Wednesday, September 25, 2013

James Braid

James Braid

Father of Hypnotism

You may or may not know that magic is sometimes called a “Mystery Art”.  This is because the origins of magic delve so far back into history that we can’t even trace them reliably.  I am fairly sure that at some point a cave man realized that if he held a rock a certain way, the other cave men couldn’t see it and they would revere him for being able to suddenly be holding a rock.

I just haven’t been able to find that cave man yet.  Africa is a big place to search for one cave man.

Another of the original mystery arts is hypnosis. 

This is a subject that has piqued my interests lately.  I don’t know about you, but I am a fan of going back to the origin when learning about a subject.  That means a trip back to the 1800s for this performance artist.

I went back to find a man named Franz Mesmer.  Like the word “Mesmerized”.

Franz Mesmer was the first man to really hypnotize a person.  He believed that there was a force that existed between all people which he referred to as animal magnetism.  He and his followers believes that they were able to basically force their animal magnetism over people and put those people under their control.  This was usually done through a highly ritualized procedure which included robes and glass harmonicas and other such trappings.  This was called Mesmerism.

This was near the time that scientific experimentation was really taking hold.  Mesmer’s procedures and beliefs became passé and intellectually inclined gentlefolk were wise to avoid it if they wanted to maintain a career.  But there was a surgeon, named James Braid, who became interested in the phenomenon when he saw one of Mesmer’s students, Charles Lafontaine, performing feats of mesmerism on November 13th, 1841 in Manchester. 

Braid did not believe that the subjects were under any form of animal magnetism or will of the mesmerist.  However, the subjects were clearly in some kind of altered state.  He noticed that one phenomenon that was clearly true was that the subjects were unable to open their eyes during key moments of the process.  He took this fact and decided that the eyes must have a very important role in the act of putting people into this trance state.

He also theorized that the process need not involve a mesmerist at all.  So he went home and developed an ‘upward and inward squint’.  Using this method he was able to put himself into a trance and thus demolished the idea that an outside entity (such as a mesmerist) was required for this to happen.

Braid developed the techniques further and on November 22nd, 1841 he did a performance of hypnosis (not yet named such), using a Mr. J. A. Walker as his subject.  Soon after, on November 27th he gave a lecture on the subject at Manchester Athenæum in which he was able to demonstrate that he could produce the effects created by Lafontaine without the need to touch any of the subjects.

Wanting to distance himself from the concepts of mesmerists (which was of vital importance if he wished to maintain a respected reputation) he declared the need to separate this valid phenomenon from the claims of mesmerists.  He associated the trance state with sleep, so he went with the name neurypnology (“nervous sleep”).  After some time he renamed it to neuro-hypnotism (Named for the Greek god of Sleep, Hypnos), then shortened it to hypnotism. 

He later realized that the state had little to nothing to do with sleep, and attempted to popularize monoideism, but the term hypnotism had already taken firm hold and wasn’t going anywhere.

Braid maintained that both a mental and physical fixation of the gaze and attention was all that was required, and that this procedure only activated a state which was hard wired into all human beings. 

He successfully used hypnosis to treat a variety of ailments and injuries, but was firm in the belief that hypnotism was not a miracle cure-all.  It was only another form of possible treatment.  He also maintained that only medical professionals should ever use it in a clinical sense. 

Braid was what was known at the time as a gentleman scientist.  He did his research with no affiliation with any institution or government organization, which allowed him to conduct his experiments with a fairly free hand.  Due to his diligence and experimentation, the entire field of hypnosis was legitimized.  He could validly be considered the world’s first hypnotherapist.

Hypnotism is a fascinating and largely misunderstood thing.  Braid used it to treat physical ailments.  We use it to make people think they’re a chicken.  As you do.

Further reading:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Fox Sisters

The Fox Sister

How a middle-school prank started a religion

The fall leaves in upstate New York are gorgeous.  I highly recommend a trip to see them.  The other day I was strolling through New York in 1888 when I stumbled across the October 21st edition of the New York World, with the confession from Margaret (Maggie) Fox.  Have you heard of the Fox sisters?  

Nice girls.  They accidentally created a religion.

In the winter of 1847 the younger Fox Sisters, Maggie and Katy decided to play a prank on their easily frightened mother.  They began creating rapping sounds by tying strings to apples and bouncing them on the floor.  Or they would toss the apples onto the floor which would create an odd sound every time it rebounded.  Intrigued and frightened, their mother investigated.  Being superstitious, she believed it was supernatural in origin. 

Planning to do a grand finale for their prank, the sisters decided to have an active conversation with the ghost they were creating.  They enticed the ghost, whom they named Mr. Splitfoot, to rap against the walls in the patterns they created by snapping their fingers.  To further prove it, they mimed snapping their fingers and the ghost created the appropriate number of raps.  

Their mother took this performance to heart and began questioning the ghost.  The girls created the appropriate answers, perhaps fearing that if they confessed then they would be in trouble.  Their mother was convinced; she asked the spirit if she could bring others to speak with it.  Not knowing what else to do, the sisters made the ‘ghost’ agree to this.  Neighbors were brought in and asked questions which were answered so acutely that the sisters began to gather a minor following.

Their older sister, Leah, was a single mother who saw opportunity.  She went to Hydesville to speak to the younger sisters and got them to divulge the truth.  Instead of turning them out, though, she became their manager of sorts.  She pushed them to do more performances.  The sisters eventually moved to Rochester and continued their séances.  One of the first couples to witness these performances was a prominent Quaker couple who were also important local figures who were pushing certain political agendas such as women’s suffrage and equality of all people regardless of race, creed, nationality, or gender.  They became the first ‘Spiritualists’ per se.

Much of what had happened up until that point could be attributed to the religious climate of the country at the time.  Popular religious theorists had come up with the idea that the spiritual world was in constant contact with the physical world and we humans simply couldn’t tell.  It was theorized that someday soon someone would find a way to speak to the dead.  Enter the Fox sisters.

Pushed by their older sister (Even when they were doubtful and wished to stop) the Fox Sisters continued performing séances and traveling the world.  They did séances for prominent politicians, actors, writers, etc.  They became wealthy and famous.

But the guilt of deceiving the public took its toll.  They developed drinking problems.  Their lives were troubled and they suffered intense mental stress in trying to maintain the dual reality.  In 1888 Margaret Fox gave an exclusive confession for the sum of $1,500 (Roughly $36,585 in when adjusted for inflation in 2013) .  She hoped it would end the deception that she considered Spiritualism to be.  She detailed how she and her sister had developed the method of popping their toes in such a way to produce raps.  A year later, she recanted her confession in writing.  Within five years, both younger sisters were dead and buried in paupers’ graves.

But to this day, Spiritualism lives on.  One can still find mediums giving séances for donations all across the nation and overseas. 

But how does this relate to magic, I hear you say.  Simple.  The methods that the Fox Sisters created have never been duplicated, but other methods took their place.  The methods of table tipping, table rapping, Ouija, pendulums, etc. are still used to this day by the bizarre magicians of the world.  A lovely evening of wine and conversations with the Fox Sisters did wonders for my own act.

Further reading:

How A Clerical Error Changed The Course of Magic History

Jean Eugene Robert Houdin – Father of Modern Magic

Or – How A Clerical Error Changed The Course of Magic


If I could go back in time … And I can … One of the people I would most like to talk to is Jean Eugene Robert Houdin.

Ever heard of Houdini?  This isn’t him.   

Jean Eugene Robert Houdin was a French watch maker.  His father was one of the best watch makers in Blois, France, their hometown.  He wanted Jean to be a lawyer. Hired as a clerk for his excellent penmanship, Jean instead tinkered with gadgets until the lawyer’s office told his father he’d make a better watchmaker than lawyer.

He then apprenticed to his cousins shop, where he became a watchmaker.  In the mid-1820s he ordered a two volume set of books called Traite de L’horlogerie (Treatise on Clockmaking), and when picking them up from the shop, the clerk accidentally gave him the two volume magic set, Scientific Amusements.  The books caught his interest and he began practicing, then started taking lessons from a local magician.  His skills grew, and eventually he combined his passions.

Houdin was known for creating fantastic clock works.  Ever seen that movie The Illusionist?  The orange-tree illusion that Edward Norton’s character, Eisenheim, was largely based on Houdin.  The Orange Tree was one of Houdin’s most famous illusions.

Another very impressive feat was when Houdin stopped a war using only his quick wits and knowledge of magic.  After he had retired from magic, the French government was having some trouble with the Algerians.  A rebellion was brewing, lead by the Marabouts who claimed to use magical abilities which would allow them to defeat the French.  In 1856 Houdin was asked by Luis-Napoleon to go to Algeria and show the people that French magic was stronger than the Marabouts’ magic.

He went to Algeria and did several performances.  Generally they followed the same format and one stood out more than others.  He had a small woman lift a box on stage, then set it down.  Then he called up a strong warrior to do the same, after claiming to sap the strength of the warrior.  The warrior was unable to lift the box, and then sudden ran from the theater screaming in pain. 

He decided he needed to get to the leaders of this rebellion so he travelled into the desert looking for their main camp.  When he got there he was challenged to a duel by one of the most powerful priests.  Claiming that he needed time to rest and prepare, he asked to have 8 hours to meditate, due to the fact that he’d left his talisman in the cities.  They scheduled the duel for 8 AM the next day.  At dawn, they met.  Pistols were selected, they took the requisite number of steps, and Houdin allowed the priest to take a clean first shot.  The priest shot him in the chest.  Houdin then smiled, revealing the shining bullet held between his teeth.  He took aim, not at the priest, but at a nearby wall, and fired.  The wall began to bleed. 

With these tricks, the confidence in the rebellion was destroyed and Houdin returned home a hero of France.  

No wonder a guy named Erich Weiss decided to pay homage to this man when creating a stage name.  He combined his childhood nickname (Erry, or to an American, Harry) with a mistaken understanding of French, and came up with Harry Houdini which he thought meant “Like Houdin”.