‘There is only one illness,’ pronounced Franz Anton Mesmer, ‘and only one cure.’ This cure was animal magnetism, a practice that united eighteenth century society in debate. From royalty to peasants, politicians to revolutionaries, scientists to Freemasons: everyone had an opinion on magnetism.
Franz Anton Mesmer was born in Germany in 1734. He studied medicine in Vienna, married a wealthy widow and became a fashionable doctor. Not bad for the son of a game keeper.
In 1774 Mesmer was introduced to patient Francisca Oesterlin. She suffered from ‘constant vomiting, inflammation of the bowels, stoppage of urine, excruciating toothache, earache, melancholy, depression, delirium, fits of frenzy, catalepsy, fainting fits, blindness, breathlessness, and lameness’. Mesmer tried a novel cure. He gave her a medicine containing iron and applied magnets over her body to create an ‘artificial tide.’ Oesterlin was cured. In fact, she was so well she soon married Mesmer’s step-son. Mesmer now theorized that the whole universe was held together by magnetic fluid, and that disease was caused by blockages in free-flow of this fluid through the body. Animal magnetism was born.
Mesmer developed his cure. He would stare into his patient’s eyes and massage their body, wave a wand at them, or have them put their feet in magnetic water, until they had a ‘crisis’ or a fit and were cured. He was soon hounded out of Vienna as a charlatan and moved to Paris. Once again the medical and scientific authorities were sceptical, but the public loved magnetism so much he had to introduce group cures. His patients would hold onto a tub of magnetized water, a magnetized tree, or simply hold hands.
The authorities felt threatened by Mesmer’s miracle cures and were determined to stamp out animal magnetism. In 1784 the King appointed a Royal Commission of eminent scientists, led by Benjamin Franklin, to investigate. It was rather awkward as they were all members of a masonic lodge that was very keen on magnetism. But their scientific self-interest won the day. They reported that ‘magnetic fluid’ was humbug and that Mesmer’s cures were either fake or a product of the imagination. Mesmer was a staunch materialist and strongly denied that his cures were produced by the mind.
The commission finished Mesmer’s career. He left Paris and drifted around Europe, was imprisoned in Vienna as a suspected revolutionary, and died in Germany in 1815.
Meanwhile, animal magnetism continued to march through Europe and remained as popular as ever. This was hardly surprising. In the late eighteenth century all the medical establishment could offer was blood-letting, vomits and purges. Given the choice between a cure that was painful, dangerous and useless, or one that was pleasant, safe and useless, I would pick the latter option every time.
In 1784, the same year as the Royal Commission, Armand Marie Jacques Chastenet, Marquis of Puysegur, took magnetism in a new direction. He discovered he could induce a new state of consciousness, called ‘artificial somnambulism’ or ‘magnetic sleep’. This sometimes gave patients occult powers such as clairvoyance and extra-sensory perception. Puysegur’s ‘spiritual’ or psychological version of animal magnetism, became known as ‘mesmerism’, and ensured the continued popularity of the practice.
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