Who Killed the Mind Reader? (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

The inquest into the death of mentalist Washington Irving Bishop that was held on May 18, 1889 focused on a fundamental question:  was Bishop still alive when the doctors conducted their autopsy?  

Of the four doctors who were charged, it was John A. Irwin who faced the most scrutiny since he had been the one who called for the autopsy while the other two doctors, Frank Fergerson and James Hance, had simply followed his directions.   Under testimony, Irwin was uncomfortable when asked why he had gone ahead with the autopsy without the permission of Bishop's next of kin.   Though he insisted that he was unaware of any legal barriers, he argued that he had known Washington Irving Bishop for ten years and felt he had the dead man's tacit permission to investigate cause of death, something to which the attorney for Bishop's mother objected strenuously.    As for Bishop's catalepsy, Dr. Irwin denied ever seeing an episode himself and objected to any suggestion that Bishop might have still been alive when the autopsy took place. 

As the inquest dragged on, newspaper coverage tended to focus on the more ghoulish aspects of the mentalist's death, including statements from the dead man's mother and wife who hardly minced words about the guilt of the doctors involved.   They both insisted that Bishop had only been in a deathlike state when the autopsy took place and that John Irwin and his fellow doctors were murderers.   A new revelation that Bishop's body had been placed in an airtight casket  for an hour before the autopsy only complicated things since there was no way to be certain whether he might have suffocated as a result. 

When the inquest resumed on May 23, 1889, the city hall courtroom was packed with spectators, friends of the deceased, and reporters.  Eleanor Bishop wore a heavy veil and sobbed theatrically at key points during the hearing.   She testified that her son had been prone to cataleptic episodes in which appeared dead, one lasting as long as seven days.   Various other witnesses described what happened before and after Bishop's presumed death, including one actor friend who accused the doctors of tearing up the warning note Bishop had been carrying to prevent his autopsy or burial.  

After days of deliberation, the coroner's inquest concluded that Bishop had died of catalepsy and that the doctors had acted in good faith to conduct an autopsy.   While the coroner also concluded that Dr. Irwin had been "overzealous" in calling for an autopsy, no charges were brought against him and all three doctors were released.    Despite calls for a grand jury to indict them for "misdemeanor" in conducting an autopsy without permission from the family, there was little real enthusiasm for that given the time and expense involved.

Eleanor Bishop was determined to carry on what would be a lifelong crusade to have Irwin, Fergerson, and Hance pay for her son's death.   Months after their release, Eleanor was as outraged as ever in talking to the press.   "They murdered my poor boy," she moaned in one interview.  "I know they did.  Oh, it was a cruel outrage, and it should have been impossible in a free country like this.  My poor, poor boy!  If they had only left him alone, he would have been all right again in a day or two."  She added that she had dared the doctors to come to her and prove that he was really dead and took their refusal as a sign of guilt.  "They haven't the courage to face an old woman of whom they have made a heartbroken, childless mother."

But she was hardly finished with her demand for justice.  Adding that she would find enough strength in life to "bring these men - these butchers - to justice", she vowed to sacrifice "everything I have got in this world" to see the doctors punished somehow.   Unfortunately, both Eleanor Bishop and her daughter-in-law inherited very little from her son's estate.   Despite his great popularity as a mentalist, Washington Irving Bishop had been a notorious spendthrift, aside from the expense that went into his two previous marriages.  His wife had to make a public appeal to some of Bishop's friends just to cover the costs of the funeral expenses.  All that really remained was Bishop's large collection of memorabilia which Eleanor was forced to sell off piecemeal just to make enough to live on.  

As for the doctors themselves, they were eventually indicted for conducting an autopsy (largely at Eleanor's urging) though the legal proceedings would drag on for years afterward.   As for Eleanor, her life from that point on largely focused on assorted lawsuits and trying to get some sort of judgment against the three doctors.   In 1891, she published a small volume titled, "A Synopsis of the Butchery of Sir Washington Bishop" which outlined her case against "Jack the Rippers Doctors Irwin, Fergerson, and Hance."   Otherwise, she was left so destitute by her son's death that a public benefit was held for her by many of her son's theatrical friends.

Finally, after countless postponements, the three doctors finally went on trial in June of 1892.   Since there was no new evidence in the case, nothing was really resolved and a hung jury was the only real result.  So far as I was able to determine, nobody really had any interest in pursuing the matter (except for Eleanor) and the doctors went free.    As you might imagine, Eleanor was outraged and tried to pressure civic authorities to punish the District Attorney for refusing to prosecute. 

She became a familiar sight at various political events, often referring to herself as "Lady Lucas Langdon Nicholas" courtesy of her remarriage to a descendant of the Russian czar (whether he actually was or not remains in some doubt).   That, and her later adoption of an infant, whom she rather cruelly named "Anastasius Havemeyer Aldrich Lucas Langdon Bishop-Nicholas" helped keep her in the public eye.  Despite numerous attempts at financial aid by assorted friends of her son, Eleanor Bishop-Nicholas seemed unable to stay solvent for long and her adopted son was eventually taken away from her by protective services (names and all).  When the child later died of pneumonia, she attempted to sue the agency she believed responsible for $1,000,000 though there were enough questions raised about her own poor care of the infant for this suit to be dismissed.

In the years that followed, she moved from place to place but rarely stayed out of the poorhouse for long.  Her husband seemed to be as incapable of managing finances as she was and they eventually parted.  By the time of her death in January, 1918, Eleanor was virtually unknown and living in terrible poverty though obituaries referred to her as the "Florence Nightingale of America" due to her history of caring for wounded soldiers.  Her will left her entire estate, such as it was, to Harry Houdini who had been helping her financially.  She had long since outlived everyone else who ever cared for her.

With Eleanor's passing, the strange story of Washington Irving Bishop's death came to an end.  The long-ago question of whether he had actually been killed by the autopsy conducted on him was never really answered.     



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