Secrets of the Sleep Merchants” by William Lindsay Gresham

Background: In junior high English class, one of the exercises was to take a card from a rack, read the article or story on it, then answer a series of questions based on that article or story. The racks were divided by reading level, and most of the students, including myself, were given cards from the average level reading level. The problem was that even then, I was reading at a college level (I read one of my older brothers’ textbooks, “Mythology” by Edith Hamilton, at the age of 8, and was then answering whole columns (in the form a question, of course) labeled “Mythology” while watching “Jeopardy” soon afterward ) and the selections I was given were rather boring. That was when I decided to try something from the advanced rack, and it turned out to be one of those strange hypnosis-related coincidences that pop up every so often in my life.

The article was entitled ‘Secrets of the Sleep Merchants’ and it described how carny stage hypnotists of the early 20th Century used tricks like chloroform or hashish to help induce their subjects. Everything was told from the point of view of the author describing how his father used these tricks. It was a remarkable coincidence, as by even then I had a strong interest in hypnosis. At that time, I decided I would find a copy of this article for myself, as this was only an abbreviated version, so I was sure that I memorized the title of both the article and the magazine it was in, “True, the Men’s Magazine”. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that the libraries didn’t collect the magazine. For years, I would periodically make a slight effort at locating the article or the magazine, with no success, searching at paper collectors conventions and approaching collectors, and, then, later, searching eBay: of course, it didn’t help that I could only remember the year of publication, 1955 (my birth year) but not the month.

Flash forward three decades. One day I got the idea of searching the Internet for the article title, and I struck gold. ‘Secrets of the Sleep Merchants’ was listed as part of the online bibliography of writer William Lindsay Gresham: this same bibliography also listed his literary agent. A polite letter to the agent provided me the month of publication, and I was able to purchase a copy of the right magazine the next time it appeared on eBay.

I also learned a bit about the author: Gresham was primarily known for his noir novel “Nightmare Alley”, about a carnival mentalist turned high-society spiritualist and his eventual fall and disintegration, which became a movie of the same name starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondel. He was also a stage magician who authored a biography of Houdini. I also discovered he was an abusive husband, whose wife fled him and moved to England with their children, where she married C S Lewis (the story of which is told in the movie “Shadowland”.) Gresham survived a bout of tuberculosis but eventually succumbed to alcoholism and committed suicide in 1962.

The Article: ‘Secrets of the Sleep Merchants’ breezily catalogs a variety of tricks used by stage hypnotists in Gresham’s father’s time and possibly before. However, I have not been able to locate any information about whether his father was actually in the carny business: much of the information about the carny trade apparently comes from his association with one “Doc” Halliday, an old carny.worker and friend of Gresham’s. Other material about the world of carny can be found in of his nonfiction work “Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny”.

The article starts with a story Gresham’s father told him, how he was going to be professional hypnotist’s “horse” or plant. Once on stage, he was placed between two chairs and a block of stone was placed on his stomach: the intent was that the hypnotist was going to demonstrate body rigidity by breaking the stone with a sledgehammer. His father’s mother, however, wanted her son to have nothing to do with being a “horse” and quickly marched him off-stage. Gresham would later explain the secret behind the trick: his father (as a young man) was specifically selected for his relatively short height, that he was placed on the two chairs on his shoulders and calves (a very easy position to maintain) and that the block of heavy-looking stone was actually sandstone, a relatively brittle rock.

After that, once we get past a brief but accurate of the stage hypnosis process, the article then describes a number of tricks and stratagems used to beguile the audience into becoming good subjects. A number of the tricks described include:

  • spraying a fine mist of saccharine on the lips of prospective subjects while holding up a sugar cube along with the suggestion that they will taste something sweet
  • spraying chloroform in the face of a subject, the distinctive scent masked by a heavy odor of incense
  • using a rubber ball under the arm or a pad to block blood flow for a short period in order to give the impression that the subject (who is a “horse” or plant) has stopped their heart
  • using an ultra-high-frequency sound generator (above human hearing) which was supposed to make the prospective subjects more suggestible
  • burning marijuana along with incense and directing the smoke toward the subject, using its well-known effect to reduce resistance and enhance suggestibility

That last trick deserves particular attention:

Modern investigators have found that the administration of a drug derived from cannabis indica, a plant found all over the world, enables them to hypnotize the insane and other subjects not susceptible to suggestion alone.

Now cannabis indica has a long, dishonorable history. I spotted a fine clump of it growing in an ornamental urn in from of an old brownstone in New York just last fall. To hep local citizens, there it is known as the Indian Princess, and a cigarette made from it is called a stick of tea — in other words, marijuana. One of the greatest dangers of marijuana smoking is that is leaves the mind open — naked and defenseless to suggestion. Sometimes the suggestion is that the teen-age mob go out and play “chicken” on the highway in a borrowed car, or even stick up a gas station for kicks.

Yet witch doctors since the dawn ages have known the Indian Princess. The witch doctor places his patient on an mat, kindles a fire and, throwing herbs on it, fans the smoke into the patient’s face. If the herbs contains a few leaves of cannabis indica, the suggestions given during the treatment take effect with sledge hammer power.

Commentary: This entry was supposed to be the second in the blog, following a historical timeline, but other events plus the availability of the book “Monster Midway” on inter-library loan led me to delay publication. I’m glad I did: “Monster Midway” doesn’t mention stage hypnosis but it does have a nice chapter on another, related carny act: the mentalist, including a relatively inclusive section on the whole grift behind the act.


One Response to “Secrets of the Sleep Merchants” by William Lindsay Gresham”

  • ronin1861 says:

    Cannabis indica is employed by Fah Lo Suee in Daughter of Fu Manchu. Sax Rohmer writes a very vivid account of the hallucinations induced in the victim.

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