I spent two years in college as a psychology major. Eventually I decided that I’d rather spend my adult life not eating baked beans under a bridge, but by then I had already taken a handful of classes that touched on hypnosis.
Hypnosis, sometimes dismissed as a pseudoscience, is a widely discussed topic of psychology, another thing people think is pseudoscience. While there’s some serious myth behind it, like the hollywood idea that you can be turned into some kind of zombie, it’s actually a lot more clinical than all that. What it essentially boils down to is relaxing, and putting yourself in a state of being easily “suggested,” as they say. You can be suggested to, I don’t know, quit smoking, study harder, quit biting your nails– stuff like that. Now hypnotism only really works if you want it to, which is the most important fact. You can’t be suggested to believe the room is full of wild animals if you’re actually telling yourself “nah, that’s stupid.” Certain people are more “suggestible” than others, and yes, there are definitely fakers. If you’ve ever had a live demonstration of it with audience volunteers, there’s a huge chance that some or all of them are faking it just based on how wildly stupid some of the suggestions are.
While the name hypnotism is relatively new, the concept of relaxation and trance-like states are actually very, very old. 5,000 years ago, the Temple of Imhotep in Saqqaura, Egypt was on the forefront of hypnosis.
There, people would come to ingest herbs, recite prayers for a few hours, and would then be led to a darkened room where they would be guided into a dream state, and the cure would be revealed to them. People would leave with their illnesses cured.
Oracles in Ancient Greece would provide a similar service, offering fortunes and healing words.
There was a ritual one oracle performed in her temple, which was built over a crack in the earth that leaked an intoxicating fume. There, she was said to consult with Apollo, and would deliver healing words and wisdom to those who sought her out.
Anyway, with that taken care of…
On May 23, 1734, Franz Anton Mesmer was born in Germany, on the shores of Lake Constance, in the territory of Swabia, and in the village of Iznang.
For other noteable Swabians, see the likes of Albert Einstein, or Johann Georg Faust– the man who inspired the myths of Dr. Faust. To be clear, we’re talking about the Christopher Marlowe play, not the Thomas Mann version from 1947. One was an awesome tale about making necromantic deals with the devil, the other was about some sad musician with syphilis. YAWN.
Anyways, back to 1734, and back to Franz. His father was Anton Mesmer who served as archbishop in Konstanz, a city of the state of Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. His mother was Maria Ursula Michel. She was a locksmith’s daughter.
I’m sure history isn’t being sexist here and that was just her big defining feature.
By the way, his father was also a forest warden. Did you know that’s a term for park ranger? Because when I hear that I think something like “Duke of the Trees.” Like, stay out of those woods in Konstanz, that’s where the Tree Warden patrols.
Franz was the third of nine children, and according to some accounts had an “idyllic childhood.” It’s hard for me to imagine what an idyllic childhood would be like today, but for young Mesmer that apparently meant he got to play in the woods a lot.
Franz grew up on the shores of Lake Constance, where he played in the woodland and streams. “He enjoyed tracking streams back to their origins.”
The boy began his education at age eight at the Green Mountain Monastery, where he learned Latin. Initially, he was supposed to become a priest, much in the way of his father. Franz would go through the Jesuit College of Konstanz at aged 12, the Jesuit Theological School of Dillingen at aged 16, and the Jesuit College of Ingolstadt at aged 20.
Between ages 16 and 20 he began to spend more and more of his class time focusing on logic, metaphysics, and theology. When was 25 he graduated a doctor of philosophy.
Since people just went to school for fun in the 1700s, Dr. Mesmer decided to go to the University of Vienna in Austria. He originally went to study law, but he dropped it after a year.
I refuse to be another tree warden like my father!
Instead, Mesmer wanted to pursue medicine. By 1765, aged 31, he was just one doctoral thesis away from practicing. His thesis: How heavenly bodies affected human health.
He’s in Vienna now, by the way. He didn’t leave after he got the degree. So now he’s got his doctorite, he’s married to a recently widowed woman who’s ten years older than him and super rich, and his wife’s father bought him a huge mansion. Naturally, his practice starts kicking up some wind, and the money comes a flyin’. That wife, by the way, he would often call her “dim-witted” to just about anyone they were talking to.
He was so well off at this time that he hired out a 12 year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to come play a private show for him in his garden. Mozart’s father brought the boy along, and commented that Mesmer had a kick-ass garden.
Mesmer just keeps getting more and more popular, until he’s among the snootiest of aristocrats in Vienna. He and his stupid wife were somehow very happy together, with friends and family calling the marriage a “traditionally happy one.”
As a physician, Mesmer always had trouble dealing with nervous complaints, or issues of pain.
Mesmer believed that ill-health was governed by a planetary influence, and that Newton’s theories could explain sickness like it could gravity. Mesmer thought he and his thesis were onto something incredible.
He was. But for all the wrong reasons.
The body, Mesmer believed, was like a series of tubes. He believed there was invisible fluid in these tubes that was moved naturally by gravity, although sometimes there were kinks, and jams.
Like a hose!
Mesmer first called this “animal gravity,” and thought he could apply some sort of technique to better the flow of these invisible fluids. That’s when he decided the invisible fluids were probably metallic, and revised the name to “animal magnetism.”
So, to make sure we’re on the same page. Your body’s full of tubes, there’s invisible fluid movin’ around, it’s moved by the planets, and it’s probably metallic.
Fun little side-note here, what he’s referring to as “invisible fluid” is probably electricity. Though they didn’t call it electricity, some people like Isaac Newton called it the spirit, and it was really, really poorly understood in this time.
The kinks and jams, by the way, are what cause illness, Mesmer thought. If you had a pain in your knee, a bad rash, or chronic depression, that’s just ‘cause your tubes are jammed.
So how do you unjam these inviso-tubes full of metal liquid?
Visual Reference of Mr. Metal-Liquid in Terminator 2
This guy’s also living in your body tubes
In 1773, when he was 39, Mesmer worked with a patient named Fraulein Ostelrin, a woman who suffered from “chronic hysterics.”
If you wanna talk about words though, that essentially meant “this woman’s upset because she’s got woman things going on and it’s annoying the menfolk.”
Mesmer finally found a cure for her pains when he gave her a series of iron medicines, induced her into a calm and relaxed state, and rubbed magnets along her body. Her pains were relieved.
This is how they try to get nails out of a cow’s stomach, I’m pretty sure.
After the success on Fraulein, Mesmer believed his theory was actually true. In fact, he even doubled down. He named the trances he was using as “crises,” which were essential in breaking down the obstacles in your tubes. More important than that, though, Mesmer believed that you didn’t just need a magnet to manipulate the magnetic fluids in someone’s body. If you were trained and gifted enough, Mesmer said, you could be the magnet.
Magneto here we come.
So he begins to take on more patients, gives them the iron to eat, puts ‘em to sleep, and then he just says “fuck the magnets” and starts hovering his hands over people, forcing the kinks out with his own animal magnetism. He was very particular about who was allowed to watch the sessions, but according to one quote “in many of these treatments he was a forceful and rather dramatic participant.”
This is one of my favorite parts: To quote a biography of his
“Mesmer began to believe that he could transfer some of his personal surplus of magnetic fluid into inanimate objects by touching them.
He would magnetize patients’ clothes and beds so they could receive the healing fluid every hour of the day. He magnetized trees in his garden and chairs in his practice rooms to benefit his patients.
He invented the baquet, a large wooden tub equipped with a layer of iron filings which Mesmer had saturated with a large dose of his animal magnetism fluid. Upon the iron filings he placed bottles of water which he had again magnetized by touch. Each bottle held an iron rod, which emerged from the tub for patients to hold, allowing magnetic fluid to enter their bodies. Eventually, Mesmer built baquets large enough to treat 20 or 30 patients simultaneously.”
Take a look at the magnet tub full of magnet juice, available at your local hookah bar– I mean, magnet lounge!
A NOTE ON HYPNOTISM: Turns out, most of the illnesses that hypnotism cures are what are called “psychosomatic,” meaning they’re just fictional ailments you’ve convinced yourself you’re feeling. So sure, playing pretend can cancel out your pretend knee pains, but there’s quite a few more things playing pretend doesn’t really work for.
In 1777, Mesmer was met with a blind girl. I want you to guess where this is going.
Mesmer was a practiced idiot at this point, and knew all he had to do was run his magnet draino through her tubes. He brought her into a 1 on 1 session in his office, and when the girl came out, she could see again.
Well, what’s weird is that as soon as she left Mesmer’s presence, she couldn’t see again. Mesmer had only hypnotically convinced her that she could see, and induced vivid images with his magic words and magnet hands.
Speaking of the magnet hands, the parents of the girl alleged that Mesmer had seduced the young girl while working on her. The medical association responded by opening up an investigation.
Mesmer responded by getting the hell out of Vienna. He did not inform his wife that he was leaving. Also, she wasn’t his wife anymore.
In January 1778, at the age of 43, Mesmer appeared in Paris. He set to work by establishing another practice in a Parisian neighborhood.
He developed a quick following among the rich and gullible, and soon he was back to pushing fluids and lining his pockets. He even published a book, “The Discovery of Animal Magnetism, and its 27 principles.”
Mesmer quickly became something of a celebrity in Paris, and caught the eye of King Louis the 16th. The King and Queen liked his work so much that he was given a royal grant to continue his research.
Mesmer was soon treating large groups of people in single sessions, and was running 200 patients through his home every day. It was Mesmermania all over again, but just like in Vienna, nothing gold can stay.
Around 1784, Mesmer was once again under scrutiny for his conduct with women. He would often bring them into 1 on 1 sessions in private rooms, and they would leave entranced and groggy about their session. People began to suspect he was manipulating women for some not-so-magnetic-touchings.
To combat the speculation that he was a rapist and that his work might be total bullshit, King Louis assembled a royal council of scientific integrity to overlook his theory of Animal Magnetism.
On that council was Antoin Lavoisier (revolutionary chemist who named the elements carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen), and Benjamin Franklin.
And, weirdly, just as this commission had concluded that Mesmer’s theories were total bullshit, Mesmer disappeared again! Once again, he didn’t leave a forwarding address.
For the next 10 years he jumped from France, Germany, Great Britain, Austria, and Switzerland, never sticking in one place for very long. He returned to Vienna in 1793 only to suffer the indignity of being deported from the city. The reason given was that his political views were suspicious.
He spent his final years in the German town of Meersburg, still close to Lake Constance.
On March 1, 1815, he suffered a stroke, and on the 5th, with the end imminent, he asked if his Catholic priest friend Fessler would come and play his favorite instrument for him, a glass harmonica. The priest hurried to the bedside of the dying man, but Mesmer died quickly before he got there.
To this day, Mesmer’s work is better known for its contributions to the psychological study of hypnotism. Thanks to him, we have the term “mesmerized.”
I want to thank all of my sources, but I especially want to thank FamousScientists.org for their fantastic piece on ol’ Magnet Hands Mesmer.
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Franz-Anton-Mesmer Brief on Magnetism
http://www.historyofhypnosis.org/franz-anton-mesmer/ Bio on Mesmer
http://www.glassarmonica.com/armonica/mesmer.php The Glass Harmonica
https://hypnosis.edu/history/ancient-hypnosis Examples of Ancient Hypnosis
http://reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/texts/demotic_magical_papyrus.htm Papyrus about Hypnosis
https://www.famousscientists.org/franz-mesmer/ Early Life, Life in Vienna, Magnetism Bullshit, Life in Paris, Abandoning Paris, Late Life and Death