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The Naturalisation of the Supernatural/Chapter 11


IN the last chapter we have dealt with messages from the dead of a personal character. The dream or vision has represented some one known when alive to the dreamer, and on familiar terms with him.[1] The cause of the percipience—the reason why the vision was seen by that particular person, and not by the man in the street—must in the cases hitherto considered be sought in the bonds of personal affection or relationship. And the same principle applies to the messages from the living dealt with in the earlier chapters of this book. The apparition of the dying man is seen as a rule by some one amongst his closest friends. But even in the case of apparitions of the dying we find some records, relatively few, but still too numerous to be summarily dismissed, in which the the tie between the dying man and the percipient was not one of affection or blood, but apparently of locality. Several cases have been published in Phantasms of the Living, in which the figure of the dying man or woman was seen in the house of an intimate friend, but seen by a comparative stranger.[2]

The following case amongst our more recent records will serve to illustrate the type:

No. 56. From Mrs. Benecke[3]

Mr. E. F. M. Benecke, an Exhibitioner of Balliol College, Oxford, was a good Alpine climber, and was at the time of his death collaborating in a Guide to the Swiss Alps. On the 16th July, 1895, he started with a friend, Mr. Cohen, at 3 o'clock A. M., from Ried for a short climb, and was never seen again. On the early afternoon of that day he was seen with a companion walking in his mother's garden in England. The percipient was Ellen Carter, now Mrs. Nichols, a daughter of Mrs. Benecke's laundress, who has written the following account at the request of Mrs. Benecke:

80 Mayes Road, Wood Green,
February 1st, 1897.

On Tuesday, July 16th, 1895, between the hours of 1 and 2 o'clock, I was doing some work in our bedroom and, looking out of the window, saw (as I thought) Mr. Edward Benecke with another young gentleman walking in the garden, and I went at once to mother and told her Mr. Edward had come home, and she said something must have prevented him from starting, as we knew he was going to Switzerland for his holiday for I was positive it was him I saw. When nurse came in on the Thursday, mother asked her if Mr. Edward had come home, and she said "No," and then we only said, "I thought I saw him," and we thought no more about it until the sad news reached us.

In answer to some questions from Mrs. Benecke, Mrs. Nichols writes further:

80 Mayes Road, Wood Green, February 4th. 1897.

Madam,—I am glad to be able to answer the questions you have asked me. I did see another young man with Mr. Edward (as I thought it was) and the look was not momentary, for I was so surprised to see him that I watched him until he turned round the path; he was coming, as he sometimes did after luncheon, from the stable yard, along the path and turned towards the house. He was smiling and talking to his friend, and I particularly noticed his hair, which was wavy as it always was; he had nothing on his head. It was all that that made me feel so sure it was him, and I felt that I could not have been mistaken, knowing him so well. I cannot tell you anything [about] what the other young gentleman was like, as he was walking on the other side; also I hardly noticed him at all, being so surprised to see Mr. Edward. Mother was doubtful when I told her about it and said I must be mistaken; but I said I was sure I was not, and I was positive I had seen him, and I felt sure he had come home until nurse came in and said he had not been home, and then I thought how strange it was, and even then I could not think I was so mistaken, and often have I thought about it and feel even now that it was him I saw. Mother did say perhaps some accident had happened to his friend that he was to travel with and so was prevented from going; that was the only remark that was made about an accident.

If there is any other question I can answer, I shall be only too glad to do it for you.

E. Nichols.

Mrs. Benecke gives the following particulars:

Teddy was in the habit of walking regularly in the garden, from 10 minutes past 12 till I o'clock, and again directly after luncheon, varying, according to the time this meal took us, from 1.30 or 1.45 till 2.30. He was so regular that I could tell the time by his footfall on the stairs. He never, except in the very coldest weather—to please me—wore a hat or cap in the garden. The laundress often watched him walking up and down the garden paths, noticing the wind playing with his wavy hair. She even, at times, would get up on a stool to watch him, especially when Margaret was with him. She says they looked so bright and happy together. She has left us owing to her health, and her daughter married quite lately.

Mr. and Mrs. Benecke heard of the vision only after the news of the disappearance had reached England, on the 20th July.

Here it would seem that Mrs. Nichols saw the apparition because she happened to be on the spot to which the dying man's thoughts would inevitably turn. And the obvious interpretation of the incident—the interpretation which in fact obtained generally until the work of the Society for Psychical Research had familiarised another explanation— is that the spirit was actually present, and able to assume visible shape. How such a theory can be reconciled with the requirements of physical science we need not here pause to consider. The fact of the apparition occurring at that time and in that place was, it may be conceded, due in some sort to the agency of the man whom the apparition represented. But the apparition itself, the figure seen, we cannot doubt, was a dream projected from the brain of the seer. It would be impossible to treat this case as differing fundamentally from the great mass of cases reported to us. And as already shown, all analogy and the direct testimony of our own experiments point to these apparitions being essentially hallucinatory in their nature. The dreamlike character of the vision in this particular case is further indicated by the occurrence of the second figure—a figure not even recognised by the seer. It seems probable that this second figure was a detail unconsciously added by the dream-consciousness to complete the verisimilitude of the picture, having in itself just as much or as little significance as the clothes which the apparition would appear to be wearing. As regards the explanation of the apparent influence of locality in facilitating telepathic impressions, it was suggested by Edmund Gurney that the occupation of the consciousness of agent and percipient by a common set of images, the one in present sensation, the other in memory, may form one of the predisposing conditions. But the consideration of other similar cases will perhaps throw some light on the point.

In the narrative which follows, the apparition seen represented a man who had been dead for some weeks.

No. 57. From Mrs. O'Donnell[4]

5th September, 1898.

[Mrs O'Donnell explains that she had been residing in Brighton for some months during the winter of 1897–98, and that on the 22nd of March, 1 898, she moved into furnished rooms, at Hove. She felt unwell the first evening in the new rooms, and was much disturbed at night by the sound of footsteps over-head. On complaining of this in the morning, she learnt that the room above was untenanted. The noises were repeated on the second night, and Mrs. O'Donnell felt too ill to get up.] The third night I had a large fire made up, and had a nightlight for company. About 11 p.m. my daughter went to her own room, wishing me a better night. Again the feeling of footsteps overhead—so much so that a perfect thrill of terror ran through me. I kept looking towards the fire for about an hour, and then thought I should turn towards the wall, where, terrible to relate, a horrible figure was standing by my bedside, one arm pointing to the adjoining room (then vacant), and the other pointing to me, quite close to my face. I gasped for breath, and covered my face with the clothes. After some time I reassured myself it was all imagination, and again turned to where I saw the horrid apparition. There it still was. I shrieked for terror, and called out, "Oh, my God, what is it?" and put out my left hand as if to feel if it was real, but imagine my horror, I was grasped by the icy hand of death. I remember no more.

The figure I saw was that of a rather small man, very dark, with very small hands, and covered in a tattered black suit from head to foot, more like a scarecrow than anything human. I slept in my daughter's room the next night, or rather occupied it, for I could not sleep. Towards the middle of the night the door opened (I had locked it). A small, dark, gentlemanly young man walked in, saying: "Oh, so you have the Scotchman's room!"—smiled pleasantly, and walked out of the room as he had come in. It was all so strange and dreadful. I told some friends next day. They were greatly startled, and said: "Can this be the house where the suicide happened a few weeks ago?" I at once called up the landlady. She denied it, saying it was next door. I was determined to find out, and on sending to the various tradespeople with whom we dealt, found it was the very house. The landlady then admitted it. The poor young man had slept in my bedroom, and the adjoining room (to which he had pointed) was his sitting-room, from the window of which he threw himself out. He was killed on the spot. The landlady's son waited on us at table. On investigating the matter with him and his mother afterwards, I found his description of the poor young fellow corresponded with the apparition I saw. He was four-and-twenty, rather small, and very dark. He had had bad bronchitis, and became depressed. On the morning of his death he got up rather early, saying he felt better, and when his family left him he immediately opened his window, and threw himself out. He fell from a second-floor window into the area. His clothes were torn to pieces as he fell. On inquiry as to the Scotchman's room, the landlady told me a young Scotch gentleman (now in the service) had occupied our drawing-room and that bedroom which I changed to—and that he was a great friend of the poor young fellow who had ended his life in such a dreadful manner. The landlady also admitted she would not go up-stairs after dark alone, so she also must have considered the house haunted. I can certify all I have stated is strictly true.

We have ascertained from a local paper that the suicide took place as above described, at the end of January, 1898. The deceased was twenty-four years old.

Mrs. O'Donnell states that she had not heard of the suicide, and, indeed, the fact that she took the rooms is sufficient proof that she had not connected the tragedy with this particular house. It is perhaps conceivable that the vision may have been due to the revival of a forgotten memory of the newspaper report. In any single case of the kind it is no doubt possible, without violent straining of the probabilities, to find a normal explanation of the incident. But there are in our collection many cases of a similar type. Thus Mr. John Husbands, sleeping in a hotel at Madeira, awoke one night to see a young man in flannels standing at the side of his bed. He saw the features quite plainly. Later he learnt that a young man had died of consumption in that room about twelve months previously; and in a photograph of the deceased he recognised the features of the apparition.[5]

Again, a lady taking an afternoon nap in her bedroom on the day of her arrival at the Convent of St. Quay, Pontrieux, was awakened to see a venerable priest kneeling at the side of her bed. The figure rose, blessed her, and then vanished. On telling her story she learnt that no man was on the premises, but from her description the figure was recognised as that of the Bishop of St. Brieuc, who was in the habit of staying in this particular room when he visited the Convent. The funeral of the Bishop was taking place about sixteen miles off that same afternoon.[6]

When all allowance has been made for coincidence, the effect of unconscious suggestion, and for the almost inevitable embellishments, from which the narrators are not withheld in a case of this kind by any sense of personal sacredness in their experience, we find it difficult to resist the conclusion that these apparitions are in some fashion connected with the dead persons whom they purport to represent. Of the nature of that connection it is not easy to form even a plausible guess. As Mr. Gurney says of one case of the kind, the vision frequently suggests "not so much anything associated with the popular idea of haunting, or any continuing local interest on the part of the deceased person, as the survival of a mere image, impressed we cannot guess how, on we cannot guess what, by that person's physical organism, and perceptible at times to those endowed with some cognate form of sensitiveness."[7]

Mr. Gurney suggests, it will be seen, the agency in some fashion of the dead. But we are not necessarily led to such an explanation. The old notion that a ghost was actually the spirit of the deceased person himself was inextricably bound up with the assumption that the figure seen had a material or objective reality. If we admit that the thing seen is but a dream figure, it becomes natural to endeavour to trace its source to an agency of whose operation we have independent proof—that is, thought transference from the living.

May not this ancient room thou sitt'st in dwell
In separate living souls for joy or pain?

Is it not conceivable, for instance, that the vision seen by Mrs. O'Donnell may have originated in the minds of the bereaved relatives? that the apparition of the Bishop of St. Brieuc may have been evoked by the grief of the sorrowing nuns? At any rate, while such a possibility exists, we are unable to regard these fugitive phantoms as sure indications of the presence of the dead.

More difficult to explain on any hypothesis are those cases in which dreams and other psychical disturbances are connected with the presence of human remains. One of the most remarkable cases of the kind is the following.

No. 58. From the "Banffshire Journal"[8]

30th January, 1872.

A most unusual and extraordinary occurrence has excited considerable interest in the district around Banff during the past few days, the chain of circumstances leading to which we are in a position to relate authoritatively.

William Moir is grieve at the farm of Upper Dallachy, in the Parish of Boyndie, about three and a half miles west of Banff and a mile west of the fishing village of Whitehills. Moir is an intelligent, steady, and modest man, 35 years of age, and married. Shortly after Whit Sunday last, he dreamed that, on a particular spot near the farm of Dallachy, he saw lying a dead body with blood upon the face. The dream was so vivid that every point connected with it was deeply impressed upon his memory. The spot on which he dreamed he saw the body lie was a slight mound on the sloping ground which bounds the farm and stretches to the seaside, and about sixteen feet from the high-water mark. For a time after the dream, Moir did not think much about it; but the idea of the dead man afterwards haunted him and he could not exclude it from his mind. By-and-bye the matter took so firm a hold upon his thoughts that never was he a moment unoccupied but the idea and the vision returned to him.

[In July, 1871, Moir assisted to carry the body of a drowned man from the sea across the very spot indicated in his dream. When a few yards from the spot, Moir's companion slipped, and the body fell to the ground. Moir at the time saw in this incident the fulfilment of his dream]

Still, however, the vision of the dream came back upon the man. He could not go out walking or sit down at home in the evening without the recollection coming before his mind. Indeed, he began to think that his intellect was being affected, and he was conscious of becoming tacitum, morose, and absent. The disagreeable feeling continued to increase in intensity, and, during last week, it became positively painful.

[On Thursday afternoon he left the house with the intention of proceeding to a part of the farm remote from the sea.]

While Moir was on the way from the house, the idea of his dream occurred to him with such intense vividness that he turned and went back to the house. Saying nothing to any one in the house, he took a spade, and walked direct to the spot of which he had so distinct a recollection in connection with his dream, and removed a little of the turf from the surface. After he had done so, he put the spade down its full length into the ground and lifted up the earth. In the spadeful of earth, however, there was an entire human skull. The man was not at all affected by the appearance of the skull, the idea in his mind being that the turning-up of the skull was nothing more than what was to have been expected. He took other spadefuls of earth, and brought up the lower jaw with teeth, followed by the shoulder bones, and, digging farther along, dug up other bones of a human body as far as the thigh. Laying the bones out on the surface of the ground just in the position he had found them buried, he realised that he was digging up a skeleton.

Moir reported the matter to the police; an investigation was held; but nothing was elicited to throw light upon the mystery. The bones were thought by the doctors who examined them to have lain in the position where they were found for about forty years. There was a local tradition of the mysterious disappearance of a man at about that time. But the tradition does not seem to have been made the subject of precise enquiry; and we have no grounds for identifying the skeleton.

Moir died in 1873—the year following the discovery. But he had himself corrected in proof the account above quoted from the Banffshire Journal. We have received corroborative testimony from his widow of the profound effect produced on his mind by the dream before the discovery of the skeleton. He is said further to have fallen into a state of intense religious depression shortly before his death.

It is difficult to suggest a plausible interpretation of this curious incident. If the bones were really forty years old, it is not easy to attribute the dream either to a guilty knowledge on Moir's part, or to telepathy from the person who had placed the skeleton where it was found. Again, in view of the situation of the skeleton, hyperaesthesia seems precluded. If we knew more of the case, and, in particular, if we had the opportunity of examining Moir, some further light would perhaps be thrown upon the mystery. But the case as it stands seems to point less ambiguously than most in our collection to the agency of the dead.

In another case of the kind the psychical disturbance, though very marked, was not referred at the time to any definite cause.

No. 59. From Mrs. Montague-Crackanthorpe[9]

Newbiggin Hall, Westermorland, June 11th, 1883.

Herewith my "Northamptonshire nights"—and days, as accurately told as I can. But, beyond being very real to me, I am afraid they won't avail you much. For you see I heard nothing, saw nothing, neither did the maid. I was startled when my father told me of the rector's confession as to the "disagreeableness" of that end of the house—months afterwards—but what made most impression upon me was, that having battled through the night with my vague terrors successfully, I could not sit in that arm-chair, in the sunshine, next day, with the sound of the cook singing over her work close at hand.

In the summer of 1872, my father occupied a rectory house (Passenham) not far from Blisworth, in Northamptonshire, for a few weeks, and I went down to spend three days with him and my mother at Whitsuntide; my two children and their nurse being already there. The room given to me was over the dining-room; next door to it was the night nursery, in which my nurse and children slept, the rest of the inmates of the house being quite at the other end of a rather long passage. I hardly slept at all the first (Saturday) night, being possessed with the belief that some one was in my room whom I should shortly see. I heard nothing, and I saw nothing. The next morning, Sunday, I did not go to church, but betook myself to the dining-room with a book. It was, I remember, a perfectly lovely June morning. Before I had been a quarter of an hour in the room, and whilst wholly interested in the book, I was seized with a dread, of what I did not know; but in spite of the sunshine and the servants moving about the house, I found it more intolerable to sit there than it had been to remain in the room above the night before, and so, after a struggle, and feeling not a little ashamed, I left the room and went to the garden. Sunday night was a repetition of Saturday. I slept not at all, but remained in what I can only describe as a state of expectation till dawn, and very thankfully I left on the Monday afternoon. To my father and mother I said nothing of my two bad nights. The nurse and children remained behind for another week. I noticed that the nurse looked gloomy when I left her, and I put it down to her finding the country dull, after London. When she returned she told me that she hoped she would never have to go to stay in that house again, for she had not been able to sleep there during the fortnight, being each night the prey of fears, for which she could not account in any way. My father left this rectory at the end of the summer; and some time afterwards he was talking of the place to me, and mentioned laughingly that before he entered it the rector had "thought it right to let him know that that end of the house in which I and my children were put up was said to be haunted, my room especially, and that several of his visitors—his sister in particular—had been much troubled by this room being apparently entered, and steps and movements heard in the dead of night. I do not like to let you come in," the rector added, "without telling you this, though my own belief in it is small." Within, I think, a year or eighteen months at most of my father's leaving, the house had to undergo considerable repair, and amongst others, a new floor had to be laid in the dining-room. On taking up the old boards four or five (I forget which) skeletons were found close under the boarding in a row, and also close to the hearthstone. Some of the skulls of these skeletons were very peculiar in form.

The Rev. G. M. Capell, writing from Passenham Rectory, October, 1889, says: " I found seven skeletons in my dining-room in 1874"

Two other cases of the kind are cited in the article from which the above account is taken. In one case a feeling of unaccountable horror was experienced in a room under part of the roof where the dried-up body of a baby was afterwards foundIn another case, a governess and one of her girl pupils saw, independently, a ghostly figure in a room in Mannheim in the walls of which a skeleton had been discovered. The skeleton had been removed in the process of converting the room into a schoolroom, and neither the governess nor the children had been told of the discovery. In another case the scene was a lodging-house in Trumpington Street, Cambridge. Loud and unaccountable noises had been heard in the house by the landlady, her servant, and at least two lodgers (undergraduates). The two former witnesses had also seen the apparition of a female figure. Some years afterwards three skulls, one that of a woman, were found just outside the window of the dining-room.[10]

The discovery of human remains in or near a dwelling-house in any civilised country is in itself so rare an event that the coincidence in these cases is the more striking. It is difficult to doubt that the psychical disturbances were in some way connected with these gruesome memorials of a past tragedy. But the only normal explanation which suggests itself is that of hyperaesthesia. Such an explanation, however, will scarcely apply even in Case 58, where the skeleton, buried in an open plain some distance from the house where Moir was haunted by his dream, was not more than forty years old. Of the skeletons found under the floor of Passenham Rectory, six were of a primitive type, and undoubtedly very old. Two of them were sent to the late M. de Quatrefages, at Paris. The seventh, according to the rector, Mr. Capell, was of comparatively recent origin; but it does not appear that it was sufficiently recent to give any support to the hypothesis of hyperæsthesia.

There are numerous cases in our collection in which mysterious noises have been heard, and ghostly figures seen by several witnesses in a particular house or locality. But though such "haunted" houses are fairly common, the phenomena are unfortunately inconclusive and extremely difficult of interpretation, partly from defect in the records, partly from the dubious nature of the things witnessed. It is seldom possible to connect the figures seen with the past history of the locality; it is not always possible to say that the figures seen by successive witnesses were really similar. But the fact, which seems to be well established, that in certain houses or places hallucinatory figures have been seen independently by several witnesses, is one which calls for explanation. The noises described as occurring in haunted houses have no doubt less significance, except in so far as they indicate a tendency to nervousness or hallucination on the part of the witnesses.

In the case which follows an apparition was seen in the same neighbourhood on several occasions, more than once by two persons simultaneously. We have, I think, no other case in our collection in which an apparition has been repeatedly seen on a country road in full daylight.

No. 60. From Miss M. W. Scott[11]

Lessudden House, St. Boswells,
February, 1893.

The incident I am about to relate occurred on the 7th of May, 1892, between five and six in the afternoon. Having gone for a walk, I was returning homewards by a road in the vicinity of St. Boswells. The greater portion of the way is quite level, but at one part a short incline terminates with a sharp comer at the end. From the top of this eminence the whole road is conspicuous, with a hedge and bank on either side. Upon reaching the specified point, and finding time limited, I thought I would expedite matters by running, and had not gone many steps when I came to a sudden halt, for just a few yards beyond I perceived a tall man dressed in black, and who walked along at a moderate pace. Fancying he would think mine an extraordinary proceeding, I finally stopped altogether to permit of his getting on farther, while at the same time watching him turn the corner and pass on where his figure was still distinctly defined between the hedges referred to. He was gone in a second—there being no exit anywhere—without my having become aware of it. Greatly surprised, I then myself passed the same corner and spot where I had seen the man vanish a few seconds before, and here, a short space onward, I saw one of my sisters standing and looking about everywhere in a bewildered manner. When I came up to her I said: "Wherever has that man disappeared to?" and upon our comparing notes together it became evident that we had both experienced a similar sensation regarding the stranger, the only difference being that I had seen the apparition on in front, while she says he came facing her, and she, too, had noticed he vanished almost immediately.

But here the strangest part of it all is that we found that when the man became invisible to her, he appeared to me between the part of the road where size and I were standing. I may also here add that at the time we saw the apparition neither sister knew the other was so near.

Our experience then ended, until some weeks later, for though we thought the encounter a strange one, we did not trouble much about it. Towards the end of July, and at the same hour as before, another sister and myself were traversing the same spot, when not far distant I observed a dark figure approaching, and exclaimed: "Oh, I do believe that is our man. I won't remove my eyes from him I " and neither we did till he seemed to fade away towards the bank on our right. Not waiting a moment to consider, each rushed frantically to either side of the road, but, of course, saw nothing We questioned some boys who were on the top of a hay-cart in the opposite field, and to whom the expanse of road was clearly visible, but they declared no one had passed that way. This time I again viewed the entire figure, while my sister only saw the head and to below the shoulders. The man was dressed entirely in black, consisting of a long coat, gaiters, and knee-breeches, and his legs were very thin. Round his throat was a wide white cravat, such as I have seen in old pictures. On his head was a low crowned hat—the fashion I am unable to describe. His face, of which I only saw the profile, was exceedingly thin and deadly pale.

Miss Louisa Scott's account of the first incident is as follows:

As my sister has written a full and accurate account of our extraordinary experience in seeing a ghost in the broad daylight of a May afternoon, and as the road has already been described, I need only describe very briefly the appearance and movements of the apparition as I saw.him. The date was the 7th of May, 1892, hour about a quarter before six, when, as I was walking homewards, I saw advancing towards me at an ordinary pace a tall man, dressed in black, whom I believed to be a clergyman. I removed my gaze but for a second, when great was my surprise when looking up again to find that he had gone from my sight. The hedge on either side of the road is very thick, with wide fields on either side so that the man could not possibly have sprung over it without my having seen him. I felt extremely mystified, and stood for several minutes, looking backwards and forwards into the fields and in all directions, when I was much surprised by seeing my sister turn the corner of a little incline higher up the road and commence running down it, almost immediately coming to a sudden halt, and I saw her acting in the same way as I had done about five minutes before. Soon she walked onwards again, and finally turned the second sharp angle of the road and came hurriedly towards me, looking very much excited. (I had no idea that she was behind, nor did she know that I should be likely to be found in front of her.) Upon coming up to me she said, "Where on earth is that man who was standing only about ten feet from you?" And here, what makes it more striking is that I was facing the tall spectre, yet could not see him when my sister did. She was more fortunate than I, for she saw the entire dress of the man, while I only noticed his long black coat, the lower part of his body to me being invisible; while she had the satisfaction of seeing him entirely and also seeing him vanish, as she did not remove her eyes, as I did, from the first time of seeing him. This is all I have seen of the man, but to what I did see nothing has been added by the aid of imagination.

(Signed) Lousa Scott.

Miss M. W. Scott adds:

My other sister, who was with me when we saw the apparition for the last time, says that in the sketch I sent through Miss Guthrie it is narrated what she saw, and therefore she thinks her statement would be scarcely worth anything, her experience being so slight, as she only noticed the head and shoulders of the man, while I, as before, on the other occasion, perceived the entire dark figure.

We heard from Miss Scott a few months later that she had again seen the apparition in the same place as before. She describes it as follows:

June 14th, 1893.

I have again seen the ghost, and under the following circumstances. On Sunday, last, June 12th, at a few minutes before ten in the morning, having occasion to pass that way, I perceived far in front a dark figure, who at that distance was indistinguishable as to whether it were man or woman, but believing the person to be the latter, and one I was acquainted with and likely to meet at that hour, I determined to hurry on and overtake her. I had not gone far, however, when I soon discovered it to be none other than the apparition we had looked for and failed to see for so many months. I did not then feel at all afraid, and, hoping to get a nearer inspection, boldly followed, running in close pursuit; but here the strangest part of it all is that though he was apparently walking slowly, I never could get any closer than within a few yards, for in but a moment he seemed to float or skin away. Presently he suddenly came to a standstill and I began to feel very much afraid, and stopped also. There he was—the tall spectre dressed as I have described before. He turned round and gazed at me with a vacant expression, and the same pallid, ghastly features. I can liken him to no one I have ever seen. While I stood, he still locked intently at me for a few seconds, then resumed his former position. Moving on a few steps he again stood and looked back for the second time, finally fading from view at his usual spot by the hedge to the right.

In a letter to a friend dated 28th June, 1893, Miss Scott, referring to the last appearance, writes:

I have had a splendid inspection of his appearance this time. He wears what is likely to be black silk stockings and shoe-buckles, short knee-breeches, and long black coat. The hat I cannot describe. The man is certainly dressed as a clergyman of the last century, and we have an old picture in the house for which he might have sat.

In August, 1898, Miss Scott saw the figure once more, but on this occasion the sister who was present with her did not see it. Miss Scott saw the figure again on the 24th July, and 16th August, 1900.

Miss Irvine, a lady resident in the neighbourhood, saw the figure at 4 p.m. one afternoon in the spring of 1894. Miss Scott tells us that the figure was also seen in 1892 or 1893 by two village girls; but we have not received a first-hand account of the appearance.

It should be noted, as pointed out by Miss Scott herself, that the dress of the figure on the two occasions last mentioned seems to have differed from the dress as seen by the original percipient. Miss Scott had seen a long coat and knee-breeches. Miss Irvine, in writing to us, describes the figure as wearing "a long cloak with cape and slouched hat, his hands in his coat pockets." No mention is made of knee-breeches. The village girls, according to Miss Scott, saw only a filmy looking sheet. We may look upon these discrepancies as some testimony to the accuracy of our informants. But in view of them we are hardly justified in speaking of the figures seen by the several witnesses as the same figure. It will be seen, from the descriptions given by Miss M. W. Scott and Miss Louisa Scott of the first appearance, that their visions were not simultaneous, and that the successive positions in which the figure was seen were inconsistent with its being a real figure. It should perhaps be added that there is a vague rumour of a murder having been committed in the neighbourhood, but that there is no authentic legend which throws any light upon the apparition.

Space will not permit of more than one other example of this class of narrative, and I will choose, therefore, the case of which we have the fullest and most satisfactory record.

The chief percipient in the following history refrained from mentioning her early experiences to any member of her family, but wrote an account of them in contemporary letters to a friend. It is from these letters, which were happily preserved, that Miss "Morton's" account, written in 1892, is compiled. Some of the other percipients have given first-hand accounts of their experiences, but these, as will be seen, were written down some years after the events. Miss "Morton," who withholds her real name lest the house should be identified and its value impaired, is known personally to several members of the Society.

No. 61. From Miss "Morton"[12]

The house is a commonplace square building, dating from about 1860. Its first tenant was Mr. 8., whose first wife died in the house (in August, year uncertain). Mr. S. married again, but his second marriage was unhappy. Both he and his wife took to drink. In order to prevent his second wife securing his first wife's jewels, he had a secret receptacle constructed for them under the floor of the morning-room or study. In that room he died in July, 1876, his widow dying in another part of England in September, 1878. With the exception of a brief tenancy of six months, terminated by death, the house appears to have remained unoccupied from the summer of 1876 until March, 1882, when it was taken by Captain Morton. Neither Captain Morton nor his wife, an invalid, ever saw anything in the house. The eldest sister, Mrs. K., an occasional visitor, saw the figure on two or three occasions. Of the four other sisters, three at one time or another saw the ghost; and so did the younger brother. Miss Morton,the chief percipient and the recorder of the case, was aged about nineteen at the time. The first appearance was in June, 1882, and is thus described by her:

"I had gone up to my room, but was not yet in bed, when I heard some one at the door, and went to it, thinking it might be my mother. On opening the door, I saw no one; but on going a few steps along the passage, I saw the figure of a tall lady, dressed in black, standing at the head of the stairs. After a few moments she descended the stairs, and I followed for a short distance, feeling curious what it could be. I had only a small piece of candle and it suddenly burnt itself out; and being unable to see more, I went back to my room.

"The figure was that of a tall lady, dressed in black of a soft woollen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand. This is all I noticed then; but on further occasions when I was able to observe her more closely, I saw the upper part of the left side of the forehead, and a little of the hair above. Her left hand was nearly hidden by her sleeve and a fold of her dress. As she held it down a portion of a widow's cuff was visible on both wrists, so that the whole impression was that of a lady in widow's weeds. There was no cap on the head, but a general effect of blackness suggests a bonnet, with long veil or a hood.

"During the next two years—from 1882 to 1884—I saw the figure about half a dozen times; at first at long intervals,and afterwards at shorter, but I only mentioned these appearances to one friend, who did not speak of them to any one.

"After the first time, I followed the figure several times downstairs into the drawing-room, where she remained a variable time, generally standing to the right hand side of the bow window. From the drawing-room she went along the passage towards the garden door, where she always disappeared.

"The first time I spoke to her was on the 29th January, 1884. 'I opened the drawing-room door softly and went in, standing just by it. She came in past me and walked to the sofa and stood still there, so I went up to her and asked her if I could help her. She moved, and I thought she was going to speak, but she only gave a slight gasp and moved towards the door. Just by the door I spoke to her again, but she seemed as if she were quite unable to speak. She walked into the hall, then by the side door she seemed to disappear as before.' (Quoted from a letter written on January 31st.) In May and June, 1884, I tried some experiments, fastening strings with marine glue across the stairs at different heights from the ground—of which I give a more detailed account later on.

"I also attempted to touch her, but she always eluded me. It was not that there was nothing there to touch, but that she always seemed to be beyond me, and if followed into a corner simply disappeared.

"During these two years the only noises I heard were those of slight pushes against my bedroom door, accompanied by footsteps; and if I looked out on hearing these sounds, I invariably saw the figure. 'Her footstep is very light, you can hardly hear it, except on the linoleum, and then only like a person walking softly with thin boots on.' (Letter of January 3rst, I884.) The appearances during the next two months—July and August, 1884—became much more frequent; indeed they were then at their maximum, from which time they seem gradually to have decreased, until now they seem to have ceased.

"Of these two months I have a short record in a set of journal letters written at the time to a friend. On July 21st I find the following account. "I went into the drawing-room, where my father and sisters were sitting, about 9 in the evening, and sat down on a couch close to the bow window. A few minutes after, as I sat reading, I saw the figure come in at the open door, cross the room, and take up a position close behind the couch where I was. I was astonished that no one else in the room saw her, as she was so very distinct to me. My youngest brother, who had before seen her, was not in the room. She stood behind the couch for about half an hour, and then as usual walked to the door. I went after her, on the excuse of getting a book, and saw her pass along the hall, until she came to the garden door, where she disappeared. I spoke to her as she passed the foot of the stairs, but she did not answer, although as before she stopped and seemed as though about to speak.' On July 31st, some time after I had gone up to bed, my second sister E., who had remained downstairs talking in another sister's room, came to me saying that some one had passed her on the stairs. I tried then to persuade her that it was one of the servants, but next morning found it could not have been so, as none of them had been out of their rooms at that hour, and E.'s more detailed description tallied with what I had already seen."

During this period of two years the figure was also seen by at least three other inmates of the house, none of them knowing what the others had seen.

(1) Mrs. K. writes:

"29th March, 1892.

"While staying at———, in the autumn of 1883, I was coming down the stairs, about five in the afternoon, when I saw a tall figure in black cross the hall, push open the drawing-room door, and go in. At the time I thought she was a Sister of Mercy, from her long veil, the figure being entirely substantial, and like that of a real person, although on others making inquiries, no one had called.

"This, I may mention, was the year before I heard of any appearance being known of in the house."

Mrs. K. adds that she saw the figure on two other occasions.

(2) Mr. W. H. C. Morton writes:

"31st December, 1891.

"On or about December 18th, 1883, I was playing with a school-friend on the path in front of the drawing-room windows, when on looking up at the drawing—room we both saw a tall figure in black, holding a handkerchief to her face with her right hand, seated at the writing-table in the window, and therefore in full light. We came in at once, but on going into the room found no one there, and on making inquiries found that no stranger had been in the house that afternoon. As far as I can remember, this was about 3.15 in the afternoon. At all events, it was full daylight at the time.

"Since then I have seen the figure twice.

". . . Previously to seeing the appearances (1) and (2) I had heard nothing about anything unusual in the house."

(3) The third appearance was to a housemaid, and is thus described by Miss Morton:

"In the autumn of 1883 it was seen by the housemaid about 10 p.m., she declaring that some one had got into the house, her description agreeing fairly with what I had seen; but, as on searching no one was found, her story received no credit."

On August 5th, 1884, Miss Morton told her father what she had seen, and thereafter the "ghost" became a familiar topic in the household. Subsequent appearances have thus somewhat less scientific interest, since it is impossible to exclude the effect of suggestion. One other illustration may however be quoted. The percipient in this case was a charwoman, Mrs. Twining, and the account is based upon notes taken by Mr. Myers at a personal interview on 29th December, 1889.

"About three years ago, one summer evening between eight and nine, when it was twilight, I had been at work at the Mortons' and was waiting for my pay. I stood at the top of the kitchen stairs, where there is a door into the garden behind the house. I saw a lady pass by, rather tall, in black silk, with white collar and cuffs, a handkerchief in her hand, and a widow's fall. I had heard about the ghost, but it never struck me that this figure could be a ghost—it looked so like an ordinary person. I thought that some one had come to call and missed her way to the door. The family were at tea and I was merely waiting, so out of curiosity I followed the lady round the house. Just outside the morning-room window she suddenly disappeared. I was quite near her; it was quite impossible that a real person could have got away."

During the next few years the characteristic light footsteps were frequently heard by all the inmates of the house; also other sounds which gradually grew more loud and terrifying. The figure was also frequently seen, by Miss Morton herself, by her sisters, and by servants; sometimes in the garden or orchard, more frequently in the house; sometimes in full daylight, at other times in the dusk or by artificial light. The phenomena gradually decreased in intensity and frequency from 1887 onwards, and had entirely ceased before 1892. After 1886 Miss Morton records that the figure became less lifelike and distinct.

The figure is stated to have been identified by description as resembling the second Mrs. S. It should be borne in mind, however, that, as the face was never seen, any identification of the kind must be of an uncertain character. It should be added that there is some evidence of the house having the character of being haunted before it was taken by the Mortons. None of the Morton family have experienced any other hallucinations, but Miss Morton has taken part in some successful experiment in thought transference. Instances were observed of terror and other unaccountable behaviour on the part of two dogs, which suggested that they also saw the ghost.

This narrative, it should be explained, cannot be taken as altogether typical. The appearances of the figure were much more frequent than is commonly the case in what may conveniently be called "haunted houses." The figure itself was more substantial-looking and more distinctly seen than many of the figures described in narratives of this class. But it is by the persistence of the apparition in this instance, its movement from place to place, and its apparently purposive action, that the case is most sharply distinguished from the bulk of the accounts furnished to us. It is possible that these very characteristics are due to the same cause which has preserved a contemporary record of the incidents, viz., the scientific temper and training of Miss Morton, who was actually studying medicine at the time when she wrote the account.

However that may be, in the ordinary ghost story, of which we have, as said, numerous examples recorded at first hand, the figure is as a rule seen only for a few moments, vanishing before it can be closely examined; it rarely indicates any purpose, or makes any motion indicative of intelligence. A more significant point is that in very few cases can we be satisfied that the figures seen by the different witnesses can fairly be described as the same figure. The details have in most cases been committed to writing only after hearing the descriptions of others; so that features discerned or believed to be common become more definite in recollection, and discrepancies tend to disappear. In short, the image which remains in the memories of the percipients is apt to resemble a composite photograph, in which all the common features are emphasised, and details found only in individual cases are blurred or faintly indicated.

But even in the accounts forwarded to us, mostly written some years after the events, when there has been ample time for the several experiences to have been talked over and smoothed into uniformity, it frequently happens that we can discern marked discrepancies in the description of the figures. In many cases the figures seen are admittedly different. In the Case, for instance, a fragment of which has been already quoted at the end of the last chapter, (No. 55), the most frequent apparition was a figure, sex uncertain, clothed in black with, according to most witnesses, some white about the head and shoulders. But one inmate of the house saw the figure of a man in his shirt-sleeves; the apparition of a white dog was also seen by several persons. Here then in this one case we have four distinct kinds of apparition.

The impression left upon the mind after a careful survey of the best attested narratives is that the authentic ghost rarely appears in recognisable, perhaps not even in constant shape; that his connection with tragedies is obscure and uncertain. He appears in fact in most narratives as a fugitive, irrelevant, and frequently polymorphic phantasm. He seems to flit as idly across the scene as the figure cast by a magic lantern, and he possesses apparently as little purpose, volition, or intelligence. Often, indeed, the appearance is so brief and so unsubstantial that it can be called little more than the suggestion of a figure. It bears as little resemblance to the aggrieved miser, the repentant monk, the unquiet spirit of the murderer or his victim, with whom the legends of our childhood and the dinner-parties of our maturer years have made us familiar, as the dragons whom Siegfried slew bear to the winged lizards whose bones lie buried in the Sussex weald.

It would be premature then to conclude, on the faith of one or two striking instances which seem to point in that direction, that the dead have any message to deliver to the living. But if cases of the kind recorded by William Moir and Miss Morton should ultimately be multiplied, such a conclusion would no doubt appear less dubious. To secure that end it is essential to cultivate a scientific attitude towards the facts. Whatever these vague phantasms may ultimately prove to be, whether messages from the dead, or mere random dreams of the living, they are, at any rate, amongst the things that happen. They are questionable shapes, and will, if we persevere, yield an answer to our questioning.

  1. Case No. 55 is, of course, an exception.
  2. See. e.g., vol. i., pp. 524. 559: ii.. pp. 40, 57. 61, 613.
  3. Journal, S. P. R., March, 1897.
  4. Journal, S. P. R., December, 1898, p. 327.
  5. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. v.. p. 416.
  6. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. v., p. 460. For other cases of the type see Mr. Myers's list (ibid. p. 473). And for some recent instances see Miss Atkins's narrative (Journal, April, 1894); the figure of a priest seen at Costessey Park by Lady Bedingfield (Journal, May, 1899); Miss Bedford's case (Journal. July, 1905): Mrs. Verall's case (Journal. July, 1906). The figure seen in the last case was afterwards recognised from a portrait.
  7. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. v., p. 417.
  8. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. vi., pp. 35, 36.
  9. Proceedings, S. P. R.. vol. vi., pp. 42,43.
  10. Journal, S. P. R., March, 1901.
  11. Journal, S. P. R., November. 1893.
  12. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. viii., pp. 311–332.