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The Ghost Seen By Lord Brougham






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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Previous: The Cock Lane Ghost



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