By 1896, 22-year-old Ben Osborne had attempted suicide, appeared before a federal judge for sending obscene letters to a woman with whom he was infatuated, spent eight months in the state asylum at Milledgeville, and worked for nearly three years as an engraver at a printing plant. In the summer of 1896 he quit his job and shut himself in his room at his parents’ house, reading scientific books and writing philosophical treatises.
In September, the hypnotists Professor and Mrs. Lee brought their popular stage show to Atlanta’s Lyceum Theater. Hypnotism had been practiced and studied for decades but not until the success of George du Maurier’s novel Trilby in 1894 had it become the subject of general fascination in America.
The novel introduced the figure of Svengali into popular folklore; his power over the innocent young heroine kindled widespread speculation over the nature of consciousness and responsibility, speculation in which considerations of seduction and sexuality were never far from the surface. The Lees and many others traveled the country in the late ’90s, cashing in on du Maurier’s success.
Despite later denials by Professor and Mrs. Lee’s manager, several sources maintained that Ben Osborne attended the hypnotists’ Atlanta performances nearly every night and repeatedly volunteered to be hypnotized for the amusement of the audience. In retrospect, many audience members recalled that on one evening Professor Lee had suggested to Osborne that he was a dog, and that Osborne had convulsed the crowd with vividly canine antics.
Ben Osborne’s behavior had become more erratic in the months since he had quit his job. His nocturnal strolls grew longer and longer till he sometimes walked 30 miles a night. His family grew concerned that his dementia was returning and had him examined by Dr. Hugh Hagan.
Hagan thought Osborne depressed but otherwise normal. Osborne told Hagan that he feared being sent back to the asylum. The Osbornes’ concern became alarm when they found that on Oct. 5 Ben had gone to the home of Alice Kay, 18, whom he had been courting for months, and accompanied her to a nearby Methodist parsonage where they were married. The Reverend Dr. Roberts had first been reluctant to perform the ceremony. He said that the prospective groom’s behavior had been peculiar, but the license was valid and Osborne seemed rational.
The newlyweds stayed at a hotel for two days before their families discovered the marriage. The Osbornes attempted to have the marriage annulled. Edward and James Osborne tried to persuade Ben to return home with them, but he refused. When they told Alice of her husband’s history, she responded angrily that Ben had told her everything and that she was willing to share his troubles with him.
Within a few days the Osbornes had managed to get Ben back to their house, where they locked him in a room and sent for the police to arrest him as a dangerous lunatic. The officer said that certain papers would have to be filled out and filed and that an appointment would have to be made for a hearing before a judge.
On the morning of Oct. 9, the Osborne family went to testify in Recorder’s court, leaving Edward at home to guard Ben’s locked room. Judge Calhoun told the Osbornes that Ben would have to appear before him personally and sent a bailiff to fetch him from the house on Chapel Street.
Edward showed the bailiff to the locked door, behind which Ben was screaming that he would kill anyone who came in. The bailiff peeped through the transom and saw that Ben had a pistol. He left the house and called the sheriff for further instructions. The sheriff sent a deputy, but when the lawmen returned they found Edward guarding an empty house with a length of rope dangling from an upstairs window. Ben Osborne was armed and at large.
Osborne went immediately to the room in the Purcell House hotel where his young wife was still living. He reloaded his pistol, throwing the old cartridges into the fire. Turning to Alice he handed her a piece of cardboard on which he had drawn the head of a dog.
“That dog,” he explained, “has my heart in his soul. I must find him and kill him, or some other man will find him first, and then I will have to kill the man who gets my soul before I do.” Having explained himself, Ben Osborne pocketed his pistol and went out on the streets of Atlanta to find his lost soul.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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