The Death Of Washington Irving Bishop

On Monday, May 13th, 1889, the thought-reader Washington Irving Bishop was giving a performance at the Lambs Club in New York, when he was suddenly taken ill with a cataleptic trance. He was taken upstairs to bed, and, not long afterwards he recovered sufficiently to be able to return to the club and continue with his performance. However, he was taken ill again, and was carried upstairs once more.

This time, he did not recover and he died around noon on Monday 13th May, 1889.

The Boston Daily Globe was one of many newspapers that broke the news of his death, in a none too flattering article on Tuesday, 14th May, 1889:-


NEW YORK. May 13.

“Washington Irving Bishop. the noted mind-reader, died at the Lambs Club, 34 West Twenty-sixth street, at 12.10 this afternoon.

Over a year ago, he fell a victim to the cocaine habit, and it led him into much misery.

Her married Mrs. G. Loud, a young widow, in Boston, in 1886. She said that he became a perfect maniac when under the influence of the drug, and often beat her.

Mr. Bishop came to this city on Friday and stopped at the Hoffman House.

Last night, he was invited to the Lambs’ Club, where an entertainment, and supper was being given.


Mr. Bishop took part in the entertainment, and he gave a successful exhibition of his famous dagger trick. He then tried another trick entailing considerable mental force, and was thereupon taken ill.

He was carried upstairs and put to bed, but he recovered soon and was able to go through with the trick again.


He was taken ill again, however, when Drs. Thorn and Lee were called in and they pronounced Mr. Bishop to be in a very dangerous condition.

The Physicians remained with him all night, using electrical and other appliances.

At 11 o’clock today he became much worse, and death followed.”

A portrait of Washington Irving Bishop.
Washington Irving Bishop. From The Graphic, Saturday, 15th June, 1889. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Ketchum Keystone, gave further details in its edition of Saturday, May 25th, 1889:-

“Last week the eastern dispatches brought the bare intelligence of the death of Washington Irving Bishop of hysterical catalepsy.

Details of his sudden death have reached us, which in view of the fact of Mr. Bishop having been prominently before the public for the last fifteen years as a mind-reader, will be of interest to the general public.


Mr. Bishop was a guest at a dinner given by the Lambs Club of New York on the 12th inst.

The Club have monthly “gambols,” followed by a dinner.

The famous mind-reader had come from Philadelphia as a guest of the Club, and was asked during the dinner to illustrate his power of psychology. He had performed his well-known dagger feat, which he concluded by pretending to stab Louis Aldrich, the actor, who occupied one of the seats at the table.

Subsequently, Mr. Bishop requested Clay M. Green, the dramatist, who presided, to think of a word, and he (Bishop) would name it by placing his hand on Mr. Green’s forehead.

Washington Irving Bishop demonstrating thought-reading.
Washington Irving Bishop Reading Thoughts. From The Graphic, Saturday, June 28th, 1884. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Before he could conclude the feat, however, the mind-reader was seized with catalepsy.

A physician was summoned, and Mr. Bishop was removed to an upper room and put to bed.

He recovered shortly, and persisted in concluding his mind-reading feat.


He did so, and while in the act, at 4 A.M.., he was again stricken with spasms, and after that began sinking, and died a little after noon of the 13th inst.

His wife and mother had been telegraphed for, but did not arrive until after his death.”


The Stamford Mercury published the following account of his mother’s reaction to what had occurred, in its edition of Friday, 24th May, 1889:-

“Some sensation has been caused by a report that Mr. Washington Irving Bishop, the so-called thought-reader (whose “death” we recorded last week), was only in a “trance” when he was believed to have expired from hysterical catalepsy.

An autopsy was made four hours after the supposed death, and it is contended by his mother that this killed him.

As the autopsy was unauthorised, the coroner has ordered the arrest of Drs. Erwin, Ferguson, and Hance, but bail in 2500 dollars each was accepted, pending the result of the inquest.

Mrs. Bishop has given out the following death notice for publication in New York:-

“Murdered. Mr. Washington Irving Bishop, peerless mind-reader, only child of Eleanor Fletcher and Nathaniel Coney Bishop, godson of the late Washington Irving, and grandson of Sir James Richardson, of England.

Funeral at Grace Church, 2 p.m. on Monday.

All friends and the public who condemn the unpardonable murder are requested, without further invitation, to attend, by request of his broken-hearted mother, Eleanor Fletcher Bishop. ”


The Evening Star published the following harrowing account of Washington Irving Bishop’s last moments in its edition of Saturday, 18th May, 1889:-

The Coroner who will inquire into the death of Mr. Washington Irving Bishop, has held to bail for 2,500 dollars the three surgeons who performed the autopsy, and against whom it is alleged that they mistook for death what was only trance.


[Reuter’s Telegram.] New York, Friday.

The relatives of Mr. Irving Bishop have asked for an official investigation into the circumstances attending his death, insisting that he was alive at the time the autopsy was made. The funeral has, therefore, been postponed.

The horrible uncertainty regarding Bishop’s death continues to be the height of sensation in New York.

His mother and wife both insist that he was dissected while alive, but was unable to speak or move.


The mother, states The New York Herald, tells a story of her own early life to corroborate this theory. She says:-

“I am subject to the same cataleptic trances into which my boy often fell. One can hear and see everything, but both speech and movement are paralysed Some years ago, I was in a trance for six days, and I saw the arrangments being made for my burial.

Only my brother’s determined resistance prevented them from embalming me; and I lay there and heard it all.

On the seventh day, I came to myself, but the agony I had endured left its mark forever.”

All the specialists who have been interviewed declare that Mr. Bishop was probably dead, but they acknowledge that it still passes the power of medicine in such cases to declare death certain until decomposition sets in.

Mr. Bishop carried in his pocket a card stating these facts; and, in addition, he had also warned all his relatives and friends, but the extreme haste of the physicians to obtain his brain whilst it was still warm defeated all his care.

A sketch of Washington Irving Bishop.
From The Penny Illustrated Paper, Saturday, 25th May, 1889. Copyright, The British Library Board.


As dissection was performed not only without his permission but also before his relatives knew of his supposed death, public opinion seems inclined top hold the physicians accountable to the letter of the law.

The idea of Mr. Bishop having listened to a five-hours’ discussion regarding the best way to get his brain, and then, paralysed in body but active in mind, meeting the slow, grating saw-cut which opened the top of his head, but which did not actually kill until the doctor’s hand pulled out the whole of the brain is, adds The New York Herald, one that appears most forcibly to the popular imagination.

It is acknowledged now that, unless the operating doctors confess – if there is anything to confess – it will always be uncertain whether Mr. Bishop died suddenly and peacefully, or whether he passed through these hours of agony awaiting aid which did not come in time to save him from the saw and knife.”


On Monday, 20th May, 1889, The St James’s Gazette presented its readers with Dr Irwin’s defence of his hasty autopsy on the deceased:-

“It seems that the physician in attendance, Dr. Irwin, who was formerly at the Royal Free Hospital in London, made a technical mistake in ordering the autopsy too soon after death and without the consent of either the coroner or the relatives.

The law does not specify any time for an autopsy, but the custom is to let at least twelve hours elapse after death. The law says that no dissection shall take place without the direction of the coroner or at the request of relatives of the deceased.

The proceedings before the coroner on Saturday revealed simply a technical violation of the law.

Dr. Irwin, in defence, pleading ignorance.

A sketch of Dr Irwin.
From The Bismark Weekly Tribune, Friday, June 28th, 1889.


A second examination of the body was ordered by the coroner, and resulted merely in the discovery that all the organs were in a healthy state, and that it was impossible to ascribe his death to any specific cause or to say whether or not Mr. Bishop was alive or dead at the time of the first autopsy.


The undertakers who took charge of the body after death say that there is no doubt whatever that he was dead, for when they removed the body they observed the usual evidences of decomposition, and in a very marked degree.

They placed the body in an ordinary air-tight box, where it remained till the autopsy. It would have been impossible for anyone to remain alive in the box.


Dr. Robertson, a well-known physician here, who frequently attended Mr. Irving Bishop in his former illness, says that air is as necessary to a man in a trance as at any other time, and that if Mr. Bishop was in a trance or fit when put into the box he must have been suffocated.

He says:- “I saw Bishop go into two cataleptic fits in my office while consulting me. The first was after an operation, and five hours passed before I could restore him to consciousness. The second fit was less severe. I believe he was dead at the time of the first dissection.”

Other eminent medical men express the same opinions.


It is said that Dr. Irwin had an understanding with the deceased that if he was near at the time of his death, he was to examine the brain to see if he could find any explanation of the thought-reader’s mysterious powers, which he himself said he was not able to understand. Dr. Irwin says that Mr, Bishop was morbidly anxious that people should be convinced that he really possessed a mysterious power, and he was not a mere trickster.

His mother declares, on the contrary, that her son had a horror of dissection, and left positive written orders that there should be no autopsy. No such document has been found.”


The Evening Journal, on Friday, May 24th, 1889, published the details of the first day of the inquest into the deceased mind-reader’s death:-

“Drs. Irwin, Hance and Ferguson, the scientific explorers who knifed Washington Irving Bishop’s body within four hours after life had apparently left it, looked uncommonly nervous as they sat as prisoners in room 19, city hall, listening to the evidence given before Coroner Levy at the mind reader’s inquest.

The big courtroom was uncomfortably crowded, and the ultra-fashionable make up of the majority of the visitors stamped them as theatrical men and women of the period.

The dead man’s mother, Mrs. Eleanor Bishop, and half a dozen lady friends occupied seats opposite the jury box. Mrs. Bishop was closely veiled. She sobbed pitifully from beginning to end of the proceedings.

At 3 p.m. a jury of businessmen was secured.

Interrupted only by the stage whispering of Citizen Train and the sobs of Mrs. Bishop, Coroner Levy addressed the jury as follows:-

“You are here to investigate the cause of Washington Irving Bishop’s death. Relatives of the deceased have asked for this investigation. It is claimed on the part of the late Mr. Bishop’s mother and wife that at the time the autopsy was performed the body of the deceased was alive. It is furthermore claimed by these relatives that the autopsy was performed without their authority and in violation of the law,”

A sketch of Dr Ferguson.
From The Bismark Weekly Tribune, Friday, June 28th, 1889.


In a very dogmatic sort of way, Bourke Cockran, acting for Dr Irwin, protested that the coroner was exceeding his jurisdiction. “Your business,” said the orator-politician, “is merely to ascertain the cause of Mr. Bishop’s death. The legality of the autopsy is quite outside your province.”

The coroner unhesitatingly agreed with Dr. Irwin’s lawyer and told the jury so.

Wilton Lackaye, who plays in “Featherbrain” at the Madison Square theatre, was the first witness called.


Mr. Lackaye attested that he was at the Lambs’ Club on Sunday, 12th May and saw Bishop give the last two exhibitions of his phenomenal powers.

After the first exhibition, Bishop sunk into a chair and fainted. After the second, he fell backward, apparently lifeless, into the arms of two friends.

Witness did not hear Dr. Irwin say to those who were in the room at the time, “Bishop is no trickster. He possesses some occult power, which can only be explained by an examination of his  brain.”


Clay M. Greene, dramatic author and corresponding secretary of the Lambs’ Club, testified that he was one of the members into whose arms Bishop fell attar his second and last exhibition.

Tho mind reader’s face was colorless, his limbs were rigid and his teeth firmly set.

At Dr. R Irwin’s suggestion, cracked ice was applied to his head.

After lying on the floor in a sort of trance state for at least ten minutes Bishop suddenly opened ha eyes, sprung to his feet, and said: “I’m all right!”


“On the following morning at about 8 o’clock,” continued Mr. Greene, “I called at the club and learned that Bishop was dying in a hall room on the second floor.

Dr. Irwin asked me whether I knew any of the mind reader’s relatives. I said that I did not.

Thereupon I suggested that Dr. Robinson, Bishop’s regular physician, be called in. Dr. Irwin said that he knew what he was doing; that I might send for Dr. Robinson if I liked, but that he would not send for him or consult with him, as they were not on speaking terms.

Meanwhile,  Bishop seemed to be gasping for breath.

At 10;45 Dr. Irwin pronounced him dead. I certainly thought he was dead. His eyes were glazed, his mouth was open and his head rested on his shoulder.”


Augustus Thomas, Bishop’s advance agent„ and John G. Richey, his manager, were examined and cross-examined at length by all the lawyers regarding the effects produced by an electric battery on Bishop’s body before and after Dr. Irwin declared it lifeless.

Their evidence proved nothing.


In spite of the angry and somewhat irreverent protests of Mr. Louis Aldrich and other impatient theatrical gentlemen, who had been subpoened as witnesses in the case, further hearing was adjourned to this afternoon, when Louis Aldrich, who, it is said, claims that the doctors took from Bishop’s body a paper asking that care be taken not to cut him up or bury him alive, will be examined, also other friends of the deceased.”


The Memphis Appeal, on Saturday, May 25th, 1889, published details of the next session of the inquest:-

At today’s session of the inquest into Washington Irving Bishop’s death, the mother of the deceased was called to the witness stand. She appeared to be deeply affected.

She testified that on one occasion her son had lain for six days, as if dead, but she held to the belief that he was alive, and on the seventh day he rose up and was himself again, This, Mrs. Bishop said, was when he was a boy, and he had had several similar experiences since.


She further said that he had a horror of the surgeon’s knife while in these trances, and always carried a paper about his person explaining this feeling.

Witness said she saw the paper with him when he left Philadelphia for New York on the Saturday preceding his death.

Mrs. Bishop said that her son carried this paper in his pocket at all times. In full, it read:-

To Physicians and Friends: I forbid an autopsy or the use of electricity on my body, or being put on ice, till my mother has seen me, or until my mother’s counsel, or till Colonel Ingersoll has seen me.”

She said that she saw the paper with him an hour before he left Philadelphia on the fatal evening.


Although she came on at once when she was notified of his illness, they would not let her see him, but said that the doctors were with him.

She had a presentiment that they would cut him with their knives before they would let her see him.

She argued with them to no purpose, and said, “he is simply in a trance, and they do not understand his case.”

On Tuesday morning I was brought to the undertaker and shown the body of my murdered boy.


Dr. J. Edwin Biggs corroborated Mrs. Bishop’s testimony as to his attendance on her son in 1873, and stated that the doctors who were with him, Ford and Leech, had pronounced him dead, though he would not be convinced, having had charge of a similar case.

Mrs Mary Swett, of Brooklyn, told of another instance when Mr. Bishop, fifteen years ago, had gone into a trance and they had thought that he was dead.

The inquest was then adjourned till Monday.”


The Toronto Saturday Night  gave more details on Mr Bishop’s fear of being buried alive in its edition of Saturday, 1st June 1889:-

“It is a curious fact that Washington Irving Bishop always feared premature burial.

He had a presentiment that some time, while in a cataleptic state, he would be thought dead and put underground. It was on this account that, two or three years ago, he told a friend – a physician, by the way – that he wished every possible precaution to be taken to avert such a possibility.

“I do not want an autopsy held,” he said, with emphasis, “and even if the doctors agree that death has come, don’t let me be placed in the earth. Put me in a coffin plentifully provided with auger-holes, and leave me in a vault for a month.”

But the doctors cut him up three-hours-and-a-half after they believed him to be dead, and now the experts and coroners are vainly trying to discover whether at the time of the carving, Bishop was really lifeless or only in a trance.”


The Cornish Telegraph gave details of the inquest verdict on Thursday, 6th June, 1889:-

“The inquest in the case of Bishop, the mind reader, was closed on Wednesday evening, the jury bringing in a verdict attributing Bishop’s death to coma, but mildly censuring Dr. Irwin for over-zealousness in that he acted in some haste respecting the direction of the performance of the autopsy.

Dr. Irwin, however, as well as Drs. Ferguson and Hance, were declared to have acted in good faith, in performing the autopsy, and Coroner Levy promptlv discharged them.”

A sketch of Dr Hance.
From The Bismark Weekly Tribune, Friday, June 28th, 1889.


However, as The Blackburn Times detailed, on Saturday, 15th June, 1889, the doctors had not escaped scot-free:-

“lt is probable that the surgeons who carried out the post-mortem examination on the remains of Mr. Irving Bishop, the thought-reader, with such indecent haste, might not after all escape punishment entirely.

At any rate, the New York grand jury today filed an indictment against them for violation of the sanitary code.

If convicted of this offence, the doctors will be smartly fined.”