It began with a cryptic telegram received by a guest at a New Orleans hotel on July 10, 1872. The guest, who was registered as "Felix Somers" opened the telegram which was written in a rather elaborate cipher he decoded on the spot. The message in full read: "Will you feign insanity; enter Doctor Baldric's mad-house as a patient, and write expose? If you accept, come to New York. Answer." It was signed "W.F.G.S." Despite the hidden message, the guest had no difficulty decoding the message and replying with a single word, "Yes". And so he began making arrangements for what would be one of the most challenging assignments of his career.
In reality, "Felix Somers" was 22-year-old Julius Chambers, one of the world's first investigative journalists, and the assignment was nothing less than to have himself committed to Bloomingdale Asylum, a private hospital for the mentally ill located in New York on the site where Columbia University now stands.
As a private hospital, Bloomingdale Asylum was reserved for those patients who had families able to afford their care (the very poor went to the asylum located on Blackwell's Island instead). Despite its reputation for humane care, there were still allegations of patient abuse which led to the Julius Chambers' rather unusual undercover assignment. Ironically, the idea for the assignment had come from the asylum's head who had suggested that a reporter be sent in to see that the allegations were false. Chambers' editor had decided to take the doctor at his word, but not in the way that he had intended.
Not only would the reporter be committed, but it had to be done in a way that would make him seem like a regular patient in need of psychiatric care. To make this happen, Chambers had to do things just right. That involved careful research into different symptoms that mental patients might display and then recruiting friends and colleagues who would play their part as well. After spending the next week "cramming" for what would be his best performance, he then traveled to New York to put his plan into action.
Along with researching the role, Chambers also prepared himself physically as well. As he would later write:
"Up to this moment, if I have made myself clear, you have taken the best care of your bodily health. You have lived the regular, laborious life of an enthusiast. Now cast all regularity of life to the winds. Stop your hearty dinners: substitute for the ale two large cups of black coffee or strong green tea. If four cigars have been your daily allowance, now smoke fourteen - so that the sudden abandonment of tobacco three days later will, at the end of forty-eight hours' abstinence, smash your nervous system into fragments. Any regular stimulant, taken in excess for a short time and then suddenly stopped, will produce the same result. Never for a moment lose confidence in yourself, or in the power of your constitution to sustain all the shocks from which it is to suffer. There is no danger from a temporary and systematic overstrain: the human mind can endure severe trials under which the physical frame would be shattered forever."
On August 13, 1872, a doctor was called to an upscale hotel in New York City to see one of the hotel guests who had been acting strangely. The guest, a young man named Felix Somers, looked exhausted at being up for eleven hours straight, sitting next to the open window in his room. According to hotel staff, Somers had spent the entire night demanding that the hotel porters bring boiling water up to his room (hot water apparently being his preferred drink). By morning, he had made dozens of these strange requests.
That same morning, Somers was visited by a friend who came to his room along with a hotel clerk. At least, it appeared to be a friend, though Somers claimed not to know him. That, along with the glazed look in his eyes and general unkempt appearance, led to a doctor being called in to make a medical examination. When the doctor arrived, things got even stranger. Though Somers claimed not to know his first visitor, he greeted the doctor (whom he had never met) as a long-lost friend. "Sampson," he exclaimed, "How's Delilah and the baby?" The doctor, who happened to be named Dromio Johnson, consulted with the friend, Dinfor, and learned that Somers had been recently ill. He also learned that he had an uncle in town though he had apparently decided to stay in a hotel rather than go to the uncle's house. Dr. Johnson recommended that Somers be placed in a nurse's care and that the uncle be called at once.
The "uncle" (actually a confederate named Foster) arrived that afternoon and spent some time with the two other men until the doctor returned. At this point, Chambers resumed his "mad" act by pretending to talk to himself and not taking notice of anyone else in the room. When the doctor examined him and noticed that his pulse was racing, he concluded that his patient "presents all the visible symptoms of mental aberration." After arranging for a nurse to tend him through the night, the doctor concluded that the patient be sent to an asylum if he failed to improve. Along with the nurse, a burly man named McFinn, Chambers was transferred to a larger hotel room to wait until morning.
Chambers then spent the evening feigning madness (since the nurse needed to be fooled as well). In his book, he describes his bizarre antics that night including ribald singing, covert exercise to boost his pulse, rambling to himself, and even leaping on and off his bed. The noise was enough to rouse other guests and hotel staff who all came to his door to see what was wrong. At one point, the poor nurse pleaded with the doctor to have another nurse sent in to help him since he was fearing for his own safety. A medical student was sent for and Chambers was obliged to continue his mad act for him as well.
By the next morning, Dr. Johnson and Chambers' two confederates met to discuss what had happened the previous evening. Then came the biggest challenge since Doctor Johnson arranged for a medical expert on lunacy to examine the patient. At that time, there were certain standard "tests" of insanity that were given to patients though the most extreme of them were usually reserved for prisoners suspected of feigning insanity to avoid execution. Chambers had prepared himself to pass all of them, either on his own or with help from one of his confederates. To his relief, the expert didn't carry out any tests but simply relied on the statements from people who had been dealing with "Felix Somers". Based on this evidence, the expert agreed that Somers/Chambers should be sent to an asylum.
After a trip to a police courtroom to arrange for a judge to sign the commitment papers, a sanity hearing was quickly held. With testimony from the two physicians along with the that of Chambers' two confederates, the judge agreed to have Chambers transferred to Bloomingdale Asylum. Again, there was little actual debate and the warrant the judged signed concluded that "Felix Somers is INSANE, and by reason of this Insanity, is so far disordered in his senses as to endanger his own person, or property of others, if permitted to go at large." According to Chambers, "It was only a matter of ten minutes, two affadavits, and two legal blanks."
With the signed warrant in hand, Chambers and his two confederates traveled by coach to Bloomingdale Asylum and the undercover assignment could finally begin.
To be continued