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An Unwitting Fraud: Mesmer’s Story

September 1, 2010
Franz Anton Mesmer

Image via Wikipedia


There are many questions surrounding such a man as Franz Anton Mesmer. Most of which asking, exactly who was he? An unwitting swindler? A clever fraud? A revolutionary that the world has yet to appreciate, or perhaps simply a man who, his entire life, was in search of something more, but never truly discovered it.  

According to the image in which James Wyckoff paints of Mesmer in the biography, “Franz Anton Mesmer: Between God and Devil”, Mesmer was a cruelly misunderstood man. One of dignity and genius in an unforgiving world, one who had been betrayed countless times and ignored countless others. Meanwhile, in Morton Hunt’s version of events in “The Story of Psychology”, one gets the impression that he is far less inclined to agree and sympathise with every word Mesmer spoke or wrote.  Hunt allows that, although Mesmer was a misunderstood man who most likely truthfully believed in his work, Mesmer was a fraud, albeit an unwitting one.  

May 23rd, 1734 in the small German village of Iznang, Franz Mesmer was born. Mesmer’s father, according to the biography which rather appears to be more fan fiction than fact, explains that “…[his father] was a simple and religious man.” and his mother, “…a woman of vast kindness and patience.” I quote no other aspects of Mesmers’ childhood due to the fact that the only resource which speaks of his childhood is the biography I’ve mentioned. And the author of such (James Wyckoff) has a clearly biased and prejudiced view. This is clear in his oddly deep admiration of Mesmer and his work, more than once hinting how he believed that Mesmer was correct in his pseudoscience assumptions despite strong evidence to the contrary. Expressing a clearly liberal perspective, Wyckoff goes on for pages at a time expressing his deep disgust for God and the church. When one writes, the facts should be what is evident, not one’s biases and distaste for faith or any other viewpoint, be it political or otherwise. And so I find much of the information in the biography to be unworthy of quoting. How can one truly provide facts unless one first properly gives them?  

 Not much is written on Mesmer on a large scale. Though it is common knowledge that the early pamphlets and various papers he wrote in his college years on subjects such as science and physiology were immediately disregarded by superiors because of their ‘unscientific’ nature. He attended the University of Ingolstadt.  

According to The Story of Psychology, “At thirty-two he received his medical degree in Vienna; his professors, fortunately for him, were unaware that much of his dissertation, On the Influence of the Planets, was plagiarized from a work of a colleague of Isaac Newton’s. Despite the title, his dissertation was not about astrology; it proposed that there was a connection between Newton’s “universal gravitation” and the condition of the human body and mind.” In the part of the dissertation that Mesmer wrote himself, he attempted to add weight to his theory, using a passing comment by Newton which suggested that the human body itself is pervaded by some invisible fluid which is entirely responsive to the gravitation of the planets.   

Several years later, while enjoying a lavish lifestyle thanks to the money of a wealthy, older woman whom he had wed, Mesmer was also becoming a medical and psychological pioneer.  In 1773, a woman in her late twenties came to Mesmer, suffering from symptoms that other doctors were unable to relieve. Mesmer was unable to aid in her recovery as well, until he remembered a conversation he had with a priest who was named (ironically enough) Maximilian Hell. Hell had suggested to Mesmer that magnetism might possibly influence the body (in this specific case, Hunt’s and Wyckoff’s printed information contradict each other. Wyckoff claims that Hell never suggested such a thing to Mesmer, but that the priest certainly claimed it when a scandal broke out between Hell and Mesmer some time later. Though the reader may want to note that, again, James Wyckoff has a large tendency to sympathize with Mesmer in every instance in which he wrote on the man.) It is said that at this point Mesmer bought a set of magnets, and though we don’t know what he did or did not suggest what the effects would be to his patient, we do understand that when she came to see him again, it would change Mesmer’s life forever. He gingerly touched the magnets, one after the next, to different parts of her body. The woman began to quiver and tremble and eventually went into convulsions. Mesmer called the convulsive reaction the ‘crisis’ of the treatment. And when she calmed down, he declared that her symptoms were much relieved. A series of further treatments supposedly cured her completely. (Modern psychologist, upon review of Mesmers first ‘patient’, assuredly claim that her illness today would be considered hysterical neurosis, and her recovery, a result of suggestion.)  

Mesmer now believed that the human body must be pervaded by a magnetic fluid, and not a gravitational one. And that such a magic energy can become misaligned, causing all form of illness and malady. Realignment of this fluid-like force field through treatment would restore health. What he had previously referred to as ‘animal gravitation’ he now called ‘animal magnetism’. The convulsive state which he referred to as ‘the crisis’ he interpreted as a breakthrough of an obstacle to the flow of the body’s magnetic fluid, and the result, a restoration of  ‘harmony’ in the magnetic forces of the fluid.Mesmer began treating other patients, specifically telling them what they should expect, particularly the ‘crisis’. Obligingly enough, they all responded as anticipated, and soon enough, Mesmer made headlines along Vienna. According to The Story of Psychology, “Riding the wave of his fame, Mesmer gave well-attended lectures and demonstrations in a number of cities. In Vienna, however, the flamboyance with which he publicized  his cures offended the city’s influential doctors.” Mesmer believed himself to be not only a healer, but a revolutionary to be admired. In 1777, he made a unbelieveable claim. Maria Theresa von Paradies, the blind pianist who Mozart wrote his B-flat piano concerto, came to Mesmer when she was eighteen years old, and explained to him that she had been blind since she was three years old. Mesmer claimed that, under his care, she regained partial vision. But only under specific, and quite frankly, ridiculous circumstances. According to Mesmer, she regained her partial vision only when he was present, and never when anyone else was present. Despite his claims of nearly curing their daughter, Maria Theresa’s parents stopped all treatment from Mesmer in 1778. Vienna doctors denounced Mesmer as a charlatan, and he abruptly left everything behind (including his very old, very wealthy wife) and made way to Paris.Mesmer used his knack for self-promotion to quickly rise in fame and notoriety. At the start of his business, he treated his patients individually, but as his business grew rapidly he found it much more profitable to treat them en masse by means of an invention of his own design. The baquet was a large oak tub with several metal rods protruding from it (which each patient would hold during treatment) at the bottom of the tub were magnetized iron filing and chemicals. According to The Story of Psychology, “Since Mesmer found that he could also affect his patients by touch, gestures, or long intense looks, he soon began to believe that his own body must be unusually magnetic, capable of transmitting invisible magnetic fluid directly.” His treatment was soon referred to as “Mesmerism”.The faculty of medicine of the University of Paris and other orthodox medical institutions considered him to be a fraud and said so publically more than once. Though if Mesmer truthfully believed himself to be engeniune in his work, one might question such an opinion once one see’s the way in which he responded.”Through his aristocratic connections, in 1784 he induced the King to appoint a special commission composed of distinguished doctors and academicians, including the chemist Lavoisier and the American ambassador, Benjamin Franklin, to investigate his claims.” They ran a careful test, in which they told subjects that they would be magnetised through a closed door, but then did no magnetizing. The subjects reacted the exact same way they did when Mesmer was present putting on his show. After tedious consideration of the evidence at hand, the commission reported that Mesmer’s magnetic fluid did not exist, but that the effects of magnet treatment were nothing more than ‘imagination’. And with that, Mesmer, and his business, fell to pieces. Groups quarrelled about the accuracy and intentions of the tests run by the commission, but nonetheless Mesmer’s business waned substantially.”For half a century, mesmerism remained a quasi-magical and thoroughly misunderstood phenomenon practiced by outright charlatans, sideshow performers, and a number of adventurous laymen and unorthodox doctors in France.” 

Mesmer, crushed spiritually and emotionally, Mesmer left Paris. The last fifteen years of his life are largely unknown. He died in 1815. 

Until Next Time, 


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