Charles Dickens, Part-Time Mesmerist

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Madame Augusta de la Rue dreaded the end of each day. After settling into bed, her anxiety kept her alert with visions of a figure that followed her into her dreams. When it wasn’t insomnia, she dealt with headaches, a nervous tic, convulsions, and a “burning and raging” mind that was impossible to quiet. Her symptoms became so severe that in 1844 she sought a trendy and controversial treatment known as mesmerism. Her mesmerist: the famous author Charles Dickens.

When Dickens encountered mesmerism in the 1830s, the practice was well-established in the medical community. The German doctor Franz Anton Mesmer had introduced it in the 1770s as a means of manipulating something he called animal magnetism—the magnetic fluid Mesmer believed flowed through the bodies of all living things. According to his theory, the state of this liquid energy was closely tied to one’s health: An uninterrupted flow led to wellness, while blockages caused problems ranging from vomiting to hysteria. Fortunately, Mesmer claimed, these conditions could be cured with a magnet and a steady hand.

By guiding magnets along his patients’ bodies, Mesmer thought he could redistribute the fluid, although he eventually ditched the magnets in favor of his bare hands after discovering they worked just as well. Soon, anyone who shared Mesmer’s supposed magnetic gifts could practice mesmerism by laying or passing their hands over the afflicted. (On top of adding animal magnetism to the lexicon, Mesmer is said to have given us the flirtatious phrase making a pass.) Although responses to mesmeric sessions varied, some claimed it gave them full relief of various physical ailments.

Mesmer died in 1815, a couple decades before the start of the Victorian era. With that period came a nationwide obsession with the metaphysical that renewed public interest in mesmerism not just as a medical treatment, but as a form of entertainment. Practitioners would mesmerize patients into trances and parade them around parties. But some were more than performance artists—John Elliotson, one of the most prolific figures in the field, was a well-respected surgeon famous for popularizing the stethoscope. He was also good friends with Charles Dickens.

Dickens first witnessed mesmerism up close at a demonstration Elliotson gave at London’s University College Hospital in 1838. The writer was intrigued, and implored Elliotson to show him more. Not everyone had a knack for mesmerism, but Dickens was a natural. He wrote years later, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a Frying-Pan.”

Around the same time he took on Dickens as his pupil, Elliotson watched his career implode. The medical community was then embroiled in a fierce debate over whether or not mesmerism was a legitimate science. One of its staunchest opponents was Thomas Wakley, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet. Wakley affirmed his suspicions after conducting a trial in which the O’Key sisters, two of Elliotson’s more colorful patients, failed to respond to certain "mesmerized" metals yet produced fits in response to materials they were only told were mesmerized. The results of the trial seemed to prove that mesmerism was fake, and Elliotson resigned from his job at University College Hospital shortly after that.

Throughout the controversy, Dickens remained a loyal friend—he even asked Elliotson to be the godfather of his second child. He also continued pursuing his new hobby. In 1842, while in Pittsburgh with his wife Catherine as part of the research for his travelogue American Notes for General Circulation, he first put his mesmerism skills to the test, with Catherine agreeing to be his guinea pig. After several minutes of waving his hands over her head just like Elliotson had taught him, she devolved into hysterics and promptly fell asleep. Dickens took her dramatic response as a sign of his power, and he considered the trial a great success.

From then on, he practiced his talent on whoever was game. His sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth reacted much like Catherine, slipping into a hysterical episode almost immediately. John Leech, who did the original illustrations for A Christmas Carol, came to Dickens for treatment after injuring his head while swimming. Leech felt much better following their session and Dickens took credit for his recovery. The actor Charles Macready, however, was the rare person who didn’t buy the shtick. After Dickens tried to mesmerize him, Macready described the experience as “very unpleasant,” saying “it could not effect me.”

Dickens’s dabblings with mesmerism culminated with a visit to Italy beginning in 1844. He was once again traveling in the name of research, this time for his nonfiction book Pictures From Italy. While staying in Genoa, he became good friends with the Swiss banker Emile de la Rue. He also became close with the banker's English-born wife, Madame Augusta de la Rue—the woman destined to become his most challenging patient. Madame de la Rue suffered from a host of ailments that stemmed from her anxiety, and after hearing about her issues, Dickens offered to help the only way he knew how.

Their first session, which took place in December 1844, may have discouraged a less-experienced mesmerist. Instead of easing her discomfort, his gestures made her more agitated. Madame de la Rue succumbed to a massive anxiety attack, and Dickens took her sensitivity to the treatment as a good sign. They both agreed to see each other again, and soon the meetings became part of their routines.

Madame de la Rue’s response to the therapy grew more promising with each encounter. Her face, once tense with muscle spasms, started to soften. The volume of her thoughts dropped a few notches and she was able to fall asleep much faster. Satisfied with his success treating her physical suffering, Dickens delved deeper into her psyche. He asked her to describe her thoughts and dreams, hoping to get to the root of her illness. The most persistent vision she shared was one of a “phantom” that dogged her whether she was asleep or awake. Dickens described the power it held over her in a letter to her husband:

“That figure is so closely connected with the secret distresses of her very soul—and the impression made upon it is so entwined with her confidence and trust in me, and her knowledge of the power of the Magnetism—that it must not make head again. From what I know from her, I know there is more danger and delay in one appearance of that figure than in a dozen fits of the severest bodily pain. Believe nothing she says of her capacity of endurance, if the reappearance of that figure should become frequent. Consult that mainly, and before all other signs.”

Decades before Sigmund Freud adopted hypnosis as a psychotherapy tool, Dickens was using mesmerism to trace his patient’s visible symptoms to her subconscious mind.

Catherine Dickens didn’t share her husband's excitement for the situation. She had always been jealous of the women her husband mesmerized, and she felt especially threatened by his relationship with Madame de La Rue. And if she thought she’d have her husband’s full attention when they left Genoa to see the rest of Italy in the spring of 1845, she was mistaken. Letters from de La Rue updating Mr. Dickens on her status followed him around the country. Even though they couldn’t be in the same room, the pair continued their appointments remotely by attempting to connect through telepathy for one hour starting at 11 a.m. each day.

Though her condition had vastly improved since their first meeting, the Madame hoped to see Dickens one last time when he finally returned to Genoa in May 1845. Unfortunately a stomach bug prevented the pair from reuniting. He wrote to her in a letter:

"You must not think I am sending you an excuse in lieu of myself. I am in a hideous digestive state, cross, uncomfortable, bilious, blah and limp. A mutton chop and a long walk, and nobody to be contradictory to, are the remedies I have prescribed myself.”

After he resettled in England, Dickens’s passion for mesmerism cooled. He indulged in other mystical hobbies, however: In 1849, he performed stage magic under the pseudonym The Unparalleled Necromancer, Rhia Rhama Rhoos; in 1852, he wrote a spontaneous combustion scene into his realistic fiction book Bleak House, a decision he defended with conviction after it angered scientists. Like many fads to emerge from the Victorian era, those areas of interest have since largely faded from fashion. Mesmerism, on the other hand, laid the foundation for modern hypnosis—but today the treatment is administered by mental health professionals, not young novelists on vacation.

The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In March 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with one of the most macabre dénouements in his entire body of work. Called Hop-Frog, it was the tale of an eponymous court jester who endures repeated humiliations from an abusive king and his ministers before finally exacting his revenge. Like other works of the great horror master, it may have been inspired by historical events—in this case, by a particularly grisly episode from 14th-century France.

In Poe's short story, both Hop-Frog and Trippetta are people with dwarfism stolen from their respective home countries and brought as presents for the king from one of his generals. Hop-Frog is described as having a disability that makes him walk "by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle." Forced to be the court's jester, he's the target of the king's practical jokes, and while enduring near-constant humiliations grows close to Trippetta, whose status at the court isn't much better.

One day, the king demands a masquerade, and as the evening draws near, he asks Hop-Frog what to wear. After a scene in which he and Trippetta are abused once again, Hop-Frog sees the perfect chance for revenge. He suggests the monarch and his ministers dress as escaped orangutans chained together, which he calls "a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades." The king and his ministers love the idea of scaring their guests, and especially the women. The jester carefully prepares their costumes, saturating tight-fitting fabric with tar and plastering flax on top to resemble the hair of the beasts.

On the evening of the masquerade, the men enter in their special outfits just after midnight. The guests are duly terrified, and amid the hubbub, Hop-Frog attaches the chain that surrounds the group to one hanging from the ceiling that normally holds a chandelier. As the men are drawn upwards, he brings a flame close to their bodies, pretending to the crowd that he's trying to figure out who the disguised men really are. The flax and tar ignite quickly and the noblemen burn to death, suspended above the crowd. "The eight corpses swung in their chains," Poe writes, "a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass."

Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Rijksmuseum, Europeana // Public Domain

The gruesome scene was likely inspired by a historical event: the Bal des Ardents (literally, "the Ball of the Burning Ones"). This obscure episode took place during the reign of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), known to posterity as "Charles the Mad." His periods of illness are well-documented by contemporary chroniclers, who tell us that he ran through his castle howling like a wolf, failed to recognize his own wife and children, and forbade anyone to touch him because he believed he was made of glass. After his first bout in 1392, when delirium led him to kill several knights, his physician prescribed "amusements, relaxations, sports, and pastimes."

Meanwhile, the royal council was controlled by his brother Louis d'Orléans and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy—who both had their eyes set on the throne. It was also the middle of the Hundred Years' War, and England was seen as a severe threat to national stability. In spite of the unrest, on January 28, 1393, Charles's wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, held a ball in the royal palace of Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting Catherine de Fastaverin. The plan was also to entertain the king, as the royal physician had prescribed. One of the guests, the knight Sir Hugonin (sometimes Huguet) de Guisay, suggested that a group of nobles dress as "wild men" or "wood savages," mythical creatures associated with nature and pagan beliefs. The king liked the idea so much that he decided to join in as one of the masked dancers.

The six noblemen wore garments made of linen covered in pitch and stuck-on clumps of flax, so they appeared "full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot," according to contemporary historian Jean Froissart. Poe preserved these details in Hop-Frog, though his characters weren't dressed as wild men, but as orangutans—an animal he had also used in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) to great effect.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, Charles VI was aware that the costumes were highly flammable, so he ordered all torch-bearers to keep to one side of the room. As they entered the ballroom, five of the wild men were chained to one another. Only the king was free. The men probably humiliated the newlyweds, howling and dancing; some historians believe the wild dance was a charivari, a folk ritual intended to shame newlyweds at "irregular" marriages. (As a widow getting married for the third time, Lady Catherine would have been a target.)

But there was an important guest missing: the king's brother, Louis d'Orléans. He arrived late, carrying his own torch, and joined the dance. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, before long his torch had set fire to one of the wild men's costumes. The fire spread quickly. Two of the knights burned to death in front of the guests, and two more died in agony days later. Court chronicler Michel Pintoin, known as the Monk of St. Denis, describes the dancers' "flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood."

Only two of the wild men survived. One of them, named Nantoiullet, had reacted to the blaze by throwing himself into a barrel of water, which spared him a horrid death. The other was the king. He was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who used her gown to extinguish his costume before it was too late.

The event shook French society. It was seen as the height of courtly decadence, causing outrage and further unrest. That the king had engaged in this extravagant amusement, and that his life had been spared only by chance, was further proof that he was unfit for the throne.

Meanwhile, the part that Louis d'Orléans played in the tragedy was subject to some debate. Most chroniclers blamed his youth and recklessness for the terrible accident; some reportedly suggested it was a prank to "frighten the ladies" that got out of hand.

Although it seems that the Bal des Ardents wasn't a planned crime, the king's brother must have felt responsible for the fatal accident, since he founded a chapel in the convent of the Célestins shortly afterwards, hoping it would buy him a place in heaven. It didn't save him from a violent end, however: In 1407, Louis was assassinated on the orders of his cousin and recently minted political rival the Duke of Burgundy, which triggered a civil war that divided France for decades. The Duke of Burgundy justified the murder by accusing Louis of having used sorcery and occultism to attempt regicide on several occasions—one of them, he claimed, during the Bal des Ardents.

Regardless of the truth behind the matter, the horror of the event filtered down through the centuries to inspire one of Poe's most macabre works. (It's not clear where the author first heard about it, but it may have been in the pages of The Broadway Journal, where he was soon to become editor, and where a writer likened it to the accidental onstage burning death of the dancer Clara Webster in London.) Today, the shocking historical event lives on in Poe's story—and in Hop Frog's memorable final line: "I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest."

Additional source: Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys

9 People Who Have Been Called America's Sweetheart

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

The term “America’s Sweetheart” first appeared in the early 1900s, back when motion pictures were still a novelty. Over the years, it’s been applied to a vast number of celebrities—largely young, bubbly, wholesome-seeming ladies who women want to be and men want to introduce to their mothers. (The occasional man has been dubbed America's sweetheart, too, but the moniker has never quite defined famous men the way it has defined a certain genre of female celebrity.) Here are nine people who have been called "America's sweetheart" in the past.

1. THE ORIGINAL: MARY PICKFORD

Mary Pickford circa 1910
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Mary Pickford—perhaps the most iconic actress of the Silent Era and a founder of Hollywood institutions like the United Artists studio and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—was the first to hold the unofficial title of "America's Sweetheart," a nickname reportedly given to her by influential theater owner David Grauman. The title would later be used in ad copy for her films and by magazines writing about her work. In a 1918 feature in Photoplay magazine called "Women I Have Loved," actor Elliott Dexter, in enumerating all of the actresses who had served as his on-screen love interests, wrote that "Mary Pickford absolutely captivated me as she does everyone who goes near her. Her genius, her brilliancy, her charm, her beauty—oh, what's the use? All of that has only been said two or three thousand times more or less and all of it is true." Dexter played opposite Pickford in A Romance of the Redwoods, a 1917 silent Western. (To give you an idea of her comparative clout, she received top billing, while his name didn't appear on the film's poster at all.)

"In more than 200 films, including 52 full-length features, she was the brave little girl whose hair hung down in golden ringlets," The Washington Post described in her obituary in 1979. "She was scarcely 5 feet tall, but she never gave up when times got bad. She was funny and sad, tough and vulnerable, innocent and ingenious, and she always won out in the end."

Oddly enough, Pickford proved that you didn't need to be from the U.S. to become America’s sweetheart—she was Canadian.

2. SHIRLEY TEMPLE

Shirley Temple, circa 1934.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Several decades after Pickford pioneered the name, Shirley Temple took over as "America’s Sweetheart," so effectively embodying the title that many have mistakenly called her America's first sweetheart. The dimpled, ringlet-sporting Depression-era child actor was famous by the time she was 6, singing and tap-dancing her way through more than 40 films before she retired from the pictures at the ripe age of 22 and selling millions of dolls in her likeness to American children in the process. As an adult, she went on to become a U.S. delegate to the U.N. and ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

The title of America's sweetheart stuck with Temple throughout her life. When Fox released box sets of her complete works on DVD in the early 2000s, the studio called them the America's Sweetheart collection.

3. DEBBIE REYNOLDS

Debbie Reynolds circa 1955
Keystone, Getty Images

Debbie Reynolds became America's latest sweetheart in the 1950s, starting with her star turn in Singin’ in the Rain, which debuted in 1952 when she was 20 years old. She went on to appear in multiple movies a year throughout the 1950s and had several hit songs on the Billboard charts. "Her girl-next-door looks, bouncy personality and energy in a string of comedies and musicals quickly earned her the title of America's Sweetheart," The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana explained in 1988.

Unfortunately, Reynolds's position as America's sweetheart was often juxtaposed with the sex-symbol status of her close friend Elizabeth Taylor. Reynolds's husband Eddie Fisher (himself an American sweetheart) divorced her to marry Taylor in 1959, a scandal that garnered tremendous media coverage at the time and still appears in headlines today. Reynolds died in late 2016, and nearly every obituary referenced her years as America's sweetheart.

4. MARY TYLER MOORE

Mary Tyler Moore, circa 1969
E Milsom, Getty Images

In the 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore took over the title of America's sweetheart—though there was often a caveat. "Just as surely as Mary Pickford was America's sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore is the viewers' sweetheart," a UPI newswire story about The Mary Tyler Moore Show declared in 1972, not quite giving her the full title. Moore became a household name in the early 1960s while playing Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and went on to star in her own eponymous show between 1970 and 1977. In 1977, the New York Daily News called her "America's TV sweetheart." But in other publications, there was no descriptor required. Both Esquire and Rolling Stone labeled her "America's sweetheart' in cover stories in 1977 and 1980, respectively.

And yet, America can't focus on one sweetheart for too long. Already, her title was already at risk of being passed off to someone else. In 1979, The Pittsburgh Press wrote that Donna Pescow of Saturday Night Fever, who was then starring in the ABC show Angie, "may replace Mary Tyler Moore as America's sweetheart." (That one didn't quite come to fruition.)

5. MARY LOU RETTON … AND NUMEROUS OTHER FEMALE OLYMPIANS OF THE 1980s

Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Olympics.
STAFF/AFP, GettyImages

Not all of America's sweethearts have been actresses. Walter Cronkite bestowed the honorary on gymnast Mary Lou Retton following her wins at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Olympic runner Mary Decker occasionally donned the label in the 1980s, too, as did tennis star Chris Evert and swimmer Janet Evans. Just about every successful female athlete of the 1980s was at one point deemed to be America's sweetheart. The trope continues today, too—more recent Olympic gymnasts like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Aly Raisman have all been called America's sweethearts, too.

6. MEG RYAN

Meg Ryan circa 1993.
MYCHELE DANIAU, AFP/Getty Images

Meg Ryan became America’s sweetheart thanks to roles in a string of romantic comedies, starting with When Harry Met Sally… in 1989 and continuing throughout the 1990s. In one typical article of the time, a Detroit Free Press story in 1996 called Ryan "she of the giggle in the voice and the sparkle in the eye." Another, published by The Age in Australia, called her "cinema's intoxicating, decent-hearted sprite." But she fell out of Hollywood favor in the early 2000s after an affair with Russell Crowe brought about the end of her marriage to Dennis Quaid, a scandal that captivated the tabloids. If there's one rule to being America's sweetheart, it's that you have to keep your image scandal free—extramarital affairs are definitely not allowed.

Though she has been out of the spotlight for several years, Ryan recently discussed her time as America's sweetheart with Gwyneth Paltrow at a Goop conference, saying she never liked the title. "When you get labeled anything, like America's sweetheart—I didn't even know what that meant," she told Paltrow. "I remember thinking, 'Is that good?'" She went on to say, "It doesn't necessarily imply that you're smart or sexual or complicated or anything. It's a label. And what can a label do but guess at you?"

7. JULIA ROBERTS

Julia Roberts in ‘Runaway Bride,’ 1999
Getty Images

Julia Roberts got her start in Hollywood with films like Mystic Pizza (1988) and Steel Magnolias (1989) and became a true international star when Pretty Woman came out in 1990. In 1993, The Boston Globe called her "the closest thing there is to America's Sweetheart." Throughout the '90s, both she and fellow sweetheart Meg Ryan regularly made the top of lists like Harlequin's Top 10 Most Desirable Women and Men's Health's list of the top stars to "take home to Mom." And yet by the mid-1990s, some writers were already moving on to someone else. "Sandra Bullock emerged as the likely successor to the fading Julia Roberts as America's Sweetheart," the South Florida Sun-Sentinel announced in its end-of-year coverage for 1995. But she was soon back on top—after My Best Friend's Wedding came out in 1997, the Orlando Sentinel wrote that she "hardly seems ready to relinquish her title as America's Sweetheart." In 2003, National Enquirer released a biography of the star called Julia Roberts: America's Sweetheart.

8. SANDRA BULLOCK

Sandra Bullock talks on a cell phone while shopping for laundry detergent in 1999’s ’Forces of Nature.'
Getty Images

Anyone with a few hit romantic comedies under their belt is sure to become America's sweetheart, and Sandra Bullock was no exception. Bullock made her name starring as the plucky heroine in movies like While You Were Sleeping (1995), but when she tried to stretch her dramatic legs, she wasn't quite so beloved. "Sandra Bullock and Clint Eastwood are popular because of their personalities and looks, not necessarily because we want to see them perform," a Knight Ridder newspaper critic snarked in 1999. Bullock wasn't particularly invested in being America's sweetheart, however, and she certainly understood the rules of the game. "There's a different 'America's Sweetheart' every time they have to promote another romantic comedy," she told The Orange County Register in 2005.

9. JENNIFER ANISTON

A promotional image of Jennifer Aniston with her arms crossed, 1995
NBC Television/Getty Images

Even more fool-proof than romantic comedies, the quickest way to become America's sweetheart is to link up with another all-American celebrity. While Jennifer Aniston hit sweetheart status thanks to the massive popularity of her character on Friends—one Entertainment Weekly labeled as a Top 10 greatest pop-culture characters of the last 20 years in 2010—her romance with noted Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt definitely sealed the deal. When that ended in 2005, she got to keep the title, except she became "America's jilted sweetheart" (compared to the "superhumanly sensual" Angelina Jolie), as a writer from The Arizona Republic called her in 2005. (Another rule for these superfluous titles? Women must be pitted against each other, whether they like it or not.)

Even though Aniston no longer appears in our homes every Thursday night as she did during her run on Friends, she'll always be the country's sweetheart for many. "Look at Jennifer Aniston: she's America's sweetheart for a reason," fellow actress Allison Williams observed while talking about red carpet styles in Elle's 2014 Women in TV issue. "You know what she's going to look like when she shows up to something, and there's something so comfortable in that."

Maybe that's the key. If America's sweetheart is anything, it's comforting.

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