Note: The following is second in a series of brief bios and vignettes intended to present the work of a number of healers from over the ages. You will see several were physicians, but others arose from different walks of life. Healing is more than a profession, much broader than medicine. It is a way of living in which all of us can participate to which I will eventually point. Such that to a greater or lesser degree Every Body Can Heal. The Force Be With You.
Johann Joseph Gassner (1727-1779) was a Catholic priest who caused much happiness among the ill and injured who came to him and much consternation to the authorities of the time. Gassner made relatively simple applications – exorcisms to his way of thinking – to bring about relief and healing of the needy. Thousands attended him and many were helped.
Gassner’s works, however, created worries among physicians, clergy, and government. The mass of evidence was in favor of the authenticity and effectiveness of the work that he did. But, such work prompted fears and worries over time among those in power. Eventually, Gassner was ordered to cease and desist from his healing works by the Emperor and the Pope.
The following article is drawn from Volume II of The History of Magic by the German physician and professor of medicine at Bonn, Dr. Joseph Ennemoser (1787-1854).
Gassner, a clergyman from the country of Bludenz, in Vorarlberg, healed many diseases through exorcism. In the year 1758 he was the clergyman of Klösterle, where, by his exorcisms, he became so celebrated, that he drew a vast number of people to him. The flocking of the sick from Switzerland, the Tyrol, and Swabia, is said to have been so great, that the number of invalids was frequently more than a thousand, and they were, many of them, obliged to live under tents. The Austrian government gave its assistance, and Gassner now went under the patronage of the Bishop to Regensburg, where he continued to work wonders, till, finally, Mesmer, on being asked by the Elector of Bavaria, declared that Gassner’s cures and crises, which he so rapidly, and wholly to the astonishment of the spectators, produced, consisted in nothing more than in magnetic-spiritual excitement, of which he gave convincing proofs in the presence of the Elector. Eschenmayer [Adam Karl August, physician and philosopher], in Keiser’s Archives, treats at length of Gassner’s method of cure.
Gassner’s mode of proceeding was as follows: —“He wore a scarlet cloak, and on his neck a silver chain. He usually had in his room a window on his left hand, and a crucifix on his right. With his face turned towards the patient, he touched the ailing part, and commanded that the disease should manifest itself; which was generally the case. He made this both cease and depart by a simple command. By calling on the name of Jesus, and through the faith of the patient, he drove out the devil and the disease. But every one that desired to be healed must believe, and through faith any clergyman may cure devilish diseases, spasms, fainting, madness, etc., or free the possessed. Gassner availed himself sometimes of magnetic manipulations: he touched the affected part, covered it with his hand, and rubbed therewith vigorously both head and neck. Gassner spoke chiefly Latin in his operations, and the devil is said often to have understood him perfectly.
Physical susceptibility, with willing faith and positive physical activity, through the command of the Lord was thus the magical cure with him. There were, in the year seventy, a multitude of writings both for and against Gassner’s operations. These appeared principally in Augsburg, and amongst them two are particularly worthy of notice; the first, under the title of “Impartial Thoughts, or something for the Physicians on the mode of cure, by Herr Gassner in Elwangen, published by Dr. Schisel, and printed in Sulzbach, 1775.” The other, “The Observations of an Impartial Physician on Herr Lavater’s Grounds of Enquiry into the Gassner Cures, with an appendix on Convulsions, 1775;” probably by the same author.
Dr. Schisel relates that with a highly respectable company, he himself travelled to Elwangen, and there saw himself the wonderful cures the fame of which had been spread far and wide by so many accounts both in newspapers and separate printed articles. “Some,” he says, “describe him as a holy and prophetic man; others accuse him of being a fantastic fellow, a charlatan, and impostor. Some extol him as a great mathematician; others denounce him as a dealer in the black art; some attribute his cures to the magnet, or to electrical power; others to sympathy and the power of imagination; and, on the other hand, a respectable party, overcome by the might of faith, attributed the whole to the omnipotent force of the name of Jesus.”
Schisel writes further, that he gave himself all possible trouble to notice everything which might in the most distant manner affect the proceedings of the celebrated Herr Gassner. Schisel, indeed, seems to have been the man, from his quiet power of observation, his impartial judgment, and thorough medical education, which qualifications are all evident in his book, to give a true account of the cures of Gassner, while he notices all the circumstances, objections, and opinions, which had been brought forward or which presented themselves there. He relates that Elwangen must have grown rich through the numbers of people who thronged thither, though Gassner took nothing for his trouble, and that the Elector on that account tolerated the long-continued concourse of people; that in March 1773 many hundred patients arrived daily; that the apothecary gained more in one day than he otherwise would in a quarter of a year from the oil, eye-water, a universal powder made of Blessed Thistle, (Carduus benedictus) and the incenses, etc., which Gassner ordered. The printers laboured, with all their workmen, day and night at their presses, to furnish sufficient pamphlets, prayers, and pictures, for the eager horde of admirers. The goldsmiths and braziers were unwearied in preparing all kinds of Agnus Dei, crosses, hearts, and rings; even the beggars had their harvest, and as for bakers and hotelkeepers, it is easy to understand what they must have gained.
He then describes the room of Herr Gassner, his costume, and his proceeding with the sick: — “On a table stood a crucifix, and at the table sat Herr Gassner on a seat, with his right side turned towards the crucifix, and his face towards the patient, and towards the spectators also. On his shoulders hung a blue red-flowered cloak; the rest of his costume was clean, simple, and modest. A fragment of the cross of the Redeemer hung on his breast from a silver chain; a half-silken sash girded his loins. He was forty-eight years of age, of a very lively countenance, cheerful in conversation, serious in command, patient in teaching, amiable towards every one, zealous for the honour of God, compassionate towards the oppressed, joyful with those of strong faith, acute in research, prophetic in symptoms and quiet indications; an excellent theologian, a fine philosopher, an admirable physiognomist, and I wished that he might possess as good an acquaintance with medical physiology as he showed himself to have a discrimination with surgical cases. He is in no degree a politician; he is an enemy of sadness; forgiving to his enemies, and perfectly regardless of the flatteries of men. For twenty years he carried on this heroic conflict against the powers of hell, thirteen of these in quietness, but seven publicly, and of these last he had now passed six months victoriously in Elwangen.
“Thus armed he undertook in this room all his public proceedings, which he continued daily, from early morning till late at night; nay, often till one or two o'clock in the morning. The more physicians there are around him, the bolder he was in causing the different diseases to show themselves; nay, he called upon the unknown physicians themselves. Scarcely do those who are seeking help kneel before him, when he enquires respecting their native country and their complaints; then his instruction begins in a concise manner, which relates to the steadfastness of faith, and the omnipotent power of the sacred name of Jesus. Then he seizes both hands of the kneeling one, and commands with a loud and proud voice the alleged disease to appear. He now seizes the affected part,—that is, in the gout, the foot in paralysis, the disabled limb and joint; in headache, the head and neck; in those troubled with flatulence, he lays his hand and cloak on the stomach; in the narrow-chested, on the heart; in hemorrhoidal complaints, on the back-bone in the rheumatic and epileptic he not only lays hold on each arm, but alternately places both hands, and the hands and cloak together, over the whole head.
“In many cases the disease appears immediately on being commanded, but in many he is obliged to repeat the command often, and occasionally ten times, before the attack shows itself; in some, but the fewest in number, the command and laying on of hands have no effect.
“The first class he terms the good and strong-faithed; the second those of hesitating and feeble faith; the last either naturally diseased, or pretendedly so, and unbelieving. All these attacks retreat by degrees, each according to its kind, either very quickly on his command, but sometimes not till the tenth or twentieth time, from limb to limb. In some the attacks appeared repressed but not extinguished; in others the commencement of a wearing sickness, with fever and spitting of blood; in others intumescence even to suffocation and with violent pains; others gout and convulsions.
“When he has now convinced the spectator, and thinks that he has sufficiently strengthened the faith and confidence of the sufferer, the patient must expel the attack himself by the simple thought of ‘Depart from me in the name of Jesus Christ!’ And in this consists the whole method of cure and confirmation which Gassner employs in all kinds of sickness which we call unnatural. Through these he calls forth all the passions. Now anger is apparent, now patience, now joy, now sorrow, now hate, now love, now confusion, now reason,—each carried to the highest pitch. Now this one is blind, now he sees, and again is deprived of sight, etc.
“All take their leave of him, filled with help and consolation, so soon as he has given them his blessing, which he thus administers:— “He lays the cloak on the head of the patient; grasps the forehead and neck with both hands firmly; speaks silently a very earnest prayer; signs the brow, mouth, and breast of the convalescent with the sign of the cross; and extends to the Catholics the fragment of the cross to kiss; orders, according to the form of the sickness, the proper medicines at the apothecary's, the oil, water, powder, and herbs, which are consecrated by him every day; exhorts every one to steadfastness in faith, and permits no one, except those who are affected with defects born with them, to depart without clean hands and countenances full of pleasure.
“He excludes no single sickness, no kind of fever, not even any epidemic disorder. May not the science of medicine, therefore, partly fear that it will soon be superseded by this moral theory?
“We may now inquire what diseases Gassner calls natural, and what unnatural? For instance, a broken bone, a maimed limb, or a rupture, are complaints with natural causes; but all such as are produced either by want of, or by a superfluity of the natural conditions of the body, are curable,—as the cataract, which he cures to the astonishment of every one. “We may give another demonstration. Two lame persons appear. One has the tendo Achillis or a nerve injured. He is healed, indeed, but the foot remains crooked. This is a natural lameness. The pious crooked man has no hope of assistance from Herr Gassner. The second has a similar shortness of the foot, but the cause of which was gout, wasting of the limb, or paralysis. This is unnatural lameness; and will be cured by Herr Gassner as quickly as the name of it is here written.”
“Here you have now the portrait of this new wonder physician of our great Herr Gassner,”—sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat [so the eyes, so that of the hand and face]. “How does it please you? Have you anything to object to the original, or to the picture?”
The author now puts to the physicians and to the academicians the question whether Gassner actually cured these diseases as related, and whether in his mode of cure there be a hidden magnetic, sympathetic, or magic power? How does he heal, and what circumstances attend the cures? This alone concerns the doctors. “The clergy may settle with him witch-trials, and whether the devil in so many ways can injure men. Whether the accusers of Herr Gassner, ‘ex lege diffamari [from law defamed],’ deserve punishment, or whether Herr Gassner ought to be considered guilty as a deceiver, is a question for the lawyers and criminal judges.”
He then proceeds to answer these questions, with the admission “that he,” like many of his learned brethren, is somewhat incredulous, and often tolerably stiff-necked. “For,” says he, “it would not be creditable if I should take a thing for granted without cause, enquiry, or conviction.”
To the first question, whether all those diseases were healed, he answers,— “Yes, I have seen it, with many persons of different religions, and particularly with two most experienced and upright physicians, one a Catholic and one a Protestant. With them I attended nearly all, both public and private opportunities, as eye-witness, and with the most perfect conviction. How! what will you say? A physician? Fie! for shame! Yes, I, a physician, and one, indeed, who has written a whole treatise on gout, sought from Herr Gassner help against the hell-torture.
“Well, do not imagine that on that account I have ceased for a moment to be a physician; for I confess it now candidly, that I rather intended to test Herr Gassner than hoped to derive any cure from him. But a man that sees will not deny that it is day when the sun burns his neck; and a courageous physician will believe that he is ill when he feels pain. All those present, and the aforesaid physicians, fully testify that which we saw, and I myself, to my astonishment, experienced.
“He who will not believe that Herr Gassner cures all kinds of diseases,—he who rejects the evidence of such impartial and overwhelming witnesses, I must either send as one dangerously ill to the water-cure, or, if that does not succeed, to the mad-house; or as a non-natural sufferer to the curative powers of Herr Gassner. But he requires believing patients!”
He now proceeds, in the tone of the opposing doctors, that, indeed, every physician has, according to his own statement, cured every kind of disease: some by electricity, and some by other means, by sympathy and imagination. Many also have enquired whether Herr Gassner’s crucifix, or the chain on his neck, or his half-silken sash, be not electric? Whether a magnet be not concealed in his cloak, or his hands be stroked with one, or be even anointed with a sympathic ointment!
After he has circumstantially shown that none of these accusations will hold good, he comes to the conclusion — “that Herr Gassner performed all his cures merely by the glorified name of Jesus Christ, and the laying on of his hands and his cloak. But he gives the people oil, eye-water, and the like: he counsels them to use such things after the cure has taken place. He has, however, in order to make the blind see, no eye-water, nor oil to put in motion a paralysed limb; much less, powder and fumigations to drive out the devil. He merely touches the joints of the lame; he rubs the ears and glands of the deaf; he touches with his fingers the eyelids of the blind; he draws the pains forth under his hands by a commanding strong voice. He commands them with the same power, with an earnest and authoritative voice, to come out and depart, and it takes place. Where, then, is the sympathy, where the electricity, where the magnet, and all philosophical acuteness?”
“Yes; but why then does he not cure all by the same means?”
“Ask your own consciences; enquire into the mode of life and the mode of thinking of your uncured friends, whether they come within the conditions required by Herr Gassner, and possess the three kinds of faith which we mentioned in the opening of this account of Gassner, and you may yourselves answer the question.
“Are you silent? You will then first open your thoughts to me, when you have experienced what has been the permanence of the Gassner mode of cure.
“Herr Gassner demands as a security against a relapse into the sickness, like St. Peter, a constant and perpetual conflict. Wherefore? Because the attacks of our invisible enemy are never ceasing. He prescribes to every one how he can maintain himself in health without his aid; and I assure you on honour sincerely, that I have known many, very many, who have cured themselves of violent illness without going to or having seen Herr Gassner, but merely by following his book by my advice, and who still daily derive benefit from it. And I have never known one person who has relapsed into the old non-natural sickness who has not first deviated from the prescribed rules of Herr Gassner, or wholly abandoned them? Who, then, was to blame?”
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