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Look Into My Eyes and Kill Your Husband

Murder and hypnosis.

In spite of spine-tingling movie plots like The Manchurian Candidate or The Bourne Identity, it is common knowledge that a normal, law-abiding person cannot be compelled to commit murder while under hypnosis. Yes, a serial murderer might be willing to kill again while hypnotized, but, of course, this is just as likely to be true without the use of hypnosis.

However, back in the late 1800s/early 1900s, this was not true. In fact, it was generally accepted that a) a person could be hypnotized from a distance and without their awareness and b) once hypnotized, s/he was completely at the mercy of the hypnotist's suggestion. As such, an evil hypnotist could compel the most virtuous inductee to commit the most heinous crime. And, these beliefs bought at least a few defendants (but not their hypnotists) a get-out-of-jail-free card.

My Hypnotist Made Me Do It

In 1927, Ms. E was a 17-year-old German girl traveling from her rural home to Heidelberg when she found herself sharing a train compartment with a man who identified himself as a physician named Dr. Bergen (who, in reality, was a conman named Walker). Forty minutes later, after a brief train stop to take on supplies during which the good doctor invited Ms. E to have coffee, took her hand, and stared into her eyes, Ms. E was completely under his spell.

Thus began a nightmare that reportedly lasted 7 years. According to court testimony, as well as a second hypnotist who spent 18 months undoing Dr. Berger's psychological damage, Dr. Bergen began inducing a variety of physical complaints in Mrs. that were healed through cold hard cash. Not only did Dr. Bergen reportedly swindle Ms. E. out of hundreds of dollars, he allegedly used his hypnotic influence to compel her to have sexual relations with him and his friends.

Fortunately, Ms. E married Mr. E three years into Dr. Bergen's Svengali-like grasp and Dr. Bergen's magnetism did not extend to Ms. E's spouse. Mr. E, a minor official in Heidelberg and concerned spouse, noticed the absent funds and complained to the police, who finally took it upon themselves to investigate.

More Lives Than a Cat

It didn't take long for Dr. Bergen to realize that Mr. E. was not as suggestible as his spouse and, as such, was more of a threat. So, he turned his attention to eliminating it. And, of course, the obvious way was to use hypnosis to serve the very end that had worked so well up to date, i.e., get Ms. E. to do it.

Luckily, Ms. E. was not as gifted in murder as she was gullible. In fact, she reportedly tried at least six different methods to kill her spouse - including poison (resulting in illness but not death), loosening the motorcycle brakes (caused a crash but no fatality), and shooting (turns out the gun had no bullets) - with no success. Incidentally, at the command of Dr. Berger, she also made several attempts on her own life, which were equally unsuccessful (thanks mainly to the vigilance of the devoted Mr. E).

Justice Is Served

It is unclear how the police investigation resulted in Mrs. E. seeing a second hypnotist, this time for the purpose of helping her recover her memory. However, according to the case report, she was put under the care of skilled hypnotist Dr. Ludwig Mayer, who gradually uncovered Ms. E's tale of instantly losing her will at the touch of Dr. Bergen's hand and subsequently engaging in a variety of uncharacteristic and criminal behavior over the subsequent 7 years. What we do know is that Dr. Bergen was eventually sentenced to twelve years of hard labor while Mrs. E. served her time in the hypnotist's office.

The Bottom Line

This fascinating case has some interesting lessons. First, it clearly shows how prevailing medical opinions can influence the courts. Second, it illustrates how beliefs influence how stories are told; I doubt today you'd find a similar case study of a person who allegedly committed murder after unconsciously being hypnotized by a complete stranger. I also doubt that Mrs. E's claims today would be believed by even the most naive layperson.

Just as there were prevailing views about hypnosis in the early 1900s, there are prevailing beliefs today. Here they are:

  • A person cannot be hypnotized against his or her will. Nor can s/he be made to do things s/he doesn't want to do. If anyone suggests something that goes against your values, moral belief system, or is in any way dangerous to yourself or anyone else, it is rejected immediately.
  • There are some people who argue that, while you can't hypnotize someone to do something that is against his/her core belief system, you may be able to change those beliefs and influence the subject's actions because of those beliefs. For example, while few people believe a person can be hypnotized to commit murder just because a hypnotist told him/her to, it might be possible to convince a person that his or her child is being threatened by someone and activate a parent's protective instinct to the point that s/he becomes violent.
  • Hypnotism isn't dangerous, but some hypnotists can be.

And, of course, our legal system reflects these views. Offer a defense that you were being hypnotized when you committed a crime and you may convince a judge or jury that your "hypnotist" is an accessory to the crime, but it won't get you off the hook.