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Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Psychological Curiosities of Credulity
(S287: 1878)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor of the Athenæum responding to the comments of Dr. William B. Carpenter on mesmerism and related subjects. Printed on page 157 of the 2 February 1878 number. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S287.htm

    Dr. Carpenter's letter in your last issue so entirely fails to meet the allegations in my communication to the Athenæum of January the 12th, that I should be content to let the matter rest. But Dr. Carpenter now makes fresh statements, which I maintain to be both inaccurate and misleading, and I therefore ask permission to point them out.

    In the first place, it is untrue that I have ever "required" Dr. Carpenter "and every one else" to have "full faith" in the Academic Report of 1830. My sole objection was to Dr. Carpenter's ignoring its very existence. It is also untrue that the French Academy of Medicine "deliberately reversed the judgment" of its first Commission, "as having been obtained by fraud and chicanery." The second and third Commissions were of more limited scope than the first; their conclusions were mostly negative; and neither they nor the Academy itself in any way pronounced judgment on the first Commission, as Dr. Carpenter's words imply that they did. The subject having thus been again brought to the notice of your readers, I beg leave to offer a few remarks on the nature of the investigation by the first Commission of the French Academy of Medicine, and on the value of the evidence it affords.

    We may certainly assume that the members of this Commission fairly represented the best medical talent of France at that time, for they were chosen by a representative society of doctors, who would carefully select men of exceptional acuteness, caution, and judgment, to investigate a subject about which there was so much dispute as mesmerism, or, as it was then termed, magnetism. That the members of the Commission were quite aware of the chief sources of error, and were not led away by any contagious enthusiasm, is evident from their Report itself. Thus, they declare that many of the effects ascribed to magnetism are produced by "expectation," "ennui," and by "the imagination"; that the effects are "very varied in different individuals"; and that some of the phenomena may be simulated and "furnish charlatanism with the means of deception." It is interesting to note that the patient first submitted to examination by M. Foissac (on whose proposition the Commission was appointed) turned out a complete failure; and had the Commission been hasty in arriving at conclusions, its report might have been as adverse to mesmerism as those which succeeded it. But the inquiry was continued, and other patients were found who submitted to every possible test. Finally, the members who attended the experiments, nine in number, unanimously reported, after five years of inquiry, "that magnetization without the knowledge of the patient; pre-vision of organic phenomena; knowledge of the internal condition of other persons; and true clairvoyance, had been demonstrated to them." One of the somnambulists determined correctly the symptoms of M. Marc, a Commissioner; and also the disease of another person, the accuracy of the diagnosis being confirmed by post mortem examination. Clairvoyance was proved by one of the patients repeatedly reading and naming cards, while four of the Commissioners successively held his eyes closed with their fingers,--a test, the absolute conclusiveness of which every one may satisfy himself of. These are mere illustrations from among dozens of similar cases.*

    Now are we to believe that nine eminent medical men, investigating this subject at great length, and reporting on it with a full sense of responsibility, could possibly have been the victims of imposture and delusion throughout the whole inquiry, without any one of the nine so much as suspecting its possibility? That they had full confidence in their facts is shown by the following extract from the concluding portion of their Report:--


"Certainly we dare not flatter ourselves that we shall make you share entirely our conviction of the reality of the phenomena which we have observed, and which you have neither seen, nor followed, nor studied with or in opposition to us. We do not, therefore, exact from you a blind belief in all that we have reported. We conceive that a great part of the facts are so extraordinary that you cannot grant it to us; perhaps we ourselves should have refused you our belief, if, changing places, you had come to announce them before this tribunal to us, who, like you at present, had seen nothing, observed nothing, studied nothing, followed nothing of them."

    Dr. Carpenter wholly disbelieves the facts and conclusions of the Commission, as well as the whole mass of subsequent confirmatory testimony. This he is quite free to do, without any objection on my part. I only object to his first denying (by implication) the very existence of the Report, and then giving illogical and inadequate reasons for so doing. These so-called reasons are, that the Academy did not formally adopt the Report; that two subsequent Commissions failed to obtain confirmatory evidence, and did detect some attempts at imposture; and that a woman made a death-bed confession that she had, in some unexplained way, tricked two doctors who were not members of either of the Commissions.

    But the first Commission also had "failures"; it also recognized "imposture" or attempts at imposture; but besides these it obtained absolutely conclusive facts, which have subsequently been often confirmed, but have never been satisfactorily explained away. To take the ground that clairvoyance is altogether impossible, and therefore incredible on any evidence, would be an intelligible position; but to admit that it is a question of evidence, and then to reject such direct, positive, and weighty evidence as that of the Commission of 1825-31 on the mere negative grounds above referred to, is utterly unintelligible; for to do so is to place ignorance above knowledge, and to estimate negative as superior to positive results.

Note Appearing in the Original Work

*The Report is given at length in the 'Archives Générales de Médecine,' vol. XX., and is well worthy of careful perusal.

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