In the 1880s a group of psychic researchers wrote letters that they optimistically believed would help to prove the reality of life beyond the grave.
LETTERS THAT WAIT FOR THE DEAD TO SPEAK.
BY E. L. BACON.
MISSIVES LEFT BY DYING SPIRITUALISTS, THROUGH WHICH IT IS HOPED DEFINITELY TO DETERMINE IF MESSAGES CAN COME FROM SPIRITLAND.
A big steel safe in London and a set of steel boxes in New York hold sealed letters that are expected to give, eventually, the first proof the world has ever had that messages from the dead have been received by the living.
The letters, which lie, sealed in safes in the offices of the English and American Societies for Psychical Research were written by members with the understanding that the seals were not to be broken until the writers, after death, sent back from the world of spirits the revelation of their contents.
The messages from the dead are then to be compared with the letters written during life. If they correspond, perhaps even the most deep-seated skepticism will be shaken.
But will those messages ever come?
Already there are several dead men’s letters in the English and American collections. Since the deaths of the writers the leaders in psychical research have been waiting, waiting, waiting for those messages from the beyond.
Will those leaders and their successors continue their long vigil through the centuries? Will the seals on the age-yellowed letters never be broken? Has there not been some sign to give some slight hope of ultimate success?
Twenty-five years ago three prominent members of the English Society for Psychical Research collaborated in writing a book. They called it “Phantasms of the Living,” and they tried to sum up in it all the evidence that psychical research afforded that spirits of the dead had held communication with the living.
These writers were Edmund Gurney, Frederic W. H. Myers, and Frank Podmore. Not long afterward each of them wrote a letter to form a nucleus of the strange collection in the society’s safe.
Each believed that it might be possible for him to send a message back to this world after his death. and each admitted the possibility of being able to disclose in such a message the contents of a letter written and sealed in another life.
To-day only Podmore is alive. Gurney has been dead nineteen years and Myers six.
The seal on the letter that Gurney wrote lies unbroken. For nineteen years his hope of being able to communicate with the living to give proofs of the beliefs to which he devoted his life remains unanswered.
And the Myers letter?
Well, there is a curious story to be told in answer to that question. The Myers letter has been opened and read. This was done after experiments with a medium, who, after many unsuccessful attempts, repeated what purported to be a message from Myer’s spirit, disclosing what the letter contained.
It is easy to imagine the thrill of enthusiasm that must have come to the English investigators as the hurried to the safe to compare the letter and this message. Suppose the two were found to correspond! What a wonderful piece of evidence that would be of the power of the dead to communicate with the living!
The big safe was opened, the letter was brought out, with trembling fingers the seal was broken. and then—was it failure that confronted them?
Certainly it was not a brilliant success, at any rate. The enthusiasm went out of their faces when the letter was read and seemed to show no similarity to the communication from the medium. And then, later on, a little silver lining began to appear through their cloud of disappointment.
The details of this strange affair have been kept secret by the English society, which has preferred to keep almost all its work of recent years from the public until a great mass of evidence of its theories has been accumulated. Probably Dr. James H. Hyslop, of Columbia University, who is at the head of the American Society for Psychical Research, knows more about the case than anybody in this country, and even he has not learned the secret of what the Myers letter contained or of the medium’s message. But his friend and coworker, Dr. Richard Hodgson, who died two years ago, told him something about the affair.
“Hodgson had been let into the secret,” said Dr. Hyslop to the writer recently. “and he believed that the experiment was not the absolute failure that it was rumored to have been. He told me of two words in the medium’s message that seemed to him to express the whole meaning of the Myers letter.
“The fact that the message and the letter did not correspond more closely he was inclined to attribute to the difficulty of the unembodied spirits in sending its message through the medium. A medium is often not sufficiently sensitive to psychic impressions to give more than a hopelessly confused account of a spirit communication.”
Now there are rumors that there was another sealed Myers letter with which another spirit message has been found to correspond. Whether there is any foundation for’ this rumor or not, it is true that the English society, whose leader Myers was for many years, has announced that communications have been received that some of its leaders are convinced are from him.
The society also admits that it has a remarkable specimen of automatic writing done by a medium while in a trance, which bears a striking resemblance to Myer’s handwriting and which purports to be a message from him.
There is just one other case on record of the opening of one of these “compact letters,” as they are called. A few years ago Professor William James, of Harvard University, who is one of the most distinguished leaders in the psychical-research movement, received a letter from Mrs. Elizabeth Blodgett. of Holyoke, Massachusetts, in which she informed him that her sister, Mrs. Hannah Wildman, had died, leaving a letter that was not to be opened until she should send a disclosure of its contents from the spirit world.
Professor James advised Mrs. Blodgett to got to eh famous medium, Mrs. Piper, in whom both the English and American Psychical Research Societies had the utmost confidence. He explained that of course it was by no means certain that the experiment would be successful, but that Mrs. Pipe had done remarkable things.
Mrs. Piper went into one of her trances and repeated what was hoped to be a message from Mrs. Wildman’s spirit. The sealed letter was sent to Professor James for comparison. He opened it and found no similarity.
A year later two more attempts were made by Mrs. Piper to receive a message corresponding with the letter, and a year after that a third attempt was made. Every one was an absolute failure.
But not all compacts made with persons for some signal from them after death have proved so disappointing. Dr. Hyslop declares that his own compact with his father met with astonishing success.
Not long before his father’s death he asked him to give him a key or watchword by which he would be able to identify him in any future communications. .
The father did so, and some time afterward the professor was consulting, through a medium, an intelligence who claimed to be his. father, and this intelligence identified himself by giving the key-word, which the professor had told to no living being.
Three cases of fulfilment of compacts to give some sign after death stand out as more remarkable than any others on record.
The second of the three cases was reported by the Chevalier Sebastiano Fenzi, of the Palazzo Fenzi, Florence. The Chevalier wrote the English society, informing them that a few months before the death of his brother, Senator Carlo Fenzi, the two were driving to town together from their villa of St. Andrea.
“lt was then.” he wrote, “that my brother told me that, if he should be summoned first, he would endeavor to prove to me that life continued beyond the chasm of the grave, and that l was to promise him the same in case l went first.
“’But,’ said he. ‘l am sure to go first, and. mind you, I feel quite sure that before the year is out—nay, in three months—I shall be no more’”
This was said in June, and Carlo Fenzi died less than three months later. On the morning of his brother’s death Sebastiano was seventy miles away from Florence, at Fortullino. a villa on a rock in the sea, ten miles southeast of Leghorn. Suddenly he was seized with a fit of deep melancholy, a thing very unusual with him. He had, however, no reason to be alarmed about his brother, who was then in Florence, for although Carlo had been slightly ill, the latest news of him had been encouraging.
After breakfast Sebastiano set out alone from the villa and wandered slowly down over the rocks toward the sea. Suddenly, scarcely a stone’s throw away in front of him he saw his brother coming toward him. He called Carlo’s name and began to run forward to meet him, wondering what had brought him so unexpectedly from Florence. After he had advanced a few steps the figure of his brother slipped behind a rock and disappeared. When Sebastiano reached the rock there was nothing there.
He turned back to the villa completely bewildered, and at the door he met a man with a message from Florence. His brother had died that morning.
The English society made a careful investigation of this case, and received corroboration from Sebastiano’s cousin, who had heard him cry out his brother’s name and run toward the rock with outstretched arms. Moreover, the reputation and standing of such a man as Sebastiano Fenzi precluded the possibility of his having invented the story.
The third of these remarkable “compact cases” was the experience of Miss Isabella L. Bird, a well-known traveler and writer.
When Miss Bird was in Colorado she went on horseback to Estes Park, which lies just under Long’s Peak. There she met a character known as Mountain Jim, a hunter and “bad man.” The two became good friends.
On the day that Miss Bird left Estes Park she had a long conversation with him on the subject of immortality. He was much impressed with what she told him, and at last cried out:
“I may not see you again in this life, but I shall when I die. These words you have said to me I shall never forget, and, dying. I swear I shall see you again.”
Miss Bird went to Europe. Several months afterward she heard that Mountain Jim was leading a better life. Then word came that he had relapsed into his old ways, and that he had been wounded in a quarrel and was planning revenge.
One morning she was lying in bed in her room in a hotel at Interlaken, Switzerland. writing to her sister. Glancing up from the letter. she saw Mountain Jim looking at her.
As she gazed at him, he slowly and very distinctly said:
“I have come as I promised.”
Then he waved his hands at her and said, Farewell.” The next moment he had disappeared.
A few minutes later Miss Bird’s traveling companion, Miss Bessie Ker, came in with her breakfast, and on hearing the story, made a note of it in her diary, setting down the date and the time of day.
Weeks afterward news came from Colorado of Mountain Jim’s death, which had occurred on the very day and at the very hour, allowing for difference in time, that the apparition had appeared at Interlaken.
Preceding Dr. Hyslop in the psychical research movement, in New York, were George Pelham and Richard Hodgson. Pelham was a lawyer who had devoted a great deal of his time to literature and philosophy. He and Hodgson were close friends and had many conversations concerning a future life, in which Pelham did not believe.
During one of their talks Pelham declared that, if he died first and found himself still existing, he would “make things lively ” in the effort to reveal to Hodgson his continued existence.
Pelham met his death suddenly in 1892. Shortly after his death Hodgson declared that he had conversed with his friend through Mrs. Piper, the medium, who did not know until long afterward who Pelham was.
Hodgson declared that Pelham identified himself in many ways, and certainly the experiments resulted not only in the complete satisfaction of Hodgson himself, but of many other acquaintances, who were convinced that it was impossible for Mrs. Piper to have known such facts as she reported.
Two years ago Hodgson died. Before his death he promised that he would do his utmost to send back word from the world of spirits to his living friends. He also wrote a letter, which be sealed, with the understanding that it was not to be opened until his disembodied spirit should disclose its contents.
This letter is now in the office of the English Society for Psychical Research, in London. Ever since his death, on December 20, 1905, the leaders of that society have been experimenting through mediums with the hope of receiving Hodgson’s disclosure of the letter’s contents. On several occasions there have been indications, they declare, that his spirit has tried to communicate with them, but has not been able to make itself understood.
Dr. Hyslop was one of Hodgson’s most intimate friends, and Hodgson promised him several times that after his death he would speak to him, if possible. Dr. Hyslop was firm in the belief that some time he would hear from his friend. In less than three months after Hodgson‘s death Hyslop received, through a medium, messages which, he declared, came beyond a doubt from his friend.
“Why am I so sure of it?” says Dr. Hyslop. “Why, because these messages contained references to occurrences that nobody besides Hodgson and myself knew anything about. There have been a dozen ways in which I have proved the spirit’s identity. I have talked with Hodgson many times during the last two years, and his messages have become more and more convincing.
“So far our conversation has been on the most trivial matters, for I have gone no further than merely to seek absolute proof of identity.
“Have I asked him about the future life? Not once. What would be the use? Suppose I did receive a reply to my question; how could I prove. even to my own satisfaction, that it was an authentic message from Hodgson? He might tell me the most wonderful things about his present existence, but they would be of no value, because I should have no way of knowing that he was the communicant. That is why our conversation has been confined to trifling details connected with his life on earth.
“At some future time, however, I hope to learn from him something about the spirit world.
“There would be one way of convincing myself of the authenticity of such a message. I could do so by going to two or three mediums. If each medium gave me the same replies to my questions it would be absolute proof, it seems to me, that the messages were from Hodgson.”
Only a few weeks ago Sir Oliver Lodge, the great scientist, told the English Psychical Research Society that, according to his best belief, a message had been received from beyond the grave by a medium working under his direction. The details, he said, would soon be published.
On the other hand, Sir William Ramsay, another great scientist, gives his opinion that the spiritualistic manifestations are mere hallucinations. He says:
“I have no doubt that Sir Oliver Lodge is perfectly sincere in his beliefs. I was a member of the Society of Psychical Research and attended many séances, but severed my connection with the society because the manifestations developed into mere ghostly affairs, dependent upon hallucinations for their success. Far more wonderful phenomena than those described by Sir Oliver Lodge have been spoken of by Sir William Crookes. I cannot doubt the word of Sir William Crookes, but I have not seen the things myself. and must, therefore, remain skeptical.”
The Scrap Book, 1908
Do these letters still exist? Have they all been opened? Press the sealed envelope against your forehead and tell chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
For a different sort of letters from the dead, see this post on the Scribbling Dead or Epistolary Zombies.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.