The Unsettled Dead
One fine September day in the early 1920s, a pair of young Englishmen and their Swiss mountain climbing guide set out to ascend the towering Finsteraarhorn, which, at 14,022 feet, is the highest peak in the Bernese Alps. In the course of the long day, the guide noted that the two men, Eddie and David, were particularly close friends and that each seemed more concerned with the safety of the other than with his own well-being.
The ascent went smoothly, and on the way back down the mountain the three men stopped for the night at a hut on the edge of a glacial ridge. Eddie, who had been fatigued by the climb, fell immediately into a heavy sleep. David and the guide chatted for awhile, then went to bed shortly after nightfall. The next morning David awoke to find that the door of the hut was open and his friend was missing. During the night the temperature had plunged and a heavy snow had fallen. With concern, David revealed to his guide that in time of exhaustion or sudden change in the weather, Eddie was prone to walk in his sleep.
The pair set out after Eddie, but a search of several hours failed to turn up any sign of him. The snow had obliterated all tracks, and their constant shouts were answered only by hollow echoes from the mountain walls. By this time, both David and the guide had become seriously alarmed. They hurried down to the nearest village and organized a search party but to no avail; the missing climber had vanished without a trace.
After a week, David resigned himself to his friend's death and returned to England, tremendously upset. In letters to the guide, he vowed to return in the summer to resume the search for his friend's body.
But the following summer passed with no word from David, and gradually the matter faded from the guide's mind. Then in September, nearly a year efter Eddie's disappearance, the Swiss guide chanced to make his way again along the same glacial ridge. The events of the previous year naturally crossed his mind. Why, he wondered, had David broken his vow to return?
Suddenly, not far from the hut where the three had spent the night, the guide caught sight of a familiar figure crouched in the distance. Peering through his field glasses, he felt shock of recognition. It was David. Yet how could it be? The figure on the mountainside wore city clothes and carried no mountaineering gear - no ax, no pitons, no rope. How could David, an inexperienced alpinist, have managed to ascent by himself? As these questions flashed through the guide's mind, the mysterious climber seemed to take notice of his presence for the first time. Turning slowly, as though extremely tired, the figure waved an arm and gestured toward a spot on the ridge. The guide lowered his field glasses and cupped his hand to his mouth to give a shout, but before he could get the words out, the figure vanished.
A chill ran through the guide's body as he made his way to the spot where the thought he had seen David. He found nothing but a jagged crevasse cutting deep into the mountainside. The next day, he enlisted several sturdy villagers, and one of them was carefully lowered into the crevasse by means of a rope. And there, at a depth of nearly 100 feet, the villager found Eddie's body wedged into the rock, exactly where the figure of David had indicated.
One mystery had been solved, but another, even more puzzling one had taken its place. Hoping for answers, the guide wrote to David in England. The reply could scarcely have been more stunning: After a long illness, David had died of blood poisoning - three days before Eddie's body was recovered from the mountain.
This case is a classic in the annals of psychical research and raises one of the most intriguing issues addressed by students of the psychic: the survival of the soul. Does a person's inner being depart this world along with the body? Or does the soul survive, in some form, and exhibit powers of communication with the living? In recent years, an increasing number of physical researchers have come to suspect that perhaps it does, though there is no conclusive evidence. After much study, wrote the noted parapsychologist Louisa Rhine, "even the physical researchers themselves, careful scholars most of them, were not agreed as to whether survival had or hd not been proved. However, the material seemed very impressive in volume and possible significance. It was puzzling, inexplicable, and certainly evidence of something still unknown."
To be sure, much of the testimony for phantom appearances is anecdotal - frequently related long after the alleged even has occured - and by its very nature unverifiable. But as is so often the case in psychical research, investigators must make do with what evidence is at hand, and some of them are more diligent than others in taking into account the quality of the reports.
In numerous instances, some in modern times and some going back many years, apparitions have been reported that do not quite fit the usual theories of telepathy or clairvoyance, nor do they seem to be linked to some intense wish on the part of the percipient. In the case of the young English climbers and their guide, for example, it is possible but unlikely that the Swiss mountaineer was seized with a brilliant hallucinatory hunch; he, after all, had more or less shrugged off the incident. On the other hand, the deceased David, who had sworn but failed in life to find the body of his friend, may have desperately wanted to communicate with the guide, if the unfortunate Eddie's soul had survived, it too might have felt a powerful urge to make known the physical body's resting place.
This question of motivation or purpose lies at the heart of much recent research into the actions of the so-called restless dead. The investigators have taken up the groundbreaking work of Gurney, Myers, and Podmore with great enthusiasm, and the years have produced new insights. The three earlier researchers, in their pioneering study, Phantasms of the Living, had focused strongly on crisis apparitions, those that allegedly took place within twelve hours or so of the apparent's death. And throughout their study, they assumed the apparitional experiences to be examples of telepathic projections by the still living, as indicated by the title of their work. Moreover, while some of the crisis apparitions showed extended purpose, most seemed primarily intent on a simple task, such as advising a loved one of the apparent's impending death.
The research into what are known as post-mortem apparitions has uncovered a more complex set of circumstances. In post-mortem cases, the apparent makes itself known to the percipient at least twelve hours after his or her bodily death. It is said that these phenomena can occur anywhere from days or weeks to years or even centuries after death. As in the mountain climber case, the phantom sometimes has a pressing need to be seen - far stronger than any desire on the part of the percipient - and often seems determined to convey a vital message or generate some important action.
From beyond the grave
Proponents of this notion cite the case of a child who reportedly was saved from being run over by a streetcar upon hearing her deceased mother cry out, "Harriet! Harriet! Look out"! The child, unthinkingly crossing the street, seemingly had no motive for hearing her mother's urgent voice, but the mother had every reason to warn her young daughter of danger.
A second such case, reported to have occured in the early 1900s, concerned a youngster of four who was doodling on a pad one evening while his mother, an innkeeper, was working at her reception desk. The child was using up paper at a great rate, and eventually the mother asked him to find something else to play with. Obediently, her son folded the papers and stuffed them in his mother's mailbox.
The next morning, the mother was about to throw away the scribblings, when the desk clerk took a look at them and told her in astonishment that they seemed to be shorthand of an obsolete type she had seen in school. And so they were - perfect shorthand, by a child who did not know how to print, let alone write in shorthand code.
The shorthand held a message to the mother. It began "Dearest Beloved" and went on to tell of an unmailed letter that had contained information about the father's safe deposit box in a distant city.
"My father had died two weeks before," recounted the son in later life. "He had died in New York while my mother and I were in Oregon. His death had been sudden and Mother hadn't known the location of the box. Moreover, my father had always called my mother 'Dearest Beloved,' and while he was a young man had learned shorthand, the oldfashioned method." The son did not recall seeing an actual apparition of his father while he was playing that evening, nor did he remember scribbling with any particular design in mind. The father, on the other hand, whould have had a compelling reason for guiding the boy's hand: to make sure that the family would be provided for.
In the argument for survival of the soul, this incident - if true - appeared to provide strong evidence. Such cases are rare, however, and there is much debate over where, in reported phantom encounters, the greatest motivation lies - with the specter being observed or with the person or persons doing the observing. In 1944, Edmund Gibson, a Michigan-born engineer and parapsychology reseracher, attempted to answer the question of purpose by analyzing the motives involved in 313 alleged phantom encounters. As a matter of convenience, he culled his cases from the earlier work of London's Society for Psychical Research. His premise was that if the stronger motivation usually lay with the apparent, the idea of apparitions is independent entities would be given credence, and understanding of them would be greatly increased. Particularly compelling were those cases - like the English climbers and the innkeeper's son - in which the apparition or other agent imparted information previously unknown to the percipient.
Gibson, who published his findings in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, concluded that in an average case, phantoms appeared unexpectedly, when the percipient was either asleep or thinking of anything but the deceased. And when a message of some kind was delivered, it was generally a greater importance to the dead person than to the percipient.
"The case for motivation," Gibson decided, "seems to be strong for the assumed agent and weak as regards the percipient. It might thus be concluded that most veridical phantasms are primarily the work of a dominant agent."
In fact, the results of Gibson's analysis were lopsidedly on the side of the agent. In the 313 cases, motivation was strong for the agents in 248 and moderate in 69, while remaining weak in only 40. Among the percipients, the reverse was true; motivation was strong or moderate in only 64 cases but weak in 298. (In some cases, there was more than one agent and more than one percipient.) Gibson found it interesting that the vast majority of alleged communication were between family members and friends; only a little more than 15 percent occured between strangers and casual acquaintances.
As an example of a case in which the motivation rested almost entirely with the phantom, Gibson cited a collective encounter that involved a girl, one of two daughters, who was suddenly awakened in the night by feelings of dread and horror. She saw nothing in the room, but her terror was so overwhelming that she spent the rest of the night huddled under the blankets.
The next morning, she met her mother, who looked strangely pale and drawn, coming downstairs. The mother at first refused to discuss the matter. Eventually, though, she related that she too had been awakened in the night. She heard her bedroom door opening, she said, and saw, to her horror, her other daughter, Susan, enter in her nightdress. "She came straight toward my bed, turned down the clothes, and laid herself beside me, and I felt a cold chill and down my side where she seemed to touch me. I suppose I fainted, ... and when I came to myself the apparition had gone - but of one thing I am sure, and that is that it was not a dream." The family subsequently heard that Susan had died that night in a hospital some distance away and that just before her death she had talked of returning home.
Gibson cited a number of instances in which the phantom had appeared anywhere from several days to many weeks after the person's death. In one case, the apparition reportedly was observed by no fewer than eight people who were, wrote Gibson, "either affected by mass hallucination or had entered the field of a strong psychical occurrence, and were affected by it despite wide variations in intensity of rapport with the supposed agent."
The incident took place in London in May 1873 and involved a Captain Towns, who had died six weeks before in Sydney, Australia. On this day, the captain's middle-aged daughter happened to go into one of the bedrooms of her home, accompanied by a young woman visitor. There, according to the daughter's husband, who related the tale, "they were amazed to see, reflected as it were on the polished surface of the wardrobe, the image of Captain Towns. It was barely half figure, the head, shoulders, and part of the arms only showing - in fact, it was like an ordinary medallion portrait, but life-size. The face appeared wan and pale, ... and he wore a kind of grey flannel jacket, in which he had been accustomed to sleep. Surprised and half alarmed at what they saw, their first idea was that a portrait had been hung in the room and what they saw was its reflection - but there was no picture of the kind."
At that point, the daughter's sister entered the room, and before the other two had a chance to speak, she exclaimed, "Good gracious! Do you see papa?" One of the housemaids happened by at that moment and was asked if she saw anything. "Oh miss! The master," she gasped. The captain's old body servant was summoned, and he immediately crid, "Oh, Lord save us" Mrs. Lett, it's the captain!" The butler was called next, then a nursemaid, and both saw it. Finally, the old captain's grieving widow was sent for. "Seeing the apparition," related the daughter's husband, "she advanced toward it with arms extended as if to touch it, and as she passed her hand over the panel of the wardrobe the figure gradually faded away, and never again appeared." Added the husband: "It was by the merest accident that I did not see the apparition. I was in the house at the time, but I did not hear when I was called."
Unlike many post-mortem cases, the captain appeared to leave no message, and he gave no indication of his motive for appearing before so many people half a world away from his resting place. Perhaps, some have mused, he merely wished all of his family and servants to see him, and he them, one more time.
In another case, famous for the evidence offered, the apparition seemed to have a compelling reason for appearing. The percipient was a businessman, identified as F.G., whose sister had died of cholera nine years before, at the age of eighteen. On this day, F.G. was on a business trip, resting in his hotel room in St. Joseph, Missouri, when he suddenly became aware of a figure beside him in the room. F.G. was amazed to see his long-deceased sister and was particularly surprised to note that her face was disfigured by a long red scratch on the cheek. After displaying herself and her injury, the apparition vanished.
Returning home, F.G. reported the incident to his mother, who nearly collapsed. Upon regaining her composure, the woman confessed that when praying her last respects to her dead daughter, she had tried, as she put it, to "touch up" the face, and had somehow inflicted a scratch on the girl's cheek. To conceal the accident, she had then carefully covered the scratch with makeup. No one had known of it until the daughter's ghost appeared before the brother.
As with crisis apparitions, many brushes with post-mortem phantoms seem to stem from promises made in life. The case of David's promise to recover his friend Eddie's body from the mountain is a poignant one. There are others in which the promise has been mutual, as with "death compacts," agreements between two living people that the first die will attempt to contact the survivor.
One of these cases, which reportedly took place in England in 1940, involved a young man who awoke early on a Sunday morning to find the figure of an unknown man standing at the foot of his bed. "He looked steadily at me with a smile," the young man later recalled. "Seeing the kindness in his eyes, I stopped being afraid and was completely master of myself again. Suddenly the man came straight up to me. If he had been a creature of flesh and blood he would, moving in that direction, have had to climb over the bed. But the man approached me as if the bed were not there, and without a word to me, passed by on my right, then through the wall and disappeared."
The young man had scarcely a moment to catch his breath before a second, even more startling vision appeared. This time he recognized the apparition. It was his best friend, who had died six weeks earlier. The two had made a death compact years before, each vowing that whoever died first was to return to shake hands with the other as a sign of life after death.
The apparition made no move to shake hands, however. Instead he simply stood at the foot of the bed and gazed solemny at his friend for a long time before vanishing through the bedroom wall, as the earlier figure had done. "I know now," the young man later wrote, "that there is no death for us human beings."
Actually, in this reported occurrence it is difficult to determine whether the apparent or the percipient had the stronger motivation. The encounter could have been wish fulfillment on the part of the surviving friend, a fanciful image conjured up in his own mind to reassure himself of life in the hereafter. Certainly that motive would have been a strong one, but so too was that of the supposed apparent, who made a bargain in life that could be kept only in death.
What is intriguing about the case, aside from the partial consummation of the compact, is the identity of the older stranger. Some have suggested that he may have been a fellow phantom, sent by the deceased to test the waters, as it were, to see if the living friend was receptive before hazarding an appearance.
Motive is more readily suggested in the case involving the Reverend Arthur Bellamy. In 1874, Bellamy's wife learned of the death of a childhood friend with whom she had made a death compact many years before. Though she had not heard from her friend for quite some time, Mrs. Bellamy became nervous at the thought that the agreement the two of them had made might now be fulfilled. She shared her fears with her husband, who had neither met the friend nor seen a photograph of her.
Two nights later, the Reverend Bellamy awoke from a sound sleep to see the figure of a woman sitting by the side of the bed where his wife slept. "Had I the pencil and the brush of a Millais," he reported later, "I could transfer to canvas an exact likeness of the ghostly visitant. I remember that I was much struck, as I looked intently at her, with the careful arrangement of her coiffure, every single hair being most carefully brushed down."
After a time, the figure vanished. Bellamy lay in bed until his wife awoke and then described the ghostly visitor to her in great detail. The description perfectly matched Mrs. Bellamy's recollection of the friend with whom she had made the compact, but her husband wanted to be certain. "Was there any special point to strike one in her appearance?" he inquired. "Yes," his wife replied, "we girls used to tease her at school any ordinary channel, convinced both him and his wife that the compact had been fulfilled.
The case is remarkable also because the apparition, which appeared some time after the agent's death, showed itself to someone other than the person principally concerned with the death compact. Clearly, Bellamy had only a passing interest in the compact's realization, and his own imagination could not have supplied the subtle detail of the apparition's carefully arranged hairstyle. In this instance, then, it would appear that the strongest motivation behind the occurrence belonged to the apparition itself.
Emotional reasons and promises made
Comparatively few post-mortem apparitional experiences involved death compacts. More often the evident reasons for a phantasm's appearance are highly emotional, involving love, concern, or - as in one notable case - disappointment over a neglected promise.
This case involved a man who had suffered complications from a hernia operation in 1911 and died of pneumonia soon afterward. Before his death, his daughter, Josephone, promised to burn a so-called soul light - actually an oil and wax candle - in his memory for one year.
One day, as Josephine sat having lunch with her own children, a persistent rapping noise drifted into the room from upstairs. The noise seemed to originate in the room that had been her father's and where his soul light now burned. The children became frightened as the eerie knocking continued. Before long, Josephine went off to find the source. "We all listened intently," one of the children, John, reported, "and we heard our mother's voice as well as our grandfather's - we could not possibly have been mistaken, even though we were unable to understand what they were saying."
After a minute or two, Josephine returned to the lunch table in a state of obvious agitation, her eyes reddened with tears. The family members finished their meal in silence. Try as they might, the children could not get their mother to say anything about what or whom she had found in the room. Afterward, however, Josephine drew John, her son, aside and asked him to run to the village at once to buy a quart of oil for her father's light.
Only much later did John learn the truth of what had happened that day. "I went into grandfather's room," his mother eventually told him, "and there I saw him, dressed as he was when we put him into his coffin, standing upright near the cupboard. He had hardly caught sight of me when he said, ... 'Josephine, why did you let the little light go out?' I replied that by mistake I had run out of oil, and he answered: 'My daughter, on no account must anyone ever break a promise once given. See that my light is burning again this very day.'".
Psychial literature abounds with tales of apparitions returning to remind the living of promises made in life. These promises, like that of Josephine's to her fathers, seem especially binding when made over a deathbed. Such agreements - as one C. Happerfield reportedly learned in a somewhat abrupt manner from the supposed spirit of his friend John Harford - know no time limit.
As he lay dying in June of 1851, Harford called Happerfield to his bedside and extracted a solemn promise that Happerfield would look after his widow. His mind greatly eased, Harford died a short time after.
True to his word, Happerfield set up Mrs. Harford in a small cottage and saw to her needs. Some time later, one of the widow's grandsons approached Happerfield and proposed to take her into his own home. Since Mrs. Harford seemed pleased by the idea, Happerfield agreed, content that he had done his duty according to his dying friend's wish.
One night, as Happerfield lay awake in his bed thinking about some business matters, he bacme conscious of another presence in the room. Looking up, he saw the figure of his friend Harford standing before him, his face sorrowful and troubled. In a familiar but agitated voice, the apparition spoke out. "Friend Happerfield," it said, "I have come to you because you have not kept your promise to see to my wife. She is in trouble and in want."
Startled, Happerfield assured the phantasm that he had not been aware of any difficulty but would inquire immediately. This seemed to satisy the apparition, who stepped backward into the shadows and vanished.
In the morning, Happerfield wrote to the grandson who had taken in Harford's widow. The young man quickly replied, saying that he had lost his schoolmaster position and could no longer support his elderly grandmother. In face, he had been on the point of committing her to a public institution. Happerfield felt the sting of conscience over the promise that he had broken, however unwittingly. At once, he sent money so that Mrs Harford could return to his care. If not for the intervention of Harford's phantom, it seems, she might have died a pauper's death.
The motivating forces behind both the case of Harford's widow and that of the extinguished soul light are easily understood. Both alleged apparents clearly wished to remind the living of vows that they had neglected. The motivations of the percipients - Josephine and Happerfield - are less clear and probably less strong, since neither knew beforehand of the lapsed promise.
The experience of Lucy Dodson offers a fresh perspective on such questions. As in the previous stories, Lucy had no prior knowledge of the circumstances that inspired the encounter. But in this case the apparition seeminly appeared not to fulfill a promise but to seek one.
On a Sunday morning, June 5, 1887, Lucy was in her bedroom when she heard her name being called. Incredibly, the voice seemed to be that of her mother, who had been dead for sixteen years. Somewhat fearfully, Lucy called out her mother's name. As Lucy related the incident, an apparition of Mrs. Dodson then appeared, bearing two small babies in her arms.
Placing the children in her daughter's arms, the figure spoke to her. "Lucy," it said, "promise me to take care of them, for their mother is just dead." The phantom paused and seemed to fix Lucy with a beseeching gaze. "Promise me to take care of them," it implored. Lucy quickly agreed to the earnest request and urged her mother to stay and speak further. "Not yet, my child," said the apparition. And then it vanished.
Lucy sat holding the children in her arms for a time before falling asleep. When she awoke, the children were gone. And she soon recieved a grim message - her sister-in-law had died after giving birth to a second child. Lucy, who had not known of the younger child's birth, immediately volunteered to care for the children.
In other instances, phantoms seems to return in hopes of atoning for some wrong done in life. One young woman reported such an experience to the Society for Psychical Research that seems all the more remarkable for having occured in the middle of a bright summer day. It happened as she was working in her kitchen, the woman claimed. She felt herself inexplicably drawn to the attic of her house. There she opened an old suitcase and withdrew a box of letters from her former fiancÚ, who had abruptly broken their engagement six years earlier. Though distraught at the time, the young woman had seldom thought of her former love in recent years.
In the midst of reading through the letters, she found herself suddently overwhelmed with pity for the young man, although she could not understand the reason. At that moment she looked up and beheld him standing in front of her. For some time the young man stood silently. Then quietly, but with a sense of suppressed urgency, he said, "You must forgive me everything I did to you; I was a poor creature." Feeling mesmerized by his presence and his words, the young woman granted her forgiveness. At this, she said, the figure dissolved into the air.
It was not until the next day that the young woman learned, through a notice in the newspaper, of her former fiancÚ's death. He had died on the same afternoon that his phantasm had appeared to her.
In this case, too, the apparition seems to have been motivated by a promise that had been made - or rather, broken - in life. Apparently troubled by the unhappiness he had caused, the young man returned in ghostly form in order to seek forgiveness from the one person who could ease his troubled conscience.
A similar case was reported in Russia in the late nineteenth century. It concerned one Basil von Driesen, who had not been on very good terms with his father-in-law, Nicholas Ponomareff. At the time of the older man's final illness, relations between the two were civil but cool. Nine days after Ponomareff's death, as von Driesen sat reading by candlelight, he heard the sound of footsteps in the adjacent room. The sound ceased just outside the closed door of his bedroom. Von Driesen called out but recieved no answer. However, he soon saw, he claimed later, the form of his father-in-law standing inside the closed bedroom door. "It was he undoubtedly," von Driesen wrote, "in his blue dressing gown, lined with squirrel furs and only half buttoned, so that I could see his white waistcoat and his black trousers. ... I was not frightened. They say that, as a rule, one is not frightened when seeing a ghost, as ghosts possess the quality of paralyzing fear."
The figure of Ponomareff did not reply immediately when his son-in-law spoke to him. Instead, he stepped forward and paused near the bed, his face fixed with an expression of uneasiness and concern. "I have acted wrongly toward you," the apparition said at last. "Forgive me! Without this I do not feel at rest there." The figure extended his right hand. Von Driesen shook the hand, which he described as "long and cold," and gave his forgiveness. At once the figure withdrew. "I fell asleep," von Driesen claimed, "with the sense of joy which a man who has done his duty must feel."
The need for forgiveness is a common thread that runs through many tales of apparitional experiences, but such occurrences are surely open to a certain amount of skepticism. In the case of von Driesen, for instance, did his imagination merely conjure the show of forgiveness he himself may have desired? A researcher might conclude that both the apparent and the percipient had equal motivation for the encounter.
The dead butler
More striking are the cases in which the percipient has little or no motivation for seeking a phantom, such as the one involving Thomas Erskine, one of Great Britain's most brilliant lawyers and later a Lord Chancellor and member of Parliament. Erskine, who died in 1823, once related an incident from his youth that even his supremeley logical mind could not explain.
Erskine had been away from his native Scotland for some time. On returning to Edinburgh, he happened to see his former family butler in the street. The butler, Erskine reported, looked pale and shadowy. Erskine called out to the man and enquired after his current business. "To meet your honor," the old man surprisingly replied, "and to solicit your intereference with my lord to recover a sum due to me, which the steward at the last settlement did not pay."
Struck by the butler's obvious distress, Erskine beckoned him into a bookseller's shop, where they might discuss the matter more privately than in the street. Erskine led the way, but when he turned back, the butler was gone.
Perplexed by the disappearance, Erskine went at once to the butler's quarter's, where he found the man's wife in mourning. Her husband had died months before, she told the lawyer. On his deathbed he head spoken of money he was owed and assured her that his former master would seek justice on her behalf. Greatly impressed by the experience, Erskine saw the matter put right immediately. Having been out of the city for a long time, he had had no idea that he apparently had been speaking to a dead man when he engaged the butler in conversation, nor had he heard of the old man's troubles through any other channels.
Researchers believe that such reported encounters, in which previously unknown information is communicated to the percipient, afford valuable insight into the nature and motivation of apparitions. Often these cases, many of which involve phantoms seeking justice, provide the most dramatic illustrations of purposeful psychic phenomena in record - some involving blackmail, revenge, or, as in the case related by Romer Troxell, murder.
In 1970, Troxell drove from his home in Pennsylvania to Portage, Indiana, on a grim errand: to identify and claim the body of his son Charlie, who had been found murdered by the side of a deserted road.
From the moment he entered the town, Troxell reported later, he thought he heard a voice inside his head - the voice of his dead son seeming to give him directions. The next day, at the urging of the voice, Troxell went for a drive in the nearby city of Gary, looking for his son's missing car. Charlies's voice told him exactly where to go, and Troxell followed the instructions to the letter.
Any doubts that Troxell may have had about his sanity vanished when he saw his son's yellow car flash past him, going in the opposite direction. Making a U-turn, Troxell followed the car down a crowded street. In his fury, the bereaved father contented himself with following the other car until the driver stopped and got out. Pulling alongside the stolen car, Troxell hopped out and confronted the driver. Soon the police arrived and arrested the driver of the car, who was later charged with Charlie's murder.
"Charlie left me after we caught the killer," Troxell maintained. "He's in peace now." Police obviously could not confirm Troxell's claim of ghostly guidance. But a detective assigned to the case maintained that "Troxell did a fine job in solving our murder. We're grateful to him."
Such dramatic quests for justice are relatively rare among accounts of phantom activity. Often the only discernible reason for a ghost's appearance is utterly mundane; one helpful apparition is said to have manifested himself to his surviving son in order to help in the repairs of a troublesome towboat engine. Mundane or not, encounters among close family members appear to be the most common of all apparitional experiences, frequently involving even those who resist the very idea of such phenomena, as in the case of the Reverend Russell, H. Conwell.
As a noted lecturer and the founder of Temple University in Philadelphia, Conwell was one of the most prominent American clergymen of the late nineteenth century. By his own admission, however, he was not terribly receptive to what he called "spiritualistic rubbish." Yet, late in his life, Conwell reported a series of encounters of his own that he could not discredit.
In the early 1900s, shortly after his wife's death, Conwell experienced a recurring vision in which his late wife appeared every morning and sat smiling at the foot of his bed. The vision appeared so regularly and seemed so life-like, even engagin in conversion with him, that Conwell resolved to put it to a test.
"I know you aren't really there," Conwell said one day as the apparition made its customary appearence. "Oh, but I am!" his wife's cheerful voice reportedly replied. "How can I be sure?" Conwell asked. "Are you willing that I should test you?" The smiling figure nodded. "All right," said Conwell, "tomorrow I will ask you a question."
The next morning, Conwell, who was a Civil War veteran, asked the apparition for the location of his discharge paper from the Union Army. He had not seen it for years and felt certain that the apparition could not know where it was.
Yet the figure of his wife responded instantly. "It is in the black japanned box behind the books in your library."
Conwell rose from bed and went straight to the library. After some searching, he found the black laquered box hidden away at the back of a dusty bookshelf. Inside was the discharge paper.
Still, Conwell remained unconvinced. Perhaps, he reasoned, the location of the paper had been at the back of his mind all along, and he had only imagined that his wife's spirit had told him. He decided to devise another test. That day he instructed the housemaid, Mary, to hide his gold fountain pen, which had been a gift from his wife, and to be careful not to let him know where it was. The maid dutifully carried out the peculiar instruction.
When the figure of Mrs. Conwell next appeared, her husband posed his question. "Do you know where Mary hid my pen?" he asked. The apparition seemed to smile almost playfully. "Of course," it said. "Come with me." Conwell rose from his bed and followed his wife's phantom to a hall closet. "There," said the apparition confidently, gesturing toward the top shelf.
Conwell climbed a chair ran his hand across the shelf but felt nothing. Convinced that the whole affair had been a dream or a delusion, he turned to step down from the chair. Somewhat to his surprise, the apparition still stood behind him, gesturing emphatically at the closet shelf as though to say, "It is there! Look again!"
Once more Conwell ran his hand across the shelf. This time, to his amazement, he felt the pen. "I do not presume to draw conclusions," Conwell wrote afterward; "I feel no reticense in repeating the story, only a certain reluctance lest some readers should force into it an interpretation which I myself do not pretend to give ... And yet I speak only what I myself have seen."
Visitations from parents
Russell Conwell's account, though precise and carefully measured, gives no details as to the physical appearance of the phantom. But the case of Clive Stirland, an English metallurgist who claimed that in 1974 he encountered the phantom of his father, offers a vivid description.
As Stirland told his story, he was sitting alone in his house near Middlesbrough one evening when he felt "a most peculiar sudden jerk or jolt, almost physical in nature, as though my whole body moved convulsively relative to the surroundings, or vice versa."
Looking around, Stirland saw a vision of his father, who had died more than twenty years earlier, standing only six feet away. "In appearance," Stirland related, "he was filmy or misty, unsubstantial, yet of natural color and stature, observable in clear detail; a blurred but distinct image as of an object viewed through the blades of a rotating electric fan. He was dressed in a grey short-sleeved shirt open at the neck as would have been natural to him when dressed casually around the house. This apparition, if that is the word, was surrounded by an aura of gold, silver, and bright blue rings, approximately three feet in diameter, ... radiating a white silvery light into the surround."
The figure neither spoke nor gave any reason for its appearance, but Stirland reported being nearly overwhelmed by the palpable force of his father's personality. "It is difficult to describe my mental state at this point," Stirland admitted. "It was ruled by emotion, amazement, perplexity, joy, and love in a confused mixture."
The theme of dead parents returning to reassure or help their surviving children is a fairy frequent one in the annals of psychical experience. Perhaps the most unusual case involves a dentist in Butte, Montana. According to his account, the timely appearance of his mother's phantom actually saved him from colluding in a patient's suicidie.
During a routine extraction, the dentist had been on the point of injecting his patient with novacaine when he had "the strangest experience in my life." Withdrawing the needle without administering the anesthetic, the dentist backed away from his examination chair and stepped into his laboratory. There, he later reported, the phantom of his mother appeared to him bearing an urgent warning. Novocaine, the apparition revealed, would kill his patient. "He wants to die in your chair," the figure continued, "so you will be blamed and his family will not lose his life insurance." Returning to his patient, the dentist asked him why he had not mentioned any problems with novocaine. The patient then admitted that he had blacked out after a previous injection and that it had taken three doctors several hours to bring him back to consciousness.
Encounters with the apparition of one's mother are commonplace, though few are of such striking consequence. But a similar experience opened an entirely new avenue of psychical research and led Julian Burton to find his life's work.
In 1980 Burton was in California pursuing his Ph.D. in psychology when his studies took a dramatic turn. One evening in September, while entertaining relatives, Burton had gone to the kitchen to slice a pineapple. He heard what he thought were his wife's footsteps behind him. Turning to ask her a question, he confronted the phantom of his mother, who had died seven years earlier.
"She was fully visible," he wrote later, "looking years younger than at the time of her death. She was wearing a diaphanous pale-blue gown trimmed in marabou, which I had never seen before."
Before Burton could even call out, the figure of his mother disappeared, leaving him deeply unsettled. The next morning he called his sister, who added a further strange detail: Two weeks before her death, Mrs. Burton had gone shopping with her daughter and admired a pale-blue gown whose description perfectly matched that of the gown worn by the apparition. Burton was now convinced that he had had a genuine apparitional experience. As a result, he decided to devote his doctoral studies to psychical phenomena. "I felt that many people probably have similar experiences to tell," he recalled.
Accordingly, Burton devised a questionnaire, reminiscent of the Census of Hallucinations nearly a century earlier, asking respondents if they had ever had any psychical experiences. He began by distributing his questionnaire to members of psychic research and study groups in metropolitan Los Angeles. When his tally showed that 50 percent of the respondents claimed to have had contacts with the dead, he suspected that he was polling people who were predisposed to such experiences. But his rate of positive responses remained at the same level even after he broadened the pool of respondents to include psychology students at three Los Angeles colleges. Later studies continued to show high levels of these experiences, particuarly among the elderly. In addition, Burton found that for many, the experiences had made such an impression that the percipients had changed their attitudes about death. Instead of frightful end, they thought, it might actually be a bright beginning.
Dr. W. Dewi Rees, of Great Britain, is another of the psychologists who have explored death and survival. In 1971, Rees reported in the British Medical Journal on what he called "the hallucinations of widowhood." In polling 293 widows and widowers about their experiences after their spouses had died, Rees found that nearly half believed they had been in contact with their loved ones. However, Rees and his colleagues did not think their respondents were really communicating with the dead; they assumed the reported experiences were probably wish-fulfillment fantasies. Rees believed he had uncovered a new dimension to the mourning process, one suggesting that such experiences may be far more common than is generally known.