Chaloner was born John Armstrong Chanler in New York City on October 10, 1862, and was the son of Margaret Astor Ward Chanler and John Winthrop Chanler, a lawyer and three-term congressman. Both parents had died by 1877. Related to the Astors, Livingstons, and Stuyvesants, Chanler was closely connected to the social and economic elite of New York. After attending a military academy and studying in England, he received bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University in 1883 and 1884, respectively, and was admitted to the New York bar. He traveled extensively at home and abroad before settling in Paris, where he attended the Collège de France, the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, and the Sorbonne. By 1888, Archie Chanler, as he was called, had a reported personal fortune of $4 million and seemed destined to live on equal terms with the nation's most powerful industrialists and politicians.
Entering a partnership in North Carolina with another of his brothers, Chaloner was a founder of the town of Roanoke Rapids, where he built an electric power-generating station and a cotton mill. He provoked his brothers when he proposed that girls working at the mill receive education at company expense, as if he cared nothing about profits. Late in 1896 Chaloner announced his experiments with what he termed the "X-Faculty." Convinced that he was an experimental psychologist of great insight, he stated that he had discovered a new sense and that while he was in a trance and taking dictation from the faculty, it had given him a tip that netted him a tidy profit in the stock market. The faculty also predicted that his brown eyes would turn gray, erroneously led him to believe that he could carry hot coals in his hands without harm, informed him that he resembled the emperor Napoléon I, and cautioned him that with danger lurking everywhere, he should sleep with a pistol.
The family regarded those assertions as proof that Chaloner had become incurably insane and enticed him to return to New York, where they had him certified as a lunatic and on March 13, 1897, committed him involuntarily to the Bloomingdale Hospital, in White Plains. Vehemently disagreeing with his diagnosis, Chaloner regarded his family's actions as the product of a sinister desire to seize his estate and silence him about his radical experiments. He composed bitter sonnets on that and related themes while in the asylum. On June 12, 1899, a New York court declared him insane and ruled that he be permanently institutionalized.
In November 1900 Chaloner escaped and entered a private clinic, where doctors
declared him competent to function in society. He began plotting a strategy to
challenge the New York verdict and lunacy laws in general. His case became a cause
célèbre for the nation's leading psychologists. Opponents of custodial insane asylums
declared that Chaloner's behavior was rational and that his experiments were
compatible with recent research into parapsychology and the subconscious.
Professional psychiatrists at Bloomingdale and elsewhere declared that Chaloner
Between 1906 and his death Chaloner published about two dozen books, largely at his own expense, that focused on his experiences at Bloomingdale Hospital, his subsequent legal battles, and the X-Faculty. The books included the sonnets composed in the asylum and plays and sonnets that the X-Faculty dictated to him, as well as legal briefs, favorable newspaper articles about his case, reviews of his other books, and his comments on the reviews, often in verse. Chaloner cast himself as a crusader against the tyranny of psychiatric power, especially in The Lunacy Law of the World (1906). He was far too unstable to lead a reform campaign effectively, and other men, such as Clifford Whittingham Beers, organized the reform movement that led to the creation in 1909 of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene.
Chaloner's public lectures on the X-Faculty and on his resemblance to Napoléon Bonaparte often included ranting against psychiatry and the Chanler family. He declared that through the medium of the X-Faculty he had received messages from beyond the grave from P. T. Barnum, Julia Ward Howe, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, William Shakespeare, and George Washington, among others. Chaloner asserted, on no less an authority than William James, that he was the first scientific medium.
Journalists closely followed Chaloner's colorful career and his conflicts with the Chanler family. In the summer of 1910 his brother Robert Winthrop Chanler married the opera singer Lina Cavalieri and signed over control of nearly all of his property to her. The marriage broke down almost immediately, and after the embarrassing details about the marriage settlement became public, Chaloner wired his brother, "Who's looney now?" The phrase, which may have already had some popular currency, captured the public imagination and was ever after credited to Chaloner. The line was popularized in movie titles and written into burlesque sketches. Chaloner later pretended that a newspaper writer had coined the phrase, but he reveled in the notoriety and titled one of his many books The Swan-Song of "Who's Looney Now?"
Chaloner died of cancer in the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville early on the morning of June 1, 1935. He was buried near his Albemarle County residence in the graveyard of Grace Episcopal Church, of which he had been a longtime trustee. Nearly every obituary summed up his life with the single phrase that seemed both to characterize his existence and reflect the controversies in which he was involved: "Who's looney now?"
- Four Years Behind the Bars of "Bloomingdale," or, The Bankruptcy of Law in New York (1906)
- The Lunacy Law of the World: Being That of Each of the Forty-Eight States and Territories of the United States, with an Examination Thereof and Leading Cases Thereon; Together with That of the Six Great Powers of Europe—Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia (1906)
- Scorpio: (Sonnets) (1907)
- The X-Faculty, or, the Pythagorean Triangle of Psychology (1911)
- Hell: Per a Spirit-Message Therefrom (Alleged): a Study in Graphic-Automatism (1912)
- Petition for the Impeachment for Malfeasance in Office of George C. Holt, Judge of the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York (New York City) (1912)
- The Swan-Song of "Who's Looney Now?" (1914)
- "Saul"; A Tragedy in Three Acts (1915)
October 10, 1862 - John Armstrong Chanler is born in New York City.
1883 - John Armstrong Chanler earns a bachelor's degree from Columbia University in New York.
1884 - John Armstrong Chanler receives a master's degree from Columbia University in New York.
1888 - John Armstrong Chanler has a reported personal fortune of $4 million.
June 14, 1888 - John Armstrong Chanler marries Amélie Louise Rives, of Albemarle County.
September 1895 - John Armstrong Chanler and Amélie Louise Rives obtain a divorce under the lenient laws of South Dakota.
1896 - John Armstrong Chanler announces his experiments with what he terms the "X-Faculty."
March 13, 1897 - John Armstrong Chanler's family commits him involuntarily to the Bloomingdale Hospital, in White Plains, New York, after having him certified as a lunatic.
June 12, 1899 - A New York court declares John Armstrong Chanler insane and rules that he be permanently institutionalized.
November 1900 - John Armstrong Chanler escapes Bloomingdale Hospital in White Plains, New York, and enters a private clinic, where doctors declare him competent to function in society.
1901 - A Virginia court declares John Armstrong Chanler sane, even though in New York he is still legally insane and requires involuntary institutionalization.
June 1, 1908 - John Armstrong Chanler legally changes his last name to its original historical spelling, Chaloner.
1909 - During a struggle, John Armstrong Chaloner accidentally shoots and kills a neighbor, John Gillard, whose wife had sought refuge at his home, the Merry Mills, after a violent domestic quarrel. A coroner's jury acquits him of responsibility, but Chaloner suffers a nervous breakdown and requires medical attention.
September 1910 - John Armstrong Chaloner wires his brother, "Who's looney now?" after the embarrassing details about his brother's marriage settlement became public. The phrase, which may have already had some popular currency, captures the public imagination and is ever after credited to Chaloner.
1919 - After years of discord John Armstrong Chaloner reconciles with his family, who offer no opposition when Chaloner successfully petitions a New York court to certify him as sane in that state.
June 1, 1935 - John Armstrong Chaloner dies of cancer in the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Haber, C., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John Armstrong Chaloner (1862–1935). (2013, August 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Chaloner_John_Armstrong_1862-1935.
- MLA Citation:
Haber, Carole and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John Armstrong Chaloner (1862–1935)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 21 Aug. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 29, 2009 | Last modified: August 21, 2013
Contributed by Carole Haber and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.