The Crazy True Story Behind Animal Magnetism

The year was 1774, and German physician Franz Anton Mesmer had done the impossible: he had cured Francisca Österlin's hysteria. The process, according to Psychiatry Online, was simple. All he had to do was convince her to swallow a pile of iron filings, then stick magnets to her body. Just like that, mental illness was a thing of the past.

Mesmer, though, wasn't convinced that it was the magnets that did the trick. The more he thought about it, the more he came to realize that what he'd accomplished was made possible through his own "animal magnetism," an invisible energy present in all living things, capable of healing wounds ... and, if you're in the Star Wars universe, convincing law enforcement personnel that these aren't the droids they're looking for.

Mesmer's theory of animal magnetism went something like this: All life has a stream of magnetic, energized fluid flowing through it. The fluid itself couldn't be extracted or detected, but it was all around, causing the rotation of the planets and other such groovy business. Health, he posited, was negatively affected by the blockage of the fluid's movement, and needed to be rectified through contact with a person capable of detecting their magnetic poles and performing adjustments through long, one-on-one sessions that involved a lot of touching. It just so happened that Mesmer himself was capable of such homeopathic feats ... you know, according to Mesmer. Cash upfront.

Eat your iron, it's good for your invisible life force

By early 1778, Mesmer's ideas had collared him with a reputation roughly on par with your standard modern-day Goop sales associate. The year prior, he'd claimed he could restore sight to piano prodigy Maria Theresia von Paradis, and the good doctor's limited success led to a hasty skedaddling. Moving to France, as explained by Encyclopedia Britannica, seemed like the next logical step, since it was where all of the great Enlightenment thinkers were moseying. 

Mesmer soon had more patients than he could deal with, even after he'd started performing group sessions which involved holding hands and creating magnetic chains of posi-vibes. Between the animal magnetism movement's popularity and the frenzied convulsions experienced by patients after a good re-magnetizing, Mesmer soon found himself at the business end of a royal investigation. It was aided in part, according to Psych Central, by Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Guillotin, since all of 18th century politics was one long crossover episode. The committee came to the conclusion that animal magnetism was not, to paraphrase, "a thing." Patients were experiencing an expensive placebo effect, and getting a portly German guy's hands rubbed all over them as part of the deal.

And that's the last anyone ever heard of animal magnetism ... except no, people kept practicing it internationally well into the 1850s, according to Mental Floss. And, not to be cynical, but it's probably overdue for a comeback, alongside all that flat earth business.