Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mad science: You are getting sleepy . . . and homicidal.

The latest issue of European Neurology contains an article on Georges Gilles de la Tourette (after whom Tourette's syndrome is named, he's the gent shown above) and his role in the public hysteria about criminal hypnosis that engulfed French pop culture at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

Here's the abstract:

Hysteria and hypnotism became a favorite topic of studies in the fin de siècle neurology that emerged from the school organized at La Salpêtrière by Jean-Martin Charcot, where he had arrived in 1861. Georges Gilles de la Tourette started working with Charcot in 1884 and probably remained his most faithful student, even after his mentor's death in 1893. This collaboration was particularly intense on 'criminal hypnotism', an issue on which Hippolyte Bernheim and his colleagues from the Nancy School challenged the positions taken by the Salpêtrière School. Bernheim claimed that hypnotism was not a diagnostic feature of hysteria and that there were real-life examples of murders suggested under hypnosis, while hypnosis susceptibility was identified with hysteria by Charcot and Gilles de la Tourette, who saw rape as the only crime associated with hypnotism. The quarrel was particularly virulent during a series of famous criminal cases which took place between 1888 and 1890. At the time, it was considered that La Salpêtrière had succeeded over Nancy, since the role of hypnotism was discarded during these famous trials. However, the theories of Charcot and Gilles de la Tourette were also damaged by the fight, which probably triggered the conceptual evolution leading to Joseph Babinski's revision of hysteria in 1901. Gilles de la Tourette's strong and public interest in hypnotism nearly cost him his life, when a young woman who claimed to have been hypnotized against her will shot him in the head at his own home in 1893. It was subsequently shown that hypnotism had nothing to do with it. The delusional woman was interned at Sainte-Anne for mental disturbance, thus escaping trial. Ironically, Gilles de la Tourette may have been partly responsible, since he had been one of the strongest proponents of placing mentally-ill criminals in asylums instead of prisons.

Though we now know that hypnosis is an induced state and that a hypnotic subject cannot be compelled to commit acts against their will, neither fact was widely understood by psychologists in the late 1800s.

Much of this had to do with the fact that hypnosis - then also traveling under the names mesmerism, animal magnetism, and forced somnambulism – came to the attention of the medical community not through study and field observation, but through various pop culture channels, such as stage magic acts and sensationalist newspaper accounts. Often these accounts muddied the issue by conflating hypnotic states with other ailments, such as epilepsy or "hysteria" (the Nineteenth Century's catch all mental ailment). By the time hypnosis became a subject for serious study, these dubious links were so firmly established in the marketplace of ideas that few doctors bothered to question the assumption. Consequently, even medical professionals held to the view the hypnotic states were symptoms of some other illness. More over, hypnosis was not something done to a subject, but rather a psychological flaw within a subject that could be triggered – accidentally or intentionally – by external stimulus.

Because it was as much a pop phenomenon as a subject of medical research, the public's wild imaginings turned quite lurid. Stories about criminals using hypnosis to carry out their foul deeds filled stages, dime novels, and news columns. One of the most common accusations was that men were exploiting hypnotized women, taking advantage of their hypnotic state to rape them. Most infamously, in 1888, Henri Chambige was accused of hypnotizing, raping, and then murdering Madeleine Grille.

Other, more elaborate crimes were suggested as well. The public became fixated on the idea of crimes being committed by an innocent hypnotized proxy. In 1890, this cultural boogeyman came to be embodied in the persons of Gabrielle Bompard and Michel Eyraud (shown above). Bompard and Eyraud were lovers who killed a local bailiff (a sort of semi-private collections official) with an elaborate hanging mechanism of Eyraud design. While Gabrielle seduced the gentleman in her apartment, Eyraud lowered the device around his neck and hanged him. Immediately after the murder, relations between the two murders started to disintegrate. And I do mean immediately: While the body of their victim was still dangling in the air of their apartment, the lovers supposed quarreled, Michel punched Gabrielle, and then they had sex on the floor. After dumping the body of their victim in a trunk and tossing the trunk in a nearby river, the murderous couple fled to the United States. However, the collapse of their relationship but an unbearable strain on them and Gabrielle returned to Paris and turned herself in. Michel was captured a short time later. Gabrielle's lawyer, either genuinely convinced of the possibility or simply taking the tenor of the times and going with it, claimed that his client was the hypnotized dupe of Eyraud.

The case became a public spectacle and became the focus of an intense medical debate over the limitations of hypnotic influence. On one side was Tourette and company, who claimed that hypnotized victims could not be compelled to commit murder. Against them was Hippolyte Bernheim, who claimed to have conducted experiments that proved a hypnotized subject could be talked into killing someone. The experiments involved hypnotizing patients and then convincing them to attack a third party with a weapon the doctors knew to be fake, but the patients believed was real. The details of these experiments – the rate of attacks, who was hypnotized, etc. – are no longer known, but the results were such that Bernheim was convinced.

Bompard's defense did not get her off the hook, but it may have saved her life. She was ultimately sentenced to 20 years. Michel Eyraud was guillotined.

Tourette's involvement with criminal hypnosis hysteria has a weird epilogue. After the Eyraud-Bompard case, Tourette was shot and slightly wounded by one of his own patients. The assailant was a Rose Kamper-Lecoq, who claimed she attacked the doctor under the mesmeric influence of an unknown party.


zoe said...

hypnotism is the most fascinating subject. almost anything becomes possible.
did you know, in one of my psychology textbooks, there was a case of a woman who'd been so abused throughout her life, she couldn't form normal relationships with people, couldn't associate with people, period. so her doctor hypnotized her and regressed her to a younger age and inserted a trustworthy companion, guiding her through conversations and activities with that imaginary friend. the process worked, in that the woman became socially active, etc afterwards, because she now had a basis for understanding normal, non-abusive relationships--because she believed she had already had one. how cool is that?

i want to be hypnotized, and convinced that I have magical powers. the problem--as you've clearly outlined above-- is finding a hypnotist who won't take advantage of the opportunity to fulfill his most violent, video-game-induced social fantasies by proxy...

Chris 'Frog Queen' Davis said...

Very interesting stuff. I had never researched the history, quite engaging stuff.


Ms Harker said...

Interesting article, you mentioned hysteria as a label for most things back then. I would argue that it was mostly applied to women, those perceived as 'difficult' or 'uncooperative'. Also used when a woman such as the mentioned in the hanging crime commits such unspeakable acts for a woman.