Last night I was watching disc one of Grand Illusions: The Story of Magic
, a DVD series of low-budget documentaries about, well, magic, and made a beeline for the “Death by Magic” chapter about performers who died during shows. Most of them fell prey to the bullet catch, but arguably the most unfortunate was a mentalist, Washington Irving Bishop, who suffered from catalepsy.
According to popular report
, on May 12, 1889, Bishop collapsed during a show and was proclaimed dead by two doctors in the audience. The doctors then conducted an autopsy “while the body was still warm,” which included sawing off the top of his skull to remove his brain.
His mother claimed that Bishop had actually died during his autopsy and sued the doctors, arguing that (1) her son always carried on his person a note about his condition and (2) no one had asked her permission for the procedure. In an effort to garner sympathy and funds for her (ultimately unsuccessful) suit, she wrote a book, A Mother’s Life Dedicated and an Appeal for Justice to All Brother Masons and the General Public, A Synopsis of the Butchery of the Late Sir Washington Irving Bishop
. Its frontispiece
is a photograph of Mrs. Bishop, in full mourning, gazing tenderly at her coffined son, the seam in his forehead clearly visible.
However, James Randi
dismisses the story:
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.