"Rosalie Mine" — The Scandalous Love Letters of John B. Watson

John Broadus Watson and Rosalie Rayner

If you've ever taken a course in psychology, you've probably heard of John Broadus Watson. After all, he was the father of behaviorism. He was also responsible for the groundbreaking, yet controversial "Little Albert Experiment" that showed how psychological disorders can result from classical conditioning. 

Yes, there was probably a time when John B. Watson was the most famous research psychologist in the world. However, in the year 1920, his career had taken a turn for the worse. His wife, Mary Ickes Watson, discovered love letters he'd written to his mistress, the 21-year-old graduate student who helped him with the Little Albert Experiment — Rosalie Rayner.

What followed was a very public scandal. Mary Watson filed for divorce and submitted the love letters as proof of her husband's infidelity. Excerpts from the letters were published in national newspapers, and John B. Watson was forced to resign from his position at Johns Hopkins University. The career he had spent his whole life building had come to a swift and unceremonious end.

However, things turned out OK for the adulterous professor. He ended up marrying his beloved Rosalie. They had two sons together, William Rayner Watson (1921) and James Broadus Watson (1924). Moreover, even though he was ousted from academia, he was able to find work in advertising and made much more money than he ever did as a professor of psychology.

Despite a tumultuous start to their relationship, John and Rosalie were by all accounts very much in love. They stayed married until Rosalie's untimely death at the age of 36. John B. Watson never remarried. 

Below are two excerpts from John B. Watson's love letters to Rosalie that were published in the New York Tribune on November 28, 1920.  The love letters were among those that John B. Watson's wife had found and submitted as evidence in their divorce.

Of particular note in the letters are John B. Watson's deep infatuation with Rosalie and his anxieties about the affair. However, to me, the most interesting part of the letters is where John B. Watson expresses his love for Rosalie using behaviorist terms: I know every cell I have is yours, individually and collectively. My total reactions are positive and toward you. So likewise each and every heart reaction.

John B. Watson with wife Rosalie


Love Letter Excerpt 1:
Rosalie mine: I got another nice letter in the noon mail. It did my aching heart lots of good. Tell me what happened at Ruth’s party. I am so jealous. I know it isn’t nice to have doubts and fears, but they just will grow up. That would be our hardest battle if we are married, wouldn’t it?

I have been an awful sinner, I know, and, in a way, so have you—we both have the power of getting what we go for and neither would take an inferior position to the other. I think this fear and the knowledge that the other one could do the same thing will be our salvation.

We have both seen how hellish it is to have a love on deviations, however slight. I know I am ready to travel the straight and narrow path. It doesn’t sound reasonable, does it?


Love Letter Excerpt 2:
I am not doing much this afternoon. I suppose I am really hanging around for a ‘phone call. To think I missed one yesterday! I could kill myself. You understand now why I was not here. I was at Sir Arthur’s house with Dr. Easton at 5, and I did not return. Oh, but I am sore!

I just think I’ll die if I don’t hear from you. If I thought you were in I’d call you, dangerous as it is. Every time the ‘phone rings I know I’ll jump from my chair. My heart will be in my throat, but I can listen, anyway.

Darling, every one wants you to stay, but do write me that, no matter how long you stay away, your heart and body will still be mine. They can’t break it now, can they? Only a change in one of us can do that, and I know every cell I have is yours, individually and collectively. My total reactions are positive and toward you. So likewise each and every heart reaction.