Falsely credited with having invented hypnotism, with which his name has become synonymous, Franz Anton Mesmer is however, a curious figure in the world of psychic practitioners.
In some ways the beliefs and practices of Mesmer look back to an earlier period of magical medicine as far back as two hundred years before his own time to the era of Paracelsus. Yet Mesmer, born in Switzerland on May 23, 1734, also directly precipitates the great surge in Spiritism that took place early in this same century of books on compact discs and Internet communications.
Although today's scientists certainly would not jump to such conclusions, their recent identification of something they call "dark matter", theorized after repeated calculations on the universal mass and gravitational forces proved fantastically understated when compared to mathematical projections, tend to evoke a healthy air of credibility to the theories of some of the earlier shamans, including those of the remarkable Anton Mesmer.
He believed that this ether operating in individuals, when flowing naturally, results in a normal healthy condition throughout creation. Should the natural flow of this ether be impeded in any way, all sorts of sickness result. If a blockage has occurred in a patient, it must be dislodged. In this fashion Mesmer anticipated the Christian Scientist teachings of Mary Baker Eddy a century later.
A wealthy English dame passing through Vienna where a Jesuit professor had been studying the theories of Mesmer was put to a test when she complained of severe stomach cramps. Professor Hehl laid a powerful magnet on her belly, and to her astonishment, the cramps quickly dissipated. He then suggested to Mesmer that the magnetic force quite possibly was moving the etheric fluid. The medical profession was highly skeptical, but relying on his own instincts and those of his like-minded friends, Mesmer was soon making use of magnets to effect his cures.
After bleeding a patient, which was common practice for nearly every ailment back then, Mesmer noticed that as he approached the patient the flow of blood increased, and lessened noticeably when he stepped away. This was enough to convince the forty year old lay doctor that his own body must be some sort of magnetic force, hence the term, animal magnetism.
His practice boomed when word of this new miracle cure spread, although the combined faith of both healer and the patient in the process certainly was a persuasive factor in these cures, much like the placebo effect, well documented today. That the innate powers of a charismatic personality synchronizes the strong notions of a believer to effect untold numbers of miraculous payoffs cannot be denied.
Fame was heaped upon Mesmer after a hypochondriac baron in Rokow sought his help after being sarcastically referred to him by his own physician who finally tired of his complaints of back spasms, which the doctor felt were simply a product of the idle baronÕs imagination.
After five days of failure, on the sixth day of Mesmer's magnetic treatment the baron began to feel relief from this latest writhing bout with muscle spasms. News of the cure enflamed Vienna, and the medical establishment left no doubt of their displeasure in their colleague who had helped establish this vulgar charlatan.
As his recognition grew, so did the outrageousness of his methods. Mesmer devised a simple apparatus purported to distribute the magnetic forces to whole groups of willing patients. He constructed a whole system of healing tools designed to reach the most people in the least amount of time, beginning by immersing magnets in several jars of water connected with steel bands. He then collected the jars into a wooden tub resonating with iron filings and more water, and attached a hose and nozzle to this contraption to help spray the magnetized healing about the room or garden area busy with patients lounging and holding hands by the dozens. As expected, results were astounding.
Later a blind pianist, young and attractive, was to cross his path. Mesmer promised to cure her if she would take up residence in his house so that he could concentrate his efforts. Although there is evidence that the young artist's sight malady was caused by a detached retina, she soon believed that she could see ever so dimly. His women patients invariably were outfitted in a loose smock to insure a freer transference of his magnetic powers, and it is quite likely that his technique included the hands-on kneading of their breasts, thighs, buttocks, and wherever Mesmer deemed the flesh seemed knotted unnatural concentrations of etheric fluid.
Long before Freud, Mesmer seemed to realize the effects of sexual repression and nervous hysteria. His seductive techniques released many neurotic patients to the fresh feeling of an aspiring humanity, at least temporarily, free from the bondage of the host of mental and sexual insecurities modern society encourages.
Skeptics abounded nevertheless. While he managed to "cure" many resident patients, all pretty young ladies, his elderly wife remained ailing. The young pianist is said to have actually been helped by Mesmer's attentions, but she was whisked away against her will when the Imperial Morality Police intervened. He escaped to Paris.
There, his successes continued. His sensual healing techniques became the talk of society, women and men. King Louis XVI offered the practitioner a lifetime pension if he would sign a contract to remain in Paris and furnish proofs of his discoveries. Mesmer declined both conditions and in the spirit of bargaining-table bluff, he threatened to leave France if the pension was not provided without the conditions the king wanted to impose.
His animal magnetism cures were indubitably gathering a devoted and strong-willed following. Instructing pupils in his methods, he established centers in major cities across Europe, and when the king balked at Mesmer's monetary demands, he set a date for departure.
Paris was having no part in losing this wonderful healer. His wealthy followers started a slush fund, each contributing for the privilege of being a ground floor shareholder in a new enterprise based on the magnetic healing techniques of their beloved Franz Mesmer.
Mesmer left Paris, but was persuaded to return, exhaled after the fund collected by his followers surpassed the sum which the king had originally offered. Miffed that his own will had been circumvented, the king was eventually convinced by his Medical College to investigate scientifically the claims of the Mesmerists.
Investigating doctors were convinced that no evidence of a magnetic fluid existed, although they accepted the possibility that the charlatan seemed to possess great powers of suggestion.
Shortly after, a doctor faked an illness, faked his cure, and then published the dirt on Mesmer, as the wave of favorable public opinion was beginning to wane. Leaving Paris shortly after the Revolution, fearing his life, he was promptly exiled from Vienna. He resisted an offer by the king of Prussia to establish a Mesmer Institute in Berlin, his self-confidence evaporating, his age near sixty.
Mesmer's contribution to real science can be distilled in the fact that he understood that illness is not natural. Some kind of blockage of natural forces will inevitably yield stagnation and sickness. An instinctive desire to free the vital forces from restraint kept Mesmer successful as long as his own ability to acknowledge the forces he was using was strong, but the ruling establishment, then as now more often than not, always seems to overwhelm the harbinger of fresh insight concerning the body's spiritual essence, despite the best of intentions.
Mesmer died in 1815, comfortable and somewhat vindicated. The discovery of the hypnotic state was stumbled upon by accident by one of Mesmer's disciples, the Marquis de Puysgur, one day when trying to magnetize a young shepherd boy. Rubbing the boy's head had put the lad into a hypnotic, or spasmodic sleep (as he called it). Trying to arouse the lad to consciousness, the Marquis gave several commands, such as stand up, walk, and sit down, and was astounded to observe the boy obey, yet still remain in his sleeping state. When the shepherd boy finally woke up, he had no memory of these events.
And while the story of this strange 18th century man may delight,
offend, or mesmerize the reader, Franz Anton must surely appear
to us as no more a quack than some of the 20th century psychologists
who must trace their intellectual roots to this man whose name
is now a part of our language.