Investigating Mesmer (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part 1

The two Royal Commissions investigating Mesmer's claims were carefully organized to avoid interfering with one another.  The Commission run by the Royal Society of Medicine focused exclusively on Mesmer's medical claims while the Academy of Science investigated whether Mesmer's animal magnetism actually existed.    Despite his poor health at the time, Benjamin Franklin agreed to lead the Academy of Sciences investigation.   The other participating Academy members were some of the most eminent scientists of their time.  Along with Antoine Lavoisier, the Commission included astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly and physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (who, while not the inventor of the guillotine, became famous for suggesting its use).

250px-Benjamin_Franklin_by_Joseph-Siffred_Duplessis[1]Due to Franklin's poor health, the Commission often met at his home in Passy during the spring and summer of 1784.   Since Mesmer refused to cooperate, the Commission chose to conduct the scientific tests designed by Franklin using Mesmer's disciple Charles d'Eslon instead.   This decision upset many of Mesmer's fiercest supporters, including the Marquis Lafayette, since they insisted that Mesmer be tested directly. Though Mesmer still declined to participate, he also denounced d'Eslon in a carefully worded letter that stressed that his one-time disciple did not share his own knowledge of animal magnetism.  Basically, he ensured that he would be protected no matter what the Commission's report eventually said. 

For their own reasons, the Commission chose to conduct most of the crucial tests of animal magnetism using d'Eslon despite the objections.   In one experiment, d'Eslon magnetized a tree in Franklin's own garden by making several passes over the tree trunk using his cane.   A blindfolded patient, whom d'Eslon had claimed to have cured of paralysis using animal magnetism, was then led into the garden to embrace the different trees there.  Although the young patient reacted to contact with one specific tree and fell into a trance, it was one of the "control" trees instead of the one that had been "magnetized" by d'Eslon.   Various other tests designed by Franklin showed no sign that patients could tell the difference between "magnetized" objects or placebos.

Members of the commission also attended one of d'Eslon's baquet sessions and witnessed patients going into convulsions but saw no signs of the mysterious force that Mesmer claimed to have found.  In their description of the patients receiving baquet treaments,  the commission publicly stated that:

"Some of the patients look peaceful and sit very still as if in a trance, others cough and spit; others say that they experience a slightly painful sensation, or a feeling of warmth pervades the body and causes sweating; yet others are seized with convulsions. These convulsive attacks are extraordinarily frequent, violent, and last an unusually long time. No sooner is one patient seized with convulsions than other patients begin to manifest the same symptoms. The commission has itself witnessed convulsive attacks that lasted three hours. The sufferer exudes a cloudy and slimy liquid, so overpowering are the physical exertions he undergoes; and at times a few traces of blood may be found. The limbs and the whole body are contorted by the most violent movements, so that there are spasms of the larynx, twitching of the abdomen, of the stomach, fixity of the eyes, shrill cries, groans, fits of weeping and laughing."

Despite the often graphic effects that d'Eslon's baquet sessions had on patients, the Commission found no evidence of Mesmer's "magnetic fluid".    When the Commission released its scathing  public report in September of 1784, they concluded that all of the health benefits produced by Mesmer and his disciples were due to the effects of suggestion alone.   First read to the Academy of Sciences in September 1784 by Jean-Sylvain Bailly (who acted as first author though Lavoisier likely wrote most of it), the Commission concluded the report by warning that:

"When the imagination speaks to the multitude, the multitude will ignore dangers and obstacles. One man commands and the others are only his instruments . . . Man has the capacity to act on his peers, to shake their nervous system to the point of convulsions, without the help of any fluid. This is a dangerous phenomenon"

Along with the public report, the Commission also submitted a private report for the eyes of the king alone.  While never published in King Louis XVI's lifetime, the private report warned of the erotic dangers of Mesmer's treatments, especially to women.    Distinctly condescending (it was the 18th century after all), the secret report warned that women, being less emotional stable than men and more prone to influence, were especially vulnerable to suggestion and that Mesmer had deliberately targeted them for that reason.   The secret report also accused Mesmer of taking sexual advantage of the younger women while they were in a suggestible state.   Not only was Mesmerism a total sham, but a moral outrage as well.

Whatever the king's reaction to what might have passed between Mesmer and the queen during the private sessions they had together, the public report was damaging enough.    Eventually selling 20,000 copies,  the Commission report completely vindicated the skeptics who had insisted all along that Mesmer was a fraud.   While Mesmer's supporters did their best to counteract the report's influence (by insisting that d'Eslon had been completely incompetent and that Mesmer should have been tested directly),   the Mesmerist movement been dealt a serious blow.   Although leading the Commission and overseeing the writing of the report took a toll on his health, Benjamin Franklin was pleased with the outcome.  In a letter that he wrote to his grandson (who had been a keen Mesmer supporter), Franklin stated that "Some think that [the report] will put an end to mesmerism.  But there is a wonderful deal of credulity in the world and deceptions as absurd have supported themselves for ages."

That was hardly the end for Mesmerism though.  While the Commission report led to Parliament banning the use of animal magnetism for physicians, the Society of Harmony launched branches across France and quickly spread to the rest of Europe.   The Marquis de Lafayette even introduced Mesmerism to the United States (which appalled Franklin).  Unfortunately, success brought trouble of another kind as Mesmer's society split into schisms with Mesmer's former students launching their own practices across France in direct competition with the master himself.   Mesmer also found himself being sued by the Society over financial mismanagement of Society funds.  By 1785, Mesmer had left Paris to get away from the Society (and likely his own concerns about the growing political instability in France).    He resettled in Milan and his international movement prospered.

Which, sadly enough, was more than could be said about Mesmer's various critics.  Charles d'Eslon, who Mesmer managed to make the scapegoat for the Commission's report, died in 1786 (reportedly while being magnetized himself).  Benjamin Franklin's poor health forced him to return to the United States where he died in 1790.    His fellow Commission members had a more gruesome fate however.    Antoine Lavoisier and Jean-Sylvain Bailly were both guillotined during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution (along with King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette).   Contrary to popular legend, former Commission member Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was never actually guillotined himself.   As it was, he lived long enough to see his name forever linked to the Revolution. 

Franz Mesmer managed to outlive virtually all of the Commission members who denounced him as a charlatan.  He died in Switzerland in 1815, still practicing his art and treating many of his neighbours for free. 

But the Mesmerism saga hardly ended with his death...



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


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