Hypnosis and criminal mind control in 1890s France

The 19th century French neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette is best known for Tourette’s Syndrome, but a fascinating article in European Neurology traces his interest in the criminal uses of hypnosis.

It is full of surprising facts, like that he was shot in the head by a delusional patient who believed that she had been hypnotised against her will, and that he eventually died in a Swiss asylum after developing psychosis caused by syphilis.

We now know that hypnosis cannot be used to make people do things against their will, but at the time it was widely believed that women could be hypnotised to be easy prey to sexual predators, and even that otherwise innocent people could be hypnotised to be killers against their will. Sort of like a 19th century Manchurian Candidate.

The murder of a public notary by Michel Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard in 1889, in which Bompard said she was hypnotised to be a murderer, made headlines around the world (you can still read The New York Times coverage online) and also served as a public battle over whether hypnosis could be used for criminal ends.

France was the centre of hypnosis research at the time and many experiments were carried out where hypnotised people were asked to ‘kill’ people with prop weapons to test their compliance. Neurologists Gilles de la Tourette and Jean-Martin Charcot were famous for their work on hypnosis and hysteria and weighed into the heated legal debate.

The patient who shot Gilles de la Tourette was not hypnotised, however, although was delusional and believed that she was. Hypnosis is a common theme of psychosis even today and your average inpatient psychiatric ward may well contain a patient or two who believe they are being ‘controlled’ or ‘mesmerised’ by hypnosis.

In Gilles de la Tourette’s case, the incident is notable not least because he suffered a bullet in the brain, had it yanked out, and was writing to his friend about the experience later in the day.

…he was shot – for real – at his home in Paris by Rose Kamper-Lecoq, a 29-year-old former patient from La Salp√™tri√®re and Sainte-Anne who later claimed that she had been hypnotized from a distance…

Rose asked him for some money, claiming that she was without resources because her hypnotism sessions had altered her will, and shot him when he refused. There were three shots, with only the first one reaching its target. Fortunately for Gilles de la Tourette, it resulted in only a superficial occipital wound, and he was even able to write to Montorgueil about the event the same evening.

The article has a copy of the letter with the description “The writing is uneasy, but Gilles de la Tourette reassures Montorgueil and explains that the bullet has been removed, ending the letter with the comment ‘What a strange story’ (‘Quelle dr√¥le d’histoire’)”.

Anyway, a fascinating article, freely available, and full of fantastic images and illustrations from newspapers of the time.

Link to full-text of article (scroll down).
Link to PubMed entry for same.

3 Comments

  1. Posted July 20, 2009 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Hypnosis may have been the “command hallucination” of choice back then but when I worked with psychotics (more recently than the 19th century) people were much more likely to feel controlled through TV or the radio and I guess now possibly through email, msn, email etc.
    Thanks to Mesmer hypnosis had been tagged with a “mystical” association. And George du Maurier’s character hypnotically controlling Svengali in his novel Trilby further shaped public misconceptions of hypnosis which always seep into psychotic delusions too I guess.
    Robert Temple’s book: Open to Suggestion: Uses and Abuses of Hypnosis’ whilst betraying a lack of knowledge re the nature of hypnosis makes for reverting reading regarding the history of hypnosis and crime.

  2. ChristianK
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    We know that it isn’t easy to get people to do something like killing another person via hypnosis.
    There were however experiments that showed that it’s possible to get a proband to throw acid at the hypnotists.
    Hypnosis can’t directly override someones will but it can rewire someone’s perception in a way that an act becomes okay (perceive acid to be clear water).
    Afterwards the act of throwing water doesn’t conflict with their “will”, even when the water happens to be acid.

  3. Posted July 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article…Although you mention people can’t be hypnotized against their will. That is not 100% true.
    There are certain techniques that can get people to do what you want even against their will. A few hypnotic mind control experts know how to do this.
    Charles Manson used these techniques to get many of his followers to kill for him.
    Like everything else there are always exceptions to the rule


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