Monday, June 2, 2014

Washington Irving Bishop: Proving Mediums Frauds

Exposing frauds,
before becoming one
It's Washington Irving Bishop Day here at Imp of the Diverse, and it even isn't his birthday (March 4, 1856, if you're curious or wish to celebrate it next year). I just keep stumbling across him when looking for other things. He's clearly one of those people who were famous in a certain period, but whose fame did not endure. Certainly, if we were reading a letter from the 1890s, and someone mentioned Oscar Wilde, we need no footnote. Washington Irving Bishop; better not assume your readers have heard of them. (Unless they read this blog.)

I have only begun my research on Bishop, and I'm finding much beyond the very brief biography of him in Wikipedia. He seems to be a neglected nineteenth-century figure, with an odd career path followed by the odd and tragic end, collapsing on the stage as he was doing his mind-reading act (which he claimed was not a trick), and the subsequent inquest over the autopsy.

Before Mr. Bishop was a mind reader, he had an interesting profession, that of exposing mediums as frauds, at a time when Harry Houdini was a two-year-old in Hungary. On May 23, 1876, Mr. Bishop made a demonstration of tricks used by spiritualists. The Milan Exchange picked up the New York Post story on June 1, 1876.

According to the article, he had been doing private demonstrations and now brought it to Chickering Hall in New York. Bishop, then 20, was described as
a young man, slightly but symmetrically built, of lithe and easy carriage, and with a face denoting intelligence and quickness of thought.
Mr. Bishop then treated the audience to the spiritualist medium's stock in trade.
A folding screen of three leaves occupied the center of the stage, arranged like a "box-scene" in a theater. In the recess a common chair was set, directly in front of a stout wooden post which was fastened by iron joists to the floor. The committee with their own hands screwed two rings into the post the performer was placed in the chair, facing the audience; his wrists were pinioned by stout strips of unbleached muslin, sewed about them by Dr. Mott as tight as was possible without impeding the circulation of the blood, and tied fast to the lower of the two rings behind him; another band was passed around his neck and secured to the upper ring; his feet were tied with a rope, the other end of which was held taught by a member of the audience in one of the parquette seats; and a strong calcium light was turned full upon him from the rear gallery. A tambourine and several bells of different tones were laid in his lap, and a curtain drawn in front of him. Scarcely had he disappeared from view before the tambourine was loudly beaten, the bells rung, and the interments, one after another, tossed over the top of the screen on to the open stage. The curtain was withdrawn, and the committee requested to examine the apparatus. Not a thing, they reported, had apparently been stirred.
There's a lot in that word "apparently." As in the post earlier today, a clever fraud can manage that there is no apparent trickery. That's the whole point. But in the case of Mr. Bishop in 1876, exposing the fraud was the point. Let's go for the rest of the act:
A lady's ring and a strip of cloth were laid on the performer's knee; within a minute the cloth was found tied in a double knot around his throat, with the ring slipped over the knot. Then a marked board, a hammer and a large nail were placed on a chair beside him; when removed, the nail was found driven through the board. To enumerate all the marvelous manifestations produced by Mr. Bishop would require more space than we can spare for this article. Suffice it that that "spirits" drank water from a tumbler set on his knee; cut a doll out of a marked piece of paper with common shears; thrummed on a guitar; blew a flageolet; produced a bouquets of flowers from an invisible garden; allowed Dr. Deems to be shut up with them, blindfold, with his right foot laid across the feet, his right hand on the leg, and his left hand on the forehead of the "medium," and raised a terrible tumult all about him without disturbing the "medium" enough to be perceptible to the reverend gentleman's sense of touch; turned a wooden bucket, which had been placed upright in the "medium's" lap, wrong side up on his head: and deported themselves generally in the fantastic fashion which professional "mediums" have heretofore made us acquainted.
Must be spirits, right? Well, of course not.
When the committee had pronounced themselves entirely satisfied with the performance, but unable to account for the wonderful phenomena presented, Mr. Bishop's assistant, in a short address, explained the whole secret, which consisted simply of the peculiar formation of the "medium's" hands and wrists, enabling him to slip his arms not out of but through the bandages to such as length as to give them free play upon objets placed near him.
Oh, so it's a trick.

The article concluded that Mr. Bishop "receives no pay for his performance," though I might more easily believe in spirits than that. Bishop made an offer to mediums to pay $500 to the charity of their choice if they could "perform a trick three times in his presence that he shall not be able to perform equally well." One of the observers, Dr. Hammond, had a sweeter deal of $3,000 for a medium
who will lengthen his body one foot, who will float through the air unassisted, or who will read a written paper which shall have been folded, inclosed in an ordinary envelope and sealed to the satisfaction of a committee of prominent citizens who may be agreed upon as investigators.
$3,000 was a lot of money 138 years ago, but I'm certain no one ever claimed it.
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