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Bishop's Trance

Joe Holley

Right off Q Street near downtown Washington the other day, I noticed that psychic readings are going for $2 these days. My reportorial instincts temporarily lapsed, so I didn't investigate whether customers are getting what they pay for.

The psychic sale was a reminder, though, that what we really need in these uncertain times is the second coming of Washington Irving Bishop, a "mentalist," mind reader and magician who wowed Washington, New York and Boston -- as well as London and St. Petersburg -- back in the 1880s. Bishop, described by The Washington Post, as small, blonde and handsome, was on Q Street himself on a December night in 1886, in the home of Mr. and Mrs. W. A. Goffut. He and other "sensitives" -- the label The Post used -- awed their audience until past midnight.

Accordinging to a coming attractions ad in The Post for a performance at the Masonic Temple, young Bishop's "strange talents" included reading the numbers on a bank note hidden in an envelope, finding lost objects and detecting pictures in the minds of audience members.

On the night of May 12, 1889, the 33-year-old mentalist was performing at New York's prestigious Lambs Club. He had just asked a famous actor in the audience to think of a word and Bishop would "read" that word by placing his hand on the actor's forehead. Suddenly, however, the mind reader became faint and lapsed into a coma. A doctor in the audience examined him and found him to be suffering from "hysterical catalepsy." Fifteen minutes later, he recovered and resumed his act, only to lapse into a coma again. He died a little after noon the next day.

Maybe.

About four hours after his "death," doctors began an autopsy and had just opened up the top of Bishop's head when the young man's mother and his wife rushed in. They were hysterically apoplectic -- if not cataleptic -- that their beloved wasn't really dead (or hadn't been).

"The widow of the mind reader states that he had suffered several times from cataleptic attacks," The Post reported, "and has lain in a trance, apparently dead, for periods varying from six to fifty-two hours."

The women continued to believe Bishop died under the dissecting knife, while the undertaker was convinced he was dead when the autopsy began. "At all events," The Post concluded, "the journey in an almost airtight casket from the club to the undertaker's would, it is thought by some, have been sufficient to extinguish any lingering spark of life."

By Joe Holley  |  May 17, 2009; 4:44 PM ET
Categories:  Joe Holley  
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