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Source: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
Although curative attributes were ascribed to the magnet in ancient
times, and the same belief prevailed in the Middle Ages, the noted
charlatan Paracelsus (1493-1541) was the first to propound the theory of
the existence of magnetic properties in the human body. During the
seventeenth century several persons in Great Britain claimed the ability
to cure diseases by stroking with the hand, and of these the most
notable was the celebrated Irish empiric, Valentine Greatrakes
It was asserted, moreover, by certain practitioners, that by magnetizing
a sword it could be made to cure any wound which the sword had
inflicted. And about the year 1625, Dr. Robert Fludd, an English
physician of learning and repute, introduced the famous "weapon-salve,"
which became immensely popular. Its ingredients consisted of moss
growing on the head of a thief who had been hanged, mummy dust, human
blood, suet, linseed oil, and Armenian bole, a species of clay. All
these were mixed thoroughly in a mortar. The sword, after being dipped
in the blood from the wound, was carefully anointed with the precious
mixture, and laid by in a cool place. Then the wound was cared for
according to the most approved surgical methods, with thorough cleansing
The successful results naturally attending this treatment were
attributed by the ignobile vulgus to the wonderful ointment. There
were sceptics who denied its efficacy, but the new remedy appealed to
the popular imagination. However, a certain Pastor Foster issued a
pamphlet entitled "A Spunge to wipe away the Weapon-Salve," which latter
the writer affirmed to be an invention of the Devil, who gave it to
Paracelsus, by whom it was bequeathed to the eminent Italian physician,
Giambattista della Porta, and finally was acquired by Doctor Fludd. In
reply to this attack, the latter published a vigorous refutation, under
the following caption: "The Squeezing of Parson Foster's Spunge, wherein
the Spunge-bearer's immodest carriage and behaviour towards his
brethren, is Detected; the Bitter Flames of his slanderous reports are,
by the sharp Vinegar of Truth, Corrected and quite Extinguished, and
lastly, the virtuous validity of his Spunge in wiping away the
Weapon-Salve, is crushed out and clean abolished."
In commenting on certain superstitious methods in surgery, which were in
vogue in the sixteenth century, the noted chemist and physician, Andrew
Libavius, a native of Halle, in Saxony, remarked that while wounds are
healed by nature, pretended magical remedies may be of use by directing
the natural forces to the spot, through the imagination.
Another favorite remedy, somewhat akin to the weapon-salve, was the
so-called "sympathetic powder," which was said to consist of sulphate of
copper prepared with mysterious ceremonies.
According to popular report, the recipe was brought from the East by a
Carmelite friar, and was introduced in England by Sir Kenelm Digby, a
noted chemist and philosopher of the seventeenth century, who was also a
Gentleman of the Bedchamber of Charles I. He published a volume on the
healing of wounds by means of this preparation. Portions of the
patient's bloodstained apparel were immersed in a solution of the
sympathetic powder, the wound meantime being cleansed and bandaged. A
strictly enforced regimen also formed part of the treatment.
As may readily be inferred, this wonderful powder, like the
weapon-salve, was equally efficacious, whether used at a distance from
the patient, or near by.
But it has ever been true, that the positive and reiterated assertions
of a charlatan will usually avail to delude not only the wonder-loving
public, but even persons of intellect and distinction. The secret of the
sympathetic powder became known to Dr. Theodore Turquet de Mayerne (at
one time the chief physician of James I), who is said to have derived
considerable profit from the sale of this once famous nostrum.
The system of therapeutics known as Mesmerism, originated by Friedrich
Anton Mesmer (1733-1815), a German physician, affords a notable example
of the influence of the mind upon the body through the imagination. In
its essential principles, it does not materially differ from the ancient
method of healing by laying-on of hands. As a young man Mesmer became
interested in astrology, believing that the stars exert, according to
their relative position at certain times, a direct influence upon human
beings. He at first identified this supposed force with electricity, and
afterwards with magnetism. Later he claimed to be endowed with a
mysterious power available for the cure of various diseases. Removing to
Paris in 1778, Mesmer at once began to demonstrate his theories,
maintaining that he was able to exercise a therapeutic effect upon his
patients, by virtue of a magnetic fluid proceeding from him, or simply
by the domination of his will over that of the patient.
He asserted that the magnetic fluid is the medium of a mutual influence
between the stars, the earth, and human beings. By insinuating itself
into the substance of the nerves of the human body, it affects them at
once, being moreover capable of communication from one body to other
bodies, animate or inanimate. It perfects the action of medicines, and
heals affections of the nerves. In animal magnetism nature presents a
universal method of benefiting mankind. Such, at least, was the
declaration of Mesmer.
With a view to influencing the imaginations of his patients, this shrewd
practitioner caused his consulting apartments in Paris to be dimly
lighted and surrounded by mirrors. Strains of soft music were heard,
subtle odors pervaded the air, and the patients were seated around a
circular oaken trough or baquet, in which were disposed a row of
bottles containing so-called electrical fluid. A complicated system of
wires connected the mouths of the bottles with handles, which were
grasped by the patients. After the latter had waited for a while in
expectant silence, Mesmer would appear, wearing a coat of lilac silk,
and carrying a magician's wand, which he manipulated in a graceful and
mysterious manner. Then, discarding the wand, he passed his hands over
the bodies of the patients for a considerable time, "until the
magnetized person was saturated with the healing fluid."
So great was the interest aroused by Mesmer's methods and the many
seemingly marvellous cures resulting therefrom, that the Royal Society
of Paris appointed a commission, which included Benjamin Franklin, to
investigate the subject. The members of this commission reported that
those patients who were not aware of the fact that they were being
magnetized experienced no effects from the treatment. Those who were
told that they were being magnetized experienced symptoms, although the
magnetizer was not near them. Imagination, apart from magnetism,
produced marked effects, while magnetism, without imagination, produced
nothing. The benefits resulting from Mesmer's treatment were due,
according to the commission's report, to three factors, namely: (1)
actual contact; (2) the excitement of the imagination; and (3) "the
mechanical imitation which impels us to repeat that which strikes our
The ability to cure disease without the use of medicines or surgical
appliances has been claimed by alleged healers in all ages. When such
cures were effected, they were attributed to a special gift with which
the healer was divinely endowed, and this gift was bestowed, in rare
instances, upon individuals who were distinguished by especial sanctity.
Mesmer did not claim this quality, and yet he performed cures which were
as notable as those of any saint or inspired healer of earlier times. He
believed that through animal magnetism a direct physical effect was
exerted upon the human body. And this effect he held to be due to the
virtues of a subtle fluid.
Frank Podmore, in "Mesmerism and Christian Science" (1909), expresses
the belief that Mesmer obtained many of his ideas from his
contemporary, Gassner. For even if he did not actually meet the latter,
Mesmer must have known him by reputation and doubtless was familiar with
his methods of healing. Gassner was a believer in the demoniac theory of
disease, and sought to expel the evil spirit by chasing it from one part
of the body to another, finally driving it out by word of command, from
the fingers or toes. Similar procedures were characteristic of Mesmer's
earlier methods, but were not retained by his successors.
One of Mesmer's most prominent followers was Armand Marc Jacques de
Chastenet, Marquis de Puysegur, born of noble ancestry at Paris, March
1, 1751. He entered early upon a military career, and attained by
successive promotions the rank of colonel in the Royal Artillery in
1778. Serving with distinction at the siege of Gibraltar during the
Spanish campaign, he was appointed field-marshal in 1789, and
lieutenant-general in 1814. Meanwhile he had become greatly interested
in the subject of animal magnetism, having been at one time a pupil of
Mesmer, whom he had assisted at the latter's seances. Retiring to his
chateau at Buzancy, Department of Aisne, in northern France, he devoted
himself to the study of the phenomena of mesmerism, and to practical
experimentation of its therapeutic value in the open air, beneath the
dense foliage of the forests, after the style of the ancient Druids.
Puysegur introduced new methods of magnetizing, and demonstrated that
many of the resultant phenomena could be made to appear by gentle
manipulation, and without the mysterious appliances and violent
procedures of Mesmer. Mindful of the latter's assertion that wood could
be magnetized, he decided to experiment upon a large elm tree which grew
upon the village green. As a result, streams of magnetic fluids were
alleged to pass from its branches by means of cords twisted around the
bodies of patients, who sat in a circle about the tree, with thumbs
interlocked, in order to afford a direct passage for the healing
In his work entitled "Memoires pour servir a l'histoire et a
l'etablissement du Magnetisme Animal" (London, 1786), Puysegur affirmed
his belief in the ancient doctrine of the existence of a universal
fluid, vivifying all nature, and always in motion. This doctrine he
maintained to be an ancient truth, the rejection whereof was due to
ignorance. He continued his researches and practice until his death at
Buzancy, August 1, 1825.
The magnetic fluid, according to some authorities, may be reflected like
light or propagated like sound, and increased, opposed, accumulated, and
transmitted to another object. Moreover this principle, which is akin to
a sixth sense, artificially acquired, may be employed for the cure of
nervous affections, by provoking and directing salutary crises, thus
bringing the healing art to perfection.
Mesmerism clearly appears to be no more than an antecedent of
hypnotism; few, if any, of the distinctive features of the
modern science appearing in an appreciated form in its
practices. Mesmer had little experience and no appreciation of
the hypnotic state, or of the phenomena of suggestion; he
constantly elaborated his physical manipulations, denied the
imagination any place in his effects, and regarded the crisis
as the distinctive and essential factor in his cures; and when
confronted with subjects in hypnotic state, pronounced the
production of this state as foolish and regarded it as a
subordinate phase of the magnetic crisis.
Thomson Jay Hudson, in his volume, "The Law of Mental Medicine," affirms
that the therapeutic successes of the ancient method of laying-on of
hands, the King's touch, metallic tractors, and mesmerism are fully
explained by the doctrine of suggestion, the mental energy of the healer
being transmitted as a therapeutic impulse from his subjective mind
through the medium of the nerves to the affected cells of the patient's
body, connection being established by so-called cellular rapport, that
is, "by bringing into physical contact the nerve-terminals of the two
The distinguished psychologist, James Braid, said that whoever supposes
that the power of imagination is merely a mental emotion, which may vary
to any extent, without corresponding changes in the physical functions,
labors under a mighty mistake. Suggestions by others of the ideas of
health, vigor, and hope, are influential with many people for restoring
health and energy both of mind and body. Having then such an effective
power to work with, the great desideratum has been to find the best
means for regulating and controlling it, so as to render it subservient
to our will for relieving and curing diseases. The modes devised, both
by mesmerists and hypnotists, for these ends, are a real, solid, and
important addition to practical therapeutics.
The importance of suggestive healing methods can hardly be
overestimated, and has been emphasized by many writers. Notable among
recent publications on the subject are Dr. T. J. Hudson's work, entitled
"The Law of Psychic Phenomena," and Dr. A. T. Schofield's "Unconscious
Mind." Dr. Pierre Janet, in one of his Lowell Institute lectures, in
Boston, November 3, 1906, remarked that
Before the time of Mesmer the sleep produced by magnetizers
was really the cause of numberless cures. Hypnotism, which has
replaced it little by little since 1840, and has been more
rapidly developed since 1878, differs from its ancestor more
in the interpretation of the phenomena than in the practices
themselves. It has naturally had the same therapeutic
applications, and its methods are probably legitimate.
Hypnotic sleep has had many helpful influences. It is really a
change in the equilibrium of the brain and mental faculties
and produces great modifications in the memory and in
sensibility. Life is indeed a long series of habits to which
we are accustomed; hypnotism changes these habits which in a
normal condition we do not try to modify, and on awakening,
all memory of the change is gone, although its effects may
Now oftentimes the nervous system becomes fixed in certain
disagreeable or dangerous habits, and the upsetting of these,
the uplifting of the mind from the rut, is of great service.
In the sleep of hypnotism speech, action, methods of thought,
all are changed, there is a cerebral rest, and beneficial
results often follow.
From the period following Braid's contributions up to the
foundation of modern hypnotism, . . . the history of the
subject may be briefly told. The field is occupied largely by
propagandists of one or another of the extravagant forms
of animal magnetism . . . by traveling mesmerists, by
sensationally advertised subjects, and by a small and
unorganized number of scientific men, attempting to stem the
tide of mysticism and error with which the others were
deluging the public. The recognition of hypnotism as an
altered physiological and psychological condition, after
repeated demonstrations, at last gained the day, securing for
the phenomena a place in the accepted body of scientific
Professor Bernheim says that the hypnotic condition and the phenomena
associated therewith are purely subjective, and originate in the nervous
system of the patient.
The fixation of a brilliant object, so that the muscle which
holds up the upper eyelid becomes fatigued, and the
concentration of the attention on a single idea, bring about
the sleep. The subjects can even bring about this condition in
themselves, by their own tension of mind, without being
submitted to any influence from without. In this state the
imagination becomes so lively that every idea spontaneously
developed or suggested, by a person to whom the subject gives
this peculiar attention and confidence, has the value of an
actual representation to him.
It has been well said that if Mesmer's methods served only to
demonstrate the curative power of the imagination, they have been of
some benefit to humanity.
The consideration of hypnotic cures does not appertain to our theme. Far
from these being primitive methods, they represent what is most modern
and advanced in psycho-therapeutics.
Next: Ancient Medical Prescriptions