A drawing of a man in a robe and dramatic posture hipnotising a youn woman sitting in a chair.

The Girl in the Lion Cage: Regulating Hypnotism in 19th Century France

Katrin Schultheiss, Ph.D. will speak on Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 2:00 ET in the Lister Hill Auditorium at the National Library of Medicine. Dr. Schultheiss is Associate Professor, Department of History, The George Washington University. Circulating Now interviewed her about her research and upcoming lecture.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

A woman sitting at a desk in an office.Katrin Schultheiss: I’m currently an associate professor of History at George Washington University where I am also chair of the department (until the end of June). Before coming to GW, I spent 17 years in Chicago, teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the History and Gender and Women’s Studies Departments. I grew up in New England, where I did my undergraduate and graduate work, and moved to Chicago in 1992. Since becoming chair of the History Dept. at GW, my workdays have been a mix of answering emails, attending to various administrative matters, preparing for teaching, and trying to squeeze in some writing. I am hoping to finish a draft of my book, Edge of Reason: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Age of Charcot over the course of the next academic year.

CN: Tell us a little about the work you will present in your upcoming lecture, “The Girl in the Lion Cage: Regulating Hypnotism in Nineteenth Century France.”

A middle aged white man in a suit standing outdoors on steps with a woman in a dress..
Jean Martin Charcot and wife at their summer home in Neuilly, mid-1800s
National Library of Medicine #101411934

KS: This talk centers on late nineteenth century debates in France and throughout Europe on the dangers of the popular practice of hypnotism.  Although a few medical professionals had investigated hypnotic phenomena around mid-century, it wasn’t until the late 1870s and 1880s, when neurologist and psychologist Jean-Martin Charcot linked hypnotism to hysteria and broke it down into distinct “phases,” that it became a subject of widespread scientific interest. The rediscovery of hypnotism by the medical profession (it had been a topic of interest in the 18th century as well, in the form of “mesmerism”) coincided with a flourishing of popular “hypnotism shows” produced by traveling entertainers, some of whom crisscrossed Europe and even crossed the ocean to the U.S. They played to audiences of hundreds of curious onlookers who were fascinated by the power of the (always male) hypnotists to control the actions and consciousness of the (usually female) participants. “The Girl in the Lion Cage,” a story that made headlines across France, served as a tragic warning—according to many doctors at the time—of the dangers of allowing anyone outside of professional medicine to practice hypnotism.

CN: A central figure of your talk is “Miss Sperling,” what does her story reveal about the popular view of hypnotism in 19th century France.

KS: The sensational story of “Miss Sperling,” who was hypnotized and then put in a cage with a lion who eventually killed her, epitomized for many the dangers of the popular “hypnotism show.” But the tragic incident also illuminates popular understandings of what hypnotism was.

A drawing of a man in a robe and dramatic posture hipnotising a youn woman sitting in a chair.
Le Médecin Magnétiseur, ca. 1880
National Library of Medicine #101393247

These traveling entertainments always featured a celebrity hypnotist. Publicity surrounding the shows emphasized the amazing powers of the hypnotist to control and manipulate ordinary subjects through suggestion. In all such performances, the hypnotized subject was the passive object of the hypnotist’s astonishing abilities. Even when the subject was herself a professional—some prominent hypnotists traveled with a woman (like Miss Sperling) who served as their main subject—her role in the “shows” was to embody utter helplessness in the hands of a skilled hypnotist. Newspapers and medical journals at the time were filled with stories of innocent victims of malevolent men who secretly hypnotized young women or girls and then committed crimes against them (often rape) or used suggestion to force them to commit crimes (robbery or even murder). Secret hypnotism became, I would argue, another way to express public anxiety about women’s relatively new freedom to move about in public spaces.

Sensational displays like that of the girl in the lion cage also revealed public fascination with the mysteries of consciousness and the unconscious.  While medical professionals like Charcot and Hippolyte Bernheim debated whether hypnotism was a form of neurosis related to hysteria or a normal psychological phenomenon akin to sleep, popular hypnotists were interested almost exclusively in its effects. It is important to note, however, that medical professionals and popular hypnotists agreed that the powers of hypnotism were real and not well understood.

CN: Why was hypnotism a subject of particular interest and debate in France at this time?

KS: The rise (or, rather, the re-emergence) of hypnotism as a matter of public and professional debate in the late nineteenth century is part of a much broader fascination with the non-rational functions of the mind. This is the period that also saw widespread interest in all kinds of mysterious psychological and spiritual phenomena:  learned scientific societies in countries across Europe and the U.S. studied topics like mind reading, ghosts, hallucinations, communication with the dead, and other psychic phenomena. Charcot himself led an investigation into the research of two doctors who claimed that medicines could have strong effects even if the patient never came in physical contact with the substance.  All of these topics reveal a fascination with—and fear of—the little understood powers of the mind.  This was a subject that gripped scientists and medical professionals as well as the public.  Fear of the powers of the non-rational mind drove medical professionals (and many legislators) to seek to regulate hypnotism; it drove entrepreneurial entertainers to exploit that fear for profit.

CN: How did you originally become interested in the History of Medicine? What inspires you in your work?

Cover illustration in a newspaper of Marguerite Bottard in a nurses uniform helping a patient.
A la Salpêtrière, 1898. Marguerite Bottard, a nurse appointed to the order of Knights of the Legion of Honor,
National Library of Medicine #101459368

KS: I came to the history of medicine through a longstanding interest in women’s history.  Casting about for a good topic for my doctoral dissertation in French history, I saw that no one had explored the history of the nursing profession in France, a topic that engaged such broad themes as gender and professionalization, the political power struggle between Church and State in France, and the changing civic role of women.  The study of the history of nursing led me, of course, to the medical journals and hospital records that formed the core of my research (and led me to the holdings of the National Library of Medicine). I came to my current book project—a study of Charcot and his contemporaries’ work on mind and brain—through nursing.  One of the few individual nurses who I could find information on was someone named Marguerite Bottard, who served as Charcot’s head nurse for his entire career. (She herself worked at the Salpetriere Hospital for over 60 years, reputedly never leaving the premises.) Bottard is pictured in iconic images of Charcot’s lessons.  I became fascinated by her role as assistant to Charcot, who has been depicted by many modern scholars as a misogynist and exploiter of female psychiatric patients. That fascination led me to explore Charcot’s ideas about how the mind functioned and to a better understanding of what he, his colleagues, and the women who were the objects of their research, were trying to accomplish.

Katrin Schultheiss’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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