The True Story Behind The Experiment Of Three Christs Of Ypsilanti

So imagine you're a doctor — a psychologist, in fact. One of your patients comes up to you one day and says, "Hey doc, guess what? I'm Jesus Christ." Sometime later, another patient comes up to you and makes the exact same claim, and after that, a third. None of the patients have ever met. Do you just roll with it and ask some questions? Get some therapeutic practice with one and move on to the next? Or, do you try to break their delusions?

Far from being a mere thought experiment or an extra credit question on a sophomore psych student's mid-term exam, this actually happened. As The New York Times recounts in an original 1964 story, Dr. Milton Rokeach treated three patients in the late 1950s, each of whom claimed to be Jesus. Rokeach, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, wrote about his experiences in his book, "The Three Christs of Ypsilanti." Each patient had schizophrenia, one of the most severe psychotic disorders that, at worst, causes a complete dissociation from reality, as the National Institute of Mental Health describes. 

Rokeach, in an era of widespread electroshock therapy (via Scientific American), decided on a rather unorthodox treatment. He decided to do what some, in hindsight, have criticized as cruel and unethical: He put his three Christs together in one room and made them talk to each other. His hope was that, when confronted with the illogic of multiple Jesuses, the men's delusions would fracture.

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Multiple Jesuses, multiple Marys

By the time Milton Rokeach came across his three Christs in the late 1950s, he was already a respected psychologist. He'd emigrated from Hrubieszów, Poland to the U.S. with his family at the age of 7, as New York Review Books says. He'd gotten his B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1941 and his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Berkeley, California in 1947. From there, he went on to teach at Michigan State University, the University of Western Ontario, Washington State University, and the University of Southern California. In other words, Koreach had the clout necessary to make an unorthodox study like the Three Christs of Ypsilanti happen.

Koreach didn't come to his "put all the Jesuses together" idea by himself, however. As All That's Interesting explains, and as unlikely as it sounds, he learned about a different treatment of two women believing themselves to be Mary, the mother of Jesus. That study decided to tackle the women's delusions by posing a rational question that also, in the posing, seemed to temporarily buy into their claims: Only one of them could be the real Mary, right? Normally, this isn't how psychopathology and disorders like schizophrenia work; delusions persist despite evidence to the contrary, as the World Health Organization says. And yet, the strategy seemingly broke one woman's delusions. This was enough for Koreach to figure he could apply the same method to his own patients, who were fixated on self-identifying with another Biblical figure.

A shared delusion

Just in case you think someone claiming to be Jesus is a rare event, Milton Koreach also had historical precedent to back up his strategy. As Slate recounts, 18th-century French writer and philosopher Voltaire once wrote about an "unfortunate madman" named Simon Morin who was burned at the stake in 1663 because he said he was Jesus. Morin had even come across another patient claiming to be God the Father, rather than God the Son, when committed to a "madhouse." At the time, Morin "was so struck with the folly of his companion that he acknowledged his own, and appeared, for a time, to have recovered his senses," Voltaire wrote in 1767 in "An Essay on Crimes and Punishments."

There are other examples, too. In his 1991 book "My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson," psychiatrist Sydney Rosen described placing two Christ-claiming patients face-to-face. "I'm saying the same things as that crazy fool is saying," one of the patients said (via Slate). "That must mean I'm crazy too." And in the modern day, we've apparently got loads of would-be Jesuses running around outside of therapy. The Collector cites no less than eight such people, including Vissarion, cult leader and "Jesus of Siberia" who was eventually arrested by Russian authorities in 2010 for abuse of his followers, per CBS News. With so many people experiencing mental illness and/or charlatans claiming to be Christ, we've got to ask, "What in God's name is going on?"

Gathering the Christs under one roof

In Milton Koreach's case, he gathered his three Christs together at Ypsilanti State Hospital outside of Saline, Michigan. He arranged to have various live-in assistants work with them around the clock and also devised ways of getting the men to interact with each other. These three men — Joseph Cassel, Clyde Benson, and Leon Gabor — ranged in age from late 30s to 70. Aside from their general, shared delusion about being Jesus, the particulars of their illnesses varied quite a bit, as did their personal histories.

As All That's Interesting says, Leon was the youngest of the three at 38 years old. He'd apparently been committed to institutions from boyhood after telling his mother to "forsake false idols and worship him as Jesus." He introduced himself to Koreach by saying, "It so happens that my birth certificate says that I am Dr. Domino Dominorum et Rex Rexarum Simplis Christianus Peuris Mentalis Doktor," meaning "Lord of Lords, and King of Kings, Simple Christian Boy Psychiatrist." 

Joseph was a 58-year-old former writer who had been institutionalized for 20 years prior to Koreach's treatment. He'd continually claimed to be English even though he'd never been to England. Clyde was the oldest of the three at 70 and experienced dementia. The first time Joseph and Clyde met, they got into a shouting match, with one screaming, "Don't try to pull that on me because I will prove it to you ... I'm telling you I'm God!"

The birth of Dr. Righteous Idealized Dung

Suffice it to say, some interesting stuff went down over the duration of Milton Koreach's study, or as All That's Interesting says, "study." Koreach started with hands-off, orchestrated interactions between the patients via the placement of rooms, daily schedules, etc. When that resulted in little less than ongoing arguments, Koreach took to more extreme methods. 

The patient Leon, for instance, at one point invented an imaginary wife, "Madame Yeti Woman." And so, Koreach started writing letters to Leon from this fictional wife and used the letters to question Leon's identity. Joseph, the middle-aged patient, received fake letters from the head of Ypsilanti State Hospital. When the letters didn't work, Koreach printed a fake article about himself giving a lecture about the three Christs' delusions and read it to the men. It worked momentarily, but no longer. At a later point, Koreach hired a female assistant to flirt with Leon and pull him into the real world, so to speak. It backfired tremendously — Leon actually fell for the girl, and when he realized he'd been set up, retreated even further. In the end, no man was cured, and Leon changed his name to "Dr. Righteous Idealized Dung." That's it.

Of course, any first-year psychology student can point out that Koreach's methods were utterly lacking in statistical validity and reliability, as defined in the journal Evidence-Based Nursing. But in the absence of modern treatment or newer medication, would it have mattered if Koreach had done anything differently?

The fate of Ypsilanti

When Milton Koreach originally published his 1964 book, "The Three Christs of Ypsilanti," The New York Times glowingly called his treatment method an example of "sympathy and considerable psychological sophistication." The article explored Koreach's work in an oddly abstract way, using overwrought language like, "Why do we misread the metaphors of madness by attributing to them a literalness they do not possess?" Since then, historical retrospectives have come across as a bit more direct and biting, with outlets like IFLScience calling Koreach's work "unethical" and Slate calling it "manipulative."

In a revised edition of his book, Koreach apologetically wrote (per Slate), "I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives," and (via All That's Interesting), "While I had failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing mine-of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives within the framework of a 'total institution.'"  

In 2017, Richard Gere and Peter Dinklage starred in a movie adaptation of Koreach's work, "Three Christs." Even only judging by the trailer on IMDb, the film was framed as a dark yet ultimately touching comedy. Ypsilanti State Hospital eventually got its funding cut in 1991 and fell into complete disuse, as the urban exploration site World Abandoned says. The facility became an abandoned and hollowed-out wreck that stood until 2006, when it was finally torn down.