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M I N D


The magnetic bathtub


Mesmer’s ‘baquet’, a circular tub with a cover, contained bottles of magnetised water connected to patients by metal rods. It was housed in a darkened room where soft music played and Mesmer intoned healing thoughts. Patients who failed to gain access to the baquet weren’t entirely overlooked; they might be offered a magnetised tree instead.


Mesmerism on trial


In 1784, King Louis XVI (1754–93) set up a Royal Commission, which included Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Guillotin and Antoine Lavoisier, to investigate animal magnetism. The commission failed to prove its existence and Mesmer was forced to retire, though his technique lived on without him. The final report of the commission stated: ‘The Commissioners have found that…this fluid had no action, either on the Commissioners or on the patients subjected to it… They have come to the following unanimous conclusion about the existence and utility of animal magnetism. There is nothing to prove the existence of the magnetic fluid; that this fluid, since it is non-existent, can have no salubrious influence…’


He mesmerised you; that’s what it is – mesmerism!… They get you into their power, and just


make you do any blessed thing they please – lie, murder, steal – anything! And kill


yourself into the bargain when they’ve done with you! It’s just too terrible to think of!


From George du Maurier’s Trilby, 1894


‘Le Baquet de Mesmer’ Engraving M0006352 Wellcome Images


Nineteenth-century witchcraft


The potential of mesmerism (and its successor, hypnotism) to control and manipulate minds with malign intent caused considerable anxiety among sceptics. American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) entreated his wife to eschew such ‘magnetic miracles’, fearing the loss of the self. In his 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne correlates mesmerism with witchcraft and depicts it as an abuse of power that removes the victim’s autonomy and invades their very soul. George du Maurier’s (1834–96) runaway


bestseller Trilby featured a domineering hypnotist whose name has since become synonymous with a controlling individual operating for evil intent. He was, of course, Svengali.


A somnambulist and a tree From Memoires pour Servir a l’Histoire et a l’Etablissement du Magnetisme Animal A M J Chastenet, 1820 b10707803 Wellcome Library


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