Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/March 1893/Editor's Table
THE believers in ghosts are just now jubilant over some anticipated revelations to be made through the medium of photography. In a recent number of the Fortnightly Review the Rev. H. A. Haweis has a long article under the title of Ghosts and their Photos. He introduces the subject by a historical survey, intended to show the inextinguishable character of the ghost. Ancient history certainly does furnish a vast amount of grist for the spiritualist mill, and the Rev. Mr. Haweis lays hold of it all. The angels that appeared to Jacob were real ghosts; the prophets were mediums; Elijah was in very truth "levitated"; so also was Philip the evangelist; so also was Francis of Assisi; the "tongues" at Corinth and the tongues among the Irvingites bespoke real possession, not mere disorder of the brain; the saints did actually come out of their graves at Jerusalem and still more or less keep up the practice. All these things, and a thousand more, added to "the raps, the lights, and the materializations" of the modern séance, compose, in the opinion of the reverend gentleman, such a mass of evidence in favor of ghost activity in connection with human affairs that to doubt any longer becomes a little ridiculous. We fear the stigma is one which must continue to attach to ourselves for a little while longer, at any rate. Our obstinate incredulity is not shaken even by the statement, given on the authority of the Psychological Society, that out of seven thousand sane persons one woman in twelve and one man in ten had had "experiences of an-occult character." We are simply moved to congratulate the gentler sex on their appreciably more restricted conversance with the works of darkness—for we suppose the term can not be altogether inapplicable to "experiences of an occult character." It may curdle the blood of some to read that "you can visit no part of England, Scotland, or Ireland without finding, on inquiry, that within a radius of ten miles there is some house or place said to be haunted; some house that either can not get, or can not keep, tenants on account of ghosts," but to us—we can not help it—the statement simply seems a lamentably silly one for a man of so much general intelligence as the Rev. Mr. Haweis to have made.
However, the great evidence is yet to come: the ghosts are going to sit for their photographs. Whether the photographer will have to be a medium or not does not distinctly appear, but the ghosts will, in a short time, distinctly appear. Mr. Stead is working up this part of the case with unbounded zeal and faith, and the Rev. Mr. Haweis is quite confident the ghosts are going to come out all right. "Many photographers," we read, "are in the habit of casting aside plates after partial development, because they have what they call a fault—that is, a blur or marks obscuring or occupying portions of the plate. Photographers will, in future, perhaps be more wary. I heard the other day of a young lady who was photographed at Brighton, I believe, and twice the plate came out blurred. The second time she persuaded the photographer, who was about to lay it aside as useless, to develop it. The blurs, on being examined with a magnifier, proved to be faces—all the same face. She at once recognized it as the face of a rejected lover who had died." Why this young man took up the plate with so many different specimens of his face, and how he managed to prevent the rest of his spectral body from being taken, and why he stood so far away from the beloved one as to come out so small that he had to be explored with a magnifier, are questions on which, we fear, it would be vain to expect any light. Was he all "face" in his lifetime? Did the minuteness of his spirit image signify the smallness of the place he had held in the young lady's affection; or did the stand he took far in the background signify the distance at which the young lady had kept him? It is said the young lady recognized the likeness; but was this young lady wholly veracious, or was she indulging a fond fancy that the swain was still hovering round her with his face? We read sometimes of faces in the fire; and Hamlet, if we remember rightly, succeeded in getting the wise Polonius to see in a cloud the image, first, of a camel, then of a weasel, and, lastly, of a whale. As the old man gazed, conviction grew, so that in the end he was able to say with emphasis, "Very like a whale." Who knows but that, as the young lady gazed, conviction may have grown in like manner, and the blur have passed through various phases before it finally came out a rejected lover? One asks where this wonderful thing happened, and all Mr. Haweis can tell us is that he "believes" it was at Brighton. Perhaps so; but until the place can be given with a little more certainty, and until a good deal of corroborative evidence is forthcoming, we prefer to assign the chief share in the whole business to the young lady's imagination and the remainder to somebody else's credulity.
We are asked to believe in ghosts because in every age there have been ghost stories. But would it not be more natural to suppose that in every age the human mind has been subject to aberrations, and that some specific weakness or irregularity of the mental constitution, or of the physical organ, the brain, on which all thinking, so far as we are aware, depends, has probably given rise to this particular class of hallucinations? We can not pretend as yet to know the mind thoroughly in health and disease; but this we do know, that there are thousands and millions of persons whose lives are never intruded on by ghosts, and who know absolutely nothing of "occult" phenomena. According to the reverend gentleman's own figures, only one woman in twelve and one man in ten has had any "occult" experiences. Now, what we should like very much to have would be a farther analysis of these figures, showing the percentage of flighty or otherwise ill-balanced minds among the "occult" and the "non-occult" (if we may so apply the words) classes respectively. Our own experience would lead us to believe that the proportion would be vastly larger in the former class than in the latter. Who has not known many examples of the tremulous, nervous, hypersensitive, wonder-loving, hysterical, or semi-hysterical type of constitution among the devotees of ghost lore? And if such examples occur, as we believe they must, to the mind of every one, is it not at least a probable inference that "occultism" in its various phases has something to do with that kind of mind? The ghost may be very ancient, but we do not believe in him the more. The trouble about him is that he has made no progress since the earliest times; in fact, on the whole, he has fallen back. We should not be disposed to talk of the "levitation" of Elijah ourselves had not the reverend Mr. Haweis used the term before us; but if, following the reverend gentleman's lead, we consider the prophet's alleged translation in that light, surely it was a most successful feat in "levitation," and a little ahead of anything the modern world can show. And, speaking generally, the apparitions and visions and other spiritual or occult phenomena of ancient times had more "body" to them than those of our own day. If, therefore, the ghost has made no progress in the course of three or four thousand years, if he is just as uninstructive and inconsequent a phenomenon now as he was when we first encountered him, if not a little more so, we may perhaps be pardoned for thinking that he may be safely and fairly ignored by people who have an average amount of business to attend to. The world is still waiting for the very first message of any practical importance coming from a well-authenticated ghost, and, considering that ghosts, such as they are, have been coming and going for some thousands of years, it is high time, if they have anything to say, that they said it. We are sadly in want of light on many matters, and a well-informed ghost might conceivably be of very great assistance in human affairs. Up to the present, however, all our light and knowledge have come from patient study of the laws of Nature; and, such being the case, we prefer to stand in the paths that Science has worn and work at the tasks she assigns. Even if the ghosts succeed in getting themselves photographed, we shall not trouble ourselves much about them, till we see what the practical bearing of the whole business is. If we might venture a prediction, it would be that ghost photographs will turn out to be an utter fraud, and that, when the matter has been thoroughly explored, one more lesson will have been given to the world as to the delusive character of "occultism" in all its shapes and forms.
Many of our readers will remember the very truculent attack made by the Duke of Argyll upon Prof. Huxley in connection with the latter's demonstration of the impossibility of the Noachian Deluge. Among the proofs of that catastrophe adduced by his Grace was the existence high up on the Welsh hills of large beds of comparatively recent marine shells. The sea had been there on the mountain tops, exclaimed the Duke in triumph, and that quite recently. One of two things, therefore, had happened: either the sea had been raised over a thousand feet above its present level, or the land had been suddenly depressed to that extent, either of which occurrences would produce a first-class flood. But what do the most recent investigators, the late Prof. Carvill Lewis and Prof. G. F. Wright, tell us on this point? The answer is furnished in our issue for December, a paragraph of which we may here quote:
"This evidence" (viz., for a recent submergence, as supposed by the Duke of Argyll and others) "consisted of shell-beds inclosed in true glacial deposits eleven hundred feet above the sea at Macclesfield near Manchester, and fourteen hundred feet above the sea at Moel Tryfaen, on the northern flanks of Snowdon in Wales. Prof. Lewis and those who have followed out the clews which he started, have proved that these shell-beds were not direct deposits during a submergence of the country, but rather beds washed out of true glacial deposits which had been shoved along by the ice in its passage over the bottom of the Irish Sea. The shells were pushed up with the mud from the sea bottom, as pebbles are known to have been in so many instances. The melting of the ice furnished the water necessary for partially working over the original deposit and sorting out and stratifying the inclosed gravel and shells."
A proof that this is the true explanation is that "the shells are not such as would haunt the same place under water. In these beds rock-haunting and mud-loving species and shallow-water and deep-water species are indiscriminately mingled together."
We see here once more the value of close and thorough observation. No point in scientific theory should be considered settled till all the facts are in. If the Duke of Argyll wants to prove that the whole of England got a dip in the days of the patriarch Noah, say about five thousand years ago, he will have to look about for other arguments. As the case now stands, the shells to which he pointed so triumphantly tell an altogether different story.
There has recently appeared a fresh illustration of "what knowledge is of most worth" in the dangers that come from the pitiful ignorance of the simplest facts of science still prevailing among presumably well-informed persons. Certain "patent fuels" have been put on sale, to be used in stoves without chimney connection, and are advertised as being entirely harmless. The natural result has followed. Gullible merchants, ministers, and even doctors have been buying them and nearly smothering themselves or their friends with the gases which must result from the combustion of any form of carbon. The makers of these fuels state that ventilation is required with their apparatus, but their customers reason, Why let in the cold air if the fuel is harmless, as stated? or they imagine that one opening from a room into a hallway secures "ventilation." Probably most of the victims of the patent fuels have read about the process of combustion, but they have not learned its nature from experiments that would make this knowledge real to them. Their education has been of the antiquated but not yet abandoned kind which substitutes the study of books for the study of things. As an explorer who tries to cross a deep river is drowned if he can not swim, so any one who lives in the present age, when natural forces are being put to service as never before, is badly off if he does not understand how to use these forces without letting them overwhelm him. Science is doing many wonderful things in these times, but its achievements always consist in employing the laws of Nature, never in circumventing them.