After Mesmer (Part 1 of 2)

If Franz Anton Mesmer's ambition to have  animal magnetism formally recognized by scientists and medical doctors never really materialized during his lifetime, his impact on culture was profound.  Not only did Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart feature a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Mesmerism in his comic opera Cosi Fan Tutte but writers including Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Charles Dickens also featured Mesmerism in their own works.   Despite the skepticism that Mesmerists still faced, animal magnetism remained a dominant force through most of the 19th century.   Some bibliographers estimate that more than 1500 books on animal magnetism and its various applications would eventually be written.   And those applications were hardly limited to healing.    The rising spiritualist movement of the 19th century often featured animal magnetism as one of its core principles.   The link between animal magnetism and spiritualism  eventually became so strong that the image of mediums going into Mesmeric "trances" to talk with spirits became a permanent part of the popular culture.

Despite the occult overtones, Mesmerism still had scientific supporters as well.   While Mesmer's early ideas about undiscovered "vital fluids" were largely forgotten, that hardly stopped it from becoming an international movement with supporters in Czarist Russia, England, France and Germany.    Despite support from the Marquis de Lafayette as well as early enthusiasts such as Dr. Benjamin Rush, Mesmerism was relatively slow to spread to the United States (possibly due to opposition from arch-critics like Benjamin Franklin).   It was not until 1836 that Charles Poyen St. Saveur , a French Mesmerist who called himself a "professor of animal magnetism" (despite no actual academic credentials) arrived in New England from Paris and promptly launched a lecture tour designed to introduced animal magnetism to the New World.   Traveling from city to city with paid subjects (carefully planted in his audiences), Poyen conducted public demonstrations of animal magnetism on stage and quickly attracted a huge following.  Poyen cemented his claim to fame with two best-selling books, Report on the Magnetical Experiments (published in 1836) and Progress of Animal Magnetism in New England (published in 1837).   It was during one public lecture tour in 1837 that Poyen introduced animal magnetism to Massachusetts and made two notable converts along the way.   The first of these, Joseph Emerson Fiske, was a dental assistant to Dr. Nathaniel Peabody (father of Sophia Peabody, Nathaniel Hawthorne's future wife).   When Fiske tried to use animal magnetism to cure Sophia's chronic headaches, Hawthorne became concerned enough to write a letter to Sophia warning her about the spirtual and physical dangers involved.   He seemed especially worried that Mesmerism might put her under Fiske's control (he described it as "an intrusion into the holy of holies").    

The second, and likely far more famous of Poyen's converts was Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a watchmaker who became fascinated with Mesmerism after attending several lectures.  Leaving his watchmaker job, Quimby traveled with Poyen for two years before launching his own career as a Mesmerist.   He already had a strong belief in the mind's ability to heal the body and wrote extensively on the subject.   Poyen had returned to France by that time although English phrenologist and English phrenologist Robert Hanham Collyer had established himself as the chief authority on Mesmerism in the United States.  Collyer had plenty of competitors though.   Along with Quimby, there were as many as twenty and thirty traveling mesmerists doing shows during the 1840s and more than 200 practicising Mesmerists in Boston alone.   The Mesmerists of that time had long since forgotten their original medical roots and audiences went to the Mesmerist shows to see various displays of the supernatural powers could apparently be demonstrated by people in Mesmerist trances.    Whatever legitimate claims the Mesmerists might have made were often drowned out by the stage trickery that was increasingly common at the time.   If social critics raised any concerns about the Mesmerist movement, it was usually that, like Hawthorne, they were worried about the possible mental control that Mesmerists might have over their patients (even to the point of remote telepathic influence).  

Mesmerism also gave an unintentional boost to the religious revivalism of the 1840s and 1850s as well.   Phineas Quimby's most famous patient, Mary Baker Eddy,  became inspired by Quimby's teachings.   She eventually broke away from him to promote her own ideas about the power that the mind had over the body.   Becoming convinced that divine help was needed to cure disease, Eddy founded what would later become the Christian Science movement (which was about as far from Franz Mesmer's original ideas as you can imagine). 

Various medical authorities weighed in with their own doubts about the power of Mesmerists to heal illnesses.  Not that Mesmerists were the only ones offering miracle cures by then.   Along with practicing mesmerists, the lecture circuits were filled with traveling hucksters offering every kind of healing remedy they could present to willing audiences.  That included phrenology, electrical therapy, and assorted quack remedies.  Fictional works featuring sinister Mesmerists forcing their will on helpless women became increasingly common though (George du Maurier's 1894 book Trilby is the best-known example and also  introduced the word "svengali" to the English language).  

Largely to get away from the  unfortunate reputation associated with terms such as "Mesmerism" and "animal magnetism",  19th century researchers tried a wide variety of alternative names.   While "pathetism", "etherology", "odic force",  and "artificial somnabulism" had their supporters, none of them ever attracted the name recognition that Mesmerism did.   Even into the 20th century, animal magnetism still had supporters (despite the lack of any physical evidence that it corresponded to how magnetism actually worked).   In the meantime however, medical researchers had turned in a new direction, largely thanks to the work of Scottish physican James Braid.

Already a prominent physician,  James Braid became intrigued by a public demonstration of Mesmerism in 1841 and began using it with his own patients.   Although he was criticized over his interest (including a rather nasty attack by a Manchester cleric who considered Mesmerism to be Satanic),   Braid defended himself by insisting that his research was intended to help patients rather than control them.  It was Braid who rejected the term "Mesmerism", largely because he was less interested in Mesmer's ideas about animal magnetism and more about how Mesmer was able to influence his patients. 

He preferred his own term, "hypnosis"...

To be continued.

 

Related Stories

  • Investigating Mesmer (Part 2 of 2)
  • Investigating Mesmer (Part 1 of 2)
  • George Armitage Miller and the Magic Number

 
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