Madness and Mesmerism: Charles Deas Revisited

When I saw the Denver Art Museum’s exhibition of the art of Charles Deas last fall, I was as intrigued by the story of Deas’s life as I was by his art. There is a tragic fascination in the way his brief but brilliant career was cut short by mental illness, which led to his commitment to New York City’s Bloomingdale Asylum at the age of 29. Especially fascinating was this enigmatic detail: an acquaintance’s comment that Deas’s illness had first manifested itself in part as “an unnecessary anxiety about the new science of magnetism.”

The “magnetism” referred to here was the kind of “magnetic” healing often known as mesmerism, after its most famous and controversial practitioner, Anton Mesmer. A royal committee debunked Mesmer’s scientific claims in 1784, and researchers’ interest focused instead on the ability of the “magnetic operator” to induce a trancelike state through the power of suggestion (hence, “mesmerize” as a synonym for “hypnotize”).

The story of “magnetism” is a rich and strange one: In Mesmer’s Paris apartments, those seeking treatment crowded around baquets, or magnetized tubs, while those overcome by the experience might need to be carried off to one of the padded and curtained “crisis rooms.” Alternatively, patients could go out to the country and sit under a specially magnetized oak. The committee members who investigated Mesmer’s claims included Benjamin Franklin, chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and Dr. Joseph Guillotin. (Some years later, in the chaos of the revolution, Lavoisier would die in Guillotin’s most famous invention, as would another committee member, Jean Sylvain Bailly.)

Mesmer baquet

The sole remaining example of Mesmer’s baquet, on display at the Musée d’Histoire de la médecine et de la Pharmacie, Lyon, France.
Image source: Cabinet

How might Deas have encountered magnetism? Author Andrew Scull notes that “despite its official rejection mesmerism lived on, and during Victorian times would enjoy a remarkable underground popularity among the well-to-do and the chattering classes, even while medical men dismissed it as a worthless anathema. In the book accompanying the Deas exhibition, curator Carol Clark speculates that Deas may have sought out “magnetic” therapy.

But it could be both simpler, and more complicated, than that. The linkage of madness and mesmerism, and the accounts of Deas’s subsequent treatments, rang a bell. A few years before, I’d come across a book, The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness, by British author Mike Jay. Matthews spent most of his adult life confined to Bedlam (more formally, Bethlem — that is, Bethlehem — Hospital), the infamous London asylum; his primary doctor published a book describing Matthew’s elaborate delusions of persecution as part of an ongoing battle over his institutionalization.

Matthews himself provided a technical illustration of the loom and its workings; in 2006, artist Rod Dickinson, working from Matthews’s drawing, built a version of the machine in collaboration with the Tyne and Wear Museum, which was displayed in the Laing Gallery, Newcastle.

Put as simply as possible, Matthews thought he was being tortured and his thoughts disrupted by remote control, via magnetic currents produced by a machine called the “air loom.” Matthew’s “air loom” was operated by a gang of seven: villainous Bill the King, wisecracking Jack the Schoolmaster, crude Sir Archy, the enigmatic Middle Man, scheming Augusta, poor, maltreated Charlotte, and the sinister Glove Woman, the most skilled operator of the machine.

Jay argues that Matthews’s magnetic “air loom” was an old-school version of what modern clinicians refer to as “influencing machines,” a common feature of psychotic delusions. As Jay observes, “Clinical psychiatric case notes hum with secret radio transmitters, omnipresent surveillance systems, devices implanted in TVs or heating systems or the subject’s brain, controlling beams from political elites or alien craft.” But in 1800, Matthews had no tinfoil from which to make a hat.

So perhaps Deas’s “anxiety about the new science of magnetism” was simply a predictable manifestation of paranoia, of the delusions of persecution which frequently mark the onset of psychotic illness. But this does not mean it is of no interest. Far from it, argues Jay: “It’s well recognized that such delusions have a tendency to worry and tease at rips in the cultural fabric, interpolating themselves into gaps in the social psyche. Delusional subjects often unsettle those who encounter them not by just by the form of their condition but its content: they can reflect back a disturbing, often nightmarish certainty about free-floating anxieties in the broader culture.”

This throws an interesting new light on the haunted landscape of Deas’s art, in which cultural and personal anxieties seem to shade into each other. It also makes me wish we had not lost A Vision, the religious painting created by Deas after he was institutionalized, said to be full of “dim and half-revealed shapes of horror which afflict the feverish minds of the insane” that made “the blood chill and the brain ache.”

What “free-floating anxieties in the broader culture” might Deas have reflected back to in America of the 1840s? The visionary Shaker revival known as the Era of Manifestations had begun in 1837; in 1844, the millennial Millerites had their Great Disappointment, and Joseph Smith was murdered in Illinois. In 1848, the year Deas was institutionalized, the Fox sisters made their first claims about communicating with spirits, including an entity they called “Mr. Splitfoot,” after an outbreak of poltergeist activity in their home. Out of these claims came Spiritualism. (The word “séance”, which the Spiritualists would make so familiar, had also been applied to the sessions Mesmer held in his Paris chambers).

Undoubtedly, Deas’s illness put a sadly premature end to his career as an artist. But grasping the visions of his madness may allow us to read more into the visions of his brief artistic flowering. And, as Jay demonstrates, the lines between individual and societal madness may be blurrier than we like to think.

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