Twilight Mages Pt. 2: The Dark Arts of Persuasion

by Seana Miracle

“The Machiavelli of the mid-20th century will be an advertising man; his Prince, a textbook of the art and science of fooling all the people all the time.”

– Aldous Huxley

The “Twilight Mages” were a group of practical occultists that emerged in the 1890s, who commercialized the occult by making previously esoteric or forbidden knowledge available to the masses – for a price.  The Twilight Mages promised to reveal the secrets to success, and to help develop one’s latent powers and hidden talents.  Using the same business model that Scientology would later perfect, the Mages sold elaborate mail order lesson plans in esoteric subjects as diverse as personal magnetism, telepathy, and hypnosis.  A single topic would typically consist of an average of 30 lessons, and mastering the “complete system of personal influence” required the completion of nearly 200 lessons.


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The Mages made liberal use of every form of communication available to them, (propaganda) and an inside knowledge of the working mind, (applied psychology) in order to shape public opinion. They shamelessly exploited universal human weaknesses and insecurities, and appealed to base emotions such as greed, envy, lust, and a sense of entitlement. They did this by creating a sense of discontent and dissatisfaction, and making people focus on what they were missing, instead of appreciating what they had. By doing so, they targeted the most vulnerable people in society, the poor, the uneducated, and the desperately ill, and then resorted to every dirty trick in the book, from tawdry Victorian parlor tricks, to applied psychology, to outright deceit, in order to fraudulently extract every last dime they could. The Twilight Mages were what the young William S. Burroughs, (whose first published work – about the Mages – is below) would later refer to as the “Nova Criminals.”

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Are you bashful? Shy? Nervous? Embarrassed? If so, send me two dollars and I will show you how to control others at a glance; how to make your face appear twenty years younger; how to use certain Oriental secrets and dozens of other vital topics.’

I am none of those things, but I would like to know how to control others at a glance (especially my Latin teacher) so I clipped the coupon, beginning to feel more magnetic every minute.

In a week, I received an impressive red volume with magnetic rays all over the cover. I opened the book and began to read. Alas! The book was a mass of scientific drivel cunningly designed to befuddle the reader, and keep him from realizing what a fake it was…

…Did I find out how to control others at a glance? I certainly did, but never had the nerve to try it. Here is how it is done. I must look my victim squarely in the eye, say in a low, severe voice “I am talking and you must listen,” then intensify my gaze and say “You cannot escape me.” My victim completely subdued, I was to say “I am stronger than my enemies.” Get thee behind me Satan. Imagine me trying that on Mr. Baker!”

– William S. Burroughs, “Personal Magnetism” 1929

The outrageously eccentric and downright criminal Twilight Mage of our inquiry, E. Virgil Neal, a.k.a. X. LaMotte Sage, started his professional career in the late 1890’s with a very unique set of skills: He had become expert in both banking, and the art of hypnotism, and by combining these two areas of interest during the concurrent rise of mass media, he was able to create enormous wealth and power, and he promised that he could help you do the same.

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In 1896, recent business school graduate E. Virgil Neal wrote the textbook on banking, entitled “Modern Banking and Banking Accounting.” The book, which is still in use today, demonstrated Neal’s grasp on the practical aspects of banking and finance. It must have seemed that his future career path had also been charted and illustrated with diagrams, however, the year before, an impressionable young Neal had seen a performance by the famous hypnotist Sylvain Lee, whose gimmicks included burying himself alive and hypnotizing people over the phone.

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Neal was fascinated. Inspired by Sylvain Lee, he decided to forego a lucrative career in finance, and join the stage hypnotist circuit with his new, pretty, young wife, Mollie Hurd. They billed themselves as X. LaMotte Sage and his wife Olga Helen Sage. At the time, stage hypnotists were a dime a dozen, but few had the skills to make it a viable commercial success. The Sages were a different story. With Mollie’s youth and beauty and Neal’s background in finance, they were able to build an thriving business that relied on a combination of live performances, mail order lessons and compelling advertising.

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In all of his business endeavors E. Virgil Neal, a.k.a. X. LaMotte Sage, was a consummate professional. Neal studied hypnotism from various traditions all over the world and was an engaging and entertaining performer. While he demonstrated significant aptitude and an in depth knowledge of the art, he was also a debunker.  He would give an exhibition of the feats of Indian Fakirs to the amazement of his audience, and then, also much to their surprise, he would provide a practical explanation.

Neal saw hypnotism as therapeutic and believed that it could cure disease and vanquish addiction, but he was a stage hypnotist, so he did not take it so seriously he failed to miss the intrinsic comedic value.  Neal staged various stunts that involved controlling subjects in the trance state that would ensure hilarity, such as a man making love to a broom, or two men fighting like cats.

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While Neal’s showmanship skills ensured his performances were guaranteed to entertain even the most hardened skeptic, what truly made E. Virgil Neal so successful was his genius for advertising, which, as it turns out, may be another form of hypnotism, and one that the Twilight Mages would soon turn into an art form.

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It should come as no surprise that a stage hypnotist would have a particular knack for advertising. Many scholars have noted the similarities between the principles of hypnotism and advertising. Walter Dill Scott, an early theorist on the psychology of advertising, stated that the operant processes were practically indistinguishable. Scott, the first “industrial psychologist,” believed that people were more likely to be persuaded by an emotional appeal to the subconscious mind, than swayed by a logical appeal to the rational mind. Recent studies have confirmed that the most effective advertising is that which has a “high hypnotic content.”

Advertising and hypnosis both rely on the charisma of the hypnotist, and the willingness of the subject, with the objective of overriding the executive mind, in order to increase the influence of suggestion on the subconscious. Given these obvious similarities, the advice given to those seeking to hypnotize another is nearly identical to the advice given to advertisers and salespeople. Walter Dill Scott’s “Psychology of Advertising,” is not that far removed from X. LaMotte Sage’s correspondence course in personal magnetism, hypnotism and suggestive therapeutics.

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The hypno-suggestive method of persuasion includes relatively simple but effective techniques that have been known to both advertisers and stage hypnotists from the beginning, such as repetition, negative suggestions, asking rhetorical questions, and creating forced choices. A “forced choice” is when you present someone with a set of options and have them decide between the easy and appealing option, or the difficult and undesirable one, i.e. “We can do this easy way, or we can do this the hard way.”  Forced choice creates an illusion of free will and freedom of choice, when in actuality it is deliberately creating a scenario in which, presented with limited options, you feel you have no other choice. We most often see this strategy employed during elections when we are told to choose between the lesser of two evils, and that our failure to choose will result in the triumph of the greater one. Stage magicians use a similar technique called “forcing” in which they get a subject to choose the card the magician wants them to pick, while believing they made this choice of their own volition. The magician then surprises them by showing that he had predicted that they would make that choice.

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Given that the nature of their work depends on their ability to create a suggestible state, both stage hypnotists and advertisers are familiar with what is now referred to as “the Stanford Suggestibility Scale.” Accordingly, the top 15% of the population are highly vulnerable to suggestion, while the bottom 15% are highly resistant, or in simpler terms, some people are easier to hypnotize than others. The small percentage that is open to suggestion is the ideal target audience, because they not only buy in, they also exert a persuasive influence that can tip the hypothetical scale of suggestibility in their favor.

Both advertisers and stage hypnotists understand that the majority of the population will be wholly unresponsive to their message and highly resistant to their charms, but then again, willful resistance and critical thinking does not make for ideal consumers.  The idea is to cast a wide net, in order to identify those who will be the most receptive to your message. For example, in order for a hypnotist to be successful, he must first have a willing subject. For this reason, stage hypnotists will ask for a volunteer from the audience. The Twilight Mages would likewise have their target audience voluntarily identify themselves by advertising for the desirable qualities of the ideal consumers they were seeking: “Are you bashful, shy, nervous, embarrassed?” Now that the consumer has identified themselves as someone who feels they are missing something, the advertiser can then focus on a targeted direct mail campaign of entreaties to buy more products to help them feel less insecure.

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THE RISE OF MASS MEDIA COMMUNICATIONS

The Twilight Mages emerged in the twilight of the Victorian age and the dawning of the rise of mass media communications. In the 1890’s, before there was radio or television sets, print alone had the power to reach millions of people all over the world, something that no medium had done before. The completion of the Transcontinental Railway meant that magazines, newspapers, mail order catalogues, mail order lessons and direct mail ad campaigns could reach remote and previously inaccessible places, and suddenly advertisers had the ability to cast a net wide enough to cover the globe.  

“It is extremely difficult to escape the mechanically repeated suggestions in everyday life. Even when our critical mind rejects them, they seduce us into doing what our intellect tells us is stupid.” 

– Joost Meerloo

Advertising content in the 1890’s started to shift away from presenting useful information about affordable products that fulfilled consumer’s needs, to the selling of luxury items on installment plans that fulfilled the advertisers desires for more wealth and power. Previously, advertising focused on presenting factual information about the practical aspects of products, but in the twilight years, advertisers had to create an artificial desire for things that people not only did not need, but could not afford. There was a move away from the Victorian ideals of hard work, self sacrifice, and community, and a move towards the new values of the age of decadence, such as luxury, status, self indulgence and instant gratification.  

When E. Virgil Neal was still in school, the term “psychology” had just recently been repurposed to describe a new profession.  During the 1890’s there were three key developments in this burgeoning field that in the hands of the Twilight Mages would change the Dark Arts of coercion and control forever: In 1895, Gustave Le Bon published his groundbreaking study on the psychology of crowds, and the same year, Ivan Pavlov accidentally discovered the function of conditional reflexes that led to our understanding of classical conditioning. It is also at this time that Sigmund Freud was developing his ideas about the unconscious. The knowledge gained from these three overlapping discoveries, in the wrong hands, could be used in devious ways to manipulate the minds of man, and coinciding with the rise of mass media communications, would usher in a new era of mass covert persuasion…

…And it would be none other than E. Virgil Neal’s young apprentice, a man by the name of Carl Byoir, who would boldly lead the way. (Part Three: Byoir and Associates)

SPECIAL THANKS:

This work was produced leveraging the free content at IAPSOP – The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals. Special thanks to E. Virgil Neal’s biographer Mary Schaeffer Conroy for her invaluable research, and to Marc Demarest at Chasing Down Emma for sharing his insights, resources and images.

RECOMMENDED READING:

The Mail Order Occult Ring Saga, by Marc Demarest

The Cosmetics Baron You’ve Never Heard Of: E. Virgil Neal and Tokalon by Mary Shaeffer Conroy

Hypnotism and Hypnotic Suggestion: A Scientific Treatise on the Uses and Possibilities of Hypnotism, Suggestion and Allied Phenomena  by Thirty Authors, Edited by E. Virgil Neal and Charles S. Clark.  

Suggestibility as an Operant Factor in Advertising Effects, Cognitive Defenses, and the Issues of Consumer Sovereignty  by David Wesson, PhD.

“The Psychology of Advertising” by Walter Dill Scott