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November 23, 2022
Robert M. Kaplan
A forensic psychologist finds inspiration in the tales of his trade

My current opus, The King Who Strangled His Psychiatrist and Other Dark Tales, is a journey through the three elements in illness—doctors, diseases, and patients—packed with startling conditions, cases, and individuals. The famous or notorious described are not all ill but demonstrate behavior that illustrates the human condition.

These elements come together in Ludwig II. The mad monarch who built those enchanting castles in Bavaria was locked up in a palace coup before strangling his psychiatrist and drowning himself—the only known case in history of a psychiatrist being killed by a royal’s own hands (so far). My colleagues should read this with trepidation.

Otto von Bismarck (the man, not the herring), the chancellor of the German Empire and the greatest politician of his day, was guzzling and sozzling himself to death before the crank doctor Ernst Schweninger saved his life.

Half-forgotten adventurers whose dreams turned into nightmares were Harold Lasseter—throwing his life away searching for a nonexistent gold reef in Central Australia—and Maurice Wilson, driven by a messianic dream to climb Mt. Everest without help and succumbing a day’s climb from the top.

"Hermann Rorschach, the inkblot man and cult enthusiast, died tragically young, never learning how his work had become a meme."
Doctors include psychiatrist Johan Scharffenberg, a hero of the Norwegian resistance; Bernard Spilsbury, the CSI pioneer whose evidence led to at least three men being unjustly hanged; Humphry Osmond, who trialed LSD in a remote Canadian province; Max Jacobson, who pumped John F. Kennedy full of speed (and nearly wrecked the president’s 1961 summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna); the charismatic Leander Starr Jameson, who started a war with his impetuous raid into the Transvaal Republic; and Arnold Hutschnecker, Richard Nixon’s therapist.

The early psychoanalysts were an interesting bunch. The brilliant Viktor Tausk, rejected by both Freud and Helene Deutsch as an analysand, died by shooting and hanging himself. Hermine Hug-Hellmuth, the first child analyst, was murdered by the nephew about whom she had written. Hermann Rorschach, the inkblot man and cult enthusiast, died tragically young, never learning how his work had become a meme.

Deception is ever-present. Czech-born criminal Milan Brych, the fake cancer specialist, filled a graveyard with his patients in the Cook Islands. In the age of the internet influencer, pert Belle Gibson attracted hundreds of thousands of followers with her claim of curing brain tumors by diet and healthy lifestyle before being exposed as never having had cancer. The book Sybil, a literary fraud, led to a famous movie and to a diagnosis: multiple personality disorder.

Criminals whose exploits are described in the book include Hawley Harvey Crippen, a British doctor who was hanged on disputed evidence provided by Spilsbury; Lowell Lee Andrews, the murderer who shared a cell with the killers written about in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; and Ira Einhorn, the American New Age guru who battered his girlfriend to death and lived in Europe for two decades before being extradited. Not forgotten is mass murderer Louis van Schoor, who ended up in the same jail as his matricidal daughter.

Other assassins not ignored include Dimitri Tsafendas, who answered a worm in his belly that told him to kill the architect of apartheid, Hendrick Verwoerd. Lee Harvey Oswald gets mention, as do doctors Edward Charles Spitzka and Edward Anthony Spitzka, father and son, who respectively testified at the trials of the assassins of 18th-century U.S. presidents James Garfield and William McKinley.

Some treatments and cures come from strange ideas. The visions of Bernadette Soubirous created the healing spa of Lourdes but did not prevent her early death. Milton Rokeach put three patients with schizophrenia, each of whom believed they were Jesus Christ, together for two years and ultimately decided that he had been as deluded as they were in trying to cure them. Aristocrat Amanda Feilding ran an election campaign to allow trepanning (drilling holes in one’s head).

Assembled with the immodest panache that pervades my writing, would The King Who Strangled His Psychiatrist and Other Dark Tales not be a book worth publishing and letting the public show their approval? I have no doubt. No publisher would know this; they neither read, respond to, nor reject my earnest supplications.

In meantime, having remembered everything and learned nothing, I am writing about Helen Flanders Dunbar, the beautiful polymath who discovered accident-proneness and became a victim of her own discovery. It’s better than living a life of quiet writerly desperation. And who knows? Another rejection slip may arrive to cheer me up tomorrow. In all likelihood, self-publishing lies ahead.

Robert M. Kaplan is a forensic psychiatrist, speaker, and writer based in Wollongong, Australia.