The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
The December 1845 edition of the American Whig Review
contained an account of a most unusual experiment an experiment designed to test whether hypnotism could delay the arrival of death. Hypnotism was still a relatively poorly understood phenomenon in the 1840s, so such a test must have seemed perfectly reasonable to many, even if bizarre. After all, people who have been placed in a trance often appear able to resist pain. So might trances also be used to slow death itself?
According to the article, a patient was found by the name of M. Ernest Valdemar whose doctors had determined that he only had hours left to live. Valdemar readily assented to the experiment, and so the hypnotist immediately placed him in a trance.
The effect was quite remarkable. Valdemar appeared to go into a state of suspended animation, moving only in response to the hypnotist's commands. He remained in this state for over a day, much to the surprise of his doctors who hadn't given him that long to live.
But then something even more intriguing occurred. Valdemar's pulse stopped and his breathing ceased. In other words, he was dead, but his brain remained alive, bound to the will of the hypnotist. Valdemar was able to gurgle out brief responses to questions.
For seven months Valdemar remained in this condition, halfway between death and life. But at last the doctors agreed that the trial had gone on long enough. The experiment had to be allowed to end. The hypnotist gave the command for the patient to wake from the trance, and as he did so the man's body immediately collapsed inwards, disintegrating into a puddle of 'detestable putridity'.
The account of this experiment caused great excitement and was widely reprinted, both in America and in Europe. A prominent Boston hypnotist, Robert Collyer, declared that he had no doubt of the truth of the case, since he himself had once brought a man back to life who had died from overdrinking.
All of this was quite amusing to the author of the piece, a relatively obscure writer of macabre tales named Edgar Allan Poe. When a Scottish correspondent wrote to him to inquire about the veracity of the experiment, Poe replied bluntly that, "Hoax is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar's case."
Today you can easily find the story of M. Valdemar in editions of Poe's collected works, where it's titled 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.' It'll be clearly labelled as fiction, but remember as you read it that what made the story so shocking to its original readers was that it was presented to them as fact.
Text copyright © 2002 Alex Boese