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Alleged Messages from the Dead - A Practical Suggestion

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This article was originally published in the Warwick Examiner and Times, Wednesday 18 July 1906.

Alleged Messages from the Dead - A Practical Suggestion

The question of whether the dead can, in any way communicate with their surviving friends on the earth has been raised again by the announcement that certain members of the American Society for Psychical Research are receiving messages which they believe to be sent by the disparate spirit of Dr. Hodgson, the recently deceased president of that body. This is a matter of extreme interest to the average man, who cannot content himself with the average seventy years or so that he may reasonably hope to spend in this world.

And builds himself I know not what
Of second life I know not where

Almost all the religions which "poor old humanity" has painfully constructed for it's edification and consolation promise some kind of future life to their votaries - whence philosophers have deduced a great part of their hold upon the human imagination. But it is not everyone who is so happily constituted that he can accept the promises of religion at their face value, and mankind has been engaged in an attempt to penetrate the depths beyond the grave by other methods, ever since Odysseus descended among the shades and consulted with the Witch of Endor.


It is only within the last forty or fifty years that a serious attempt has been made to apply scientific tests to the stories of communications from the dead, in which the literature and popular tradition of every race are rich. The Society for Psychical Research owes it's existence to the desire of a few courageous men to apply such tests. Its work has been much misconceived by outsiders, who are as ready as usual to seize upon the ludicrous elements and to ignore the methods of research which appeal to the men of the calibre of Professor Richet and Professor Barrett, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Sir William Crookes.

Further, it has been hampered, as usual, by the theological element. The attitude toward psychical research - or "spiritualism," if that very misleading word cannot be eliminated from such discussions - shown in such articles as those which Mr. Raupert and Archdeacon Colley have recently contributed to the "Daily Mail," is the attitude which has so often obstructed the free advance of science. It serves no useful purpose to tell us , on the one hand, that the practice of "spiritualism" is demoralising because it brings the experimenter into dangerous contact with evil spirits, or on the other hand that it should be encouraged because it will do a good turn to religion. "When I mention religion I mean the Christian religion," said an eminent divine: "and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England." It is curiously difficult for an ecclesiastic to understand that the aim of scientific enquiry is not to bolster up the Church of England, but to discover a fragment of truth that may haply be underlying secular accretions of mythology.


Galileo was dreadfully hampered in his attempt to use the telescope to find out the true nature of the solar system by theologians who argued that the sun could not have spots on it because it was the type of the Divine nature, and that there could not be more than seven planets, because there were only seven metals and even days in the week. That reasoning was exactly on par with that of the people who argued for or against the investigations of the Society for Psychical Research because they think that good or bad results for "religion" may spring from them.

What is really important in regard to this very important question of possible communications from the dead, is not ask whether they are good or bad for mankind, but simply whether they can be shown to take place. And of this we are still awaiting definite and irrefragable proof. There are, of course, countless alleged cases in which a message has been received from a deceased friend or relative whether through a "medium" or by automatic writing - with planchette or otherwise - or in a dream or a waking vision. But as yet none of these has satisfied the scientific enquirer , although many people - like Archbishop Colley - are quite honestly convinced that they have received such communications.

In order to satisfy the test of science, such a communication must fulfil two or three simple conditions. In the first place, there must be a definite message, capable of permanent record. The mere apparition of a dead friend is not sufficient, because we can never be sure that it is not an hallucination due to some abnormal state of the witness's nervous system. Secondly the message thus received must state some fact which (1) is capable of proof, (2) was within the knowledge of the alleged sender, (3) can be demonstrated not to have been known to the receiver, or to be probably within the scope of a fortunate guess.

This at once rules out all the communications as to the future state of the disembodied spirits which form by far the greater part of the recorded messages received by mediums; and as yet there is no absolutely convincing case in which such a message has been received, though Mrs. Piper's communication from "G.P" are understood to have been satisfactory to many investigators.


The late Mr. F. W. H. Myers was the first to point out that the time was ripe for experiments to be made on these lines. "Why should not every death-bed," he asked, "be made the starting point of a long experiment?" He suggested that everyone who was interested in this question should leave behind him the materials for a satisfactory test of his future abilities to communicate with his surviving friends."

"The simplest plan," he said, "is to write down some sentence embodying an idea or name which you feel it probable that you will remember, if you remember anything, and then to seal this sentence up in an envelope, without communicating it to any person whatever. Then label the envelope "Posthumous Letter," and send it, accompanied by a letter giving name and address, to the Secretary, Society for Psychical Research, 20 Hanover-square, London, W1. The secretary will acknowledge receipt and will store the letter safely, with others of the kind. If, then, the writer(it may be many years afterwards) finds himself capable of sending a message from the other world, let him mention this test sentence, and try to reproduce it. The sealed envelope can then be opened; and if the spirit's message should be found to coincide with the words therein written, there will be as good a proof as we can get that that message has at any rate not emanated from any living mind, and has emanated, therefore, from some unlimited source of knowledge or - which will seem to most persons more probable - from the surviving mind of the original writer."

It is understood that Mr. Myers himself carried out this plan, which might be usefully initiated by all who take an interest in the subject. As yet, he has not been able to reproduce his test message. We shall wait with interest to hear whether Dr. Hodgson has been more successful - as the rumours afloat seem to indicate to be the case. A single successful effort of this kind would outweigh all the mass of vague and usually uncheckable statements which form the bulk of "spiritualistic" literature.

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