Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) & Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
An Early Example of Energetic Healing and its Scientific Examination
By Ted Nissen M.A. M.T.
Copyright © August 2006 Ted Nissen
Ted Nissen M.A. M.T.-holds a master’s degree in education/counseling and has had a successful medical (clinical/orthopedic) massage practice for over 20 years in Long Beach California and can be reached at
"I dare to flatter myself, that the discoveries I have made will push back the boundaries of our knowledge of physics as did the invention of microscopes and telescopes for the age preceding our own." -Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer “Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal” (Memoir on the Discovery of Animal Magnetism) (1779) 
“Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists, and does not seem to require so much an active energy, as a passive aptitude of soul in order to encounter it. But error is endlessly diversified; it has no reality, but is the pure and simple creation of the mind that invents it. In this field the soul has room enough to expand herself, to display all her boundless faculties, and all her beautiful and interesting extravagancies and absurdities.” -Benjamin Franklin, Report of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, and other commissioners, charged by the King of France, with the examination of the animal magnetism, as now practiced in Paris (1784)
The King of France (early 1780’s) had a problem. When you are a king most problems go away before the telling of it. Trusted aides are eager to please. This problem was different, aides could not be trusted to solve. This problem would take his full attention. His wife the Queen was involved along with many others in his intimate elite circle. Personally and emotionally involved that is. That’s not all; most of his subjects in the environs of Paris were also involved personally and emotionally. Mesmeromania is how the Paris press reported it. Parisians including his wife were in love with a man by the name of Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). People were throwing themselves before trees this Mesmer fellow had blessed. This was happening all over Paris. People would flail, convulse, scream and claim healing. Mesmer said he had a healing power in his hands, which he called “Animal Magnetism”.
The problem for the King was not that Mesmer was well liked or that he claimed to heal the sick. Many people seemed to have been healed and the kings own wife adored Mesmer. It was the persistent rumors that bothered the King. Mesmer, it was alleged was having wild sexual orgies at his Paris studios. It was further claimed that both Mesmer and his assistant, Antoine, were seducing young women. These women it was said were seduced to an exceedingly vulnerable state of relaxation and then sexually molested. Mesmer was a sexual predator. These rumors came to the King from a variety of trusted sources. Although his wife was not directly implicated the King must have wondered. Guilt by association would be likely if the public found out. This could involve a big scandal with a great deal of mistrust for the court especially if the Queen herself was implicated. There was already a good deal of public unrest in France and in Paris in particular. The French Revolution (1789–1799) was just around the corner and the King himself would be executed guillotine style. The King of course didn’t know this at the time he was puzzling this problem. But he did know that abject poverty; disease and oppressive living conditions already angered his subjects against him. Who knows what manner of public outrage would be released with revelations of sexual scandals involving the Queen.
If he was going to avoid exacerbating public unrest what strategy could he use to discredit such a high profile and beloved a figure as Mesmer? This had to involve public humiliation and must be believed by all. Mesmer himself had perhaps provided the answer by alleging in writing that he had discovered a new force of physics. Mesmer believed he channeled this force thru his hands into his patients unblocking energy channels which when free flowing would eradicate disease. That was it the King must have realized. Prove that this force did not exist and by disassociation discredit Mesmer. If it could be proven that there was no new force of nature then it was not Mesmer that was healing the sick but something else within the person. Mesmer would instantly loose credibility. No one would care to pay attention to Mesmer any longer and the political/personal problem for the King would be solved. Who could prove this though? It would have to be someone of high public trust to counter the public rapture that Mesmer commanded. It would have to also be someone who was inclined to experiment.
Of course, the King should have known immediately who could help him. This was a person who was both a personal and political ally. Someone who owed the King for a great favor to both him personally and his mother country, the newly formed United States of America. The Treaty of Paris, in 1783 was just signed and ended the colonial rule of the British over the Americans. It was because the King of France ordered his best French general La Fayette to help George Washington that America may have defeated the British. In any case Benjamin Franklin was the Ambassador to France and the Kings pick to discredit Mesmer. Franklin also knew how to prove or disprove propositions about nature. This was after all the age historians would later describe as the Enlightenment. It was a period where skepticism was accepted and experiment and proof the rule. Benjamin Franklin was beloved by the world not just in Paris or France. He had saved thousands from an untimely death. Death by electrocution. Benjamin Franklin’s name was famous around the world for discovery of the lightning rod among other prodigious scientific discoveries. His achievements were many both in science and as one of the American founding fathers. Only one figure commanded more respect than Mesmer. Benjamin Franklin was both a personal friend of the Queen of France and beloved by the French people. The King established a Royal commission headed by Benjamin Franklin as well as other respected members of French Academia to investigate Mesmer’s claim to have discovered a new force in physics. In a brilliant stroke of political maneuvering the King had Mesmer in his cross hairs. What the King probably didn’t know was Benjamin Franklin actually wanted Mesmer to be right. Franklin had personal reasons. The story continues read on.
Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) was the darling of Parisian Elite Society in the 1780’s, a confidant of the superrich and super powerful. Queen Marie Antoinette called him a friend. Her husband King Louis XVI was suspicious. Perhaps it was just jealousy but there was something about this Mesmer fellow that motivated the King to begin questioning Mesmer’s background. Perhaps it was just the trend in the culture to no longer trust or have blind faith in the mysterious. What Mesmer did was certainly mysterious but more about that later. This was a period of questioning. Later historians would call it the age of enlightenment (18th century) because of its focus on the use of rationality in establishing knowledge about the world whether it is a moral order or a description of the physics of the material world. This began a period where scientific method, as we know it today was realized. Science was not yet a specialized profession and the term Scientist was not coined until 1833. Mysticism was replaced with experiment and proof. It is into this world that Mesmer descended from Vienna in 1777. He would tell people that, while in Vienna, he cured a young pianist of blindness. (Maria Theresa von Paradis a well-known Austrian performer and composer who lost her sight at an early age, and for whom Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No. 18 in B major) Later Mesmer’s claimed cure was found to be false. Mesmer had lied. In fact he left Vienna in shame. This seems to be a recurrent theme that many healers put forth a “miracle cure or event” that precedes them even though in this case Mesmer knew it wasn’t true.
During this period mystery still had an allure for some and it is to this population that Mesmer appealed. Mesmer was after all a physician graduating from the University of Vienna in 1759. He did his doctorial dissertation on influence of the Moon and the planets on the human body and on disease (medical astrology) (Mesmer may have plagiarized his dissertation from a work by Richard Mead (1673-1754)). Even so it seems like a strange dissertation for a physician but perhaps the age of rationality had not yet made it to all the universities in Europe. Mesmer was rich, in part because he married a rich widow but also because he became a successful Viennese physician. He lived on a well-appointed estate and hosted the then young twelve-year-old musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His failure to cure the young Mozart friend virtuoso pianist (Paradis) was probably a source of shame for Mesmer and disdain for many in Viennese society. Mesmer was seen as a charlatan by many. Certainly Mesmer must have known his methods did not always work. Even so he derived a healthy income from his practice. He must have also known that faith in him was part of the healing. With his reputation in question Mesmer had to leave Vienna and what better place to go than Paris.
In Paris, Mesmer must have felt at home with an elite that at least initially did not know his past. He could reinvent himself as a healer of the blind just like Jesus. But a more secular version; the physician, scientist, healer. Mesmer moved into an apartment in a Wealthy section of Paris and established a practice. He tried and failed to get the approval of Royal Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine or the Faculty of Medicine of Paris (1781) (Faculté de Médecine de Paris).  This seems to be another successful strategy of healers cater to the rich and get approval of the powerful. Mesmer did get Charles d'Eslon (physician to the King's brother, the Comte d'Artois) an esteemed French doctor who encouraged the writing of “Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal” (Memoir on the Discovery of Animal Magnetism)    Mesmer’s only written documentation of his theory and methods (1779). It is thru D’Eslon that we learn the contents of this work by Mesmer. In it Mesmer outlines 27 Propositions some of which suggest that the process of life flows through thousands of channels within the body. This process of life he believed was fluid like and was affected much like the tides by the influence of the planets. When this free flow is blocked disease follows. Sometimes nature would restore the flow spontaneously but always after a crisis had ensued. The person would get worse (high fevers, chills ect) before they would get better (Fever breaks). Health can also be restored by someone who can conduct animal magnetism thru his or her own body into the body of the patient. Once the flow of this life process is established the patient, as aforementioned, experiences a crises. An insane person for example will have a “fit of madness” before their sanity returns.
Mesmer’s individual therapy session’s involved close contact with the patient sitting, for example, “patients' legs squeezed between his knees” and pressing the clients thumbs into to the palm of his hand. Patients would later describe the fixedness of Mesmer’s stare. His brown eyes seemed to carry a strange power, which many of his patients reported. Mesmer would then begin to pass his hands from the patient’s shoulders and down their arms. Mesmer believed he could unblock a persons channels by using his animal magnetic energy which flowed thru his hands. Mesmer would then press his fingers onto a persons hypochondriac region (the area below the diaphragm). Mesmer might hold his hands there for hours. Many young women reported sexual feelings, others went into convulsions, screams, fits of contagious hysterical laughter, vomiting and some would sob uncontrollably, all the while Mesmer encouraging the crisis, which he believed would bring a cure.
Mesmer was a busy man, and by 1780 he had so many patients he had to develop methods to treat groups of people. He had a tub like device made of oak festooned with intricately woven rope and iron rods inserted into eight cylinders, each of which had a powerful magnet at its base. The iron rods sprouting from an ornately and highly polished surface. It was filled to the brim with water; glass bottles arranged in a radial pattern sitting on a bed of crushed glass, pounded sulfur, and iron filings and were about a foot and a half high. Mesmer called this vessel a baquet. Essentially it was a gigantic bucket filled with what Mesmer believed was his own animal magnetism, which could be stored like electric fluid in a magnetic reservoir. Some of his baquets (he had 4 of them) could seat 20 people and Mesmer had arranged several treatment rooms at Hôtel Bullion on rue Coq-Héron in Paris where he stayed. One of his rooms at the hotel was reserved for the poor and was free of charge. The other 3 rooms were for paying guests who forked out about what you’d pay at the time for the best opera seats. Business was extraordinary (baquet seats required reservation far in advance) and as Mesmer put it provided a "a steady stream of silver."
It is estimated he saw over 200 people or more a day. Their were so many poor people cluttering his studio that he magnetized several trees around Paris which he claimed could heal the sick just as well. Demand was so high for his sessions that he sold for hefty price miniature versions of his baquets for home use. As time passed Mesmer saw the need to establish a training program and so he started the Society of Universal Harmony for which membership was very expensive. In return Mesmer taught students his techniques. By the time of the French Revolution the Society had over 480 graduates. The Societies motto was "go forth, touch, cure." The local Parisian press called the phenomena “Mesmeromania”. Some argued that this was the end of the enlightenment period at least in France. There were over 6000 unsanctioned mesmerists operating around Paris alone in 1785.
What was it like to go to Mesmer’s studio? The windows were draped with thick darkly colored velvet so as to block even the faintest glimmer of light. The room was dimly lit with candlelight so that people and objects in the room were softly shadowed and barely recognizable. The room appeared larger than it was with objects infinitely reflected in wall and ceiling mirrors with astrological symbols scattered in between. The thick smell of incense suggested a catholic mass and was at once overpowering and comforting. An ethereal sound perforated the rooms and hallways and was at last recognized. It was a live performance of the Armonica (Glass Harmonica) invented by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) in 1757. The Armonica was a series of glass rims arranged in sideways fashion and rotated like a potters wheel with a foot pedal at the base. The Armonica player using the foot pedal would rotate the glasses (each pitched differently) all at once and using their lightly chalked finger on the rim of the glasses fashion an otherworldly symphony. You can make the sound by rotating your finger around a wine glass rim. Most of Mesmer’s patients were seated around the baquet, which was as aforementioned about 1 ½ feet tall with iron rods and ropes, which could help fasten you to your seat. The ropes would wrap around the entire circle of patients connecting them in an uninterrupted circuit. The iron rods could be moved so as to direct Mesmer’s animal magnetism to diseased body parts. If patients still didn’t feel Mesmer’s powerful animal magnetism he had inserted into the center of some of his tubs (baquets) a Leyden jar, which was connected to the metal rods. The Leyden jar was like a capacitor or battery, which stored electrical charges, which of course would give Mesmer’s patients quite a jolt when they touched the metal rods to their body parts. This suggests a disingenuous cynicism on the part of Mesmer. He thought that people wouldn’t believe in his subtler and not always perceived animal magnetism, which emanated from his hands and so he had to lie again (remember the first time with the blind girl) and give them a jolt of electricity. This shows some recognition on the part of Mesmer that people’s perception and belief may play a role in their healing. He might argue though that he was merely attempting to increase the potency of his treatments by adding both magnetic and electrical charges. This is after all the baroque style to add embellishment upon embellishment. In 1777 he met with J. J. Gassner in Switzerland, and observed that the priests effected cures by passing their hands over people without the use of magnets or electricity. This led Mesmer to discard the magnets for a time but to reintroduce them in the early 1780's along with electrical charges. Mesmer also added cornflower a folk remedy for improving vision, perhaps this was Mesmer’s unconscious acknowledgement that his own powers to heal were in fact limited or non-existent. The blind girl he couldn’t heal still haunted him.
Soon the guests (patients) of this baroque salon would hear a faint rustling. Enter Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer padding quietly into the room as if on and from a cloud. His ornately decorated gold slippers were soft and would barely make a sound. Mesmer usually wore the same lilac silk robe, which draped his figure so that he almost appeared to be floating. Mesmer’s very presence would send some people in to convulsions sometimes for hours. If the healing crisis threatened to become violent or dangerous Mesmer's valet, Antoine would remove the person to the crisis room off the main hall way. This room was sound proofed and was essentially a padded cell. Sometimes the cries of the distressed would spread around the group like a contagion with spasmodic fits giving way to hysterical laughter giving way to epileptic seizures and then unconscious stupor. At other times most patients were quiet almost meditative. All this supervised by the confident and ever penetrating brown-eyed gaze of Mesmer who made quiet suggestions and passed hands over people, massaged their abdomen with his hands or occasionally waved the magnetized wand over their heads. Many people claimed healings of all kinds from their treatment sessions with Mesmer.
Then the rumors started, at first a steady murmur turned with gradual intensity louder and more insistent. After all, many beautiful young women would be under the steady gaze and helpless to the influence of this Mesmer fellow. Sometimes in a fitful frenzy and emotional display these vulnerable women would be led in the hand of Antoine to the privacy of the crisis room. Antoine would sometimes not return for some time. Some reported sexual orgies that went on for hours. Rumors reached even Thomas Jefferson; also American Ambassador to France who was living in Paris at that time, considered Mesmerism "an imputation of so grave a nature as would bear an action at law in America." Mesmer tried to get Royal approval to counter these allegations. The King needed expert opinion. Mesmer appealed to his fellow physicians. He wrote a proposal for an experiment to the Faculty of Medicine of Paris (1781) (Faculté de Médecine de Paris). Mesmer’s proposal was read to the Faculty by Charles d'Eslon (physician to the King's brother). It seemed to be a reasonable experiment; 24 patients would be chosen ½ by the Faculty to be treated by normal means and ½ by Mesmer treated with his animal magnetism. The patients would be drawn for treatment by lots (an early method of randomizing experimental patient selection which avoid experimenter bias). The Faculty of Medicine’s reply was swift and harsh. “1.) [M. D’Eslon is] required to be more circumspect in the future. 2.) [He is] suspended from taking part in the deliberations of assemblies of the Faculté for a year. 3.) [He is] to be struck off the list of the Doctors of the Faculté at the end of the year if he has not, by then, renounced his observations on Animal Magnetism. 4.) The proposals of M. Mesmer are rejected.” Perhaps the rumors had already reached the ears of his colleagues on the Faculty and they concluded that Mesmer’s sexual improprieties would eventually damage the reputation of their association. No point in considering even a reasonable examination of the phenomena. Mesmer was politically radioactive.
Well this was just the beginning of the end for Mesmer. The King’s own wife was going to the salons of this apparent sexual predator. King Louis XVI appointed a Royal commission to investigate. After all Mesmer was still the rage of Paris still very popular with the masses and the Queen. Political and personal calculations may have demanded the King counter the force of Mesmer with an equally powerful force of personality. There was only one man for the job. This was a superstar who at the time was bigger star than even Mesmer. He would be the Madonna (the singer or the mother of Christ) or sports hero of his time. He was beloved thru out the world. He wasn’t just an American hero but respected in nearly every culture. He was the American Ambassador to France and he lived in Paris. His own son was a fan of Mesmer and he himself was fascinated with the phenomena. His name was Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). As far as Mesmer was concerned he would not be subjected to a political “witch hunt” by a bunch of non physicians. Mesmer refused to cooperate. Mesmer did authorize someone he had personally trained. The more cynical might argue that if there was failure Mesmer could claim that he himself did not perform the tests. Benjamin Franklin headed the royal commission. Many of the members of the commission were they themselves esteemed scientists: the chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (August 26, 1743 – May 8, 1794) (discovered oxygen); the astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly (September 15, 1736–November 12, 1793); and the physician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (May 28, 1738 – March 26, 1814) (the inventor of the guillotine with which, paradoxically, Lavisher and Bailly were executed a few years later). Charles D'Eslon Mesmer’s close friend and defender, agreed to allow the commission into his offices where he also practiced Mesmerism. Dr D’Eslon made his patients available for examination by the commission.
For his part Franklin wanted to be open minded about this whole affair. By his nature Franklin was skeptical of such wild claims but this was the healthy attitude of a truth seeker. He himself had a medical condition (gout), which he would be more than happy to be rid of. His own son (Temple Franklin) had praised Mesmer’s works and his good friend Queen Marie Antoinette had spoken highly of him. Franklin was a very curious fellow who liked to solve puzzles; Mesmer’s legendary powers were undeniably puzzling. The commission witnessed the scene around the baquet in Dr D’Eslon’s offices, reporting "Some of the patients look peaceful and sit very still as if in a trance, others cough and spit; others say that they experience a slightly painful sensation, or a feeling of warmth pervades the body and causes sweating; yet others are seized with convulsions. These convulsive attacks are extraordinarily frequent, violent, and last an unusually long time. No sooner is one patient seized with convulsions than other patients begin to manifest the same symptoms. The commission has itself witnessed convulsive attacks that lasted three hours. The sufferer exudes a cloudy and slimy liquid, so overpowering are the physical exertions he undergoes; and at times a few traces of blood may be found. The limbs and the whole body are contorted by the most violent movements, so that there are spasms of the larynx, twitching of the abdomen, of the stomach, fixity of the eyes, shrill cries, groans, fits of weeping and laughing." Very puzzling indeed Franklin must have mused. What to make of it though. Dr D’Eslon performed several treatments using animal magnetism on Franklin for his gout, no reduction in pain or swelling was noted by Franklin. After several more treatments Franklin still suffered from his painful gout, this method had clearly failed to help. The commission, to examine the phenomena, devised additional experiments. They were commissioned by the king to determine whether Mesmer had discovered a new force and not whether this force if new had any healing properties. Since Mesmer claimed that objects could hold the charge of his animal magnetism its influence could be transferred to people whose energy channels could be unblocked. Mesmer himself had noted that this strange behavior (convulsions, fainting ect) was evidence of a healing crisis and thus evidence of the existence of this energy working within the patient. It seemed to Franklin and the other commissioners that objects not magnetized with this energy should not have any effect on patients. If this were a new force of nature as Mesmer had alleged in his Memoir, proof of its existence would be strengthened if patients only had responses to trees or objects that were magnetized. The King was wise to charge the commission with determining whether a new force in physics had been discovered. After all that was the claim that Mesmer himself made in writing. It would have been harder to prove that Mesmer thru his methods had never healed anyone. Many people claimed healing of many serious illnesses. Even the blind pianist according to witnesses was able to see as long as Mesmer was in the room. This force that Mesmer claimed existed would indeed make all other proofs insubstantial. If however this force could not be found then some other explanation perhaps within the patients themselves could be surmised.
Franklin’s gout made it difficult to walk because his feet hurt. As a result some of the experiments were conducted at his house in Passy. Since Franklin had a garden with several trees this would be a good place to determine how selected subjects were affected by non-magnetized vs. magnetized trees. Dr D’Eslon was asked to magnetize one of Franklin’s trees out of the sight of the subject who was a twelve-year-old boy. The young man was then blindfolded and guided to Franklins garden where he was allowed to wander freely. Since this young man was a patient of D’Eslon & Mesmer he was asked to embrace several trees and identify the tree with the most magnetic force. He set about the task reporting the strange sensations felt and with certainty how the magnetic force was getting stronger as he proceeded, when in fact he was receding from the tree that had been magnetized. When for the boy the magnetic force had reached fever pitch he fainted before the wrong tree at the most distant point away from the tree that had been magnetized. Other experiments were conducted and all failed to demonstrate that Mesmer had discovered a new force of physics. The worst part for Franklin may have been his aching feet had not improved. That aside the commissions findings concluded with a rejection of Mesmer’s new force of physics claim and warned the King that women were put in an extraordinarily vulnerable state by these techniques in the presence of men that might take improper advantage.
It must have occurred to Franklin and the others that although this force did not exist outside the individual something clearly was happening within and between them. Franklin may have consulted with his good friend Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) considered the "Father of American Psychiatry". Rush published the first text book in the United States on the subject of Psychiatry “Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind” (1812) The emblem of the American Psychiatric Association bears his portrait. Both Franklin and Rush were astute observers and might have been curious to note the tendency of Mesmer’s group participants to mimic each other’s behavior. Was this simple learning? We see this with children in the game of funny faces. Make a funny face and the child will mimic it even before language skills. What caused the first person in the group to begin convulsing or laughing hysterically or otherwise exhibit an unusual behavior before the others began modeling the behavior? Certainly all of Mesmer’s patients were told they might experience a healing crisis. Perhaps this suggestion was added with other suggestions to influence individual and group behavior. Perhaps these suggestions were made potent to Mesmer’s patients because of their obvious trance like state. Franklin and the other commissioners concluded referring to the patients examined "All of them were subdued in an astonishing way,”  Although their was likely no new force of nature according to the commissioners, the likely explanation for the unusual behavior was the undue influence of the practitioner’s own suggestions. Despite its scientific refutations Mesmerism was revived by subsequent generations although in an altered and refined form. In 1841 Dr. James Braid (physician) (1795-1860) witnessed Mesmerism and would subsequently coin the term and invent the procedure known as hypnotism.
Mesmer did help us underline our need for the miraculous. After all as Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, (23–79)) the Roman Natural philosopher said we must be kind to each other for we all carry a great burden. We all want and will always yearn to have those burdens lifted from us. Longing for a superhero with powers that far exceed our own. This is why these myths and men (in the case of Mesmer) continue to reappear despite the best efforts of science to disabuse us. It is just not enough for most of us to accept these burdens without at least some hope. This may explain the hapless efforts of millions of people who play the lotto everyday despite the published odds, which overwhelmingly oppose them. The cosmopolitan ennui and hypochondria of the Parisian elite and the oppressive poverty and frank illness of the poor of 1780’s France was about the to erupt in a revolution. Before it did a man by the name of Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer came along to soothe their troubled hearts. His strength and confidence became theirs. His hope and simple answers to their ills brought them temporary peace.
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