Human Vivisection of Sir Washington Irving Bishop by Eleanor Fletcher Bishop

A mother’s life dedicated, and an appeal for justice to all brother Masons and the generous public : a synopsis of the butchery of the late Sir Washington Irving Bishop (Kamilimilianalani), a most worthy Mason of the thirty-second degree, the mind reader, and philanthropist

As Allison Meier wrote in her research on the bizarre case of Bishop for Atlas Obscura:

In Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, on a well-worn headstone, you can barely make out the inscription “The Martyr” above the name Washington Irving Bishop.

The rest of the long epitaph below is too deteriorated to read, but the late Bishop was renowned in his time as one of the great mentalists of the 19th century. Yet it was his curious death that would be his greatest mystery.

His own act was pitched as “thought reading,” and he emphasized that it was not anything supernatural but instead his careful reading of the movement of the human body.

Known as “muscle reading,” he learned his skills from mentalist J. Randall Brown and soon soared to his own fame with a distinctly frenetic performance style, one that had an added drama with his suffering from cataleptic fits.

He kept a note in his pocket that stated his seemingly catatonic state was not death, although the presence of that note on a fateful performance in 1889 would lead to a great debate of what really brought down the mentalist.

It was May 12 and Bishop was at the Lambs Club, a theatrical society that was then at 70 West 36th Street in Manhattan. Bishop was said to have fallen into unconsciousness early in the act, and then recovered to continue.

However, a second attack came from which he did not quickly recover. According to reports, an autopsy took place at 3:45 pm, just a few hours after the supposed death. This included the removing of Bishop’s brain.

Whether or not that note warning potential physicians of Bishop’s condition was on his body, and why the brain was so quickly removed, were the subject of debate and litigation for years to come.

It’s not clear if the Masons ever came to her aid, although the mason Harry Houdini helped her out later in life by buying what remained of Bishop’s legacy.

The death certificate for the 33-year-old mentalist officially read “hysterocatalepsy”; to his mother it was always murder.

And while Bishop’s legacy in the history of magic may have faded, there remains that worn tombstone in Green-Wood Cemetery that declares him as a “martyr” for eternity, or at least until the marble wears beyond recognition.

Washington Irving Bishop’s grave in Green-Wood Cemetery

Read Eleanor Bishop’s book online