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.
Often at odds with his family, Chanler legally changed his name to what he believed to be its original historical spelling, Chaloner, on June 1, 1908. Conflicts arose from both his personal and business behavior. His family disapproved of his marriage on June 14, 1888, to Amélie Louise Rives, of Albemarle County, author of The Quick or the Dead? A Study (1888), a daring novel in which the leading male character bore a clear resemblance to Chaloner. The marriage was unsuccessful from the beginning, and he eventually agreed to her obtaining a divorce under the lenient laws of South Dakota in September 1895. The Chanlers were shocked when he continued to reside near his former wife’s Albemarle County property on an estate he enlarged and named the Merry Mills, provided her with an annual sum, and became friendly with her and her second husband. Newspapers widely reported these events, and his mortified brother, Robert Winthrop Chanler, is supposed to have characterized him as “looney.”
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
suffered from a textbook case of paranoia and that little could be done to treat his systematic delusional insanity other than permanent involuntary commitment at Bloomingdale. Although a Virginia court in 1901 declared him sane, a verdict in which a North Carolina court later concurred, in New York he was still legally insane and required involuntary institutionalization.
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, among others. Chaloner asserted, on no less an authority than William James, that he was the first scientific medium.
Chaloner attracted more public notice in 1909 when during a struggle he accidentally shot and killed a neighbor, John Gillard, whose wife had sought refuge at the Merry Mills after a violent domestic quarrel. A coroner’s jury acquitted him of responsibility, but Chaloner suffered a nervous breakdown and required medical attention. Eventually, however, he paid for the victim’s funeral and gravestone, hung a picture of Gillard and his family in his dining room, and with a metal, six-pointed star marked the spot on the floor where Gillard’s head had fallen.
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?”
After years of discord the family reconciled in 1919 and offered no opposition when Chaloner successfully petitioned a New York court to certify him as sane in that state. Yet to people in the North Carolina mill town where he owned property and the Virginia countryside where he resided, Chaloner remained more than an eccentric curiosity. His neighbors in Virginia called him “the General,” and he often paid their bills and opened his house to them. Concerned throughout his life with education, he promised in his will both the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia large sums of money. During the winter of 1890–1891 he established the Paris Prize Fund (after 1917 the John Armstrong Chaloner Paris Prize Foundation), which enabled select students to study art abroad. He augmented a history prize established by his father at Columbia University and endowed a research fellowship at the Mackay School of Mines, a division of the engineering school at the University of Nevada, in Reno. In his later years Chaloner developed a special interest in rural depopulation. Convinced that farmers left the countryside because it lacked amusement and entertainment, he opened a movie theater in 1920 at the Merry Mills to show educational and feature films and later operated a dance pavilion and public pool there as well.
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)