Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Is Mr. Bryan a Mattoid"?

It seems that the New York Times of the late 19th Century was about as sleazy as it is now. The target was different, but the methodology was the same: use pseudo-psychology to smear the enemy as unhinged and dangerous, with a hint of religious craziness thrown in for good measure.

On September 27, 1896 - in the middle of the 1896 presidential campaign that pitted Republican William McKinley against Democrat William Jennings Bryan - the Times saw fit to publish an article with the subtle headline, Is Bryan Crazy?

Two days later, the paper followed up with an article entitled Is Mr. Bryan a Mattoid; Leading Alienists Analyze the Democratic Candidate. In the finest Times tradition, the follow-up article purported to be fair and balanced, although the subtitle suggests that the panel of "alienists" consulted was somewhat one-sided: "They Disagree, as Experts Very Often Do - Dr. Sachs Sees a Chance for Physical Breakdown - Drs. Hammond and Dana Think There Is Evidence of Degeneracy - Dr. Spitzka Thinks Lightly of Him - Dr. Collins Wants Fair Play."

You can read the original articles at the links above. In The Presidential Election of 1896, Stanley L. Jones describes the Times's smear as follows:
Probably the most irresponsible development of the entire campaign occurred in the columns of the New York Times. On September 27, [1896,] the Times published a letter signed by an "eminent alienist," in which the writer concluded, from an analysis of Bryan's speeches, that his mind "was not entirely sound," that his presence in the campaign created the possibility that there would be a "madness in the White House," and that Bryan was a man of "abnormal egotism." The writer of the letter added that Bryan's father had been a "religious fanatic and crank."

In the same issue and on the same page the Times editorially expressed its agreement with the writer of the letter. The newspaper, too, found in [Bryan's] speeches the evidence of his mental deterioration. It did not follow, said the Times, that Bryan was insane. Nevertheless, they went on to say: "What, however, most of all entitles us to say that Mr. Bryan is of unsound mind, whether we call this condition unsoundness in English or insanity in Latin, is that his procedures are not adaptations of intelligent means to intelligent ends."

A mattoid, by the way, is "a person displaying eccentric behaviour and mental characteristics that approach the psychotic."


  1. Anonymous10:59 AM

    Elektra, you have really been on a roll lately with a series of great posts. So I guess by NYT standards Bryan met all the qualifications of a "mattoid" (great new word, by the way). He challenged the status quo, he attracted support from the great unwashed, he was openly Christian, and he had the unmitigated gall to be from the West. What more proof do you need?

  2. At least he wasn't from Texas!


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