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'Under The Influence': Mesmerism in England

A rage for Mesmerism gripped society in London at the end of the 18th century, as it had in Paris and Vienna. But it was to be short-lived. The excesses of its devotees soon discredited the 'science' in the eyes of the public and it eventually became a vehicle for unbalanced fringes of society.

Franz Anton Mesmer
Franz Anton Mesmer

In 1785, Mesmerism first came to England. We know about Mesmerism today largely as the forerunner of later movements – hypnotism, which became important in Victorian medicine, spiritualism, and not least, psycho-analysis, since in his early practice Freud used Mesmerism as his therapeutic medium. But who exactly was Mesmer, and what impact did his ideas have when they first came to England?

Mesmer's own career is fairly well known. Born in 1734 by Lake Constanz in Swabia, Mesmer studied medicine in Vienna, and in his MD dissertation laid the foundations for his lifework by investigating the rhythms of the human body in health and sickness. Drawing heavily on Newtonian universal gravitation, Mesmer argued that ill-health was governed by planetary influence. Proceeding into medical practice, Mesmer found he was beset by the difficulties of treating nervous complaints. In 1773, however, he stumbled upon a cure for a chronic hysterical patient, Fraulein Osterlin, by getting her to swallow iron medicines and then attaching magnets to her body. She experienced exhilarating streams of fluids through her system, which Mesmer interpreted as the 'artificial tides' of magnetism. She was restored to health.

Mesmer initially attributed her cure to the magnets; but he soon discovered he could produce identical reactions and relief without using magnets at all, but merely by stroking with a finger. The true healing agent, therefore, was not metallic magnetism at all, but a distinct natural force, which he termed 'animal magnetism'. Mesmer viewed it as a superfine fluid permeating the universe, circulating between celestial and human bodies, and he became convinced that its free flow through the body produced health, whereas disease was the state of its obstruction or imbalance. The physician who grasped this fundamental truth, that, despite the mystifications of academic physic, there was just one illness, and one healing, could then act as a medium for animal magnetism, and stimulate healing crises.

Mesmer gradually perfected schemes of therapy, making use of baquets, or storage tubs, in which animal magnetism could be concentrated, and convincing himself that not even touching was vital for healing; the fluid could exercise its influence at a distance as well. But, meantime, opposition to his unorthodox theories pressured him to quit Vienna in 1778 and, after a period of travels, he settled in Paris.

Mesmer had enjoyed good society in Vienna (he was friendly with Haydn and Mozart), and he readily established a place in top circles in Paris as well. He enjoyed the limelight for five years, putting even the balloon craze in the shade, and the beau monde flocked to his seances for cures and titillation. Society spoke of a Mesmeric 'epidemic' or 'frenzy', and the 1780s produced close on two hundred Mesmeric publications in France. Mesmer won the allegiance of fashionable doctors such as Charles D'Eslon, physician to the Comte D'Artois, and exclusive Societies of Harmony, resembling masonic lodges, were set up in which subscribers were inducted into the arcana of Mesmerism under oath of secrecy and for hefty fees.

Yet what Mesmer craved was not money but recognition. He wanted the scientific establishment to confirm that his imponderable fluid, animal magnetism, was indeed a towering discovery. But this accolade was denied him. Public concern over the Mesmeric craze led Lous XVI to set up a Commission of Inquiry in 1784, comprising top scientists and physicians. After a controlled series of blind experiments, the Commission acknowledged that the effects claimed by Mesmer – convulsions, trances, etc – where indeed real, and that some cures had been performed. But it denied that there was evidence to support the reality of the animal magnetic fluid. The probable cause was mere imagination and suggestibility.

This scepticism towards the scientific status of the magnetic other came as a crushing blow to Mesmer. For at heart Mesmer was an orthodox somatic physician who regarded animal magnetism as a material force equivalent to light, heat, or fire within the Newtonian laws of nature. A man of the Enlightenment, he denied that animal magnetism had any affinities to the primitive thought-worlds of astrology, occultism or mysticism and distinguished his cures from the religious exorcisms performed by his compatriot, Father Gassner. Today, Mesmer is often regarded as a founding father of dynamic psychiatry, a precursor of Freud, uncovering the secret powers of the psyche and anticipating the unconscious; but Mesmer would have repudiated the parentage. For him, animal magnetism was a physical medium, working by natural laws, not by charisma and psychic suggestion.

Disappointed and broken, Mesmer left Paris, wandered Europe, and returned to the scenes of his childhood for the last thirty years of his life, surviving forgotten until 1815. In his absence, there sprang up Mesmerism without Mesmer. In France, one of his proteges, the Marquis de Puységur, developed the therapeutic art of 'artificial somnambulism', or what James Braid was later to style hypnotism; while the French Revolution begot 'political Mesmerists', who hoped the waves of animal magnetism would radiate a politics of peace, liberty and health. Within Germany in the Romantic period, Mesmeric doctrines became idealised into transcendentalism, while in America Mesmerism provided the core for Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science.

Yet what of England? Mesmerism was certainly all the rage in early Victorian times. Though only a few physicians, notably John Elliotson, professor at University College, London, became converts, men of letters like Dickens and Browning fell under the influence. No mere fad or parlour game, Mesmerism promised to satisfy that passionate, ultimate quest of earnest Victorians to prove the reality of the soul and the power of mind over matter.

But what was there before Victoria? The infant steps of English Mesmerism have hardly been traced, so here I shall chiefly lay out the narrative. This will indicate what a chequered early history Mesmerism actually had in this country, never enjoying the eclat it commanded in Vienna or Paris. I shall then suggest some reasons for this mixed reception.

Animal magnetism first came to England in 1785 as part of the diaspora following the French Commission's 'thumbs-down' on Mesmer. Its first and best mouthpiece was John Benoit De Mainauduc. This shadowy figure was apparently an Irish linendraper's son, who had studied medicine in London under William Hunter and George Fordyce and then from 1782 sat at the feet of Mesmer and D'Eslon in Paris. In 1785 De Mainauduc published two works: Veritas, which vindicated animal magnetism against the calumnies of the Commission, listing scores of D'Eslon's cures; and Proposals to the ladies, for establishing an Hygiaean Society. This promised a lecture course to subscribers at fifteen guineas a head, though De Mainauduc proved so successful that he subsequently raised his fee to twenty-five guineas, or fifty guineas for life subscribers. De Mainauduc claimed to be no mere slavish disciple, yet on the key issue he remained a true blue Mesmerist, promising to cure 'without the influence of ... imagination'. De Mainaudur's later career is shrouded in mystery. In 1788 he gave a course of lectures in Bristol, and in 1798 there was published the first and only volume out of a projected three volume set of lectures.

Other Mesmeric lecturers and healers sprang up. Philip de Loutherbourg, artist and theatrical scene-painter, conducted Mesmeric seances with his wife at Hammersmith, combining it with Christian faith healing. In London, John Holloway offered instruction at five guineas a course, and made himself a small fortune. And a Dr John Bell, who had studied in Paris with Mesmer, performed in London and on the provincial circuit, combining healing with party-piece hypnotising tricks. Others were involved too – a Mr Cue, a Mr Parker, a Dr Yeldal (an American) – whom oblivion has overtaken. The only medical figure of note who came over to Mesmerism was the astrologer, freemason and sex-therapist, Dr Ebenezer Sibly, who endorsed animal magnetism in his Key to the occult sciences (1790).

So was there a rage for Mesmerism in England? One may take or leave the brag of the Mesmerist publicist Mrs Mary Pratt that three thousand supplicants crowded the Loutherbourgs' healing sessions; yet crusty traditionalist were perturbed at how the fad took hold. Hannah More lamented to Horace Walpole in 1788, 'I give you leave to be as severe as you please on the demoniacal mummery which has been acting in this country.... Mesmer has got a hundred thousand pounds by animal magnetism in France.... Mainduc [sic] is getting as much in London'. And indeed, De Mainaudur seems to have secured himself over the years a subscription list which included (it was claimed):

1 Duke, 1 Duchess, 1 Marchioness, 2 Countesses, 1 Earl, 1 Lord, 3 Ladies, 1 Bishop, 5 Right Honourable Gentlemen and Ladies, 2 Baronets, 7 Members of Parliament, 1 Clergyman, 2 Physicians, 7 Surgeons, exclusive of 92 Gentlemen and Ladies of respectibility, in the whole 127.

Of course, it would have been peculiar if Mesmerism had failed to catch on. All the conditions were perfect. English fashionable society certainly boasted as many hypochondriacs and malades imaginaires as Vienna or Paris. Scientifically speaking, the pump had been primed by the insatiable fascination from mid-century for electrical display and medical electricity. And medical showmanship was a sure-fire metropolitain crowd-puller, as the success of James Graham has proved. Furthermore, in free-speech London, unlike Paris, no official proceedings were ever taken, either by Parliament or by the College of Physicians, to outlaw Mesmeric activities.

Yet all the signs are that, compared with contemporary Paris, or with the early Victorian craze, the first course of English Mesmerism proved half-baked. Measured against Mesmer, D'Eslon and Puységur, the English Mesmerists were pale shadows lacking charisma. They also failed to put down roots. Mesmer had his sumptuous healing clinic at Creteil; James Graham puffed his phantasmagoric Temple of Health in the chic Adelphi just of the Strand, where the star attraction had been the sexually rejuvenating Celestial Bed; Benjamin Perkins, of Perkins' Metallic Tractors fame, was soon to found the Perkinian Institute in London. But the London Mesmerists failed to establish a headquarters, or even a group identity, all working, it seems, solo. And overall the first phase of English animal magnetism remained relatively small scale. By contrast to the two hundred or so Mesmerist publications cascading onto the French market before the Revolution, in England the total would run to some twenty. And by the early nineteenth century, the art seems to have become practically extinct. The Encyclopaedia Londiniensis could crow in 1812, 'It is now quite exploded in England'.

What went wrong? To some degree the devotees discredited themselves. The English Mesmerists fell into squabbles and back-biting. As one critic jibed, making play of Mesmerism's claims to create harmony:

Magnetists are by no means harmonious. Mr Holloway asserts, that the crisis which Mr Cue produces is both hysterical and dangerous. Mr Cue retorts that Mr Holloway is a mercenary man, and speaks, and acts, from venal motives. Others say, that since Mr Cue has had more success than Mr Holloway in producing convulsions, the latter has warned his pupils against attempting to produce the common crisis.

The insinuation of mercenariness was a palpable hit, for the high fees drew adverse comment. Personal disappointment amongst would-be adepts who found Mesmeric treatments simply didn't work, may also have contributed. Partly fearing for the state of his own health, George Winter attended De Mainauduc's lectures in Bristol in 1788 (at a cost of no less than thirty guineas!). In a subsequent book, Animal Magnetism, he explained its scientific principles, but then concluded with the devastating verdict:

These are the principles of Dr De Mainauduc's lectures; however plausible they may appear, I have not been able to succeed in my expectations. I have kept a register of upwards of one hundred cures, which I could not affect by animal magnetism, but were performed by medicines.

Nor did the Mesmerists recieve a good press. In fact their doctrines were punctured by a handful of pointed pamphlets, including the Baptist minister John Martin's Animal Magnetism Examined (1790), and the surgeon John Pearson's A Plain and rational account of the nature and effects of animal magnetism (1790). This cool reception presumably both reflected, but also magnified public scepticism. The critics show a predictable 'gut' hostility, taking general swipes agains quackery, greed and pretentious speculations. But there were more serious currents of criticism too.

Critics were quick to affirm how Mesmerism had been exploded by the Paris Commission of 1784, headed by such scientific luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and the chemist Lavoisier. The heart of the matter was the Commission's denial that the phenomena had any demonstrable basis in laws or forces known to science. The experimental trials showed the power of Mesmerism was thus all suggestion, was all in the mind. As John Hunter reported, after witnessing a Mesmeric demonstration in England, 'everything was calculated to affect the imagination'.

Attributing Mesmerism to the imagination was in effect a refutation, almost an exposure of fraud or false pretences. For the critical minds of the Enlightenment, attuned to scepticism towards Catholic miracles and vulgar marvels, believed that phenomena lacking a cast-iron physical basis in natural law could gain hold of people's minds in one of three ways. Either they were believed as part of 'magic', an intellectual throwback to the exploded thought-systems of the Middle Ages. Or they amounted to 'madness' - hallucinations due to what Locke had called false associations of ideas (and critics often called the Mesmerists mad). Or they were a cheat, a work of 'conjuring'. What is animal magnetism? asked George Winter, and replied that it was nothing but a 'juggle'; search for the entry on Mesmerism in Encyclopaedia Londiniensis, and you find yourself referred to the article: JUGGLING.

Thus, if the animal magnetic fluid had no proof, Mesmerism's intellectual foundations collapsed, and it lost intellectual credibility to the Enlightenment mind as a healing practice.

But critics dismissed Mesmerism not just as unscientific but also as dangerous. Its power to captivate the imagination seemed a special threat, and many warned of the concentration of power in the adept's hands. As Martin put it:

If the Magnetist knows how to read, and how to express the copious language of the eye; if he knows how to trace the first visible effects of the stirring and depressing passions...his anxious concern for his patient and seeming confidence of success, may be sufficient to produce strange things.

Christians such as Martin saw dangers in Mesmeric powers akin to dabbling in diabolism. Moreover, the parallels between Mesmerism and forms of heresy such as Methodism troubled many, alarmed at the enthusiastic convulsions and ecstatic trances both movements induced.

And comparison with the super-charged passions of the Methodist conversion experience triggered yet another fear, the idea that Mesmerism invited sexual debauch. The ground, of course, had been well-prepared for this anxiety. Other fringe healers such as Sibly and Graham had already made a speciality out of sex therapy. De Mainauduc was a man-midwife, a trade notoriously suspect of sexual exploitation, and he had conspicuously addressed his initial proposals 'to the ladies'. Little wonder then that critics grew apoplectic about mesmeric 'suggestion', hinting at the slippery slope from 'touching' to 'touching up', and the ambivalence of the Mesmeric art of 'making passes'. The anonymous author of A letter to a physician in the country on animal magnetism thus reported of his experiences (real or fictitious) of being healed at the hands of the Mesmeric doctor's assistant, a 'singularly gifted damsel', who:

Supported herself by leaning on me one hand, while she employed the other in feeling, and wandering lightly, with no unpleasant friction, over the region of the thorax; occasionally straying down the sternum, towards the ensiform-cartilage, and short ribs; and at times insensibly creeping along the abdomen, in a direction to the os-pubis; which, as my sensations of every kind are naturally rather acute, produced nearly the complicated, and semipainful effect of tickling; not willing, to interrupt her interesting researches, I bore her tantalizing touches with determined resignation.

He could, he concluded, hardly resist the 'meltings', 'intuitive vibrations', 'fatal fascinations', and 'ecstatic deliriums' of the 'crisis'.

If Mesmeric suggestion threatened a mayhem of religious enthusiasm and sexual debauch, it menaced a yet greater danger: political subversion. The Georgians were, of course, terrified that ministries, through money, machination and corruption, would subvert the constitution and set up tyranny, and they recommended checks, balances and endless vigilance against this fate. But what if ministers turned Mesmerists? John Pearson surveyed the horrifying possibilities:

If the minister fears opposition in some favourite motion from a turbulant orator, he may by the eloquance of his fingers, consign the troublesome member to sleep; or if the gentlemen be already on his legs, thundering out invectives against mal-administration, he may find this Demosthenes other employment, by throwing him into a crisis.

Pearson knew the threat: 'You may say that this Power may prove a dangerous engine in the hands of a corrupt administration'. But luckily remedy was to hand:

But remember, Sir, the Patriots may avail themselves of the same weapon, so that on a day of public business, St Stephens, would exhibit a motley scene of members sound asleep or rolling in convulsions. This would form a new era in the history of ministerial influence.

Pearson's prophetic nightmare came true, though not quite as he envisaged it. Yet fears about the subversive potential of Mesmerism go a long way towards explaining why English Mesmerism waned so drastically after about 1790, just as the French Revolution was causing natives to mind what ideas they - and other people - held. From the reactionary Right, Robert Southey was later to suggest that hot-heads got sucked away from Mesmerism into fratricidal politicsm, which 'took off the attention of all the wilder and busier spirits'. But what really counted was not so much the way Mesmerism lost its friends, but how it gained its foes.

For as hostility grew to the French Revolution, an immense Burkean antipathy welled up against speculation. Mesmerism was evidently a sitting target, hailing from France, being emotionally inflammatory and, not least privileging they perilous powers of psychic influence and suggestion. Thus in England Mesmerism became a prime target in the politics of panic. I shall offer one instance of this, a grotesque microcosm of the age. It concerns James Tilly Matthews.

Matthews was a London tea merchant, who, like Wordsworth, exhilarated by the new dawn of the revolutionary era, was lured to Paris in 1783 where he picked up a knowledge of Mesmerism. Deploring the outbreak of war between England and France, he got it into his head to undertake a peace mission, possibly on the basis of the Mesmeric doctrine of harmony. Following an audience with Lord Grenville, Matthews prepared to start negotiating with the French authorities. The Jacobin seizure of power, however, spoilt his plans. The Jacobins clearly distrusted him (he had the Dantonesque sympathies), and, in any case, they were hostile to Mesmerism, seeing it as a fashionable aristocratic decadence - indeed they were to confiscate Mesmer's own assets.

Matthews found himself coming under suspicion. As he put it in a later letter to Lord Grenville, 'I became equally the object of intrigue...letters were fabricated...discovering plots centred in me'. Luckily for him, as he put it, 'it happens that I am not afraid soon by a whole Jacobin army!' Nevertheless, the Jacobins had him clapped in jail in 1793. He was eventually released and made his way back to England in March 1796, convinced that it had fallen to him to be Britain's saviour. For he alone was privy to a dastardly French plot for:

Surrendering to the French every secret of the British government, as for the republicanizing Great Britain and Ireland, and particularly for disorganizing the British navy, to create such a confusion therein, as to admit the French armaments to move without danger.

The secret weapon the French would mobilize to gain this dreadful end was Mesmerism. Teams of what Matthews termed 'magnetic spies' had infiltrated into England. They were stationing themselves into strategic positions 'near the Houses of Parliament, Admiralty, Treasury, etc', armed with machines (called 'airlooms') for transmitting waves of animal magnetism. Thereby they would Mesmerise members of the administration, rendering them 'possessed', as under a 'spell', and like 'puppets', able to plant thoughts and read minds. Above all, Pitt was specially subject to their influence, for (Matthews had heard it from the conspirators):

Mr Pitt was not half able to withstand magnetic fluid in its operative effect, but became actuated like a mere puppet by the expert -magnetists employed in such villainies.

Beacuse of his earlier associations with Mesmerism, Matthews was privy to all this, and so he became number one on the conspirators' hit-list. A 'gang of seven' had been sent to wipe him out, enabled by their 'science of assailment' to deploy drastic Mesmeric torture-at-a-distance which included such atrocities as 'foot-curving, lethargy-making, spark-exploding, knee-nailing, burning out, eye-screwing, sight-stopping, roof-stringing, vital-tearing, fibre-ripping etc.' These threats to his life explained the urgency with which, on his return, Matthews sent warning letters to the administration and the Speaker of the House of Commons. In particular he wrote to Lord Liverpool reminding him of their past meeting, divulging the plots, and hinting he could do with a financial reward. Liverpool must have been silent or sceptical, for Matthews tried a follow-up letter to him on December 6th, 1796, which opened:

I pronounce your Lordship to be in every sense of the word a most diabolical Traitor. – After a long life of Political and real iniquity, during which your Lordship by flattering and deceiving, and more than anyone Contributing to deceive your King, who believing your hypochictical [sic] Protessions, has to the detriment of many of the Countries Friends loaded you with Honours, and Emoluments, you have made yourself a principal in schemes of Treason found upon the most extensive Intrigue...

Matthews revealed he had rumbled that Liverpool was actually in league with revolutionary France and the Mesmeric conspirators, and informed him that he knew 'you did actually affect the Murder of the Unfortunate Monarch', Louis XVI. Indeed, it had become clear to Matthews that the British and French government were in league to keep up the war and cause 'both nations to be assassinated' in order to 'deprive me of existence' and 'sacrifice me to popular fury'.

Having discovered Liverpool's treachery, Matthews proceeded to the gallery of the House of Commons where he accused the ministry of 'perfidious venality'. Hauled before the Privy Council and examined, he was committed to Bedlam in January 1797 (his family's protests of his sanity were overruled by Lord Kenyon). Yet what did his committal do (Matthews later argued) but corroborate his own accusation, that the government was indeed the puppet of a gang of Mesmeric assassins sent to silence him? Still further proof was that soon after his detention, it proved possible for the gangs – now untroubled by his counter-efforts – to mesmerise the British navy and to spark off the Nore Mutiny.

Confined in Bedlam and at the mercy of his persecutors, Matthews despaired of the British government, and addressed the world, Napoleon-like, in a document beginning, 'James, Absolute, Sole, Supreme, Sacred, Omni-Imperious, Arch-Grand, Arch-Sovereign ... Arch-Emperor', offering rewards to those who would assassinate his foes. But Matthews remained in Bedlam.

In 1809 his family pressed for his release, and two distinguished physicians, Drs Birkbeck and Clutterbuck, testified that he was sane. It is not clear whether they were unaware of his theories of French conspiracy, or knew about them and thought them perfectly rational. The question may not mean very much in any case, for whether or not we label Matthews 'paranoid', other men actually made their reputation by proving universal conspiracies were afoot, not least Burke and most notably the French emigre, the Abbe Barruel, who, incidentally, also like Matthews, thought Mesmerism was implicated in the revolutionary plots.

Matthews' fear of the use and abuse of Mesmerism was no singular paranoid delusion but a common perception of danger. The irony of his case is this; his voicings of these fears led to his being locked up as a lunatic for his pains – a neat demonstration that in the political use or abuse of psychiatry, it was not only the radical left who found themselves in jeopardy.

Yet it remains a nice irony that Mesmerism proved the medium through which people saw themselves as being persecuted: no longer by demons or Satan, but by that very instrument which is allegedly the forerunner of the psycho-analysis of Freud and Jung. Of course, Matthews' mind-raping 'gang of seven' (pumping him full of Mesmerism, which was just imagination) was all just 'in the mind'. Yet fears such as Matthews' may well have been influential in bringing the first phase of Mesmerism in England to its premature conclusion.

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