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.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

Amazon
Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

What Are Sugar Plums?

Marten Bjork, Unsplash
Marten Bjork, Unsplash

Thanks to The Nutcracker and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," sugar plums are a symbol of the holidays. But what are sugar plums, exactly? Like figgy pudding and yuletide, the phrase has become something people say (or sing) at Christmastime without knowing the original meaning. Before it was the subject of fairy dances and storybook dreams, a sugar plum was either a fruitless candy or a not-so-sweet euphemism.

According to The Atlantic, the sugar plums English-speakers ate from the 17th to the 19th century contained mostly sugar and no plums. They were made by pouring liquid sugar over a seed (usually a cardamom or caraway seed) or almond, allowing it to harden, and repeating the process. This candy-making technique was called panning, and it created layers of hard sugar shells. The final product was roughly the size and shape of a plum, which is how it came to be associated with the real fruit.

Before the days of candy factories, these confections could take several days to make. Their labor-intensive production made them a luxury good reserved for special occasions. This may explain how sugar plums got linked to the holidays, and why they were special enough to dance through children's heads on Christmas Eve.

The indulgent treat also became a synonym for anything desirable. This second meaning had taken on darker connotations by the 17th century. A 1608 definition from the Oxford English Dictionary describes a sugar plum as “something very pleasing or agreeable, esp. when given as a sop or bribe.” Having a "mouthful of sugar plums" wasn't necessarily a good thing, either. It meant you said sweet words that may have been insincere.

As true sugar plums have fallen out of fashion, demand for Christmas candy resembling the actual fruit has risen. You can now buy fancy candied plums and plum-flavored gummy candies for the holidays, but if you want something closer to the classic sugar plum, a Jordan almond is the more authentic choice.