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Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters By H. Addington Bruce Characters: 20546

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The Ghost Seen by Lord Brougham

It is comparatively easy, when seated before a roaring fire in a well-lighted room, to sneer ghosts out of existence, and roundly affirm that they are without exception the fanciful products of a heated imagination. But the matter takes on a very different complexion, when in that same room and without so much as the opening of a door, one is unexpectedly confronted by the figure of an absent friend, who, it subsequently appears, is about that time breathing his last in another part of the world. Especially would it seem impossible to remain skeptical if there existed between oneself and the friend in question a compact, drawn up years before in an access of youthful enthusiasm, binding whichever should die first to appear to the other at the moment of death.

This, as all students of ghostology are aware, has frequently been the case; and it was precisely the case with the ghost seen by the famous Lord Brougham, the brilliant and versatile Scotchman, whose astonishingly long and successful career in England as statesman, judge, lawyer, man of science, philanthropist, orator, and author won him a place among the immortals both of the Georgian and of the Victorian era.

At the time he saw the ghost he was still a young man, thinking far less of what the future might hold than of the pleasures of the present. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more unlikely subject for a ghostly experience. From his earliest youth, his father, a most matter of fact person, sedulously endeavored to impress him with the belief that the only spirits deserving of the name were those which came in oddly labeled bottles; and in support of this view the elder Brougham frequently related the adventures of sundry persons of his acquaintance who had engaged in the mischievous pastime of ghost hunting. Added to the natural effect of such tales as these was the inherent exuberance of Brougham's disposition and the bent of his mind to mathematics and kindred exact sciences.

It was at the Edinburgh high school that he first met his future ghost, who at the time was a youngster like himself, and became and long remained his most intimate friend. The two lads were graduated together from the high school, and together matriculated into the university, where, in the intervals Brougham could spare from his favorite studies and recreations, and from the company of the daredevil students with whom he soon began to associate, they continued their old time walks and talks.

On one of these walks, the conversation happened to turn to the perennial problem of life beyond the grave and the possibility of the dead communicating with the living. Brougham, mindful of the views maintained by his father, doubtless treated the subject lightly, if not scoffingly; but one word led to another, until finally, in what he afterward described as a moment of folly, he covenanted with his friend that whichever of them should happen to pass from earth first would, if it were at all possible, show himself in spirit to the other, and thus prove beyond peradventure that the soul of man survived the death of the body.

So far as Brougham was concerned, this undertaking was speedily forgotten in the pressure of the many activities into which he plunged with all the ardor of his impetuous nature. His days were given wholly to the pursuit of knowledge; his nights to the pursuit of pleasure, as pleasure was then counted by the roystering young Scotchmen, whose favorite resort was the tavern, and whose most popular pastime was filching signs, bell handles, and knockers, and stirring the city guard to unwonted energy. Under such conditions neither the death pact nor the solemn minded youth with whom he had made it could remain long in his memory; and it is not surprising to find that with the end of college life and the removal of his boyhood's friend to India, where he entered the civil service, they soon became as strangers to each other.

Brougham himself remained in Edinburgh to read for the law, and incidentally to develop with the aid of an amateur debating society the oratorical talents that were in time to make him the logical successor of Pitt, Fox, and Burke in the House of Commons. He continued none the less a lover of pleasure, some of which, however, he now took in the healthy form of long walking trips through the Highlands. In this way he acquired a desire for travel, and when, in the autumn of 1799, an opportunity came for an extended tour of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, he grasped it eagerly. Together with the future diplomat, Lord Stuart of Rothsay, then plain Charles Stuart and the boon companion of many a pedestrian excursion, he sailed for Copenhagen late in September, and by leisurely stages made his way thence to Stockholm, alive to all the varied interests of the novel scenes in which he found himself; but encountering little that was exciting or adventurous, until, after a prolonged sojourn in the Swedish capital and a brief visit to G?teborg, he started for Norway.

By this time the weather had turned so cold that the travelers resolved to bring their tour to a sudden end, and to press on as rapidly as the bad roads would permit to some Norwegian port, where they hoped to find a ship that would carry them back to Scotland. Accordingly, leaving G?teborg early in the morning of December 19, they journeyed steadily until after midnight, when they came to an inn that seemed to promise comfortable sleeping accommodations. Stuart lost no time in going to bed; but Brougham decided to wait until a hot bath could be prepared for him.

Plunging into it, and forgetful of everything save the warmth that was doubly welcome after the cold of the long drive, he suddenly became aware that he was not alone in the room. No door had opened, not a footstep had been heard; but in the light of the flickering candles he plainly saw the figure of a man seated in the chair on which he had carelessly thrown his clothes. And this figure he instantly recognized as that of his early playmate, the forgotten chum who, as he well knew, had years before gone from the land of the heather to the land of the blazing sun. Yet here he sat, in the quaintly furnished sleeping chamber of a Swedish roadside inn, gazing composedly at his astounded friend. At once there flashed into Brougham's mind remembrance of the death pact, and he leaped from the bath, only to lose all consciousness and fall headlong to the floor. When he revived, the apparition had disappeared.

There was little sleep for the hard headed Scotchman that night. The vision had been too definite, the shock too intense. But, dressing, he sat down and strove to debate the matter in the light of cold reason. He must, he argued, have dozed off in the bath and experienced a strange dream. To be sure, he had not been thinking of his old comrade, and for years had had no communication with him. Nor had anything taken place during the tour to bring to memory either him or any member of his family, or to turn Brougham's mind to thoughts of India. Still, he found it impossible to believe that he had seen a ghost. At most, he reiterated to himself, it could have been nothing more than an exceptionally clear cut dream. And to this opinion he stubbornly adhered, notwithstanding the receipt, soon after his return to Edinburgh, of a letter from India announcing the death of the friend who had been so mysteriously recalled to his recollection, and giving December 19 as the date of death. More than sixty years later we find him, in his autobiography commenting on the experience anew, granting that it was a strange coincidence but refusing to admit that it was anything more than the coincidence of a dream.

It was in his autobiography, by the way, that he first referred to the confirmatory letter. This fact, taken in connection with his reputation for holding the truth in light esteem and with several vague and puzzling statements contained in the detailed account of the experience itself as set forth in his journal of the Scandinavian tour, has led some critics to make the suggestion that his narrative partakes of the nature of fiction rather than of a sober recital of facts. Against this, however, must be set Brougham's complete and invincible repugnance to accept at face value anything bordering on the supernatural. He took no pleasure in the thought that he had possibly been the recipient of a visit from a departed spirit. On the contrary, it annoyed him, and he sought earnestly to find a natural explanation for an occurrence which remained unique throughout his long life. No one would have been readier to point out the futility of the apparition if the absent friend had really continued hale and hearty after December 19. And it is therefore reasonable to assume that had he wished to falsify at all, he would have given an altogether different sequel to the story of his vision or dream, as he preferred to call it, though the evidence which he himself furnishes shows that he was not asleep.

The question still remains, of course, whether he was justified in dismissing it as a sheer chance coincidence. If it stood by itself, it would obviously be permissible to accept this explanation as all sufficient. But the fact is that it is only one of many similar instances. This was strikingly brought out only a few years ago through a far reaching inquiry, a "census of hallucinations," instituted by a special committee of the Society for Psychical Research.

Enlisting the services of some four hundred "collectors," the committee instructed each of these to address to twenty-five adults, selected at random, the query, "Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, so far as you could discover, was not due to any external physical cause?" In all, seventeen thousand people were thus questioned, and almost ten per cent. of the answers received proved to be in the affirmative. More than this, it appeared that out of a total of three hundred and fifty recognized apparitions of living persons, no fewer than sixty-five we

re "death coincidences," in which the hallucinatory experience occurred within from one hour to twelve hours after the death of the person seen.

Sifting these death coincidences carefully, the committee for various reasons rejected more than half, and at the same time raised the total of recognized apparitions of living persons from three hundred and fifty to thirteen hundred. This was done in order to make generous allowance for the number of such apparitions forgotten by those to whom the question had been put, investigation showing that the great majority of hallucinations reported were given as of comparatively recent occurrence, and that there was a rapid decrease as the years of occurrence became more remote.

As a final result, therefore, the committee found about thirty death coincidences out of thirteen hundred cases, or a proportion of one in forty-three. Computing from the average annual death-rate for England and Wales, it was calculated that the probability that any one person would die on a given day was about one in nineteen thousand; in other words, out of every nineteen thousand apparitions of living persons, there should occur, by chance alone, one death coincidence. The actual proportion, however, as established by the inquiry, was equivalent to about four hundred and forty in nineteen thousand, or four hundred and forty times the most probable number, and this when the apparitions reported were considered merely collectively as having been seen at any time within twelve hours after death. Not a few, as a matter of fact, were reported as having been seen within one hour after death, and for these the improbability of occurrence by chance alone was manifestly twelve times four hundred and forty. In view of these considerations the committee felt warranted in declaring that "between deaths and apparitions of dying persons a connection exists which is not due to chance."[J]

Had Lord Brougham lived to study the statistics of this remarkable census of hallucinations, he might have formed a higher opinion of his ghost; but he would also have been in a better position to deny its supernatural attributes. For, if the Society for Psychical Research has made it impossible to doubt the existence of such ghosts as that which he beheld during his travels in Sweden, it has likewise made discoveries which afford a really substantial reason for asserting that they no more hail from the world beyond than do ghosts that are unmistakably the creations of fancy or fraud. This results from the society's investigations of thought transference or telepathy, to use the term now commonly employed.

At an early stage of the experiments undertaken to determine the possibility of transmitting thought from mind to mind without the intervention of any known means of communication, it was found that when success attended the efforts of the experimenters the telepathic message was frequently received not in the form of pure thought but as a hallucinatory image; and what is still more important in the present connection, it was further found possible so to produce not merely images of cards, flowers, books, and other inanimate objects, but also images of living persons.

Thus, as chronicled with corroborative evidence in the society's "Proceedings," an English clergyman named Godfrey telepathically caused a distant friend to see an apparition of him one night; the same result was achieved by a Mr. Sinclair of New Jersey, who, during a visit to New York, succeeded in projecting a phantasm of himself which was clearly seen by his wife in Lakewood; and similarly a Mr. Kirk, while seated in his London office, paid a telepathic visit to the home of a young woman, who saw him as distinctly as though he had gone there in the flesh. In all of these, as in other cases recorded by the society, the persons to whom the apparitions were vouchsafed had no idea that any experiment of the kind was being attempted.

Indeed, there is on record an apparently well authenticated instance of the experimental production of an apparition not of the living but of the dead. This occurred in Germany many years ago, when a certain Herr Wesermann undertook to "will" a military friend into dreaming of a woman who had long been dead. The sequel may be related in Herr Wesermann's own words:

"A lady, who had been dead five years, was to appear to Lieutenant N. in a dream at 10.30 P.M., and incite him to good deeds. At half-past ten, contrary to expectation, Herr N. had not gone to bed but was discussing the French campaign with his friend Lieutenant S. in the ante-room. Suddenly the door of the room opened, the lady entered dressed in white, with a black kerchief and uncovered head, greeted S. with her hand three times in a friendly manner; then turned to N., nodded to him, and returned again through the doorway.

"As this story, related to me by Lieutenant N., seemed to be too remarkable from a psychological point of view for the truth of it not to be duly established, I wrote to Lieutenant S., who was living six miles away, and asked him to give me his account of it. He sent me the following reply:

"'On the thirteenth of March, 1817, Herr N. came to pay me a visit at my lodgings about a league from A--. He stayed the night with me. After supper, and when we were both undressed, I was sitting on my bed and Herr N. was standing by the door of the next room on the point also of going to bed. This was about half-past ten. We were speaking partly about indifferent subjects and partly about the events of the French campaign. Suddenly the door of the kitchen opened without a sound, and a lady entered, very pale, taller than Herr N., about five feet four inches in height, strong and broad of figure, dressed in white, but with a large black kerchief which reached to below the waist.

"'She entered with bare head, greeted me with the hand three times in complimentary fashion, turned round to the left toward Herr N., and waved her hand to him three times; after which the figure quietly, and again without any creaking of the door, went out. We followed at once in order to discover whether there were any deception, but found nothing. The strangest thing was this, that our night-watch of two men whom I had shortly found on the watch were now asleep, though at my first call they were on the alert; and that the door of the room, which always opens with a good deal of noise, did not make the slightest sound when opened by the figure.'"[K]

It is also significant that, as was made evident by the census of hallucinations, by far the larger number of apparitions reported are those of persons still alive and well. In these cases, nobody being dead, it is absurd[L] to raise the cry of spirits, and the only tenable hypothesis is that, through one of the several causes which seem to quicken telepathic action, a spontaneous telepathic hallucination has been produced. Now, the experiments conducted by the society and by independent investigators have shown that telepathic messages often lie dormant for hours beneath the threshold of the receiver's consciousness, being consciously apprehended only when certain favoring conditions arise; as, for example, when the receiver has fallen asleep, or into a state of reverie, or when, tired out after a long day's work, he has utterly relaxed mentally. This is technically known as "deferred percipience," and, considered in conjunction with the discoveries mentioned, it is amply sufficient to dislodge from the realm of the supernatural the ghost seen by Lord Brougham, and every ghost that is not a mere imposter.

In the Brougham case the exciting cause of the hallucination seems to have been the death pact. As he lay dying in India, the mind of the whilom schoolboy would, consciously or unconsciously, revert to that agreement with the friend of his youth, and thence would arise the desire to let him know that the plighted word had not been forgotten. Across the vast intervening space, by what mechanism we as yet do not know, the message would flash instantaneously, to remain unapprehended, perhaps for hours after the death of the sender, until, in the quiet of the Swedish inn and resting from the fatigues of the journey, Brougham's mental faculties passed momentarily into the condition necessary for its objective realization.

Then, precisely as in experimental telepathy the receiver sees a hallucinatory image of the trinket or the book; with a suddenness and vividness that could not fail to shock him, the message would find expression by the creation before Brougham's startled eyes of a hallucinatory image of the friend who, as he was to learn later, had died that same day thousands of miles from Sweden. Knowing nothing of the possibilities of the human mind, as revealed, if only faintly, by the labors of a later generation, it was inevitable he should believe he had no alternative between dismissing the experience as a peculiar dream or admitting that in very truth he had looked upon a ghost.

FOOTNOTES:

[J] The committee's report will be found in the tenth volume of the "Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research."

[K] Translation from the "Journal of the Society for Psychical Research," Vol. IV. p. 218.

[L] I had originally written "impossible," but a critic of my "Riddle of Personality," in which this point was taken up, has convinced me that "absurd" is the better word. The critic in question writes: "what evidence has the author that an apparition of the living is not a spirit? Why may not the spirit of the living person have left his body and appeared to his friend? Such is the view of many people, and it coincides with certain phenomena in dreams." But, to raise only one objection: If the apparition appear at a moment when the person seen is actively engaged elsewhere-it may be in writing a book, or preaching a sermon-what is it that is seen, and what is it that is writing or preaching? Is the "spirit" present in both places at the same time-in the shadowy apparition, and in the living, breathing, busily-occupied human entity? Assuredly, if it be not "impossible" to raise the cry of spirits in such a case, it would at all events seem "absurd" to do so.

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