Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

141 : H. E. Lewis, “the Negro Mesmerist” 1850-1857

The public performances of people of African birth or descent around Victorian Britain have been investigated and this presence is known to have included singers (see page 120), choirs (page 085), instrumentalists (075), dancers, bands, street entertainers, actors (pages 039 and 074), animal acts (page 084) and “villages” of Africans who lived in the grounds of urban entertainment centres such as the Crystal Palace (pages 073 and 098). Attracting substantial interest were the black lecturers who spoke of their experience of slavery in the United States, who often sold pamphlets and portrait photographs (pages 107 and 138). Like those who claimed to be kings and princes in Africa (pages 063 and 111), there were liars and charlatans. All these people were looked at, the audiences having little or no chance to speak with the entertainers.

H. E. Lewis, “a gentleman of colour”…”the Negro Mesmerist”…”a native of Africa” had an act that required verbal contacts. He hypnotized strangers: he made them fall asleep and then act on his suggestions. First noted in Dumfries in September 1850 (Dumfries and Galloway Standard, 4 September 1850 and 16 October 1850), Lewis had considerable success elsewhere in 1850s Scotland, with the Aberdeen Journal (23 July 1851) advertising thirteen locations where he was to lecture between 24 July and 7 August 1851. A series of lectures in the town hall was to attract “all the families of distinction” within eight miles as well as “gaping rustics” (Aberdeen Journal, 17 September 1851). Probably suspecting trickery or a sophisticated fairground act, his performance was studied and the February 1852 Edinburgh Monthly Journal of Medical Science reported on an “Examination of Mr. Lewis’s Pretensions at Aberdeen”. There was another challenge (Aberdeen Journal, 31 March 1852). The Journal‘s report was to be reprinted in William B. Carpenter, Mesmerism, Spiritualism, & C (New York: Appleton, 1895). The Dumfries and Galloway Standard 3 March 1852 p 3 noted he was back in Scotland “once more” having arrived “from New Brunswick about ten days ago”. The Falkirk Herald of 16 January 1851 said he was from Virginia; the Elgin Courier 22 April 1853 said he was “a free-born subject of the British crown” being a native of “St John’s [sic], Brunswick” (a common error – St John, New Brunswick is in Canada close to Maine).

Lewis moved on to Liverpool where an advertisement appeared on the front page of the Liverpool Mercury of 27 April 1852. He was to lecture on mesmerism for four evenings from 4 May. His reputation in Scotland was such that his colour was seldom mentioned there. He purchased a home in the small coastal town of Portsoy in Banffshire (Elgin Courier of 29 October 1852 quoted from the Banffshire Journal; Aberdeen Herald, 6 August 1853). He modified his programme, lecturing on American slavery when back in Aberdeen in February 1853 (Aberdeen Journal, 2 February and 9 February 1853). A year later, “well known in Scotland” this “native of Africa” was mentioned in the Newcastle Courant of 10 February 1854. He was at the town hall in Alnwick, a meeting chaired by a minister (Newcastle Courant, 12 May 1854). Later that year, appearing in Leeds he was a “man of colour” (Leeds Mercury, 2 December 1854). His fortunes waned and his house contents and furniture were sold to cover debts (Aberdeen Press, 20 September 1854, p 1). He has been traced elsewhere in  Yorkshire (Huddersfield, Holmfirth and York) in February-March 1855 (Huddersfield Chronicle, 2 and 3 February 1855). Legal matters led to an announcement in the Aberdeen Free Press of 2 March 1855 (page 4) which gave his name as Henry Edward Lewis. In May 1855 Lewis “the Negro Mesmerist” was to appear at the Marylebone Literary Institution in London on 16 and 17 May, according to advertisements in the Morning Post (12 May 1855) and The Times (14 May 1855), York Herald, (10 and 30 March 1855). He was said to be an American who had travelled globally. He now included phrenology in his presentation (the study of the shape and size of the cranium as an indication of character).

The following note appeared in the Croydon Chronicle and East Surrey Advertiser of 15 March 1856 : Lewis the ‘African Mesmerist’ gave a lecture in the Lower Hall on Crown Lane.  “The audience was not very numerous, and but few persons came forward to be acted upon, and over those Mr. Lewis had but little power, sending a few to sleep, but operating successfully on a little boy. In justice to Mr. Lewis it should be mentioned, that he conducted his experiments in a fair and  straight forward manner, clearly showing that to the science alone he was  willing to trust.” There was singing by Mr and Mrs Brady. [Sean Creighton supplied this detail.]

In April 1856 he was at the Corn Exchange in Rochester, Kent (Maidstone Journal, 5 April 1856 page 4). Lewis gave at least five lectures in Maidstone during October 1856, one to the Working Men’s Educational Union (South Eastern Gazette, 21 October 1856, 5).   The following month he spoke at Ramsgate 2 November) and Margate (13 November) as reported in the South Eastern Gazette, 11 November 1856, 1.  Lewis then moved on to Cranbrook to speak on ‘Mesmerism’ (Maidstone Journal, 13 December 1856, 5) before going to Sevenoaks  for Christmas, where, as ‘the African Mesmerist’ he spoke to a small gathering at the Crown Hotel reported the same newspaper on  27 December 1856, p 6.  In January 1857 he appeared in Lewes (Sussex Agricultural Express, 24 January 1857, p 4, and then gave seven lectures  in Tunbridge Wells, one at the Royal Sussex Hotel (Sussex Agricultural Express, 14 February 1857, 3, and Sussex Advertiser, 7 February 1857, 6).

The computer index of the National Archives in Kew was noted for a Lewis item held in Leicester. Lewis had written a ten page phrenological report on the Martin family’s children in Durham city, and it is stored at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland (reference DG6/C/136). Archivist Jess Jenkins advised Lewis signed the report on 15 February 1857 in the St Leonards district of the city of Durham but there is no other information. The scientific community was interested in “electro-biology” as mesmerism was also named, and William Gregory, professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh University, compared Lewis to other practitioners – but did not mention his colour or origins. See William Gregory, Animal Magnetism; or, Mesmerism and its Phenomena (London: Harrison, 1877). Gregory’s Letters to a Candid Inquirer on Animal Magnetism was published in both London and Philadelphia in 1851, and his comments on Lewis are similar to those in Animal Magnetism.

Many medical men regarded mesmerism with scorn.

Henry Edward Lewis was thrown from his horse in Blackheath in London and died in September 1857 (Dumfries and Galloway Standard, 30 September 1857, p 4).  

In March 2017 the title of this page was changed from 1851-1856 to 1850-1857.

David Killingray supplied additional details on Maidstone etc and activities from October 1856 to February 1857: many thanks.

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