Sir William Barrett

Sir William Barrett FRS

Professor of Physics at the Royal College of Science for Dublin from 1873-1910 and one of the distinguished early psychical researchers. In fact, it was Barrett who first initiated the founding of both the American and British Society for Psychical Research.


 - William Barrett -

"Dare I say
No spirit ever brake the band
That stays him from the native land,
Where first he walk'd when claspt in clay?
- In Memoriam xciii

          WE MUST now pass on from the bizarre and perplexing phenomena we have so far discussed to the more important question of the evidence spiritualism affords of the continuance of human life after it has, to all appearance, ceased in the material body. Before entering upon the experimental part of this enquiry it is desirable to consider the evidence on behalf of survival derived from apparitions of the dying and the dead. This aspect of our subject meets with wider acceptance, and less objection from religious minds, than the evidence derived from sittings with some medium, which many regard as illegitimate.

One of the most cautious and philosophical among our distinguished men of science of the last generation, the late Dr. R. Angus Smith, F.R.S., wrote to me, forty years ago, that he was not aware of any law of nature, except the most obvious, that was sustained by so much and such respectable evidence as the fact of apparitions about the time of death.(1) In a subsequent interview I learnt from him that this opinion was arrived at only after long and careful investigation of the evidence attainable at that time. Since then the Society for Psychical Research has obtained a mass of additional and confirmatory evidence, which is incorporated in the two bulky volumes on "Phantasms of the Living" published by the Society.

(1) As the whole letter may be of future interest, I give it here in full:


"October 18th 1876.

MY DEAR PROFESSOR BARRETT, - I see you are deep in that fascinating study, the action of mind freed from the organism. It surprises me much that any man is found to think it of little importance, and that any man is found who thinks his own opinion so important that he cares for no evidence. I have not been able to find a book which contains all the laws of nature needed to sustain the world, but some men are easily satisfied.

"It is difficult to obtain such proofs as men demand for free mind. Visions are innumerable, and under circumstances that seem to render the sight of the absent, especially about the time of death, a reality. I am not aware of any law of nature (except the most obvious, such as are seen by common observers) which is sustained by so many assertions so well attested, as far as respectability of evidence goes. The indications we have point out to some mighty truth more decidedly than even the aberrations of Uranus to the newest of the great planets. If we could prove the action of mind at a distance by constant experiment it would be a discovery that would make all other discoveries seem trifles.

Yours sincerely 

Statistical Enquiry

In that monumental work, chiefly due to the labour and learning of Mr. Edmund Gurney, the interval between death and the apparition of the dying or deceased person was limited to 12 hours. First-hand records were however received where this interval was greatly exceeded, whilst the fact of death was still unknown to the percipient at the time of his experience. After rigorous scrutiny 134 first-hand narratives are given where the coincidence between death and the recognised "appearance "' (whether by a visual or auditory experience) of the deceased to a distant person, who was not aware of the death, is exact, or within an hour; in 39 cases the apparition was seen more than an hour, but within 12 hours of death, and in 38 cases the apparition was seen shortly before death, or when death did not follow, though the person was seriously ill.(1) In 104 cases it was not known whether the percipients' experience shortly preceded or followed the death; owing to this uncertainty these cases were not taken into account.

(1) Proceedings S. P. R.," Vol. V., P. 408.

Mr. Gurney and Mr. Myers contributed a valuable paper to Vol. V. of the "Proceedings of the S. P. R.," where additional first-hand evidence was given of "apparitions occurring soon after death." This was supplemented by a paper Mr. Myers contributed to Vol. VI. on 99 apparitions occurring more than a year after death," where 14 veridical and recognised apparitions are recorded on first-hand evidence.

The result of a critical examination of the evidence left no doubt in the mind of any student that these apparitions were veridical or truth telling, and that their occurrence was not due to any illusion of the percipient or chance coincidence. As regards this latter in order to arrive at a statistical proof Mr. Gurney obtained a numerical comparison of the veridical apparitions with those which were purely accidental, i.e. did not coincide with death. For this purpose he obtained nearly 6,000 replies to the question he addressed to adults, whether they had had any such apparition or hallucination during the preceding ten years. This was followed by a still more elaborate census of a similar kind, taken by Professor Henry and Mrs. Sidgwick, wherein 17,000 replies were received. When the relative frequency of veridical to accidental hallucinations was critically examined the possibility of chance coincidence as an explanation could be proved or disproved. The result showed, in the Sidgwick census alone, that the proportion of veridical and recognized apparitions (i.e. coincidental cases) to the meaningless (i.e. non-coincidental cases) was 440 times greater than pure chance would give. The elaborate examination of this census by experts fills Vol. X. of the Proceedings of the S.P.R., and the definite but cautiously expressed conclusion is reached that:

"Between deaths and apparitions of the dying person a connection exists which is not due to chance alone. This we hold to be a proved fact. The discussion of its full implications cannot be attempted in this paper, nor, perhaps, exhausted in this age."


Such a result refutes the common idea that it was a mere chance the apparition happened to coincide with the death of that particular person, and that the hits are remembered and the misses forgotten.

It was found in the course of these lengthy enquiries that the number of recognised apparitions decreases rapidly in the few days after death, then more slowly, and after a year or more they become far less frequent and more sporadic. This indeed might have been expected; for on any theory as to the nature of these apparitions it is likely that the power of communication between the dead and those living on earth would lessen as the time of transition from this life becomes more and more remote. We need not conclude from this that the soul of the departed is gradually extinguished, for we cannot track the course of the soul nor know its affinities in the larger life beyond. There are, moreover, cases, to which we will refer in a later chapter where evidence of survival has been given more than a generation after the communicator has passed from earth-life.

Those who have witnessed the apparition of a distant deceased friend, of whose death they were wholly unaware, or have heard the statement at first hand, are far more impressed by this single occurrence than by any amount of evidence derived from reading reports of apparitions. This was the case with myself when a young friend of mine narrated to me the following account of the apparition she experienced; nor did the searching cross-examination to which she was submitted at the meeting of the Psychical Research Society where I read the account, shake her testimony in the least. The full report will be found in the "Journal of the S. P. R." for May, 1908. An important feature of this incident is that the percipient was at the time at school in a convent in Belgium, where she had absolutely no access to newspapers, or any other sources of information which might have suggested the apparition. Briefly the case is as follows:

A gentleman, of some note, shot himself in London in the spring of 1907. There can be little doubt that his mind was unhinged at the time by the receipt that morning of a letter from a lady that blighted all his hope; before taking his life he scribbled a memorandum leaving an annuity to my young friend, who was his god-child and to whom he was greatly attached. Three days afterwards (on the day of his funeral) he appeared to this godchild, who, as stated, was being educated in a convent school on the Continent, informing her of the fact of his sudden death, of its manner, and of the cause which had led him to take his life, and asking her to pray for him.

The mother, anxious to conceal from her daughter the distressing circumstances of her godfather's death, waited to write until a few days after the funeral, and then only stated that her uncle (as he was called) had died suddenly. Subsequently, upon meeting her daughter on her return from the Continent, the mother was amazed to hear not only of the apparition, but that it had communicated to her daughter all the circumstances which she had never intended her daughter to know. Careful inquiry shows that it was impossible for the information to have reached her daughter through normal means.

A member of the S.P.R., Miss Charlton, who kindly went to the convent to make enquiries into this case, states that the girls in the convent never see any newspapers, all letters are supervised, and no one in the convent seems to have known of the deceased gentleman; hence "that any knowledge of her godfather's suicide, or of the reason for it, could have reached the percipient by ordinary channels, cannot be entertained for a moment."

The mother of the percipient, who is a personal friend of mine, assured me that neither she nor any of her relatives (had they known of the suicide, which they did not) wrote to the convent on the matter, except as narrated above.

Sometimes, as in the foregoing case, the phantasm is not only seen but also apparently heard to speak; sometimes it may announce its presence by audible signals. We may regard such cases as auditory as well as visual hallucinations. Rapping was heard as well as the apparition seen, in the following case, which was investigated by Professor Sidgwick in 1892, and the house also visited by Mrs. Sidgwick. The percipient was the Rev. Matthew Frost of Bowers Gifford, Essex, who made the following statement:

"The first Thursday in April 1881, while sitting at tea with my back to the window and talking with my wife in the usual way, I plainly heard a rap at the window, and looking round at the window I said to my wife, 'Why, there's my grandmother,' and went to the door, but could not see anyone; still feeling sure it was my grandmother, and knowing, though she was eighty-three years of age, that she was very active and fond of a joke. I went round the house, but could not see any one. My wife did not hear it. On the following Saturday, I had news my grandmother died in Yorkshire about half-an-hour before the time I heard the rapping. The last time I saw her alive I promised, if well, I would attend her funeral; that was some two years before. I was in good health and had no trouble, age twenty-six years. I did not know that my grandmother was ill."

Mrs. Frost writes:

"I beg to certify that I perfectly remember all the circumstances my husband has named, but I heard and saw nothing myself."

Professor Sidgwick learned from Mr. Frost that the last occasion on which he had seen his grandmother, three years before the apparition, she promised if possible to appear to him at her death. He had no cause for anxiety on her account; news of the death came to him by letter, and both Mr. and Mrs. Frost were then struck by the coincidence. It was full daylight when Mr. Frost saw the figure and thought that his grandmother had unexpectedly arrived in the flesh and meant to surprise him. Had there been a real person Mrs. Frost would both have seen and heard; nor could a living person have got away in the time, as Mrs. Sidgwick found the house stood in a garden a good way back from the road, and Mr. Frost immediately went out to see if his grandmother was really there.

The following case was carefully investigated, and corroborative evidence obtained, by Mr. Ed. Gurney, soon after the experience occurred to the narrator, Mr. Husbands(1):

(1) "Proceedings S. P R.," Vol. V., 1889.

"September 15th, 1886.

The facts are simply these. I was sleeping in a hotel in Madeira early in 1885. It was a bright moonlight night. The windows were open and the blinds up. I felt someone was in my room. On opening my eyes, I saw a young fellow about twenty-five, dressed in flannels, standing at the side of my bed and pointing with the first finger of his right hand to the place I was lying in. I lay for some seconds to convince myself of someone being really there. I then sat up and looked at him. I saw his features so plainly that I recognised them in a photograph which was shown me some days after. I asked him what he wanted; he did not speak, but his eyes and hand seemed to tell me I was in his place. As he did not answer, I struck out at him with my fist as I sat up, but did not reach him, and as I was going to spring out of bed he slowly vanished through the door, which was shut, keeping his eyes upon me all the time.

"Upon inquiry I found that the young fellow who appeared to me died in the room I was occupying.


The following letter is from Miss Falkner, of Church Terrace, Wisbech, who was resident at the hotel when the above incident happened:

"October 8th 1886.

"The figure that Mr. Husbands saw while in Madeira was that of a young fellow who died unexpectedly some months previously, in the room which Mr. Husbands was occupying. Curiously enough, Mr. H. had never heard of him or his death. He told me the story the morning after he had seen the figure, and I recognised the young fellow from the description. It impressed me very much, but I did not mention it to him or any one. I loitered about until I heard Mr. Husbands tell the same tale to my brother; we left Mr. H. and said simultaneously, 'He has seen Mr. D.'

"No more was said on the subject for days; then I abruptly showed the photograph. Mr. Husbands said at once, 'This is the young fellow who appeared to me the other night, but he was dressed differently' - describing a dress he often wore - 'cricket suit (or tennis) fastened at the neck with a sailor knot.' I must say that Mr. Husbands is a most practical man, and the very last one would expect a 'spirit' to visit.


On further enquiry it was found that the young man who appeared to Mr. Husbands had died just a year previously, that the room in which he died had subsequently been occupied by other visitors, who apparently had not seen any apparition, and that it must have been February 2nd or 3rd that Mr. Husbands took the room and saw the figure. Miss Falkner's sister-in-law, who was also at the hotel at the time, corroborates the above facts, and remembers Mr. Husbands telling her the incident; she also gave Miss Falkner the photograph of the deceased which Mr. Husbands recognized.

Even if Mr. Husbands had heard of the death of Mr. D. and forgotten the circumstance, this would not enable him to recognize the likeness when he was shown the photograph. Mr. Gurney, as I have said, carefully investigated this case, and saw both Mr. Husbands and Miss Falkner, receiving full viva voce accounts from each Mr. Gurney remarks:

"They are both thoroughly practical and as far removed as possible from a superstitious love of marvels; nor had they any previous interest in this or any other class of super-normal experiences. So far as I could judge Mr. Husbands' view of himself is entirely correct - that he is the last person to give a spurious importance to anything that might befall him, or to allow facts to be distorted by imagination. As will be seen, his account of his vision preceded any knowledge on his part of the death which had occurred in the room."

It would extend this book unduly were I to give any further selections from the numerous, remarkable and well authenticated cases of apparitions which are recorded in the "Proceedings of the S.P.R."(1) They are in fact so common and so generally accepted that the chief scepticism regarding them has been as to "the ghosts of the clothes" they wore, as in the last case. This would be puzzling if they were regarded as objective realities, external to the percipient. But if we regard apparitions of the dying and dead as phantasms projected from the mind of the percipient, the difficulties of clothes, and the ghosts of animal pets which sometimes are seen, disappear.

(1) A few other striking cases; are given in Chapter X of my book on Psychical Research in the Home University Library.

Experimental Phantasms

There is nothing improbable in this subjective theory of apparitions, for all the things we see are phantasms projected from our mind into the external world. It is true that a minute and real inverted picture of the objects around us is thrown on the retina by the optical arrangements in the eye, but we do not look at that picture as the photographer does in his camera; it creates an impression on certain brain cells, and then we mentally project outside ourselves a large erect phantasm of the retinal image. It is true this phantasm has its origin in the real image on the retina, but it is no more a real thing than is the virtual image of ourselves we see in a looking glass. If now, instead of the, impression being made on certain cells in the brain through the fibres of the optic nerve, an impression be made directly on those same brain cells by some telepathic impact, it may reasonably be supposed that a visual reaction follows, and a corresponding image would be projected by our mind into external space.

Nor is this pure hypothesis. Actual experiments in telepathy have been repeatedly made where the percipient has seen an apparition of the distant person who mentally desired his presence to be known. The first successful attempt at this, under conditions that admit of no dispute, was made in 1881 by a personal friend, Mr. S. H. Beard, one of the earliest members of the Society for Psychical Research. On several occasions Mr. Beard, by an effort of his will, was able to cause a phantom of himself to appear, three miles away, to certain acquaintances who were not aware of his intention to make the experiment. The phantom appeared so real and solid that the percipient thought Mr. Beard himself had suddenly come into the room; and on one occasion the figure was seen by two persons simultaneously. Similar results have been obtained by at least nine other persons, independently of each other, living, in fact, in different parts of the world, more than one carefully conducted and successful experiment being made in each case.(1)

(1) Full details of these cases will be found in Mr. Myers' Human Personality, Vol. 1, pp. 292 et seq and pp. 688 et seq.

Doubtless these apparitions, though appearing so life-like and substantial, were hallucinations, but by what process is thought able to reproduce itself in a distant mind, and thus cause these phantoms to be projected from it? Either, thought in A. by some unknown means, affects the brain matter in B., and so excites the impression, or thought exists independently of matter. Whichever alternative we take, as Mr. F. W. H. Myers says:

"It is the very secret of life that confronts us here; the fundamental antinomy between Mind and Matter. But such confrontations with metaphysical problems reduced to concrete form are a speciality of our research; and since this problem does already exist since the brain cells are, in fact, altered either by the thought or along with it - we have no right to take for granted that the problem, when more closely approached, will keep within its ancient limits, or that Mind, whose far-darting energy we are now realising, must needs be always powerless upon aught but the grey matter of the brain." ("Proceedings" S.P.R., Vol. X., P. 421).

Certainly amongst mankind a conscious thought always strives and tends to externalise itself, to pass from a conception to an expression. Creation is the externalised thought of God, and this God-like attribute we, as part of the Universal Mind, share in a partial, limited degree. Our words and actions are a constant, though partial, embodiment of our thoughts, effected through the machinery of our nervous and muscular systems. But without this machinery thought can sometimes, as we have shown, transcend its ordinary channels of expression, and act, not mediately, but directly, upon another mind, producing not only visual and auditory impressions but also physiological changes.

The Stigmata

In fact carefully conducted experiments, some of which I have myself witnessed, have shown that startling physiological changes can be produced in a hypnotised subject merely by conscious or subconscious mental suggestion. Thus a red scar or a painful burn can be caused to appear on the body of the subject solely through suggesting the idea. By some local disturbance of the blood vessels in the skin, the unconscious self has done what it would be impossible for the conscious self to perform. And so in the well attested cases of stigmata, where a close resemblance to the wounds on the body of the crucified Saviour appear on the body of the ecstatic. This is a case of unconscious self-suggestion, arising from the intent and adoring gaze of the ecstatic upon the bleeding figure on the crucifix. With the abeyance of the conscious self the hidden powers emerge, whilst the trance and mimicry of the wounds are strictly parallel to the experimental cases previously referred to.

May not the effects of pre-natal impressions on the offspring (if such cases are proved) also have a similar origin? And if I may make the suggestion, may not the well-known cases of mimicry in animal life originate, like the stigmata, in a reflex action, - as physiologists would say, - below the level of consciousness, created to some extent by a predominant impression? I venture to think that ere long biologists will recognise the importance of the psychical factor in evolution.

Adaptation to environment is usually a slow process spread over countless generations, but here also the same causes, inter alia, may be at work. Moreover, even rapid changes sometimes occur. Thus the beautiful experiments of Professor Poulton, F.R.S., have shown that certain caterpillars can more than once in their lifetime change their colour to suit their surroundings. I have seen a brilliant green caterpillar acquire a black skin when taken from its green environment and placed among black twigs. It is no explanation to say that the nervous stimulus which produced these pigmentary deposits is excited by a particular light acting on the surface of the skin.

Through what wonder-working power is this marvellous change accomplished? Not, of course, through any conscious action of the caterpillar, for even the pupae of these caterpillars undergo a like change, a light-coloured chrysalis becoming perfectly black when placed on black paper; even patches of metallic lustre, exactly like gold, appear on its integument, as I can testify, when the chrysalis is placed on gilt paper! Does it not seem as if animal life shared with us, in some degree, certain super-normal powers, and that these colour changes might be due to the influence of causes somewhat analogous to those producing the stigmata, i.e., suggestion, unconsciously derived from the environment? If so, we have here something like the externalising of unconscious thought in ourselves.

Are Apparitions Objective?

To return from this digression. Whether all apparitions are insubstantial and subjective, due to a telepathic impact from the living or the dead, I am not prepared to say. There are cases which this hypothesis covers only with difficulty where several people have witnessed the apparition and where it has seemed to have a definite objective existence in successive positions. In any case we need to be on our guard against pressing the telepathic theory to absurd extremes, as some psychical researchers seem disposed to do.

We are in fact, only on the threshold of our knowledge of this obscure and difficult region of enquiry, and humility of mind no less than confidence of hope should be our habit of thought. As Sir Oliver Lodge has remarked, "Knowledge can never grow until it is realised that the question 'Do you believe in these things?' is puerile unless it has been preceded by the enquiry, 'What do you know about them?'" It is invariably those who know nothing of the subject who scornfully say "surely you don't believe in these things!"

Visions of the Dying

There are some remarkable instances where the dying person, before the moment of transition from earth, appears to see and recognize some of his deceased relatives or friends. One cannot always attach much weight to this evidence, as hallucinations of the dying are not infrequent. Here however is a case, one of many recorded in that useful journal Light, which much impressed the physician who narrates it.

Dr. Wilson of New York, who was present at the last moments of Mr. James Moore, a well-known tenor in the United States, gives the following narrative:

"It was about 4 a.m., and the dawn for which he had been watching was creeping in through the shutters, when, as I leant over the bed, I noticed that his face was quite calm and his eyes clear. The poor fellow looked me in the face, and, taking my hand in both of his, he said: 'You've been a good friend to me, doctor.' Then something which I shall never forget to my dying day happened, - something which is utterly indescribable. While he appeared perfectly rational and as sane as any man I have ever seen, the only way that I can express it is that he was transported into another world, and although I cannot satisfactorily explain the matter to myself, I am fully convinced that he had entered the golden city - for he said in a stronger voice than he had used since I had attended him: 'There is mother! Why, mother, have you come here to see me? No, no, I am coming to see you, just wait, mother, I am almost over. Wait, mother, wait, mother!'

"On his face there was a look of inexpressible happiness, and the way in which he said the words impressed me as I have never been before, and I am as firmly convinced that he saw and talked with his mother as I am that I am sitting here.

"In order to preserve what I believed to be his conversation with his mother, and also to have a record of the strangest happening of my life, I immediately wrote down every word he said. It was one of the most beautiful deaths I have ever seen."

Miss Cobbe in her Peak in Darien gives another instance of this kind, but the following narrative is even more striking. It is vouched for by my friend the late Mr. Hensleigh Wedgwood, who contributed it to the Spectator. Mr. Wedgwood writes:

"Between forty and fifty years ago, a young girl, a near connection of mine, was dying of consumption. She had lain for some days in a prostrate condition, taking no notice of anything, when she opened her eyes, and, looking upwards, said slowly, 'Susan - and Jane - and Ellen!' as if recognising the presence of her three sisters, who had previously died of the same disease. Then, after a short pause, 'And Edward, too!' she continued, - naming a brother then supposed to be alive and well in India, - as if surprised at seeing him in the company. She said no more, and sank shortly afterwards. In course of the post, letters came from India announcing the death of Edward from an accident a week or two previous to the death of his sister. This was told to me by an elder sister who nursed the dying girl, and was present at the bedside at the time of the apparent vision."

This last instance is difficult to explain away, if correctly narrated. I am also personally acquainted with one or two similar cases, which my informants consider too sacred to be made public. Several remarkable cases of visions of the dying are given in the "Proceedings and journal of the S.P.R.," which I regret are too long to be quoted here; the reader is specially referred to the following "Proc.," Vol. III., p. 93; V., P. 459, 460 VI., P. 294. The evidence seems indisputable that, in some rare cases, just before death the veil is partly drawn aside and a glimpse of the loved ones who have passed over is given to the dying person.


The article above was taken from Barrett's "On the Threshold of the Unseen." Published by Kegan Paul in 1918.

Other articles by William Barrett

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