Even though in ancient times curative attributes were attributed to the magnet, and the same belief prevailed in the Middle Ages, the noted charlatan Paracelsus (1493-1541) was the first to advocate the theory of the existence of magnetic properties in the human body. Several people in Great Britain claimed the ability to cure diseases by stroking with their hands during the seventeenth century, and the most notable of these was the famous Irish empiric, Valentine Greatrakes (1628-1700).
Some practitioners also claimed that by magnetizing a sword it could be made to heal any wound inflicted by the sword. And about 1625, the famous “weapon-salve” was introduced by Dr. Robert Fludd, an English physician of learning and reputation, who became immensely popular. Its ingredients were moss growing on a hanged thief’s head, mummy dust, human blood, suet, linseed oil, and clay species, Armenian bole. All these in mortar were thoroughly mixed. The sword was carefully anointed with the precious mixture after being dipped from the wound into the blood, and laid in a cool place. Then the wound was treated with thorough cleaning and bandaging according to the most approved surgical methods.
The therapeutic system known as Mesmerism, originated by a German physician, Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1733-1815), provides a notable example of mental influence through imagination on the body. It does not differ materially from the ancient method of healing by laying hands in its essential principles. As a young man, Mesmer became interested in astrology, believing that at certain times the stars exert a direct influence on human beings according to their relative position. At first, he identified with electricity this supposed force, and then with magnetism.
He later claimed to have a mysterious power at his disposal to cure various diseases. Removing to Paris in 1778, Mesmer immediately began to demonstrate his theories, claiming that he was able to exert a therapeutic effect on his patients, either by virtue of a magnetic fluid coming from him or simply by dominating his will over that of the patient. He claimed that the magnetic fluid was the medium of reciprocal influence between stars, earth, and humans. By insinuating itself into the substance of the human body’s nerves, it affects them at once, also being able to communicate, animate or inanimate, from one body to another. It perfects the action of medicines and cures nerve affections. In animals, nature’s magnetism presents a universal way to benefit humanity. That, at least, was Mesmer’s statement.
In order to influence his patients’ imaginations, this shrewd practitioner made his Paris consulting apartments dimly lighted and surrounded by mirrors. Soft music strains were heard, subtle odors pervaded the air, and patients sat around a circular oaken trough or tub in which a row of bottles with so-called electrical fluid were disposed.
A complicated wiring system connected the bottle mouths with handles that the patients grasped. After the latter had waited in expectant silence for a while, Mesmer would appear, wearing a lilac silk coat and carrying the wand of a magician, which he gracefully and mysteriously manipulated. Then, dismissing the wand, he passed his hands over the patient’s bodies for a considerable time, “until the magnetized person was saturated with the healing fluid.” So great was the interest in Mesmer’s methods and the many seemingly wonderful cures that resulted from it that the Royal Society of Paris appointed a commission to investigate that included Benjamin Franklin.
The members of this commission reported that there were no effects from the treatment on those patients who were not aware of the fact that they were being magnetized. Those who were told they were being magnetized experienced symptoms, although they were not close to the magnetizer. In addition to magnetism, imagination produced marked effects, while magnetism produced nothing without imagination. According to the commission’s report, the benefits resulting from Mesmer’s treatment were due to three factors: (1) actual contact; (2) the excitement of the imagination; and (3) ‘the mechanical imitation that forces us to repeat what strikes our senses.’ Alleged healers at all ages claimed the ability to cure disease without the use of medicines or surgical devices.
When such cures were made, they were attributed to a special gift with which the healer was divinely endowed, and in rare instances, this gift was given to individuals who were distinguished by special sanctity. Mesmer did not claim this quality, yet he made cures that were as remarkable as those of any earlier saint or inspired healer. He believed that a direct physical effect was exercised on the human body through animal magnetism. And this effect he held to be due to the virtues of a subtle fluid that could affect the human body.
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