goal of reform, whether physical, mental, or moral, would mark the optimism of the emerging Republic and the antebellum period as a whole.

The invention of the asylum as a site of curing, however, would require a concatenation of events that had as much to do with European developments as with American demographic factors. Most histories of psychology begin their story with the French doctor Philippe Pinel, the man credited with unchaining the madmen at Bicêtre, the Parisian asylum for men, and later abolishing such restraints at Salpêtrière, the women’s asylum. Filled with Revolutionary fervor and Enlightenment ideals, Pinel is frequently considered the starting point in the reform movement for the insane. Shorter argues that although the image of Pinel freeing the madmen remains his romantic legacy to many, his real contribution to the advancement of psychiatry was the realization that the asylum itself could be therapeutic: removing the insane from their living conditions could be used not just to contain them but to provide the structure of their cure.9 The reigning paradigm of cure, rather than confinement, would permanently mark the asylum ethos.

Just as famously, England boasted William Tuke, a Quaker who founded the York Retreat in 1792. Unlike Pinel, Tuke conscripted the language of religion to promote the cause of recovery. Basic ethics and evidence of industry were considered necessary for curing the insane. This classification began inadvertently with Pinel’s theory of traitement moral, which in French is divorced from any hint of ethical or religious overtones and refers instead solely to treating (p.149) the mind or spirit. The phrase, however, garnered new meaning when transposed into English and became perhaps even more descriptive of the regimen than Pinel’s had been. Moral management became a hallmark of healing the insane. In Tuke and his grandson Samuel’s hands, this meant instilling and enforcing the bourgeois values of self-control and economic productivity in the asylum.

Elaine Showalter, one of the foremost social constructivists in the current fray, has argued that this method of cure could bleed easily into enforcing the status quo and silencing social revolutionaries such as women seeking suffrage. The social constructivists, including Foucault, question whether the removal of physical restraints was as worthy of unadorned praise as it has been given or whether shackles were merely exchanged for a more insidious form of control. Showalter writes, “In a sense, every vaunted innovation of moral management could be seen as a form of duplicitous constraint. The substitution of surveillance for physical restraint may well have imposed another and perhaps more absolute kind of restraint on the insane which implicated their whole being…. Furthermore, the ‘therapeutic labor’ could be seen as exploitation, a way of making money out of the inmates.”10 Showalter is not casting aspersions on the intent of most of the mad doctors of the epoch but rather is questioning the boundaries in which they could envision psychological health. Moral management had shifted to instilling a middle-class sensibility and was subject to the vagaries of such standards.

The Enlightenment goal of curing rather than simply containing madness made its way to America with the English-language publication of Pinel’s A Treatise on Insanity in 1806. Similarly, detailed accounts of treatment at the York Retreat became available in America in 1813, and America’s own Benjamin Rush’s work on the topic was published the year before.11 According to Grob, the ease of intercontinental communication meant that Americans were both apprised of innovations speedily and could travel to be educated in these new locales. The therapeutic revolution, then, was about to take place: “The work of Pinel, Tuke, and others led inescapably to a radical conclusion; insanity was not necessarily a chronic illness, that with the appropriate treatment recovery was probable, and that investment in mental hospitals would yield a high proportion of cures.”12 Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York all had hospitals or wings of hospitals devoted to lunacy before 1810, but prior to the publication of wide-scale calls for reform they primarily used traditional methods of drugging and emetics.

According to Shorter, the actual methods of curing madness in America were nearly entirely indebted to the European counterparts of the alienists (doctors of mental alienation) until well after the Civil War. However, demographic (p.150) changes contributed to Americans’ embrace of this new role for the mad and their doctors: an increasing population that was also increasingly mobile and urban coincided with rapid immigration in the Northeast. The parameters of what constituted acceptable behavior shifted with westward expansion; so too did the explosion of new religious beliefs known as the Second Great Awakening. The awakening, so-called for the fervor of religious sentiment that accompanied the great era of tent revivals and itinerant preachers, was also host to creating and sustaining the majority of American religions ranging from the Oneida Community to Mormonism. Although religious creativity in a culture generally speaks to a perceived concern that traditional religions are unable to accommodate changes in the world, it also indicates that many people were willing to experiment with the very core values that the mainstream understood as being American: normative Protestant Christianity, the nuclear family, and gender roles in particular were contended subjects.

The religious zeitgeist contributed to a sense of advancing toward an endless tomorrow, one that held promise for curing social ills and perhaps physical and mental ills as well. This overlay of millennialism, whether taken literally as the immediately anticipated return of Jesus or more informally as the march of progress, contributed to the embrace of optimism.13 A curious and offhanded sense of cultural superiority came with the rise of insanity and the attempts to cure it. Madness itself came to be seen as a by-product of a civilized culture. Casual colonialism infiltrated this discourse, with Americans viewing themselves as perched atop a social hierarchy that generated madness as a form of cultural detritus—by comparison, the slaves and the indigenous populations did not suffer from these maladies because they were not “advanced” enough to contract them.14 While not all people were self-congratulatory on this point—many saw the changing political and economic times as so stressful as to cause a rise in dangerous madness—there remained a certain sense in which insanity accompanied accomplishment, representing a double-edged sword of progress and pain.

Despite the intentions of the reformers, financial support, public approval, and the quality and qualifications of the personnel did not always suggest that therapy was the primary goal. Inside the asylums, conditions across the board were often discouraging and frequently atrocious. In Homes for the Mad, Ellen Dwyer has undertaken a detailed study of the living conditions in two nineteenth-century asylums, that in Utica, New York, and the Willard State Hospital in New York for the chronically insane. Her findings, while demoralizing, are not particularly surprising: intolerable food, frequent abuse from attendants, a disruptive and even violent atmosphere created by patients, and sometimes physically filthy living conditions marked the daily life of these institutions.

(p.151) Patients were frequently conscripted to do the more revolting work required of the attendants, and many experienced their hospitalization as incarceration. Patients were grouped by how disruptive they were: in Utica, there was a five-tiered system of ward classification, with the first two enjoying relatively pleasant employment and leisure activities. The threat of demotion to a lower ward, where the inmates might howl or worse, was a constant source of control.15

Not all lunatics were created equal, and the better behaved could carve a fairly comfortable niche for themselves: “Both Utica and Willard classified patients on the basis of their self-control rather than their disease. For the quiet and industrious, life could be pleasant, if monotonous.”16 Moral management required some proof of industry, and being allowed to work outside of the asylum was a privilege of the better adjusted. Permission to walk around unattended, called “parole,” was the highest form of freedom allowed to patients, and even the occasional theatrical or educational event broke the rigid tempo of daily routine. Although administrators sought to pursue a cycle of predictable similarity, those outside the institutions punctuated the asylum’s routines with frequent interruptions.

The public demonstrated relentless curiosity about the daily lives of lunatics and serious suspicion about the policies of the asylums and their potential for abuse. Although doctors and administrators reported incidents of assaults and physical harm caused to both the patients and the staff, concluding that a certain amount of violence is par for the course when containing deranged and dangerous patients, local tours of insane asylums and newspaper coverage of every lapse were constant companions. Visitors and gawkers toured the more genteel halls of the institution with such ardent interest that some patients refused to move to the better-appointed halls because of the increased noise that visitors produced. Public demonstrations of enforced normality, such as the lunatics ball, put the mad on display in an effort to quiet the public’s concerns about what went on inside the asylum’s walls.

Whether caused by rapid social flux, actual physical ailments, or increased attention given to the issue, America’s insane were exponentially on the rise in the first half of the nineteenth century. Although estimating the number of individuals afflicted with insanity is impossible given the untold numbers kept in jails or at home, the sheer number of asylums and public hospitals for lunatics illustrates a sea change in either diagnoses or public policy. Before 1810, only the commonwealth of Virginia had a public insane asylum; by 1860, twenty-eight states of the thirty-three that then existed had state-supported asylums.17 And the numbers swelled in each one. According to Grob’s statistics, the average annual admissions to an American insane asylum rose from 40 in 1825 to 162 in 1867.18 In 1848, the famed asylum reformer Dorothea Dix (p.152) told Congress that America had twenty-two thousand insane people and fewer than thirty-seven hundred openings at institutions.19

The alarming escalation in cases of insanity created impossible conditions for doctors and other asylum administrators. Based on their European counterparts (which were also undergoing an explosion of numbers), asylums were designed to be intimate and to replicate a benign patriarchy with the psychiatrist as its head. Under these conditions, the hope of curing people with moral management techniques proved to be utter folly. Statistics indicate that the number of chronically ill climbed in institutions, filling new ones to near capacity and eventuating the opening of Willard State Hospital solely to house the permanently ill. Among the newly insane, rates of cure remained excellent throughout the 1840s: those with illnesses caught early enough were significantly more likely to be released. According to advocates of early diagnosis, cure rates went from 80 percent for those detained for less than a year down to 9 percent for those who had been in treatment for five to ten years.20 While the reported rates of cure were not disinterested data for hospital administrators trying to raise money and awareness of their efforts, those treated most effectively were those who did not languish long in the therapeutic environment.

While myriad causes indubitably contributed to the influx of the insane in American asylums, some features of the institutionalized population suggest rampant cultural biases or economic sequestering on a large scale. According to Grob, “A large proportion of the inmates, as with other municipal institutions, were poor immigrants. In a typical year 501 out of 861 patients were foreign-born (immigrants at this time constituted slightly less than one-third of the city [of New York’s] total population).”21 Of American immigrants, Irish and German groups were disproportionately represented in asylums; the non-Protestant population in particular was suspiciously deemed mad at alarming rates, and their survival rate inside the asylums was the lowest.22 Heads of the household who took work along the Erie Canal left impoverished wives and children to fend for themselves for long periods, creating “a vicious cycle of poverty, disease, and delinquency among Irish immigrants, who then entered welfare and penal institutions at a significantly higher rate than their proportion in the general population.”23

Clearly cultural forces other than organically based insanity were at play in the creation of policy for the insane. Against the backdrop of poverty, prejudice, and structural violence, a new subset of madness emerged in America. I will now turn to the role of religion among the insane, and how religious deviance in general and Spiritualism in particular created a population of lunatic women in America who loudly protested this diagnosis: instead of losing their minds, they were gaining their voices.

(p.153) Mad Women, Angry Men

To return, then, to the problem posed by the realist versus constructivist debate on American madness, in my opinion the most striking oversight in Edward Shorter’s work is the complete absence of analysis based on ethnicity or gender. A most cursory reading of writings of institutionalized women reveals not an increase in organically based insanity tended to by a caring cadre of doctors but rather a legal means of disposal and frequent vicious mistreatment of inconvenient wives. Although the record is obviously skewed here because the writings of women in asylums were produced by women who could write and therefore may represent a higher social or financial standing than many institutionalized women, I see no reason to doubt their assessment that the majority of their fellow inmates were as sane as they themselves were.

As with the case of C., many women found themselves summarily institutionalized based on the new nosological entity “monomania.” Monomania was first adopted by the famed early psychiatrist Jean-Etienne Esquirol, a protégé of Philippe Pinel who aimed to implement his teacher’s reforms. The two largely succeeded in setting the tone and goals of asylum-based therapy for the next century. Esquirol forwarded the diagnosis of monomania, now completely fallen out of existence and sharply criticized by his fellow alienists even then. In America, R. L. Parsons refuted the use of the term while handily defining Esquirol’s claims: “A monomaniac is generally understood to be a person who is insane in regard to a single subject only, while in all other respects his mental faculties are entirely sound.”24 Parsons cites the lack of clinical usage of the term as indicative of its troubling nature: it is misleading etymologically, confusing in courts, and potentially spurious in its claims. The mind, according to Parsons, cannot be deranged in only one aspect. A single delusion may have taken hold of a person, but that would be a different matter. He cites such famous alienists as Samuel Tuke (grandson of William), Henry Maudsley and William Sankey (midcentury British alienists who brought psychiatry to London universities), and Bénédict Morel (the French founder of the idea of hereditary degeneration) as also finding the term uncomfortable at best and inaccurate at worst.

Before the term fell out of usage, however, it seems to have been applied frequently to women, often those who specifically disputed their husbands’ religious views. Elizabeth Packard, one of the most influential women demanding legal reform during the century, was legally imprisoned in an asylum by her husband for disputing his religious views. Her exposé, Modern Persecution, or Married Woman’s Liabilities is a shocking amalgamation of first-person (p.154) memoir, transcripts from court cases, personal letters, legal documents, and newspaper accounts of her own experiences and those of other women she met in the Jacksonville, Illinois, asylum. Elizabeth Packard was not a Spiritualist but rather a liberal Protestant who disagreed with the doctrine of predestination and who believed that all forms of Christianity should represent striving toward perfection under the guidance of a caring God.

Having spoken out in a Bible class suggesting these views contrary to her husband’s version of the Presbyterian party line, Mrs. Packard anticipated no repercussions for expressing herself: “I regarded the principle of religious tolerance as the vital principle on which our government is based, and in my ignorance supposed this right was protected to all American citizens, even to the wives of clergymen. But, alas! my own sad experience has taught me the danger of believing a lie on so vital a question. The result was, I was legally kidnapped and imprisoned three years simply for uttering these opinions under these circumstances.”25 Her story was horrific: taken from her morning bath and declared insane after a doctor checked her pulse, Packard was told by her husband to get dressed and accompany the men to Jacksonville Insane Asylum. Protesting that she was both sane and not convicted by a jury, Packard soon learned that her husband had complete legal rights to have her institutionalized and that he alone could have her released.

After refusing to recant her religious views, Packard was imprisoned for three years. She compared her situation to slavery with the stark exception that unlike slaveholders, asylum administrators had no economic incentive to keep their prisoners healthy or even alive. Her diagnosis was monomania, insanity in one respect only—religious difference. In her calls for legal reform and an overhaul of the asylum system, she repeatedly denounces monomania as a diagnosis inviting abuse. A transcript of the trial that she won after this term of imprisonment recounts the words of a Dr. Christopher Knott, who initially diagnosed her as insane: “I visited her on request of Mr. Packard, to determine if she was insane. I learned from him that he designed to convey her to the State Asylum. Do not know whether she was aware of my object or not. Her mind appeared to be excited on the subject of religion; on all other subjects she was perfectly rational. It was probably caused by overtaxing the mental faculties. She was what might be called a monomaniac. Monomania is insanity on one subject. Three-fourths of the religious community are insane in the same manner, in my opinion.”26 The doctor proceeds to assess Henry Ward Beecher and Horace Greeley as also monomaniacal. The next witness, the physician J. W. Brown, produced to testify for her husband, cited her “aversion to the doctrine of the total depravity of man” as well as her “dislike to be called insane” as indications of hopeless lunacy. Brown was laughed off of the witness stand.

(p.155) In Modern Persecutions, or Married Women’s Liabilities, Packard collected firsthand accounts of other women who had been imprisoned by their husbands for religious rebellion. In 1865, Tirzah F. Shedd was incarcerated in the Jacksonville Insane Asylum for charges of monomania and belief in the spirit world. The Spiritualist contingent was vocal enough to worry the doctors about exposure: “There are a great many spiritualists there whom he called insane like myself, for this reason alone, seeming to fear them as witnesses against him, unless they carried his diploma of ‘hopeless insanity’ upon them.”27 Shedd recounts many forms of systematic abuse at the asylum—food too vile to eat, patients held underwater until they nearly drowned, attendants hitting and pinching the patients, and even nightly secret removals of the untimely dead: “They bury the dead in the night, and with no more religious ceremony than the brute has. We hear the dead cart go round the house in the night to bury those prisoners who have been killed by abuse; and their next door room-mates would not know, sometimes for months, what had become of them, because they were told they had gone home, when they had gone to their silent graves!”28 Shedd claims that her doctor quietly acknowledges that she is perfectly sane and that she is not the only inmate to be thus detained by her husband’s wishes.

In the six years following her imprisonment in the asylum, Elizabeth Packard wrote seven books, helped pass laws to protect the institutionalized in Illinois, Connecticut, and Iowa, and finally reunited her own family after many years of attempting to retrieve her children from her husband. Modern Persecutions concludes with an appendix of Mrs. Packard’s appeal to the Connecticut legislature to enact laws to protect married women in all aspects as distinct individuals with inherent legal rights. In her writing, the charge of monomania is nothing short of men censoring women for having their own opinions, and indeed many women diagnosed with monomania appear to have been rebellious wives.

Spiritualism and many related American new religions appealed largely to women and presented opportunities for women that mainstream religions lacked. When women’s “natural” trajectory was motherhood and marital monogamy, any deviation from that was likely to court an official or unofficial diagnosis of insanity. Religions begun or promulgated by women seem to have been specifically targeted as acts of madness, and the Shakers frequently caught as much shrapnel as the Spiritualists did. Begun in England by Ann Lee and brought to America in the Revolutionary days, Shaker religion expounded strict celibacy and even suggested that its founder was the second coming of Jesus in the form of a woman. In an era of high mortality rates among infants and among women in childbirth, the celibacy offered by (p.156) the Shakers was attractive to many women; it also flew in the face of most American mores concerning the centrality of the family. Contemporary mental doctors lambasted Shaker belief as thoroughly insane.29 In his sweeping 1881 survey on nervous derangement, Dr. William Hammond, retired surgeon general of the U.S. Army and “professor of diseases of the mind” at the University of New York, discussed the relationship of hysteria to religion: “[They] have never been more distinctly shown than in the fact that women under its influence, have been able to gather numerous followers and actually to originate new religious faiths, of such preposterous tenets and practices, as to inevitably lead to the conclusion that the adherents are either fools or knaves.”30 His first example is the Shakers but they are by no means the only group categorized as hysterical across the board. Religion itself, it seems, could be mad.

The sociologist Williams Sims Bainbridge was able to compile statistics gathered during the 1860 census from all forty-two insane asylums in America. Of those, seventeen kept records on the cause of insanity; the cause is distinct from the form of insanity, which in the same census was synopsized as mania, monomania, melancholia, moral or emotional insanity, and dementia.31 In that year, the percent of insanity attributed to “religious excitement” ranged from 1.3 percent in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to 14.6 percent of Augusta, Maine. The total percentage of cases of insanity caused by religion was 6.1, or 2,258 individuals that year. Spiritualism and Millerism (the belief that the world would end in 1843) were the only religions given their own categories.

Of the twenty-two causes of insanity recounted on the census, religious excitement and Spiritualism combined rank seventh on the list, following, in descending order, illness, masturbation, intemperance, domestic problems, epilepsy, and heredity. Of the diagnoses that were more common than religion, illness and epilepsy were obviously physical in nature, and according to Bainbridge, masturbation would have been largely diagnosed among the floridly schizophrenic who would make no attempt to hide such behavior.32 Excepting causes of madness that were more or less reliably physical in nature, religion, including Spiritualism, ranked among the leading diagnoses of American insanity. Between the cause of religious madness and the form of monomania, the landscape of mental illness was primed for abuse.

Some more thoughtful doctors, however, were well aware that one person’s mental disease was another person’s religious freedom. C.’s doctor undertakes a refutation of the diagnosis of monomania, citing her good judgment, healthy appetite, lack of lasciviousness, and sound intellect on all other matters as proving that she is not insane. He suggests that singling out an unpopular religious belief and claiming that the holder is mad in that one respect is irresponsible. Alienists and Spiritualists engaged in a struggle of naming: (p.157)

How much of the insanity does this delusion represent? If a dozen years ago, and previously to the first development of Spiritual phenomena, an hypothesis of the relations of disembodied spirits to men, like that which has since come to distinguish a numerous sect, had belonged to a single individual, that man would have been, without doubt, mad. There can be just as little doubt that at present, thousands of persons of nearly, at least, an average soundness of intellect, hold precisely the same belief in terms as did our patient. The simple belief, then, in spiritual phenomena, as actual or possible facts in her experience, was not previously to her attack of mania and is not since her convalescence, an insane delusion. It became an insane delusion only when it was associated with a condition of insanity.33

C., unlike Elizabeth Packard or Tirzah Shedd, entered the institution of her own free will and because she experienced mental anguish. Her object was never the cure of madness but rather the control of mediumship. C. felt that she was at the beck and call of myriad spirits that tormented her and spoke through the vehicle of her body. Just as her doctor recognized competing claims to naming her symptoms without converting to Spiritualism, C. was never converted to the diagnosis of madness. She left the asylum cured not of monomania but rather of uncontrolled manipulation by the spirit world. Her case study is silent about whether she went on to become a medium as she had wished.

The Creation of the American Mind

The meaning and value of alternative states of consciousness were highly contested in nineteenth-century America, but their existence was pretty much agreed upon. Since Mesmer’s first explorations of animal magnetism the pseudo-scientific community on both sides of the Atlantic was aware of a trancelike state that some said could be artificially induced. It was not Mesmer, however, who first introduced the phenomenon that would erroneously bear his name but rather his student and later apostate, the marquis de Puységur. In 1784, the marquis had accidentally stumbled across an artificially induced trance state that resembled sleepwalking: the entranced subject could walk, talk, eat, and otherwise behave as if he were awake, but he did not act or speak as he normally did. This second state Puységur called “magnetic sleep,” and his revelation would split the future of animal magnetism into the strictly physical and the psychological camps.

(p.158) This second self manifested some surprising characteristics. According to Puységur, magnetic sleep functioned like artificially induced sleepwalking, but the patient was highly suggestible to anything the magnetizer said; this condition Puységur called being in “rapport.” Moreover, the second self was more articulate and even more moral than the usual waking self: his initial discovery was conducted on one of his own estate workers, a local peasant named Victor Race, and the marquis discovered that Victor was significantly more eloquent under conditions of magnetic sleep than while he was awake. He also found Victor’s judgment to be improved, and soon the marquis took to consulting patients on their own cures while in this state because of their heightened faculties. The second self was more intellectually capable and more ethically inclined than the waking self was.

Although the waking self had no recollection of the second self, the self in the magnetized trance state was fully aware of the goings-on of the waking self. The magnetized patient had a continuous memory of both the first and the second states. Puységur also noted that the magnetized sleeper exhibited some signs of what we might call paranormal abilities. He was less interested in this aspect of his discovery than later people would be and continued to use the magnetic state primarily as a healing tool.34 Despite his continued interest in the physical aspects of magnetism, however, Puységur concluded that the “remarkable phenomena of mesmerism implied psychological, not physical, causality,”35 particularly with reference to the prominent place of suggestion. Mesmer himself was forced to recognize this new kin of somnambulism, which he credited as a by-product of the physical process of animal magnetism. Although Mesmer was never keen about this aspect of his discovery, in a variety of mutated forms it would outshine the single-cause panacea of animal magnetism and enjoy a therapeutic life of its own in the new domain of psychoanalysis.

Animal magnetism traveled to America quite late and in the form of Charles Poyen, although one historian reports that Lafayette had tried to import the new technique during the Revolution only to see it quashed by Thomas Jefferson. Poyen was a Frenchman and a student of Puységur’s who also held that the ability to induce magnetic sleep outstripped the other phenomena associated with Mesmer and his initial trials. He combined this new form of knowledge with a flair for showmanship and drama that enticed Americans grown increasingly hungry for amusement along with their education. According to Robert Fuller, “In addition to employing the services of a professional somnambule, Poyen also made a practice of enlisting a few volunteers from the audience. He explained to his subjects that his manual gestures would heighten the activity of their systems’ animal magnetism to the (p.159) point where what he called ‘external sensibilities’ would temporarily recede into a sleeplike condition…. Loud hand clapping and jars of ammonia passed under their noses failed to evoke even the slightest response. To all appearances, their minds had withdrawn from the physical world.”36 Further advancing his cause, Poyen linked the rhetoric of animal magnetism with American progress, promising that the embrace of this new knowledge would forward the utopian cause of America’s coming perfection.

As the popularity of magnetism grew in America, so too did competing factions and frequent concerns. Although Poyen positioned his new gift as strictly scientific in both cause and consequence, others took the new revelations to indicate the existence of higher states of consciousness that pointed to or even accessed a mystical plane; religious explanations for magnetic sleep and the antimaterialist bias that its existence suggested were rife in the young Republic, much to Poyen’s displeasure.37 Still others worried about the salacious potential involved in inducing a trance state on the unsuspecting, particularly one in which the subject was very susceptible to verbal cues. The possibilities for abuse were evident to all and of dire concern to some. Finally, the paranormal abilities attributed to some mesmerized people increased the magnetized state’s relationship to the esoteric undercurrent in the popular mind: suggesting the conscious self had contained in it not only a secret self but one that could potentially access abnormal powers effectively allied animal magnetism with the tidal wave of religious experiments of the day.

As magnetic sleep soldiered on under a number of related titles, the academic community was much slower to embrace mesmerism and its related manifestations. After the initial failures of Mesmer to gain credibility among the medical establishment in Paris, his eponymous treatments were further met with skepticism particularly after they were so wholeheartedly accepted by the pseudo-scientific, religious, and outright magical discourses of the day.38 The man credited with getting the medical profession to seriously investigate claims of animal magnetism is the Scottish doctor James Braid. Braid, who coined the term “hypnosis,” did so to distinguish the scientific exploration of some of Mesmer’s claims from its billing as a cure-all for any disease. In his 1843 work Neurypnology; or, the Rationale of Nervous Sleep, Braid writes, “I trust that it [hypnotism] can be investigated quite independently of any bias, either for or against the subject, as connected with mesmerism; and only by the facts which can be adduced. I feel quite confident we have acquired in this process a valuable addition to our curative means; but I repudiate the idea of holding it up as a universal remedy; nor do I even pretend to understand, as yet, the whole range of diseases in which it may be useful.”39 Braid successfully got the academy to reconsider magnetic sleep under its new guise as (p.160) hypnotism and personally recounted a number of cures that he attributed to his new method.

Braid also took the speculation on hypnosis a step further and, unlike Mesmer and his followers, Braid recognized that the authority of a mesmerizer was not always necessary. According to Edward M. Brown, “Braid laid the foundations for the scientific study of trance through his demonstration that the direct agency of the hypnotist was not necessary to induce such states, and that, in a susceptible individual, any prolonged monotonous concentration on a beam of light, spot on the wall or the like was sufficient.”40 This lack of a need for a mesmerizer made the process much less attractive to those who wished to use hypnotism for therapeutic or pecuniary gain. Simultaneously, however, it appealed in the broadest sense to a swelling republican feeling that the hallmark of a meritocracy was a self-made man rather than a trained professional or a well-connected aristocrat. In short, hypnosis was designed to appeal to Americans.

John Bovee Dods, a Universalist minister from Poughkeepsie, published Six Lectures on the Philosophy of Mesmerism also in 1843; he would later function as a primary early influence on Andrew Jackson Davis, who began his career as a mesmeric trance subject.41 Dods and his fellow American explorer J. S. Grimes—who specialized in phrenology—understood early and perhaps independently of Braid that self-induced trance states were possible.42 The power of suggestion given by the hypnotist was both overwhelming and potentially dangerous in Grimes’s writings: “Tell him [a hypnotized subject] that water is rum, or ink, or hot, or cold … that he cannot lift a feather or a penny, and it will seem so to him…. Tell him that he is a negro, a female, a dog, a fish, a post, a steam-engine—that his head is a coffee mill—that he is Richard, Hamlet, whatever you please, and he is transformed instantly.”43 The power of suggestion and the power of the populace were potentially at odds in America.

The entrance of Spiritualism recast the question of the mesmeric trance state: altered consciousness firmly pointed toward a theological position, and mediums, especially women, could induce their own trance states without the aid of or potential misuse by a mesmerizer, hypnotist, or doctor. The removal of the (often male) controlling force to the trance state aided Spiritualism’s ascendancy in the popular imagination. It also undermined medical exploration of hypnosis’s value as a therapeutic tool. According to Brown, “[The rise of Spiritualism] meant that supernatural, as opposed to medical views, dominated the field. Indeed a physician’s first encounter with trance phenomena during this period was more likely to occur at a séance than in a clinic. For this reason, those physicians interested in the medical investigation and application of trance phenomena simply could not ignore spiritualism.”44 One (p.161) such person, the already-cited William Hammond, was a primary case of an American doctor who wished to debunk Spiritualist claims as he tested hypnosis’s possibilities. (See Figure 6.1.)

Even the pugnacious Hammond, who blithely classified everyone from the Salem “witches” to Teresa of Avila as hysterical,45 acknowledged that science and religion were involved in a war of words, the outcome of which was critical. Hammond recognized that phenomenologically similar traits have occurred across time and space and that interpretation was the key: “Ecstasy has frequently played an important part in the history of the civilized world—at one time, leading to a belief in witchcraft; at another, to demoniacal and angelic possession; at another, to mesmerism and clairvoyance; and [in] our day to spiritualism.”46 Distinguishing the medium from the madness would occupy a great of deal of Spiritualists’ energy and rhetoric, as their beloved science made its bid to control the language of minds.

An Unquiet Madness

The twentieth-century paradigm of an ever-present unconscious that acts as a warehouse for repressed memories and asocial drives had its precedents in the discursive snarl of mesmerism and Spiritualism. On the simplest plane,


figure 6.1 French engraving of Mesmer’s animal magnetism, 1780.

(p.162) the religious articulation of a soul or spirit indicated a tertium quid between body and mind. Dr. Robert Hare, professor emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania whose objectivity machines were discussed in chapter 3, lent extraordinary weight to Spiritualism’s claims to be scientific and empirically based. Hare’s research into Spiritualism did not end with his attempts to make empirically verifiable contact with those in the afterlife; like all good scientists, he forwarded a hypothesis that would account for the phenomena he had documented. Hare proposed that humans have a spiritual double in both body and mind. He understood this to be an invisible force which is not conscious but is capable of will, and this third part of the person was depicted as a law of physics: just as gravity and inertia merely name preexistent forces, so too had Spiritualism merely uncovered a scientific fact.

On the basis of what he understood to be proof of a newly discovered law of nature, Hare concludes that an alternate consciousness is factual, and brings in everyone from Comte to St. Paul to support his claims. The naming of this thing which is neither body nor mind is a trickier matter, since it is also not the soul: “But between these two kinds of things, mind and matter, we have an intermediate thing called spirit, which is sometimes confounded with mind…. In chemistry, it [“spirit”] has been applied to every thing obtained by distillation, as, for instance, spirit of wine, spirit of salt, spirit of nitre, of vitriol, spirit of turpentine. Hence, by analogy when the mind of a mortal, after death, was seen, or supposed to be seen, in a shadowy form called a ghost or shade, it was conceived to be the spirit or essence of the mortal body which it had inhabited.”47

Employing the First Cause argument, Hare continues that there must be a medium—as in material of transmission—through which God’s will is made manifest in the world. Furthermore, humans have a limited capacity to participate in this medium, frequently designated as “ether.” Hare charmingly asks, “The human will, with its comparatively minute, humble sphere of action, must require also a medium analogous to that with which God acts; otherwise, how does a thought move so quickly to the toe?”48 The transmission of will from the invisible to the concrete makes use of the ethereal realm, where, not coincidentally, spirits inhabit.

The invisible will of consciousness’s doppelganger is demonstrated by hypnosis and by hysteria. For Hare, both derive from the same source: “The power of the will exists and is displayed in the mesmeric phenomena, where the will of one individual dominates over the limbs of another. The power of the will of an individual over his own muscles, not only in the usual movement, but in producing a rigidity of the muscles of the arm or thigh, is of course notorious. (p.163) But it appears that there are some persons morbidly susceptible of this rigidity, or at least preternaturally liable to it.”49 Upon death, the invisible will is able to participate in the ether commensurably, as it is now purer and therefore closer to divine. During life, however, the will can either be conscripted in the service of spirituality or else corrupted in debilitating lunacy.

Proponents of Spiritualism readily admitted that hysteria and mediumship had a single source.50 For American Spiritualists, the cause and effect of hysteria and mediumship were reversed. If the psychoanalytic community deemed mediums hysterical, the Spiritualist community often deemed hysterics mediums under the influence of negative suggestion. In his 1871 Mental Disorders, Andrew Jackson Davis writes:

The truth which lies at the foundation of such insanity is the truth of psychology—the power of one mentality to affect the other—by which the positive will controls the passive mind, causing it to reason erroneously from correct impressions, and compelling the weaker will to assume another character, to the temporary exclusion and forgetfulness of its own, and thus personify that which is pro tempore paramount in the imagination. To separate the chaff from the wheat, in the sphere of such mysterious mental manifestations, is a part of the work of Spiritualism.51

The language of the will is rife in Spiritualist discussions of mediumship and insanity, and frequently functions as an intermediary between the body and the soul. Both insanity and trance states occupy the nebulous ground of alternative consciousness, but the will must always govern the intent and discretion of the entranced. Davis continues, “In short, no mind must permit itself to be overrun and controlled by another’s will. Passivity or negativeness to the will and wishes of superior intelligence is permitted by the Divine Code only when the highest ends are believed to be only thus attainable.”52 Thus, suggestibility distinguishes the mad from the medium, and since the American medium had no need of a mesmerizer, only the hysteric was left to the negative influences of control.

Proponents quickly developed a vocabulary for distinguishing Spiritualism from psychology, and admitted that some people who understood themselves to be mediums were merely mad. Others who received antisocial or violent instructions from the spirit world might not yet have reached the proper degree of mediumistic proficiency. The Spiritualist cosmos allowed for such distinctions by its inherent flexibility. New mediums were prone to receiving messages from spirits on the lowest of the seven-tiered heavens. Since death did (p.164) not instantly result in heavenly perfection but rather inaugurated a long process of improvement, spirits themselves frequently made errors in judgment. Not only, then, were contradictory messages from the spirit world resolved—the spirits were mistaken—but ethical issues were also solved: one might have come into contact with an unprogressed and evilly inclined spirit.53

From the outset, Spiritualists were destined to be plagued by charges of madness. Mesmerism was already threatening the line between hypnotism and hysteria, and the Spiritualist declaration that alternate states of consciousness in fact should be fostered made adherents a target for both the scientific community and amateurs who saw a threat to Christianity in the movement. Although the definition of hysteria has changed radically over the last two hundred years, a common consensus is that hysteria is essentially unwilling hypnotism: the hysteric is locked in a state of alternative consciousness.54 Conversely, hypnotism has been seen as an artificially induced hysteria.55 By willingly inducing trance states that resulted in a hypnotized consciousness, Spiritualists evaded either of the medical poles of knowledge on the subject—hypnotism was neither a pathology nor its cure.

Spiritualists recognized medical discourse’s threat to their religious claims and made a full effort to counter pathological characterizations of hypnotic activity. Moreover, they understood the language of psychology as potentially damaging to mediums’ ability to do their jobs. If the second self of mesmerism was too closely related to hysterical states, mediums would never trust themselves enough to cultivate that necessary proximity. Taking the mesmeric legacy one step further, Spiritualism disputed the construction of the unconscious as disjunct from consciousness: alternative psychic states certainly existed, but for the theological (and economic) betterment of humanity. In his 1912 how-to manual on Spiritualism, the Reverend E. W. Sprague argues,

Every mental medium when placing himself in a condition to be hypnotized by his spirit helpers, becomes subject to suggestion; therefore it is detrimental to the medium’s development and to the results of the séances to suggest that there are, or may be, “evil spirits” present…. When a medium gets his mind full of [the] theory of the “Subconscious Mind” and is filled with fear of “Evil Spirits,” he had better cease trying to develop his mediumship. A belief in either of these theories is almost sure destruction to his development.56

Spiritualists took aim at not only the proximate causes of hypnotized states in nascent psychology but also their results. In 1900, Hudson Tuttle, (p.165) arch-defender of the faith, laid bare the distinction of referents between the movements. He writes, “Theorists attempt to account for the mental manifestations, as trance, writing, etc. [sic], by mesmerism or psychology…. But mesmeric impressions do not go outside of the person or objects en rapport with the subject. They never reveal what is unknown to those in connection. Spiritual impressibility reaches outside of surroundings, and reveals the thoughts of the spirit who is en rapport.57 In psychological understandings of the hypnotized state, the second self and all of its attendant qualities—whether the patient is sick or morally superior to the usual self—refer back solely to the hypnotized subject. Neither mesmerism nor psychology move beyond the self to higher planes of spiritual existence. The closed self-referentiality of these discourses of the mind did not sit well with the Spiritualists who rather saw an ability to open the very vista of heaven.

Moreover, Spiritualist trance states were constituted by the appearance of several voices or personalities that were distinct from that of the medium. The change in personas, essential to cultivating mediumship, bore an uncanny resemblance to a nineteenth-century subset of hysteria, multiple personalities. “Schizophrenia,” as the phenomenon was frequently called, emerged as a diagnosis in the second half of the nineteenth century. The parallel between Spiritualist mediumship and schizophrenic behavior was so clearly delineated that Ian Hacking has argued that Spiritualism was a primary cause for the continued diagnosis of schizophrenia in America long after it had fallen out of use in France. He writes, “The disorder always needs a host, much in the way that a parasite needs hosts…. In New England in particular, and in both America and Britain more generally, an additional host [to hysteria and hypnotism] was psychic research linked with spiritualism. One idea was that alters [alternative personalities] were departed spirits; mediumship and multiple personality drew close.”58 Hacking notes as well that the American diagnosis of schizophrenia declined concomitantly with the popularity of the Spiritualist movement.

The crux of the debate is relatively simple: mesmerism had shown that an alternative consciousness may appear under certain conditions. The interpretive battle raged over what that consciousness referred to, however, and whether it was to be lauded or cured. For early mesmerists, the alternative consciousness produced in magnetic sleep was akin to somnambulism. As Adam Crabtree has shown, the apparent second personality of mesmeric sleepwalking was firmly grounded in the subject. Whereas a similar phenomenon a hundred years earlier would have been culturally “read” as demonic forces inhabiting a person against her will, in Puységur’s hands the second consciousness was an artifact belonging solely to the subject. Moreover, the (p.166) second consciousness was understood to be wiser and more morally apt than the waking consciousness.59

Spiritualism shifted the referent of the alternative consciousness outside of the self. The seemingly endless number of personalities that could temporarily inhabit a body referred not back to the subject but to external sources. Like Puységur, Spiritualists saw the alternative personalities generally as wiser, more benevolent, and more ethically advanced than the medium in her waking state. However, the spirits of the dead were called upon predominantly to dole out advice or comfort the grieving; the move from a medical model to a religious one largely depleted the hypnotized state of its relationship to curing. And the trance state itself most certainly did not require curing in the eyes of the Spiritualists, as many of its detractors argued.

In Rewriting the Soul, Hacking argues that the concept of schizophrenia is predicated on memory becoming an object of scientific speculation. In his elegant formulation, he proposes that the science of memory “emerged as a surrogate [for] sciences of the soul,”60 giving empiricism entrance into a new domain—the religious imagination. Schizophrenia is notable less for the numerous personalities that appear to inhabit one self than for the fact that this results in a loss of continuous memory. The inability of the schizophrenic to produce a coherent narrative of her life is the locus of pathology for the nineteenth century. I will argue that the Spiritualists offer an alternative reading of similar phenomena, differing not only on the causes of multiplicity but also on the resulting idea of what constitutes a self.

The burgeoning arena of psychology, largely in response to hysteria and its subset, schizophrenia, responded to the travails of memory with the creation of an omnipresent unconscious. By the end of the nineteenth century, the second self became omnipresent and the repository for memory. The story once again begins at the asylum at Salpêtrière, this time with Jean-Martin Charcot at its center. Charcot was in charge of a number of women hysterics at the asylum and even a small wing of hysterical men. By employing hypnosis, Charcot was able to both induce and relieve hysterical symptoms in his patients. He was also the first to employ photography on a large scale to document his patients’ symptoms as well as the course of therapy: the images from his classes became the iconographic celebration of this moment in psychiatry. Although Charcot has been criticized by some feminist thinkers for his heavy-handed authoritarian techniques and his rapid deployment of objectifying photographs of hysterical women, he was at the time compared by a young Sigmund Freud to Pinel, once again freeing the insane at Salpêtrière.61 By demonstrating that hysteria had a psychological origin and was not merely the fantasy of selfish (p.167)


figure 6.2 Jean-Martin Charcot with hysterical patient. Painting by André Brouillet, 1887.

women, Charcot had returned credibility to the women as he had vested it on the disease. (See Figure 6.2.)

Charcot’s students included Pierre Janet, who would become a heavyweight in the discussion of hysteria and multiple personalities, as well as the young neurologist Freud.62 Janet, Freud, and Josef Breuer would all follow their teacher’s model and employ hypnosis as a therapeutic tool for the alleviation of disorders such as hysteria, although Freud would abandon its use in favor of the talking cure. Alternative states of consciousness, in the hands of dynamic psychiatry, were not benign multiplicities available through natural states, much less a sign of the spiritually gifted. In Studies in Hysteria, Freud and Breuer assert that hysteria results from an infraction of memory; a traumatic memory is repressed in the unconscious. This produces a state of (p.168) artificial hypnosis, which can only be rectified by therapeutic hypnosis, under which the patient remembers the trauma that caused the hysteria in the first place.63 Fragmented memory creates pathology by blocking not only recollection but also the emotions that accompany the memory.64 The analyst’s job is to excavate the memory and its related emotions, thus dispelling their hold on the victim.

Puységur’s second self had become a constant companion and a malevolent one at that. The unconscious, harboring scandalous wishes and antisocial impulses, was for Freud the secret self that asserted its presence through dreams, slips of the tongue, and psychological illnesses such as hysteria. By concretizing symptoms in the body, hysteria functioned as a rebus for the mind: the secret knowledge locked in the unconscious had to be brought to the surface through the instrument of language and made accessible once again to memory. Even after Freud dispensed with using hypnosis for therapeutic purposes, he continued the practice of the talking cure, a process of verbal association designed to unseat stuck memories and move them into conscious reflection. The problem of memory became the bailiwick of early psychoanalysis, and although Freud has received well-deserved credit for his role in actually listening to women and attributing their illnesses to being stifled and bored, the discourses of the mind reintroduced the need for an external authority. The cultivation of multiple voices and alternative consciousnesses would be permanently replaced by the subordination of the second self to a new breed of master mesmerizers.

Recalling Recollection

As I began this book with a discussion of memory and its role in a uniquely American renaissance, so too shall I end it. As the discourses of the mind had been safely ensconced in scientific prose, the emergence of the unconscious as the rightful referent of these phenomena consumed Spiritualism’s claims without necessarily obliterating its possibilities. It also gave rise to new articulations within the scientific community about the nature of the mind. According to S. E. D. Shortt, “The empiricism championed by the neuroscientists of the 1870s had, in less than a decade, stripped spiritualism of the supernatural to create the nascent but scientifically legitimate field of abnormal psychology. Expurgated spiritualism, now dubbed psychical research, was highly congruent with medicine’s new-found interest in the unconscious…. In effect, medicine was in the process of replacing the static nineteenth-century paradigm of mind, centered on the notion of omniscient Will, with the concept (p.169) of a dynamic unconscious, an explanatory model into which the residue of spiritualism was readily assimilated.”65

The primary bastion of psychical research was the London-based Society for Psychical Research, which soon set up shop in America as well. Their proceedings, which continue to be published today and are readily accessible on-line, represent the single most erudite collection of speculation into the nature of paranormal mental activity. Frederic W. H. Myers, respected psychologist and longtime contributor to the society, was not quite ready in the 1890s to let alternative states of consciousness become pathologized quite so quickly. Myers opted instead for a more scientifically rigorous version of Spiritualism’s multiple personas and argued for a view of the self that embraced multiple forms of consciousness as an aspect intrinsic to personality. Myers’s construction of the self was not unlike Freud’s tripartite psyche, made up of the superego that enforces society and religion’s standards, the id that constantly demands selfish fulfillment, and the ego that negotiates between the two. In Myers’s estimation, however, human nature did not reach downward to base instincts but rather potentially upward to the realm of metaphysics. Once again, the key was memory:

All this psychical action, I hold, is conscious; all is included in an actual or potential memory below the threshold of our habitual consciousness. For all that lies below that threshold subliminal seems the fitting word. “Unconscious,” or even “subconscious,” would be directly misleading; and to speak (as is sometimes convenient) of the secondary self may give the impression that either there cannot be more selves than two, or that the supraliminal self, the self above the threshold—the empirical self, the self of common experience—is in some way superior to other possible selves.66

In addition to advocating the existence of multiple possible selves and to denying the clear superiority of one over the others, Myers also argued for a patient’s right not to restore the usual personality but to replace it with a better one. Remarking on a well-known case of dual personality, that of Félida X, Myers sides silently with Puységur and the generations of Spiritualists who found in the second self not amoral drives but higher instincts. He writes, “But the point on which I wish to dwell is this: Félida’s second state is altogether superior to the first—physically superior, since the nervous pains which had troubled her from childhood have disappeared, and morally superior inasmuch as her morose, self-centered disposition is exchanged for a cheerful activity…. The case shows us how often the word ‘normal’ means nothing more than ‘what happens to exist.’ For Félida’s normal state was her morbid (p.170) state; and the new condition … has brought her to a life of bodily and mental sanity which makes her fully the equal of average women of her class.”67 Multiple selves did not mean that the dominant one was the best one, and the referent of the true self could never be distilled back into singularity.

In an 1889 article on auditory hallucinations, particularly among Spiritualists and their ilk, Myers investigates the alleged causes of these phenomena but is unwilling to reduce, as many of his colleagues had, the experiences of Joan of Arc and other luminaries to mere insanity. He sets out to find a figure beyond compare, who all will agree follows a higher, rather than lower, calling. He finds Socrates: “We must at least select some instances where no circumstance, except the voice itself, can be held to indicate insanity, and where the substance of the messages given is above and not below the normal level of human thought…. But there is one instance—an instance well-observed and well-attested though remote in date—which will at once occur to every reader. The Founder of Science himself—the permanent type of sanity, shrewdness, physical robustness and moral balance—was guided in all affairs of life by a monitory Voice, by the ‘Daemon of Socrates.’”68

After a lengthy survey of the appearance of Socrates’ daemon and an exhaustive discussion of how it is always in the service of good, Myers concludes that Socrates’ inner voice can neither be the product of physical ailment nor of mental derangement. Rather, the daemon indicates the presence of a higher state of consciousness within the self. He writes, “But I must leave here the story of Socrates … cited here only as an example of wise automatism; of the possibility that the messages which are conveyed to the conscious mind from unconscious strata of the personality—whether as sounds, as sights, or as movements—may sometimes come from far beneath the realm of dream and confusion—from some self whose monitions convey to us a wisdom profounder than we know.”69 Through all of the machinations of alternative personalities, multiple memories, and the superior knowledge of the spirits, Myers finally espoused recollection: the self has only to remember the higher state that it knew all along.

Although the twentieth century saw the triumph of the sciences of the mind soon eclipsed by the sciences of the brain, the heyday of trance states and multiple voices was over. Spiritualism had brought the esoteric impulse in America to the masses in a palatable and even therapeutic form, but it was ultimately a religious quest that could neither garner scientific recognition nor outlast the challenges that the emerging medical practices put to its claims. Whereas Spiritualism had harnessed the prestige of the afterlife in support of radical reforms in its day and undoubtedly served well as an amateur form of grief counseling, by the First World War it was largely depleted of any real (p.171) religious or political content. The Neoplatonic teachings of a universe alive with the divine fell apart at the feet of the twentieth century. The death of God in the forms of science, secularism, and war was also the death of the spirit world. Although remnants of Spiritualism’s impulses can still be heard in alternative health discussions, the New Age movement, and even televised mediums still talking to dead people, I believe that its lasting gifts have been to multiculturalism: the religion that opened heaven to all opened a new vista of ethical, not scientific, possibility. The ghosts that Spiritualism loosed upon the world were ultimately happy specters, visions of the past ushering in a brighter future. (p.172)


(1.) Harper’s Weekly, April 4, 1857, 210.

(2.) The nomenclature changes rapidly over the course of a century. Nineteenth-century “schizophrenia” denoted three or more apparent personalities with inconsistent memory between them. Contemporary schizophrenia bears no relationship to this group of symptoms. Multiple personality disorder has been replaced in the DSM IV by “dissociative identity disorder,” but I am retaining the slightly older term to remain consistent with the scholars I cite.

(3.) Edward Shorter, A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997), 26. “Psychiatry” is a relatively new term that is used to denote a doctor who uses psychotherapy and who also can prescribe drugs. “Psychology” is generally used in the nineteenth-century material but Shorter uses psychiatry to distinguish medical doctors from those whose practices were restricted to counseling.

(5.) For the seminal work in this area, see W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

(6.) Phaedrus, 249d, A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, trans.

(7.) Cited in Gerald N. Grob, The Mad among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 10.

(8.) See David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971), 34–35.

(9.) Shorter, History of Psychiatry, 11–12.

(10.) Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830–1980 (New York: Penguin, 1985), 49.

(11.) See Gerald N. Grob, Mental Institutions in America: Social Policy to 1875 (New York: Free Press, 1973), 28.

(12.) Gerald N. Grob, The Mad among Us, 29.

(13.) See Grob, The Mad among Us, 30, for a discussion of millennialism and mental illness.

(14.) For a discussion of this phenomenon, including how Tuke and others disputed its prime tenets, see Rothman, Discovery of the Asylum, 113–119.

(15.) Ellen Dwyer, Homes for the Mad: Life Inside Two Nineteenth-Century Insane Asylums (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 14.

(17.) See Rothman, Discovery of the Asylum, 130–131.

(18.) See the appendices of Grob’s Mental Institutions, 371.

(20.) Grob, 182.

(24.) R. L. Parsons, “Nomenclature in Psychiatry. Monomania or Oligomania, which? Paranoia, what?” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (April 1887): 248.

(25.) Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, excerpted in Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840–1945, Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris, eds. (New York: Anchor, 1994), 58–59.

(26.) Elizabeth P. W. Packard, Modern Persecutions, or Married Woman’s Liabilities, Vol. 2 (N.p., 1873), 9.

(29.) See, for example, William A. Hammond, In Certain Conditions of Nervous Derangement (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1881), 59–66.

(31.) William Sims Bainbridge, “Religious Insanity in America: The Official Nineteenth-Century Theory,” Sociological Analysis 45, 3 (Autumn 1984): 237.

(32.) Ibid., 232 . He infers this conclusion from the unusually low rate of cure attributed to the category of masturbation. I am omitting his data gathered from Bloomington, Illinois, from this discussion as it was collected prior to the advent of Spiritualism. The rate of insanity attributed to religion at large, however, remains constant in that pool as well.

(33.) Anonymous, “Case of Mania with the Delusions and Phenomena of Spiritualism” Journal of Insanity 16, 3 (January 1860): 337 .

(34.) For the best discussion of Puységur and this moment in the evolution of understanding the self, see Adam Crabtree, From Mesmer to Freud: Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993), 38–47.

(35.) Robert C. Fuller, Mesmerism and the American Cure of Souls (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 11. For the record, I do object to Fuller, (p.198) following Ellenberger, characterizing Puységur’s achievement as the “discovery” of the unconscious, by which he means a quasi-Freudian psychic state that manifests certain predilections across time and space. I prefer the more circumspect construction of the unconscious or even its creation.

(38.) For more details, see Alan Gauld’s magnum opus, A History of Hypnotism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), particularly chaps. 8 and 9.

(39.) James M. Braid, Braid on Hypnotism, reprinted in a revised edition by Arthur Edward Waite (New York: Julian, 1960), 86. This work was originally titled Neurypnology; or, the Rationale of Nervous Sleep and was renamed in subsequent printings.

(40.) Edward M. Brown, “Neurology and Spiritualism in the 1870s,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 57, 4 (Winter 1983): 567.

(41.) For a recent and very extensive discussion of the influence of Universalism in general and John Bovee Dods in particular on Davis and Spiritualism writ large, see John B. Buescher, The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Boston: Skinner House, 2004).

(42.) See Gauld, History of Hypnotism, 188, for a discussion of Dods’s and Grimes’s influence on American conceptions of hypnosis.

(44.) Brown, “Neurology and Spiritualism in the 1870s,” 567.

(45.) See William Hammond, Spiritualism and Allied Causes and Conditions of Nervous Derangement (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1876) for these and more diagnoses. As an interesting case study in the battle of naming, Spiritualists as well saw the Salem girls as precursors to their movement but of course in a positive light: they were untrained mediums who lacked guidance in their craft. See Allen Putnam, Witchcraft of New England Explained by Modern Spiritualism (Boston: Colby and Rich, 1888).

(46.) Cited in Brown, “Neurology and Spiritualism in the 1870s,” 572.

(47.) Robert Hare, Experimental Investigations of the Spirit Manifestations Demonstrating the Existence of Spirits and Their Communion with Mortals (New York: Partridge and Brittan, 1856), 390–91.

(50.) Parts of this section were previously published in my article “From Electricity to Ectoplasm: Hysteria in American Spiritualism,” Aries: A Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism 3, 1 (2003): 55–81.

(51.) Andrew Jackson Davis, Mental Disorders; or Diseases of the Brain and Nerves, Developing the Origin and Philosophy of Mania, Insanity, and Crime, with Full Directions for their Treatment and Cure (Boston: William White, 1871), 224.

(52.) Davis, Mental Disorders, 262–263.

(53.) A student of mine has written compellingly on this issue, arguing that the sorts of spirits one encountered were predicated on the moral fortitude of (p.199) the medium. See Christa Shusko, “Active Mediums in American Spiritualism,” unpublished paper.

(54.) For an excellent treatment of the changing definitions of hysteria, see Elizabeth Bronfen, The Knotted Subject (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998), 105–118. Bronfen agrees with Edward Shorter’s assessment that “the unconscious, ‘not wishing to make itself ridiculous, brings itself medically up to date’” (115). The implication here is that hysteria itself is a floating signifier of interest predominantly for what cultural mores it is reflecting at any historical moment.

(55.) The association of hysteria and what we now call hypnotism was made as early as 1787, nearly a century before its more famous articulations by Jean Charcot and later Sigmund Freud. See Crabtree, From Mesmer to Freud, 127.

(56.) E. W. Sprague, Spirit Mediumship (Detroit, Mich.: published by the author, 1912). Reprinted in Gary Ward, ed., Spiritualism, Vol. 1 (New York: Garland, 1990), 33.

(57.) Hudson Tuttle, The Arcana of Spiritualism (Manchester, England: Two Worlds, 1900), 10–11.

(58.) Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), 135–136.

(59.) Crabtree, From Mesmer to Freud, 83.

(60.) Hacking, Rewriting the Soul, 209.

(61.) See Showalter, Female Malady, 148, for Freud’s discussion of Charcot and 147–154 for his use of photography.

(62.) Janet was invited to deliver a series of lectures on hysteria at Harvard, which were published in 1907. Freud’s work on hysteria was also translated speedily and brought to America. See Pierre Janet, The Major Symptoms of Hysteria (New York: Macmillan, 1907), particularly chapter 4, for a discussion of multiple personalities in hysterics.

(63.) Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies in Hysteria, trans. A. A. Brill (Boston: Beacon, 1937), 1–13. I use the outdated translation on purpose, since the Brill version was circulated at a very early date among American Spiritualists, and this is the version they were reacting to.

(65.) S. E. D. Shortt, “Physicians and Psychics: The Anglo-American Medical Response to Spiritualism, 1870–1890,” Journal of the History of Medicine 39 (July 1984): 354–355.

(66.) F. W. H. Myers, “The Subliminal Consciousness,” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 2 (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1892), 305.

(67.) Frederic W. H. Myers, “Multiplex Personality,” Nineteenth Century 20 (November 1886), excerpted in Embodied Selves: An Anthology of Psychological Texts 1830–1890, Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 137. All italics are in the original.

(68.) F. W. H. Myers, “The Daemon of Socrates,” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (London: Trübner, 1889), 538.