It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Feb 14, 2014

Keeping the Dead Alive through Mesmerism in Case of M. Valdemar

"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" is a short story by American author Edgar Allan Poe about a mesmerist who puts a man in a suspended hypnotic state at the moment of death. An example of a tale of suspense and horror, it is also, to a certain degree, a hoax as it was published without claiming to be fictional, and many at the time of publication (1845) took it to be a factual account. Poe toyed with this for a while before admitting it was a work of pure fiction in his marginalia.

Plot Summary

The narrator presents the facts of the extraordinary case of Valdemar which have incited public discussion. He is interested in Mesmerism, a pseudoscience involving bringing a patient into a hypnagogic state by the influence of magnetism, a process which later developed into hypnotism. He points out that, as far as he knows, no one has ever been mesmerized at the point of death, and he is curious to see what effects mesmerism would have on a dying person. He considers experimenting on his friend Ernest Valdemar, an author whom he had previously mesmerized, and who has recently been diagnosed with phthisis (tuberculosis).

Valdemar consents to the experiment and informs the narrator by letter that he will probably die in twenty-four hours. Valdemar's two physicians inform the narrator of their patient's poor condition. After confirming again that Valdemar is willing to be part of the experiment, the narrator comes back the next night with two nurses and a medical student as witnesses. Again, Valdemar insists he is willing to take part and asks the narrator to hurry, for fear he has "deferred it for too long". Valdemar is quickly mesmerized, just as the two physicians return and serve as additional witnesses. In a trance, he reports first that he is dying - then that he is dead. The narrator leaves him in a mesmeric state for seven months, checking on him daily. During this time Valdemar is without pulse, heartbeat or perceptible breathing, his skin cold and pale.

Finally, the narrator makes attempts to awaken Valdemar, asking questions which are answered with difficulty as Valdemar's voice emanates from his throat and lolling tongue while his lips and jaws are frozen in death. In between trance and wakefulness, Valdemar begs the narrator to quickly put him back to sleep or to wake him. As Valdemar shouts "Dead! dead!" repeatedly, the narrator takes Valdemar out of his trance; in the process, Valdemar's entire body immediately decays into a "nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putrescence."

How it was Accepted?

In 1845, first numerous American periodicals and then journals in England, Germany, France and Austria published the tale, most with the understanding that it documented a fantastic but verifiable medical experiment attended by reputable doctors and nurses in Bronx, New York. The experiment was the mesmerizing of a man moments from death. The objectives were to see if one at the edge of death could be mesmerized, how the condition of death would effect mesmerization, and for how long a period the process of Death might be halted through mesmerization. The hoax of getting thousands to believe that a man had been suspended between life and death was indeed an accomplishment, but Poe seems to have accomplished much more than an effective hoax. The story illustrates a deeper hoax that most of readers have been caught in: that of interpreting lies as fact.

Poe, deeply influenced by the scientist Mesmer, was fascinated with the philosophy of mesmerism. Mesmer held that when hypnotising a patient, a magnetic fluid streamed from his hands into the patient's body, empowering him to subdue the troubles of the patient or put him to sleep. It was also believed the once mesmerised, a patient had access to a transcendent plane, a plane not commonly traversed. Poe described this access in another tale, "Mesmeric Revelation" in which the narrator questions a hypnotized friend and receives deep and cryptic answers about the form of God and man's relationship to God.

Poe had most of his audience believing every detail of the tale for a number of reasons. At the time of publication many experiments and much literature speculated on the ability of hypnosis to hold back death. People were fascinated by the topic, some wanting to believe that the speculation was true. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was among those who wanted to believe. She loved Poe's tale so much that she insisted it be included in a book of his tales she was buying. The tale had been so convincing for her and her friends, they were thrown into the most "dreadful doubt as to whether it can be true”. For those who wanted to believe the tale, Poe gave every reason to believe. He used the words 'facts' and 'succinctly', outlined his three motives, recorded verbatim a note from the patient, named the reputable doctors present, used notes recorded by a medical student and was very scientific in his explanation of Valdemar's condition throughout the process.

Although many believed, some questioned whether the tale was a true account or merely a wonderful story. One American critic speculated that "it was extremely improbable that a person having any reputation whatever would run the risk of a fabrication, which on its detection must exclude him from society". Critics may have hoped for honesty in part because in Europe there was already little dependence to be placed upon American veracity.

When it became evident that the story was a hoax, Poe explained that he wanted to insure attention for the philosophy of mesmerism and thus wrote it into a 'real' situation. He had not deliberately intended to deceive. In fact when asked of the tale's truth, Poe, tongue in cheek, suggested that, "we leave it to speak for itself".

If readers understood the tale to be only a gruesome story, then Poe may have tricked them a second time. One critic, Michael J. S. Williams, suggests that Poe's main purpose in Valdemar is to illustrate the mysterious territory between fact and fiction. Although we may think it simple to ascertain the difference between the two, Poe suggests in his cryptic story that we may not always know what is real.

Possible Sources

The setting of Poe’s story comes from a factual letter from Dr. A. Sidney Doane of 32 Warren Street, New York, printed in the Broadway Journal of February 1, 1845, of which the more pertinent portions may be quoted:

On the 16th of January I was requested by my friend Dr. S. Vital Bodinier, recently from Paris, to witness the extirpation of a tumor from the neck of a female, which he said would be performed without her consciousness, and without suffering, “while she was in a magnetic sleep,” he having operated twice under similar circumstances in Paris, and with success.

. . . I went to No. — Chambers street, previous to the hour appointed for the operation (which was halt-past one), in order to witness the process of putting the female to sleep. After being in the house about five minutes, the patient came into the basement room and seated herself in an easy chair. She seemed extremely bright and nowise sleepy, with a rosy cheek, black eyes, and dark hair. After an inquiry or two as to her health, and feeling her pulse, which was natural, Dr. B. proceeded to make what are termed “magnetic passes,” and so successfully, that in five minutes the eyelids drooped, and in ten minutes — say at twenty minutes of twelve — she was sound asleep. I learned from Dr. B. that she had been placed in this state some ten or twelve times previously, with a view to secure her entire insensibility . . . I left the patient at twelve o’clock, still sleeping soundly.

I returned to the house at quarter past one, in company with Prof. J. W. Francis and Mr. J. S. Redfield, the publisher. A few moments after, we were joined by Drs. Mott, Delafield, J. Kearney Rodgers, Taylor, Nelson, Dr. Alfaro, a highly distinguished physician from Madrid, Mr. Parmly the dentist, and one or two others. Descending to the basement, we found the patient still asleep . . . [The tumor] was the size of a pullet’s egg, and the operation occupied two and a half minutes only . . . [The patient] continued to sleep on quietly and calmly through the whole of it. Dr. Bodinier seemed to be operating rather upon a cadaver than on a living being . . . I . . . went again to the house at ten minutes past four. She was still sleeping, but at quarter past four, the time indicated, she was demagnetized by Dr. B., Drs. Taylor, Parmly, and others being present. I immediately [page 1229:] inquired, “How she felt?” She answered, “rather tired.” “Had she suffered during her sleep?” She said, “No.” “Had she been cut?” She replied “No, the operation was to be performed the next day,” as Dr. B. had previously stated to her would be the case. She was now shown the tumor, at which she seemed much surprised and gratified. Since that time the patient has recovered rapidly, and to-day, Thursday, one week since the operation, the wound is entirely healed, and she has resumed her duties in the family.

Another probable source is a statement in the fourth edition (London, 1844) of Chauncey Hare Townshend’s Facts in Mesmerism — a work for which Poe had high regard. In his “Notice” to that edition Townshend said:

I have watched the effects of mesmeric treatment upon a suffering friend, who was dying of that most fearful disorder — Lumbar Abscess. Unfortunately, through various hindrances, Mesmerism was not resorted to till late in the progress of the disease, so that, of course, that it should effect a cure was out of the question . . . I have no hesitation in saying, that, under God, the life of my friend, R. T. was prolonged, at least, two months by the action of Mesmerism.

A third source, pointed out as long ago as 1855, is the conclusion of The Seeress of Prevorst (1845), translated by Catherine Crowe from the German of Justinus Andreas Kerner — poet, spiritualist, and chief physician of Weinsberg. He described the death of the Seeress:

She often called loudly for me, though I was absent at the time; and once, when she appeared dead, someone having uttered my name, she started into life again, and seemed unable to die, — the magnetic relation between us being not yet broken. She was, indeed, susceptible to magnetic influences, to the last; for, when she was already cold and her jaws stiff, her mother having made three passes over her face, she lifted her eyelids and moved her lips. At ten o’clock, her sister saw a tall bright form enter the chamber, and, at the same instant, the dying woman uttered a loud cry of joy; her spirit then seemed to be set free. After a short interval, her soul also departed; leaving behind it a totally irrecognizable husk — not a single trace of her former features remaining.

Sources and Additional Information:

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