In 1978, Billy Milligan became the first person to successfully use multiple personality disorder as a legal defense, though the debate surrounding his condition turned the case into a hotly-debated spectacle.
In October 1977, 22-year-old Billy Milligan was arrested for kidnapping, robbing, and raping three female Ohio State students. But what should have been a relatively straightforward conviction instead became a shocking acquittal. Milligan was found not guilty — because psychiatrists believed that two of his “other personalities” had committed the crimes.
During psychiatric evaluations, doctors found that “Billy” was just one of 24 personalities living in Milligan’s mind. Two of the others, Ragen and Adalana, they believed, had been the ones to kidnap and rape the women. Because of this, his lawyers argued that he was innocent by reason of insanity.
At the end of his trial, Milligan became the first person to be found not guilty by reason of insanity on the basis of multiple personality disorder (called dissociative identity disorder today). This condition is thought to come from extreme trauma and abuse early in life, which Milligan allegedly suffered.
So, was Billy Milligan a criminal or a victim? Could he have been both? The complicated nature of his case has been a point of fascination for nearly 50 years, but these questions are no less difficult to answer.
Billy Milligan’s Childhood Trauma
Born on February 14, 1955 as William Stanley Morrison, Milligan suffered significant trauma at an early age. His parents separated when he was young, and his father died by suicide when Milligan was around the age of four. Then, his mother married a man named Chalmer Milligan.
Milligan later claimed that his new stepfather severely abused him. Time reports that he sodomized Milligan and that he threatened to bury him alive or hang him by his fingers and toes if he told anyone.
Chalmer Milligan denied the allegations, saying: “I didn’t have time to do all those crazy things.” But Milligan’s mother and two siblings testified at his trial that Chalmer had been abusive toward Milligan. His sister even called the years that they lived with Chalmer “a horror.”
It was this abuse, some doctors later claimed, that caused Billy Milligan to develop multiple personalities. As the Columbus Monthly reported in 1979, psychiatrists studying Milligan came to believe that he’d developed multiple personalities as a way to cope with his stepfather’s abuse.
At that point, Milligan developed nine personalities, some male and some female, who were between the ages of three and 23. And, soon, some of them would start getting violent.
Billy Milligan’s Crimes As The ‘Campus Rapist’
On Oct. 14, 1977, Billy Milligan approached a young woman, an optometry student, in a parking lot on Ohio State University’s campus. He aimed a gun at her, then led her to a secluded area in the woods. Milligan raped her, then made her write and cash a check for him.
Eight days later, he raped a second victim. Then a third. And on Oct. 27, the day after Milligan’s third attack, one of his victims was able to identify him from a collection of mug shots.
It wasn’t the first time Milligan had been arrested — in 1975, Milligan was arrested for rape and armed robbery. His fingerprints on file matched a set found on one of the victim’s cars, and Milligan was arrested once again.
Then, investigators started to notice some odd things about Milligan. According The Columbus Dispatch, OSU police investigations supervisor Elliot Boxerbaum recalled, “I couldn’t tell you what was going on, but it felt like I was talking to different people at different times.”
Milligan’s victims also described how Milligan seemed to embody multiple personalities. He called himself Phil, claimed to be Jewish, and told one victim that he was a member of the Weathermen — later known as the Weather Underground, a far-left militant organization that claimed credit for 25 bombings in the 1970s. He also sometimes spoke with an accent.
Before long, a psychiatric evaluation would provide a surprising explanation for Billy Milligan’s odd behavior.
How Psychiatrists Determined Billy Milligan Had Multiple Personality Disorder
Psychiatrists first got a hint of Billy Milligan’s multiple personality disorder during his psychiatric examinations. As Time reports, a psychiatrist spoke with Milligan while he was in custody and called him “Billy.” Milligan, in response, said, “Billy’s asleep. I’m David.”
With this first piece of evidence, psychiatrist George T. Harding and psychoanalyst Cornelia Wilbur were called in to speak with Milligan. Wilbur was especially notable for her work with a woman named Sybil, another dissociative identity disorder (DID) patient with 16 personalities. In working with Sybil, Wilbur was able to successfully meld her personalities and their story was later turned into a book and a TV movie. (Though as A&E notes, Sybil later confessed that she’d made up her personalities.)
Harding and Wilbur determined that Milligan’s psyche had fractured into at least 10 different personalities, eight male and two female. They ranged from Christene, a three-year-old girl, to Arthur, a 22-year-old Brit, whose main task was cleaning up the other personalities’ messes.
But the two personalities that mattered most to Milligan’s case were Ragen, a 23-year-old with a Slavic accent who lacked empathy, and Adalana, a 19-year-old “curious lesbian.” According to Harding and Wilbur, it was Ragen who robbed the women and Adalana who raped them.
“Billy,” the psychiatrists found, was the core personality. He was suicidal and had strong feelings of guilt — and, they claimed, had been “asleep” for the last seven years. When Wilbur first met the “Billy” personality he told her, “Every time I come to, I’m in some kind of trouble. I wish I were dead.”
He and the other personalities allegedly had no memory of what Ragen and Adalana had done.
But not everyone bought Milligan’s multiple personality defense. In fact, even some in the medical field denounced the idea of “multiple personalities” outright, claiming, at best, that the term misrepresented the condition — this was actually part of the reason the condition was renamed to DID in 1994 — while others called it a fraud.
“Multiple personality is just a figure of speech. It’s nothing but a hoax,” said Thomas Szasz, a professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York in a 1979 interview with Columbus Monthly. “How many faces does Laurence Olivier or Elizabeth Taylor have? We are all actors. But there is only one person.”
Others saw the label, and the defense’s use of it to plead innocence by reason of insanity, as an affront to the legal system. The case had, by and large, become more about Milligan’s psyche than it was about the women who had been raped. It also raised concerns about setting a legal precedent if Milligan were found not guilty, and psychiatrists additionally expressed concern about the public perception of DID.
Ultimately, a judge ruled that Milligan was “not guilty by reason of insanity” and had him committed to the Athens Mental Health Center. There, Milligan met psychiatrist David Caul, who wanted to “fuse” Milligan’s personalities.
Then, Caul found even more.
Billy Milligan’s 14 Additional Personalities And Hospital Transfer
During his attempts to fuse Milligan’s personalities, Caul learned of another, The Teacher, to which Milligan had already fused himself. Caul drew The Teacher out by playing a recording of Ragen for Billy — the first time Billy heard proof of one of his other personalities.
Around this same time, in 1979, author Daniel Keyes, known for his work Flowers for Algernon, began interviewing Milligan to write his next work, The Minds of Billy Milligan.
But The Teacher didn’t stick around for long. Once word got out via The Columbus Dispatch that Milligan was being given unsupervised furloughs from the hospital following The Teacher’s appearance, the publicity caused Milligan additional stress, and The Teacher receded.
In the wake of this, 14 more personalities emerged, and Milligan’s behavior made him a security risk for the hospital. On the order of an Athens County Common Pleas judge, Milligan was transferred to the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1980.
Milligan later described that hospital to Keyes as a “chamber of horrors.”
Throughout the majority of the 1980s, Milligan remained in psychiatric facilities, though he briefly escaped in 1986 (and may have murdered his roommate during that time). After several months of hiding and leaving video tapes for media outlets at the Greyhound station in which he complained about his hospital treatment, he was arrested in Miami.
Two years later, however, doctors came to the consensus that all of Milligan’s personalities had fused. After 11 years in mental hospitals, Milligan was released. Then, in 1991, he was released from all supervision.
For the most part, Milligan stayed out of the public eye after that. He lived on his sister’s property in Ohio, and in 2012 he was diagnosed with cancer. He died on Dec. 12, 2014 at the age of 59.
But Billy Milligan’s story didn’t die with him. Today, he continues to be an object of fascination (as proven by Netflix’s Monsters Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan in 2021). We all contain multitudes, but it’s a disturbing thought that parts of us could take over completely — and commit violent crimes.
For similarly shocking crime stories, read the story of Velma Barfield, the “Death Row Granny” whose psychiatrist tried to argue that she had also multiple personality disorder. Or, explore the twisted mind of “Jolly” Jane Toppan, the woman who tried to convince her doctors to kill with her.