Welcome, medico-historio-afficionados, Kevin here for another installment of CEPI Curiosities. The Presidential election is starting to heat up, and the remaining candidates are stumping their way toward their respective conventions. We’ve tackled Presidents in the past in this segment, from rumors of a plot to murder 12th President Zachary Taylor to John Scott Harrison, father and son of Presidents, having his remains stolen by bodysnatchers. However, you will be happy (or unhappy depending on your point of view) to know that this installment involves no body exhumation whatsoever. Instead we’re setting our sights on some medically-themed Presidential mudslinging and how one paper used psychology to call out a candidate in the 1896 election.
The time period is significant because the 1896 Presidential election between Republican William McKinley and Democrat/Populist William Jennings Bryan took place at a formative period in the history of psychology. While the diagnosis and treatment of mental health dates back to antiquity, psychology as an organized discipline only took shape during the end of the nineteenth century. The first laboratory devoted to the field opened at the University of Leipzig, Germany, in 1879. In 1886, Johns Hopkins University issued the first psychology doctorate to Joseph Jastrow (1863-1944) (best known in popular culture for creating this duck/rabbit image to address perception). Psychologists in the United States came together to form their first professional organization–the American Psychological Association–in 1892. The period also marked the development of Sigmund Freud’s work on psychoanalysis.
With the emergence of the field, The New York Times, then a Republican-leaning paper, borrowed the developing authority of psychology to launch an attack on Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan.
William Jennings Bryan, while hardly a household name today, would be very familiar to modern audiences following the current election. A young, former one-term Congressman from Nebraska prior to the election, Bryan was for all intents and purposes a political outsider who stood for Populism, a grassroots political movement that, among other things, emphasized the rights of native small farmers and challenged corporate interests and immigration (in some ways of mixture of some liberal and conservative issues). At the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he delivered an impassioned diatribe against the corruption of Big Business and Wall Street banks (stop me if this sounds familiar) and called for “bimetalism” as a way of curbing runaway inflation (the big political issue of the campaign). His “Cross of Gold” speech rapidly propelled the 36-year-old political unknown into the Democratic nominee for President (in contrast to modern Presidential elections, the nominee was often unknown until the convention).
Bryan, in many respects, was the first modern Presidential candidate. He traveled the country delivering stump speeches in favor of his own campaign, commonplace now but generally frowned upon as vain and unpresidential at the time. Supporters lauded him, with nicknames such as “The Commoner” and the “Plumed Knight,” seeing him as a champion of the small farmer and Middle America against Wall Street and the big business interests in the East. Meanwhile, political opponents marked his haughty calls for Free Silver and attacks on business as naive and shallow and criticized his youth and inexperience. They also criticized his active personal campaign, especially his speeches. Commenting on Bryan’s nickname as “the Boy Orator of the Platte,” Republican Senator Joseph Foraker of Ohio once observed the Platte River in Nebraska was “six inches deep and six miles wide at the mouth.”
The New York Times editorial staff, who unsurprisingly endorsed William McKinley, made it clear they did not simply disagree with Bryan’s politics, they questioned his very sanity. On September 27, 1896, the Times printed an letter to the editor, from an author only referred to as “Alienist” (an early term for psychologists) who sought to psychoanalyze the Democratic candidate. The diagnosis proved a grim assessment of Bryan’s mental state:
I think I can say without any bias that Mr. Bryan presents in speech and action striking and alarming evidence of a mind not entirely sound. I say alarming, for, apart from considerations of humanity, what could be more dangerous than a madman in the White House.
–“Alienist,” “Bryan’s Mental Condition,” New York Times, Sept. 27, 1896.
The Alienist described Bryan as suffering from a menagerie of ailments, including egotism, megalomania, logorrhea (characterized by extreme, manic talkativeness on trivial subjects) and logomania (abnormal talkativeness), delusions of grandeur, and even graphomania (an obsessive impulse to write). He concluded Bryan was a “political mattoid” (The Oxford English Dictionary defines a mattoid as “A person displaying erratic, eccentric, or somewhat paranoid behaviour”):
The political mattoid is an average man with a talent, or pseudo talent, that he cannot use wisely or sanely. His judgment is false, his actions foolish, egotistic, and extravagant. What is more serious, if given a chance, he surely ends in some disaster or folly from the dominance of his grandiose idea, or perhaps, from some real insane or delirious act.
An editorial from the same day reinforced the anonymous alienist’s diagnosis of Bryan, arguing he was erratic and unbalanced, prone to falsehood and driven by vanity (I leave it up to your judgment to assess whether that characterization applies to any of our current candidates). Commenting on a speech Bryan delivered in Philadelphia, the writer observed, “Nobody can look through it without feeling that these [statements] are not the sayings of a sane and sober mind” (“Is Bryan Crazy?” New York Times, September 27, 1896).
To further reinforce their assertion of Bryan’s instability, the Times printed second opinions from several other members of the psychological community, who offered their own diagnoses with mixed results. A Dr. G.H. Hammond agreed with the Alienist’s assessment, adding “His degenerate theories, if he were allowed to put them into execution, would probably prove beyond doubt to the world at large his evident mental deterioration” although he took solace in his conviction that Bryan would never be elected (“[T]here is…little danger of a mattoid President being seated in the White House”). Several others criticized Bryan’s politics but dismissed any evidence of mental illness, attributing the Alienist’s symptoms to the pressures of executing a Presidential campaign (a physician named B. Sachs told the Times reporter, “I think Bryan has, perhaps, undertaken a task too great for himself.”). Another, Dr. Joseph Collins, took umbrage with the Alienist, arguing, “I have no sympathy with the person who is so intolerant of another human being’s honest opinions that he brands him with the horrible stigma of insanity because his views are different” (“Is Mr. Bryan a Mattoid?” New York Times, September 29, 1896.)
Was Bryan insane? The Times certainly wanted its readership to think so. However, whether such an assessment would sway voters against him is hard to say. Odds were many of the predominantly Republican readership of the Times had already made up their minds to vote for McKinley regardless of Bryan’s alleged instability. In any case, William McKinley defeated Bryan in the 1896 election by 105 electoral votes. (Aside: The Times’ own state of New York, as well as the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s home state of Pennsylvania went for McKinley.)
Until next time, catch you on the strange side!