Is there anybody there?

<strong>Servants of the Supernatural: the Night Side of the Victorian Mind</strong>

Antonio Melech

"What do you think of my setting up in the magnetic line," Charles Dickens wrote to a friend in 1845, "with a large brass plate. Terms, 25 guineas per nap." The jocular tone belies his new-found faith. For the past few years he had been watching with great interest Dr John Elliotson's experiments in mesmerism ("Hypnotism before it wore good clothes, kept a carriage and asked Incredulity to dinner," as the rather more doubtful Ambrose Bierce defined it) at University College Hospital in London. "Against all my preconceived opinions and impressions," Dickens later noted, "I am a believer."

He wasn't the only one. As this book points out, pretty much everyone in Victorian England was desperate to believe the hypnotists' hype. God might have been dying (Darwin had the lid on the coffin and Herbert Spencer was handing him the hammer and nails), but that didn't mean the human need for mystery, for the fundamentally inexplicable, had gone away. Men might be "destitute of faith", said Carlyle, but that doesn't mean they aren't "terrified of scepticism". The stage was set for every fraud and phoney and quisling quack to make with the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

So here is Dr Elliotson with one Elizabeth Okey, a hysterical and epileptic housemaid of diminutive stature who, prior to being mesmerised, can barely pick up a feather duster and, after it, can lift an 84lb weight in front of an astonished audience. Melechi doesn't know how this miracle was achieved, but I have a hunch that the fact Elizabeth's "hand and arm were bound to a splint and heavily bandaged" before the successful lift might have something to do with it.

And here is Alexis, a young German somnambulist who can play cards and tell the time while blindfolded - though not without, noted the physician to the Queen's household, "repeatedly touch[ing] and shift[ing] his bandages [and] pressing a knuckle into each eye". Nor, apparently, did Alexis's extraordinary visions work at all well when he was asked to identify a card behind rather than in front of him. A century and a half on, such trickery seems just another branch of showbiz - the work of some thaumaturge thespians out to earn a few easy quid. But the hucksterism turned more histrionic, Melechi reminds us, when the spiritualists got in on the act.

It began, as so many fads and fantasies do, in the United States. Kate and Margaret Fox, two young sisters living in a reputedly haunted house in Hydesville in upstate New York, claimed to be able to communicate with "invisible visitors" from beyond the grave. Given that the invisible visitors' messages consisted of a knock for "yes" and silence for "no", it might be assumed that nobody was too impressed. Yet the history of hoodoo, from spiritualism to spoon-bending, is a history of such minuscule achievements - Ooh! The table moved! - that perhaps we should not be shocked that some of Wayne County's most faithful residents were soon queueing up for a chance to talk to the departed. (Even as the Fox sisters worked their wonders, the putatively hard-headed realists of my home county were to be found reading a publication called the Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph.)

Meanwhile, in the decidedly less pious London of the 1870s, the conjuror John Nevil Maskelyne had his work cut out for him convincing people the mediums were talking hooey. You might be able to replicate their miracles, he was told, but that doesn't mean the spiritualists get their effects the same way. A few years later, no less a figure than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - who in the shape of Sherlock Holmes was creating one of the enduring emblems of the rationalist enlightenment - would be a sucker for the sorcerers. His friend Harry Houdini had an explanation for every huckster's hocus-pocus, but Doyle was having none of it. His wife was dead and he needed to believe there were people who could help him commune with her.

There never has been - and never will be - a shortage of charlatans, of course, and in our age of reiki healing and crystal therapy, of hom oeo pathy and the quantum touch, we ought not to congratulate ourselves overmuch on having seen through the moonings of earlier generations. Montaigne said that we most believe what we least understand. Given how much what most of us don't understand expands by the day, we should be giving thanks that the world is as sane as it is. This may not be the first book on the nightside of the mind, nor will it be the last.