Mesmer’s Magnetic Crackpottery

In one experiment, a woman who claimed that she experienced warmth in every part of her body that received magnetism, was blindfolded. The parts of her body which were exposed to magnetism without her knowledge did not respond, but when she was made to believe that she was being magnetized while blindfolded, she felt the usual sensations, although nothing was being done to her. From this study it was concluded that imagination controlled these sensations. In another experiment, the commission sought to test the power of imagination in the production of convulsions. A particularly susceptible subject was blindfolded and asked to touch four trees in succession, one of which had supposedly been charged with AM. At the fourth tree, 24 feet from the magnetized one, he fell in a convulsion, losing consciousness. Similarly, several non-magnetized cups were presented in succession to another subject. The second cup agitated her somewhat and the fourth provoked a crisis. She was calmed afterwards by drinking from an additional cup that had, in fact, been magnetized. From their series of experimental findings the commission concluded that

“imagination without magnetism produces convulsions and … magnetism without imagination produces nothing” and “that this fluid without existence is consequently without utility.”

The report of the scientific commission on AM damaged Mesmer’s reputation and he eventually faded from public view. However, “magnetization” persisted in various forms. Many early magnetizers evolved into students of hypnosis and developed various forms of hypnotherapy.1 Daniel David Palmer, who started as a magnetizer, developed chiropractic later. Others focused on hand gestures without actual touch, an approach recently reborn as therapeutic touch. Mary Baker Eddy was “cured” by a magnetizer, but she later became convinced that cures could best be achieved through prayer, and founded Christian Science.

  1. The trance induced in many of Mesmer’s patients is thought to be what is now called a hypnotic trance, and most dictionaries today list mesmerism as a synonym for hypnotism.

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