History of Hypnosis - Exorcists and Magnetizers - Part 1

Welcome to our History of Hypnosis 4 part series. You are currently reading part 1 of the series. You can find parts 2, 3 and 4 here:

When you are done with part 1, please move on to Part 2: The Rise of Neuro-Hypnotism - Trance and Suggestion.

Part 3: Is Hypnosis Art or Science? is an interesting read that looks into some of the most heated times in the history of hypnosis.

Our Part 4: Hypnosis in Modern Times Debated will discuss modern hypnosis, how it is seen by mainstreem media and what are it's challenges.

Let's take a look at the defining moments in history that had an impact and formed hypnosis as we know it today. Please enjoy part 1 of our History of Hypnosis series.

Munich, November 23, 1775 - Joseph Gassner and Franz Anton Mesmer

The Prince-Elector of Bavaria has called together the best scientific minds of his realm for the purpose of investigating Joseph Gassner, a simple country priest who has recently risen to celebrity as a healer.

The afflicted of all ranks have been flocking to experience Father Gassner's somewhat unusual method of healing: exorcism of demons causing the physical ailment.

Gassner's formula is fairly simple. He begins by commanding that if the illness is caused by demons, the symptoms are to manifest immediately. If they do not, he refers the patient to a medical doctor.

However, if the symptoms do appear, the priest commands the demons to produce symptoms in various ways that demonstrate divine power over the disease; this culminates in an exorcism that rids the patient permanently of the affliction.

Despite the fact that the investigation's stated purpose is to look into Gassner, the priest is not present; in fact, the star of today's proceedings is a medical doctor who claims he can reproduce all of Gassner's miracles without resorting to a supernatural explanation.

That doctor is Franz Anton Mesmer.

He amazes the scholars of the court by commanding symptoms to appear, change, and disappear in much the way that Gassner does—but he explains that the cause of the illnesses, and the agent of their healing, is not a demonic force, but a magnetic one.

Mesmer had begun to formulate his theory of Animal Magnetism about two years earlier, when he worked with a patient known as Frau Oesterlin, a theory that would turn out to have an important role in the history of hypnosis.

Initially, he produced and banished her symptoms by applying actual mineral magnets to her body, but by July 1774, he'd realized that merely placing his hands near her body had similar effects. From that, he derived his idea that an unseen force flows through everything; that imbalances in this force were the true cause of all disease; and that this force could be directed to cause healing by someone who had plenty of it.

Though Mesmer's demonstrations discredit Gassner, the doctor charitably states that the priest must have even greater Animal Magnetism than his own to effect so many cures.

Paris, April, 1784 - Mesmer's Patients Undoubtedly get Better

Image: definition of the word "mesmerise" by Merriam Webster Dictionary - as used today.

Nine years after Mesmer discredits Gassner, the tables have turned.

Under orders from the king of France, a commission of the best scientific minds in Paris has convened at the home of ambassador Benjamin Franklin to investigate the work of Doctor Mesmer, who has risen to celebrity status since his arrival in the French capital five years earlier.

Mesmer has stirred considerable controversy by healing both the wealthy and the poor, as well as by teaching his hypnotic methods to any who would pay a large sum for the privilege. Of course, any who could pay for brief pamphlet could read Mesmer's ideas, or any of hundreds of pamphlets attacking or defending his theories. (Pamphlets may be regarded as the blogosphere of that era.)

The one thing that such prominent scientific commissioners as Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, and Jean-Sylvain Bailly do not debate is whether Mesmer's patients get better; everyone agrees that they do. The investigation is to examine the theory of Animal Magnetism, not its efficacy.

Just as Gassner had not been summoned to Munich, Mesmer is not called to represent himself to the Bailly Commission. That task falls to a French doctor and student of Mesmer, D'Eslon.

The experiments center on trying to find objective evidence of the magnetic fluid Mesmer claims to exist.

In one famous trial, D'Eslon "magnetizes" a tree in Franklin's garden; a blind-folded child is then turned loose with the expectation that touching the magnetized tree would produce a crisis. Time and again, subjects are unable to identify which tree has been magnetized, and the commissioners report that there is no evidence to support Mesmer's belief in an invisible magnetic fluid.

Having undermined the theory behind Mesmer's cures, the commissioners offer an alternative explanation: The cures are caused by imagination—that is, by the power of suggestion.

Interestingly, most Austrian doctors had reached a similar conclusion regarding Gassner's exorcisms. Strangely, the discovery that imagination alone could heal disease was not pursued by science; it appears a strong enough theory to disgrace healers, but not enough to warrant further investigation.

In the aftermath of the Bailly Report, members of the Paris medical elite are forbidden from practicing Animal Magnetism, and thirty such doctors are punished for disobedience. Even more pamphlets are published as the debate rages on.

Mesmer himself, disheartened by the rejection as well as financial problems, returns to his native Lake Constance, where he dies in obscurity in 1815. By that point, few mesmerists knew that he still lived, and mesmerism itself had shifted its focus due to the work of one of Mesmer's students.

Rural France, 1784 - Puysegur

In the same year that the Bailly Commission is experimenting with Mesmerism, a nobleman is performing his own experiments in the French countryside. The Marquis de Puysegur is practicing the magnetic technique he has learned from Dr. Mesmer in an attempt to cure a mild respiratory ailment in Victor Race, a young man whose family has served the Puysegurs for generations.

By the end of the session, the servant is cured, and the future of mesmerism has changed forever.

Victor, having never witnessed a mesmeric healing, does not experience the violent convulsions, coughing, moaning, sweating, or any of the other spectacles that characterized mesmeric crises. Instead, he goes into a curious kind of "sleep": he is aware of his surroundings, able to speak aloud and walk around, and answers questions with greater cleverness than he typically displays. Afterwards, he has no memory of the events. The Marquis calls this artificial sleepwalking or "somnambulism"; now, we call it a deep hypnotic trance.

Though the Marquis never doubts the existence of a magnetic fluid, the purpose of manipulating the fluid shifts from creating a curative crisis to inducing a somnambulistic state. In other words, trance replaces crisis as the defining characteristic of mesmerism.

One reason for this is that trance is simply more interesting than crisis. Crisis can be used only to heal disease. Mesmeric trance, as it will come to be used, seems to allow subjects to experience far away places, pronounce prophecies, diagnose diseases, read minds, taste food in the mesmerist's mouth, withstand pain, and employ a whole host of miraculous abilities—or so it seems.

London, 1837 - Elliotson

Nearly fifty years after Puysegur first induced somnambulism, Animal Magnetism finally takes root in English soil. Doctor John Elliotson is utterly captivated by a demonstration of Animal Magnetism by a visiting French nobleman, the Baron du Potet, and the Englishman demands to learn the art from the foreigner.

Though physically small, Elliotson is a man of considerable professional and social stature. A popular lecturer and professor of medicine and physiology, he is the founder and head of the University College Hospital with several important medical discoveries to his name. He is a good friend of Thomas Wakley, editor of the medical journal The Lancet, which often helps him in championing his medical reform causes. His motto is "Onward!" and he has startled the London doctors by adopting such new practices as using a stethoscope, studying phrenology, and wearing trousers (instead of breeches).

Du Potet, on the other hand, has a checkered past. Partly responsible for getting the French scientific and medical communities to re-open their investigations of mesmerism, he has watched those communities reject evidence of magnetism's ability to produce anesthesia suitable for surgery.

Ultimately, as in Mesmer's day, the source of controversy is not the efficacy of mesmerism, but the questionable theory that underpins it. The landless baron has sought out a more receptive audience in England, and he finds it in Doctor Elliotson.

Elliotson accepts the magnetic premise whole-cloth, and within a year, he is demonstrating magnetism to standing-room-only audiences at the University College of London theater.

The stars of those demonstrations are Elliotson's most receptive somnambulists, two Irish peasant sisters named O'Key. During the mesmeric trance, both sisters enchant the crowd by displaying personalities distinctly different from their own; the usually subdued servants disregard social convention, flirting, singing, and generally entertaining the audience.

One demonstration culminates with Elizabeth O'Key calling Doctor Elliotson a fool. Nonetheless, Elliotson continues to associate with the O'Keys, even taking them on hospital rounds so that they could diagnose patients and recommend treatments while in trance.

These antics do not sit well with the rest of the faculty. Up to that point, surgeon Robert Liston had been the star of the University theater, where his formal and dignified public dissections had been the order of the day.

Likewise, Wakley, after performing his own private experiments with the O'Key sisters not unlike the trials of the Bailly Commission, arrives at the same conclusions: there is no magnetic fluid, and cures are caused by suggestion.

Very quickly, The Lancet and the faculty turn against Elliotson, and by the end of 1938, he resigns from his post in public disgrace.

Nonetheless, Elliotson carries on his investigations and practice from his home, and mesmerism spreads throughout Britain as a popular pursuit. Famous writers such as a Charles Dickens practice it; Harriet Martineau writes about her experience as a mesmeric patient.

Having been rejected by the mainstream medical community, Animal Magnetism is taken up as a parlor game in many households.

Belfast, Maine, 1838

In the same year that Elliotson is demonstrating what he learned from Du Potet, a New England clockmaker goes to see a demonstration given by the visiting French mesmerist, Charles Poyen Saint-Sauveur.

The clockmaker, having already observed that he could heal his own body better than the medicines of the day, becomes the mesmerist's apprentice for two years before setting out on his own circuit. In time, he will become famous as Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, founder of the New Thought movement, which teaches that the mind has the power to heal the body.

One of Quimby's patients is a young woman who takes his ideas, frames them in religious context, and becomes known as Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, which teaches that the mind (through the power of God) has the power to heal the body. Ironically, the Christian Scientists warn readers about the supposed "evils" of hypnosis.

London, 1842 - The Zoist

Four years after Elliotson's controversial demonstrations, an amateur mesmerist named Ward induces anesthesia in a patient while surgeon Topham amputates a leg in the first public demonstration of magnetic anesthesia for surgery in Britain.

The Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society explodes in scandal and controversy: some doctors cry fakery, while others insist the patient was just exceedingly brave. The president of the society has the report struck from the record, claiming that pain is a "wise provision of nature" and that patients are better for their suffering.

The reaction so disgusts Elliotson, who was by the way the founder of the society, that he starts a new journal, The Zoist, to publish that report and others.

Calcutta, India, April 4th, 1845 - Esdaile

As would later be reported in The Zoist, Scottish Doctor James Esdaile has the task of draining fluid from the enlarged scrotum of an imprisoned convict named Madhab Kaura.

Observing how much pain the procedure causes, Doctor Esdaile decides to attempt mesmeric anesthesia, even though he has no training in it and has never seen it done. Drawing only on knowledge gained from a book, Esdaile begins making mesmeric passes over his patient; some hours later, the patient achieves a trance state, and the doctor is able to drain the fluid painlessly.

Over the next several years, Esdaile performs thousands of painless surgeries using mesmerism as the only anesthetic. The deep level of trance he achieves later comes to be called "the Esdaile State" by twentieth-century hypnotists.

In 1846, the surgeon publishes his findings, but once again, the medical community rejects mesmeric anesthesia as quackery.

Boston, September 30, 1846

In the same year that James Esdaile publishes his account of thousands of successful major surgeries using mesmerism, two American doctors make history by performing a single minor operation on a patient while using ether for anesthesia.

A few months later, Robert Liston will perform the first major surgery using ether. The location he chooses is the University College of London theater -- the same place where Elliotson had demonstrated Animal Magnetism. The surgery he performs is a leg amputation -- the same procedure with which Topham and Ward had shown the effectiveness of mesmeric anesthesia.

Upon completing the surgery, during which the patient moved about and moaned only a little bit, Liston turns to his audience and crows triumphantly, "This Yankee dodge beats mesmerism hollow!"

Thus, the advent of chemical anesthesia, which has the advantage of being easily controlled by the doctor and only the slight disadvantage of occasionally killing a patient, spells the end of mesmeric anesthesia for surgery, and with it, the end of mesmerism's chance of becoming part of mainstream medicine.

Hypnosis had often throughout history failed the battle to enter the mainstreem medicine.

If you're curious about trying out hypnosis for yourself, you can do so right now for free - we have an mp3 recording just for that occasion. Get it here and enjoy yourself!

Recommended for Further Reading - Part I:

  • Esdaile, James (1846). Mesmerism in India, and its Practical Applications in Surgery and Medicine. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.
  • Forrest, Derek (2000). Hypnotism: A History. London: Penguin Books.
  • Pintar, Judith, and Steven Jay Lynn (2008). Hypnosis: A Brief History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Rosenfeld, Saul Marc (2008). A Critical History of Hypnotism: The Unauthorized Story. Self-Published.
  • Waterfield, Robin (2002). Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis. London: Macmillan.
  • Winter, Allison (1998). Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian England. Chicago: U of C Press.