Tag Archive: Doctor Mesmer


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's first opera "Bastien et Bastienne" was performed for the first time on Mesmer's theatre.

Let us return to the time when Mesmer set up as a doctor in Vienna.  It is well-known that Mozart’s The Magic Flute is a Masonic opera.  However, that Mesmer played a role in Mozart’s life is less well-known.

In 1767, Mesmer becomes the doctor of a rich widow from a great family, Maria Von Posch.  He is living as a greatly cultured man of the world, in a magnificent home.

“The garden is incomparable, with its alleys and its statues, its theatre, its aviary, its dovecote and its belvedere”,

writes Leopold Mozart.  For Mesmer is a great friend of Mozart’s father as well of Gluck and of Haydn.  And the first opera of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bastien et Bastienne, was first presented on Mesmer’s private theatre.

Mesmer, himself, is an excellent musician.  He is one of the first to play the glass harmonica, a new instrument perfected by Benjamin Franklin (another well-known Free Mason).  Mesmer is also the first to consider that music can have a beneficial influence on nervous illnesses.

***

Doctor Franz Anton Mesmer.

During the years 1773 and 1774, Mesmer learns that some English doctors are using magnets to treat certain illnesses.  He applies and perfects the method on a patient of twenty-seven, Fraulein Oesterlin, by making her swallow a mixture containing iron, and fixing magnets onto her body, so as to provoke “a sort of artificial tide”.  The patient soon feels strange currents traversing her, and her ills disappear for a few hours.  Mesmer recounts in his Precis historique that this occurs on 28 July 1774.  He understands that the noted effects on his patient cannot be due to the magnets alone, but that they must come from an “essentially different agent”:  the magnetic currents must come from a fluid accumulated in his own body.  He calls this fluid animal magnetism.  The magnets only serve to re-inforce and direct this natural magnetism.  Later, Mesmer abandons the use of magnets.  He is forty when he makes this discovery, and he resolves to consecrate his life to improving and diffusing it.

He practises numerous spectacular cures, and is called to Munich by the Prince-Elector, then returns to Vienna.  In 1777, however, the hostility of the medical corps discourages him.  He seems to have been hypersensitive to the attacks.

He, himself, recounts that he traverses at this moment a period of depression.  He walks in the forest, talking to the trees and to the birds.  For three months, he tries a singular experiment:  he tries to think without using words.  He says that he manages “to see the world in a new light”, recovers interior peace, and goes to Paris to become known “to the whole universe”.

***

Of all his disciples, the most important is the Marquis de Puysegur.  Puysegur plunges his patients into a state “of magnetic sleep” or of “artificial somnambulism”.  This is the beginning of the works on hypnosis, which will have a long and passionate history.  Starting with Mesmer, through Puysegur, the discovery of the Unconscious begins.  Or rather, we have to wait a century for the research of Puysegur, and a few others, to be integrated into official neuropsychiatry by Charcot and his contemporaries.

But we must also mention Mesmer’s predecessors.  They are the Church’s exorcists.  At the moment when Mesmer undertakes his experiments, Father Gassner is practising cures by exorcism.  He is the most famous of the healers.  In the name of Jesus, he chases away demons, who are the causes of illness.  The patients are “possessed”, illness is an effect of the Evil One.  With animal magnetism, Mesmer wants to establish the principles of “fluidic” healing, outside the framework of religious tradition and the Church’s magic.  He operates a decisive curve from exorcism to psychotherapy, but in a spirit and at an epoch which aspires to the rational without reaching it, and where people talk about “Light” but continue to live in the shadows.

***

Doctor Franz Anton Mesmer.

After the official condemnation of animal magnetism, Doctor Mesmer is mocked in theatres, through farces ridiculing the “magician”.  Versatile Paris rushes to the Theatre des Italiens to applaud a comedy:  Les Docteurs modernes.  Shouts of laughter are heard from the boxes at each verse, and the actors laugh along with the spectators.  To add to his woes, Mesmer treats an occultist philosopher, Court de Gebelin, who writes a letter of congratulation to him, and has it inserted into the gazettes…  on the exact same day that he dies from a heart attack.  Immense laughter throughout Paris.  This can be read in Le Mercure:

“Monsieur Court de Gebelin has just died, cured by animal magnetism.”

This engraving shows Aesculape striking Mesmer with a thunderbolt, and two doctors comforting a victim of the baquet.

However, it is with Mesmer, that begins the long history of psychic medicine, which will give birth to the Nancy School, then Charcot, then Janet, then Freud, then modern group psychotherapies.  But Franz Anton Mesmer, discouraged, leaves France, renounces, effaces himself.

Almost nothing is known of his last twenty years.  Of his peregrinations through Switzerland, Germany and Austria, from which he is expelled as a political suspect.  In 1812, he is found in Meersburg, a little town on Lake Constance.  He has lost part of his fortune and nourishes a deep resentment for the world which has not accepted his discovery, the doctors who have rejected him, the disciples who have deformed his teachings.  A German doctor, Wolfart, comes to visit him, at the end of his life.  Mesmer entrusts his papers to him.  Negligent, Wolfart loses them.  Mesmer dies on 5 March 1815.

To write a biography of Mesmer, Justinius Kerner visits Meersburg in 1854.  The elderly people who had known the inventor of magnetism recounted astonishing stories to him.

When Mesmer went for a stroll, clouds of birds flew around him and landed at his feet if he sat down.  In his home, his only company was a canary.  The cage was in his bedroom, always open.  Each morning, the bird landed on its master’s head to wake him, then accompanied his breakfast, dropping lumps of sugar into his cup, with its beak.  With a light movement of his hand, Mesmer plunged the canary into catalepsy and resuscitated it.  One morning, the bird remained in its cage.  Mesmer had died during the night.  The canary no longer ate, nor sang.  On the day of the funeral, it was found dead.

***

Mesmer was certainly a man who had become avid for glory, money, authority.  His abrupt character, all of one piece, did him no good in the Parisian milieu and even among his disciples.  He had classical medicine and the Church against him, but also the philosophers who preached rationalism and found whiffs of exorcism in his methods.  The men in black and the men of Light pushed him down into obscurity, together.  But let us look at things the way they are.  He is the first to teach that subtle energies exist;  the first to establish a connection between the psychical and the physiological;  the first to claim that the essential is in “the harmony” between the person treating and the patient.  Mesmer is also the first to think that the road to a cure passes through provoked attacks.  He says that the attacks are specific to the illness.  An asthmatic will have an asthmatic attack, an epileptic, an epileptic fit.  As attacks are provoked in the patient, they become less and less violent.  They finish by disappearing altogether, thereby signing a cure.  Mesmer is also the pioneer of group therapies.  In his monumental work on the discovery of the unconscious mind, the Canadian Professor, Ellenberger, correctly writes:

“It is indubitable that dynamic psychiatry can be traced back to Mesmer’s magnetism and, while we’re on the subject, posterity has shown him singular ingratitude for it.”

***

Mesmer is born on 23 May 1734 in Iznange, a little village on Lake Constance to whose banks he will return to die in solitude.  He is the son of a gamekeeper of the Prince-Bishop of Constance.  Nothing is known of his childhood or his teenage years.  At twenty, he enters the university of Ingolstadt, in Bavaria.  Ingolstadt is the birthplace of the secret society of the Illumines of Bavaria…  He studies Law and Philosophy.  We find him in Vienna, winding up his medical studies, at thirty-three.  He presents a singular thesis:

“The influence of planets on human illnesses.”

There is some sort of mystery here.  He comes from a poor family.  The Church certainly has an interest in “pushing” this intelligent, studious young man.  But to make him a priest, like his brother who becomes Curate of a Constance parish.  Who helps him until the age of thirty-three?  Who finances his studies?  Very probably, he is backed by secret societies.  Very probably, he is oriented toward hidden knowledge, issuing from a philosophy of the unity of matter and mind.  (A very ancient philosophy which pierces in the Renaissance through Paracelsius, Robert Fludd, Van Helmont.)  At the same epoch, and for the same reasons, Vellermoz, in his Masonic centre in Lyon, resuscitates the art of mediumnic communications.  This appears to obey the consigns of the initiatic societies of the time, who claim Rose-Croix heritage.  The moment has come to make public the ancient “secrets”.  What are these “secrets”?  Nothing more, doubtless – and nothing less – that the exploration of Man’s interior space, the exploitation of the unknown powers of the mind, the whole domain of parapsychology, as we say today.  This unveiling is always to be seen during civilization’s periods of crisis:  Renaissance, end of XVIIIth Century, now.

***

In Paris, Mesmer’s backing comes essentially from Free Masonry.  So do his difficulties.  The “Societe de l’Harmonie” is in liaison with several Free Masonic obediences, principally with the “Rectified Rule”, which groups the high aristocracy.  And also with the “Primitive Rit of Narbonne” (which doesn’t meet in Narbonne, but in Paris).  On 18 December 1785, Mesmer is admitted to the Primitive Rit of Narbonne under the number 29.  This society, with occultist leanings, will become the famous Societe des Philaletes, where the arts of ancient magic are experimented.  The Primitive Rit was at the head of all the pre-Revolutionary initiatic societies, and was the centre of attraction for the “illuminated” and the “adepts” of this strange epoch.  The Rit had for members some very strong, diverse and opposing characters such as Joseph de Maistre and Cagliostro, Rabbi Falk and the Heir to Sweden’s throne.

To be continued.

Doctor Franz Anton Mesmer.

Bailly, the future Mayor of Paris, participates in some of Doctor Mesmer’s seances and notes:

“In a corner of the room, an assistant plays the pianoforte.  Doors and windows closed, the curtains only allow a weak and gentle light to penetrate.  The patients, in silence, form several rows around the baquet.  Each applies his iron rod to his ill part.  A cord, passed around their bodies, connects them.  Sometimes, a second chain is formed by the hands, the thumb between the neighbour’s thumb and index.  Mesmer passes either a long iron stick that he holds, or his hand, over the bodies.  He descends from the shoulders to the extremities of the arms, and touches the ill part.  The patients offer a varied spectacle.  A few are calm, feeling nothing.  Others turn, spit, feel some slight pain, or heat, or perspire.  Others are agitated and tormented by convulsions.  These convulsions are extraordinary by their length and their strength.  Some have been seen to last for three hours and more.  They are characterised by precipitated, unconscious movements, by the troubling and wandering of the eyes, by cries, tears, hiccoughs, laughter.  One sees patients rush towards each other, smile at each other, talk to each other with affection, and mutually ease their attacks.  All are submissive to the magnetiser.  Even if they appear to be asleep, one gesture, one look from Mesmer wakes them.  It has been observed that, in the number of patients having an attack, there are always more women than men.  The attacks take one or two hours to set in.  Once there is one, all the others begin shortly after.”

Mesmer claimed to cure dropsy, paralysis, gout, scurvy and accidental blindness or deafness.

Apart from this singular consultation room, Mesmer has rented a house, Rue Neuve-Saint-Eustache (the Rue d’Aboukir, today) where he installs another “baquet”.  This second clinic (the word isn’t used at this time) is managed by his first disciple in France, Doctor d’Eslon, the personal doctor of the Count d’Artois, brother to the King [Louis XVI].  Then, to extend to the common people the benefits of his therapy, and demonstrate it, in March 1781, he magnetises a tree in Boulevard Saint-Martin, in the presence of a crowd of on-lookers.  He suspends chains to it, and it is sufficient to touch them to benefit, free-of-charge, from the effects of animal magnetism.

He publishes two works:  Memoire sur la decouverte du magnetisme animal (1779) and a Precis historique (1781).  Dr d’Eslon publishes in London and Paris, in 1780, his Observations sur le magnetisme animal.  Mesmer wants the approbation of the constituted bodies:  The Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society of Medicine.  However, his way of doing things, and his doctrine, appear extravagant to most doctors.  They want to see him only as a charlatan.  Their animosity is increased by a certain jealousy:  he asks considerable honoraries of his rich or noble patients, and he is the only one talked about in the gazettes and songs.  Among Mesmer’s most active supporters are the banker, Kornmann, and the Lyonnais lawyer, Nicolas Bergasse.

Bergasse plays a notable role in preparing people’s minds for the French Revolution, by publishing a pamphlet against imprisonments by order of the King [lettre de cachet] and the arbitrariness of Royal Justice.  In another brochure, “dedicated to the French”, he invites them to answer for themselves, three questions:

“Where do you come from?  Who are you?  Where are you going?”

These are, transposed into profane language, the three interrogations submitted to Masonic Lodge postulants.  Bergasse is, in fact, initiated into the high grades of spiritual Free Masonry, and is a disciple of Willermoz, the founder of a Lodge where the experimentation of mediumnic states and communication with spirits take place (modern spiritism did not appear for the first time in the XIXth Century, in America, with the Fox sisters, as is generally thought, but in the esoteric Lyonnais group of Willermoz).

In 1782, Dr d’Eslon breaks with Mesmer over questions of method.  He wants to be the only one to exercise magnetic medicine.  He accuses Mesmer of imposture before the Faculty of Medicine founded by Doctor Guillotin, famous as the promoter of vaccination in France, and one of the founders of the Order of the Grand-Orient.

Kornmann and Bergasse then conceive the following plan:  organize a vast subscription to buy Mesmer’s discovery.  The subscribers would then become the owners of the “secret” and would constitute a Society destined to teach, diffuse and practise the Mesmer doctrine.

So, in April 1783, the Societe de l’Harmonie universelle is constituted.  This Society resembles a Masonic Lodge crossed with an open university and a commercial business.  It is magnificently installed in the Hotel de Coigny.  Some eminent people are in it:  the Noailles family, the Montesquieu family, the Marquis de La Fayette, the Bailiff des Barres (with the task of introducing mesmerism among the Knights of Malta), the most illustrious names in Paris and at the Court, as well as jurists, magistrates, and highly reputed doctors.  The Societe de l’Harmonie universelle develops, spreads throughout France, organizes affiliates in Lyon, Bordeaux, Dijon, Nantes, etc.  It brings an enormous fortune to Mesmer and raises a passionate interest for animal magnetism in everyone.

France is then divided between mesmerians and antimesmerians, just as deeply as she will be later by the Dreyfus case.  It is a time when magnetism fervents publish poems in its honour.

But it is also the time when the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Medicine and the Royal Society, after enquiry, conclude that “magnetic fluid”  does not exist, and that its effects must be attributed to imagination.  Only one investigator gives a different opinion:  Jussieu.  For him, there is something real in Mesmer’s therapy.  And he is right.  For there is, in Mesmer’s methods, the germ of what would be called today dynamic psychiatry.  However, to the conclusions of this enquiry, a secret report is added, established by a commission presided by Dr Guillotin:  the “baquet” seances and the touching practised by Mesmer are contrary to good morals.  The King, under pressure from the constituted bodies, has 80,000 copies of the condemnation of animal magnetism distributed.

To be continued.

Doctor Franz Anton Mesmer, the German father of animal magnetism.

Madame de Grandhoux has been suffering from strange symptoms since puberty – nervous attacks, fainting spells, convulsions, brief deliriums;  in earler times, “possession” would have been mentioned.  Madame de Grandhoux travels by carriage to Place Louis-le-Grand.  She alights in front of the beautiful hotel which was built by the Bouret brothers, before they were ruined.  (The address is 16 place Vendome, today.)  A tall valet, with a Teutonic face, lets her in.  She climbs the white marble staircase and enters the first floor salon, a magnificent room, containing only two chairs.  A man awaits her, in front of the monumental fireplace with bronze caryatids.  He does not say a word.  From an alcove in orange stucco comes the gentle music of an instrument that is unknown in Paris.  Someone is playing a glass harmonica.

The man, in a powdered wig, his torso well-moulded in an aubergine Rhingrave-style coat, indicates one of the chairs and sits down in front of the Lady, in contact with her knees.  He plunges his big, grey eyes fixedly into those of his visitor.  Then he places his beautiful hands on her head, on her forehead, leaves them there for an instant, descends down her neck, presses her shoulders, slowly passes over her arms, and pushes his thumbs against those of his patient.  Then, sliding his hands underneath the woman’s arms, he follows the spine down to her waist, passes over her hips and along her thighs, and squeezes her knees.  To finish, with the fingers of his right hand made into a point, he brushes her throat, the base of her nose, and presses on her heart.

She wants to ask questions, or perhaps resist.  But a languor takes hold of her, she feels cold and hot, starts to laugh and to cry, trembles, sways, loses her sight, the consciousness of herself, and crumples.

She opens her eyes, stretched out on a sofa in a padded room, after a nervous tumult of gesticulations and cries, of which she has no memory.

She asks what has happened.  The man replies calmly that she will be cured.

She comes back several times to follow this strange treatment.  In less than a month, the troubles from which she has been suffering for ten years have disappeared.  She swears only by Doctor Mesmer.  The whole of Paris praises his merits.  He is the main topic of conversation in the salons.  Soon, so many carriages crowd in front of the Hotel Bouret that Lenoir, the Police Lieutenant, has to organize a policing service Place Louis-le-Grand.

***

The Doctor has come from Vienna, preceded by a reputation of thaumaturge.  He is supposed to be endowed with miraculous powers, and initiated into diverse secret societies.  Because of him, official medicine will fall into derision.

“There is only one disease, one illness, one cure.”

That is his formula.  No remedy, no therapeutic procedure has ever healed anybody.  All recovery is, in reality, the effect of magnetism, of the subtle physical fluid which fills the universe and unites Man to the Earth, to the celestial bodies, to the whole of Nature, and humans to each other.  Illness is the result of a bad repartition of this fluid in the human body, and the universal therapy consists in restoring this lost equilibrium.  Thanks to certain techniques, this fluid can be condensed, stored, and transmitted to other people.  That is why it is possible to provoke in sick people “attacks” similar to their morbid symptoms, and to deliver them from them.  The existence of the magnetism of living things has never been known by doctors, who treat only the symptoms, not the causes.  Mesmer, who has received an ancestral knowledge conserved by the “adepts”, has been designated to reveal the fundamental unity of Nature and modern Humanity.

Paris is unnerved by an unstable government, the agiotage, the philosophy of contestation, and a disastrous war where France has just lost the Indies and Canada.  Paris is enthusiastic about the United States of America’s War of Independence, and shaken by the trembling of an aristocracy clinging to its privileges.  Paris is drunk on philanthropic ideals, antireligious doctrines, occultism and masonic secrets.  Paris is living under stress.  It develops crushes on any unusual stranger, any new idea, and welcomes Mesmer triumphantly.

Mesmer's famous baquet which provoked extraordinary convulsions in those who were in contact with it.

Soon, his clientele is so numerous and fervent that he institutes collective seances by the means of a distributor of magnetic waves installed in a new residence, the Hotel Bullion (the Rue du Louvre quarter).

An English doctor, John Grieve, passing through Paris in May 1784, leaves us this description:

“I was in his house the other day and witnessed how he proceeds.  In the middle of the room is placed a recipient roughly one and a half feet high, that is called here “le baquet”.  It is so big that twenty people can sit all around it.  The edge of the baquet is pierced with holes.  These holes receive bent iron rods, disposed at diverse heights, so that the patients can apply them to different parts of their bodies.  Apart from these rods, a cord allows one of the patients to communicate with the baquet, then, from one to the other, with all his companions.  The most apparent effects are manifested upon Mesmer’s approach, as, they say, he directs the fluid by the movements of his hands and eyes, without touching anyone.  I questioned several people in whom Mesmer has provoked convulsions in this way, then made them stop, by a simple sign with his finger.”

Another witness statement:

“The baquet is a drum of pine.  It is detached from the floor by four inches, so that one is able to slide one’s feet under it.  The cover is slit in its diameter from North to South.  Rods that conduct the fluid come out of the sides of the baquet.  Inside there are several layers of bottles filled with water, crushed glass, or magnetised iron shavings.  The baquet room is dark and there reigns a rather strong heat there.  Rigorous silence is observed, while waiting for the nervous phenomena.”

To be continued.

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