Edwin Thomas Hicks – a mesmerist in Pittville

It is not surprising that a spa town such as Cheltenham should have attracted – over the years – more than its fair share of alternative medical practitioners and those who wished to avail themselves of the latest health regimes and cures which the practitioners offered. In the mid 1840s Edwin Thomas Hicks (mesmerist and self-styled Professor of Phrenology) was on the crest of a wave of popularity, and for six months he brought his brand of mesmeric demonstrations and cures to the citizens of Cheltenham from the consulting room of his house, No 2 Pittville Terrace (now No 2 Clarence Road) in Pittville. Here is one of his adverts from the time:

Mesmeric Experiments
Mr. E. T. HICKS, Professor of Phrenology and Therapeutic Mesmerism, will hold a MESMERIC SEANCE, At his Residence, 2, PITTVILLE TERRACE, on MONDAY NEXT, September 15th, at TWO o’clock, when a series of interesting experiments may be anticipated.
Tickets, 2s. 6d. each, may be obtained at the Montpellier and Royal Libraries.
Private consultations may be commanded by Invalids desirous of employing Mesmerism as a curative.1

Edwin Hicks was a typical example of a new type of entrepreneur and science populist in the middle years of the nineteenth century. His career saw him throw himself into several careers, each linked by a desire to experiment with and exploit the emerging scientific and medical technologies of the period. He was an engaging person, personable, enthusiastic even, but one whose life was beset by financial and other problems. This article concentrates on the early part of career, and especially his visits to Gloucester and Cheltenham/Pittville.

Early life and occupations: from hairdresser to itinerant phrenologist
Edwin Thomas Hicks was born in Bristol in 1820, the son of Thomas and Ann Hicks. Around 1840 he moved to Yorkshire and in early 1841 he married Esther (Hester) Elizabeth Annie Clark in Goole. At this time he describes himself both as a perfumer, mixing flower and other essences in his workshop, and as a hairdresser.2

But his interest in the human head and the human mind was wider than this. Soon he was also calling himself Lecturer (and later Professor) of Phrenology. Phrenology was a science that considered the brain to consist of numerous different organs, each responsible for controlling some aspect of a person’s character. Popularly it was often thought of as character-reading based on the “bumps” on a person’s head. Hicks became well-known as an “itinerant lecturer” on the South of England circuit.

10. Cautiousness; 11. Approbativeness; 12. Self-esteem; 13. Benevolence. 14. Reverence;
15. Firmness; [etc.] (preceding title-page)
Silas Jones Practical Phrenology (1836)
He was enough of a showman to know that although the members of his lecture audience might not follow the “science”, they would be intrigued by stories of his bump-reading:3

“During the limited period he has been in Taunton, he has examined nearly 300 heads, and his delineations of character are allowed, on all hands, to be strikingly correct.”

His advertisements enticed with the promise that his talks would be illustrated with “skulls and diagrams”, charging one shilling per talk or two shillings for the set of three, and offering private delineations of character to ladies and gentlemen at one shilling each.4

By 1844 Hicks expanded his repertoire by adopting a popular new twist to Phrenology. This was called Phreno-Mesmerism, merging Phrenology with another alternative science, Mesmerism (or Animal Magnetism). Mesmerism had been devised by the Austrian physician Anton Mesmer in the late eighteenth century and was still enjoying popular interest into the mid nineteenth century. It offered to cure a wide range of mental and physical conditions. The patient was induced into a mesmeric trance, when renewing energy (or magnetism, or galvanic electricity) was said to be transferred to the patient from the mesmeriser, often through hand gestures or touch. Locally Hicks’s repute was growing. In 1845 he brought his knowledge to Gloucester.

Hicks in mesmerism debate at Gloucester
At what was probably the high point of his phrenological and mesmeric career, Edwin Hicks was invited to take part in a public discussion and exhibition of mesmerism at the Theatre, Gloucester, on 17 April, 1845. The event was extensively covered in the Cheltenham Chronicle and the Gloucester Journal, and a pamphlet describing the discussion between “Mr. E[dwin] T[homas] Hicks and Mr. J[ames] Q[uilter] Rumball”(A Discussion on Mesmerism) was published in London, Gloucester, and Cheltenham soon afterwards.5 There is little doubt that it was the publicity deriving from this event that confirmed in Edwin Hicks’s mind that it would be worth his while to set up shop in Cheltenham in the ensuing months.

The discussion at Gloucester was organised so that Hicks could present his ideas and conduct his experiments for the first hour, after which James Rumball, an established phrenologist, but a vehement anti-mesmerist, had the opportunity to respond. A scientific committee oversaw the proceedings. The theatre was full to overflowing, with polite society in the tiers of boxes, and the general public (“for the most part members of the Mechanics’ Institution”) in the pit and gallery. The Gloucester Journal observed that Rumball, though a practised lecturer, was over-confident of his own powers, leading to a style and demeanour “bordering somewhat” on effrontery, whilst Hicks endeavoured to “win his way by gentle persuasiveness, great command of temper, and an air of sincerity and candour”.

After the preliminary skirmishes, Hicks invited the Rev. White of St Mary’s Square Chapel to come to the platform and “submit to the mesmeriser’s manipulations”. 

“Mr. Hicks took his thumbs in the palms of his hands, and gazed steadily into [the Rev. White’s] eyes, which in about one minute closed. The mesmeriser then made some passes down the face, and [then] he inquired, ‘Can you open your eyes now?’ ‘No, I cannot.’ ‘Try again if you can do it.’ ‘I cannot do it.'”

The solution was simple:

“Mr. Hicks made a few reverse passes, and the eyes opened. He again made a few passes, and the eyes reclosed, and Mr. White declared that he could not open them. Alter some time the eyes were demesmerised, and Mr. White was asked how he felt. He replied that he experienced a peculiar sort of influence going down his arms, and especially his thumbs, his legs felt too heavy to use them comfortably […] that his first sensations were as if a great weight came over the eyes and then they closed; and that it was certainly not of his own will that all this had happened.”

The exhibition was apparently over:

“‘That is all, sir,’ said the mesmeriser. Mr. White, however, remained sitting in his chair, and stated that he could not get up. The mesmeriser made some reversed passes, and he was then able to rise up and walk.”

Hicks’s session continued in this way, with subjects invited to come on to the platform, and enter a mesmeric trance or coma. Each one found that he experienced a remarkable change: the pulse of one subject was raised markedly without any apparent external stimulus, then his limbs were rendered rigid and beyond his control, and finally – to demonstrate the power of phreno-mesmerism – Hicks pointed to parts of Reuben’s head (without touching them), expecting the associated characteristic to be demonstrated by the sleeping subject:

“the result, however, of this part the exhibition was total blank, hardly any of the organs choosing to make any response, which the lecturer endeavoured to account for by attributing it to the rapid current of air which passed over the stage.”

A similar set of experiments was conducted on James Meek, apparently a Gloucester lad whom Hicks had never met before. The audience was intrigued by the whole exhibition, and took against Rumball for his bluff attempts to discredit Hicks, which included grasping the patient, and at another juncture producing a sworn affidavit that the lad James Meek had been coached by Hicks in advance. Despite this, Hicks came out of the discussion fighting and lived to fight many other days.

“Mesmerism: The Operator Inducing a Hypnotic Trance
Ebenezer Sibly A Key to Physic (1794)

Hicks moves to Cheltenham
Two weeks later Hicks and his growing family were on the verge of moving to Cheltenham. After a course of consultations in Gloucester, he had hand-bills produced advertising a series of lectures and experiments to take place in Cheltenham in early May.6 On 26, 28, and 30 May 1845 Hicks offered his course of three lectures with experiments on “the Philosophy, Facts, and Uses of Mesmerism” in the Assembly Rooms, Cheltenham. To maintain his scientific credibility and to swell his audience he hinted that “several new facts worthy the consideration of the Medical Profession will be adduced, to which their attention is respectfully invited”. The prices for the lectures were two shillings for the front or reserved seats, one shilling for the back seats, and sixpence for the gallery.7

To attract serious attention from within the town he also noted:

“N.B. The Members of the Literary and Philosophical Society will be admitted to the Reserved Seats at half-price, and the back seats free, the first night only, on shewing their Tickets.”

Cheltenham was not unfamiliar with phrenologists and (to a lesser degree) mesmerists. James Rumball had given his own series of lectures on phrenology in Cheltenham in the late 1830s, and several practitioners had offered courses and examinations on the subject in the town since them. But the lectures at least had mostly been given by medical professionals, without the populist streak that Hicks brought to his subject.

In June – and by now probably living in Pittville – Hicks the “Practical and Consulting Mesmerist and Phrenologist” begged “the Nobility, Clergy, and Gentry of Cheltenham and its vicinity” to visit his consulting rooms at Mr. Wellington’s in Winchcomb Street:8

“Fees: – For a Written Phrenological Delineation of Character, 2s. 6d.; Children, Is. 6d, each; for Mesmeric Operations, 5s. each sitting. The Poor gratis.”

He added:

“N.B. A Private Mesmeric Séance may be commanded, if desirable, at any period of the day.”

By July, Hicks advertised himself as available for consultation “at his Residence, 2, Pittville Terrace, Cheltenham”, for those who wished “for the relief and cure of Nervous, Chronic, and other Maladies”. He would attend invalids at their own houses, and employed a somnambulist to deal with cases which needed specialist treatment.9 These advertisements continued in the Cheltenham Looker-On and the Cheltenham Chronicle into December.

But business in Pittville may not have thriven as much as Hicks’s advertisements suggested. As the year drew towards a close, the mesmerist of Pittville Terrace was suffering from severe financial problems, and he was forced to petition for bankruptcy.10 On this occasion he seems to have found his way through his difficulties, and to have continued with his lecturing, in Bristol and elsewhere. But by now he had left Cheltenham and Pittville as fading memories behind him. 

Later life
Fuller details about Hicks’s later life are beyond the scope of this article. Around 1846 he was invited to make one of his character delineations for Alfred Russel Wallace, whose work on evolution prompted Darwin to publish On the Origin of Species. His marriage to Esther foundered when she left him for a Liverpool artist, and his financial problems mounted, resulting in a stay in debtors’ prison in 1853.

A new wife, Mary Jane, and a new family in the north of England brought some stability, and by the mid 1850s he decided to abandon the lecture circuit and develop a new scientific interest, the emergent technology of commercial photography. He set up photographic businesses in Liverpool and elsewhere, but these never really took off, and it was left for his son Thomas Spurzheim (named after an old phrenologist) to establish the family photographic tradition.

T. S. Hicks, artist photographer
Edwin Thomas Hicks died in Bristol in 1883. He was a West Country boy who had been intrigued by the possibilities of phrenology and mesmerism, but after some initial success – during which time he spent six months living and working in Pittville – he eventually found that the scientific interest of his contemporaries had moved on to new areas and he himself was forced to re-invent himself (though perhaps not entirely successfully) as a commercial photographer.

John Simpson

1Cheltenham Chronicle (1845) 11 September, p. 2.
2 UK census (1841) HO107/1307/12/12/16; London Gazette (1845) 5 December p. 7111/1.
3Bristol Mercury (1842) 10 December.
4Hereford Journal (1843) 29 March.
5A discussion on mesmerism: between Mr. E[dwin] T[homas] Hicks and Mr. J[ames] Q[uilter] Rumball at the Theatre, Gloucester, on Thursday April 17, 1845 (1845: London, G. and J. Dyer, 1845); “from the short-hand notes of J. Nash, reporter to the Gloucester Journal; J.P. Heane in the chair”; also published by J. Needham, Gloucester, 1845 and Montpellier Library and other Booksellers, Cheltenham. See the extended report on the discussion in the Gloucester Journal of 19 April.
6Gloucester Journal (1845) 26 April.
7Cheltenham Chronicle (1845) 22 May, p. 2.
8Cheltenham Chronicle (1845) 12 June, p. 2.
9Gloucester Journal (1845) 26 July. The Cheltenham Annuaire or directory lists Hicks incorrectly as “T. E.” rather than “E. T. Hicks”. It also lists him as occupying 2 Pittville Terrace (now 2 Clarence Road) in 1846. This information had been collected in the previous year, and Hicks had in fact left by early 1846.
10London Gazette (1845) 5 December p. 7111/1.