views updated Jun 08 2018


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.

"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, criedand 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 somethinganimal heatthat 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 non-medical 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 through entranced somnambules soon gained popularity and increasing trust.

In the United States the students of Mesmerism believed they had discovered a new sciencephreno-mesmerism. J. Rhodes Buchanan, R. H. Collyer, and Rev. La Roy Sunder-land 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 Elliot-son 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 short-lived 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 an-aesthetic 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 neuro-paths or with hysterical subjects.

The school of Nancy accepted hypnotic sleep but considered suggestion its potent cause. In 1886 in Professor Bern-heim'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 so-called 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 studentsmuch to her consternationbegan 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.


Bernheim, H. Hypnosis and Suggestion in Psychotherapy. Re-print, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1964.

Bertrand, Alexandre. Traité du somnambulisme. Paris, 1824.

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.


views updated Jun 11 2018


When he arrived in Paris in February 1778, the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) introduced a new healing art that rapidly became a transatlantic sensation. Theorizing that all natural bodies were permeated by a rarified fluid akin to electricity or magnetism, Mesmer argued that illness was the product of obstructions in the flow of this fluid. The task of the physician, then, was to manipulate these fluids by massaging and manipulating the bodily "poles" to overcome blockages and restore the natural electromagnetic flow. Sometimes en masse, patients responded dramatically to mesmeric treatment, falling into convulsive fits (the "crisis") that signaled the cure.

Mesmerism's authority stemmed from its mingling of the science of electrical theory with familiar notions of bodily balance. Although it developed a strong following among the French elite and among social reformers, it remained controversial. Worried by its reputed connection with political radicals, a skeptical Louis XVI appointed a commission of eminent scientists in 1784 to investigate its claims. Headed by Benjamin Franklin, the commission ultimately concluded that although some patients had indeed improved, the phenomena were merely a product of the "force of imagination." When asked by his grandson whether this report would be the end of mesmerism, however, Franklin was doubtful. "Deceptions as absurd," he wrote, "have supported themselves for ages."

As Franklin predicted, mesmerism flourished despite the verdict, diversifying in theory, practice, and application. Even as many practitioners clung to some version of a universal fluid that was analogous (or equivalent) to electricity and magnetism, others charted new theoretical terrain. By the 1820s almost the only feature uniting mesmerists and their peers, animal magnetists and electrical physicians, was the contention that the mind was capable of sympathetically exerting influence on other bodies and minds. In the United States, mesmerism found particularly fertile ground. From the time that the Marquis de Lafayette delivered a paper on the subject before the American Philosophical Society in 1781, it swelled in popularity, reaching its apex during the 1830s and 1840s.

Instead of crises, however, American somnambules (the subjects of animal magnetism) exhibited a range of remarkable phenomena that seemed to confirm the reality of the universal fluid predicted by Mesmer. Some were brought into a cataleptic state so profound as to permit them to undergo surgery without experiencing pain. Others entered a state of mutual sensation with their mesmerists, and still others exhibited the capacity to read thoughts, to experience religious ecstasy, to see and diagnose illnesses within others, or to make clairvoyant voyages to other cities or planets. Most famously, the "Poughkeepsie seer," Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910), experienced visions of the afterlife and other worlds while mesmerized that echoed the visions of the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). Davis would become an important figure in the Spiritualist movement of the 1850s. In short, mesmerism promised a world of unseen sympathetic connections between individuals and became a powerful means of conceptualizing nature and society and the relations of individuals within society.

The antebellum years, however, also marked a significant juncture in the history of animal magnetism. Although it remained enormously popular, it was increasingly marginalized by the medical community, its practices coopted and incorporated into the new field of hypnotism.


Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1968.

Taves, Ann. Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Winter, Alison. Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Robert S. Cox


views updated May 18 2018

mes·mer·ism / ˈmezməˌrizəm/ • n. hist. the therapeutic system of F. A. Mesmer. ∎ (in general use) hypnotism.DERIVATIVES: mes·mer·ist / -ist/ n.


views updated May 14 2018

mesmerism (production of) a hypnotic state in a person by exercise of another's will-power. XIX. f. name of Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1733–1815), Austrian physician + -ISM.
Hence mesmerize XIX.


views updated May 23 2018

mesmerism (mez-mer-izm) n. hypnosis based on the ideas of Franz Mesmer, sometimes employing magnets and a variety of other equipment. [ F. A. Mesmer (1734–1815), Austrian physician]

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