Bats in the belfry
Bats are, of course, the erratically flying mammals and 'belfries' are bell towers, sometimes found at the top of churches. 'Bats in the belfry' refers to someone who acts as though he has bats careering around his topmost part, that is, his head.
It has the sound of a phrase from Olde Englande and it certainly has the imagery to fit into any number of Gothic novels based in English parsonages or turreted castles. In fact, it comes from the USA and is not especially old. All the early citations are from American authors and date from the start of the 20th century; for example, this piece from the Ohio newspaper The Newark Daily Advocate, October 1900:
To his hundreds of friends and acquaintances in Newark, these purile [sic] and senseless attacks on Hon. John W. Cassingham are akin to the vaporings of the fellow with a large flock of bats in his belfry."
Ambrose Bierce, also American, used the term in a piece for Cosmopolitan Magazine, in July 1907, describing it as a new curiosity:
"He was especially charmed with the phrase 'bats in the belfry', and would indubitably substitute it for 'possessed of a devil', the Scriptural diagnosis of insanity."
The use of 'bats' and 'batty' to denote odd behaviour originated around the same time as 'bats in the belfry' and the terms are clearly related. Again, the first authors to use the words are American:
1903 A. L. Kleberg - Slang Fables from Afar: "She ... acted so queer ... that he decided she was Batty."
1919 Fannie Hurst - Humoresque: "'Are you bats?' she said."
There have been several attempts over the years to associate the term 'batty' with various people called Batty or Battie, notably the 18th century physician William Battie. He was a governor of the Bethlem Hospital, a.k.a. Bedlam, and physician to St Luke's Hospital for Lunaticks, where he wrote A Treatise on Madness. Despite those illustrious credentials, it was bats rather than Battie that caused scatterbrained people to be called 'batty'.
I feel obliged at this point to add a response to the steady stream of emails I get from people who read this page and send word that I've got it all wrong and that 'bats in the belfry' derives from a Victorian inventor called Batson, who patented a safety coffin which was topped with a tubular device containing a bell. The aim of the invention was to guard against premature burial and came to be known as the 'Batson Belfry'. My correspondents suggest that this is the source of the phrase.
If the story is in any way correct, and frankly I doubt almost every part of it, it concerns the name Bateson rather than the usually cited Batson. In his novel The Great Train Robbery Michael Crichton includes this:
In 1852, George Bateson received a patent for the Bateson Life Revival Device, described as "a most economical, ingenious and trustworthy mechanism, superior to any other method, and promoting peace of mind amongst the bereaved at all stations of life". In 1859, Queen Victoria awarded him an O.B.E.
Novels are of course works of fiction, but it is this novel that appears to be the source of the belief in the 'Bateson Belfry'. Just in case the story has any factual basis I have done a little research into it. Did Bateson even exist? The comprehensive Oxford Dictionary of National Biography makes no mention of any George Bateson - surprising for a prominent inventor who is supposed to have been awarded an Order of the British Empire. Did he record a patent? I can't find any record of the supposed patent at the UK Patents Office. Was he awarded the OBE? No, he wasn't. Queen Victoria didn't award Bateson, or anyone else, the OBE, she died 16 years before the OBE was inaugurated.
Leaving aside whether Bateson (not Batson) patented a safety coffin, or even existed at all, what about the claimed link between him, his device and the phrase? Here we can be sure - there is no evidence to support such a link. The 'Bat(e)son Belfry' origin is a fanciful imagining.
This does, however, make an interesting folk etymological link between the phrases 'bats in the belfry', 'saved by the bell', 'dead ringer' and 'stinking rich', which have all been falsely suggested to have originated from practices to safeguard against premature burial.
See also: the meaning and origin of off his own bat.
See other phrases that were coined in the USA.