Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

141 : H. E. Lewis, “the Negro Mesmerist” 1851-1856

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. Lewis had considerable success in 1850s Scotland, the Aberdeen Journal (23 July 1851) advertised 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).

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 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) and he has been traced elsewhere in  Yorkshire (Huddersfield, Holmfirth and York) in February-March 1855 (Huddersfield Chronicle, 2 and 3 February 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).

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).

Sean Creighton has advised:

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.