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The Girl in the Lion Cage: Regulating Hypnotism in Nineteenth Century France

Air date: Thursday, February 27, 2020, 2:00:00 PM
Time displayed is Eastern Time, Washington DC Local
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Description: NLM History of Medicine

In 1890 in the southern French town of Beziers, a ”carnival hypnotizer” put a sleeping young girl, one “Miss Sperling,” in a lion’s cage, in an effort to demonstrate how profound – and authentic – her hypnotic trance was. The awe of the assembled crowd soon turned to horror, however, as the lion seized “Miss Sperling” in its jaws, parading her around the cage. The victim was eventually extracted and taken to the hospital but soon died from the injuries she sustained. This incident was just one of a number of stories circulating in the French press in the late nineteenth century that vividly demonstrated the dangers of the popular hypnotism shows that captivated audiences across the European continent. Doctors seized on such episodes to argue that the practice of hypnotism should be limited to medical professionals who alone could be trusted with the power to control the minds of others. In some European nations—Belgium and Switzerland, for example, and in some Italian towns—their efforts were successful. In France, however, despite the urging of the powerful neurologist and psychologist Jean-Martin Charcot, efforts to regulate popular hypnotism failed. This paper, based largely on French nineteenth century medical journals and the writings of Charcot, explores the debates surrounding popular hypnotism. It argues that the failure to regulate the practice in late nineteenth-century France reveals conflicts over the authority of professional medicine, the changing role of women, and deep cultural anxiety about the power of the unconscious mind.
Author: Katrin Schultheiss, Ph.D., George Washington University
Runtime: 1 hour