The Diagnosis of Thomas Nicolle

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Every author, I suppose, is familiar with the experience of realising the mistakes he has made the very moment that what he has written has been committed irrevocably to print. And this was so with a book of mine published in 2012 titled The Policeman and the Brothel. I had overlooked something that should have been obvious to me, at least as a possibility.

My wife, who is a doctor, was doing a locum on the island of Jersey and I went with her. Finding myself with nothing to do there for three or four months, I researched three murders that took place there between December 1845 and February 1846, the last of them of a policeman called Le Cronier by a brothel-keeper called Madame Le Gendre, and wrote a book about them. Among other things I discovered in the course of my researches that about a half of all the newspaper proprietors or editors of provincial newspapers in Britain were also vendors of patent medicines, a case of commercial synergy, since patent manufacturers were by far the largest advertisers in their newspapers. And half of the advertisements were for remedies for syphilis, ergo… well, I don’t need to point out the moral.

One of the murders was by a man called Thomas Nicolle, the scion of a respectable family. Not sober, he went to a café in St Helier late at night, there had a quarrel with the owner over the cost of two bottles of champagne previously consumed by him (six shillings), and was thrown out by the owner who followed him and knocked him down in the street. Nicolle went back to his lodgings, fetched a gun, returned to the café and shot at random through the shutters, killing a man called Simon Abraham who was having a late night game of cards there.

Nicolle was sentenced to death, but his advocate went to London to obtain a reprieve from the Home Secretary, who granted it on the grounds that Nicolle had in the past been mad. I quote now what I wrote about some of the evidence at his trial:

According to [his landlady], his behaviour appeared strange and completely inexplicable on a number of occasions. For example she had seen him beating the walls with his fists until they bled… One night he slept in a box in his room instead of on his bed. [She] had never seen him drunk, and said that he was known… as Mad Nicolle.

At the time of his madness he was learning his trade which was that of… a hatter. Obviously, he was a mad hatter, but astonishingly and mortifyingly I missed this in my book. His symptoms, which fitted no commonly-seen pattern nowadays, were those of erethism caused by mercury poisoning. H A Waldron, in an article on the Mad Hatter in the BMJ in 1983, said the psychotic symptoms of erethism were excessive timidity, diffidence, increasing shyness, a desire to remain unobserved and an explosive loss of temper when criticised.

The treatment in those days was plenty of fresh air. Nicolle’s sentence was commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land, where he presumably got plenty of fresh air. And it might have cured him, because he does not appear in the criminal records of Van Diemen’s Land or New Zealand, where he died.

How could I possibly have overlooked so obvious a diagnosis? But of course kind readers will point out that I have overlooked something in this article too.

Apocalyptic Visions

Which is the real France: the country of the quiet and beautiful provincial village, or the one suffering under an onslaught of Islamic terrorism, as evidenced by the recent murder of a police chief and his girlfriend by a Muslim terrorist?

Apocalyptic visions have their pleasures, and the murder of the policeman and his consort (they were not married) easily stimulates such visions. But we are rational beings as well as irrational ones, and it is incumbent on us to try to assess the situation according to the evidence. Oceans of ink have been spilt on the attempt to estimate the true extent of the threat of Islam to the West, and the attempts range from the frankly paranoid to the most supinely complacent. For myself, I veer constantly between the two, hardly pausing in between. In the last analysis, the West has all the cards, intellectual and military; but if it refuses ever to play them, they are of no account.

Read the rest at Taki’s Magazine

Jo Cox – Candles in the Gale

After the terrorist attack in Orlando and the murder of MP Jo Cox, candlelight vigils abound. At Salisbury Review, Dalrymple contemplates the meaning behind it all.

What is the message of these candles? What are the people who light them trying to say or express? That they are opposed to massacre or assassination and regret disaster? But does this really have to be expressed? Perhaps they are trying desperately to recapture a belief in the transcendent whose very existence they doubt or, in other circumstances, vehemently deny.

Toothless in Southsea

Dalrymple unexpectedly enjoys a visit to Southsea:

We had a few hours to kill in Portsmouth and went to Southsea, where Conan Doyle was once a general practitioner. A former haven of petty bourgeois respectability, it is now seedy, its Victorian and Edwardian terraces divided into flats and bed-sits for students, recipients of social security and transients with jobs. I loved it.

For one thing there were scores of little shops, with no chain shops in sight; and you could park for free for two whole hours! There was a splendidly must second-hand bookshop specialising in pre-war crime novels, presided over a pre-internet owner who did not spend his time poring over a computer comparing prices. Southsea seemed delightfully unregulated; it as like going back several decades.

Fly in the counsellors, reiki therapists and human rights lawyers

Mass riots accompanied England’s first match of the 2016 European Championships, held in the already crime-ridden city of Marseilles. Surely the rioters were only expressing existential displeasure at their poverty-stricken lives?

…no doubt in twenty or thirty years’ time a public inquiry, lasting several months if not years, could be mounted at public expense to the immense profit of lawyers, to prove that the fat and ugly sunburnt drunken English fans, suffering from terrible poverty and lacking in self-esteem, were provoked by the French police and were entirely free of any wrong-doing. Did not the French police have ample warning of what the English are like when they get drunk in a hot climate before a football match? Why were they not prepared for it so that instead they had to resort to untensils such as truncheons, tear gas and Alsatian dogs to quell the disturbances rather than prevented them by the mass deployment of counsellors, social workers, reiki therapists and the like?

High Drama at Haydn

Attending a Haydn concert, Dalrymple comes to the horrifying realization that he has brought his cell phone with him, and…insert ominous chords…he has left it on.

What to do about the infernal apparatus in my pocket? I did not want to take it out while the music was still playing, thereby drawing attention to myself as a member of the younger generation who could not concentrate without distracting himself for longer than a few minutes. (No one else in the audience, I felt sure, had even brought a phone with him.) The shame would have been terrible.

Cocking a leg

Why does vulgar art survive and prosper? It’s the same as…

…the reason why Macbeth continued his career of murder. If the art were to cease, the critics, collectors and curators would stand revealed as fools or worse; the vulgarity would no longer be seen as a sign of sophisticated open-mindedness but as the adolescent desire that it is to shock adults. Worse still, prices would fall, and who wants to lose millions?

Dalrymple at Salisbury Review

On a High Note

“Man is a creature, it seems, who does not find the world in which he has been placed sufficiently interesting or satisfying for him to go through without the aid of mind-altering drugs or substances”, says Dalrymple in this new piece at Taki’s Magazine, and he includes himself in that group. For him, it is wine. For others, it is synthetic cannabinoids with names like:

Madcat, Purple Bomb, Pikey Dust, Red Party Mix, Pink Panther, Charley Sheen, Dizzle Dust, Mitsubishi, Jumbo, Death, Diablo, Ultra Bliss, Dust Til Dawn, Mind Melt, Walter Whyte, Sweet Leaf Obliteration, Herbal Smoke, Pineapple Express, Black Cats, Burst Bathsalts, K2, etc., etc.

Renan Revisited

Still reeling from the horrific terrorist attack perpetrated by a Muslim man in Orlando a few days ago, Americans are once again debating the extent to which such terrorism is either endemic to Islam or reflects a problem with American culture. In a timely review of a new book by French writer Jean Birnbaum, Dalrymple analyzes many of these same issues. The left in France, like everywhere else, is loathe to admit the Islamic source of terrorism, says Birnbaum, choosing to ignore the justifications given by the terrorists themselves and instead blaming poverty or oppression, even though most terrorists are neither poor nor oppressed. Such arguments discourage moderate Muslims from reforming their religion, says Birnbaum, for if terrorism in Islam’s name has nothing to do with the real Islam (a claim we Americans are all too accustomed to hearing from our leaders on the left), what need is there for reform? Says Dalrymple:

This may be right in the abstract, but it seems to me to miss an important point. The moderates want, in effect, to reduce Islam to a private confession whose ethical standards are more or less those of, say, a fairly liberal Canadian. In other words, they want to preserve Islam in the modern world by liberalising it and making it compatible with Twenty-First century values. From my personal standpoint, this is laudable and even brave in the circumstances; but there is one enormous flaw in the whole scheme. If the ethics of Islam become those of any reasonably decent person in a liberal democracy, what need of Islam at all? It will become merely a collection of rituals whose irrationality and therefore needlessness will soon become clear under the withering fire of rationalist criticism. Its holy book will be shown to be a literary artefact, a compilation, like any other such book (and by no means the best of the genre, either). Soon nothing of Islam will remain…

Moderate Moslems and moderate leftists share a similar problem. Both believe that their world outlook has something uniquely precious about it, but perceive that in fact the world can get on perfectly well without it. What, then, remains of the precious contribution of their worldview? It is not uncommon in France to see articles about the future of the left now that radically egalitarian transformation of society has been ruled out. What can it argue for now? Recognition of polygamy, incestuous marriage or the rights of necrophiliacs? Whatever it is, it will not be sufficient to justify or support a whole worldview; rather, the left will be reduced to a state of permanent querulousness about this or that supposed injustice, one succeeding another. For underlying the self-conceit of the left is a belief in oppositionism as such: and as it is more blessed to give than to receive, so it is more blessed to oppose what exists than to support or sustain it. The left starts out from a belief in original virtue, especially its own; therefore it must preserve itself and its world outlook, however difficult this may be.

You really should read the whole thing.