Hypnoheist: More Than Just an Urban Legend?

Michael Goss
Magonia 57, September 1996

The customer was tall and dark – perhaps Italian, maybe Turkish: that was the impression which 32-year-old Mohammed Zamir formed of the man who stepped into his electrical shop at Ilford, Essex, one day in late 1977. He wanted to buy a cassette and asked Mr Zamir to take its cost out of a £20 note which, the shopkeeper observed with momentary interest, was a curious colour. Up until now it had been a perfectly ordinary sort of transaction. What happened when he examined the note more closely was quite out of the ordinary.

Frankly, it is somewhat difficult to comprehend precisely what happened to Mr Zamir. “Zzzz – that was that!” exclaimed Linda McKay, reporting the incident for the Sunday Mirror of 9 October 1977. But then, Mr Zamir’s own account was hardly more explicit. “All of a sudden, I was in a daze,” he told the journalist. “Either I was hypnotised, or there, was something on that note.” At the time, the exact cause of Mr Zamir’s stupor mattered far less than the fact that he came out of it to find the till had been relieved of the £1,700 it contained only 15 minutes before and that, like the money, the stranger had gone.

A police spokesman was prepared to confirm that Ilford Constabulary was taking the matter very seriously. This method of distraction was one they had never heard of before and their best working theory was that Mr Zamir had fallen foul of a con-man with a highly original technique for parting victims from their money. About the “hypnotism aspect” of the case he or she would not speak, however. No matter the person who composed the Sunday Mirror’s headline saw no need for such reticence. Mohammed Zamir’s ambiguous adventure was presented to the British reading public under the block-capital title of, “THE HYPNOHEIST”.

A couple of months later and only a few miles away, Leyton police were cautioning women who lived alone to beware of another itinerant criminal-occultist menace. This time the threat came from female gypsies – perhaps as many as eleven of them, though only two featured in the episode covered by the lively if flamboyant News of the World of 4 December 1977. The pair were said to target isolated mothers with young children whom they coerced into handing over goods, jewellery and money through a mixture of intimidation and “spells” that may or may not have included hypnosis. “The women … are dark-haired with weather-beaten faces and wear tattered clothes and bangles”, wrote John McNamee. “They chant and mumble curses. And once inside a house they say mysteriously, ‘We are the Eleven Sisters”‘. For good measure, the younger of the pair was also cross-eyed.

Most of this come from the testimony of 31-year-old Mrs Romello Blake, who had encountered the two women when they helped carry shopping up to her 16th-floor flat off Leyton High Road. Once the door was open they slipped inside before she had time to object; the older had insisted on reading her palm and then they started to chant, threatening to cast a spell on the baby and asserting that they had to have its bed linen. All the while the younger of the duo paralysed Mrs Blake with a fixed, mesmeric (and presumably crosseyed) stare.

The victim claimed that she had been in a peculiar mental state and was brought back to normal consciousness four hours later by the phone ringing. The TV, cassette player and bed linen were gone; Mrs Blake could only think she must hove helped the two women to carry these bulky items away somewhere. She had a partial memory of remaining helpless as the “gypsies” removed the rings, bracelet and necklace she was wearing – also of their taking the children’s money boxes and £50 from her purse. On top of all that, they had made her go to the bank and draw out a further £20, which they immediately took from her.

“I could sense what they were doing,” she explained, “but I was powerless to stop them. It was horrifying. Their power over me was so strong I can still feel it.” And what was the nature of that “power”? Mrs Blake was inclined to suppose that she must have been hypnotised.

Here was another matter that the police were forced to view with extreme seriousness – the more so, as the same gypsies were thought to have obtained £150 plus jewellery from another local woman and terrified her into maintaining silence about the affair for several days by promising she would die a horrible death if she reported it. There was no excuse for them not taking the Two (or Eleven) Sisters seriously: as genuine con-artists, that is, who established a firm mental control over their victims by means of intimidation in which the threat of the “gypsy curse” played no minor part.

A reasonable enough hypothesis, surely; it would not have been the first time that a door-to-door pedlar had played on the superstitious fears of a householder to extort money. Nor would Mr Zamir have been the first “mark” to be taken in by a variation on the conjuror’s old card-switching routine, a sleight-of-hand that made him mistake a forged note – or even a worthless bit of paper – for a large denomination bill. Stage performers do tricks like this all the time. Part of the fun comes from the way they let the audience see what the duped one cannot: we are allowed to witness the fraud being worked in front of the victim’s bemused face. And a good performer will pull off the trick even when we have been warned that it is a trick and are watching for it to happen…

Neither sleight-of-hand nor intimidation are “hypnosis” in the usually accepted sense of the term. We could be satisfied with supposing that both Blake and Zamir had been the prey of accomplished yet orthodox con-artists. That being so, need we spend time in looking for any “hypnotic aspect” of these cases?

Despite this – despite the occasional conservative tendency to place the word inside inverted commas as if to imply it was being used figuratively rather than literally – the media seemed determined to exploit the hypnotic angle to these stories. They were presented as amazing tales of hypno-heists and the con-artists as nothing less than skillful, super-powerful hypnotists.

All of which reflects a little appreciated truth about how we regard hypnosis itself. No matter how often we are assured of its harmlessness, its therapeutic and other beneficial applications and of the intrinsic limitations that preclude it from becoming a criminal weapon, popular belief prefers to portray it as an awesome occult art enabling devious individuals to transform their fellow-citizens into mindless zombies. Many of us enjoy this histrionic presentation; sometimes we want to believe the worst of hypnosis,

So in popular narratives, oral and printed alike, hypnosis is shown as a sort of magic, a supernatural power that permits those gifted in its use to achieve the most spectacular effects. It becomes a slightly modernised version of the “fairy glamour” we find in nursery-stories and other early folktales. As long ago as 1905, Celtic culture scholar J. A. M. Macculloch made the rationalising connection between hypnosis and all those fairy-story characters plunged into enchanted slumbers or forced by spells to see, act and be just as the spellcaster wishes in his The Childhood of Fiction.

Or there is the elderly but still popular folk-tale known as “The Hand of Glory”, which bears a good resemblance to our contemporary hypno-heist scenarios. This narrates how a stranger begs a night’s lodgings at a lonely farmhouse and puts its inmates into an unbreakable sleep by burning a candle made from the pickled hand of a hanged felon while reciting: “Let those that be asleep be asleep and let those that are awake be awake”, The formula doesn’t credit the Hand of Glory with the power to induce sleep, but only with that of changing ordinary sleep into a magical variety so that those who are a-slumber when it is lit cannot wake until it ceases to burn. The story goes on to tell how the burglary fails because one girl has only feigned to be asleep in order to keep a suspicious eye on the stranger; she breaks the spell by dousing the Hand of Glory’s flame with milk and then wakens the household.

In popular lore, hypnosis can still be made to seem the perfect crime tool. “How could you commit a theft with complete impunity and moreover with the consent of the victim?” asked Parisien Libere of 10 November 1990, when reporting how a 61-year-old bank clerk of Mantes-la-Jolie claimed to have been placed into semi-consciousness by two “experts in the art of suggestion” who walked off with 15,000 francs. The paper’s advice to readers was brief: all you needed was a familiarity with the “occult sciences”,

As indeed the unknown woman with brilliant, dark eyes who visited Dominique Desigaux in March 1964 must have had. Mile (26) Desigaux was reading behind the counter of her souvenir store in Nice Old Town when a woman of oriental or Egyptian disposition appeared unexpectedly and offered to read her palm. Feeling – slightly anxious, the-shopkeeper parted with five francs. Next the woman placed her hands on Desigaux’s shoulders close to her neck and began to talk in a very soft voice that had a bizarre “melting” effect. There followed what the Parisien (28 March 1964) called “a veritable hypnotic seance”, The “Egyptian” performed some ritual which involved cutting up Desigaux’s handkerchief and later wrote out a prayer to St Rita, the patron saint of Nice; more to the point, she ordered Desigaux to open the cash-register and give her the 150 francs it held. Mile Desigaux said she obeyed all these instructions in a dream or “like a sleep-walker”. Afterwards, she added, her head ached as if she had a hangover.

By this time the mysterious visitor was long gone. Realising that she had o been the victim of “no common theft”, Mile Desigaux ran into the street, but (unsurprisingly) could not see her persecutor, though apparently she found witnesses who confirmed they had seen the woman in the shop. And so the police were notified … and a minor panic among the shopkeepers of Nice began.

In popular narratives, oral and printed alike, hypnosis is shown as a sort of magic, a supernatural power that permits those gifted in its use to achieve the most spectacular effects. It becomes a slightly modernised version of the “fairy glamour” we find in nursery stories and other early folk-tales

This, as journalists hastened to point out, was not an isolated case. There had been another like it in Rome some months since when Violetta Spinella, a “bohemian” and alleged author of many hypnotic thefts, had been arrested. And another a in Toulon, where a young woman hypnotised a bank cashier into giving her an “important sum”. Nor was Desigoux’s the last case of its kind. On 10 April 1964 France-Soir reported that a jeweller in Issoire (Puy-de-Dome) believed he had been victimised by an elegant, seemingly oriental couple whose difficulties in speaking French did not prevent them from being “experts in hypnotic theft”, nor in robbing him of 2,800 francs.

Meantime back at Nice, investigators working on the Desigaux case thought they had a promising lead when a butcher identified a “gitane” with “eyes of fire” as the mystery woman from the newspaper account. Unfortunately, she turned out to be a “perfectly inoffensive” housewife. All too plainly, people were overreacting to what they had read of the Desigaux incident and some portions of the media had begun to manifest scepticism about hypno-heists. One reported slyly that Mlle Desigoux might find her ordeal (and her cash loss) were not without recompense: an American movie producer was supposed to have seen her photo in the papers and to have been so impressed by it, not to say by her story, that he wanted her to visit the USA.

Had Mlle Desigaux been hypnotically robbed at all? Where had the hypnotic Egyptian gone to? Now the police were inclined to dismiss her story as mere “autosuggestion” and the mini-panic among Nice shopkeepers as “collective hallucination’. But the newspapers were reluctant to let the topic drop and the reports kept coming in. On 30 May that some year (1964) a teenaged Le Mans bride alleged that she had been made to give 300 francs – her housekeeping money – to a gypsy hypnotist and as late as May 1970 two more travelling folk were required to attend a Versailles court to answer a charge of hypno-robbery that had been brought against them.

Hypno-criminals – the baleful gypsy, the mystic oriental, the sharp-dressed con-artist – are villains with no respect for international borders. As my opening paragraphs intimated, Britain hasn’t been immune from them. Among the most interesting cases in my files – also one of the earliest, dating as it does from January 1890 – is that of Lewis Albert, a former graduate of Oxford University whose fondness for alcohol had brought him into shabby circumstances. Here he eked out a living by turning his considerable mesmeric powers on small shopkeepers and other unchaperoned sources of ready money.

The secrets of Albert’s technique were never fully revealed; my source is satisfied with calling them ‘hypnotic’ or `mesmeric’, as if that explained all that needed to be explained. Evidently and in common with more recent European hypno-heist accounts – like the Zamir case, also – he began by presenting the victim with something that simulated a large-denomination coin or note for which change would be due. In fact, it was always a ridiculously small or worthless one; in his last experiment, which led to his appearance before a Wolverhampton court in 1889, Albert had persuaded a 19-year-old clerk at a theatre box office that a dirty scrap of newspaper was a £5 note. The youth was astounded when police officers, who had been trailing Albert for some time, pointed out the error and he could only complain that an odd numbness had overcome him when the accused approached his window. Albert was caught, then, but there was some doubt as to what law he would be charged with having broken. He was “undoubtedly worthy of severe punishment”, in one journalist’s opinion, yet “his crime is so entirely novel that he probably cannot be punished at all unless the old statutes against witchcraft be revived, in which case he might be comfortably roasted before a slow fire.”

Lewis Albert sounds like a man wasted on Wolverhampton; he would have fared better in Italy, a country that seems alarmingly prone to hypnoheists – or at least, to reports of them. I have a brief reference from 1953 concerning two gypsies arrested for hypnotising bank cashiers in an unnamed town or towns into giving them undisclosed but substantial sums and another from 1988 of a shopkeeper (not to mention 20 customers) incapacitated by a couple of “Indians” who stared into victims’ eyes and gestured – after the style of the old time mesmerists, no doubt – as a prelude to raiding the till.

But the most concentrated study of this Italian phenomenon comes from the contemporary legend journal Tutte Storie (1:3) where Alessandro Cortellazi surveyed of ipno-ropane reports ranging across six months of 1991 and geographically from Trento and Milan (March) to Sarre (May) back to Trento and district (Calceranica and Mori, August) to Aosta (September). (For the sake of completeness, I may as well throw in here a June 1994 note from a British newspaper that “A robber who hypnotises his victims has been GIVEN more than £200,000 in 20 raids on shops and banks across Italy.”)
Rumour legends are topical, fast spreading and sensational exposés of hidden truths. Though their story-lines are rudimentary, they succeed in warning us that things are not what they appear, nor what we have been led to believe
Signor Cortellazi found these narratives to be fairly consistent. One or a pair of “oriental” or Asiatic looking characters would enter a shop, bank, restaurant or megastore and proffer a large amount of money for which change was needed. The customer would stare fixedly at the cashier and might make a series of baffling, trivial or irrelevant comments; when the transaction reached a point where the till was opened, the cashier would suddenly experience a sense of massive confusion followed by memory lapse, from which he or she emerged later to see that money was missing – usually a very significant amount of it.

Tutte storie” can be translated as “all stories” or “nothing other than stories”, which is a fair reflection of how Italian folklorists regard these hypno-heist reports. They may appear genuine accounts of real-life events – that is how the newspapers make them sound. In truth, they are “no more than just stories” – not true: as some would prefer to say, they are urban, contemporary legends or rumour legends.

Rumour legends are topical, fast spreading and sensational exposes of hidden truths. Though their story-lines are rudimentary, they succeed in warning us that things are not what they appear, nor what we have been led to believe. They deal with corruption, conspiracy and cover-ups; they speak of subversive threats to our well-being – to the very concept of Truth itself – which have been connived at or even created by the authorities who govern our lives.

Original, daring and slickly devised crimes operating on a large scale, crimes which the police seem utterly helpless to prevent, crimes masterminded by gigantic underworld syndicates: these are perennially popular themes in rumour legends. The Hypno-Heist sits nicely within this category.

Token together (as the 1964 French and 1991 Italian cases might be) hypno-heists can be made into attractive rumour legend sequences. These are not random, unconnected incidents! A fearsome criminal organisation is touring the streets of our cities almost undetectably – and unpredictably. Its operatives, talented hypnotists, are as audacious as they are mobile and highly practised. And versatile: they may pick upon an isolated female shopkeeper, but they can walk into a bank and perform the some mental chicanery on an experienced cashier just as well, And walk out again – and vanish. The “gang/conspiracy” element magnifies the extent of this menace. Imagine such power in the hands of the Tong or the Mafia! Maybe these hypno-robbers are making the Tong and Mafia look like crude amateurs!

Or forget the “secret criminal network” idea, Suppose these hypnotic thieves are independent operators: don’t they seem to have something in common nonetheless? Surely they belong to a dangerous cultural or ethnic unit which is in our society, but not of it, an alien culture knowledgeable in terrible occult arts of which we know virtually nothing. The key in both scenarios is Hypnosis, shown once again as that irresistible force with which The Shadow of comic-book tome befogs men’s minds – and women’s minds as well, come to that.

This is to regard the Hypno-heist as a product of contemporary folklore. But … can we be sure these reports are rumour legends, or any kind of legend at all? To categorise them in that manner would be much the same as saying they are not true – that the events they describe didn’t really happen. Personally, I feel it safer to allow that part of what some rumour legends claim might be true and that something akin to what they describe may have taken place. In other words, these could be stories based upon a somewhat ambiguous set of circumstances to which an imaginative, speculative and legendary slant has been given.

“These people are real”, comments Alessandro Cortellazi of the north Italian ‘ipnorapinatores’, “and they’ve visited dozens of megastores and cashiers all over Italy. The only thing that becomes legend is the robbers’ technique. In fact, really hypnosis doesn’t work like that.”

No, hypnosis certainly doesn’t work like that; at least, what most of us associate and identify with the word, ‘hypnosis’ doesn’t work like that. In the popular conception, induction of the hypnotic state is a fairly prolonged process best attempted with the subject’s full knowledge and cooperation, It involves fixation of that subject’s attention on a defined focus (a small point above eye-level, for example – as in the “swinging shiny object” dear to movie-makers) with verbal suggestions of progressive relaxation which lead to eye closure and sleep-like trance.

Admitting that the victims’ memories of what occurred may have been inhibited – by post-hypnotic suggestions of amnesia, perhaps? – there is little in these hypno-heist stories that approaches our conventional view of hypnosis or indeed our view of what is “conventional” hypnosis.

On the other hand, we know very well that people get confused from time to time and that afterwards they tend to blame that confusion on all kinds of external influences. To claim you were drunk, “not thinking properly” or “under a spell” is a means of shrugging off responsibility for actions from which you wish (belatedly!) to dissociate yourself. A person who has experienced a drastic lapse of concentration, especially one leading to some traumatic error of judgement, may find solace in the rationalising excuse: “I don’t know what come over me, I must have been hypnotised!”

This or some comparable blame-transferring, self-excusing mechanism may explain what happened in the cases of Dominique Desigaux and Romella Blake; it may apply to other cases of hypno-theft besides. But realistically, we cannot rule out the possibility that they were subjected to some form of hypnosis so far removed from the conventional image of swinging bright objects and “You are feeling sleepy” suggestions that it seems to be “not hypnosis” at all.

Many people don’t realise that hypnosis can be induced without suggestions of relaxation and sleepiness or that (conversely) it can be achieved by stimulating the subject’s mental processes into frenzied activity. His or her mind might be exposed to a barrage of swiftly issued, confusing instructions which create a condition of disorientation, culminating in a point where it will readily respond to a direction which is not ambiguous (“Go to sleep”). Is it coincidental that some hypno-heist narratives talk of the mysterious customer making oddly confusing remarks just prior to the moment when the victim suffered an unaccountable bewilderment that preluded a “sleepwalking” or amnesiac episode?

Then there is the controversial phenomenon variously known as “waking”, “wide-awake”, “hyperactive” or “hyperalert” trance, It could more simply be called hypnosis without sleep or hypnosis with the subject’s eyes still open. It may be produced in subjects (including those who have not been hypnotised before) who are engaged in some concentrative task like reading, typing or riding exercise bicycles. (Or, theoretically, working out how much change to give a customer?) In the opinion of American doyen Raymond Wesley Wells, waking hypnosis must not be construed as a light or superficial form of trance; all the major hypnotic or post-hypnotic phenomena can be elicited in it, amnesia included.
"A brilliant hypnotist criminal could thus hypnotise shopkeepers just after they opened their cash registers or tills, scoop up the money, and leave them with no memory of the incident"
The controversial aspect here is that some researchers do not regard “waking trance” as synonymous with the more conventionally induced hypnotic variety. Add to this the still more provocative belief of Theodore X. Barber that these “hypnotic phenomena” can be produced in non-hypnotised persons and that consequently “hypnosis” itself can be no more than a term of convenience – and you may find yourself precipitated into a mental confusion rivalling that attributed to hypno-heist victims.

“A brilliant hypnotist criminal could thus hypnotise shopkeepers just after they opened their cash registers or tills, scoop up the money, and leave them with no memory of the incident”, declares Robert Temple, writing on waking trance in his Open to Suggestion (1989). Some 50 pages after this eerie though slightly imperfect echo of what we find in hypno-heist reports, the author relates the story of Maria, a Portuguese cleaner from London’s Notting Hill district, whom personal investigation led him to believe had been the victim of two fellow-countrymen: one of them owning flowing hair, penetrating eyes and a good knowledge of how to provoke the “hyperalert trance” state in a suitable subject.

Maria’s experiences were dreadfully similar to those of several hypno-heist victims already mentioned in this article. Inveigled into a complicated financial transaction centred upon an envelope said to contain £3,000 – and which in fact contained a wad of newspaper sandwiched between two genuine £50 notes – she began to feel she was losing contact with her surroundings, especially when the man with the intense gaze spoke to her. A kind of amnesia intervened, though she remembered having gone home to collect all her savings and jewellery which she gave the pair … who promptly disappeared while she was waiting in a Post Office queue.

Subsequent enquiries revealed the same men had extracted sums of £1,500, £6,000 and £8,000 from at least three other people and according to Robert Temple they “apparently had committed similar crimes in Italy and Spain in the past”. It is a relief to know that in committing their last British hypno-heist they were arrested, sentenced to a term in prison and eventually deported. A relief for British peace of mind, that is. Back home in Portugal, they may have gone straight back into their old business.

Remember Mohammed Zamir’s speculation about what may have happened to him when he examined the strangely coloured £20 that his customer gave him? “Either I was hypnotised”, he said, “or there was something on that note”. Some inhalable drug, presumably: a powerful narcotic or maybe a substance that exerted a “hypnotic” effect. Drugs and hypnosis frequently appear side by side in popular narratives; to some extent, they are interchangeable and the former may even be used to induce the latter. Robert Temple was inclined to think that a drug may have promoted a preliminary wide-awake trance in Marie and she herself appears to have thought along the same lines.

Obscure, dire and incredibly potent drugs figure prominently in contemporary fictions. The villain of these thrilling tales is not merely a master-hypnotist; he has at his disposal a pharmacopoeia of weird mind-sapping chemicals and zombie potions into which he routinely dips whenever he wants to abduct or brainwash a victim. So much for popular fantasy. But just as narrators insist we can’t ignore what they claim of hypnotic malpractice purely because we don’t know all there is to know about hypnosis – just as their stories receive some support from journalistic reports of new scientific findings in this field – so too we are not allowed to discredit these drug horror stories. Don’t the papers tell us of new and horrendously potent drug menaces practically every day? Is a drug that throws people into a somnambulic state the instant they breathe it really beyond the realms of belief?

Not if it comes from Colombia. The media have promoted the view that “Colombia”, “dangerous drugs” and “criminal syndicates” are words that belong together. We are encouraged to think even the wildest tales of crime and chemical perversion are believable if they emanate from the country that has become known as the drug dispensary of the World.

So we do not challenge something like the Associated Press report of 27 August 1994, which stated that thousands of Colombians have been robbed or raped by means of the hyoscine-based sedative burundanga; that 500 cases of ‘burundanga intoxication’ are treated in Bogota each month; that gongs track prospective victims for weeks before making contact, when the target is slowed down by a dose of chloroform and then offered a restorative drink by a kindly, well-dressed stranger who just happens to come along.

Needless to say, this drink contains burundanga, a property of which is to enhance suggestibility so that (in the words of a US State Department warning issued in 1994) victims are ‘disorientated and powerless to resist the criminal’s orders’. He or she may be made into a ‘mule’ (drug-carrier) or, like the woman mentioned in Alfredo Ardila and Carlos Moreno’s paper for Cognition (vol. 5, 1991) may spend hours in a helplessly compliant state during which the criminals escort him/her to make savings withdrawals with which they exit – taking whatever cash and jewellery the victim can provide them with as well. Any dissimilarity between this story and what newspapers tell us of hypno-heists seems too slight to dwell upon.

For some of us, however, hypnotic drugs may be an unnecessary luxury – scarce worth the trouble of carrying, let alone worth the risk of administering. There have always been individuals adept at compelling others to follow their instructions. In some, this is a natural inborn talent; many more (advertising and salespersons, for example) have had to learn how to cultivate it. Their persuasive techniques frequently employ a measure of suggestion. Again, we can rely upon it that con-artists have practical expertise in the same area, effectually mesmerising the “mark” into seeing and acting as he or she is required to see and act. None of this is “hypnosis” in the strictest sense, but mental manipulation which induces a diminished awareness that there are alternatives to the suggested behaviour.

Additionally, a sizable proportion of the population – ten per cent, according to some reckonings – are highly suggestible types who are easily placed in a deep hypnotic state. One final and curious fact to consider here: a large number of these highly suggestible folk are capable of being eased into that deep hypnotic state by the mere notion that they are being hypnotised …

The preconceptions we have about hypnosis – what it is, how it is induced, what happens when you are hypnotised – can be hypnotic devices in their own right. A suggestible person who equates hypnosis with watching a swinging shiny locket or with staring into a pair of commanding, inescapable dark eyes is likely to respond quickly to forms of induction that use those foci. The actual participation of the hypnotist in the process is almost irrelevant, since the subject is hypnotising him- or herself by virtue of the fact that the method employed corresponds with his/her beliefs about hypnosis.

Hypno-heist reports often provide clues that the victims, consciously or subconsciously, matched what was happening to them against a set of ideas which added up to the “fact” of hypnosis. The shiny, black eyes of the French gypsy-characters conformed with a popular “hypnotist” image; the victims’ testimony to feeling a loss of power to argue or resist and the sensation of sleep-walking or being in a dream both conform with popular ideas of what it is like to be in a hypnotic state. And we could go further. We could guess that the victims had been hypnotised by a stereotype. The strange customer belonged (or seemed to belong) to a cultural group persistently suspected of an ability to cast hypnotic spells on their prey. The majority of reports describe them in such racially stereotypical terms as “gypsies”, “bohemians”, “Egyptian” or “oriental”: all reputedly experts in unhallowed occultist crafts.

Such thinking may be reprehensible and primitive, no doubt, but recognising it as such may not always provide a defence against it. Essayist and novelist Tom Wolfe has said that no matter how sophisticated and prejudice-free the American male likes to think himself, he harbours a secret and unreasoning fear of his black counterpart. This has nothing to do with the fear of physical assault; it is the fear that black men possess the power of voodoo. Unpleasant as it must be to recognise the same tendency in ourselves, there are races who inspire vague apprehension about curses and the evil eye – races we dread offending and shrink at meeting alone, one on one. Gypsies, for example, And orientals in general…

Undoubtedly some individuals of these racial groups are quite aware of how we feel about them. They recognise the stereotype, see advantages in living up to it. An itinerant vendor of trinkets may find it convenient to become a “Romany” on occasion. Mingling sentimental religiosity with something more ominous, she may put on a performance of magical rites, as Desigaux and Blake’s visitors appear to have done and if all else fails she may invoke the dreaded threat of the Gypsy Curse to unsettle the victim still further. Call this intimidation or manipulation; neither rules out the possibility that she is also accomplished at recognising a highly suggestible subject and at inducing in that person something which deserves to be called a trance – whether ‘waking’ or `hypnotic’ is beside the point.


Look again at the stories of Desigaux and Blake. Alone, confronted by people who seemed to them members of the magical race, a gypsy race known for its spells and curses, they felt uneasy. They felt vulnerable to the visitor’s magic and as the transaction progressed, they experienced a sensation of that magic working upon them. Their level of suggestibility rose, helped along by the gypsies’ stereotypical performance: the chanting, the palmistry, the prayers. Confusion, dizziness or disorientation and a loss of volition occurred, amounting to an altered state of consciousness that was “hypnotic” in a metaphorical sense if not in a literal one. Critical faculties only returned after the mystic stronger had gone, when, finding that goods and money had gone, too, the victim underwent more confusion. Hardly able to believe she had allowed all this to happen, she could only assume she had been hypnotised. As, in a certain sense, she had been.

Folklorists generally prefer to avoid arguments about whether urban legends “really happen” or don’t. For one thing, the subtextual meanings of a story – here, the racial/cultural stereotyping on which I just remarked – are more important than long and frequently futile efforts to probe truth or falsity. If forced to state my opinion of the bulk of the material on hypnoheists, I must agree that they present no solid evidence for being more than rumour legends. But I keep thinking back to that comment of Alessandro Cortellazi’s on the 1991 Italian reports: the ‘ipnorapinatores’ were real, but their hypnotic powers seem legendary – or at any rate, they cannot be comfortably identified with anything we normally think of as hypnosis.

It won’t be denied that certain aspects of these hypno-heist narratives bring them into close proximity with stories which have proven themselves highly dubious and with others whose factuality has been decisively dismissed. Serious doubts have been lodged concerning first-person testimonies that rely solely on the witness’s memory of what happened, especially when the episode in question carries traumatic or pseudo-traumatic associations; UFO abductions and Satanic Ritual Abuse allegations are blatant examples, From another angle, the hypno-heist script appears to mimic the plot of “bodypart theft” rumour legends like the Stolen Kidney, which no contemporary folklorist considers to be anything more than a rumour legend.

We have a choice here. We can say that hypnoheist stories are not true – that they are rumour legends – and that the media have been trying to hypnotise us into believing them; or, that some elements of these narratives may be true and that our current ideas on what constitutes hypnosis need strenuous revision.

A third path recognises that, like many contemporary legends, the Hypno-Heist intrigues us because it has a certain imaginative feasibility. It is a story of modern magic and cleverly executed crime – crime carried off with style and flair: the perfect crime, as the French journalist implied. Nor is it totally unbelievable. To use the favourite phrase of X-Files creative genius Chris Carter, it lies within the realms of “extreme possibility”.

This is not to say that hypno-heist stories are 100% (or even just 50%) accurate records of what happened to the victims. But acknowledging how they persuade us to think that they might be genuine, if only within the limits of extreme possibility, we understand why they are believed – and repeated.

I would like to thank Véronigue Campione-Vincent for supplying photocopies of many newspaper accounts mentioned in this article.

For an insider’s view on hypnotism, go to http://magonia.haaan.com/2009/hypnotism-1/