The Facts behind “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
Now showing until December 31 at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond is an intriguing exhibit devoted to Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a tale of the power of mesmerism to suspend the process of death. Made possible by a loan of items from the collection of James Vacca, Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar explores the popularity of mesmerism in Poe’s time and belief among his contemporaries that this gruesome story might be true.
Mesmerism in the Nineteenth Century
Mesmerism, originally called animal magnetism, was developed by German physician and astronomer Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815) who theorized that a natural energetic transference occurred between all living creatures. Though he failed to receive scientific recognition for his theories, Mesmer believed this force could have healing properties.
While experiments in mesmerism abounded from 1780 until 1850, many quack mesmerists staged performances and published sensationalized accounts of their powers. By Poe’s time, in the 1840s, some practitioners even believed that mesmerized people could demonstrate clairvoyant abilities. The November 18, 1843 issue of the New York Brother Johnathon carried the following notice:
ANIMAL MAGNETISM! — A series of experiments are now going forward in different parts of this Country, with different subjects, by different magnetisers — wholly ignorant of what others are doing — and by people who have not direct communication with one another; all of which go to prove that the Moon is inhabited — that the people have a written language — and make war. The most miraculous coincidences have happened. We are quite serious.
Poe and Mesmerism
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was Poe’s third tale on the subject of mesmerism. “A Tales of the Ragged Mountains” (1844) and “Mesmeric Revelation” (1844) also dealt with the theme. The latter would be the first of Poe’s tales translated into French by the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. The French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix declared the story “a bizarre and profound piece of writing which throws you into a state of contemplation.”
In addition to his fictionalized accounts of the controversial pseudoscience, Poe also wrote reviews of other authors’ books on the subject. In the April 5, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, Poe called Chauncey Hare Townshend’s book Facts in Mesmerism (London, 1840) “one of the most truly profound and philosophical works of the day — a work to be valued properly only in a day to come.” How seriously Poe actually regarded mesmerism is debatable. In some works, he poked fun at the mesmerist Andrew Jackson Davis, who gave a number of public demonstrations in New York while Poe was living there.
Poe’s writings about mesmerism caused some of his contemporaries to believe he had special knowledge of the subject. Mary Hill Hewitt wrote in an 1846 letter to Poe’s future fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, “People seem to think there is something uncanny about him, and the strangest stories are told, what is more, believed, about his mesmeric experiences, at the mention of which he always smiles.”
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was not Poe’s first hoax. In 1838, he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, an account of a trip to Antarctica, thought to be true by English readers. Six years later, in 1844, he convinced New Yorkers that scientists had successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air steering balloon in a story now known as “The Balloon Hoax.”
Also dealing with the theme of mesmerism, Poe’s story “Mesmeric Revelation” was so realistic it was reprinted in the November 29, 1845 issue of the London Popular Record of Modern Science.
The Public’s Response
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was rejected by at least one magazine before the American Review printed it in its December 1845 issue. Within months, the story was reprinted in The Broadway Journal (New York), Spirit of the Times (Philadelphia), Sunday Times (London), the Morning Post (London), the Popular Record of Modern Science (London), and the Boston Museum. The following year it was published as a pamphlet in London. Although many readers believed “Valdemar” to be a true story, the editor of the New York Herald wrote, “whoever thought it a veracious recital must have the bump of Faith large, very large indeed.”
To this, Poe answered in the Broadway Journal,
For our parts we find it difficult to understand how any dispassionate transcendentalist can doubt the facts as we state them; they are by no means so incredible as the marvels which are hourly narrated, and believed, on the topic of Mesmerism. Why cannot a man’s death be postponed indefinitely by Mesmerism? Why cannot a man talk after he is dead? Why? — Why? — that is the question; and as soon as the Tribune has answered it to our satisfaction we will talk to it farther.
Poe’s statement cannot, however, be taken entirely seriously since he frequently ridiculed the Transcendentalists. When asked by a London pharmacist if “Valdemar” was true, Poe responded, “‘Hoax’ is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar’s case . . . The article . . . is now circulating in France. Some few persons believe it — but I do not — and don’t you.”
Poe was so amused by the receipt of a letter from a believer in the story’s veracity that he printed it in the Broadway Journal:
The story’s popularity was such that he reprinted it in the Broadway Journal, adding the following note:
In London, the story was reprinted as a true account of the powers of mesmerism, and the London publisher Short and Little issued it as a pamphlet, Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis in 1846.
At least one British poet was not a fan of “Valdemar,” Elizabeth Barrett (the future Elizabeth Barrett Browning) sent Robert Browning a copy of the story and wrote:
I send you besides a most frightful extract from an American magazine sent to me yesterday…no, the day before…on the subject of mesmerism—& you are to understand, if you please, that the Mr. Edgar Poe who stands committed in it, is my dedicator…whose dedication I forgot, by the way, with the rest—so, while I am sending, you shall have his poems with his mesmeric experience & decide whether the outrageous compliment to me EBB or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.
Thanks in part to Poe’s story, the Spiritualist movement associated mesmerism with communication with the dead and used it for that purpose. One of Poe’s fiancées, Sarah Helen Whitman, was a devout Spiritualist who held séances while in a mesmeric trance.
Over time, popularity of both Spiritualism and mesmerism declined. The meaning of the word mesmerism has also evolved. In 1843, the Scottish physician James Braid proposed the term hypnosis, which is now the usual meaning of word mesmerism.
Poe’s use of realistic and scientifically based details made “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” an early and influential example of modern science fiction. The story’s gruesome conclusion in which the mesmerized patient suddenly “rots” into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity” has been an inspiration to modern horror writers concerned with shock and gore. Since Poe’s time, the story has been reprinted countless times and translated into several languages. It has been adapted to comics and movies, most notably the 1963 Roger Corman film Tales of Terror starring Vincent Price and the 2002 black comedy The Mesmerist starring Neil Patrick Harris.
Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar will be on display on the first floor gallery of the Poe Museum’s Exhibits Building until December 31, 2014. On display on the second floor galleries of the Exhibits Building are The Halloween Gang Presents: The Black Cat (until December 31) and The Raven Room. The Poe Museum’s other three buildings contain permanent exhibits of the Museum’s renowned collection of Edgar Allan Poe personal belongings and memorabilia.