Mesmerism
A system of healing, founded by Franz Anton Mesmer
(1733–1815), an Austrian doctor who received his degree at Vienna
in 1766 and expounded the main principles of his discovery
of animal magnetism in De Planetarum Influxu, his inaugural
thesis in which he summarized his position in a series of
statements
‘‘There is a mutual influence between the celestial bodies,
the earth and animated bodies.
Merrell-Wolff, Franklin Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1026
‘‘The means of this influence is a fluid which is universal and
so continuous that it cannot suffer void, subtle beyond comparison
and susceptible to receive, propagate and communicate
every impression of movement.
‘‘This reciprocal action is subject to as yet unknown mechanical
laws.
‘‘The result of this action consists of alternating effects
which may be considered fluxes and refluxes.
‘‘It is by this operation (the most universal in nature) that
the active relations are exercised between the heavenly bodies,
the earth and its constituent particles.
‘‘It particularly manifests itself in the human body with
properties analogous to the magnet; there are poles, diverse
and opposed, which can be communicated, changed, destroyed
and reinforced; the phenomenon of inclination is also observable.
‘‘This property of the animal body which renders it susceptible
to the influence of celestial bodies and to the reciprocal action
of the environing ones I felt prompted to name, from its
analogy to the magnet, animal magnetism.
‘‘It acts from a distance without the intermediary of other
bodies.
‘‘Similarly to light it is augmented and reflected by the mirror.
‘‘It is communicated, propagated and augmented by the
voice.’’
By applying magnetic plates to the patient’s limbs, Mesmer
effected his first cures in 1773. The arousal of public attention
was due to a bitter controversy between Mesmer and a Jesuit
priest Maximilian Hell, professor of astronomy at the University
of Vienna, who claimed priority of discovery. Mesmer won.
In 1778, after a bitter public controversy over the cure of a
blind girl, Mesmer went to Paris. In a short time he became famous.
His first convert was Charles d’Eslon, medical adviser to
Count d’Artois. In September 1780 d’Eslon asked the Faculty
of Medicine to investigate Mesmer’s ideas and practices. The
proposal was rejected, and d’Eslon was told that his name
would be struck off the rolls at the end of the year if he did not
recant.
In the meantime public enthusiasm grew to such a high
pitch that in March 1781 Minister de Maurepas offered Mesmer,
on behalf of the king, 20,000 livres (francs) and a further
annuity of 10,000 livres if he established a school and divulged
the secret of his treatment.
Mesmer refused, but two years later accepted a subscription
of 340,000 livres for lectures to pupils. In 1784 the French government
charged the Faculty of Medicine and the Societé Royale
de Médicine to examine animal magnetism. Nine commissioners
convened under the presidency of Benjamin Franklin,
including Jean Sylvain Bailly and J. K. Lavater; four more commissioners
were added from the Royal Society of Medicine.
The delegates restricted their activity to the search for evidence
of a new physical force that was claimed as the agent of the cure.
As part of their investigation, they observed Mesmer’s use
of the famous baquet. This baquet was a large circular tub filled
with bottles that dipped into the water. The baquet was covered,
and iron rods projected from the lid through holes therein.
The rods were bent and could be applied to any part of the
body by the patients who sat in rows. The patients were tied together
by a cord that passed around the circle. Sometimes they
held hands in a chain. There was music. The operator, with an
iron rod in his hands, walked around and touched the patients;
they fell into convulsions, sweated, vomited, cried—and were
supposedly cured.
The committees, in their verdict, stated that they found no
evidence of a magnetic fluid, and the cures might be due to
vivid imagination. De Jussieu was the only member who dissented.
He claimed to have discovered something—animal
heat—that radiated from the human body and could be directed
and intensified by willpower. Later magnetists adopted the
theory. It marked the discovery of the human element in animal
magnetism.
The next important development is attached to the name of
Marquis de Puységur. He began his cures at Busancy in the
same year that animal magnetism was officially turned down.
He did not employ the baquet. He ‘‘magnetized’’ a tree, which
he fastened cords around and invited the sufferers to tie themselves
to it. One of his invalid patients, a 23-year-old peasant
named Victor, fell asleep in the operator’s arms. He began to
talk, and on waking he remembered nothing. De Puységur’s
observation of Victor led to his discovery of the somnambulic
stage.
Puységur and the earlier magnetizers attributed many curious
phenomena to the state of rapport, and they insisted on the
theory of a magnetic effluence. Their patients claimed they
could see it radiating as a brilliant shaft of light from the operator,
from trees, and from other substances. Some substances
could conduct it, others not. Water and milk could retain it and
work cures.
Tardy de Montravel discovered the transposition of the
senses. His somnambule not only walked in the town with her
eyes fast closed but could see with the pit of her stomach (see
also eyeless sight). J. H. Desire Pétetin, a doctor at Lyons, enlarged
upon these observations. He changed the theory of Mesmer
to ‘‘animal electricity’’ and cited many experiments to
prove that the phenomena were of an electrical nature.
J. P. F. Deleuze objected, insisted on the magnetic fluid theory,
and pointed out its analogies with nerve-force. He explained
the phenomena of the transposition of the senses by
the idea that it was the magnetic fluid that conveyed the impressions
from without. He offered a similar theory to explain
medical diagnoses that the patients gave of others and themselves.
Every phenomenon was, however, attributed to physiological
causes. Thought-reading and clairvoyance as transcendental
faculties were rejected. The phenomena of traveling
clairvoyance were yet very rare. Tardy de Montravel was alone
in his supposition of a sixth sense as an explanatory theory.
A new approach to Mesmerism was inaugurated by a nonmedical
man, Abbé Faria. In 1813 he ascribed the magnetic
phenomena to the power of imagination. General Noizet and
Alexandre Bertrand adopted his view. Bertrand’s Traité du somnambulisme
was published in 1823. It definitely established a
new departure. Bertrand denied the existence of the magnetic
fluid and pointed out the preternormal sensitivity of the subject
to the least suggestion, whether by word, look, gesture, or
thought. Yet he admitted the supernormal phenomena of
trance.
Marvelous stories were agitating the country. Professional
clairvoyants arose. They gave medical diagnosis and treatment.
Billot discovered most of the phenomena of Spiritualism.
From Germany and Russia came rumors of a wide recognition
of magnetic treatment. The Royal Academy of Medicine could
not long ignore the stir.
On December 13, 1825, the proposal of P. Foissac that another
investigation should be ordered was, after a bitter struggle,
carried. The report of the committee was not submitted
until five and a half years later. It stated that the alleged phenomena
were genuine and that the existence of somnambulism
was well authenticated. They found evidence of clairvoyance
and successful medical diagnosis in the state of rapport.
They also established that the will of the operator could produce
the magnetic state without the subject’s knowledge, even
from another room.
In the meantime, developments in Germany proceeded.
Animal magnetism ceased to be a science of healing. Under the
influence of Jung-Stilling (see Johann Heinrich Jung), it soon
developed into a ‘‘spiritual’’ science. While Gmelin, Wienholt,
Fischer, Kluge, Kieser, and Weserman observed all the reported
properties of the magnetic fluid and insisted on its essential
importance, the practice of holding intercourse with the spirits
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Mesmerism
1027
through entranced somnambules soon gained popularity and
increasing trust.
In the United States the students of Mesmerism believed
they had discovered a new science—phreno-mesmerism. J.
Rhodes Buchanan, R. H. Collyer, and Rev. La Roy Sunderland
contended for the honor of the first discovery. Buchanan
mapped out an entirely new distribution of the phrenological
organs in 1843 and developed the theory of ‘‘nerve-aura’’ as a
connecting link between will and consciousness.
The title page of Collyer’s Psychography; or, The Embodiment
of Thought (Philadelphia, 1843) represented two persons looking
into a bowl, illustrating, in Collyer’s words, that ‘‘when the
angle of incidence from my brain was equal to the angle of reflection
from her brain she distinctly saw the image of my
thought at the point of coincidence.’’ Sunderland discovered
no less than 150 new phrenologic organs by means of mesmeric
experiments. Professor J. S. Grime substituted the magnetic
fluid with ‘‘etherium,’’ Rev. J. Bovee Dods with ‘‘vital electricity.’’
Andrew Jackson Davis was started on his career of seership
by mesmeric experiments for medical purposes. He became
the herald of Spiritualism, and from the believers of phrenomesmerism
and Mesmerism, Davis gained many believers of
the new faith.
In England the beginnings were slow. Not until John Elliotson
was converted by Baron Du Potet’s visit in 1837 did Mesmerism
assume the proportions of a widespread movement.
For propaganda it relied on the journal the Zoist and the shortlived
Phreno-Magnet. Three main classes of phenomena were
thus distinguished the physical effluence; phreno-mesmerism;
and community of sensation, including clairvoyance.
From Animal Magnetism to Hypnotism
The controversy between official medical science and Mesmerism
raged bitterly. The evolution of animal magnetism into
hypnotism was due to James Braid. But James Esdaile’s name
also occupies an important place. While Elliotson practically introduced
curative magnetism into England, Esdaile proved the
reality of mesmeric trance by performing operations under
mesmeric anaesthesia.
As early as 1841, Braid read an address before the British
Association in which he expounded his discovery of hypnotism.
He described it as a special condition of the nervous system,
characterized by an abnormal exaltation of suggestibility,
which can be brought about automatically by the mere fixation
of the eyes on bright objects with an inward and upward squint.
His address was published in 1843 under the title Neurypnology.
This work was followed three years later by his Power of
the Mind over the Body, in which he pointed out that the Mesmerists
were not on their guard against suggestion and hyperaesthesia.
He produced all the characteristic results of Mesmerism
without a magnet and claimed that the sensitives could not see
flames at the poles of the most powerful magnets until warned
to look at them. If warned, they saw flames issuing from any object.
The influence of Braid’s discoveries on the Mesmerists
themselves was very slight, and strangely enough, official science
took little notice. The main attraction of Mesmerism was
its therapeutic value. It was the discovery in 1846–47 of the anaesthetic
properties of ether and chloroform that deprived
mesmeric trance of its most obvious utility. The conquest by
Spiritualism soon began, and the leading Mesmerists were absorbed
into the ranks of the Spiritualists.
No further advance was registered in England until 1883,
when Edmund Gurney made his first experiments in hypnotism.
He pointed out that in the hypnotic stage, the formerly
numerous cases of rapport became extremely rare. He and F.
W. H. Myers reverted to the earlier theory and declared that
hypnotism and Mesmerism appeared to be two different states.
Official recognition was first granted to hypnotism in 1893
by a committee of the British Medical Association, which reported
to have found the hypnotic state genuine and of value
in relieving pain and alleviating functional ailments. Mesmerism
remained a controversial subject.
In France a great revival began in 1875. A. A. Liébeault published
his work on hypnotism in 1866. He sided with Bertrand.
In 1875 Charles Richet came to the fore. In 1879 Jean Martin
Charcot began his work in the Salpetrière. Paris, Bordeaux,
Nancy, and Toulon became centers of hypnotic activity. The
school of Paris, of which Charcot was the chief, adopted and
completed the explanation of Braid. Charcot contended that
the hypnotic conditions could only be provoked with neuropaths
or with hysterical subjects.
The school of Nancy accepted hypnotic sleep but considered
suggestion its potent cause. In 1886 in Professor Bernheim’s
famous work Suggestion and Its Application to Therapeutics,
he went so far as to declare ‘‘Suggestion is the key of all hypnotic
phenomena. There is no such thing as hypnotism, there
is only suggestion.’’ The views of Liébeault and Bernheim prevailed
almost everywhere over those of Charcot. But animal
magnetism was difficult to kill. Boirac was right in saying that
‘‘Animal magnetism is a new America which has been alternately
lost and found every twenty or thirty years.’’
In 1887 Dr. Baréty published Le Magnetisme animal etudié
sous le nom de force neurique, in which he boldly set out to prove
the reality of animal magnetism. Pierre Janet, reviewing Baréty’s
work, admitted that certain phenomena of attraction, anaesthesia,
etc., produced on subjects apart from all apparent
suggestion, by contact alone or the mere presence of the operators,
had often struck him as particularly suggestive of the socalled
magnetic chain.
Emil Boirac supported this position. He pointed out that although
hypnotism and suggestion exist, it does not follow that
animal magnetism has no existence. It may be that the effects
attributed to hypnotism and suggestion are caused by a third
factor. Experiments with several subjects convinced him of the
truth of his theory. ‘‘We are not prevented from hoping,’’ he
wrote in Psychic Science (1918),
‘‘that we shall one day succeed in discovering the natural
unity of these three orders of phenomena [Mesmerism or animal
magnetism, suggestion, and Braidic hypnotism] as we
begin to discover the natural unity of heat, light and electricity.
They too much resemble each other’s path not to betray a secret
relationship. They are perhaps the effects of one and the
same cause, but these effects are assuredly produced under different
conditions and according to different laws.’’
The claim was further supported in 1921 by Dr. Sydney Alrutz,
lecturer on psychology at the University of Upsala. He
claimed to have proved experimentally the existence of a nervous
effluence. Professor Farny of the Zurich Polytechnicum
showed by electrical tests an emission from the fingers and
called it ‘‘anthropoflux.’’ His results verified the previous investigations
of E. K. Muller, an engineer in Zurich and director of
the Salus Institute.
Eventually the phenomena of animal magnetism merged
with the developing Spiritualist movement, while hypnotism
became established as a valid medical technique.
In 1838 Phineas P. Quimby began to practice Mesmerism
and later developed from it his own concepts of mental healing.
One of Quimby’s students, Mary Baker Eddy, developed her
own idealistic approach to healing in the 1870s, embodied in
Christian Science. Then in the 1880s some of Eddy’s students—much
to her consternation—began to develop variations
on her teachings. One by one they broke away and
founded independent movements, which gradually aligned
into what became known as Mind Cure and then in the 1890s
as New Thought.
Sources
Bernheim, H. Hypnosis and Suggestion in Psychotherapy. Reprint,
New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books, 1964.
Bertrand, Alexandre. Traité du somnambulisme. Paris, 1824.
Mesmerism Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1028
Binet, Alfred, and Charles Féré. Animal Magnetism. London
Kegan Paul, 1887.
Braid, James. Magic, Witchcraft, Animal Magnetism, Hypnotism,
and Electro-Biology. London John Churchill, 1852.
Bramwell, J. Milne. Hypnotism and Treatment by Suggestion.
London Cassell, 1909.
Deleuze, J. P. F. Practical Instruction in Animal Magnetism.
New York Samuel R. Wells, 1879.
Franklin, Benjamin, and others. Animal Magnetism Report of
Dr. Franklin and Other Commissioners. Philadelphia H. Perkins,
1837.
Goldsmith, Margaret. Franz Anton Mesmer The History of an
Idea. London Arthur Barker, 1934.
Gregory, William. Animal Magnetism; or, Mesmerism and Its
Phenomena. London Nichols, 1884.
Ince, R. B. Franz Anton Mesmer. London William Rider,
1920.
Liébeault, A. A. Du sommeil et des etats analogues. Paris, 1886.
Mesmer, F. A. Mesmerism by Doctor Mesmer (1779), Being the
First Translation of Mesmer’s Historic ‘‘Memoire sur la découverte du
Magnétism Animal’’ to Appear in English. London Macdonald,
1948.
Podmore, Frank. Mesmerism and Christian Science. London
Methuen, 1909.
Sunderland, La Roy. Pathetism Man Considered in Relation to
His Form, Life, Sensation; An Essay Towards a Correct Theory of
Mind. Boston, 1847.