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A 19th Century Book Reveals the Secrets of Hypnotism


An enigmatic author and hypnotist wrote a treatise on looking at man as an easily manipulated machine.

Every era has its own paranormal fascination. It’s an open secret. Interest travels through an inexplicable word-of-mouth network but no one dares to speak of it openly. With a confidante, with a favorite child or a lover, we speak as though of a ghost we believe haunts the building, the alien ship we once saw cross the sky or of a prophetic dream we’re sure we had.

The 19th century was rich in extraordinary obsessions. The spirits were one of them. Another was death. Still a third worth mentioning was hypnotism. These three account for three of the best stories of Edgar Allan Poe: “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” and “Mesmeric Revelation,” of 1844, and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” from 1845, in which the mesmerization (as it was then also known, after the theories of Franz Mesmer) is the cause of a paranormal phenomena.

At the end of this period, a book appeared in London with the suggestive title, Is man a free agent? The law of suggestion, including hypnosis, what and why it is, and how to induce it, the law of nature, mind, heredity, etc. Its author, who signed the book with the name, Santanelli, proceeded under the assumption that man was “just a machine” and could thus be handled with ease, once the appropriate mechanisms for achieving it were known.


As you’ve probably suspected, Santanelli was himself an enigmatic character of whom, even now, little is known. The New York Times noted a public appearance, in 1896, and during which Santanelli hypnotized 10 men to make them believe they were living quite different circumstances: one had hurt his foot and another believed the chair upon which he sat was red, etc. That same year, Santanelli was said to have been in Indiana where he hypnotized his assistant, James Mahoney, who took to such a deep sleep that he didn’t awaken until a week later, and then, only when Santanelli woke him up.

In the treatise he wrote on hypnotism, Santanelli explained in detail the subtle differences in each of the elements of his technique. “There are no synonyms, as no two things are the same,” he wrote; to explain why his suggestion is different from hypnosis, how it operates, the inspiration and under what concept both the mind and the memory are considered by these arts. The tone is somewhat enigmatic and ambiguous, as if Santanelli is revealing a secret but only to those who are able to understand that much more than yet might be visible.

“Everything in life is a combination of attributes,” he wrote, and later: “Man does not ‘think,’ he realizes.”

Was Santanelli right? Is it enough to manipulate the right mechanisms to make man into a machine who obeys commands and follows instructions? The truth is that by flipping through his book, one quickly realizes what an extravagant gesture is the disquieting reality of our ability to make decisions.

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