Today is the birthday of Franz Mesmer (1734-1815). Mesmer is someone I’ve been intending to write a play about for over a decade; now I’m thinking he may play a role in a new book I’m putting together. One of the great charlatans of all time (the best kind, the kind that actually believes in his quackery), he is the man from whom we derive the word “mesmerism“, which we now use in a general sense, but in its technical sense the word refers to what was to become one of the great pseudosciences.
A German physician, Mesmer devised the theory of “animal magnetism“, the idea that we all give off an energy. When there are blockages of that energy’s natural flow (goes the theory) doctors can use magnets and the technique that became known as mesmerism (later called hypnotism) to manipulate the patient’s energies and restore them to health. Mesmer’s technique became all the rage: he made a pile of money, and not only influenced science, but also religion (in the form of Spiritualism) and show business, as well. I have a guilty fondness for the blurring of the lines that separate those three areas of life (science, religion, show biz)…ironically, it seems to get at something like truth — that is, when all parties involved share the understanding that it may not be the literal truth. The political effects of such techniques, however, are invariably deleterious. No one was every lulled into doing the right thing.
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.