Professional psychiatry was only in its infancy at the end of the 19th century, and many physicians disputed its scientific basis. In 1896, psychiatrists—or alienists as they were then called—entered the political arena in a controversy over the sanity of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was heartily disliked by many middle-class urban professionals, precisely the sort of people who became alienists. In a letter to the New York Times of September 27, 1896, a self-identified anonymous “Alienist” declared that Bryan was of a “mind not entirely sound.” In this editorial, published the same day, the Times soberly endorsed the psychiatrist’s diagnosis. A few days later, it polled nine New York alienists, among them the leaders of the psychiatric profession, on Bryan’s sanity: two refused comment; three believed him to be of “sound mind;” and four agreed with the “Alienist’s” original diagnosis.
It was reported the other day that one of the most eminent physicians in Philadelphia, who attended the Bryan meeting in Philadelphia solely out of professional interest in the candidate’s case, gave it as his opinion the Mr. Bryan was suffering from mental disorders. Today the Times is able to present the deductions from the public history of the case made by an eminent alienist, whose name, if we were at liberty to give it, would add authority to what he says.
These deductions lead by a more scientific road to the same conclusion to which sane and sober people have already arrived. It was expressed, in the language of the laymen, in Gov. Flower’s characterization of Bryan as “unsteady” and “unsafe.” This characterization has been borne out even more strongly by what Mr. Bryan has been saying and doing since than by what he had said and done before. The Times some weeks ago gave a compilation of the most extravagant and senseless utterances up to that time. The compilation is much expanded and brought down to date in the current number of Harper’s Weekly by Mr. Franklin Matthews; and the result is very striking. Nobody can look through it without feeling that these are not the sayings of a sane and sober mind. Another document, of almost equal importance, is the series of three photographic “snap shots” at Bryan in the act of delivering an oration, originally published in an Iowa newspaper. They have been republished in more than one periodical in this city, but they deserve a much wider circulation. No impartial person who had looked at them, even if he had no other evidence on the subject, could believe that the person thus represented was fit to be the Chief Magistrate of a great Nation.
It does not follow that these indications of an unbalanced and unsound mind are indications of such a lack of balance and soundness as entitle us to say that the possessor of it is insane, in a legal or a medical sense, that he is afflicted with delusions as to matters of fact. That is a question for expert alienists, and our correspondent suggests the view that experts are likely to take of it. But it cannot have escaped the attention of any reader of the reports that there is a progressive increase in the recklessness and the vanity of the candidate’s speeches. These now number about 200, and the collection of them will form a valuable psychological document, the history of a “case.” It is extremely unlikely that when he first took the stump, Mr. Bryan would have had the recklessness or the vanity to say of the westward movement of gold that it had been caused by his nomination. This monstrous assertion is almost equally significant and discouraging whether we regard it as having been honestly or dishonestly made. Equally amazing in its recklessness is his invocation in Brooklyn of the name of Beecher in behalf of the free coinage of silver at a false ratio. It was this recklessness that enabled Mr. Depew to counter upon him with terrific force by quoting Beecher’s explicit declaration in favor of the gold standard.
What, however, most entitles us to say that Mr. Bryan is of unsound mind, whether we call his condition unsoundness in English or insanity in Latin, is that his procedures are not adaptations of intelligent means to intelligible ends. His ostensible object is to be elected to the Presidency, and his speeches are supposed to be means to that end. Why, then, does he not make them where there is a chance that they may be effective, in the doubtful States of the West? Why does he speak in Philadelphia, in Brooklyn, in New England, after the election in Vermont and Maine have shown him what he has to expect there? Can it be possible that he regards Pennsylvania and New York and New England as doubtful? Has he the diseased vanity to that anything he can say will affect the result in these communities? Or is it that his vanity is satiated and his real object is attained when he addresses crowded houses in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, and faces 50,000 people on Boston Common; that talking with him is not a means but an end? In either case is it not plain that the man’s mind is not sound, and that its unsoundness is increasing?
Source: New York Times, 27 September 1896.