Walford Bodie, “Merrie Devil”

In a century that has produced a number of great stage hypnotists, from Gil Boyne and Ormond McGill, Pat Collins, the Amazing Polgar and Kreskin, to Paul McKenna and Derren Brown, there is one man that outshines them all.

His name is Walford Bodie, “MD”, and he was quite the flamboyant character.

History: Born in 1869 as Samuel Murphy Bodie in Amberdeen, Scotland, he worked as an electrician for the Scottish National Telephone Company but eventually his side career as an illusionist became his true calling. He was a natural showman: a stage magician, sleight of hand artist, ventriloquist, and hypnotist. Among his titles was “The Electrical Wizard of the North”, the “British Edison”, “Modern Miracle Worker” and “The Most Remarkable Man on Earth”.

His act consisted of a number of radical phenomena of the time period, especially electricity and stage hypnosis. Stage hypnosis as a specific art was quite new at that time (I have only found a few references from this time period explicitly using the term “stage hypnosis”, including a few books with this title) and he is the earliest stage hypnotist on record that I have been able to locate with an international reputation.

His electricity demonstrations were very showy. His act included a fake electric chair, a replica of the one that executed William Kemmler in Sing Sing in 1890 (the first prisoner to be executed by the electric chair.) Bodie, who billed himself as “The Man They Could Not Electrocute”, would place himself in the chair and pass 30,000 volts through his body for the climax of his act, illuminating sixteen incandescent bulbs and two arc lamps held in his bare hands. (Electric currents with high voltages and low amperage can arc across relatively long distances but cannot overcome or cause damage to objects with even modest resistance, such as the human body.) However, in 1920, Harry Houdini arranged to obtain the real thing for Bodie. (Houdini was a great friend and correspondent of Bodie’s.)

There are no definitive records or descriptions I can find about his stage hypnosis act: what little I can discover was that he did not perform what we would expect as a modern stage hypnosis performance. His stage hypnosis act was more medical in direction, involving sensational cures, especially of paralysis. His ‛bloodless surgery’ demonstrations utilized hypnotism and electricity (‛Bodic Force’) to ‛cure’ the afflicted and the lame. He even formed the Bodie Electric Drug Company, retailing ‛Electric Life Pills’ and ‛Electric Linament’.

Lacking a medical degree, he said the initials “MD” stand for “Merrie Devil”. Once, during a performance in 1909, medical students thronged the audience and pelted him with rotten fruit, eggs, and other garbage, so much so that he had to leave the stage to the chanting of “Bodie, Bodie, Quack, Quack, Quack, Quack”, wearing, as one commentator put it, “a coat of many colours”. That same year, a group of Scottish medical students took him to court to challenge his use of the initials “MD”, but, showman that he was, he turned the proceedings into another of this performances and won exoneration.

Bodie died in 1939, at the age of 70, after completing a season of performances.

Trivia:

  • Bodie and his signature waxed mustache was the target of a parody by Charlie Chaplin: Chaplin’s first big break in show business was in a review lead by comedian Will Murray in 1906 in London, where Chaplin parodied Bodie in a performance entitled “Casey’s Court Circus”. Chaplin was 17 at the time.
  • Bodie himself campaigned against the electric chair as a means of execution, advocating the gallows, instead, as a more humane method.
  • Bodie was so popular that when, in 1916, he lost his entire production equipment during WW I, he was back on tour within six months. His production company was on their way through the Mediterranean to perform in India when the ship he was traveling on was sunk. He and his wife were separated during the rescue and were not reunited for several weeks because his rescue ship was also sunk.
  • During a tour of Ireland, Bodie was named Life Governor of the town of Cork.
  • Bodie was also an author. Two of his most notable publications are “The Bodie Book”, a nonfiction account of hypnosis and related paranormal subjects like telepathy and mental suggestion, and “Harley the Hypnotist”, a mystery novel involving a hypnotist detective.
  • A true Scotsman, Bodie officiated at the opening of the Royal Tarlair Golf Club in Macduff, Scotland, on April 4th, 1926 and drive the first ball on the course.

References:

(A previous version of this article was posted on"The Transparent Hypnotist" weblog under the title 'The Esoteric Walfod Bodie, "MD'")

2 Responses to “Walford Bodie, “Merrie Devil””

  • Darci says:

    The obvious parallel, of course, is Franz Mesmer.  He gave up the application of magnets approximately 1774 and concentrated instead on "animal magnetism."  Mr. Bodie seems not to have been familiar with the work of Abbe Faria and Dr. Braid since then.
    I wonder what Thomas Edison thought of the claims of "the British Edison"?
    Thanks,
    Darci

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