ARTICLES

Frank Podmore

Well-known psychical investigator and distinguished author. Elected to the Council of the SPR in 1882 and served for an unbroken period of 27 years. For eight or nine years he held, jointly with Frederic Myers, the office of the honorary secretary. He was a collaborator with Myers and Edmund Gurney in "Phantasms of the Living".

Mesmer and his Disciples

 - Frank Podmore -

          MESMERISM, like chemistry, is a French science. For even though the birthplace of Mesmer himself - which, indeed, as in the case of greater men, is to some extent uncertain - was not in France, yet France was the country of his adoption; it was by Frenchmen that his doctrines were first welcomed, and it is on French soil, under the various names of Animal Magnetism, Mesmerism, Hypnotism, Hysteria, or Suggestion, from the days of Bergasse and Puysegur to those of Charcot and Bernheim, that they have borne most abundant fruit.

Franz Antoine Mesmer was born in or about 1734. He studied for the medical profession, and took his doctor's degree at Vienna in 1766, choosing as the subject of his inaugural thesis "De planetarum influxu", or, as he himself translated it later, "De I'influence des Planettes sur le corps humain." It is from the publication of this essay that Mesmer himself dates the discovery of Animal Magnetism.(1) But his ideas on the nature and extent of this influence, as already said, seem to have contained little that was original, being founded on the writings of various older mystic.(2) The best exposition of his views is contained in his own statement drawn up some years later in a series of propositions, of which a few may be here quoted:(3)

(1) "Precis historique de fails relatifs du Magnetisme Animal", p.1. Paris, 1781.
(2) See preceding chapter.
(3) In 1779; "Memoire sur la decouverte du Magnetisme", p. 83.

1. Il existe une influence mutuelle entre les corps celestes, la terre et les corps animes.

2. Un fluide universellement repandu et continue de maniere a ne souffrir aucun vuide, dont la subtilete ne permet aucune comparaison, et qui, de sa nature, est susceptible de recevoir, propager et communiquer toutes les impressions du mouvement, est le moyen de cette influence.

3. Cette action reciproque est soumise a des loix mechaniques, inconnues jusqu'a present.

4. Il resulte de cette action, des effets alternatifs qui peuvent etre consideres comme un flux et reflux.

6. C'est par cette operation (la plus universelle de celles que la nature nous offre) que les relations d'activite s'exercent entre les corps celestes, la terre et ses parties constitutives.

9. Il se manifeste particulierement dans le corps humain, des proprietes analogues a celles de I'aimant; on y distingue des poles egalement divers et opposes qui peuvent etre communiques, changes, detruits et renforces; le phenomene meme de l'inclinaison y est observe.

10. La propriete du corps animal qui rend susceptible de l'influence des corps celestes et de l'action reciproque de ceux qui l'environnent, manifestee par son analogie avec l'aimant, m'a determine a la nommer "Magnetisme Animal".

14. Son action a lieu a une distance eloignee, sans le secours d'aucun corps intermediaire.

15. Elle est augmentee et reflechie par les glaces comme la lumiere.

16. Elle est communiquee, propagee, et augmentee par le son.

He professes to have spent many years in testing and verifying his ideas by experiment and observation on all kinds of diseases, but it is not until 1773 that he actually gives details of any cures effected by the applications of his methods. The first patient was a young woman afflicted with periodical attacks, which, from the description given, seem to have been of an epileptic nature. He applied magnets to the limbs of the sufferer, and a rapid cure was effected. Publicity was given to this case by the Jesuit, Hell, who had, it appears, furnished the magnetic plates used by Mesmer, and who claimed that the cure was due to the application of principles discovered by him. There ensued a bitter controversy between the two men. The next few years seem to have been spent by Mesmer in vindicating his own prior claim to the discovery, in the practice of the therapeutic virtues of Animal Magnetism, and in knocking at the doors of the various learned societies of Europe. No door was opened to him; and finding little honour and less profit in his own country, he came in 1778 to Paris, and there took up his abode. From the learned societies of Paris he met with as little recognition as from those of Vienna, Berlin, and London. One of his first converts, however, was M. D'Eslon, medical adviser to the Count d'Artois. In September, 1780, D'Eslon summoned a general meeting of the Faculty of Medicine to lay before it a statement of Mesmer's doctrines. He began by reciting the propositions from which extracts are given above, and then made on Mesmer's behalf a formal proposal that the Faculty should investigate the subject by choosing twenty-four patients, of whom twelve should be treated by Animal Magnetism, and the remainder by the orthodox methods, and should then compare the results.(4) The reply of the Faculty was to reject the proposal and to warn D'Eslon that his name would be struck off the rolls at the end of the year if he had not in the interval formally recanted his heretical beliefs.

(4) "Precis historique", etc., p. 113.

But if Mesmer found little favour with the wise and prudent, he met with a reception more cordial and much more profitable from the general public. So much attention did his cures - or the rumour of them - excite, especially, as it would seem, in the fashionable world, that in March, 1781, the Minister de Maurepas was commissioned by the King to offer him a pension of 20,000 livres, and a further sum of 10,000 livres annually to provide a suitable house, on condition that he would establish a school and communicate the secret of his treatment. Mesmer rejected the terms, ostensibly because he held it beneath his own dignity and the dignity of the great truth which he proclaimed to be a party to such a bargain. But it is not difficult to infer that if the terms, sufficiently liberal as they seem to us, had been commensurate with his appetite, he would have been willing to take the cash and let the credit go. For, two years later, in 1783, a subscription was set on foot to which each would - be pupil contributed 100 louis (2,400 livres), and a sum of no less than 340,000 livres (nearly 14,000) was handed over to Mesmer. In return he gave a course of lectures on his system. Before admission to these lectures he had required each pupil to sign an undertaking that he would not practise on his own account, nor impart the secret to others without Mesmer's permission. As the price of this permission he subsequently proposed that they should establish centres of magnetic treatment in every town of importance in France, and should hand over to him half of all the fees that they received. His pupils, many of them men of position, who had no desire to practise for money, formed themselves into a Societe de l'Harmonie and vindicated their claim to the title by repudiating, after an unseemly squabble, their part of the contract.

In the following year the Government took a further step and charged two learned bodies, the Faculte de Medecine and the Societe royale de Medecine, with the task of examining into Animal Magnetism. The Commissioners chosen from the Faculte asked the King to add to their number some members of the Academy of Sciences, and five delegates from that body, including Benjamin Franklin, Bailly, and Lavoisier, were accordingly directed to co-operate with the four members of the Faculte. This Commission was appointed on the 12th of March; on the 11th of August the same year they presented a Report, signed by all nine Commissioners. They had decided, for reasons which are not stated in the report, to make their observations on the magnetic treatment as practised, not by Mesmer himself, but by his friend and disciple D'Eslon. The Report commences with a description of the methods employed to set the hypothetical fluid in motion, methods which D'Eslon had borrowed without substantial change from Mesmer. In the middle of a large room was placed a circular tub, called the baquet, of considerable dimensions. The report does not mention the internal arrangement of the baquet, but we learn from Puysegur (whose book, "Du Magnetisme Animal", has as a frontispiece to its second edition a picture of a baquet, of the size of a large bath, with patients sitting round it) that it was filled with bottles "arrangees entr'elles d'une maniere particuliere," and covered with water up to a certain height.(5) In the lid of the baquet were several holes, through each of which passed an iron rod connecting with the interior, and bent in such a way that the patients, who sat round in rows, could apply the point of the rod to any part of their persons. The patients were tied together by a cord which passed round the circle, and sometimes another chain was formed by holding hands. A pianoforte in the corner of the room played various airs during the performance; and sometimes there was singing. The operator carried an iron rod, ten or twelve inches long.

(5) Puysegur, Memoires pour servir, vol. i. p. 9. A fuller description of the baquet is given by another writer of this time, an Englishman named Bell, in his book on the Principles of Animal Electricity and Magnetism (London, 1792). See below, chap. viii.

The Report then describes the scenes which ensued as the charm worked: there were violent movements, profuse sweating, spitting, often of blood, vomiting, etc., piercing cries, hiccoughs, immoderate laughter, and extraordinary and long continued attacks of convulsions. This was called the crisis, and was supposed to be beneficial in accelerating and guiding the course of the disease to a successful issue. The crisis was frequently succeeded by the collapse of the patient from sheer exhaustion into a lethargic condition.

The Commissioners conceived that there would be little profit in attempting to study the curative effects of the treatment, because of the extreme difficulty and uncertainty which always attend the purely empirical method in medicine so much so that even if cures could be demonstrated they would prove little, since they might be attributed with equal plausibility to Nature or to the imagination of the patient. Moreover, to press these questions too closely might annoy the distinguished sufferers who thronged M. D'Eslon's clinique. They resolved, therefore, to confine themselves to the search for evidence of the new physical force which was claimed as the agent for the effects observed. They found, of course, little difficulty in demonstrating that no such evidence was forthcoming; and that, as a matter of fact, those effects could be produced by the aid of the imagination alone. A single illustration must suffice of their method of experiment. The veteran Franklin - he was then in his seventy-eighth year - was unable to attend the meetings in Paris. But D'Eslon came down to his house at Passy, bringing with him a suitable subject. A tree was "magnetised"; the subject, a boy of twelve years, was brought into the garden with his eyes blindfolded. He was then introduced successively to four trees, which stood at varying distances from the magnetised tree; the characteristic phenomena of the crisis developed themselves with unusual rapidity, and he collapsed in a swoon at the fourth, without having approached within twenty-four feet of the tree actually magnetised.

The Commissioners concluded that the magnetic fluid could not be perceived by any of the senses, and that its existence could not be inferred from any effects observed either in themselves or in any of the patients examined. And they pointed out, further, that the methods employed by D'Eslon and Mesmer in their treatment were liable to cause serious mischief to the patients themselves and, by imitation, to others. Further, in a confidential report to the Minister they emphasised the dangerous consequences which might result from the spread of these practices, and recommended their legal suppression.

The Report signed five days later by four members of the Societe royale de Medecine was to the same effect, but presented with less literary grace. One member, however, of this second Commission submitted a Minority Report.(6) M. de Jussieu began by suggesting that the Commission had perhaps acquiesced in too narrow an interpretation of their mandate. "Sans remonter a une theorie peut-etre trop sublime," it appeared to him that it was within the scope of that mandate at least to verify the physiological facts alleged, to endeavour to ascertain their proximate causes, and the possible utility of the medical treatment which they had witnessed. And to be able to pronounce decisive judgment on these points, it was essential that the mere observation of a crowd of patients passing through the wild convulsions of the magnetic crisis should be supplemented by experiments and observations on individual cases, with a view of disentangling the complicated relations of cause and effect. This M. de Jussieu, so far as circumstances would permit, had endeavoured to do. And one of the observations which he records is of considerable interest. He had seen on several occasions a young man pass through the crisis, then become silent, and walk up and down the hall, touching and magnetising the other patients. When he returned to his normal state he remembered nothing of what had passed, and no longer knew how to magnetise.(7) In this incidental observation - not the less valuable because the observer altogether failed to realise its significance - we have the first indication of the somnambulic trance, the master fact alike in the Animal Magnetism of the first half of last century and in the Hypnotism of to-day.

(6) "Rapport de l'un des Commissaires charges par le Roi de l'examen du Magnetisme Anima"l. Paris, 1784.
(7) Rapport, p. 15


But the experiences which most interested M. de Jussieu were those which seemed to indicate action at a distance, independently of the patient's imagination. On several occasions he states that he succeeded in provoking or directing the course of the crisis by merely pointing his finger or an iron rod towards the patients without their knowledge, ie. behind the back; or in the case of a blind patient, towards the epigastrium at a distance of six feet. M. de Jussieu appears to have been a careful and critical observer, and to have been on his guard against obvious sources of error in the experiments; but the conditions under which they were made, generally in the large hall in the midst of a crowd of patients and medical men, were clearly not such as to admit of accurate observation. Such as they were, however, he thinks himself justified in deducing from them the possible existence of a fluid or agent which can exercise a sensible influence on the human body at a distance. This fluid he provisionally identifies with Animal Heat. But the Animal Heat of which he speaks is not the radiant energy with which we are familiar, the result of chemical action, and capable of affecting the mercury in a thermometer. It is the principle of life itself, the special vital modification of the universal energy, which in its material manifestation he identifies with electricity. De Jussieu points out that "Animal Heat" conforms to the same laws as electricity, it constantly seeks equilibrium, it radiates preferably from points (the finger or the baguette), it produces a feeling of heat in the recipient and of cold in the giver, it surrounds the body as with an atmosphere; and the existence of this atmosphere particuliere can be occasionally demonstrated to the senses. But, unlike the material energy, the operations of this vital force are directed and intensified by the human will.

In short, de Jussieu's theory of Animal Heat is almost as far-reaching as Mesmer's theory of a universal magnetic fluid. He does not, indeed, make the planets the pivot of his speculations, but he cannot bring himself to leave them out. The really important modification of the theory which de Jussieu introduces is the presentation of the distinctively human element in the case, which he supposed to depend on the will of the operator, but which modern science, more justly perhaps, attributes to the imagination of the patient. It is probable, indeed, that Mesmer himself believed the human will to be the active agency in directing and concentrating his universal fluid; and that, as expressly stated by Puysegur, the secret upon which he put so high a price was precisely this recognition of the part played by the will. But it was by his published pronouncements that he elected to be judged, and in these we find no hint of anything beyond an indifferent mechanical or vital agency. Later magnetists, however, followed de Jussieu, and this theory of a specific organic emanation, controlled and directed by the will of the operator, dominated all speculations on the subject throughout Europe for more than two generations, persisting even after Bertrand had formulated the modern doctrine of Suggestion.

Of the significance, as indicating action at a distance, of the facts observed by de Jussieu we shall have occasion to speak hereafter. It is enough to point out here that on these and similar seemings (if I may so translate the exotic "phenomena") depends not merely the theory of a magnetic or mesmeric fluid, but, in great measure, the whole movement of Modern Spiritualism.

Such were the reports of 1784. It will hardly be thought that the Commissioners failed conspicuously in the discharge of their trust. The spectacle of the hysterical mob of fashionable men and women at the height of the "crisis" round the magnetic tub - enfer a convulsions, as someone called it - must have seemed as futile to science as it was repulsive to common sense. It must be remembered, however, that barbarous though the treatment seemed, it was not altogether ill-suited to the medical ideas of the time: even the magnetic crisis might have seemed a merciful alternative to the lancet and the moxa. Indeed, the very violence of the treatment no doubt recommended it to the patients, for the more excessive the remedy the greater seemed its probable efficacy. Puysegur, for instance, expressed doubts whether one of his patients was really cured, because he had "not yet experienced the painful crises which, I believe, are necessary to cure so grave a malady."(8)

(8) "Memoires pour servir", etc., vol. i. p. 45.

But whilst it must be admitted that the spectacle offered at first sight little material for scientific investigation - less, probably, than the cures of modern faith-healing - it is still matter for regret that the Commissioners held it no part of their duty to inquire as to the actual curative effects of the treatment. That medical science is not to be judged by results is a dangerous admission for doctors to make. It was liable to, and did in fact provoke, inconvenient retorts.(9) It might have been plausibly urged that, after all, it is the business of the physician to cure, and that if cures were effected-and it is certain that a large section of Parisian Society so believed - it might be profitable to ascertain the cause, even if it should prove to be only the imagination of the sufferer. But these reports of 1784 are remarkable chiefly for what they do not include. None of the more striking and characteristic phenomena of Hypnotism as we know it at the present day appear to have been observed at all. We hear nothing of the varied hallucinations and the muscular feats which any itinerant lecturer can now demonstrate on his subjects: there is no mention of that insensibility to pain, which was to be so bitterly disputed upwards of half a century later, and which has to-day grown to be almost a commonplace. Most singular omission of all, we have but one incidental reference to the condition of induced somnambulism - the eponymous fact of modern Hypnotism. Probably if the Commissioners had observed these things they would have passed them by, as they were passed by in this country more than fifty years afterwards, as being explicable by deliberate deception, and generally as offering no evidence which a responsible inquirer could afford to take into account; but from de Jussieu's careful analysis it seems probable that they were not observed.

(9) See, for instance, Bergasse, "Considerations sur le Magnetisme Animal", p. 21. Ce qui a fait dire A quelques hommes de mauvaise humeur, que la medecine et art de guerir sont done deux sciences qui n'ont rien de commun entr'elles."

The effect of the publication of the reports was what might have been anticipated. Whatever chance the theories of Mesmer might have had of attracting the attention of the scientific world was dissipated. The universal magnetic fluid was definitely classed with the philosopher's stone and the secret of Hermes Trismegistus; and the medical men of the day no doubt stifled whatever unprofessional inclination some of them may have felt to meddle with the new treatment. But the sufferers, aristocratic and other, who had been cured, and the great multitude who believed themselves to have been cured, naturally continued the cult of the baquet and the bent iron rods.

The close of the year 1784 saw the publication of a number of replies to the reports by partisans of the new theory, amongst whom D'Eslon himself, another doctor, Bonnefoy, and Bergasse are the most notable. In the course of the same year de Puysegur began his cures at Busancy, and circulated a privately printed account of his experiences. M. Jumelin, as we learn from Bailly's report, was also practising magnetism at the time in Paris, and arriving at the same results by a different method. Bergasse, who collaborates with a marquis and dedicates his book to a marchioness, mentions incidentally some half-dozen persons as having a reputation for the cures which they had performed, amongst them another marquis and three counts; he states also that there were societies for the pursuit and study of Animal Magnetism then established in six French provincial cities; also at Turin, Berne, Malta, and in the French West Indies.(10) Societies of Harmony were indeed springing up in various centres, of which that at Strasbourg, founded in 1785 by de Puysegur, attained to considerable repute, and published three volumes of Proceedings, from 1786 to 1789. Books and pamphlets on the subject followed each other in rapid succession until the last-named year. From that date, until the publication in 1807 of Puysegur's "Du Magnetisme Animal" inaugurated a new era, very few books on the subject appeared. France during those years had something else to think about, and the atmosphere was not favourable to Societies of Harmony.(11)

(10) Op. cit., pp. 135, 136, etc.
(11) Deleuze, Histoire Critique du Magnetisme Animal vol. i. pp. 427,428, explains the discredit into which Animal Magnetism fell during the last decade of the eighteenth and the opening years of the nineteenth century as partly due to the fact that many prominent disciples of Mesmer afterwards became patrons of Cagliostro. This may have no doubt contributed to the result. But there is hardly need to go beyond the cause assigned in the text. Probably no one in France during those years had much leisure for writing of books in any department of thought.


At the moment when the Commissioners were incurious and reluctant spectators of the hysterical antics at D'Eslon's clinique in Paris, de Puysegur, himself a pupil of Mesmer, was obtaining surprising results of quite another kind on his own estate at Busancy, near Soissons. In May, 1784, he writes enthusiastic letters to his brother and to friends at Paris, describing the use which he had made of the wonderful gift of healing which he had derived from Mesmer's teaching. His first patient was the daughter of his bailiff, whom he had cured of toothache. He soon found other patients, and to husband his own powers he magnetised a large tree in his grounds, fastened cords to it, and invited the sufferers to attach themselves. The tree proved a most efficacious baquet, and the peasants flocked in from all the country round; on one morning upwards of one hundred and thirty persons availed themselves of its healing virtues. "Every leaf," he writes, "radiates health."

One of his earliest patients was a young peasant of twenty-three, Victor by name, who was confined to his bed with inflammation of the lungs. The invalid, after being magnetised for a quarter of an hour, fell asleep in the operator's arms. In this sleep he began to talk. The somnambulic sleep, as Puysegur describes it from his observations on Victor and many other somnambules, is at this time sufficiently familiar. It is important to remark that its most characteristic feature - a feature for which Puysegur was apparently not prepared the complete oblivion on waking of all that had happened in the sleep, seems to have appeared from the outset, as we have already noted in the observations of de Jussieu.

Of other phenomena described by the early magnetists many were grouped under the general name of rapport. The magnetic subject could hear no voice but that of the operator, could feel no touch, and obey no influence but his. But his influence would be felt and obeyed when expressed not only by speech or gesture, but even by silent will - and this sometimes when the operator was in another room, with a thick wall intervening. It was this rapport, as shown by the unreceptiveness of the subject to all alien impressions, that was regarded by the writers of this date as the surest test of the true magnetic sleep.(12)

(12) See e.g. Puysegur's reply to those who inquired of him how they should recognise the magnetic state: "Rien n'est plus aise que de s'en apercevoir: il ne doit d'abord avoir d'analogie avec aucun autre que celui qui I'a magnetise, il ne doit repondre et n'obeir qu'a lui" ("Memoires Pour servir", vol. i. p. 192). It would seem that observations which were held to indicate a special relation between magnetist and subject were made very early in the practice of Animal Magnetism, though owing to the sudden break, already referred to, in the published records of these early years, information on the point is somewhat scanty. Puysegur's book, from which the above extract is taken, though not published until long after, was apparently in great part written shortly after the experiments which it recounts, ie. before the Revolution. But the question of the exact date of the origin of the belief in rapport is not of so much importance as some writers have supposed in its bearing on the reality, or rather non-reality, of the phenomena so explained. In the induced trance the observer always finds what he looks for; and the idea of a reciprocal influence between physician and patient is, as shown in the preceding chapter, at least as old as the Sympathetic System.

Further, the somnambule would diagnose his own maladies with greater skill than his physician, and would prescribe with more confidence and with happier results. And he would thus diagnose and prescribe with equal success not merely for his own ailments, but for those of other patients introduced to him by the magnetiser. He would predict also, with the most minute accuracy, the date of a future epileptic seizure, or other crisis in his malady, and the precise term of the treatment. Tardy de Montravel describes how one of his somnambules walked about the town with her eyes fast closed in the magnetic sleep, as easily as if she was wide awake; she could see, he writes, without eyes, and hear without ears. He relates further how she would tell the nature of an object by placing it to the pit of the stomach.(13)

(13) "Essai sur la Theorie du Somnambulisme Magnetique" (London, November, 1785), pp. 64, 65.

As to the explanation of these phenomena, the curative effects of magnetism, the crisis itself, the manifestations of silent willing, and of the rapport generally, seem to have been attributed by all the animal magnetists of this period to the effluence of a sensible fluid. Some somnambules could see the fluid radiating as a brilliant shaft of light from the person of the operator(14) from trees, and other living objects, an would note differences in colour and brightness according to the diverse sources. There was a magnetic effluence from the sun, and yet another, differing in glory, from the earth. Iron and glass would conduct and even augment the magnetic current, but wax or copper dispersed it, and silver reflected it back on the rod. Mesmer had already stated that the fluid was reflected by a mirror, but Tardy bettered this observation. It was not the glass of the mirror, which was already proved to act as a conductor, but the metal backing which operated in the reflection.(15)

(14) An occasional device for the frontispiece of books on the subject of animal magnetism is a gentleman in evening dress, with dotted lines proceeding from his eyes and fingers and impinging upon the person of a lady seated in an armchair.
(15) Op. cit., p. 81.

So again the fluid could be seen in passing into water and milk. The substance under such treatment would become luminous, and magnetised milk could be retained by a stomach which would at once reject all other nourishment. The tree which Puysegur had magnetised retained its virtues long after the operator had left for Strasbourg, and patients continued to resort to it and experience the crisis and the healing influence. Puysegur goes further than Tardy de Montravel, and identifies the fluid with the "dephlogisticated air" - then a new discovery - which is given out by plants under the rays of the sun, and finds in it the active principle of vegetable as well as animal life. He even extends its influence to the mineral kingdom, and points to the "revivification" of metals by phosphorus as a probable instance of its action. Puysegur's science, no doubt, was a little out of date even then, for in 1784 the new chemical conceptions of Lavoisier had captured Paris, if they had not yet reached Strasbourg and Soissons. But in the matter of animal magnetism Puysegur, I think, showed himself the better philosopher of the two. With the facts and "seemings" above described before him, it was not perhaps less reasonable for Puysegur to believe in a magnetic fluid than for Priestley to believe in phlogiston. Puysegur was not indeed man of wide learning or conspicuous ability, but he was good soldier and an honest man, and he faithfully described what he saw. Any board-school child can learn now that both he and Priestley were misled by a false theory; but even Lavoisier might have added to his laurels by studying the one set of phenomena with the same clear vision which he turned upon the other. The generations which succeeded were the poorer for the lost opportunity.

Yet another theory of the physical forces at work in the induced trance was advanced by a medical man who rejected the term "Animal Magnetism" altogether, and whose observations incidentally furnish perhaps the best evidence to be found in the literature of the period for some new mode of transmission of ideas and sensations. J. H. Desire Petetin, a doctor at Lyons, was perpetual president of the medical society of that city, and had held several public appointments from the Government. He published in 1808 "Electricite Animale", describing observations which he had made for many years past on several cases of spontaneous catalepsy. The disease is, of course, sufficiently rare, and it is, as Bertrand subsequently pointed out, a little remarkable that a single provincial practitioner should have come across no less than eight cases in one district But the phenomena which Petetin's subjects presented were more remarkable still. In the cataleptic state the patient generally remains motionless, and gives often hardly any sign of life at all, pulse and respiration being alike almost imperceptible. Petetin found that his patients, though they would show no signs of intelligence if questions were directed in the usual way to their ears, would answer either by voice or gesture if the speaker addressed himself to the pit of the stomach, the tips of the fingers, or sometimes even the toes. Not only so, but they would appear to taste, smell, and even see with those parts of the body, even when strict precautions were taken to exclude the intervention of the normal organs of sense. Petetin gives details of several occasions on which, due precautions being taken, his patients were able to describe medals, letters, playing cards, and other small objects placed under the bedclothes on the epigastric region, or even hidden in the pockets of the interlocutor.(16) It is not necessary to consider in detail the explanation which M. Petetin offers of these curious manifestations. It is again a purely physical one, and rests on a theory of Animal Electricity which, from our standpoint, does not differ essentially from the hypothesis of Animal Magnetism. His observations afforded him abundant proof that the phenomena depended on electrical action. Thus he found that the most convenient way to speak to the patient was for the interlocutor to place one hand on the stomach (duly covered with clothes) and to address his remarks to the finger-tips of his free hand. The human body being of course a conductor, the patient would then hear and reply. The same results would follow if the operator stood at the remote end of a chain of persons holding each other's hands, of whom the last only touched the patient. But if a stick of wax were placed in the circuit, communication at once ceased. Again, the patient would not hear music played close to her by any person not actually touching her. But if the performer were connected with the patient by a moistened thread, she would hear music even in a distant part of the house, and would respond to questions addressed to the far end of the thread.

(16) Some of the experiments are quoted in "Phantasms of the Living", vol. ii. pp. 345-7.

The experiments in "seeing" with the pit of the stomach on one occasion, Petetin tells us, so amazed and affrighted the spectators that calm was not restored until, by showing that objects wrapped up in wax or silk could not be "seen," he satisfied them that the phenomena had a natural cause, and were not due to the intervention of demons.

The spectators of these marvels were not always so easily satisfied. A religieuse, the aunt of another patient, could not understand why the physician should place the fingers of one hand on the patient's stomach and mutter to the fingers of his other hand. She accused him of sorcery; and when, to clear up the matter, he placed her rosary, unseen by the patient, where his fingers had been, and the patient described it correctly, the poor lady's suspicions became so acute that she could not be content until by direct inquiry - addressed, of course, to the same region of her niece's person - she had ascertained that the sufferer still retained her hold on the Christian verities.

Another figure of importance in the early history of Animal Magnetism is J. P. F. Deleuze, who since 1795 had held the post of Assistant Naturalist at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and in 1828 was appointed Librarian of the Museum of Natural History. He had first witnessed the magnetic treatment in 1785 at a friend's house. Thereafter he continued to practise and observe as opportunity offered; but his first published work on the subject, his "Histoire Critique du Magnetisme Animal", did not appear until 1813. Deleuze, though his scientific training and native common sense preserved him from the extravagances into which some of the earlier followers of Mesmer had fallen, was still firmly convinced of the magnetic theory. We miss, indeed, the fine cosmic flavour which distinguished the writings of Mesmer himself, and some of his immediate disciples. For him Animal Magnetism is no longer "un rapprochement de deux sciences connues, I'Astronomie et la Medecine."(17) But he is convinced of the existence of the magnetic fluid, on the word of all the somnambules whom he had consulted. Many had seen the fluid raying from the operator's fingers; some had smelt it, or perceived its effects in their own persons. Moreover, Deleuze had satisfied himself, by direct experiment, of the existence and physical properties of the fluid. It is not, he points out, apparently identical with the electric fluid, though both are probably modifications of a universal medium. It has many analogies with nerve-force. It forms an atmosphere round each of us, which does not make its presence continually felt, only because it is necessary, for any sensible effect to be produced, that it should be concentrated and directed by the will. How it is that the will directs the fluid, we know as little as how our will moves our own organism. C'est un fait primitif: we cannot go behind it.

(17) Mesmer, "Precis historique", etc., 1781, p. 2.

It is in accordance with this conception of Animal Magnetism, as a definite physical agent, that Deleuze attributes painful effects to it in some diseases. Generally speaking, it has a tonic action, and may be usefully employed when stimulating agents are indicated. But when the system is already irritated and excited, as by poisons, for example, he finds that the effect of magnetism is to increase the irritation and the suffering, and frequently to bring on convulsions. Again, in many diseases where it can be usefully employed its first effect is generally to increase the pain and accelerate the crisis.

So far, it will be seen, no theories of a transcendental nature have been advanced. If the somnambule can see without eyes and hear without ears - a fact of which Deleuze has no manner of doubt - it is, according to him, because the impressions from without are conveyed directly by the magnetic fluid, a medium of extreme tenuity, to the brain without the intervention of the external organs or even the sensory nerves.(18) The same explanation will apply to the supersensible influence of the operator on the subject, and to the subject's perception of diseases in himself or in those placed in rapport with him. Deleuze, relying indeed partly on his own observations, but mainly on those of others, has as little doubt of the reality of such supersensible phenomena as he has of their explanation by material causes.

(18) "Histoire Critique", second edition, vol. i. pp. 189, 200, etc.

Puysegur, again, expressly repudiates any attempt at a transcendental explanation. It was said in Parisian Society that his subject Madeleine could divine people's thoughts. Puysegur characterises the statement as absurd. In obeying his silent will she simply acts "as an animated magnet." His will, directing the magnetic fluid, moves her organism in the same way that his will, directing the nerve currents, acts on his own body. The effect in each case is a purely physical one.(19) Petetin, again, gently ridicules those who believe in clairvoyance at a distance;(20) and the faculty of prevision, on which some observers had laid so much stress, is, Deleuze points out, susceptible of explanation by physiological causes. The patient's previsions are concerned, for the most part, with the course of his own malady; and he could in such a case predict correctly, because in the magnetic trance he had a wider and more accurate knowledge of his own bodily processes and of their probable results.(21)

(19) "Memoires pour servir", pp. 180, 229, etc.
(20) "Electricite Animate", p. 85.
(21) As stated in the next chapter, this is probably not the true explanation of the "prediction" of fits and other crises.


But it is not easy to explain the manifestations exclusively in physical terms without exercising a rigid discrimination amongst the marvels reported. Tardy de Montravel is inclined to ascribe the clairvoyance of external objects and of the interior of the human organism, and the foreseeing of the future, to a sixth sense, which he regards as at once the source and the sum of all the other partial senses. He further identifies it with the instinct of animals, and with the nerve soul or psychic body of other writers - the intermediary between the spiritual part of man and his gross external organism.

Moreover, the manifestation afterwards so well known as "travelling clairvoyance" was not unknown at this time. Puysegur quotes(22) a letter written to him in March, 1785, from a gentleman in Nantes, in which a case of the kind is described, but not apparently at first hand, as having occurred at Nantes six months previously. The subject in this case, a young girl, followed the movements of the magnetiser, her uncle, when he left his chateau to go into the town, and was able to report to those around her correctly whom he met, and what he was saying and doing. It was not easy to find a fluidic explanation to fit such facts, if they were to be admitted at all.

(22) "Du Magnetisme Animal" pp. 225-30. Paris, 1807.

Again, as we shall see hereafter,(23) there were from the beginning of the movement mystics who claimed that the true interpretation of the trance was to be found in the spiritual world; and Deleuze himself later appears to have given a partial assent to their views.

(23) Below, chap. vi.

Source: Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism by Frank Podmore (2 vols) (London: Methuen, 1902.)

Other articles by Frank Podmore...

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