Hypnotic Heroes: Dave Elman

Dave Elman radio publicity shot circa 1937-41,
included with permission from Cheryl Elman
Born David Kopelman, son of Jacob and Lena, on May 6th 1900, Dave Elman was raised in Fargo, North Dakota, as one of a large family. Jacob ran a business making wigs and theatre equipment, which likely gave David a good knowledge base for his later performance career. When David was very young, his father Jacob was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as it progressed it caused him severe pain, which traditional medicine failed to treat.

A family friend happened to be trained in stage hypnosis and was able to relieve Jacob’s pain with only a few minutes of trance. David saw how effective it was, and became fascinated with hypnosis as a treatment.

Jacob died when David was eight, leaving Lena with six children and one more on the way. With little governmental social support existing in 1908, David had to start work very early to help support the family. He worked various jobs in his early teens but soon found he had the most success in performing as a musician (specialising in saxophone and violin), comedian, and stage hypnotist in Vaudeville.

In 1922, David arrived in  New York under the name he became better known by later, Dave Elman. Anglicised stage names are often used so an English-speaking audience can remember them more easily, but the reason he always gave was so it could be printed in bigger letters on posters and marquees with limited space! Stage acts require very quick results to keep the audience interested, so Elman developed induction methods which could put a person in trance in mere seconds, and soon became well-known as 'The World’s Youngest and Fastest Hypnotist'.

Elman later moved into writing and producing music, working with famous blues musician W. C. Handy to write songs such as the famous 'Atlanta Blues'. Around this time he met his future wife, Pauline Reffe. In 1928 he started working in network radio in New York, where he wrote, directed, produced, and performed in various shows for and with celebrities such as the singer Kate Smith.

In 1937, Elman began a new NBC radio show named Hobby Lobby, in which ordinary people would become advocates about their unusual hobbies. The show was a runaway success, and ran coast to coast for over a decade; it was so famous, in fact, that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stood in as host when Elman was unavailable, twice! During WW2 she and Elman advocated therapeutic hobbies for soldiers, and he raised money for the war effort by auctioning war bonds.

In 1948, Elman organised a charity show, but the top-billing act had to drop out. Unable to find a replacement, Elman went on himself and performed his old hypnosis tricks. The show went well and, afterwards, Elman was approached by a doctor who had been in the audience, who asked Elman to teach him how to use hypnosis for medical treatment.

Elman developed a training course in what he called Medical Relaxation. At first, he taught a team of fifteen doctors, but he received many requests from other medical professionals, and so he spent the next thirteen years travelling throughout America, teaching his course to doctors, dentists, and therapists. He also published it as a set of audio recordings to spread it even further, along with a set of recordings of actual hypnosis sessions entitled 'Hypno-Analysis'. After a long illness in 1963, he decided to write a book. His wife Pauline took dictation for a living, and so was able to type out the book for him; their son Robert was an editor and so took on that part of the work. The result was a 336-page self-published book entitled 'Findings in Hypnosis', which is still widely used, although it was retitled 'Hypnotherapy' in 1978.  Elman died a few years later, on 5th December 1967. His record for the number of people taught how to use hypnosis still has not been beaten.

Elman listed three required points for hypnosis. First, the subject must be willing; second, the hypnotist and the subject must communicate well; third, the subject must trust the hypnotist. All successful hypnosis methods take these into account. He also found five common signs of trance. First, warm hands show the client is comfortable and relaxed, and likely to be easy to hypnotise. Next, when entering trance, the eyelids flutter, the eye whites turn pink or reddish, and the eyes water (Elman suggested this was because the tear ducts relax). Finally, the eyes roll upward.

Elman created multiple methods, but his most commonly used method consists of several stages. First, the subject is instructed to close their eyes, breathe deeply, and relax. The hypnotist will then talk them through feeling their arms become heavy, opening and closing their eyes until they feel unable to open them again, and counting down from one hundred. Altogether, it can take less than four minutes. Dave called it the 3-minute routine or ‘3 trips to Bernheim’.  Today this process is commonly known as the Dave Elman Induction.

Elman’s hypnosis method is especially good for medical use for multiple reasons.
  • First, it’s very quick, so not only can it be used in busy settings like hospitals, but new learners of the method can see results and know that it works straight away. Also, a short method can be remembered more easily and repeated consistently. 
  • Second, it works for over eighty-five per cent of subjects, including those who can’t be hypnotised by conventional slow inductions. 
  • Third, it allows the hypnotist to test repeatedly whether the subject is in trance yet, so it’s easy to tell if it’s working.

Author of this article: Rachel Waller.
Thanks to Cheryl Elman for her support: the image of Dave Elman is a radio publicity shot taken circa 1937-41 and is included with her permission.

The editor of the Hypnotherapy Training & Practitioner online magazine, , is an experienced hypnotherapist and hypnotherapy trainer. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words and has co-written the Hypnotherapy Handbook, both of which are available from Amazon.
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