This account of a mental patient's wandering ways appeared in the “Newburgh [Indiana] Democrat" for April 17, 1855. It is reprinting an account from the "Indiana State Sentinel" of unknown date:
Our readers may rely on the perfect accuracy of the following narrative, as it comes from an unquestionable source:
A few days before the adjournment of the Legislature, two members from the South-western part of the State, one hundred and sixty miles distant from Indianapolis, inquired of the Superintendent of the Insane Hospital his reasons for the discharge of Alexander F., a patient from R_____ County.
Dr. Athon assured them that Mr. F. was still at the hospital, and had not been sent home, nor was his early discharge probable.
They stated that they had received letters from different persons, mentioning the fact that Mr. Alex F. was wandering at large in the neighborhoods near his old home; that the citizens were afraid of him and were anxious that he should be returned to the institution without delay.
The next day Dr. Athon received a letter from the guardian of Alex, making inquiry with regard to his escape—how long since he left the hospital and what was his mental condition when he eloped—if elopement it was. I am allowed to copy Dr. Athon’s reply:
Indiana Hospital for the Insane
Indianapolis, March 2nd, 1855
H. C. C____, Esq.
I am just in receipt of your letter of the 28th; and am somewhat surprised to learn that Alex F. is now to be seen in your region. I am not a believer in modern spiritualism, but if Alex is there, his spirit is here; or if his spirit is there, his corporal substance is here, and if both positions can be substantiated, then there is something in spiritualism. But I think we have the veritable, laughing Alex here, so that the people need not be alarmed at his elongated shadow.
Very respectfully, etc.
A few days since the following letter, in answer to the above, arrived. I give it verbatim, with the omission of names of persons and places. It is from a gentleman who is entitled to the fullest confidence:
N____ H____, Indiana, March 19, 1855.
Yours of the 2nd, in regard to Alex F. came to hand. There is something very mysterious about this affair of said Alex’s being here and at the Insane Hospital, both at one and the same time. I have delayed answering on account of taking time to investigate the mystery. These are the facts which eight or ten persons who are well acquainted with Alex will swear to. About Tuesday, the 27th of February last, Alex F. was seen approaching the O___ Mills and distillery. He stopped at the house of a woman by the name of Mrs. W., and asked for water and a basin to wash his hands, and it was given him and he washed. He then approached the O____ Mills, with a staff in hand, but halted for a short time at another place or two. One of the hands at the mill by the name of Russell J., saw him coming, and knowing that he had better be watched, met him and went with him in all his journey through the mills and hog-pens. Alex went up to the garret loft of the mill, observing to Russell J. that he wanted to see the machinery.
After which he went in the distillery, and the distiller, J. B. said to him, “You must not do that, Alex,” at which Alex turned round and said, “What?” He then passed down into the hog house, followed by E. V., (one of the owners of the mills,) and Russell J., who watched him. He came out of the hog house, and they said to him, “Alex, your brother A. and the S.’s are after you.” On which Alex said, “they have no business with me.” He then passed on out of the gate, and picked up his walking stick, which he had left on coming in. He then went on west toward N___ H___, about one-fourth of a mile distant, with a quick walk, and that is the last that has been seen or heard of him.
They all agreed that he looked bad and thin—visage rather pale and sickly. He was not inclined to talk, and said but very little.
Old and young saw him, and he was nowhere else but at the O___ Mills. Those who saw him have been well acquainted with him for years, and they are willing to swear that it was Alex F., and nobody else, for they saw, heard, and, I believe, felt him, and examined his looks closely. He warmed by the fire during the time. The names of a part of the persons who saw him, and are willing to give their affadavits to that effect, are J. B., R. J., R. V., O. B., J. T., and others. Are you certain he was at the Hospital the 29th February.
H. C. C___
The answer of Alex, on being asked when he was home last, makes this “confusion worse confounded,” and the mystery more inexplicable. He at once said: “About three weeks ago I flew down there to whip Russell J., and make honorable proposals to widow ____.” He was reminded that he had not been absent from the Hospital since his admission, on the 19th of June.
“I’ll bite your ear off," he replied, with some indignation. “I tell you that I did go. My spirit flew down there quick, and left this pair of clothes, and the rest of me that you see here in the ward, to take care of Anti-Christ, and keep the devil out of the bath room. I saw Russell J., and threw off my coat to flog him, when he wanted to treat. So I thought I would wait—went with him into the distillery, saw it standing there, and asked, ‘Is this poison?’ and drank a jug of whisky; blowed up R. V. for following me round; didn’t have time to marry the widow, or wring brother A.’s nose—they wouldn’t let me alone enough; went down to the village, got some ale, and then came right home.
“I did not see any body on the road—I was so high up; came with the pigeons; they were a-cheering me—ha! ha! ha!---and didn’t make no time at all; I got home first; I’m going back again to-morrow. The whisky was rotgut; will knock that distiller’s face all to blazes!—it made my head swim—run against the lightning, which singed my whiskers—colored ‘em red. The truth is, Docs, they are all crazy.”
To sum up, we have the positive testimony of ten or more reliable men, who had known him for years, that Alex was in R. county on or about 27th February, and the slightly unconnected, but corroborating narrative of Alex himself, who is yearning to substantiate, at any time, by an unlimited number of oaths, some of them not altogether free from profanity.
On the other hand, the officers of the Hospital, and at least twenty others connected with the institution, will solemnly affirm that they have seen and conversed with Alex two or three times every day for nine months. If this is a case of mistaken identity, it is singular that so many persons should be deceived, and at the same time have such an entire conviction that they are not mistaken. Many a man has been hung on evidence as to his person, much less conclusive. If it is a case of spiritualism, it is somewhat in advance of even modern psychology. If it is an instance of rapid locomotion, the last improvement in transit of passengers has not got round much.
Drawing the hint from Alex’s closing remark, as quoted above, I would suggest that it is a case of morbid mental manifestation—that there is a floating delusion, contagious in its nature, which effects one and the other of the parties alternately; flying from Alex to his county, and from the county to Alex in an uncommonly short space of time.
So. What are we to make of this? As I have mentioned before, 19th century papers were lousy with wild pieces of fiction presented as legitimate news, and that damnable habit of veiling identities with initials makes it impossible to tell if most of the people in this story even existed. (For what it's worth, James S. Athon was indeed the superintendent of the Indiana Hospital For the Insane from 1853-64.) On the other hand, there have been surprisingly well-documented cases of people "appearing" in two places at once, which suggests this story is not entirely impossible.
A genuine doppelganger case? A newspaper hoax? It's your call.