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Wallace, Alfred Russel - Personal spiritual experiences [Mesmerism]



Type of Spiritual Experience


Wallace added this account of personal spiritualistic experiences to the end of The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural (1866) when the latter essay was incorporated into the collection On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism in 1875. The present version of 'Notes' comes from the 1896 Third Edition of Miracles.

A description of the experience

Notes of Personal Evidence -  - Alfred Russel Wallace -

          IN THE first edition of this Essay I did not introduce any of my own observations, because I had not then witnessed any such facts in a private house, and without the intervention of paid mediums, as would be likely to satisfy my readers. Having now had the opportunity of investigating the subject under more favourable conditions, I will give some account of my early personal experience, which many of my friends are so polite and illogical as to say will have more weight with them than all the other witnesses whose evidence I have adduced. I will begin with what first led me to inquiries outside the pale of what is generally recognised as science.

My earliest experiences on any of the matters treated of in this little work was in 1844, at which time I was teaching in a school in one of the Midland Counties. Mr. Spencer Hall was then lecturing on Mesmerism, and visited our town, and I and many of my pupils attended his lectures. We were all greatly interested. Some of the elder boys tried to mesmerise the younger ones, and succeeded; and I myself found several who, under my influence, exhibited many of the most curious phenomena we had witnessed at the lectures. I was intensely interested in the subject, and pursued it with ardour, carrying out a number of experiments to guard against deception and to test the nature of the influence. Many of the details of these experiments are now stamped as vividly on my memory as if they were events of yesterday; and I will briefly give the substance of a few of the more remarkable. 

Phenomena during the Mesmeric Trance

I produced the trance state in two or three boys, of twelve to sixteen years of age, with great ease, and could always be sure that it was genuine, first, by the turning of the eyeball in the orbit, so that the pupil was not visible when the eyelid was raised; secondly, by the characteristic change of countenance; and, thirdly, by the readiness with which I could produce catalepsy and loss of sensation in any part of the body. The most remarkable observations during this state were on phreno-mesmerism and sympathetic sensation. By placing my finger on the part of the head corresponding to any given phrenological organ, the corresponding faculty was manifested with wonderful and amusing perfection. For a long time I thought that the effects produced on the patient were caused by my wishing the particular manifestation; but I found by accident that when, by ignorance of the position of the organs, I placed my finger on a wrong part, the manifestation which followed was not that which I expected, but that which was due to the position touched. I was particularly interested in phenomena of this kind, and by experiments made alone and silently, completely satisfied myself that the effects were not due to suggestion or to the influence of my own mind. I had to buy a little phrenological bust for my own use, and none of the boys had the least knowledge of or taste for phrenology; yet, from the very first, almost all the organs touched, in however varied order and in perfect silence, were followed by manifestations too striking to be mistaken, and presenting more wonderful representations of varied phases of human feeling than the greatest actors are able to exhibit.

The sympathy of sensation between my patient and myself was to me the most mysterious phenomenon I had ever witnessed. I found that when I laid hold of his hand he felt, tasted, or smelt exactly the same as I did. I had already produced all the phenomena of suggestion, and could make him tipsy with a glass of water by calling it brandy, and cause him strip off all his clothes by telling him he was on fire; but this was quite another thing. I formed a chain of several persons, at one end of which was the patient, at the other myself. And when, in perfect silence, I was pinched or pricked, he would immediately put his hand to the corresponding part of his own body, and complain of being pinched or pricked too. If I put a lump of sugar or salt in my mouth, he immediately went through the action of sucking, and soon showed by gestures and words of the most expressive nature what it was I was tasting. I have never to this day been satisfied with any of the explanations given of this fact by our physiologists - for they resolve themselves into this, that the boy neither felt nor tasted anything, but acquired a knowledge of what I was feeling and tasting by a preternatural acuteness of hearing. That he had any such preternatural acuteness was, however, contrary to all my experience, and the experiment was tried so as expressly to prevent his gaining any knowledge of what I felt or touched by means of the ordinary senses.

Phenomena during the Waking State

After I had induced the state of coma several times, some of the boys became very susceptible during their ordinary waking condition. I could induce catalepsy of any of the limbs with great ease; and some curious little facts showed that it was real, not imaginary, rigidity that was produced. Once a boy was in my room in a state of complete rigidity when the dinner-bell rang. I hastily made passes to relax the body and limbs, and we went down together. When his plate was before him, however, he found that he could not bend one of his arms, and, not liking to say anything, sat some time trying to catch my eye. I then had to go to him, and by two or three passes rendered him able to eat his dinner. This is a curious and important fact, because the boy went down thinking he was all right. The rigidity was therefore in no way caused by his "expectation," since it existed in opposition to it. In this boy and another one I could readily produce the temporary loss of any of the senses, as hearing or smelling; and could even so completely take away the memory that the patient could not tell his own name, greatly to his disgust and confusion, and this by nothing more than a simple pass across the face, and saying in an ordinary tone of voice, "Now, you can't tell me your name." And after he had remained utterly puzzled for some minutes, if I made a reverse pass, and said, "Now, you know your name again," his whole countenance would change - a look of relief coming over it as the familiar words recurred suddenly to his memory.

Such facts as these were at that period generally imputed to acting and trick on the part of the patients. Now, most of our physiologists admit them to be genuine mental phenomena, and attempt to explain them by "abstraction" and "suggestion" - denying any specific action of the operator on the patient. This appears to me to be really no explanation at all; and I am confirmed in this view when I find that those who put it forward deny the reality of all facts that do not square with it. All such phenomena as phreno-mesmerism, and sympathetic sensation, and true clairvoyance, which have been elaborately examined and tested by a score of good observers, are nevertheless denied a place in the repertory of established scientific facts by those who profess to study all the phenomena of the organism or of the mind of man. These personal experiences having enabled me to detect the more subtle indications of the mesmeric coma, I have since taken every opportunity of witnessing the phenomena in public and private, and am quite satisfied that, in the more remarkable manifestations, there is, or can be, very rarely any deception practised.

As Dr. Carpenter(1) and other men of science still maintain the view that all the higher phenomena of Spiritualism which are not imposture are due to subjective impressions, analogous to those produced in his patients by the mesmeriser, I will here point out certain characteristic differences between the two classes of facts, which I first adduced in reply to Mr. E. B. Tylor(2) in a letter in Nature (1872, p. 364).

(1) William B. Carpenter (1813-1885)
(2) Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)

1. The mesmerised patient never has doubts of the reality of what he sees or hears. He is like a dreamer, to whom the most incongruous circumstances suggest no idea of incongruity, and he never inquires if what he thinks he perceives harmonises with his actual surroundings. He has, moreover, lost his memory of what and where he was a few moments before; and can give no account, for instance, of how he managed to get from a lecture-room in London, to which he came as a spectator half-an-hour ago, on to an Atlantic steamer in a hurricane, or into the presence of a tiger in a tropical jungle. The assistants at the séances of Mr. Home or Mrs. Guppy are not in this state, as even our opponents will admit, and as the almost invariable suspicion of fraud with which the phenomena are at first regarded clearly demonstrates. They do not lose all memory of immediately preceding events; they criticise; they examine; they take notes; they suggest tests - none of which things the mesmerised patient ever does.

2. The mesmeriser has the power of acting on certain sensitive individuals (not on assemblies of people, as Mr. Tylor assumes), and all experience shows that those who are thus sensitive to any one operator are but a small proportion of any body of people, and even these almost always require previous manipulation, with an almost passive submission to the operator. The number who can be acted on without such previous manipulation is very small, probably less than one per cent. But there is no such limitation to the number of persons who simultaneously witness most of the mediumistic phenomena. The visitors to Mr. Home or Mrs. Guppy all see whatever occurs of a physical nature, as the records of hundreds of sittings, and even the evidence of sceptics, demonstrate.

The two classes of phenomena, therefore, differ fundamentally; yet there is a connection between them, but in an opposite direction to that suggested. It is the mediums, not the assistants, who are "sensitives." They are almost always persons who are subject to the mesmeric influence, and they often exhibit all the characteristic phenomena of coma, trance, rigidity, and abnormal sense-power. Conversely, the most sensitive mesmeric patients are almost always mediums.

The differences now pointed out are so radical and so important that it does not say much for the logical clearness of those who persist in classing the two phenomena as identical. But the manner in which men of great eminence fail to see the bearing of facts when that bearing is against their pet theories will be further illustrated by a few examples in the appendix to this volume(3).

(3) i.e., On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism.


The source of the experience

Wallace, Alfred Russell

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items


Activities and commonsteps



Being anaesthetised
Extreme pain