“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.


1 comment to “Secrets of the Sleep Merchants” by William Lindsay Gresham

  • ronin1861

    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.