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Is it possible for a hypnotist to be guilty of murder if someone dies while hypnotized?
Though hypnotism had existed in one form or another since ancient times, it was only during the closing years of the 19th century that most people truly became aware of its existence. Often called "mesmerism" (after Anton Mesmer, the charismatic French huckster who had first introduced "animal magnetism" to entice the gullible), stories of the mysterious control hypnotists had over their subjects became common fodder in newspapers around the world. While medical researchers such as James Braid and Jean-Martin Charcot were exploring the legitimate uses of hypnosis in treating patients, "soiree hypnotiques" were often held in private homes where party-goers could be hypnotized for fun.
Newspaper stories of the bizarre antics being carried out by people under hypnosis also gave rise to hysteria over the potential danger that unscrupulous hypnotists posed to society. George du Maurier's 1895 novel, Svengali, helped promote this fear with the story of the sinister hypnotist, Svengali, and his domination over the innocent Trilby. That the book was soon converted into a stage play (and eventually a classic silent movie starring John Barrymore), demonstrated just how frightening the idea of an unscrupulous hypnotist robbing someone of their free will really was. But the public was still fascinated by the mysterious nature of hypnotism. Stage acts featuring hypnotists who put members of their audience into a trance were popular across Europe and North America. Even as medical doctors warned of the potential health risks that came with this kind of stage hypnotism, audiences still filled theatres to watch hypnosis is action.
And so it was on November 8, 1909 when a showman/hypnotist who billed himself as "Professor" Arthur Everton began what was to be a week's engagement at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, New Jersey. As part of the agreement with the theatre, the 35-year-old Everton agreed to provide two hypnotic subjects so one of them could be on display in the theatre window to drum up interest in his performance. The two subjects were regular members of Everton's act, an older man named Robert Simpson and a younger man named Edward Thompson.
It wasn't a particularly lucrative contract since Everton would only receive $50 for a week's performance. Then again, Everton wasn't particularly well-off and even had to borrow ten dollars from the theatre manager to cover the immediate expenses of Everton and his two assistants. Still, the engagement got off to a good start during the opening performance with both subjects performing as requested. Everton, for his part, looked every bit the showman with a magnificent frock coat, top hat, and an elaborate mustache that added to his air of mystery.
Unfortunately for everyone concerned, the second performance would end in complete disaster. The theatre manager invited three prominent local doctors to be in the audience including William H. Long, who happened to be the county physician. In a later interview with a local newspaper, Long would describe what happened next:
"After my office hours last night, I decided to go to the theater and see the work of the hypnotist. Everton took the subject, Simpson, who had been hypnotized, apparently, stretched him out with his head upon one chair, his feet on another, and commanded him to be rigid. I watched this performance closely and to all appearances, the subject was in a cataleptic condition. When the operator [Everton] stepped from a table on the subject's abdomen, there was no yielding of the body. When Everton stepped down upon the stage again, he told some of the stage assistants to put the subject Simpson on his feet. This, it appeared, was to be done by lifting the subject's head from the chair and then raising his stiffened body. But, as the assistants were doing this, I noticed that the subject's body lost rigidity and collapsed, sinking to the floor. The operator was apparently surprised and shouted to Simpson, "It's all right." Everton also used his hands in the familiar way, apparently trying to restore the subject to a normal physical condition. This was without result, however. Then the subject was dragged off the stage and out of our sight."
Almost immediately afterward, the theatre manager came down and asked the doctors sitting in the audience to help revive Simpson. Dr. Long and one of his colleagues rushed backstage to find that Simpson had no pulse or heartbeat. He was then carried to the nearby Waldorf hotel where the two physicians worked on the body to get his heart going again. After using every method they could think of, including artificial respiration, and strychnine injections, Simpson couldn't be revived and the two physicians finally gave up.
Since Dr. Long was the county medical examiner, it was up to him to contact the police chief and launch an investigation into the death. Arthur Everton was downright hysterical on being questioned about what happened and continued to insist that Simpson was simply in a hypnotic state. He was so determined to try waking him up that the police took the precaution of moving the body to the county hospital. A thorough medical examination at the hospital confirmed that Simpson was really and truly dead, despite Everton's protests. Pending an autopsy, Arthur Everton was charged with manslaughter and moved to the local jail.
Not that Everton was quite prepared to give up. While in jail, he begged authorities to allow his friend and mentor, W. E. Davenport, to come prove that Simpson was merely hypnotized. Davenport, a Newark civil servant who described himself as a long-time "student of hypnotics", arrived in Somerville with the manager of a theatre where Everton had performed the previous week. Though not a medical doctor, Davenport was met by Dr. Long and several other doctors who had held off performing the autopsy until they could see what heDavenport made of it all.
It must have been a bizarre spectacle with the doctors standing around while Davenport earnestly assured the dead body that he was alive and needed to wake up. After nothing happened, even Davenport reluctantly concluded that Robert Simpson was indeed dead. While he broke the news to his distraught friend in jail, Dr. Long and a medical team began preparing for the autopsy which was conducted that evening. The doctors soon found that Simpson had died of a ruptured aorta linked to his habitual drinking. Everton and others who knew Simpson reported that the dead man had often spent his evenings hanging out in the local bars (and had likely drunk away his share of the money paid up front for the hypnosis act). Not that this did Everton much good since he still had to face charges.
Announcing his intention to fight the manslaughter charge, Everton came up with a rather unique defense, i.e., that Simpson had actually been alive when the doctors conducted their autopsy meaning that they were guilty of killing him. In the meantime, he managed to be released on $2500 bail and, in a remarkable display of confidence, continued performing his hypnosis act in various cities along the east coast (no word on whether the publicity over the death helped or hindered ticket sales). Ultimately, what might well have been a fascinating court case was avoided when a grand jury ruled in December that Everton wouldn't be prosecuted for Simpson's death. Since no medical doctor could be found who would testify that the death had been caused by hypnosis, Everton was free to go.
Arthur Everton largely faded into obscurity after that. The only other news story I could dig up on him was from 1920 when he was arrested by federal agents who raided his apartment and seized thousands of dollars worth of liquor (Prohibition had just started that year). Everton told reporters that the agents would have been "powerless" if he had used hypnosis to stop them but he had nobly restrained himself because he was a "law-abiding citizen."
No word on whether he hypnotized the judge to get him off that charge as well.
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