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On May 14, 1889, newspapers across North America announced that Washington Irving Bishop was dead. An inveterate showman with a long and controversial history of outrageous public performances and a troubled private life, the 39-year-old Bishop had been suffering from health problems for years. Along with being prone to cataleptic seizures that left him in a death-like state for hours at a time, he was also a morphine and cocaine addict (which became public knowledge after his second wife divorced him). The strain of continuing performances of his incomparable mind-reading act and dealing with audiences across North America soon took their toll however.
Recognizing how vulnerable Bishop was, his manager, John G. Ritchie, often sat in the audience and watched carefully as the mentalist performed. Whenever Bishop showed signs of collapsing from exhaustion, Ritchie would stop the show to give him time to recover. Even during performances, Bishop often drank wine or other chemical "pick-me-ups" to help him keep going. Not that he was in the least deterred from engaging in a wide ranging of amazing, and often dangerous, stunts. One routine that made him a celebrity involved driving a team of horses while blindfolded through the streets of whatever city he was performing in. Despite being blindfolded, he was still able to locate various small objects that had been concealed by a committee of skeptics trying to test his psychic abilities. Bishop became an international star whose tours took him back and forth across the Atlantic as well as all over North America.
Hours before his death, the mentalist appeared at the Lamb's Club in New York City where he was taken ill while giving a performance. After being carried upstairs, he recovered enough to finish his act. Amazing his audience with the usual collection of tricks, everything seemed fine as the mentalist thanked them and left the stage. At 4 AM the following morning, he slipped into a coma and a doctor, John A. Irving, was called to attend to him. His wife, whom he had only married a few weeks previously, was in Philadelphia at the time with his mother and they both made arrangements to come to New York. Despite vigorous attempts at reviving him, Bishop died without ever regaining consciousness. It was then that Dr. Irving made the controversial decision to conduct an autopsy and the cause of death was given as "hysterical cataplexy."
Along with numerous obituaries describing Bishop's spectacular career, there was considerable speculation over whether his drug use may have contributed to his death. Some of the news stories were downright vicious in describing the various scandals linked to the mentalist's domestic woes including his recent divorce and remarriage (divorce was still a taboo topic at the time) as well as his "effeminate" manners. But the most bizarre aspect of Bishop's life emerged just days after his death when his wife and mother accused the doctors conducting the autopsy of causing his death.
Since Bishop was known to suffer from nervous cataplexy, he often carried a note on his person warning that he was prone to this condition out of fear of being buried alive (this was a common fear at the time, not to mention the subject of a classic story by Edgar Allen Poe). The note stipulated that an autopsy should not be carried out under any circumstances. In spite of these precautions, a full autopsy was still conducted including the removal of his brain. When Bishop's wife arrived at the funeral home to see her husband's body, she was horrified to see the autopsy scar across the top of his head to show that his brain was missing. According to one account, she immediately screamed, "They've killed my husband!." While doctors insisted that the warning note was not on his body when he was declared dead, both Bishop's wife and mother publicly stated that the mentalist had been "killed in the interests of science." One newspaper account added that they were "laboring under great excitement bordering on hysteria."
According to the mentalist's widow. her husband's cataleptic episodes were so severe that he had been given up for dead on at least one occasion. As she told one reporters, "He told me hundreds of times never to let a knife touch him until he was decomposed.... I consider that autopsy to have been a cruel, shameless outrage to say the least." She accused the doctors who had conducted the autopsy of rushing to judgment in order to examine his brain firsthand. John A. Irving had been a particular fan of Bishop's mentalist act and openly speculated that studying his brain would be a boon to science. Had he been premature in calling for an autopsy?
What followed was a bizarre legal spectacle over the exact cause of Bishop's death. The doctors who had actually conducted the autopsy, Drs. Irwin, Ferguson, and Hance, insisted that they had no doubt the patient was dead before conducting the autopsy though the question of who authorized the surgery became a major sticking point in the investigation that followed. Given the controversy of Washington Irving Bishop's death, a coroner took over the case to investigate exactly how he had died. According to the initial inquiry held May 17, the three doctors who had conducted the autopsy were released on bail pending the results of the inquest. Based on the outcome of the second autopsy, they would be declared either guilty of a misdemeanor (for conducting the autopsy without permission) or manslaughter (if it turned out that the autopsy had been the cause of death). All three doctors were released on bail set at $2500 each.
In the second autopsy carried out by the coroner just days later, Bishop's brain was found where the first surgeons had left it: in his chest cavity. Unfortunately, portions of the brain and other body organs were missing with no real clue of what had become of them. The second autopsy shed no light on the actual cause of death and other prominent physicians speculated that the question of whether Bishop had been killed by the autopsy might never be resolved.
Eleanor Fletcher Bishop had no doubt that the doctors were responsible for her son's death. When the undertaker asked her what she wanted to have printed on his coffin plate, sheinitially insisted that it read "Engrave Washington Irving Bishop; Born March 4 1856; Murdered April 13 1889." It was only after considerable persuading that she agreed to change "murdered" to "died." Following the burial in New York's Greenwood Cemetery (the tombstone still bears the words "The Martyr"), she spearheaded efforts to have the three doctors charged with murder.
All of which would give rise to one of the most bizarre inquests in New York's history.
To be continued
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