By Wyatt Langstraat
With the hypnotist chrisjones coming to Central this week for Homecoming, it got me thinking about how and why hypnotism has become such a popular form of entertainment in our culture. In researching the history and science of hypnosis, I ran across an interesting story involving magnets, disgraced doctors, and Benjamin Franklin.
In the late 1770s, German doctor Franz Mesmer theorized that a magnetic force called “animal magnetism” flowed through, and influenced the health of the human body. He found that by passing magnets over his patients’ open veins, he was able to influence the “animal magnetism” and stop the bleeding. He had been practicing medicine in Vienna for a few years by this point, and when he opened a “magnetic clinic,” he fell into the bad graces of the medical community in Vienna and fled to Paris in 1778, a city ripe for embracing alternative and supernatural remedies.
Mesmer quickly set up an operation of sorts in an upscale apartment and began recruiting disciples to peddle his “magnetism cures” to the public. These cures involved thirty or more patients sitting around a tub filled with iron filings, powdered filings, and “magnetized” water bottles. Bound by a cord, the patients sat silent in the dim light as Mesmer himself walked among them, touching an iron wand to diseased parts of the patients’ bodies. People flocked to him. Phrases like “magnetic personality” and “mesmerized audience” came about at this time.
Enter Ben Franklin. He had been hanging around France as an ambassador for the United States since 1776 and had become heavily involved in French society. In 1784, the King of France, worried about the wave of mesmerism sweeping his country, formed a Board of Inquiry headed by Franklin to investigate Mesmer’s claims. Interestingly, Mesmer chose to abdicate the throne of mesmerism for the investigation, even though he had been petitioning the Society of Medicine for an investigation of his claims. Proving these claims subsequently fell to disgraced French doctor Charles Deslon.
The investigations took place at Franklin’s home just outside of Paris. According to Franklin’s 14-year-old grandson, the commissioners had a grand old time investigating Deslon’s claims. Among other things, Franklin and his colleagues devised an experiment involving a blindfolded patient, a “magnetized” tree, and an unprepared tree. The patient showed similar responses to both trees, showing that the “healing” he was receiving was only in his brain, a placebo. This experiment is popularly considered to be the first placebo-controlled experiment ever conducted.
After the report was published that summer, Mesmer vehemently protested the findings and offered once more to demonstrate “animal magnetism,” this time on a horse. He fled the now-inhospitable France and set about trying for a new start in England and Italy. Ultimately, however, he moved back to Germany and died in obscurity in 1815. The Mesmerism movement petered out shortly after the report and became nothing more than an embarrassing footnote attached to the medical practice of hypnotism. As the report from Franklin’s camp stated, though, Mesmerism did expose “the power of two of our most astonishing faculties: imitation and imagination.” Hypnotism today, in medical practice, is used primarily to mitigate patients’ pain by convincing their imagination that they have been healed.
Stage hypnotism, though closely related, is a very different discipline but equally as fascinating! Chris Jones will be here on Oct. 12 at 10 p.m. in the SURC Ballroom. His show is legitimately hilarious and I highly recommend you go and see him!
Lopez, C.-A. (1993). Franklin and Mesmer: an encounter. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 66, 325-331.
Wyatt Langstraat is a Professional and Creative Writing major, former intern for the Lion Rock Visiting Writers’ Series, and a Student Writer for CWU’s Publicity Center. He does his darn best.