Washington Irving Bishop: The Mind Reader Who Was Killed By His Own Autopsy

Washington Irving Bishop entertains a crowd.
Washington Irving Bishop entertains a crowd. / Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Washington Irving Bishop was an American mentalist and mind reader of some repute toward the end of the 1800s. Born in New York City in 1855, Bishop spent years building up his act and eventually embarked on a world tour where he showcased his "thought reading" skills. Bishop was adamant that he had no supernatural power or gift—he just was extremely skilled at picking up on body language and the signals people often unconsciously give off.

However, Bishop suffered from cataleptic fits, which sometimes saw him go into prolonged states of unconsciousness. As the resulting comas could last anywhere up to 18 hours, Bishop traveled with a note in his pocket explaining his condition and how these comatose episodes should not be confused with death.

Not everyone got the memo.

Walter & Son, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 12, 1889, Bishop was performing his act at the Lambs Club in New York City when he began falling into a coma. He recovered and continued the show, only to suffer another attack. This time, however, he was pronounced dead.

Just a few hours later, two doctors—Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Irwin—performed an autopsy on Bishop’s body, cutting out and removing his brain, reportedly without the coroner's consent. Bishop had collapsed around noon that day and the autopsy was performed at 3:45 p.m., leading some people—including Bishop's mother, Eleanor Fletcher Bishop—to believe that the mentalist was actually still alive when his autopsy commenced. Which would mean that Bishop's own autopsy was what killed him.

According to Atlas Obscura, “whether or not that note warning potential physicians of Bishop's condition was on his body, and why the brain was so quickly removed, were the subject of debate and litigation for years to come."

Bishop’s mother fought for the next nearly 30 years to bring the doctors who performed the autopsy to account. Her son’s cause of death remains listed as “hysterocatalepsy."

This story has been updated for 2020.