Supporting Cast

Franz Anton Mesmer


by James L. Cambias


Friederich (Franz) Anton Mesmer was born May 23, 1734, the son of a forester for the Prince-Bishop of Constance, in southwestern Germany. The young Mesmer must have showed signs of promise, for he was able to get a wide-ranging education despite his parents' lack of means. He attended the Jesuit university at Dillengen, then Ingolstadt university in Bavaria (where Adam Weishaupt later taught and the fictional Dr. Frankenstein was a student).

His first training was in theology to prepare him for the priesthood, but he abandoned that and began studying law in Vienna in 1759. After a year of that he switched again to the study of medicine. His dissertation was on the influence of tides on human health and behavior; much of it was plagiarized verbatim from the work of an English doctor named Mead, who was Isaac Newton's personal physician and wrote in the early part of the 18th century.

In 1768, Mesmer married Anna Maria von Posch, a wealthy widow 10 years his elder. For the next decade he practiced medicine out of her palatial house in Vienna. He was a friend and patron of Mozart's family, and a one-act opera by the 12-year-old composer was first performed in the gardens of Mesmer's house.

The Jesuit astronomer Maximilian Hell (who led an expedition to Lappland in 1769 and has a crater on the Moon named after him) first got Mesmer interested in magnetism. Hell had dabbled in treating ailments by applying metal magnets to the patient's body. (GMs looking for more High Weirdness can assume that Hell found the entrance to the Hollow Earth in Lappland, and learned the secrets of magnetic healing from the Hyperboreans.) Mesmer adopted Hell's ideas about magnetism, claiming (falsely) to have described them first in his (plagiarized) dissertation.

Mesmer soon found that the mysterious healing power of magnets could be transferred to other substances, including water and human beings. The patients responded just as well to "magnetized" objects as to actual magnets. Mesmer decided that there was such a thing as "animal magnetism," a force generated within the body which could be stored and used for healing. He augmented his personal magnetic power with an exciting-looking electrostatic generator which made sparks and gave mild shocks.

For the next few years Mesmer managed a series of heavily publicized "cures" alternating with bitter controversies with other doctors and scientists. His most famous case was of the young blind musician Maria Theresa Paradis. Mesmer supposedly restored her sight, but after a while she went blind again. He blamed her parents for undermining his treatments.

Mesmer went to Paris in 1778, establishing himself in the fashionable Place de Vendome. His wife remained behind in Vienna, and they never saw each other again. In his Paris home, Mesmer set up four rooms with large tubs of "magnetized" water, from which patients could absorb the healing power through iron rods or cords. (There was a fifth room where the poor could get treated for free, but that water was only magnetized by one of Mesmer's assistants.) His place became something of a social rendezvous -- ladies and gentlemen would sit around the tubs chatting, having tea, and listening to glass harmonica music. The establishment had two large doormen in matching livery, and a staff of assistants.

For acute cases, Mesmer would treat the sufferer personally, stroking or pressing the afflicted part while maintaining eye contact with the patient, sometimes for hours at a stretch. At times this treatment could induce fainting, vomiting, and even convulsions, so a padded room was added. Mesmer did accompany his magnetic treatments with more orthodox medical methods -- bleeding, purges, and a variety of drugs. His favorite prescriptions were lemonade and cream of tartar. (Perhaps Mesmer's reputation as a miracle healer stemmed from the fact that his treatments were less harmful than other medical practices of the day.)

At first he was eager to have his methods tested and studied by the scientific authorities. Mesmer approached the Royal Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine, and the Faculty of Medicine. The results were not good. Mesmer expected the doctors to accept his ideas without question, while they dismissed him as a quack.

In 1783, Mesmer established the Society of Universal Harmony with the help of his patient and secretary Nicolas Bergasse. Members paid up to 1,200 livres for Mesmer's instruction. Still, the organization grew, with more than 100 members in Paris, and daughter lodges in France, Belgium, and the West Indies. Lafayette was a member of the Society, and carried a letter from Mesmer to George Washington when he joined the American army. (Illuminated campaigns can assume the letter contained orders from Mesmer to his American mind-slaves.)

The following year King Louis XVI appointed a scientific commission to evaluate Mesmer's claims. The group included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (who later reformed methods of capital punishment), Antoine Lavoisier, the astronomer Jean Bailly, and others. The scientists found no evidence that animal magnetism existed at all. (Interestingly, the commission also produced a secret report to the Prefect of Police about the possible risk to the virtue of ladies receiving Mesmeric treatment -- a valid concern given that some descriptions of the effects of magnetic treatment sound suspiciously like sexual arousal. In a conspiratorial game, the secret report contains the real facts on Mesmer's powers, and naturally resides somewhere in Warehouse 23 today.) The report was followed by a flurry of refutations, counter-refutations, denunciations, lampoons, and satires.

In 1793, with France still in the midst of revolution, Mesmer returned to Vienna. He was arrested on suspicion of being a political radical, released after a month, and remained under surveillance while in Austria. It is hardly surprising that he removed to Switzerland in 1796. Much of his fortune was in French government bonds, which became worthless with the Revolution, so he lived modestly. In 1798 he returned to Paris, where he published his autobiography and a summary of his discoveries. But with the rise of Napoleon he returned to Switzerland and lived there until his death in 1815.

Mesmer In the Campaign

As a patron, Mesmer has wealth, very good social connections, and whatever benefits his magnetic abilities can provide (10 points for a mundane Mesmer, 15 if he really does have healing powers, and 20 points for a cinematic Mesmer with mind-controlling hypnotic abilities). If he becomes the enemy of a PC, Mesmer's preferred tactics are lawsuits and vitriolic pamphlets, although a cinematic Mesmer could also make use of hypnotically programmed assassins and brainwashing.

Characters in Paris after 1778 may simply be patients of Mesmer's. His home is a good place to meet Contacts and gather information by listening to gossip. PCs can take "believes in Mesmer's healing powers" as a Quirk.


Treatment by Animal Magnetism seems to be mostly a matter of suggestion combined with patients getting better on their own. In GURPS terms, Mesmer has the Hypnosis skill although he doesn't call it that. Like other hypnotists, he can use hypnosis to help patients control pain, relieve stress and stress-related ailments, and possibly cure ailments which are psychological in origin. He cannot cure organic diseases or injuries, although he can sometimes convince his patients that he has.

If the GM wants a Mesmer who really can heal people with his mind, give Mesmer either the Faith Healing advantage or the psionic power Healing at a fairly low power level (no more than 3), and replace his Hypnotism skill with Healing-10.

For a full-bore cinematic Mesmer with the power to cloud men's minds, use the "Hypno-Power" rules from GURPS Warehouse 23 and increase his Hypnotism skill level to 20. That allows him to mesmerize opponents in combat, implant hidden commands, and edit memories -- perfect for adding Manchurian Candidate-style paranoia to a GURPS Scarlet Pimpernel or GURPS Age of Napoleon campaign. This version should also have Weird Science skill and probably some combat abilities.

Obviously, any version of Mesmer whose powers actually work should not have the Delusion disadvantage.


GURPS Scarlet Pimpernel

Mesmer's own politics were vaguely liberal, but he did flee Paris during the Terror. His disciple Bergasse was active in the first phase of the French Revolution. Given the shifting loyalties of the time, Mesmer could easily be on either side. A heroic Mesmer (with psionic healing) would be a good ally, a realistic Mesmer could need rescuing, and a villainous hypnotic mastermind Mesmer might actually be the hidden power behind the whole Reign of Terror.


In the Cabal history, Mesmer is likely a psionic Adept, establishing his own Lodge in Paris after completing his training in Austria. Unlike other Adepts, Mesmer is unusually public in his activities. Is he simply "hiding in plain sight" using quack medicine as a cover, or is he playing a deeper game, pulling the strings of all the revolutionaries in Paris with the goal of transforming Europe?

Other GURPS Settings

By changing his name and the pseudoscientific buzzwords he uses, Mesmer can be a quack healer in just about any era. Obviously, this works best in settings without magical or psionic healing. In a Cliffhangers game, Mesmer's cultish Society for Universal Harmony might be the cover for an espionage ring, jewel-smuggling gang, or worse. In the Atomic Horror era, Mesmer's overconfident meddling in the very energies of life itself might backfire, leaving the PCs to confront the menace of the Magnetized Man!

A round-faced German gentleman with brown hair (usually hidden by a powdered wig), 5'9" tall, about 180 lbs.

ST 11 [10]; DX 10 [0]; IQ 13 [30]; HT 10 [0]
Move 5.

Advantages: Ally Group (Society for Universal Harmony, medium group, 9-) [20], Charisma +2 [10], Reputation (scientific-mystic healer, +1) [5], Status 2 [10], Voice [5], Wealth (very wealthy) [20]

Disadvantages: Delusion (magnetism works) [-10], Greed [-15], Overconfidence [-10], Reputation (quack, -2 among doctors and scientists) [-5].

Quirks: Freethinker, Loves music, Proud, Quarrelsome, Takes credit for others' work [-5]

Skills: Area Knowledge-14 (Paris) [1], Area Knowledge-14 (Vienna) [1], Astrology-11 [1], History-11 [1], Hypnotism-12 [2], Law-11 [1], Literature-11 [1], Mathematics-11 [1], Musical Instrument-12 (clavichord) [2], Musical Instrument-12 (glass harmonica) [2], Musical Instrument-11 (violin) [1], Naturalist-12 [2], Occultism-12 [1], Performance-13 [2], Pharmacy/TL4-12 [2], Philosophy-11 (Aristotelian) [1], Physician/TL4-14 [6], Physics/TL4-11 [1], Savoir-Faire-14 [2], Scene Design-11 [1], Theology-12 [2], Writing-13 [2].

Languages: French-13 [2], German-13 (native) [0], Latin-12 [2].

105 points


Mesmer typically wears very fashionable clothing, often appearing in a lilac-colored coat. He does not carry a weapon, but he does have a complete TL4 doctor's kit, along with all sorts of impressive-looking medical devices: electrostatic generators, Leyden jars, magnets, and so forth. His wealth means that he can get almost any piece of equipment if it is available in Paris.

Article publication date: June 20, 2003

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