Charles MacKay:
Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds

Vol. III - Fortune Telling and Magnetisers

Chapter 62 - The Magnetisers - 4

Such was the process of magnetising recommended by Deleuze. That delicate, fanciful, and nervous women, when subjected to it, should have worked themselves into convulsions will be readily believed by the sturdiest opponent of Animal Magnetism. To sit in a constrained posture -- be stared out of countenance by a fellow who enclosed her knees between his, while he made passes upon different parts of her body, was quite enough to throw any weak woman into a fit, especially if she were predisposed to hysteria, and believed in the efficacy of the treatment. It is just as evident that those of stronger minds and healthier bodies should be sent to sleep by the process. That these effects have been produced by these means there are thousands of instances to show. But are they testimony in favour of Animal Magnetism? - do they prove the existence of the magnetic fluid? Every unprejudiced person must answer in the negative. It needs neither magnetism, nor ghost from the grave, to tell us that silence, monotony, and long recumbency in one position must produce sleep, or that excitement, imitation, and a strong imagination, acting upon a weak body, will bring on convulsions. It will be seen hereafter that magnetism produces no effects but these two; that the gift of prophecy - supernatural eloquence - the transfer of the senses, and the power of seeing through opaque substances, are pure fictions, that cannot be substantiated by anything like proof.

M. Deleuze's book produced quite a sensation in France; the study was resumed with redoubled vigour. In the following year, a journal was established devoted exclusively to the science, under the title of "Annales du Magnetisme Animal;" and shortly afterwards appeared the "Bibliotheque du Magnetisme Animal," and many others. About the same time, the Abbe Faria, "the man of wonders," began to magnetise; and the belief being that he had more of the Mesmeric fluid about him, and a stronger will, than most men, he was very successful in his treatment. His experiments afford a convincing proof that imagination can operate all, and the supposed fluid none, of the resuits so confidently claimed as evidence of the new science. He placed his patients in an arm-chair; told them to shut their eyes; and then, in a loud commanding voice, pronounced the single word, "Sleep!" He used no manipulations whatever -- had no baquet, or conductor of the fluid; but he nevertheless succeeded in causing sleep in hundreds of patients. He boasted of having in his time produced five thousand somnambulists by this method. It was often necessary to repeat the command three or four times; and if the patient still remained awake, the Abbe got out of the difficulty by dismissing him from the chair, and declaring that he was incapable of being acted on. And here it should be remarked that the magnetisers do not lay claim to a universal efficacy for their fluid; the strong and the healthy cannot be magnetised; the incredulous cannot be magnetised; those who reason upon it cannot be magnetised; those who firmly believe in it can be magnetised; the weak in body can be magnetised, and the weak in mind can be magnetised. And lest, from some cause or other, individuals of the latter classes should resist the magnetic charm, the apostles of the science declare that there are times when even they cannot be acted upon; the presence of one scorner or unbeliever may weaken the potency of the fluid and destroy its efficacy. In M. Deleuze's instructions to a magnetiser, he expressly says, "Never magnetise before inquisitive persons!" ["Histoire Critique du Magnetisme Animal," p. 60.] Yet the followers of this delusion claim for it the rank of a science!

The numerous writings that appeared between the years 1813 and 1825 show how much attention was excited in France. With every succeeding year some new discovery was put forth, until at last the magnetisers seemed to be very generally agreed that there were six separate and distinct degrees of magnetisation. They have been classed as follow:-

In the first stage, the skin of the patient becomes slightly reddened; and there is a feeling of heat, comfort, and lightness all over the body; but there is no visible action on the senses.

In the second stage, the eye is gradually abstracted from the dominion of the will (or, in other words, the patient becomes sleepy). The drooping eyelids cannot be raised; the senses of hearing, smelling, feeling, and tasting are more than usually excited. In addition, a variety of nervous sensations are felt, such as spasms of the muscles and prickings of the skin, and involuntary twitchings in various parts of the body.

In the third stage, which is that of magnetic sleep, all the senses are closed to external impressions; and sometimes fainting, and cataleptic or apoplectic attacks may occur.

In the fourth stage, the patient is asleep to all the world; but he is awake within his own body, and consciousness returns. While in this state, all his senses are transferred to the skin. He is in the perfect crisis, or magnetic somnambulism; a being of soul and mind -- seeing without eyes -- hearing without ears, and deadened in body to all sense of feeling.

In the fifth stage, which is that of lucid vision, the patient can see his own internal organisation, or that of others placed in magnetic communication with him. He becomes, at the same time, possessed of the instinct of remedies. The magnetic fluid, in this stage, unites him by powerful attraction to others, and establishes between them an impenetration of thought and feeling so intense as to blend their different natures into one.

In the sixth stage, which is at the same time the rarest and the most perfect of all, the lucid vision is not obstructed by opaque matter, or subject to any barriers interposed by time or space. The magnetic fluid, which is universally spread in nature, unites the individual with all nature, and gives him cognizance of coming events by its universal lucidity.

So much was said and written between the years 1820 and 1825, and so many converts were made, that the magnetisers became clamorous for a new investigation. M. de Foissac, a young physician, wrote to the Academie Royale du Medicine a letter, calling for inquiry, in which he complained of the unfairness of the report of Messrs. Bailly and Franklin in 1784, and stating that, since that time, the science had wholly changed by the important discovery of magnetic somnambulism. He informed the Academy that he had under his care a young woman, whose powers of divination when in the somnambulic state were of the most extraordinary character. He invited the members of that body to go into any hospital, and choose persons afflicted with any diseases, acute or chronic, simple or complex, and his somnambulist, on being put en rapport, or in magnetic connexion, with them, would infallibly point out their ailings and name the remedies. She, and other somnambulists, he said, could, by merely laying the hand successively on the head, the chest, and the abdomen of a stranger, immediately discover his maladies, with, the pains and different alterations thereby occasioned. They could indicate, besides, whether the cure were possible, and, if so, whether it were easy or difficult, near or remote, and what means should be employed to attain this result by the surest and readiest way. In this examination they never departed from the sound principles of medicine. "In fact," added M. de Foissac, "I go further, and assert that their inspirations are allied to the genius which animated Hippocrates!"

In the mean time experiments were carried on in various hospitals of Paris. The epileptic patients at the Salpetriere were magnetised by permission of M. Esquirol. At the Bicetre also the same resuits were obtained. M. de Foissac busied himself with the invalids at the Hospice de la Charite, and M. Dupotet was equally successful in producing sleep or convulsions at Val de Grace. Many members of the Chamber of Deputies became converts, and M. Chardel, the Comte de Gestas, M. de Laseases, and others, opened their saloons to those who were desirous of being instructed in animal magnetism. [Dupotet's Introduction to the Study of Animal Magnetism, page 23.] Other physicians united with M. de Foissac in calling for an inquiry; and ultimately the Academy nominated a preliminary committee of five of its members, namely, Messrs Adelon, Burdin, Marc, Pariset, and Husson, to investigate the alleged facts, and to report whether the Academy, without any compromise of its dignity, could appoint a new commission.

Before this committee, M. de Foissac produced his famous somnambulist; but she failed in exhibiting any one of the phenomena her physician had so confidently predicted: she was easily thrown into the state of sleep, by long habit and the monotony of the passes and manipulations of her magnetiser; but she could not tell the diseases of persons put en rapport with her. The committee of five framed excuses for this failure, by saying, that probably the magnetic fluid was obstructed, because they were "inexperienced, distrustful, and perhaps impatient." After this, what can be said for the judgment or the impartiality of such a committee? They gave at last their opinion, that it would be advisable to appoint a new commission. On the l3th of December 1825, they presented themselves to the Academie to deliver their report. A debate ensued, which occupied three days, and in which all the most distinguished members took part. It was finally decided by a majority of ten, that the commission should be appointed, and the following physicians were chosen its members:-- They were eleven in number, viz. Bourdois de la Motte, the President; Fouquier, Gueneau de Mussy, Guersent, Husson, Itard, Marc, J. J. Leroux, Thillay, Double, and Majendie.

These gentlemen began their labours by publishing an address to all magnetisers, inviting them to come forward and exhibit in their presence the wonders of animal magnetism. M. Dupotet says that very few answered this amicable appeal, because they were afraid of being ridiculed when the report should be published. Four magnetisers, however, answered their appeal readily, and for five years were busily engaged in bringing proofs of the new science before the commission. These were M. de Foissac, M. Dupotet, M. Chapelain, and M. de Geslin. It would be but an unprofitable, and by no means a pleasant task to follow the commissioners in their erratic career, as they were led hither and thither by the four lights of magnetism above mentioned; the four "Wills-o'-the-Wisp" which dazzled the benighted and bewildered doctors on that wide and shadowy region of metaphysical inquiry -- the influence of mind over matter. It will be better to state at once the conclusion they came to after so long and laborious an investigation, and then examine whether they were warranted in it by the evidence brought before them.

The report, which is exceedingly voluminous, is classed under thirty different heads, and its general tenor is favourable to magnetism. The reporters expressly state their belief in the existence of the magnetic fluid, and sum up the result of their inquiries in the four assertions which follow:--

1. Magnetism has no effect upon persons in a sound state of health, nor upon some diseased persons.

2. In others its effects are slight.

3. These effects are sometimes produced by weariness or ennui, by monotony, and by the imagination.

4. We have seen these effects developed independently of the last causes, most probably as the effects of magnetism alone.

It will be seen that the first and second of these sentences presuppose the existence of that magnetic power, which it is the object of the inquiry to discover. The reporters begin, by saying, that magnetism exists, when after detailing their proofs, they should have ended by affirming it. For the sake of lucidity, a favourite expression of their own, let us put the propositions into a new form and new words, without altering the sense.

1. Certain effects, such as convulsions, somnambulism, &c. are producible in the human frame, by the will of others, by the will of the patient himself, or by both combined, or by some unknown means, we wish to discover, perhaps by magnetism.

2. These effects are not producible upon all bodies. They cannot be produced upon persons in a sound state of health, nor upon some diseased persons; while in other eases, the effects are very slight.

3. These effects were produced in many cases that fell under our notice, in which the persons operated on were in a weak state of health, by weariness or ennui, by monotony, and by the power of imagination.

4. But in many other eases these effects were produced, and were clearly not the result of weariness or ennui, of monotony, or of the power of the imagination. They were, therefore, produced by the magnetic processes we employed: -- ergo -- Animal Magnetism exists.

Every one, whether a believer or disbeliever in the doctrine, must see that the whole gist of the argument will be destroyed, if it be proved that the effects which the reporters claimed as resulting from a power independent of weariness, monotony, and the imagination, did, in fact, result from them, and from nothing else. The following are among the proofs brought forward to support the existence of the magnetic fluid, as producing those phenomena:--

"A child, twenty-eight months old, was magnetised by M. Foissac, at the house of M. Bourdois. The child, as well as its father, was subject to attacks of epilepsy. Almost immediately after M. Foissac had begun his manipulations and passes, the child rubbed its eyes, bent its head to one side, supported it on one of the cushions of the sofa where it was sitting, yawned, moved itself about, scratched its head and its ears, appeared to strive against the approach of sleep, and then rose, if we may be allowed the expression, grumbling. Being taken away to satisfy a necessity of nature, it was again placed on the sofa, and magnetised for a few moments. But as there appeared no decided symptoms of somnolency this time, we terminated the experiment."

And this in all seriousness and sobriety was called a proof of the existence of the magnetic fluid! That these effects were not produced by the imagination may be granted; but that they were not produced by weariness and monotony is not so clear. A child is seated upon a sofa, a solemn looking gentleman, surrounded by several others equally grave, begins to play various strange antics before it, moving his hands mysteriously, pointing at his head, all the while preserving a most provoking silence. And what does the child? It rubs its eyes, appears restless, yawns, scratches its head, grumbles, and makes an excuse to get away. Magnetism, forsooth! 'Twas a decided case of botheration!

The next proof (so called), though not so amusing, is equally decisive of the mystification of the Commissioners. A deaf and dumb lad, eighteen years of age, and subject to attacks of epilepsy, was magnetised fifteen times by M. Foissac. The phenomena exhibited during the treatment were a heaviness of the eyelids, a general numbness, a desire to sleep, and sometimes vertigo:-- the epileptic attacks were entirely suspended, and did not return till eight months afterwards. Upon this case and the first mentioned, the Committee reasoned thus:-- "These cases appear to us altogether worthy of remark. The two individuals who formed the subject of the experiment, were ignorant of what was done to them. The one, indeed, was not in a state capable of knowing it; and the other never had the slightest idea of magnetism. Both, however, were insensible of its influence; and most certainly it is impossible in either case to attribute this sensibility to the imagination." The first case has been already disposed of. With regard to the second, it is very possible to attribute all the results to imagination. It cannot be contended, that because the lad was deaf and dumb he had no understanding, that he could not see the strange manipulations of the magnetiser, and that he was unaware that his cure was the object of the experiments that were thus made upon him. Had he no fancy merely because he was dumb? and could he, for the same reason, avoid feeling a heaviness in his eyelids, a numbness, and a sleepiness, when he was forced to sit for two or three hours while M. Foissac pointed his fingers at him? As for the amelioration in his health, no argument can be adduced to prove that he was devoid of faith in the remedy; and that, having faith, he should not feel the benefit of it as well as thousands of others who have been cured by means wholly as imaginary.

The third case is brought forward with a still greater show of authority. Having magnetised the child and the dumb youth with results so extraordinary, M. Foissac next tried his hand upon a Commissioner. M. Itard was subjected to a course of manipulations; the consequences were a flow of saliva, a metallic savour in the mouth, and a severe headach. These symptoms, say the reporters, cannot be accounted for by the influence of imagination. M. Itard, it should be remarked, was a confirmed valetudinarian; and a believer, before the investigation commenced, in the truth of magnetism. He was a man, therefore, whose testimony cannot be received with implicit credence upon this subject. He may have repeated, and so may his brother Commissioners, that the results above stated were not produced by the power of the imagination. The patients of Perkins, of Valentine Greatraks, of Sir Kenelm Digby, of Father Gassner, were all equally positive: but what availed their assertions? Experience soon made it manifest, that no other power than that of imagination worked the wonders in their case. M. Itard's is not half so extraordinary; the only wonder is, that it should ever have been insisted upon.

The Commissioners having, as they thought, established beyond doubt the existence of the magnetic fluid, (and these are all their proofs,) next proceeded to investigate the more marvellous phenomena of the science; such as the transfer of the senses; the capability of seeing into one's own or other people's insides, and of divining remedies; and the power of prophecy. A few examples will suffice.

M. Petit was magnetised by M. Dupotet, who asserted that the somnambulist would be able to choose, with his eyes shut, a mesmerised coin out of twelve others. The experiment was tried, and the somnambulist chose the wrong one. [Report of the Commissioners, p. 153.]

Baptiste Chamet was also magnetised by M. Dupotet, and fell into the somnambulic state after eight minutes. As he appeared to be suffering great pain, he was asked what ailed him, when he pointed to his breast, and said he felt pain there. Being asked what part of his body that was, he said his liver. [Ibid, p. 137.]

Mademoiselle Martineau was magnetised by M. Dupotet, and it was expected that her case would prove not only the transfer of the senses, but the power of divining remedies. Her eyes having been bandaged, she was asked if she could not see all the persons present? She replied, no; but she could hear them talking. No one was speaking at the time. She said she would awake after five or ten minutes sleep. She did not awake for sixteen or seventeen minutes. She announced that on a certain day she would be able to tell exactly the nature of her complaint, and prescribe the proper remedies. On the appointed day she was asked the question, and could not answer. [Report of the Commissioners, p. 139.]

Mademoiselle Couturier, a patient of M. de Geslin, was thrown into the state of somnambulism, and M. de Geslin said she would execute his mental orders. One of the Committee then wrote on a slip of paper the words "Go and sit down on the stool in front of the piano." He handed the paper to M. de Geslin, who having conceived the words mentally, turned to his patient, and told her to do as he required of her. She rose up, went to the clock, and said it was twenty minutes past nine. She was tried nine times more, and made as many mistakes. [Idem, p. 139.]

Pierre Cazot was an epileptic patient, and was said to have the power of prophecy. Being magnetised on the 22nd of April, he said that in nine weeks he should have a fit, in three weeks afterwards go mad, abuse his wife, murder some one, and finally recover in the month of August. After which he should never have an attack again. [Idem, p. 180] In two days after uttering this prophecy, he was run over by a cabriolet and killed. [Foreign Quarterly Review, vol. xii. p. 439] A post mortem examination was made of his body, when it was ascertained beyond doubt, that even had he not met with this accident, he could never have recovered. [At the extremity of the plexus choroides was found a substance, yellow within, and white without, containing small hydatids. -- Report oltre Commissioners, p. 186.]

The inquest which had been the means of eliciting these, along with many other facts, having sat for upwards of five years, the magnetisers became anxious that the report should be received by the solemn conclave of the Academie. At length a day (the 20th of June 1831) was fixed for the reading. All the doctors of Paris thronged around the hall to learn the result; the street in front of the building was crowded with medical students; the passages were obstructed by philosophers. "So great was the sensation," says M. Dupotet, "that it might have been supposed the fate of the nation depended on the result." M. Husson, the reporter, appeared at the bar and read the report, the substance of which we have just extracted. He was heard at first with great attention, but as he proceeded signs of impatience and dissent were manifested on all sides. The unreasonable inferences of the Commissioners -- their false conclusions - their too positive assertions, were received with repeated marks of disapprobation. Some of the academicians started from their seats, and apostrophising the Commissioners, accused them of partiality or stolidity. The Commissioners replied; until, at last, the uproar became so violent that an adjournment of the sitting was moved and carried. On the following day the report was concluded. A stormy discussion immediately ensued, which certainly reflected no credit upon the opponents of Animal Magnetism. Both sides lost temper - the anti-magnetists declaring that the whole was a fraud and a delusion; the pro-magnetists reminding the Academy that it was too often the fate of truth to be scorned and disregarded for a while, but that eventually her cause would triumph. "We do not care for your disbelief," cried one, "for in this very hall your predecessors denied the circulation of the blood!" - "Yes," cried another, "and they denied the falling of meteoric stones!" while a third exclaimed "Grande est veritas et praevalebit!" Some degree of order being at last restored, the question whether the report should be received and published was decided in the negative. It was afterwards agreed that a limited number of copies should be lithographed, for the private use of such members as wished to make further examination.

As might have been expected, magnetism did not suffer from a discussion which its opponents had conducted with so much intemperance. The followers of magnetism were as loud as ever in vaunting its efficacy as a cure, and its value, not only to the science of medicine, but to philosophy in general. By force of repeated outcries against the decision of the Academie, and assertions that new facts were discovered day after day, its friends, six years afterwards, prevailed upon that learned and influential body to institute another inquiry. The Academie, in thus consenting to renew the investigation after it had twice solemnly decided (once in conjunction with, and once in opposition to a committee of its own appointment) that Animal Magnetism was a fraud or a chimera, gave the most striking proof of its own impartiality and sincere desire to arrive at the truth.

The new Commission was composed of M. Roux, the President; and Messieurs Bouillard, Cloquet, Emery, Pelletier, Caventon, Oudet, Cornac, and Dubois d'Amiens. The chief magnetiser upon the occasion was M. Berna, who had written to the Academie on the 12th of February 1837, offering to bring forward the most convincing proofs of the truth of the new "science." The Commissioners met for the first time on the 27th of February, and delivered their report, which was drawn up by M. Dubois d'Amiens, on the 22nd of August following. After a careful examination of all the evidence, they decided, as Messieurs Bailly and Franklin had done in 1784, that the touchings, imagination, and the force of imitation would account satisfactorily for all the phenomena; that the supposed Mesmeric fluid would not; that M. Berna, the magnetiser, laboured under a delusion; and that the facts brought under their notice were anything but conclusive in favour of the doctrine of Animal Magnetism, and could have no relation either with physiology or with therapeutics.

The following abridgment of the report will show that the Commissioners did not thus decide without abundant reason. On the 3rd of March they met at the house of M. Roux, the President, when M. Berna introduced his patient, a young girl of seventeen, of a constitution apparently nervous and delicate, but with an air sufficiently cool and self-sufficient. M. Berna offered eight proofs of Animal Magnetism, which he would elicit in her case, and which he classed as follow:--

1. He would throw her into the state of somnambulism.

2. He would render her quite insensible to bodily pain.

3. He would restore her to sensibility by his mere will, without any visible or audible manifestation of it.

4. His mental order should deprive her of motion.

5. He would cause her, by a mental order, to cease answering in the midst of a conversation, and by a second mental order would make her begin again.

6. He would repeat the same experiment, separated from his patient by a door.

7. He would awake her.

8. He would throw her again into the somnambulic state, and by his will successively cause her to lose and recover the sensibility of any part of her body.

back Contents next page
Raven's Bookshelf at