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The ‘Bolton Clairvoyante’ and Arctic exploration

May 7, 2012

Work in progress – by Shane McCorristine

Sir John Franklin, by DJ Pound, 1860, after M Negelen. Wellcome Library

Sir John Franklin, by DJ Pound, 1860, after M Negelen. Wellcome Library

The disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition enabled a whole range of new voices and narratives to gain publicity, projecting different kinds of presence onto the Arctic and deploying the Arctic to different ends. The British Admiralty faced a serious problem when sending out successive expeditions to search for Franklin, for traversing the long distances to the Arctic through the Atlantic or Pacific meant that authorities back home experienced extended periods of dead time with little or no reliable knowledge of what was occurring in the field.

The clairvoyante, it seemed, was a highly sensitive person capable, during mesmeric séances, of collapsing the distance between the explorers and those searching for them through disembodied travelling. She could name locations for audiences, bring back news, and ‘perform’ Arctic experiences, such as cold and hardship. Clairvoyance reveals a multiplicity of overlapping spatialities: the psychic space of the clairvoyante, the Arctic space of the explorers, the medical space of the mesmeriser, and the intimate spaces linking clairvoyante, operator and Arctic in an affectual forcefield.

Contemporary newspaper reports reveal the existence of dozens of clairvoyantes (mostly young women) in Ireland, Britain, India and Australia, who, on being put into a mesmeric trance, described visiting Franklin in the Arctic. Beginning at the time of greatest anxiety regarding the fate of the expedition, these clairvoyante visionaries and their operators formed part of an incredibly vibrant field of rumours, speculations and experiments. As cultural authority regarding the fate of Franklin broke down, dozens of hoaxes and false leads were taken seriously by the Admiralty, the press and the general public alike from 1847, when anxiety about the expedition grew, until 1859, when Leopold McClintock’s expedition returned with documentary evidence that Franklin had died in June 1847.

In my research I explore the clairvoyante as a figure capable of providing male authorities with information, but also as a site of affectual forces, giving us insights into how Arctic exploration involved transferential relationships which make it deeply problematic to demarcate categories such as home and abroad, mind and body, subject and object.

The most celebrated case of Franklin-related mesmerism was that of Emma, the ‘Bolton Clairvoyante’, the domestic servant of a Lancashire surgeon-apothecary named Joseph W Haddock (1800–61). Haddock carried out many mesmeric experiments on his patients and was the author of a pamphlet entitled Somnolism & Psycheism: Otherwise Vital Magnetism, or Mesmerism: Considered Physiologically and Philosophically (1849). He frequently gave lectures on the subject and advertised his services to patients “desirous that the faculty of Clairvoyance be used as an aid in discovering the cause and nature of their complaints”. Haddock referred to clairvoyance as a kind of “magnetic vision” or “internal sight, or sight of the soul” in which light is projected from within “as the spark flies from the excited electric machine, so the perception seems, as it were, to seek the corresponding sensation”. The role of the mesmeriser was therefore analogous to a machine operator: Haddock referred to the mesmerised subject as “a living stethoscope”.

According to Haddock, “Emma L” was born around 1826 in Worcestershire and entered his service in 1846. She was of a “nervous-bilious temperament” and had suffered from inflammatory disease as a teenager. On a visit in early 1849, Harriet Martineau described her as “a vulgar girl, anything but handsome, and extremely ignorant”. In common with other medical physicians, Haddock began experimenting with ether as anaesthesia, and hearing that Emma was familiar with it, having been mesmerised with it by a cousin, decided to observe its effects upon her. She soon became insensible to pain, and demonstrated a variety of abnormal states which she did not remember afterwards. Haddock believed she had a remarkable susceptibility to the drug and began reducing the quantity he gave her until he realised that her condition was actually one of mesmeric trance. Haddock’s experiments gradually began to cover the traditional spectrum of susceptibility, from the creation of illusions to the ability to mesmerise Emma at a distance. As she was illiterate, Haddock decided to test her abilities using pictures, which, upon being concealed and placed on her head, Emma was able to describe. Another aspect of Emma’s repertoire was the ability to travel to distant parts of the globe in search of people on request, usually through the medium of connection of some handwriting. It was in this context that the Emma’s clairvoyance was connected to the mystery of Franklin.

In September 1849 Haddock was contacted by “a naval gentleman” about the possibility of using Emma to shed light on the matter. This was Captain Alexander Maconochie, a penal reformer, and professor of geography at the University of London. Maconochie, a friend of Franklin’s, sent Haddock an envelope with Franklin’s handwriting for use as a medium. Although pessimistic about the fortunes of the expedition, Haddock was surprised to hear Emma state that the writer was still alive. She then “spoke of the snow, ice, &c., of the place where the writer was; said that many with him were dead, but that he was alive, and expected to get away in about nine months, but that she could not say whether he would be able to do so, but that it appeared to her he would get home again”.

On hearing this, Maconochie came to Bolton and was present at several sittings on the matter, during which he presented Emma with a map of North America and pressed her during her visions to confirm the time of day, through which a longitude could be ascertained. Although pointing to the Parry Islands (now the Queen Elizabeth Islands), when given a more detailed Admiralty chart she “appeared to have lost this instinctive sort of power to mark the place, and I found that no reliance could be placed on her in this respect”.

Emma then began talking “ideally” with Franklin and having visions of the missing expedition, which were widely reported in the press. On being put into a mesmeric sleep, Emma said that all was well on the expedition and that it would return in September 1850 – news which was conveyed to Jane, Lady Franklin. As reported by Maconochie, Emma indicated that Franklin was at a location with a time difference of six hours from Bolton, through which the expedition was put at a longitude of between 85 and 90 degrees. Indeed, she pointed out Hudson’s Bay on the map provided, although it was “very inconveniently bound up in a volume of the Penny Cyclopedia, and required by her to be rested on her head – not held to her eyes and thus reversed, no very precise indication could be obtained”. Although this location was considered unlikely, the reports of the clairvoyante were taken as positive news about Franklin (seemingly with three companions), despite the communications which described seeing a sunken ship and “the shells [dead bodies] of others, in different postures under the snow”.

The autumn and winter of 1849 was a particularly significant period in the search for Franklin. By this stage it was clear that no contact had been made with the expedition and that their food supplies must be finished. The first batch of search-and-rescue expeditions had achieved little, with James Clark Ross’s actually making its way out of Baffin’s Bay in October. For Franklin’s wife, this failure “put an almost fatal extinguisher on hopes which had been centred mainly in Sir James Ross’s exertions”. It was not until August 1850 that traces of the expedition were found on Beechey Island, and October when these discoveries were publicised. The period from the winter of 1849 to the autumn of 1850 was therefore dominated by speculation and wonder.

Thinking about the clairvoyante in the context of the Franklin disappearance offers many avenues for further research: as a technology of travel, as a dissenting route of/object for geographical knowledge, or as a flashpoint in the skirmishes between mesmerism and its opponents, her deployment has wider implications for our understanding of imperial exploration. Fundamentally, I argue that the cases of Emma and other clairvoyantes reveal interrelated histories of affectivity and Arctic exploration. The dynamic intimacy existing between operator and the clairvoyante made tangible the affectual forces circulating around the Franklin disaster. The pre-existing ‘pull’ factors of a region imagined as a realm of spiritualised masculine endeavour staged an encounter in which embodied presence and disembodied absence acted together. The psychosexual intimacies of the séance and the clairvoyante as a site of medical and mesmeric experimentation form an integral part, therefore, of an emergent ‘polyvocal’ Arctic that challenge the dominance of imperial histories that focus too closely on the naval, scientific and biographical.

Shane McCorristine is IRCHSS CARA Postdoctoral Fellow at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.

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