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Although curative attributes were ascribed to the magnet in ancient times, and the same belief prevailed in the Middle Ages, the noted charlatan Paracelsus (1493-1541) was the first to propound the theory of the existence of magnetic properties in the human body. During the seventeenth century several persons in Great Britain claimed the ability to cure diseases by stroking with the hand, and of these the most notable was the celebrated Irish empiric, Valentine Greatrakes (1628-1700).

It was asserted, moreover, by certain practitioners, that by magnetizing a sword it could be made to cure any wound which the sword had inflicted. And about the year 1625, Dr. Robert Fludd, an English physician of learning and repute, introduced the famous “weapon-salve,” which became immensely popular. Its ingredients consisted of moss growing on the head of a thief who had been hanged, mummy dust, human blood, suet, linseed oil, and Armenian bole, a species of clay. All these were mixed thoroughly in a mortar. The sword, after being dipped in the blood from the wound, was carefully anointed with the precious mixture, and laid by in a cool place. Then the wound was cared for according to the most approved surgical methods, with thorough cleansing and bandaging.

The successful results naturally attending this treatment were attributed by the ignobile vulgus to the wonderful ointment. There were sceptics who denied its efficacy, but the new remedy appealed to the popular imagination. However, a certain Pastor Foster issued a pamphlet entitled “A Spunge to wipe away the Weapon-Salve,” which latter the writer affirmed to be an invention of the Devil, who gave it to Paracelsus, by whom it was bequeathed to the eminent Italian physician, Giambattista della Porta, and finally was acquired by Doctor Fludd. In reply to this attack, the latter published a vigorous refutation, under the following caption: “The Squeezing of Parson Foster’s Spunge, wherein the Spunge-bearer’s immodest carriage and behaviour towards his brethren, is Detected; the Bitter Flames of his slanderous reports are, by the sharp Vinegar of Truth, Corrected and quite Extinguished, and lastly, the virtuous validity of his Spunge in wiping away the Weapon-Salve, is crushed out and clean abolished.”

In commenting on certain superstitious methods in surgery, which were in vogue in the sixteenth century, the noted chemist and physician, Andrew Libavius, a native of Halle, in Saxony, remarked that while wounds are healed by nature, pretended magical remedies may be of use by directing the natural forces to the spot, through the imagination.

Another favorite remedy, somewhat akin to the weapon-salve, was the so-called “sympathetic powder,” which was said to consist of sulphate of copper prepared with mysterious ceremonies.

According to popular report, the recipe was brought from the East by a Carmelite friar, and was introduced in England by Sir Kenelm Digby, a noted chemist and philosopher of the seventeenth century, who was also a Gentleman of the Bedchamber of Charles I. He published a volume on the healing of wounds by means of this preparation. Portions of the patient’s bloodstained apparel were immersed in a solution of the sympathetic powder, the wound meantime being cleansed and bandaged. A strictly enforced regimen also formed part of the treatment.

As may readily be inferred, this wonderful powder, like the weapon-salve, was equally efficacious, whether used at a distance from the patient, or near by.

But it has ever been true, that the positive and reiterated assertions of a charlatan will usually avail to delude not only the wonder-loving public, but even persons of intellect and distinction. The secret of the sympathetic powder became known to Dr. Theodore Turquet de Mayerne (at one time the chief physician of James I), who is said to have derived considerable profit from the sale of this once famous nostrum.

The system of therapeutics known as Mesmerism, originated by Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1733-1815), a German physician, affords a notable example of the influence of the mind upon the body through the imagination. In its essential principles, it does not materially differ from the ancient method of healing by laying-on of hands. As a young man Mesmer became interested in astrology, believing that the stars exert, according to their relative position at certain times, a direct influence upon human beings. He at first identified this supposed force with electricity, and afterwards with magnetism. Later he claimed to be endowed with a mysterious power available for the cure of various diseases. Removing to Paris in 1778, Mesmer at once began to demonstrate his theories, maintaining that he was able to exercise a therapeutic effect upon his patients, by virtue of a magnetic fluid proceeding from him, or simply by the domination of his will over that of the patient.

He asserted that the magnetic fluid is the medium of a mutual influence between the stars, the earth, and human beings. By insinuating itself into the substance of the nerves of the human body, it affects them at once, being moreover capable of communication from one body to other bodies, animate or inanimate. It perfects the action of medicines, and heals affections of the nerves. In animal magnetism nature presents a universal method of benefiting mankind. Such, at least, was the declaration of Mesmer.

With a view to influencing the imaginations of his patients, this shrewd practitioner caused his consulting apartments in Paris to be dimly lighted and surrounded by mirrors. Strains of soft music were heard, subtle odors pervaded the air, and the patients were seated around a circular oaken trough or baquet, in which were disposed a row of bottles containing so-called electrical fluid. A complicated system of wires connected the mouths of the bottles with handles, which were grasped by the patients. After the latter had waited for a while in expectant silence, Mesmer would appear, wearing a coat of lilac silk, and carrying a magician’s wand, which he manipulated in a graceful and mysterious manner. Then, discarding the wand, he passed his hands over the bodies of the patients for a considerable time, “until the magnetized person was saturated with the healing fluid.”

So great was the interest aroused by Mesmer’s methods and the many seemingly marvellous cures resulting therefrom, that the Royal Society of Paris appointed a commission, which included Benjamin Franklin, to investigate the subject. The members of this commission reported that those patients who were not aware of the fact that they were being magnetized experienced no effects from the treatment. Those who were told that they were being magnetized experienced symptoms, although the magnetizer was not near them. Imagination, apart from magnetism, produced marked effects, while magnetism, without imagination, produced nothing. The benefits resulting from Mesmer’s treatment were due, according to the commission’s report, to three factors, namely: (1) actual contact; (2) the excitement of the imagination; and (3) “the mechanical imitation which impels us to repeat that which strikes our senses.”

The ability to cure disease without the use of medicines or surgical appliances has been claimed by alleged healers in all ages. When such cures were effected, they were attributed to a special gift with which the healer was divinely endowed, and this gift was bestowed, in rare instances, upon individuals who were distinguished by especial sanctity. Mesmer did not claim this quality, and yet he performed cures which were as notable as those of any saint or inspired healer of earlier times. He believed that through animal magnetism a direct physical effect was exerted upon the human body. And this effect he held to be due to the virtues of a subtle fluid.

Frank Podmore, in “Mesmerism and Christian Science” (1909), expresses the belief that Mesmer obtained many of his ideas from his contemporary, Gassner. For even if he did not actually meet the latter, Mesmer must have known him by reputation and doubtless was familiar with his methods of healing. Gassner was a believer in the demoniac theory of disease, and sought to expel the evil spirit by chasing it from one part of the body to another, finally driving it out by word of command, from the fingers or toes. Similar procedures were characteristic of Mesmer’s earlier methods, but were not retained by his successors.

One of Mesmer’s most prominent followers was Armand Marc Jacques de Chastenet, Marquis de Puysegur, born of noble ancestry at Paris, March 1, 1751. He entered early upon a military career, and attained by successive promotions the rank of colonel in the Royal Artillery in 1778. Serving with distinction at the siege of Gibraltar during the Spanish campaign, he was appointed field-marshal in 1789, and lieutenant-general in 1814. Meanwhile he had become greatly interested in the subject of animal magnetism, having been at one time a pupil of Mesmer, whom he had assisted at the latter’s séances. Retiring to his chateau at Buzancy, Department of Aisne, in northern France, he devoted himself to the study of the phenomena of mesmerism, and to practical experimentation of its therapeutic value in the open air, beneath the dense foliage of the forests, after the style of the ancient Druids. Puysegur introduced new methods of magnetizing, and demonstrated that many of the resultant phenomena could be made to appear by gentle manipulation, and without the mysterious appliances and violent procedures of Mesmer. Mindful of the latter’s assertion that wood could be magnetized, he decided to experiment upon a large elm tree which grew upon the village green. As a result, streams of magnetic fluids were alleged to pass from its branches by means of cords twisted around the bodies of patients, who sat in a circle about the tree, with thumbs interlocked, in order to afford a direct passage for the healing influence.

In his work entitled “Mémoires pour servir a l’histoire et a l’etablissement du Magnétisme Animal” (London, 1786), Puysegur affirmed his belief in the ancient doctrine of the existence of a universal fluid, vivifying all nature, and always in motion. This doctrine he maintained to be an ancient truth, the rejection whereof was due to ignorance. He continued his researches and practice until his death at Buzancy, August 1, 1825.

The magnetic fluid, according to some authorities, may be reflected like light or propagated like sound, and increased, opposed, accumulated, and transmitted to another object. Moreover this principle, which is akin to a sixth sense, artificially acquired, may be employed for the cure of nervous affections, by provoking and directing salutary crises, thus bringing the healing art to perfection.

Mesmerism clearly appears to be no more than an antecedent of hypnotism; few, if any, of the distinctive features of the modern science appearing in an appreciated form in its practices. Mesmer had little experience and no appreciation of the hypnotic state, or of the phenomena of suggestion; he constantly elaborated his physical manipulations, denied the imagination any place in his effects, and regarded the crisis as the distinctive and essential factor in his cures; and when confronted with subjects in hypnotic state, pronounced the production of this state as foolish and regarded it as a subordinate phase of the magnetic crisis.

Thomson Jay Hudson, in his volume, “The Law of Mental Medicine,” affirms that the therapeutic successes of the ancient method of laying-on of hands, the King’s touch, metallic tractors, and mesmerism are fully explained by the doctrine of suggestion, the mental energy of the healer being transmitted as a therapeutic impulse from his subjective mind through the medium of the nerves to the affected cells of the patient’s body, connection being established by so-called cellular rapport, that is, “by bringing into physical contact the nerve-terminals of the two personalities.”

The distinguished psychologist, James Braid, said that whoever supposes that the power of imagination is merely a mental emotion, which may vary to any extent, without corresponding changes in the physical functions, labors under a mighty mistake. Suggestions by others of the ideas of health, vigor, and hope, are influential with many people for restoring health and energy both of mind and body. Having then such an effective power to work with, the great desideratum has been to find the best means for regulating and controlling it, so as to render it subservient to our will for relieving and curing diseases. The modes devised, both by mesmerists and hypnotists, for these ends, are a real, solid, and important addition to practical therapeutics.

The importance of suggestive healing methods can hardly be overestimated, and has been emphasized by many writers. Notable among recent publications on the subject are Dr. T. J. Hudson’s work, entitled “The Law of Psychic Phenomena,” and Dr. A. T. Schofield’s “Unconscious Mind.” Dr. Pierre Janet, in one of his Lowell Institute lectures, in Boston, November 3, 1906, remarked that

Before the time of Mesmer the sleep produced by magnetizers was really the cause of numberless cures. Hypnotism, which has replaced it little by little since 1840, and has been more rapidly developed since 1878, differs from its ancestor more in the interpretation of the phenomena than in the practices themselves. It has naturally had the same therapeutic applications, and its methods are probably legitimate. Hypnotic sleep has had many helpful influences. It is really a change in the equilibrium of the brain and mental faculties and produces great modifications in the memory and in sensibility. Life is indeed a long series of habits to which we are accustomed; hypnotism changes these habits which in a normal condition we do not try to modify, and on awakening, all memory of the change is gone, although its effects may remain.

Now oftentimes the nervous system becomes fixed in certain disagreeable or dangerous habits, and the upsetting of these, the uplifting of the mind from the rut, is of great service. In the sleep of hypnotism speech, action, methods of thought, all are changed, there is a cerebral rest, and beneficial results often follow.

From the period following Braid’s contributions up to the foundation of modern hypnotism, . . . the history of the subject may be briefly told. The field is occupied largely by propagandists of one or another of the extravagant forms of animal magnetism . . . by traveling mesmerists, by sensationally advertised subjects, and by a small and unorganized number of scientific men, attempting to stem the tide of mysticism and error with which the others were deluging the public. The recognition of hypnotism as an altered physiological and psychological condition, after repeated demonstrations, at last gained the day, securing for the phenomena a place in the accepted body of scientific doctrines.

Professor Bernheim says that the hypnotic condition and the phenomena associated therewith are purely subjective, and originate in the nervous system of the patient.

The fixation of a brilliant object, so that the muscle which holds up the upper eyelid becomes fatigued, and the concentration of the attention on a single idea, bring about the sleep. The subjects can even bring about this condition in themselves, by their own tension of mind, without being submitted to any influence from without. In this state the imagination becomes so lively that every idea spontaneously developed or suggested, by a person to whom the subject gives this peculiar attention and confidence, has the value of an actual representation to him.

It has been well said that if Mesmer’s methods served only to demonstrate the curative power of the imagination, they have been of some benefit to humanity.

The consideration of hypnotic cures does not appertain to our theme. Far from these being primitive methods, they represent what is most modern and advanced in psycho-therapeutics.