Ancient hypnosis techniques which spawned Freud's couch revealed in madness, murder and mental healing

By Ben Miller | 08 December 2014

Freud hypnosis, brainwashed murderers and more as Wellcome reveals century of mental healing to public

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There is the plea of Gabrielle Bompard, a Parisian on trial for murder claiming her male accomplice was a mind-controlling Svengali who hypnotised her into committing murder during the late 19th century, and the plight of James Tilly Matthews, a Welsh tea merchant from more than 200 years ago who despaired at the control a gang of magnetic spies held over his mind via a secret machine called the Air Loom.

A black and white photo of a man with a side parting in a suit during the 19th century
Portrait of James Braid© Wellcome Library, London
These are two of the more unnerving tales told in Mindcraft, a new set of online stories taking readers on a journey through the past century of madness, murder and mental healing.

Produced by the Wellcome in cahoots with top digital agency Clearleft and the BAFTA-winning Fonic PostProduction, who’ve made the soundscape, this is a path from exotic mesmerism to Freud’s couch. Imagined Twitter spats and accounts from entranced surgeons light the way.

“The mysteries of the mind were one of the 19th century’s great obsessions,” says Mike Jay, the author of the story and an expert on bygone mind control attempts and all things ancient London.

“The Wellcome Library has an unparalleled range of resources for exploring medical history.

“The historic texts and images in their collection allowed us to create an immersive world .

“It captures the thrill and terror of science's first attempts to map the unconscious.”

A black and white etching of a physician in a suit and neckerchief during the 19th century
John Elliotson. Lithograph after J Ramsay© Wellcome Library, London
One of the most curious cases is Anna O, the pseudonym of a “brilliant and fragile” young woman with “baffling” physical and mental symptoms, as described by Freud and Joseph Breuer, who witnessed her chronic coughing, hallucinations, paralysis, loss of vision and inability to speak her native German.

Only hypnosis saved her, recalling traumatic events from beyond her memory in order to vanquish her linked physical symptoms.

“The actual facts in the case are disputed, to put it mildly,” says Jay. “But it became the great illustration of the new model of the mind.

“Anna seems to have two completely separate personalities, and a lot of doctors had speculated that there must be some physical cause for this – some brain defect, perhaps.

“But what Freud argued was that these two apparently separate personalities were actually an unconscious way of dealing with trauma, and that once that trauma was recalled to consciousness they could be brought to dialogue and the rift between them could be healed.”

O herself called her analysts’ method “the talking cure”. She became a pioneering social worker, author and campaigner for education and women’s rights under her real name, Bertha Pappenheim, and her identity as Anna O was only unmasked posthumously.

Freud’s concern that too much control was being imposed caused him to swiftly abandon hypnotism. He believed that patients had to “solve their own riddles” if they were to be cured, but kept one well-known feature he had originally installed for the practise of hypnotism – the famous couch inside his office.

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