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

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

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Fearless Man Slices 26 Watermelons on His Stomach in 60 Seconds, Setting New Record
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Ashrita Furman, a 63-year-old New Yorker who holds the world record for setting the most Guinness World Records, just achieved another one. This time, it was for the most watermelons sliced on top of his stomach in 60 seconds, Nerdist reports.

Furman came up with the idea for the record himself, and while he didn’t have any competition, Guinness stipulated that he had to slice at least 20 watermelons to be recognized. He managed to cut through 26 melons with his tool of choice, a katana, in less than a minute. (He walked away without a scratch.)

Check out this spectacle (and serious ab workout) for yourself:

“I’m really thrilled,” Furman told Reuters after pulling off the feat. “My first reaction is I’m relieved that I didn’t kill myself and the second is that I’m exhilarated because it is not only a skillful record, but also it’s something that I invented and now it’s out there and other people can challenge it.”

Furman, who has been called “Mr. Versatility,” currently holds more than 200 Guinness records. He set his very first record in 1979 after completing 27,000 jumping jacks, and he hasn’t slowed down since. In the past near-40 years he has set the record for—among other feats—the most knives caught in a minute (54); the greatest distance traveled while juggling on a pogo stick (4 miles, 30 feet); and most grapes caught in his mouth in one minute (86).

[h/t Nerdist]

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7 of the Most Bizarre Ways to Die
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While most of us hope death comes with dignity and being surrounded by loved ones, there’s really no telling what fate may have in store. If you manage to avoid some of the most common causes of expiration—heart disease and cancer are statistically the most likely causes to interrupt your existence—there’s an endless series of lesser-known maladies and tragedies that could conceivably cause you to miss the upcoming final season of Game of Thrones.

1. DEATH BY NASAL IRRIGATION POT

A woman uses a peti pot to clear her sinuses
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Neti pots, which are used to irrigate the sinuses of allergy sufferers, resemble teapots with a spout that allows water to be poured into one nostril and come out the other. Usually, the worst case scenario when using one is that you’ll make a huge mess and wind up with a sink full of snot-tinged water. But for two people in Louisiana in 2011, the pot facilitated the transmission of a brain-eating amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri. It’s believed the organism was transmitted by contaminated tap water contained in their residences, which they both used to fill their neti pots.

The amoeba, which is typically found in warm freshwater lakes, causes fatal brain swelling and carries a mortality rate of more than 97 percent—though infection is actually very rare. The fact that the deceased delivered it directly into their sinuses is what led to the fatal outcome. “Normally, it’s totally harmless, doing its own thing in the mud, eating whatever it finds there, going about its business, not bugging anybody,” Dan Riskin, biologist and expert on the Animal Planet series Monsters Inside Me, told Mental Floss last year. That changes when water harboring N. fowleri is violently shoved up someone's nose. That’s why you should never use anything but sterile water in your neti pots.

2. CHOKING IN A COCKROACH EATING CONTEST

Cockroaches are piled on top of one another
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Endurance and eating contests bring their share of peril. There was the case of the woman who died from dangerously low sodium levels after drinking too much water and holding in her urine for a 2007 radio promotion. Gastronomic athletes have died in an attempt to break hot dog eating records. But nothing compares to choking to death on cockroaches. According to CNN, 32-year-old Edward Archbold entered a bug-eating competition in 2012 that was sponsored by a Florida reptile shop. Archbold wolfed down a series of cockroaches and worms, only to find his airway blocked by the influx of their masticated body parts. The medical examiner ruled he asphyxiated on the bugs.

3. GRAPPLING WITH A VENDING MACHINE

A vending machine that offers a variety of options
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Weighing anywhere from 500 to nearly 900 pounds when empty, and even more when fully stocked, vending machines are the closest thing we have to the falling anvils of the cartoon world. When a machine eats bills or fails to dispense Doritos, some people can become agitated enough to think that rocking the unit is a good idea. It isn’t. An estimated 1700 injuries occur each year as a result of tussling with these monuments to snack storage, with roughly four deaths attributable to the duels.

4. POOPING TOO HARD

A man strains while using the toilet
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A fiber-rich diet and sensible cheese consumption should keep most people from enduring a most ignoble end. Straining to pass hard stool can result in something called defecation syncope, or poop-fainting. By holding your breath while bearing down to expel waste, the body’s blood flow is reduced. If you already have compromised arterial blood flow, the low blood pressure can trigger fainting or a heart attack. The University of Miami described two such cases in a 2017 paper. In postoperative hospital care, two patients experienced fatal cardiac events following excessive toilet straining.

5. DEATH BY LAUGHTER

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Some of us truly can suffer consequences during Home Improvement marathons, though not in the way you’d expect. A 2013 paper published in the British Medical Journal offered a litany of possible consequences from laughing, from the minor (fainting) to cardiac events as a result of preexisting conditions. Infamously, a bricklayer named Alex Mitchell died in 1975 after getting the giggles while watching a BBC sketch show titled The Goodies. Mitchell had Long QT syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder that can be worsened by the exertion of laughing. He went into cardiac arrest and died. His wife, Nessie, wrote the show's producers, thanking them for making her husband’s final moments happy ones.

6. KILLED BY A ROBOT

A robot arm holds up a wrench
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As technology improves, it seems inevitable that a robot will eventually stand trial for murder just as Isaac Asimov predicted. When that day comes, we may look upon late Kawasaki factory worker Kenji Urada as an early casualty. In 1981, Urada attempted to repair a robot at one of the company’s plants in Akashi, Japan. Urada failed to heed protocol, jumping over a fence rather than opening it—which would have triggered the machine to shut down. Instead, one of its massive arms pinned Urada to a nearby machine that cut up engine gears. Workers tried to intervene, but Urada was killed. A similar incident occurred in 2015, when a robot at a Volkswagen plant in Germany grabbed an employee instead of a vehicle part and crushed him to death.

7. FELLED BY AN ATOMIC WEDGIE

A man has his underwear yanked out of his pants
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For anyone who has never attended public school, a “wedgie” is committed when an assailant takes a fistful of a victim’s underwear and yanks, causing the garment to become lodged in the buttocks. While uncomfortable, it rarely proves fatal. An exception came in 2013, when a McLoud, Oklahoma man named Brad Lee Davis had a physical confrontation with his stepfather, Denver Lee St. Clair. After a struggle, Davis took St. Clair’s underwear and pulled it up and over his head, causing the elastic waistband to stretch tightly around his neck. The constriction caused his airway to become blocked, and he expired. Davis accepted a plea deal in 2015. “I did a horrible thing when I gave him that wedgie,” he lamented to authorities. Davis received a 30-year sentence.

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