An actor is at his best a kind of unfrocked priest who, for an hour or two, can call on heaven and hell to mesmerize a group of innocents.

ALEC GUINNESS (1914-2000)



In 1774, German physician Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) announced that he could cure diseases by applying magnets, which manipulated the body’s ‘magnetic fluid’. He later claimed he could do it without magnets, using his own ‘animal magnetism’. This became known as ‘Mesmerism’, which was essentially hypnosis, and many imitated it. 

Mesmer claimed his methods could cure anything, although he refused to treat anyone with venereal disease. He once claimed he’d magnetised some of the trees in Paris and that people could cure themselves of disease by finding these trees and hugging them. 

Animal Magnetism

Coleridge, Marie Antoinette, Edgar Allan Poe, Mozart, Dickens and Conan Doyle all believed in mesmerism.

Some people suspected politicians were using it to manipulate them. According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger possessed ‘animal magnetism’ - but he didn’t mean it as a compliment. In 1795, Coleridge called Pitt: ‘The great political Animal Magnetist [who] has most foully worked on the diseased fancy of Englishmen and thrown the nation into a feverish slumber’.

AMBROSE BIERCE (1842-1914)

MESMERISM, n. Hypnotism before it wore good clothes, kept a carriage and asked Incredulity to dinner.


If you get involved in a controversy, then that becomes the mesmerizing event that people remember you by.

No Exaggeration

Charles Dickens practised mesmerism, and regularly hypnotised his friend, Madame de la Rue who suffered from extreme anxiety. He was once on a train with his wife and trying to mesmerise Mme de la Rue remotely when he heard the sound of his wife’s muff fall to the ground. He’d hypnotised her into a trance by accident.

According to a letter he wrote to Monsieur de la Rue: 'There is no possibility of any mistake or exaggeration in this.' 

Placebo-Controlled Trial

In 1784 Louis XVI set up a royal commission to investigate mesmerism. This was the first placebo-controlled trial in recorded history. It found that those who didn’t know they were being magnetised by someone in a separate room showed no symptoms of mesmerism, but those who believed they were being magnetised, even if they weren’t, went into a trance.

Despite the Commission’s conclusion that mesmerism had no basis in science, faith in it remained widespread until the late 19th century. 

Weasels mesmerise their prey by doing a little dance.

Mozart immortalised Franz Mesmer by including a comedic reference to him in his opera Cosi fan Tutte.

The ever-changing colour patterns of squids may mesmerise their prey.