The Mentalist

Washington Irving Bishop

Washington Irving Bishop

     Picture him as the ugliest, most-misshapen, most repulsive, and at the same time most attractive man in the world. There are, as you know, some people who are so repulsive that they fascinate you. That was his type.

     Bishop was a hypnotist, both by preference and by profession. He had earned for himself a considerable reputation in America and had made a great deal of money on the vaudeville stage. He was scarcely more than a dwarf, had a large cadaverous face that was pitted with pock-marks and yellow as old parchment. His hands were too large, his arms too long, and even in his evening clothes he gave the impression of something inhuman and horrid. His eyes especially were extraordinary, and from them seemed to radiate…a force, a presence.

So wrote Aimée Crocker about the great 19th century American mentalist and mountebank Washington Irving Bishop (1856-1889) also known as Wellington and in Hawaii, Kamilimilianalani. Aimée met him at a hotel in Honolulu in June of 1888 where he gave a “séance” demonstrating his powers. In his act, Bishop called up volunteers from the audience. Naturally Aimée volunteered.

     He was able to dominate the wills of his subjects by placing them in a state of catalepsy, and in that state he made them do anything he wished.

     Now things like that are and always have been my weakness. And when Bishop asked for volunteer from the audience, I responded almost without knowing it, and went up to the platform. I do not know why I did it. It seemed perfectly natural for me. Some of my friends laughed at me and some were shocked.

     I can still remember the little grotesque man standing in front of me, peering from under his bushy eyebrows. I can remember how he lifted his hand and leered at me. I remember also that he was speaking to me quietly with his soft, rich voice…the only thing about him that could be called beautiful.

     After that I remember nothing at all. What I write now was told me later. Apparently I sang and did silly things, much to the amusement of the spectators and to the complete disgust of my friends. But the important thing is that when I went down from the platform, this man-monster, this ugly, out-of-shape man who had so thoroughly disgusted me, had become, in my changed mind, the most fascinating creature in the world.

The godson of Washington Irving, Bishop began his career working for Anna Eva Fay, the famous psychic and medium. Before long, Bishop became Fay’s manager.  In 1876, he wrote an article in a newspaper that exposed Anna Eva’s act. Bishop unsurprisingly left the employ of Fay and went about presenting his very own ‘exposure’ show revealing the tricks of Anna Eva Fay and other fake spiritualists.

Bishop revealed the tricks of deceased clairvoyant Robert Heller

Bishop wrote a book Second Sight exposing the tricks of deceased clairvoyant Robert Heller whom Bishop claimed was the most finished conductor of a clairvoyant entertainment who had ever exhibited. Bishop respected Heller and waited until his death to withdraw the veil from the mystery of his performances as he thought it an ungracious act during his lifetime. Bishop explained that clairvoyants did not have the power of prophecy and divination and that mesmeric exhibitors and clairvoyants were not supernatural. The professor of the power of “second sight” wasn’t working under the influence of occult (hidden) forces.

“…Nothing can be more detrimental to morals than the prevalence of superstition; and there is scarcely a phenomenon in existence which operates so largely to the encouragement of superstition as the supposed power of Clairvoyance,” Bishop wrote. He made an offer of $500 to any medium if they could, “perform a trick three times in his presence that he shall not be able to perform equally well.”

Popular Victorian era mentalist J. Randall Brown

Around 1877, Bishop’s act changed from being an exposure act to one where he did mind reading effects. He learned these from another nationally known mind reader of the time, Jacob Randall Brown, who was described in one article as holding the American people “by the nape of the neck, controlling the press as absolutely as a Napoleon or a Czar.” From Brown, Bishop learned a technique called “muscle reading.” The technique relies on the assertion that the subject will subconsciously reveal their thoughts through very slight involuntary physical reactions, also known as ideomotor responses. The performer can determine what the subject is thinking by recognizing and interpreting those responses.

In his act, a blindfolded Bishop would find hidden objects or spell out words that subjects touching him were concentrating on. He demonstrated muscle reading at its finest and became quite popular. Bishop was a frequent guest at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. In England, Washington Bishop gave performances before enthusiastic audiences, including the Queen. The mentalist also performed for King Kalākaua of Hawaii.

Bishop’s act in Honolulu for the King was extraordinary. Colonel George W. Macfarlane, the King’s Chamberlain received an article to be concealed from His Majesty which was then hidden. Mr. Bishop affixed a map of the city to a board in full sight of the spectators. He marked the exact place of concealment on ‘the map. He was then blindfolded and taken to a carriage standing outside the square. A committee of spectators occupied the back seat of the carriage, while Mr. Bishop sat on the front seat and drove the horses. He drove safely through the streets, turning corners at the right time, avoiding every danger, and eventually pulled up in front of Messrs. Benson, Smith & Co.’s drug store. He then went into the store and walked to the soda water fountain, where he found the concealed article. Washington built this feat into quite the phenomenon. The roars of the crowds ’round the world were deafening.

The fascinated King Kalākaua gave Bishop the title Kamilimilianalani which means “Favorite Son of the Heavens.” He also presented him with a large walrus tusk, inlaid with a plate of gold, on which was engraved his Hawaiian name. Bishop was decorated with the insignia of a Grand Officer of the Order of Kapiolani and was given a valuable parcel of land. Around this same time, Kalākaua gave Aimée Crocker a title,  Princess Palaikalani — “Bliss of Heaven” and a small island with 300 inhabitants. He was equally bewitched by the young heiress.

Mr. Bishop explained that he did not profess to perform anything supernatural, or do anything supernatural, or do anything by spirit agency, but could simply detect by his own mind what was in the mind of others. He insisted that the person operated on must be sincere and honest, and keep his mind concentrated on the object sought to be revealed, otherwise the operator’s mind would be confused and accuracy would be difficult to attain.

Aimée found him to be the most mesmerizing creature on earth and eagerly began to study with him. She engaged and indulged this fascination for several weeks.

Bishop performed for the King of Hawaii and the Queen of England

     I talked with Washington Irving Bishop after the performance for several hours. He promised to teach me something of hypnotism, assuring me that I had a definite tendency towards his powers. He promised to do this privately…for a consideration.

     The upshot was that I began to study with this curious man, and this resulted in an infatuation which was to go on for several weeks. I am not, I may say, very proud of it.

     As a matter of fact, Bishop was a clever, brilliant man who might have been really great, but managed to be just a swine. The use he made of his power and his knowledge of human psychology, aside from the financial consideration, was cowardly and caddish. We will not go into that other than to say that he managed, fantastically enough, to make himself absolutely irresistible to women.

     When I say that there was not a woman in the world whom, if he had desired her, he could not have had, it is nothing but the truth.

     The pure idea of hypnotism fascinated me. The fact that I could be brought out of myself and could drift, through his influence, into another sort of existence, was like the realization of a dream. And even the man himself bewildered me and fascinated me beyond my control.   

The spell that Bishop cast on the twenty-three-year-old Aimée was broken when the hypnotist, as a joke, took her by horse and buggy to a bleak hospital in the south of Honolulu. At the hospital, she was nearly accosted by a horrifying leper in the advanced stages, “whose lips were moldy and distended, whose mouth was scarred and withered and blanched with disease and whose ears were swollen and distorted and hung down as far as his shoulders.” Aimée kicked Bishop in the shins, laid the whiplash across his face and drove off in his carriage without him.

Crocker was mesmerized by Bishop

Aimée dumped Washington Irving Bishop but held onto a fascination with hypnosis, magic, the supernatural, the occult and all things mystical throughout her life. She would later become an accomplished amateur magician who entertained friends at parties. Her second husband, Harry Gillig, who also saw Bishop’s act in Honolulu, was a talented prestidigitator. Aimée is know to have entertained crowds with tricks and banter in performances lasting over an hour.

Bishop fell victim to cocaine, which led him to much misery. His third wife (he would marry four times), a young widow from Boston, claimed that the ever pale and sickly Washington became a perfect maniac when under the influence of the drug and often beat her.

Bishop also suffered from a condition that would spontaneously put him into a coma that slowed his pulse dramatically and that could last for days.

On May 12, 1889, the mentalist was asked to perform for members of New York’s prestigious Lambs Club, for the top tier of theatrical entertainers. Billed as “The First and World Eminent Mind Reader,” Bishop asked well-known actor and playwright Clay Greene, a close friend of Aimée and her second husband Harry Gillig, to think of a word that he would “read.” Bishop placed the fingers of his right hand in the palm of Greene’s left. Blindfolded, Bishop led him several times about different tables in the room, on and off the Gambol stage in the rear, and then to the Club business office in the basement. A book of minutes was then taken from a desk drawer. He grabbed a pencil, paged through the book, and heavily underscored the word that Clay was thinking of. They then returned to the banquet room. Clay explained every movement of Bishop in the Club office in the basement.

There was an enthusiastic round of applause.

Washington Bishop then collapsed on the floor insensible. The mind reader lapsed into one of his rare comas. Two physicians in the audience, Dr. Thorn and Dr. Lee, rushed to his side and after careful examination pronounced him dead. His agent and advance man Augustus Thomas was called to the scene.

An autopsy was performed in the undertaking shop of Irwin, Ferguson and Hance. Since the brain was believed to hold a clue to Mr. Bishop’s sudden death, the doctors launched the procedure “before the brain cooled”–without the permission of the next of kin. The top of Washington’s head was sawed open, his brain removed and examined.

The frontispiece of Bishop’s mother’s book showing autopsy line visible on his forehead

Of course, it was the autopsy itself that killed him. The New York World called Dr. Frank Ferguson the Jack-the-Ripper of America. When Washington Irving Bishop’s mother Eleanor Fletcher Bishop, an ex-opera star and psychic medium, was notified that her son had collapsed, and that an autopsy had been performed without her permission, she was enraged. Eleanor regaled the press with stories of her own cataleptic tendencies. She pointed out that he always carried a note, which he called a “life guard,” explaining his cataleptic condition and prohibiting autopsy or the application of ice or electrodes to his body. The papers also left the address of family and lawyers to be alerted if Bishop fell into a trance. The document was never found.

Mrs. Bishop’s complaints caused the doctors to be brought to trial, where testimony was given about an occasion in 1873 when examining doctors Ford and Leech, seeing no pulsation, no respiration, “no indication of life whatsoever,” pronounced him dead. Suddenly, 12 hours later, Bishop awoke with a start. On two other occasions, in Cincinnati and in Boston, Bishop was also pronounced dead by physicians.

The high station in New York society held by the accused doctors who performed the autopsy helped acquit them. Eleanor spent the remaining twenty-nine years of her life, and all of her money, trying to bring her son’s murderers to justice. Harry Houdini himself came to her aid later in life when he purchased items from Washington Irving Bishop’s collection.

In 1889, Bishop’s distraught mother wrote a book, Human Vivisection of Sir Washington Irving Bishop, the First and World-Eminent Mind-Reader, with a subtitle: 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. Authorship was attributed to Eleanor Fletcher Bishop, his Broken-Hearted Mother.

Aimée Crocker, like many other young and beautiful women, once hypnotized and mesmerized by the mentalist and rogue, was not broken-hearted when she learned of his death. She concluded her chapter on Bishop:

I happen to know that Bishop had practiced upon himself very often. His one great desire had always been to have his subconscious self develop a power great enough and controlled enough to bring himself out of such a trance. Well, that one time, at least, he failed and I suppose that is the only case on record of a human being having been cut to pieces on a dissecting table while he was alive. His end turned out to be as curious as his life.

If I were a vindictive woman I might say that it served him right.