An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural
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Bishop, Washington (Wellington) Irving (1856-1889) This American mentalist was famous for his blindfold drive and other astounding feats. A mountebank who learned his trade as an assistant to John Randall Brown, a newspaperman who specialized in “muscle reading,” Bishop flourished in the 1880s.
He started his career working with the famous spiritualist act of Anna Eva Fay, first functioning as her manager. Then in 1876 he chose to expose her methods in the New York Daily Graphic newspaper and at that point he began doing his own show.
At first Bishop denied the existence of any paranormal powers, then apparently decided that the easier path was with the fakers, and he became a “real” psychic overnight.
Bishop is credited with originating the blindfold drive trick (in 1885) in which the performer is able to navigate in a vehicle while his eyes are covered. Bishop used a horse and carriage, while modern practitioners depend on an automobile.
One of Bishop's favorite routines, copied from Brown, was to have a fictitious murderer, a weapon, and a victim chosen from among the audience members while he was out of the area. Upon his return he would identify all three. He performed this and other mysteries in the United States and in Britain, with great success.
In Britain he made great but spurious claims of wealth, even turning over the proceeds of several performances (less “expenses”) to charitable causes. His pretensions of riches were part of his pose, apparently to attract huge fees for specialized projects in which he tried to become involved.
It was also in Britain, however, that he lost a lawsuit brought against him by the famous conjuror J. N. Maskelyne, who objected to his claims of genuine psychic power. This provoked libelous remarks from the American, and J. N. promptly sued him, winning the case and driving Bishop from England to escape paying the £10,000 penalty.
Bishop was fond of claiming that he'd been tested by scientists, but when the conditions for the tests were not of his own making, he failed. When challenged to do specific feats that he claimed he could do with regularity, he either refused to be tested or switched tests or the conditions for the tests, and only then succeeded. His claim was that he did not understand his own powers, but when a newspaper editor named Charles Howard Montague learned to do Bishop's act, successfully duplicating a drawing made by one of his audience, he declared:
Mr. Bishop would have us infer that he does not know how he does it. I know how I do it, and I am rather of the opinion that his self-consciousness [self-awareness] is not a great way behind my own. It is very difficult for me to believe that so expert a student of the sensations of other people should be so poor a pupil in his own case.
Bishop chided Montague for failing to recognize that “Almighty God” had given him his abilities, and questioned Montague's belief in a deity, as if that discredited his interference. But Montague was unfazed, proceeding to perform the Bishop act for many large audiences, always denying that any supernatural forces were at work.
After numerous marriages and bouts with alcohol and drugs and almost every excess available to him, Bishop died suddenly in New York at age thirty-three. His demise had a certain macabre mystery about it, since he had said that he was subject to cataleptic fits and might thus be buried alive if not carefully examined after his apparent passing. A dramatic “swoon” following his stage performance was not uncommon for him, and he claimed that several times he'd come close to being sliced up by doctors about to perform autopsies on his still-living body.
His mother, a rather overly dramatic, raving sort of woman who some years earlier had thrown herself into her husband's grave as he was being lowered to his final rest, made wild accusations in the press about her son having been autopsied while not yet dead, but nothing was proven. The event provided journalists with marvelous stories for decades and is still occasionally resurrected.
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Copyright (C) 1995-2007 James Randi.
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