The inventor of Psycho – John Nevil Maskelyne

If I said the word ‘psycho’, what would be the first thing that came into your head? The Alfred Hitchcock movie? Or one of the many more recent serial killers who have been dubbed a psycho by the tabloid press? Would you immediately think of it as contraction of psychopath?

In reality, ‘psycho’ simply means relating to the soul or the mind, and in the late 19th century, psychiatry was concerned with issues around the psyche, using the older term psychalgia to describe mental pain, or melancholy.

But alongside such explorations of the mental state of individuals came the term psychopath. This was frequently used by Victorians to describe not an individual suffering from psychopathic behaviour, but as a description of doctors who specialised in the treatment of mental disorder.

It gradually changed to become the term for a person who exhibited psychopathic behaviour, rather than the person treating him or her (the OED gives the first written evidence for this as being 1885).

We’ve certainly witnessed stories involving psychopathic behaviour leading to criminal activity, yet in the 1870s and 1880s, the term ‘psycho’ did not have the negative connotations that we now see with it.

In fact, during this decade, perhaps the most famous psycho wasn’t a human at all. During the recent research I’ve been doing into the history of the theatre, I’ve been studying the life and work of Victorian magician John Nevil Maskelyne.

An advert for Psycho from the Scotsman, 20 March 1884

Together with John Algernon Clarke, Maskelyne created an automaton who they named Psycho – not because he was mentally disturbed, but because he was perceived by contemporary audiences to have human qualities – he could play whist, for example(!)

A newspaper advert for Psycho

Psycho intrigued and fascinated Victorian audiences, and appeared in over 4,000 performances at London’s Egyptian Hall alone. Maskelyne was a master of self-publicity; in one paper of February 1875, no fewer than seven adverts were placed, all promoting Maskelyne and Cook at the Egyptian Hall.

Readers were told that at 3.20 precisely, the ‘wonderful’ Psycho would perform, and that anyone wishing to see ‘him’ perform should buy tickets in advance or face disappointment. (Morning Post, 5 February 1875)

Psycho was described by his inventors as ‘the Great Mystery of 1875’ who would play whist with ‘any three gentlemen who may volunteer from the audience…and perform other astounding feats requiring the exercise of memory and skill of no ordinary character.’

Nine years later, reviews of Psycho were still glowing – ‘There can be no doubt whatever that Psycho is the most clever piece of mechanism that has ever been produced’ (The Scotsman, 20 March 1884)

So when we describe someone as a ‘psycho’, we’re actually using a term that has become a pejorative one over a relatively recent period of years – having, with Maskelyne’s automaton, been a positive term denoting cleverness and skill, yet today being used by parts of the press to denote evil and madness.