A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies | View All


Here, in fact, lies the whole secret of magnetism, and all delusions of a similar kind: increase the spirituality—rouse the spirit from its slumbers, or, in other words, work upon the imagination—induce belief and blind confidence, and you may do any thing. --Charles Mackay

Mesmerism is a bit of medical quackery developed in the 1806 Sibly18th century by the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). In 1766, he published his doctoral dissertation on how the planets affect health: De planetarum influxu in corpus humanum (On the Influence of the Planets on the Human Body). The work was not original, but largely plagiarized (Pattie 1994). Nevertheless, it satisfied the faculty at the University of Vienna.

He maintained in his dissertation, "that the sun, moon, and fixed stars mutually affect each other in their orbits; that they cause and direct in our earth a flux and reflux not only in the sea, but in the atmosphere, and affect in a similar manner all organized bodies through the medium of a subtle and mobile fluid, which pervades the universe and associates all things together in mutual intercourse and harmony." (Mackay 1841)

He claimed that he and others possessed magnétisme animal, usually translated as animal magnetism, although animal is related to the Latin animus, meaning breath or life force. (Today, the term "animal magnetism" means sex appeal. Hence, it is probably less misleading to use the French in a discussion of Mesmer.) Magnétisme animal, Mesmer claimed, could affect the flow of the universal fluid pervading all things and this, in turn, could heal the sick and cure the blind. Well, not quite. He apparently tried to treat a blind musician but failed, which led to his being driven out of Vienna in 1777.* (A list of his main weird beliefs was published by him and may be viewed by clicking here.)

In the early 1770s, Mesmer met Maximillian Hell, a Viennese Jesuit and healer. The rest, as they say, is history. Fr. Hell cured people with a magnetic steel plate. Hell's "proof" of magnetic healing was that it worked, i.e., he had a lot of satisfied customers. Mesmer plagiarized Hell's magnetic therapy and posited that it works because there is a very subtle magnetic fluid flowing through everything but which sometimes gets disturbed and needs to be restored to its proper flow. Hell, Mesmer theorized, was unblocking the flow of this subtle fluid with his magnets. Mesmer eventually discovered that he got the same results without the magnets. What today we might attribute to the placebo effect and a few other psychological factors like the power of suggestion, Mesmer attributed to magnétisme animal and his ability to direct it.

Franz Anton MesmerMesmer also discovered that even though he didn't need magnets to get results, the dramatic effect of waving a magnetized pole over a person, or having his subjects sit in magnetized water or hold magnetized poles, etc., while he moved around in brightly colored robes playing the scientific faith healer, made for better drama and for larger audiences. He was able to evoke from a number of his clients entertaining behaviors ranging from sleeping to dancing to having convulsions. Mesmer did basically what today's hypnotists do in showrooms and at fairs, what faith healers do in circus tents and churches, and what acupuncturists and other energy healers do in their theaters. Mesmer set up a Magnetic Institute where he had his patients did such things as sit with their feet in a fountain of magnetized water while holding cables attached to magnetized trees. He was later denounced as a fraud by the French medical establishment and by a commission which included Benjamin Franklin.

After having worn out his welcome in Vienna, Mesmer traveled to Paris in 1781, where he became very popular among the upper classes and members of the French court. Mesmer held special salons with dim lighting and soft music. Mesmer would move around the room and use his hands to channel invisible magnetic fluids to his followers. The combination of light, music, and incantations from Mesmer produced a form of hypnotism or "mesmerism."*

King Louis XVI commissioned the French Academy of Sciences to investigate Mesmer and his claims of miraculous cures. In addition to Franklin, the investigating committee included Antoine Lavoisier, Paris mayor Jean Bailly, and Dr. Joseph Guillotin, inventor of the guillotine, which, as fate would have it, would be used to behead Lavoisier and Bailly.* The commission reported that there was no scientific evidence of magnétisme animal and that the cures attributed to it either happened because of the natural history of the disease or were due to self-delusion.

Did Fr. Hell and Dr. Mesmer really cure anyone by channeling magnétisme animal? No, of course not. Did any of their patients improve or feel better after taking the cure, or did they declare that they had been healed? Yes, of course. Faith healers and mountebanks always have satisfied customers. Was the main thing at work here the power of suggestion and the belief in the therapy? Yes. Are those the same qualities at work in the placebo effect? Yes. In some cases, Hell and Mesmer may have created the illnesses themselves through their power of suggestion and the receptiveness of their subjects. These iatrogenic diseases may or may not have painful physical manifestations. These "diseases" can be as serious as demonic possession or as trivial as excessive giggling. They can present dramatic manifestations such as convulsions or soporific manifestations such as a sleeplike stupor. According to Nicholas Spanos, such patients are not really sick until they agree to play the role of the sick patient for the heroic doctor/savior. Spanos also argues that so-called dissociation or multiple personality disorder is an iatrogenic disease and got established as a treatable illness in much the same way that exorcism for demonic possession, psychoanalysis for hysteria, and fads such as mesmerism got established.

See also magnetic therapy.

further reading


Mesmerized by hypnotherapy by R. T. Carroll

Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places by R. T. Carroll

Evaluating Personal Experience by R. T. Carroll

books and articles

Baker, Robert A. They Call It Hypnosis (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Bausell, R. Barker. (2007). Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Oxford University Press.

Colquhoun, David and Steven Novella. 2013. Anesthesia & Analgesia. ACUPUNCTURE IS A THEATRICAL PLACEBO. June. 116:1360-1363.

Franklin, Benjamin and Antoine Lavoisier. "Report of the Commissioners Charged by the King to Examine Animal Magnetism" (reprinted in an English translation in Skeptic, Vol. 4, No. 3). The report was instituted by French king Louis XVI in 1784.

Mackay, Charles. (1995). Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds. Crown Publishing. Originally published in 1841.

Pattie, Frank A. Mesmer and Animal Magnetism: A Chapter in the History of Medicine, (Edmonston Publishing, Inc, 1994).

Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural , (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995).

Spanos, Nicholas P. Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996).

"Magnetic stimulation studied as alternative to ECT for depression," in NAMI Advocate, vol. 19, no. 2, September/October 1997, pp. 20-21.

The Magnetisers from Charles Mackay Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds

Last updated 28-Apr-2015

© Copyright 1994-2015 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.