The Practice of Mesmerism and Animal Magnetism











In 1836, a trendy European phenomenon spread through America called mesmerism (aka animal magnetism). Mesmerism is a theory involving "animal magnetism",  a mysterious body fluid which allows one person to hypnotize another. The Mesmerist transfers energy between themselves and the patient, to instate a special trance state. It is not hypnosis as we use today, but similar. It uses mainly non-verbal actions like gaze, passes (strokes) and other methods to instate trance and affect the body's energy field. Mesmerism also involves the hands passing over areas of the body (stroking the energy field) to bring changes to patterns in the patient. The use of touching the body, especially rubbing the head or abdomen area was commonly done. The Mesmerist uses energy as a means of healing or to reconcile issues within the person and had astounding effects.

Charles Poyen, a Frenchman (little is known about his life) and self-proclaimed professor of animal magnetism, launched a multi-city tour of “mesmeric” theatrical shows around New England. His meetings had the character of religious revivals and he was a good showman. He told Americans that this new teaching was destined to make America "the most perfect nation in the world”. 

Remarkable healings of both physical and mental ailments were demonstrated by Poyen so that he easily drew crowds. He trained new magnetizers, as they were called, who formed a lasting core of practitioners in the United States. In Providence alone, it was said that over 100 people were "magnetizing" by the end of 1837. One of Poyen’s students was Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. He studied with Poyen for two years following his tour before taking up a practice himself. Quimby went on to become known as the father of the New Thought Movement after curing patients of their false beliefs using mind control.

One of Quimby's patients was Mary Baker Patterson (Mary Baker Eddy), who he became inextricably connected to just before his death, and whom Eddy went on to profess for years that she was bound to, promising Quimby she would teach his method of healing to at least two other people. She went on to build a church, first based on Quimby's mesmerism practices, which she claimed brought her healing where she previously had had little relief from any other method she had tried, and then introducing a more "mind control" method including spirituality she called the "Science of Mind".

The same year Poyen left to return to Europe, an Englishman, Robert Collyer, arrived in America and began a lecture tour spreading mesmerism along the Atlantic coast. Collyer’s idea of mesmerism was based on the brain’s power to visualize thought and transform ideas into pictures. The influence of Poyen and Collyer generated a widespread interest in mesmerism, largely to the American middle class. In contrast mesmerism in Europe was mainly attractive only to the aristocracy and the upper class. For Americans mesmerism represented the ideology of a personal inner liberation, which emphasized the inherent goodness of the inner self and would eventually lead and contribute to the development of practices and expansion of many spiritual movements. While in a mesmerism trance patients sometimes contacted what they believed was the source of spiritual energy, which left them feeling invigorated, renewed, and transformed.

Despite mesmerism taken up and used by a few medical practitioners during the decade 1840–1850, no school of mesmerism was established in America. Rather, American mesmerism was an open field where it was developed and explained with different potentialities by its many users and provided the necessary ingredients for the making of the Spiritualism Movement which began to form in America around 1848.

Spiritualism began to take form when the Fix family girls supposedly contacted the dead and would communicate by rappings. After many years the girls confessed they made the noises with their toes and knuckles, yet not before they went public and began performing séances.

The practice of having sittings for communication with spirits spread rapidly from that time on. By 1859 a Catholic convention claimed there were 11 million spiritualists worldwide. Spiritualism became a religious movement beginning with the forming of a nationwide organization, the National Spiritualist Association in 1893. Their belief is that the spirits of the dead exist and have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living. The phenomena of the trance condition appealed very strongly to the popular imagination and expanded along with the Spiritualism from the 1840s to the 1920s, especially in English-speaking countries with the middle and upper classes. By 1897, spiritualism was said to have more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe.

Another who was born and lived at that time and influenced Western Metaphysics was Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–1875) who was a spiritualist as well as a medical doctor, occultist, and trance medium. He is linked to having established the earliest known Rosicrucian order in the United States. Randolph influenced both the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.

Séances became popular inside and outside of these spiritualist movements. Mediums could receive spirit messages from those outside the physical plane, but anyone could, if they wanted and believed in it, without formal training. Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Church of Christ Scientists, and Helena Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society, were both said to have practiced contacting the dead, although later Eddy denounced spiritualism and any practices connected with it. Blavatsky was a successful medium in the spiritualist movement for several years. She only practiced mediumship to contact what she believed were the most powerful spirits capable of conferring  esoteric knowledge, rather than contacting the spirits of dead people. She linked her doctrine of a mental fluidum deliberately to Mesmer's and encouraged her followers to praise him. This fluid, she believed, is composed in part of the astral substance around every one, and in part of the physical atoms in a finely divided state. This astral substance is called by some the aura.

Understanding this "mental fluid" of Blavatsky's is another subject and possible writing, but in brief the mesmerizer changes this fluid state to help the patient to throw off wrongful impressions that every cell in their body takes on related to their problems. Those wrongful bodily impressions are neutralized through mesmerism. The brain is left free sufficiently to permit it to obey the commands of the mesmerizer. The organs and cells have their own peculiar impressions and recollections, and all, together with the coordinator the brain, make up the body physical.  The sensations of every part of the body affect each cognition, and whatever part of the body that is most prominent before the brain will give his report and put into language for the brain's use. In a mesmerized state, or trance, the inner man, or astral being, not the spiritual, can act in a somewhat independent manner outside of being compelled by these forces and the necessities of the waking person. And when there is a paralysing of the body by the mesmeric fluid from the mesmerizer the inner being can act because the impressions from the physical cells are inhibited. The brain - in cases where the subject talks - is left free sufficiently to permit it to obey the commands of the mesmerizer and compel the organs of speech to respond and to express the organs of the spiritual inner man.

Franz Anton Mesmer
The term and official practice of mesmerism emerged from the work of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), a German who practiced as a physician in Austria. Mesmer describes an invisible and universal “fluid,” or energy, possessed by all living/animate beings (humans, animals, vegetables, etc.). He believed this invisible force helps sustain good health in people when kept in equilibrium. He called this force 'mesmerism'. These mesmerists called themselves magnetizers, rather than mesmerists because Mesmer likened this invisible force to magnetism and used magnets to align this invisible force with the forces of nature with those he worked on.

Mesmer also believed that when this magnetic field became unbalanced was when people became sick or experienced psychological issues. This phenomena he termed 'Animal Magnetism', and in modern day terms is also similar in ways to things like chakra balancing, reiki, kinisieology and energy healing. Like Mesmerism, these modalities all assume the presence of unseen energy within a person, and the need to balance this and manipulate it in different ways to achieve different effects.

Mesmer's theory on this invisible force came from his knowledge of Isaac Newton’s electromagnetic aether and laws of attraction, thus claiming his practice had a scientific theory behind it. It was in 1831 that electricity, another invisible force, became viable for use in technology when Michael Faraday created the electric dynamo (a crude power generator), which solved the problem of generating electric current in an ongoing and practical way. He used a magnet that was moved inside a coil of copper wire, creating a tiny electric current that flowed through the wire. 

Along with the use of magnets by the magnetizer, the practice evolved into the practitioner passing his hands over a sick individual to redistribute “magnetic fluid” and pull out any disease. In Europe “mesmerism” became synonymous with the radical healing practices attributed to “animal magnetism.” Practitioners of magnetism found that some patients had a tendency to become entranced (later called hypnotized) during their treatment, especially when the physician focused his passes on the patient’s head. Mesmer and his pupils referred to this state, in which a person is alert and communicative but does not seem to be awake, as somnambulism (sleepwalking). In this state individuals appeared to be highly perceptive where they could even diagnose not only their own illnesses but the illnesses of others. This ability became famous when Edgar Cayce, in the 1920s, diagnosed his own illness under hypnosis and went on to diagnose more than nine thousand other cases through his "readings", where he would put himself in a self-induced state and then proceed to diagnose people with only their name and location.

Beginning with Mesmer's animal magnetism technique and this "mesmeric trance", which gained a certain degree of credibility as a medical science, the way was being paved to evolve into mental healing movements and the study of what we now call the unconscious mind. The idea of becoming a practioner of mesmerism was readily taken up through the 19th century and anyone could become a practitioner with proper training, Poyen told Quimby, and become an adept at administering hypnotism.

Father Johann Joseph Gassner, Exorcist (1727–1779)
Yet before Mesmer and other well-known healers of this vogue, there was Father Johann Joseph Gassner. While a Catholic priest in southern Germany he shot to fame by claiming to heal thousands through the power of exorcism and to work cures on the sick simply by means of prayer. Father Gassner, a modest man, staged rituals in front of enthralled crowds. His every word and gesture and those of his patients were recorded by a notary public, and the official records were signed by eyewitnesses. Scientific thinkers of the day attempted to explain these seemingly miraculous cures through a strange new power dubbed ‘animal magnetism’ and they engaged in some of the first discussions of the placebo effect in medicine.

From the Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis by Robin Waterfield, the following example is of one of these exorcisms.

The first patients were two nuns who had been forced to leave their community on account of convulsive fits. Gassner told the first one to kneel before him, asked her briefly about her name, her illness, and whether she agreed that anything he would order should happen. She agreed. Gassner then pronounced solemnly in Latin: "If there be anything preternatural about this disease, I order in the name of Jesus that it manifest itself immediately." The patient started at once to have convulsions. According to Gassner, this was proof that the convulsions were caused by an evil spirit and not by a natural illness, and he now proceeded to demonstrate that he had power over the demon, whom he ordered in Latin to produce convulsions in various parts of the patient's body; he called forth in turn the exterior manifestations of grief, silliness, scrupulosity, anger, and so on, and even the appearance of death. All his orders were punctually executed. It now seemed logical that, once a demon had been tamed to that point, it should be relatively easy to expel him, which Gassner did. He then proceeded in the same manner with the second nun. After the séances had ended, Abbe Bourgeois asked her whether it had been very painful; she answered that she had only a vague memory of what had happened and that she had not suffered much. Gassner then treated a third patient, a high-born lady who had previously been afflicted with melancholia. Gassner called forth the melancholia and explained to the lady what she was to do in order to overcome it in case she was troubled by it again.

Gassner's methods have been linked to a special form of hypnotic training although there is no definitive proof. The theory is that since Gassner got the nun to display anger, grief, and all the other symptoms of her “possession” he was really hypnotizing his patients, and just as Mesmer had his stage show, so appeared Father Gassner’s display of healing. While Gassner only spoke of God and evil spirits, Mesmer introduced magnetism as the source of his healings. In either display the patients were cured instantly. Mesmer concluded that Gassner was making use of this “animal magnetism” without his knowledge.

Father Gassner went out of vogue, not to any lack of success but because of the “powers to be” in the Church (along with the Bavarian government) who banned his practice. in 1776 Pope Pius VI officially condemned Gassner’s healing practices as false and sensationalist, ordering the priest to cease exorcising immediately. Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire, banished Father Gassner to the obscure province of Pondorf in northern Austria, where he died in 1779.

Yet if the healings were purely mesmerism Gassner's patients would have had to know Latin (which their subconscious or unconscious mind could possibly have known) as he would first address the demon in Latin, a language he assumed his lay patients would be unable to understand, before ordering it to move around the person’s body, inducing them to perform strange acts.

In the years between 1767-1769, Gassner recorded in his diary that he cured 132 people including 13 epileptics, 29 cripples, and even one dead woman. However, Father Gassner did not exorcise everyone who came to him only those whose illness he believed to be caused by the devil. He turned away those which exorcism would prove of little use because they were suffering from what he believed was a ‘natural illness’, or because they had a ‘small or reluctant faith’.  After gaining confidence and much success he went afar from home to carry out his healings. His supporters claim the total number of patients he healed was in the tens of thousands.

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–1866)
Phineas Quimby had an inventive mind and he produced several inventions on which he obtained patents. He was a benevolent man, with an unselfish nature and a love of truth. He had a remarkably keen perception. He was not an intellectual with the study of knowledge through books, because he believed other opinions were of little value to him because they were made up of the wisdom of mankind, which were largely made up of people's opinions. True knowledge to him was positive proof. Therefore, he discarded books and sought phenomena, where his perceptive faculties made him master of the situation.

Quimby's interest in healing began with his own diagnosis of consumption (tuberculosis). The story, taken from his "Quimby Manuscripts" where he describes his illness, he said he was told his lungs were nearly consumed and his liver and kidneys were barely functional. Having an experience one day with a temperamental horse drawing his carriage, although exhausted from trying to get his horse to move, when he finally had help from someone and the horse took off, he kept the horse at a fast pace the whole way home and it was exhilarating. Upon returning home him he felt better than he had for a long time.

As he delved into mesmerism he realized that he did not have consumption after all, rather it was a belief of his mind that created the symptoms. Whether he actually did or not is never revealed, but he lived on without continuing the symptoms and died from exhaustion at the age of sixty-four. What he did say was that doctors caused the disease through wrong science.

Quimby met a young man named Lucius Burkmar, who was a good subject under hypnosis. They formed a team and for several years, Mr. Quimby traveled with young Lucius giving exhibitions, which at that time attracted much attention and secured notices through the columns of the newspapers. Lucius would diagnosis people in the audience and prescribe remedies for their cure while mesmerized.

"After a time Mr. Quimby became convinced that, whenever the subject examined a patient, his diagnosis of the case would be identical with what either the patient or someone else present believed, instead of Lucius really looking into the patient and giving the true condition of the organs; in fact, that he was reading the opinion in the mind of someone rather than stating a truth acquired by himself.

"Becoming firmly satisfied that this was the case, and having seen how one mind could influence another, and how much there was that had always been considered as true, but was merely some one's opinion, Mr. Quimby gave up his subject, Lucius, and began the developing of what is now known as mental healing, or curing disease through the mind." (Quimby's Complete Writings)

Quimby stated:

The trouble is in the mind, for the body is only the house for the mind to dwell in . . . If your mind has been deceived by some invisible enemy into a belief, you have put it into the form of a disease, with or without your knowledge. By my theory or truth I come in contact with your enemy and restore you to health and happiness.
(Volume 3, page 208 of Quimby's Complete Writings)

Quimby saw doctors as the enemy because their belief was put upon the patient, which the patient accepted and thereby manifested the symptoms of the disease, all the way to the death. He came to this conclusion when Lucius diagnosed him one day. He had constant back pain in the area of the kidneys. Lucius said his kidneys were shot and one was half gone only connected by a thread. When asked if there was any remedy to heal him the reply was "Yes, I can put the piece on so it will grow, and you will get well." After placing his hands upon me, he said he united the pieces so they would grow. The next day he said they had grown together, and from that day Quimby never have experienced the pain again.

Taken from an article quoted in The True History of Mental Science he stated :

"Now what was the secret of the cure? I had not the least doubt but that I was as he described; and, if he had said, as I expected he would, that nothing could be done, I should have died in a year or so. But, when he said he could cure me in the way he proposed, I began to think; and I discovered that I had been deceived into a belief that made me sick. The absurdity of his remedies made me doubt the fact that my kidneys were diseased, for he said in two days that they were as well as ever. If he saw the first condition, he also saw the last; for in both cases he said he could see. I concluded in the first instance that he read my thoughts and when he said he could cure me he drew on his own mind; and his ideas were so absurd that the disease vanished by the absurdity of the cure. This was the first stumbling-block I found in the medical science. I soon ventured to let him examine me further, and in every case he could describe my feelings, but would vary about the amount of disease; and his explanation and remedies always convinced me that I had no such disease, and that my troubles were of my own make.

In Quimby's treatments he would sit next to the patient and explain that the disease was something their minds could control; sometimes he would wet his hands and rub their heads, but it was the talking that helped them, he said, not the manipulation.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
It was this evolution in mesmerism that would propel it into the 19th century and American culture, paving the way for mental healing movements and the eventual rise of psychology as an academic discipline. Mesmer’s discovery was a matter of great interest, especially in France where Jean Martin Charcot, a French medical doctor and the founder of modern neurology, inspired depth psychology. Charcot gave demonstrations on hypnotism where through suggestion alone he produced various symptoms in his hypnotic subjects such as blindness and paralysis, and when taken out of their hypnotic state their symptoms disappeared. Mesmer had demonstrated that the unconscious could heal illness and Charcot showed that the unconscious could also produce symptoms of disease.

As a recently graduated medical doctor, Sigmund Freud attended Charcot’s lectures. Freud considered that if one could produce symptoms by giving suggestions to the unconscious then it is also possible that the unconscious might produce illness on its own. Freud then theorized that a patient might be freed from symptoms by gaining access to the unconscious. Although he first attempted to use hypnosis to test his theory, he was unable to use the technique and get them in a trance state effectively. He then determined that since sleep is an altered state of consciousness, like hypnosis, and dreams occur during sleep, one could gain access to the material of the unconscious through dreams. He published his theories on The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, which was the beginning of modern psychoanalysis.

Freud believed the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behavior. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.  He divided the mind into the conscious mind (or the ego) and the unconscious mind. The latter was then further divided into the id (or instincts and drive) and the superego (or conscience). Freud believed our feelings, motives and decisions are actually powerfully influenced by our past experiences, and stored in the unconscious. He sometimes intermingled the term 'subconscious' with 'unconscious' but finally stuck to using only the term 'unconscious'. Although the word “subconscious” continues to appear outside of psychiatry, it is rarely defined carefully and may or may not be synonymous with “unconscious.”

Science and Religion
By the 1850s mesmerism’s popularity had waned. In Scotland, surgeon James Braid stripped mesmerism of all references to human magnetism and rebranded it as hypnotism, the terminology that lingers into the 21st century.

Mesmerism occupied a gray area between religion and science before firm lines were drawn between the two. Non-material science began to emerge at the turn of the 19th century when physicists started to explore the relationship between energy and the structure of matter. The development of quantum mechanics in the first decades of the 20th century came as a shock to many physicists. The belief that a physical, Newtonian material universe was at the very heart of scientific knowledge was abandoned, and the realization that matter is nothing but an illusion replaced it. The very make-up of an atom is comprised of what we believe to be empty space. At this point, scientists began to recognize that everything in the universe is made out of energy. Religious intellectuals in the 19th century hoped this meeting of science and spiritual awareness might usher in a new era of Christianity, such as taught by Mary Baker Eddy and her Christian Science religion, yet something was missing. At first it appeared that curing disease through suggestion was the future of mankind.

The French medical and scientific societies commissioned several commissions to investigate the technique. In 1784, the French government ordered the medical faculty of Paris to investigate Mesmer's theory and to report upon it. Under this order a commission was appointed, with Benjamin Franklin was one of the commissioners. This commission reported to the government as follows:

"In regard to the existence and utility of animal magnetism, we have come to the unanimous conclusions that there is no proof of the existence of the animal magnetic fluid; that the violent effects, which are observed in the public practice of magnetism, are due to manipulations, or to the excitement of the imagination and the impressions made upon the senses; and that there is one more fact to be recorded in the history of the errors of the human mind, and an important experiment upon the power of the imagination."

In describing the technique Mesmer stated the magnetic force was carried by a magnetic fluid. While the commission denied the existence of this magnetic fluid, no one can conclusively declare the decision wrong. Neither can anyone dispute those claiming cures from it.

The brief 19th-century love affair with mesmerism left its mark on both science and culture. Homeopathy and mesmerism flourished in America. Eastern ideas were popular with the New England transcendentalists. Spiritualism, New Thought, Theosophy, and Christian Science were the vogue, all propounding different forms of higher consciousness. Mesmerism's key feature in accessing and changing beliefs below the level of conscious awareness, and the spiritual connection to what was believed was the true method of healing, followed into the next century. Science and the lay people would continue to experiment with a portion of the self that resided just below waking consciousness.