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Animal Magnetism

Sources: 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

as 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

and bandaging.

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.