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The Ghost Seen By Lord Brougham

Scary Books: Historic Ghosts And Ghost Hunters

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

y 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


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


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


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.