The Mysterious Disappearance—and Strange Reappearance—of Dr. William Horatio Bates

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Portrait of Bates: Strengthening the Eyes, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Portrait of Bates: Strengthening the Eyes, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just a few hours before he disappeared on August 30, 1902, Dr. William Horatio Bates, a wealthy and influential ophthalmologist in New York City, wrote a hurried letter. It was delivered to his wife, Aida Seaman Bates, who was out of town visiting her mother:

My Dear Wife:

I am called out of town to some major operations. I go with Dr. Forche, an old student … to do a mastoid, some cataracts, and other operations. He promises me a bonanza! Too bad to miss the Horse Show, but I am glad to get so much money for us all. I am in such a flurry! Do not worry. I will write details later.

Yours lovingly,

Willie

It was a curious note. Bates was already a wealthy man, so why the excitement about the money? And why all the hustle to leave? More curious still, after sending that letter, the doctor vanished—he didn't come home, and he didn't write to say where he'd gone.

When he failed to resurface after several days, Mrs. Bates began a frantic search, inquiring with family friends across the United States and Europe. Her husband was a prominent Mason, so she enlisted the support of the local Masonic society, which circulated his picture around the world. Eventually, a letter arrived from Britain, reporting that a man fitting the doctor’s description was found working as a medical assistant at the Charing Cross hospital in London after having first been admitted there as a patient. Friends who saw him reported that Bates was “haggard, thin, and his eyes were deeply sunken.” Bates later said he had even starved at various points in the previous six weeks, even though he had left behind a bank account of such size that he could have lived in luxury in London for years.

Mrs. Bates boarded the next ship for England, but the happy reunion she imagined never materialized. Her husband showed no recollection of his previous life—he did not even recognize his own wife. “I don’t know why you bother, madam,” he reportedly told her. “We are strangers.”

The doctor was reluctantly persuaded to join Mrs. Bates at the Savoy Hotel for a period of rest and recovery. There, he dimly recalled being called away from New York to board a ship and perform an operation on someone with a brain abscess.

Confused but relieved, Mrs. Bates planned to stay in London for as much time as necessary for her husband to recover from his ordeal, and for some further memories of his previous life to surface again. Her hopes, however, were dashed when Dr. Bates abruptly walked out of the Savoy two days after taking up residence there, disappearing once more into the London crowd. Mrs. Bates never saw her husband again.

STARTING ANEW

Bates was at the height of his career when he disappeared in 1902. In his early forties, he was handsome, well-off, respected, and often consulted by other physicians in unusual cases. He had degrees from Cornell and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and had been an attending physician at the Bellevue Hospital and the New York Eye Infirmary. He’d taught ophthalmology for five years at the New York Postgraduate Medical School and Hospital.

In short, it wasn’t the resume of someone you’d expect to simply vanish.

After he walked out of the Savoy Hotel that autumn day, his wife spent years tirelessly searching for him up and down Europe and the East Coast of America. She died, reportedly embracing a portrait of her husband, in 1907.

Eye exercises from Strengthening the Eyes
Strengthening the Eyes, Google Books // Public Domain

When Dr. Bates did finally reappear, it was in an unlikely place: Grand Forks, North Dakota.

In 1910, Dr. J. E. Kelly, a good friend of Dr. Bates from his New York days, happened to be passing through Grand Forks, then a town of 12,000 people. There, under circumstances lost to history, Kelly recognized his old friend, who had set up a small ophthalmology practice for himself in the town at some point after disappearing eight years earlier. Eventually Dr. Kelly persuaded Bates to return with him to New York, despite Bates’s complete lack of memories about his previous life there.

The two ophthalmologists went into practice together. “In the window of the house at 117 West 83rd Street hang two neat, white-lettered signs, the one reading Dr. J. E. Kelly, the other Dr. W. H. Bates,” wrote The New York Herald shortly after Bates returned to the city. “Here, living quietly with his old friend, and gradually building up a practice as he did years ago, Dr. Bates, now 51 years old, is starting his career anew.”

Bates never recovered his memories of his previous life in New York City. Reporters only ever managed to piece together a loose collection of stories, hinting at a ghostly existence wandering around Europe as an itinerant doctor before settling into life on the Great Plains of North Dakota.

“It was as if he had a chunk of his mind removed, like a slice of watermelon chopped away and eaten by an invisible monster,” wrote one associate.

Bates went on to serve as an attending physician at the Harlem Hospital and eventually remarried. To outside observers, his life had resumed a rhythm of normalcy, with one major exception: In his chosen field of ophthalmology, where he’d been viewed for years as a luminary, Bates abruptly stepped off the deep end.

THE ART OF SEEING

In 1917, Bates debuted a new and unusual theory of eye care. “The Bates System of Eye Exercises” was offered for the first time in the magazine Physical Culture, run by notorious health quack and shameless self-promoter Bernarr Macfadden. Bates and Macfadden soon had an unexpected hit on their hands; magazine subscriptions skyrocketed.

Three years later, Bates published, at his own expense, a book of these theories entitled Cure of Imperfect Eyesight by Treatment Without Glasses. The work is a highly bizarre compendium of misinformation and exaggeration, heavily illustrated with unusual photographs. Bates’s methods to cure imperfect eyesight relied upon a variety of concepts that flew directly in the face of his several decades of ophthalmology practice. He taught that vision problems were almost exclusively caused by eyestrain and nervous tension, rather than problems with the shape of the eyeball or formation of the lens. Vision issues could theoretically be reduced in their severity, or even cured, by performing a series of eye exercises and learning how to completely relax the mind.

Bates’s followers—and there would be many—were soon busy swinging their eyes from object to object, palming their eyeballs, attempting to visualize “pure black” as a method of mental relaxation, and, most controversially, exposing their eyes to direct sunlight, all in the name of improving their vision.

In 1929, Bates and his methods drew the ire of the Federal Trade Commission, who issued a complaint against him for making false and misleading claims. Nevertheless, his methods continued to grow in popularity, with people seduced by the promise of improving their eyesight without resorting to corrective measures. Many followers were convinced of the efficacy of the Bates method by experiencing abrupt, fleeting moments of clear vision while practicing the exercises. Some were even able to throw away their eyeglasses.

Perhaps the most famous follower of the Bates Method was Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, who had been plagued by vision problems much of his life. Huxley even wrote a book about his eye experiments, dubbed The Art of Seeing, which was published in 1942 and widely read and debated.

Explanations for the improvements that some devotees experienced vary. Some diseases of the eye, such as certain forms of astigmatism, can at times improve on their own, ophthalmologists say. Reduced mental strain can sometimes improve the experience of one's eyesight, even while defects remain. Plus, the moisture built up by repeated exercises of the eye can occasionally produce a temporary contact-lens-like effect.

AMNESIA—OR DISAPPEARING ACT?

To this day, no one has arrived at a definitive theory of what exactly happened to Bates during his disappearances. His obituary in The New York Times refers to the episodes as a “strange form of aphasia,” although that condition is usually limited to affecting the ability to communicate. More commonly, the missing years in his life are described as episodes of amnesia, but that diagnosis may not fit either. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Though forgetting your identity is a common plot device in movies and television, that's not generally the case in real-life amnesia. Instead, people with amnesia—also called amnestic syndrome—usually know who they are. But, they may have trouble learning new information and forming new memories.”

Another possible diagnosis is dissociative fugue, in which a person loses important autobiographical information and embarks upon seemingly aimless wandering. An extremely rare condition, according to Psychology Today, it occurs only in 0.2 percent of the population, but Bates seems to have exhibited the symptoms.

Of course, another tantalizing possibility is that Bates just made the whole thing up. Maybe he was tired of his New York life, or tired of his marriage, or was secretly in debt, and decided to just walk away, claiming memory loss as a reason when he was eventually caught.

Whatever the truth of the case, it went to the grave with the doctor when he died in 1931. His dubious legacy in the underworld of ophthalmology, however, remains alive and well. Despite being routinely condemned on numerous grounds by ophthalmologists, the internet is still abuzz with Bates Method enthusiasts, who have carried his torch well into the 21st century.

Additional Sources: Among the Missing; Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science; Better Eyesight: The Complete Magazines of William H. Bates

35 Outlawed Baby Names From Around the World

kirza/iStock via Getty Images
kirza/iStock via Getty Images

Here in the U.S., we give parents a lot of leeway when it comes to naming their children. New Jersey only bans names that include obscenities, numerals, or symbols, so the Campbells were totally in the clear when naming their children Adolf Hitler and JoyceLynn Aryan Nation. And no one could stop Penn Jillette from naming his daughter Moxie Crimefighter.

Other parts of the world aren’t as liberal when it comes to baby-naming. In 2017, the Swiss court in Zurich ruled against a couple who wanted to use "J" as one of their daughter’s middle names, as a tribute to her great-grandparents, Johanna and Josef. Their reasoning for the objection? That it wouldn’t be in the best interest of the child and that others would be prompted to put a period after the name when it wasn’t an abbreviation. (The court suggested the much-more-acceptable "Jo" instead.) Here are 35 examples of baby names that, for one reason or another, were deemed unfit for a birth certificate.

1. Nutella

In 2015, a French couple decided to name their daughter Nutella because they hoped she could emulate the sweetness and popularity of the chocolate spread. One French judge wasn’t having it, and insisted that the name could only lead to “mockery and disobliging remarks.” It was ruled that the child’s name be shortened to the considerably more conventional-sounding “Ella.”

2. AKUMA (DEVIL)

The case of baby Akuma, which means devil in Japanese, stirred such a frenzy in the early 1990s that it even caught the attention of the Prime Minister’s cabinet. The Justice Minister at the time spoke out against the government intervention, saying, “It is not appropriate to instruct parents to change children’s names without legal basis.” Regardless, naming your child devil eventually became illegal in Japan.

3. ANAL

New Zealand has no time for anyone’s bizarre baby-naming shenanigans. Parents have to get all potential names approved by the government, and if officials deem something too wacky, it gets added to the ever-growing list of banned names. There were many questionable entries on the list they released in 2013, Anal being a particularly horrifying offender.

4. GESHER (BRIDGE)

Norway is another country that regulates what parents can name their child. One Norwegian mother was sent to jail after failing to pay the $420 fine for using an unapproved name. She protested saying that she had been instructed to name her son Gesher, the Hebrew word for bridge, in a dream she had.

5. TALULA DOES THE HULA FROM HAWAII

Borderline child abuse or most epic name ever? The New Zealand government went with the former, and assumed guardianship of the 9-year-old girl who held that moniker in order to ensure that a more appropriate name was found for her.

6. OSAMA BIN LADEN

Shortly following the events of 9/11, a Turkish couple living in Cologne, Germany, felt inspired to name their child after Osama Bin Laden. German officials declined to let that happen, citing the section of their naming guidelines which states that all names "must not be likely to lead to humiliation." What’s more, German law prohibits foreign names that are illegal in the parents’ home country, and this particular moniker is illegal in Turkey.

7. ROBOCOP

In 2014, officials from Sonora, Mexico, compiled a list of banned baby names taken straight from the state’s newborn registries. While citizens are no longer allowed to give this name to their children, there’s at least one kid out there named Robocop.

8. CHIEF MAXIMUS

Max is usually short for something, so why not Chief Maximus? This was another name that landed on New Zealand’s list of banned names.

9.BRFXXCCXXMNPCCCCLLLMMNPRXVCLMNCKSSQLBB11116

Sweden has notoriously strict naming laws. In 1982, a law was passed to prevent non-noble families from bestowing their children with noble names. Today the law vaguely states that “first names shall not be approved if they can cause offense or can be supposed to cause discomfort for the one using it, or names which for some obvious reason are not suitable as a first name.” In protest of the restrictions, one couple decided to make their child’s name a captcha code from hell. The name, pronounced “Albin,” was rejected. The parents later submitted the name with the same pronunciation but rewritten as “A." That was rejected as well.

10. @

As is the case with many countries, China doesn’t allow symbols or numerals to be included in baby names. The at symbol is pronounced “ai-ta” in Chinese, which sounds similar to a phrase meaning “love him.” One couple felt the symbol was a fitting name for their son, but the Chinese government apparently disagreed.

11. CIRCUMCISION

Tragically, t his was another name that officials in Sonora, Mexico, discovered in the newborn registries. They made the heroic decision to ban the unfortunate name from that point forward.

12. HARRIET

If Icelandic parents want to give their children a name that isn’t listed in their National Register of Persons, they can pay a fee and apply for government approval. In addition to not being a potential source of humiliation, the name must also meet criteria that’s more specific to Iceland. It can only include letters in the Icelandic alphabet and must be able to conform to the language grammatically.

One family was unable to renew their daughter Harriet’s passport because her name can’t be conjugated in Icelandic. Her brother Duncan also had a banned name (there’s no letter C in the Icelandic alphabet), and the children instead must carry passports that list their names as “Girl” and “Boy.”

13. METALLICA

A baby girl from Sweden was baptized under this heavy metal name, but tax officials eventually deemed it inappropriate.

14. CHOW TOW (SMELLY HEAD)

By naming their child Chow Tow, which translates to “smelly head,” two parents in Malaysia were basically doing future bullies’ jobs for them. The country published this in a list of banned monikers after receiving an influx of people applying to change their given names.

15. LINDA

In 2014, Saudi Arabia released its own list of banned baby names. Several of them, like Linda, claimed spots due to their association with Western culture.

16. SEX FRUIT

The New Zealand government thankfully stepped in before some poor child had to spend the rest of their life with the name Sex Fruit. (Though being raised by parents who thought that was a smart idea in the first place probably presents its own set of challenges.)

17. MONKEY

Denmark is another country that requires parents to choose baby names from a pre-approved list. Parents need permission from the government to choose outside the list of 7000 names, and each year approximately 250 are rejected. In addition to Monkey, the names Pluto and Anus also didn’t make the cut.

18. VENERDI (FRIDAY)

Italy has the jurisdiction to reject baby names when they are “likely to limit social interaction and create insecurity.” Judges claimed the name Venerdi, meaning Friday, would make the young boy in question the subject of mockery. The parents were forced to change the name, but in response threatened to name their next child Mercoledi, the Italian word for Wednesday.

19. NIRVANA

Portugal has a whopping 80 pages dedicated to listing which names are legal and which are not. Nirvana is among the more than 2000 names that are included in the banned section.

20. FRAISE (STRAWBERRY)

When a couple attempted to name their child after a strawberry, the French courts intervened. The judge claimed that the name Fraise would incur teasing due to its connection to the idiomatic phrase “ramène ta fraise,” which means “get your butt over here.” The parents insisted that they were only trying to give their daughter an original name, and eventually went with “Fraisine” instead.

21. "." (FULL STOP)

Among New Zealand’s 2013 list of banned names that people apparently tried giving to their children is the symbol “.”. The name would have been pronounced “Full Stop.”

22. SARAH

When naming their children, Moroccan parents must choose from a list of acceptable names that properly align with “Moroccan identity.” Sarah with an “H” is banned because it’s considered to be the Hebrew spelling, but the Arabic “Sara” is perfectly fine.

23. Prince William

Unless the Duke of Cambridge is traveling to France, you won’t find any Prince Williams in the country. A couple from southern France was barred from giving the name to their child in 2015. According to a French court, the name would have led to a “lifetime of mockery.”

24. Mini cooper

The French parents who were prevented from naming their baby Prince William came prepared with a back-up: Mini Cooper. The same court that denied them their first choice ruled that it wasn’t appropriate to name their kid after a car either.

25. IKEA

IKEA is beloved around the world, but there’s one place where it’s illegal to name your baby after the furniture store: It’s home country of Sweden. The name violates the nation’s strict naming laws.

26. Hermione

Harry and Ron are acceptable names in many parts of the world, but in the Mexican state of Sonora, Hermione makes the banned baby names list. The Greek name, which means “well born,” predates the studious witch in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Nonetheless, Sonora has determined that the modern pop culture connotations make the name unsuitable for kids.

27. Fish and Chips (for twins)

The names Fish and Chips sound odd enough on their own, but together, they’re downright cruel. New Zealand banned a couple from giving this set of names to their newborn twins, marking a rare occasion when two names were banned as a pairing.

28. Spinach

Speaking of naming children after food: the name Spinach is outlawed in Australia.

29. Cyanide

Not many people have positive associations with Cyanide. A woman from Wales was one exception: She attempted to name her daughter after the poison, explaining that it was "responsible for killing Hitler and Goebbels and I consider that this was a good thing." The British Court of Appeals stepped in before the name became official.

30. 007

If your name has to consist solely of numerals, you could do worse than 007. Sadly, James Bond’s code number is a banned name in Malaysia.

31. Griezmann Mbappe

When France won the World Cup in 2018, two parents wanted to celebrate in a big way. They named their son Griezmann Mbappe after football stars Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe. French officials felt the child wouldn’t grow up to be appreciative of the homage, and they forced the couple to pick a new name for him.

32. Messi

Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe aren’t the only soccer stars who’ve had babies named after them. In Rosario, Argentina, the hometown of Barcelona player Lionel Messi, baby Messis were becoming so common that the town passed a law specifically banning the name.

33. Ambre (for a boy)

Some names are deemed inappropriate not because of how they sound on their own, but because of who they’re given to. French officials stopped a couple from naming their son Ambre (the French version of Amber), arguing that having a traditionally feminine name risked "confusing the child in a way that could be harmful." Another pair of French parents got into legal trouble for similar reasons when they tried naming their daughter Liam.

34. III

Many countries forbid parents and guardians from including numbers in baby names. There have been attempts to skirt this rule in New Zealand by using Roman numerals instead of Arabic numerals, but they were unsuccessful. The name III doesn’t cut it in the country.

35. Blu

Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy could have ended up with a different name if she was born in Italy. A couple in Milan tried naming their own daughter Blu (the Italian spelling of blue) and were ordered to change it. Naming laws in Italy dictate that "the name given to a child must correspond to their sex." Because Blu is an unconventional name, officials argued that it doesn’t correspond to any sex and is therefore illegal.

7 Myths About Mummies

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Thanks to modern technology like CT scanning, we know more about the intimate lives of mummies than ever before. Yet weird myths and centuries-old rumors continue to dog these poor desiccated remains. As we edge closer to Halloween, let's take a look at a few myths about mummies.

1. Mummies can cure diseases.

Until the late 18th century (and occasionally beyond), it wasn’t uncommon for medicines to be sourced from human body parts, as unhygienic as that may have been. Mummies—often labeled mumia, from a Persian word referring to the waxes and resins used in embalming—were sold as powders that could be made into plasters or dissolved in liquids to cure various ailments. Natural philosophers Robert Boyle and Francis Bacon advocated mummy powder as a treatment for bruises and for preventing bleeding. Now, of course, we have NSAIDs and Band-Aids for that.

2. Mummies fueled locomotives.

A number of American newspapers in the 19th century reported that Egypt’s nascent railway system used mummies as fuel for locomotives, allegedly due to the lack of other combustible resources. Mark Twain, who took a train from Cairo to Alexandria, wrote in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad, “the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies 3000 years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D—n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent—pass out a king.’” Twain then qualified his claim: “Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe anything.”

In reality, the whole idea of burning mummies for railway fuel was unnecessary thanks to Egypt’s relations with Great Britain. “Just as the rails and locomotives for the railway were manufactured in Britain, and imported, the obvious source for the fuel was British coal, rather than Egyptian mummies,” scholar Chris Elliott writes in a 2017 paper published in Aegyptiaca: Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt.

3. Mummies make high-quality stationery.

European travelers to Egypt before the 19th century came back with tales of linen mummy wrappings being used to make fine-quality paper. Elliott suggests that these claims were satirical, meant to illustrate certain merchants’ greed or avarice. The myth of “mummy paper” refused to die, however. An 1876 book on the history of paper-making claimed that a Syracuse, New York, newspaper was printed on stock made from imported mummy rags. But the newspaper had actually said:

“Rags from Egypt. Our Daily is now printed on paper made from rags imported directly from the land of the Pharaohs, on the banks of the Nile. They were imported by Mr. G. W. Ryan, the veteran paper manufacturer at Marcellus Falls, in this country, and he thinks them quite as good as the general run of English and French rags.”

Later reports also stated that mills in the Northeast U.S. were producing mummy paper, but all of the sources were anecdotal, and no hard evidence of the practice exists.

4. Mummies curse people who disturb them.

A few 19-century novelists, including Louisa May Alcott, wrote tales about mummies taking revenge on those who desecrated their eternal repose. But mummy curses really took off after archaeologist Howard Carter opened King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Almost immediately, Carter’s colleagues began experiencing weird omens and mysterious demises. A cobra, which is depicted on Tut’s gold mask, supposedly ate a canary belonging to Carter's expedition. Lord Carnarvon, who funded the expedition, died from an infected mosquito bite he got at the site. Carter’s friend Bruce Ingham, a publisher, received a cursed mummy’s hand as a paperweight and then his house burned down.

At the same time, Carter died at the age of 64 in 1939, and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn, who entered the tomb the day it was opened, died in 1980. Any mummy's curse in play was, at least, unevenly applied.

5. A mummy sank the Titanic.

Shortly after the Titanic sank, a rumor went around suggesting that a mummy had caused the catastrophe. A group of British men allegedly took the coffin belonging to an Egyptian priestess and then died mysteriously or suffered horrible injuries. Somehow the coffin had made it to London and continued to wreak havoc until a brash American archaeologist bought it and arranged for it to be shipped to New York on the Titanic. The mummy's curse fell over the ocean liner, but the coffin itself was saved after the wreck and ended up the British Museum under mysterious circumstances.

The myth is easily proven false by the Titanic’s cargo list, which was completely mummy-free. According to Snopes, the cursed mummy story was invented by W.T. Stead, a well-known journalist, as a prank well before the ship sank. People connected the mummy myth to the Titanic only when Stead himself died in the sinking.

6. Mummies make great fertilizer.

Ancient Egyptians sacrificed, mummified, and entombed millions of animals—particularly cats—as offerings to various deities. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer discovered an ancient necropolis holding thousands of mummified cats, and about 180,000 of them were shipped to England. Some were auctioned off—one cat skull even wound up in the British Museum. The remainder were sold to a Liverpool guano merchant who ground up and sold them as fertilizer. While it’s true that some mummies were used as fertilizer, it doesn’t seem to have been a regular occurrence.

7. Eating mummies confers mystical powers.

Charles II of England, who ruled from 1660 to 1685, is said to have dabbed powdered mummy on his royal visage to absorb the powers of the Pharaohs. The king was also known to have mixed powdered human skulls—which may or may not have been from actual mummies—into a tincture called the “king’s drops,” which he drank to increase his health and stamina. Many Europeans believed mummies possessed ancient wisdom, and that consuming or absorbing them would convey their wisdom to the consumer. Scholars say the concept parallels the Catholic ritual of drinking communion wine.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER