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On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism: The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural.:
V. The Evidence of the Reality of Apparitions.
I now propose to give a few instances in which the evidence of the appearance of preter-human or spiritual beings is as good and definite as it is possible for any evidence of any fact to be. For this purpose I shall use some of the remarkable cases collected and investigated by the Hon. Robert Dale Owen, formerly member of Congress and American Minister at Naples. Mr. Owen is the author of works of a varied character; "Essays," "Moral Physiology," "The Policy of Emancipation," and many others. He has been, I believe, throughout his life a consistent and philosophical sceptic, and his writings show him to be well educated, logical, and extremely cautious in accepting evidence.
In 1855, during his official residence at Naples, his attention seems to have been first attracted to the subject of the "supernatural," by witnessing the phenomena occurring in the presence of Mr. Home. He tells us that "sitting in his own well-lighted apartment, in company with three or four friends, all curious observers like himself," a table and lamp weighing ninety-six pounds "rose eight or ten inches from the floor, and remained suspended in the air while one might count six or seven, the hands of all present being laid upon the table."
And on another occasion he states:—"In the dining-room of a French nobleman, the Count d'Ourches, residing near Paris, I saw on the first day of October 1858, in broad daylight, at the close of a déjeuner à la fourchette, a dinner-table seating seven persons, with fruit and wine on it, rise and settle down as already described, while all the guests were standing around it, and not one of them touching it. All present saw the same thing."
He then commenced collecting evidence of so-called supernatural phenomena, occurring unsought jor, and has-brought together, in his "Footfalls on the Boundary of another World," the best arranged and best authenticated series of facts which have yet been given to the public on this subject.
This work is certainly the most philosophical of its kind that has yet appeared, and perhaps, had it been entitled "A Critical Examination into the Evidence of the Supernatural," which it really is, it would have attracted more-attention than it appears to have done.
Nothing is more common than the assertion that all supposed apparitions, when not impostures, are hallucinations ; because, it is said, there is no well-authenticated case of an apparition having been seen by two persons at once. It is therefore advisable to give an outline here of one case of this kind, which is given more fully at p. 278 of Mr. Owen's book.
Sir John Sherbroke and General George Wynyard were Captain and Lieutenant in the 33rd Eegiment, stationed in the year 1785 at Sydney, in the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. On the 15th of October of that year, about nine in the morning, as they were sitting together at coffee in Wynyard's parlour, Sherbroke, happening to look up, saw the figure of a pale youth standing at a door leading into the passage. He called the attention of his companion to the stranger, who passed slowly through the room into the adjoining bed-chamber. Wynyard, on seeing the figure, turned as pale as death, grasped his friend's arm, and, as soon as it had disappeared, exclaimed, "Great God! my brother!" Sherbroke thinking there was some trick, had a search immediately made, but could find no one either in the bed-room or about the premises. A brother officer, Lieutenant Gore, coming in at the time, assisted in the search, and at his suggestion Sherbroke made a memorandum of the date, and all waited with anxiety for letters from England, where Wynyard's brother was. The expected letter came to Captain Sherbrooke, asking him to break to his friend the news of his brother John's death, which had occurred on the day and hour when he had been seen by the two officers. In 1823 Lieutenant-Colonel Gore gave this account in writing to Sir John Harvey, Adjutant-General of the Forces in Canada. He also stated that some years afterwards Sir Sherbroke, who had never seen John Wynyard alive, recognised in England a brother of the deceased, who was remarkably like him, by the resemblance to the figure he had seen in Canada. Mr. Owen has obtained additional proof of the correctness of these details from Captain Henry Scott, R.N., who was told by General Paul Anderson, C.B., that Sir John Sherbroke had, shortly before his death, related the story to him in almost exactly the same words as Mr. Owen has given it and which was communicated in manuscript to Captain Scott.
The evidence in this case of the fact of the appearance of the same apparition to two people (one of whom did not know the individual) is very complete; and I cannot rest satisfied with any theory which requires me to reject such evidence, without offering any intelligible explanation of what occurred.
I will now give an abstract of a few more of Mr. Owen's cases, to illustrate their general character and the careful manner in which they have been authenticated and tested. The first is one which he calls "The Fourteenth of November." ("Footfalls," p. 299.)
On the night between the 14th and 15th of November, 1857, the wife of Captain G. Wheatcroft, residing in Cambridge, dreamed that she saw her husband (then in India). She immediately awoke, and looking up, she perceived the same figure standing by her bedside. He appeared in his uniform, the hands pressed across the breast, the hair dishevelled, the face very pale. His large dark eyes were fixed full upon her; their expression was that of great excitement, and there was a peculiar contraction of the mouth, habitual to him when agitated. She saw him, even to each minute particular of his dress, as distinctly as she had ever done in her life. The figure seemed to bend forward as if in pain, and to make an effort to speak, but there was no sound. It remained visible, the wife thinks, as long as a minute, and then disappeared. She did not sleep again that night. Next morning she related all this to her mother, expressing her belief that Captain W. was either killed or wounded. In due course a telegram was received to the effect that Captain W. had been killed before Lucknow on the 15th of November. The widow informed the Captain's solicitor, Mr. Wilkinson, that she had been quite prepared for the fatal news, but she felt sure there was a mistake of a day in the date of his death. Mr. Wilkinson then obtained a certificate from the War Office, which was as follows:—
"War Office, 30th January, 1858.
"These are to certify that it appears, by the records in this office, that Captain G. Wheatcroft, of the 6th Dragoon Guards, was killed in action on the 15th of November, 1857.
(Signed) "B. hawes."
A remarkable incident now occurred. Mr. Wilkinson was visiting a friend in London, whose wife has all her life had perception of apparitions, while her husband is a "medium." He related to them the vision of the Captain's widow, and described the figure as it appeared to her, when Mrs. N. instantly said, "That must be the very person I saw on the evening we were talking of India." In answer to Mr. Wilkinson's questions, she said they had obtained a communication from him through her husband, and he had said that he had been killed in India that afternoon by a wound in the breast. It was about nine o'clock in the evening; she did not recollect the date. On further inquiry, she remembered that she had been interrupted by a tradesman, and had paid a bill that evening; and on bringing it for Mr. Wilkinson's inspection, the receipt bore date the Fourteenth of November. In March, 1858, the family of Captain Wheatcroft received a letter from Captain G------ C------, dated Lucknow, 19th of December, 1857, in which he said he had been close to Captain W. when he fell, and that it was on the fourteenth in the afternoon, and not on the 15th, as reported in Sir Colin Campbell's despatches. He was struck by a fragment of a shell in the breast. He was buried at Dilkoosha, and on a wooden cross at the head of his grave are cut the initials G. W., and the date of his death, 14th of November. The War Office corrected their mistake. Mr. Wilkinson obtained another copy of the certificate in April, 1859, and found it in the same words as that already given, only that the 14th of November had been substituted for the 15th.
Mr. Owen obtained the whole of these facts directly from the parties themselves. The widow of Captain Wheatcroft examined and corrected his MSS., and showed him a copy of Captain C.'s letter. Mr. Wilkinson did the same; and Mrs. N------herself related to him the facts which occurred to her. Mrs. N------had also related the circumstances to Mr. Howitt before Mr. Owen's investigations, as he certifies in his "History of the Supernatural," vol. 2, p. 225.
Mr. Owen also states that he has in his possession both the War Office certificates, the first showing the erroneous and the second the corrected date.
Here we have the same apparition appearing to two ladies unknown to and remote from each other on the same night; the communication obtained through a third person, declaring the time and mode of death; and all coinciding exactly with the events happening many thousand miles away. We presume the facts thus attested will not be disputed; and to attribute the whole to "coincidence" must surely be too great a stretch of credulity, even for the most incredulous.
The next case is one of haunting, and is called
THE OLD KENT MANOR HOUSE (p. 304).
In October, 1857, and for several months afterwards,' Mrs. R, the wife of a field officer of high rank, was residing in Ramhurst Manor House, near Leigh, in Kent. From her first occupying it, every inmate of the house was more or less disturbed at night by knocking, and sounds as of footsteps, but more especially by voices, which could not be accounted for. Mrs. E.'s brother, a young officer, heard these voices at night, and tried every means to discover the source of them in vain. The servants were much frightened. On the second Saturday in October, Miss S., a young lady who had been in the habit of seeing apparitions from her childhood, came to visit Mrs. E., who met her at the railway station. On arriving at the house Miss S. saw on the threshold two figures, apparently an elderly couple, in old-fashioned dress. Not wishing to make her friend uneasy, she said nothing about them at the time. During the next ten days she saw the same figures several times in different parts of the house, always by daylight. They appeared surrounded by an atmosphere of a neutral tint On the third occasion they spoke to her, and said that they had formerly possessed that house, and that their name was Children. They appeared sad and downcast, and said that they had idolised their property, and that it troubled them to know that it had passed away from their family, and was now in the hands of strangers. On Mrs. R. asking Miss S. if she had heard or seen anything, she related this to her. Mrs. R. had herself heard the noises and voices continually, but had seen nothing, and after a month had given up all expectation of doing so, when one day, as she had just finished dressing for dinner, in a well-lighted room with a fire in it, and was coming down hastily, having been repeatedly called by her brother, who was impatiently waiting for her, she beheld the two figures standing in the doorway, dressed just as Miss S. had described them, but above the figure of the lady, written in the dusky atmosphere, in letters of phosphoric light, the words "Dame Children," and some other words intimating that she was "earth-bound." At this moment her brother again called out to her that dinner was waiting, and, closing her eyes, she rushed through the figures. Inquiries were made by the ladies as to who had lived in the house formerly, and it was only after four months that they found out, through a very old woman, who remembered an old man, who had told her that he had in his boyhood assisted to keep the hounds for the Children family, who then lived at Ramhurst. All these particulars Mr. Owen received himself from the two ladies, in December, 1858. Miss S. had had many conversations with the apparitions, and on Mr. Owen's inquiring for any details they had communicated, she told him that the husband had said his name was Richard, and that he had died in 1753. Mr. Owen now determined, if possible, to ascertain the accuracy of these facts, and after a long search among churchyards and antiquarian clergymen, he was directed to the "Hasted Papers" in the British Museum. From these he ascertained that "Richard Children settled himself at Ramhurst," his family having previously resided at a house called "Childrens," in the parish of Tunbridge. It required further research to determine the date. This was found several months later, in an old "History of Kent," by the same "Hasted," published in 1778, where it is stated that "Ramhurst passed by sale to Richard Children, Esq., who resided here, and died possessed of it in 1753, aged eighty-three years." In the "Hasted Papers" it was also stated that his son did not live at Ramhurst, and that the family seat after Richard's time was Ferox Hall, near Tunbridge. Since 1816 the mansion has been occupied as a farm house, having passed away entirely from the Children family.
However much any one of these incidents might have been scouted as a delusion, what are we to say to the combination of them ? A whole household hear distinct and definite noises of persons walking and speaking. Two ladies see the same appearances, at different times, and under circumstances the least favourable for delusion. The name is given to one by voice, to the other by writing; the date of death is communicated. An independent enquirer by much research, finds out that all these facts are true; that the Christian name of the only "Children" who occupied and died in the house was Richard, and that his death took place in the year given by the apparition, 1753.
Mr. Owen's own full account of this case, and the observations on it should be read, but this imperfect abstract will serve to show that none of the ordinary modes of escaping from the difficulties of a "ghost story" are here applicable.
At page 195 of Mr. Owen's volume, we have a most interesting account of disturbances occurring at the parsonage of Cideville, in the department of Seine Inférieure, France, in the winter of 1850-51. The circumstances gave rise to a trial, and the whole of the facts were brought out by the examination of a great number of witnesses. The Marquis de Mirville collected from the legal record all the documents connected with the trial, including the prods verbal of the testimony. It is from these official documents Mr. Owen gives his details of the occurrences.
The disturbances commenced from the time when two boys, aged 12 and 14, came to be educated by M. Tinel, the parish priest of Cideville, and continued two months and a half until the children were removed from the parsonage. They consisted of knockings, as if with a hammer on the wainscot; scratchings, shakings of the house so that all the furniture rattled; a din as if every one in the house were beating the floor with mallets, the beatings forming tunes when asked, and answering questions by numbers agreed on. Besides these noises there were strange and unaccountable exhibitions of force. The tables and desks moved about without visible cause; the fire-irons flew repeatedly into the middle of the room, windows were broken; a hammer was thrown into the middle of the room, and yet fell without noise, as if put down by an invisible hand; persons standing quite alone had their dresses pulled. On the Mayor of Cideville coming to examine into the matter, a table at which he sat with another person, moved away in spite of their endeavours to hold it back, while the children were standing in the middle of the room; and many other facts of a similar nature were observed repeatedly by numerous persons of respectability and position, every one of whom, going with the intention of finding out a trick, were, after deliberate examination, convinced that the phenomena were not produced by any person present. The Marquis de Mirville was himself one of the witnesses. The interest of this case consists first, in the evidence having been brought out before a legal tribunal; and secondly, in the remarkable resemblance of the phenomena to those which had occurred a short time previously in America, but had not yet become much known in Europe. There is also the closest resemblance to what occurred at Epworth Parsonage in the family of Wesley's father, and which is almost equally well authenticated.* Now when in three different countries, phenomena occur of an exactly similar nature; and which are all open to the fullest ex-aminatipn at the time, and when no trick or delusion is in either case found out but every individual of many hundreds who go to see them becomes convinced of their reality, the fact of the similarity of the occurrences even in many details, is of great weight as indicating a similar natural origin. In such cases we cannot fairly accept the general explanation of "imposture," given by those who have not witnessed the phenomena, when none of those who did witness them, could ever detect imposture.
* In an article entitled "Spirit Happing a Century Ago," in an early number of the Fortnightly Review, an account is given of the disturbances at Epworth Parsonage, the residence of the Wesley family, and it is attempted to account for them by the supposition that they were entirely produced by Hester Wesley, one of John Wesley's sisters ; yet the phenomena, even as related by this writer, are such as no human being could possibly have produced, while the moral difficulties of the case are admitted to be quite as great as the physical ones. Every reader of the article must have perceived how lame and impotent is the explanation suggested; and one is almost forced to conclude that the writer did not believe in it himself, so different is the tone of the first part of the article in which he details the facts, from the latter part in which he attempts to account for them. When taken in connection with other similar occurrences narrated by Mr. Owen, all equally well authenticated, and all thoroughly investigated at the time, it will be impossible to receive as an explanation that they were in every case mere childish tricks, since that will not account for more than a minute fraction of the established facts. If we are to reject all the facts this assumption will not explain, it will be much simpler and quite as satisfactory to deny that then are any facts that need explaining.
The examples I have quoted, give a very imperfect idea of the variety and interest of Mr. Owen's work, but they will serve to indicate the nature of the evidence he has in every case adduced, and may lead some of my readers to examine the work itself. If they do so they will see that similar phenomena to those which puzzled our forefathers at Epworth Parsonage, and at Mr. Mompesson's, at Tedworth, have recurred in our own time, and have been subjected to the most searching examination, without any discovery of trick or imposture; and they may, perhaps, be led to conclude, that though often asserted, it is not yet quite proved that "ghosts have been everywhere banished by the introduction of gaslight."