The Mysterious Disappearance—and Strange Reappearance—of Dr. William Horatio Bates

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Portrait of Bates: Strengthening the Eyes, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Portrait of Bates: Strengthening the Eyes, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just a few hours before he disappeared on August 30, 1902, Dr. William Horatio Bates, a wealthy and influential ophthalmologist in New York City, wrote a hurried letter. It was delivered to his wife, Aida Seaman Bates, who was out of town visiting her mother:

My Dear Wife:

I am called out of town to some major operations. I go with Dr. Forche, an old student … to do a mastoid, some cataracts, and other operations. He promises me a bonanza! Too bad to miss the Horse Show, but I am glad to get so much money for us all. I am in such a flurry! Do not worry. I will write details later.

Yours lovingly,

Willie

It was a curious note. Bates was already a wealthy man, so why the excitement about the money? And why all the hustle to leave? More curious still, after sending that letter, the doctor vanished—he didn't come home, and he didn't write to say where he'd gone.

When he failed to resurface after several days, Mrs. Bates began a frantic search, inquiring with family friends across the United States and Europe. Her husband was a prominent Mason, so she enlisted the support of the local Masonic society, which circulated his picture around the world. Eventually, a letter arrived from Britain, reporting that a man fitting the doctor’s description was found working as a medical assistant at the Charing Cross hospital in London after having first been admitted there as a patient. Friends who saw him reported that Bates was “haggard, thin, and his eyes were deeply sunken.” Bates later said he had even starved at various points in the previous six weeks, even though he had left behind a bank account of such size that he could have lived in luxury in London for years.

Mrs. Bates boarded the next ship for England, but the happy reunion she imagined never materialized. Her husband showed no recollection of his previous life—he did not even recognize his own wife. “I don’t know why you bother, madam,” he reportedly told her. “We are strangers.”

The doctor was reluctantly persuaded to join Mrs. Bates at the Savoy Hotel for a period of rest and recovery. There, he dimly recalled being called away from New York to board a ship and perform an operation on someone with a brain abscess.

Confused but relieved, Mrs. Bates planned to stay in London for as much time as necessary for her husband to recover from his ordeal, and for some further memories of his previous life to surface again. Her hopes, however, were dashed when Dr. Bates abruptly walked out of the Savoy two days after taking up residence there, disappearing once more into the London crowd. Mrs. Bates never saw her husband again.

STARTING ANEW

Bates was at the height of his career when he disappeared in 1902. In his early forties, he was handsome, well-off, respected, and often consulted by other physicians in unusual cases. He had degrees from Cornell and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and had been an attending physician at the Bellevue Hospital and the New York Eye Infirmary. He’d taught ophthalmology for five years at the New York Postgraduate Medical School and Hospital.

In short, it wasn’t the resume of someone you’d expect to simply vanish.

After he walked out of the Savoy Hotel that autumn day, his wife spent years tirelessly searching for him up and down Europe and the East Coast of America. She died, reportedly embracing a portrait of her husband, in 1907.

Eye exercises from Strengthening the Eyes
Strengthening the Eyes, Google Books // Public Domain

When Dr. Bates did finally reappear, it was in an unlikely place: Grand Forks, North Dakota.

In 1910, Dr. J. E. Kelly, a good friend of Dr. Bates from his New York days, happened to be passing through Grand Forks, then a town of 12,000 people. There, under circumstances lost to history, Kelly recognized his old friend, who had set up a small ophthalmology practice for himself in the town at some point after disappearing eight years earlier. Eventually Dr. Kelly persuaded Bates to return with him to New York, despite Bates’s complete lack of memories about his previous life there.

The two ophthalmologists went into practice together. “In the window of the house at 117 West 83rd Street hang two neat, white-lettered signs, the one reading Dr. J. E. Kelly, the other Dr. W. H. Bates,” wrote The New York Herald shortly after Bates returned to the city. “Here, living quietly with his old friend, and gradually building up a practice as he did years ago, Dr. Bates, now 51 years old, is starting his career anew.”

Bates never recovered his memories of his previous life in New York City. Reporters only ever managed to piece together a loose collection of stories, hinting at a ghostly existence wandering around Europe as an itinerant doctor before settling into life on the Great Plains of North Dakota.

“It was as if he had a chunk of his mind removed, like a slice of watermelon chopped away and eaten by an invisible monster,” wrote one associate.

Bates went on to serve as an attending physician at the Harlem Hospital and eventually remarried. To outside observers, his life had resumed a rhythm of normalcy, with one major exception: In his chosen field of ophthalmology, where he’d been viewed for years as a luminary, Bates abruptly stepped off the deep end.

THE ART OF SEEING

In 1917, Bates debuted a new and unusual theory of eye care. “The Bates System of Eye Exercises” was offered for the first time in the magazine Physical Culture, run by notorious health quack and shameless self-promoter Bernarr Macfadden. Bates and Macfadden soon had an unexpected hit on their hands; magazine subscriptions skyrocketed.

Three years later, Bates published, at his own expense, a book of these theories entitled Cure of Imperfect Eyesight by Treatment Without Glasses. The work is a highly bizarre compendium of misinformation and exaggeration, heavily illustrated with unusual photographs. Bates’s methods to cure imperfect eyesight relied upon a variety of concepts that flew directly in the face of his several decades of ophthalmology practice. He taught that vision problems were almost exclusively caused by eyestrain and nervous tension, rather than problems with the shape of the eyeball or formation of the lens. Vision issues could theoretically be reduced in their severity, or even cured, by performing a series of eye exercises and learning how to completely relax the mind.

Bates’s followers—and there would be many—were soon busy swinging their eyes from object to object, palming their eyeballs, attempting to visualize “pure black” as a method of mental relaxation, and, most controversially, exposing their eyes to direct sunlight, all in the name of improving their vision.

In 1929, Bates and his methods drew the ire of the Federal Trade Commission, who issued a complaint against him for making false and misleading claims. Nevertheless, his methods continued to grow in popularity, with people seduced by the promise of improving their eyesight without resorting to corrective measures. Many followers were convinced of the efficacy of the Bates method by experiencing abrupt, fleeting moments of clear vision while practicing the exercises. Some were even able to throw away their eyeglasses.

Perhaps the most famous follower of the Bates Method was Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, who had been plagued by vision problems much of his life. Huxley even wrote a book about his eye experiments, dubbed The Art of Seeing, which was published in 1942 and widely read and debated.

Explanations for the improvements that some devotees experienced vary. Some diseases of the eye, such as certain forms of astigmatism, can at times improve on their own, ophthalmologists say. Reduced mental strain can sometimes improve the experience of one's eyesight, even while defects remain. Plus, the moisture built up by repeated exercises of the eye can occasionally produce a temporary contact-lens-like effect.

AMNESIA—OR DISAPPEARING ACT?

To this day, no one has arrived at a definitive theory of what exactly happened to Bates during his disappearances. His obituary in The New York Times refers to the episodes as a “strange form of aphasia,” although that condition is usually limited to affecting the ability to communicate. More commonly, the missing years in his life are described as episodes of amnesia, but that diagnosis may not fit either. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Though forgetting your identity is a common plot device in movies and television, that's not generally the case in real-life amnesia. Instead, people with amnesia—also called amnestic syndrome—usually know who they are. But, they may have trouble learning new information and forming new memories.”

Another possible diagnosis is dissociative fugue, in which a person loses important autobiographical information and embarks upon seemingly aimless wandering. An extremely rare condition, according to Psychology Today, it occurs only in 0.2 percent of the population, but Bates seems to have exhibited the symptoms.

Of course, another tantalizing possibility is that Bates just made the whole thing up. Maybe he was tired of his New York life, or tired of his marriage, or was secretly in debt, and decided to just walk away, claiming memory loss as a reason when he was eventually caught.

Whatever the truth of the case, it went to the grave with the doctor when he died in 1931. His dubious legacy in the underworld of ophthalmology, however, remains alive and well. Despite being routinely condemned on numerous grounds by ophthalmologists, the internet is still abuzz with Bates Method enthusiasts, who have carried his torch well into the 21st century.

Additional Sources: Among the Missing; Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science; Better Eyesight: The Complete Magazines of William H. Bates

7 Bizarre Lawsuits Involving McDonald's

McDonald's can sometimes offer up a side of litigation.
McDonald's can sometimes offer up a side of litigation.
Yu Chun Christopher Wong, S3studio/Getty Images

Since the 1950s, McDonald’s has been serving up a menu full of convenient, fast-service food, from their signature Big Mac to the portable Chicken McNugget. Unfortunately, not everyone has been happy with their Happy Meals. The company has occasionally found itself embroiled in complaints from customers who have been dissatisfied and requested a side order of litigation. Take a look at some of the legal cases tossed around the Golden Arches over the years.

1. McDonald’s v. Ronald McDonald

A photo of Ronald McDonald outside of a McDonald's in Thailand
McDonald's mascot Ronald McDonald.
PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

The ability for McDonald’s to find itself in the middle of legal quandaries was demonstrated early on. After being in business for 14 years, the independently-owned McDonald’s Family Restaurant in Fairbury, Illinois, was issued a legal notice from the McDonald’s corporation in 1970 warning them to avoid using any arches or offering drive-in service. The letters continued for decades, with owner Ronald McDonald (yes, that is his real name) paying little attention. It was, after all, his family’s name and restaurant. But McDonald’s upped the ante in 1992, when a local franchisee finally opened a mile down the road, and a flurry of activity commenced. McDonald (the person) eventually settled, and the two locations became known to locals as McDonald’s East and McDonald’s West. The agreement also required Ron to take the possessive “S” off the family restaurant name, but it went back up in 1996, when the franchise location closed.

2. The Quarter Pounder Controversy

The McDonald’s Quarter Pounder seemingly leaves little to the imagination. It promises one quarter-pound of meat, which it delivers. (You can also opt for the Double Quarter Pounder, which gets you closer to an entire cow.) It also comes with cheese, which caused some strife at a South Florida location in 2018. Two customers, Cynthia Kissner and Leonard Werner, filed a $5 million class action lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale because the restaurant charged them the full price of a Quarter Pounder despite their request for employees to hold the cheese. The plaintiffs argued that the McDonald’s app offered a Quarter Pounder without cheese for roughly 30 cents less and that they should not have been charged more when they asked to hold the cheese. Not all locations, however, offer that option, and the argument that the cheese and no-cheese burgers are somehow one product was not convincing to the judge. As the customers were unable to prove damages, the case was thrown out of court.

3. H.R. Pufnstuf Invades McDonaldland

H.R. Pufnstuf attends "Sid & Marty Kroft's Saturday Morning Hits" DVD release party at Every Picture Tells A Story on November 20, 2010 in Santa Monica, California
H.R. Pufnstuf attends "Sid & Marty Kroft's Saturday Morning Hits" DVD release party.
John M. Heller/Getty Images

McDonaldland, that child oasis found in many McDonald’s commercials of the 1970s and featuring a variety of characters from the Hamburglar to Grimace, was once the subject of a legal struggle. Sid and Marty Krofft, producers of the psychedelic kid’s series H.R. Pufnstuf, sued McDonald’s alleging that Mayor McCheese was copied from its own political abomination, Pufnstuf. (Both have enormous heads, and Pufnstuf was mayor of Living Island.) The Kroffts claimed that Needham, Harper & Steers, the ad agency responsible for McDonaldland, consulted with them before breaking ties and producing the commercials on their own. The courts ruled in favor of the Kroffts in 1977, declaring the ads took the “total concept and feel” of the Kroffts’ show. McDonald’s was ordered to pay $1 million and had to stop airing the ads.

4. The contaminated Coca-Cola

In 2016, Trevor Walker ordered a Diet Coke from a Mickey D's in Riverton, Utah. While lower in calories, it was apparently higher in illegal substances. The drink was somehow contaminated with Suboxone, a heroin substitute. Walker temporarily lost feeling in his arms and legs and had to be taken to the emergency room of a local hospital. Walker sued, but McDonald’s argued they should be dropped from the lawsuit owing to the fact that they are removed from the day-to-day operations of franchised locations. (A manager and employee were suspected of spiking the drink, but security footage was unavailable to confirm the theory.) Third District Court Judge James Gardner was unmoved, saying McDonald’s couldn’t be that separated if they also mandated franchise managers attend Hamburger University for training—or “this hamburger school,” as Gardner put it. The case is ongoing.

5. Big Macs and brothels

In 2012, former McDonald’s employee Shelley Lynn sued McDonald’s and made the audacious claim that the company’s low wages had forced her into a side job as a prostitute for a Nevada brothel. Lynn was hired for a position at an Arroyo Grande, California, McDonald's location, where she alleged manager Keith Handley pushed her into a life of sex work. Lynn complained there was no practical grievance system in place and that Handley should not have been sold a franchise. A United States District Court judge in California found in favor of McDonald’s and Handley that same year.

6. McDonald's In a Pickle

A double hamburger is seen on July 18, 2002 at a Burger King in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In 1999, Veronica Martin and her husband ordered hamburgers from a McDonald’s in Knoxville, Tennessee. What should have been a delicious treat turned ugly as—according to Martin—a very hot pickle shot out from between the bun, landed on her chin, and scalded her, leaving her with second-degree burns. A lawsuit followed, with Martin arguing the pickle was “defective.” She sought $110,000 while her husband asked for $15,000 for losing the “service and consortium” of his wife. The two parties settled in 2001, though McDonald’s maintained no monetary payment was offered.

7. a Weighty Problem

It can be assured that excess consumption of calories, whether they come from McDonald’s or other sources, will result in an accumulation of fatty tissue. This did not prevent several overweight teenagers in New York from taking McDonald’s to court in 2002 in an attempt to place responsibility for their habit of eating at McDonald’s several times a week at the feet of the corporation. The plaintiffs, Ashley Pelman, 14, and Jazlyn Bradley, 19, among others, said they did not know how fattening the food was and complained of high blood pressure and high cholesterol, among other ailments. One plaintiff, a 600-pound 15-year-old, said he ate there every day. Lawyers argued advertising to children helped foster a trust of the food’s nutritional value.

The case was rejected by a judge in 2003. Now at least 26 states have “common sense consumption” laws, which prevent lawsuits from being filed against food manufacturers for adverse health effects as a result of gorging on a decadent diet. It's also known as the "cheeseburger law."

‘Do Not Smoke While Baby Is in the Room’ and Other Hospital Rules New Moms Had to Follow—In 1968

A happy couple leaves the hospital with their newborn baby in the 1960s.
A happy couple leaves the hospital with their newborn baby in the 1960s.
H. Armstrong Roberts/iStock via Getty Images

In 1968, not only was it acceptable for a new mother to smoke within mere hours of giving birth, but she could even light a cigarette from the comfort of her hospital bed—as long as her newborn baby wasn’t in the room.

Last year, Micala Henson took to Facebook to share an image of the instructions her grandmother had received from the hospital upon giving birth to Henson’s mother in October 1968. The post went viral, and people have continued to comment on the painfully obsolete and medically questionable guidelines well into 2020.

While “Do not smoke while baby is in the room” stands out as perhaps the worst health advice on the list, other rules reveal how much our culture has changed in the last 50 years. Fathers, for example, were strictly prohibited from sitting in the room when their wives were nursing, and visitors could only see babies “on display” at the nursery window during specific (and very restrictive) time slots.

hospital instructions for new mothers in 1968
The 'new mother' hospital rules that Micala Henson's grandmother received in 1968.
Micala Henson

The nursing schedule itself was exceptionally strict, too. Nurses would bring the baby to its mother four times a day, and the mother could only nurse for a certain number of minutes at a time—five during the first 24 hours, then seven during the second and third days, and finally 10 to 15 minutes for the fourth and fifth days.

“If baby nurses longer,” the instructions state, “It may cause the nipple to become sore.” These days, experts say infants are allowed to feed eight to 12 times a day, or whenever they’re hungry.

There’s also a brief, baffling list of foods nursing mothers should avoid, including chocolate candy, raw apples, cabbage, nuts, strawberries, cherries, onions, and something called “green cocoanut cake.” We can only guess what hospital staff meant by that last item, but some Easter cakes do feature green coconut shavings that look like grass. Today, the CDC recommends that new moms eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, but avoid seafood (due to the risks of mercury poisoning) and caffeine.

As long as new mothers are eating a variety of healthy foods, they’re probably entitled to a piece of coconut cake or two.

[h/t Bored Panda]

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