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.

Proof of Supernormal Messages

The Ouija Board

 - Sir William Barrett FRS -

"The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God. In the sight of the unwise they seem to die and their departure is taken for misery and their going away from earth to be utter destruction-but they are in peace." From the Wisdom of Solomon, iii. 1-3

          THE SUPERNORMAL character of many of the communications that reach us through the medium or automatist having been established, let us now turn to further evidence of survival and of the identity of the discarnate intelligences, together with occasional glimpses of their condition after death.

Some years ago I was staying at a friend's house in the country, which I will call Hawthorn Manor, and found that my hostess, Mrs. E. - the wife of a lawyer holding a responsible official position, and herself a matronly lady of great acumen and commonsense, the centre of a circle of religious and charitable activity - had accidentally discovered that her hand was occasionally impressed by some power she could not control. Long messages, the purport of which were at the time unknown to her, were thus written.

The curious feature of this automatic writing was that it came on her suddenly; when writing up some household accounts she fell into a dreamy or semi-trance-like state, and then felt the fingers of another hand - belonging apparently to an invisible person seated opposite to her - laid on her right hand, and a sudden vigorous scribbling ensued. But the writing was all upside down, each line beginning at her right hand side of the page, and could only be read by turning the page round. Mrs. E. assured me, and I have no reason to doubt her word, that it was quite impossible for her to write a single word correctly in this way in her normal state. Anyone who will make the attempt will find how difficult such a mode of writing is to execute, especially in the clear and characteristic calligraphy, which here occurred.

Mrs. E. was not a spiritualist and had no knowledge of the subject, in fact rather an aversion to it. Hence no serious attention was given to this abnormal writing until a message came containing certain specific statements, wholly outside the knowledge of herself or husband, which they subsequently discovered to be perfectly true incidents in the life of a deceased relative, who asserted he was present and guiding the lady's hand. Other communications followed, which also were verified. Then on another evening came, the instance to which I have referred as affording proof of identity.


In this case the communicating intelligence was unknown to Mrs. E. The circumstances, written down at the time, were as follows: A cousin of my hostess, an officer in the Engineers, named B., was paying a visit to Hawthorn Manor. I was not present, but the facts were sent to me; some, indeed, came under my own knowledge. B. had a friend, a brother officer, Major C., who died after B. left Chatham, and to whose rooms in the barracks he frequently went to play on C.'s piano, both being musical: of this Mrs. E. assured me she knew absolutely nothing. At the sitting in question, much to R's amazement, for he was quite ignorant of spiritualism, the Christian name and surname of Major C, were unexpectedly given, followed by the question, addressed to B., "Have you kept up your music?" Then came some private matter of a striking character, when suddenly the unseen visitant interjected the question, "What was done with the books?" "What books?" was asked. "Lent to me," was C.'s reply. "Who lent you the books?" The reply came at once, "A   ," giving the name of another brother officer, of whose existence Mrs. E. was also wholly unaware. "Shall I write to ask A    if he has them?" B. asked. "Yes," was the reply. All present assert on their word of honour they knew of no such loan, nor was the officer named in any of their thoughts, nor had Mrs. E. ever heard A   's name mentioned before.

A    was written to, and the question about the books incidentally asked, but in a reply that came some time after no notice was taken of the question. Two months later, however, B. accidentally met his friend A   , when, in the course of conversation on other matters, A    suddenly exclaimed: "That was a rum thing you asked me about in your letter; I mean about Major C. and the books. I did lend him some books, but I don't know what became of them after his death."

An objector might urge that it is conceivable B. might once have seen some books belonging to A in Major C.'s room, and afterwards forgotten the fact, and that this latent memory had telepathically (and unconsciously to all concerned) impressed Mrs. E., but obviously this explanation will not cover other cases, some of which I will cite. For these some more elaborate hypothesis must be invented, and our ingenuity becomes severely taxed when we remember that these are only stray illustrations of a growing mass of sifted evidence pointing in the direction of survival after death. Much of this evidence has been published, but other cases are privately known to me, and each case requires new and often absurd assumptions if we attempt to explain it away.

Survival After Death

I will now cite some further illustrations of the automatic script that came through my friend Mrs. E.'s hand, and in the earlier stages came in the wonderful manner already mentioned; the remarkable point being that Mrs. E. did not know what her hand had written until the paper was turned completely round and the message read. I know of no other case where messages were written in this inverted script, though there may be such. "Mirror writing" is not uncommon, that is messages written (as postcards are sometimes written) in a script which can only be read when viewed in a mirror; this art is not so difficult to acquire as inverted writing.

The following communications are also unlike the usual type, inasmuch as they give us a glimpse,- if they are really veridical of the state of the soul immediately after death. Mrs. E. assured me that these messages were quite foreign to her thoughts, and entirely beyond her ability to compose. She had lost during the preceding winter a dearly loved brother, who was studying at an Engineering College near London. A friend of his, who had been a sufferer, had pre-deceased him, but no thought of this friend was in Mrs. E.'s mind when one evening her hand wrote:

"I want you to believe your friends live still and can think of you.... On opening the eyes of my spiritual body I found myself unaltered, no terror, only a strange feeling at first, then peace, a comforted heart, love, companionship, teaching. I am     [giving here his full name], and have written this, but your brother     [giving the name] is here and wants to speak to you."

After an interval Mrs. E. felt her hand again impelled to write, and the following message came:

"I am here [giving he, brother's name] and want to tell you about my awakening into spirit life. I was at first dimly conscious of figures moving in the room and round the bed. Then the door was closed and all was still. I then first perceived that I was not lying on the bed, but seemed to be floating in the air a little above it. I saw in the dim light the body stretched out straight and with the face covered. My first idea was that I might re-enter it, but all desire to do this soon left me the tie was broken. I stood upon the floor, and looked round the room where I had been so ill and been so helpless, and where I could now once more move without restraint. The room was not empty. Close to me was my father's father [giving the name correctly]. He had been with me all through. There were others whom I love now, even if I did not know much of them then. I passed out of the room, through the next, where my mother and     were [relatives still in this life], I tried to speak to them. My voice was plain to myself, and even loud, yet they took no notice of all I could say. I walked through the college rooms; much blackness but some light. Then I went out under the free heavens. I will write more another sitting - power too weak now. Goodnight." [His signature follows].

At another sitting, a night or two later, the same name was written, and the thread of the preceding narrative was abruptly taken without any preface:

"I saw the earth lying dark and cold under the stars in the first beginning of the wintry sunrise. It was the landscape I knew so well, and had looked at so often. Suddenly sight was born to me; my eyes became open. I saw the spiritual world dawn upon the actual, like the blossoming of a flower. For this I have no words. Nothing I could say would make any of you comprehend the wonder of that revelation, but it will be yours in time. I was drawn as if by affinity to the world which is now mine. But I am not fettered there. I am much drawn to earth, but by no unhappy chain. I am drawn to those I love to the places much endeared."

These messages are deeply interesting: some of them were written in my presence and, as I have stated, Mrs. E. in her normal waking consciousness was convinced she could not have composed them. But the subliminal self, the uprush of which Mr. Myers has suggested lies at the root of genius, has gifts far beyond the power of the normal self and it is possible, though not in my opinion probable, that these communications are only the dramatised products of Mrs. E.'s own hidden and unsuspected powers. This explanation however fails to account for the veridical messages that came through Mrs. E., giving information beyond the knowledge of any persons present; nor can it explain many of the communications that have come through other automatists, such as the other cases already cited and those which follow.

But why should we think it so extravagant to entertain the simplest explanation - that occasionally a channel opens from the unseen world to ours, and that some who have entered that world are able to make their continued existence known to us? Why some, we cannot tell. And why so paltry a manifestation? But is anything paltry that manifests life?

In the dumb agony which seizes the soul when some loved one is taken from us, in the awful sense of separation which paralyses us as we gaze upon the lifeless form, there comes the unutterable yearning for some voice, some sign from beyond; and if, in answer to our imploring cry for an assurance that our faith is not in vain, that our dear one is living still, a smile were to overspread the features of the dead, or its lips to move, or even its finger to be lifted, should we deem any action a paltry thing that assures us death has not yet ended life, and still more that death will not end all?

Though it be "Only a signal shown and a voice from out of the darkness," it is not paltry! Only the dead in spirit care not for the faintest, the rudest sign that assures us, who are "slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken," that the soul lives freed from the flesh, that the individual mind and memory remain, though the clothing of the body and brain be gone.

And it is just this natural human longing that renders a dispassionate consideration of the facts, a calm and critical weighing of the evidence, so difficult and yet so imperative. This is now being done, as the following case illustrates, with a care that grows by experience, and with an honesty that none can dispute.


Some of the most remarkable automatic scripts, - which have been discussed with critical acumen by the Research Officer of the S.P.R., - came to a lady of education and social position resident in India. This lady was not a spiritualist, and at the time had no acquaintance with the members of the Society for Psychical Research. As her family disliked the whole subject she prefers to be known under the pseudonym of "Mrs. Holland." Subsequently, on her return to England, she became personally known to and esteemed by many of the leaders and officials of the S.P.R. Her attention having been once casually drawn to the subject of automatic writing she tried the experiment and to her surprise found her hand, wrote both verse and prose without any volition on her part; the first messages were headed by the impromptu lines:

Believe in what thou canst not see,
Until the vision come to thee.

Mrs. Holland says she remains fully conscious during the writing, "but my hand moves so rapidly that I seldom know what I am writing." Her interest in the subject increased and she obtained and read Mr. Myers' monumental work Human Personality, which was published after Mr. Myers' death. Though she did not know the author, it was natural that much of her automatic script purported to be inspired by him. A careful study of the messages so inspired has compelled the belief that the spirit of Mr. Myers really did control some of these messages. Here for instance is a very characteristic communication purporting to come from Mr. Myers:

"To believe that the mere act of death enables a spirit to understand the whole mystery of death is as absurd as to imagine that the act of birth enables an infant to understand the whole mystery of life. I am still groping-surmising-conjecturing The experience is different for each one of us. . . One was here lately who could not believe he was dead; he accepted the new conditions as a certain stage in the treatment of his illness."

Then follows, not quite verbally correct, the first two lines of Mr. Myers' poem St. Paul - a poem which Mrs. Holland declares she had never read and of which she knew nothing whatever. Of course it is possible that she had somewhere seen these lines quoted, though she has no recollection of this. The automatic script is as follows:

"Yea, I am Christ's - and let the name suffice ye - E'en as for me He greatly bath sufficed.(1) If it were possible for the soul to die back into earth life again I should die from sheer yearning to reach you - to tell you all that we imagined is not half wonderful enough for the truth - that immortality, instead of being a beautiful dream, is the one, the only reality, the strong golden thread on which all the illusions of all the lives are strung. If I could only reach you - if I could only tell you - I long for power, and all that comes to me is an infinite yearning - an infinite pain. Does any of this reach you, reach anyone, or am I only wailing as the wind wails - wordless and unheeded?" - Proceedings S.P.R., Vol. XXI, P. 233.

(1) The actual lines in Mr. Myers' St. Paul are: Christ! I am Christ's! and let the name, suffice you, Ay, for me too He greatly hath sufficed."

On another occasion the Myers control wrote:

"It may be that those who die suddenly suffer no prolonged obscuration of consciousness, but for my own experience the unconsciousness was exceedingly prolonged."

And again,

"The reality is infinitely more wonderful than our most daring conjectures. Indeed, no conjecture is sufficiently daring."

The hypothesis that these messages are due to dramatic creations of Mrs. Holland's subliminal self becomes increasingly difficult to believe when we find other wholly different types of messages purporting to come from Mr. Ed. Gurney and the Hon. Roden Noel, who were also entirely unknown to Mrs. Holland. When they were on earth I knew these distinguished men personally, and was in frequent correspondence with each of them; hence from my own knowledge I can affirm that these communications are singularly characteristic of the respective and diverse temperaments of each.

But there was more than this, for not only was some very striking blank verse written, by the Roden Noel control, but mention is made of places and persons associated with Mr. Roden Noel that were unknown to Mrs. Holland. In fact the automatist did not know who was controlling her hand when it wrote:

"I was always a seeker, - until it seemed at times as if the quest was more to me than the prize, - only the attainments of my search were generally like rainbow gold, alway beyond and afar. . . I am not oppressed with the desire that animates some of us to share our knowledge or optimisms with you all before the time. The solution of the great Problem I could not give you - I am still very far away from it; the abiding knowledge of the inherent truth and beauty into which all the inevitable ugliness of existence finally resolve themselves will be yours in time."

Preceding this had come the following:

"This is for A.W., ask him what the date, May 26th, 1894, meant to him - to me - and to F.W.H. I do not think they will find it hard to recall, but, if so, let them ask Nora."

Here it is to be noted Mrs. Holland, who was in India, knew nothing of Dr. A. W. Verrall, whose name is suggested by the initials A.W., nor that Mrs. Sidgwick was called Nora (her Christian name being Eleanor) but the whole context eventually suggested to Miss Johnson (the Research Officer of the S.P.R.), to whom the script was sent, a message from Roden Noel, who was known both to Dr. Verrall, Mr. F. W. H. Myers, and Mrs. Sidgwick. Miss Johnson adds: "It was appropriate we should be told to ask Nora (Mrs. Sidgwick) if we could not find out for ourselves, since he (Roden Noel) was an intimate friend of Dr. Sidgwick." Now the date given was precisely that of the death of Roden Noel. Though Mrs. Holland thought she may have once seen some poems of Mr. Noel's, she knew nothing of him personally nor of the date of his death.

The fetish of subliminal or telepathic knowledge is here hard to invoke and becomes absurd when we find one of the earliest of Mrs. Holland's scripts, written in India and purporting to come from Mr. Myers, gives a minute and lengthy description of an elderly gentleman, which ends up as follows:

"It is like entrusting a message on which infinite importance depends to a sleeping person. Get a proof, - try for a proof if you feel this is a waste of time without. Send this to Mrs. Verrall, 5, Selwyn Gardens, Cambridge."

When this script was received by Miss Johnson she at once recognized the description as resembling Dr. Verrall, and Mrs. Verrall's address given was perfectly correct. Further, when the script was shown to Mrs. Verrall she said the whole description was remarkably good and characteristic of her husband, who was then living. Mrs. Verrall, who now alas! has also passed into the unseen, states that no portrait or description of her husband had ever been published, nor was her address given in "Human Personality," which, as stated, Mrs. Holland had read. On being questioned Mrs. Holland declared she had never seen, and had no conception of Mrs. Verrall's address. Of the good faith of Mrs. Holland there is no doubt whatever, and she herself was most anxious to find out whether any of her automatic writing came from her sub-conscious memory.

Other very remarkable cases of supernormal knowledge in Mrs. Holland's script are described in Miss Johnson's long memoir in the Proceedings of the S.P.R., one in particular is worth noting. Mrs. Holland's hand wrote, on January 17th, 1904, - purporting to be under the control of Mr. Myers:

"The sealed envelope is not to be opened yet. I am unable to make your hand form Greek characters and so I cannot give the text as I wish - only the reference - i Cor. xvi., 13 ['Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong'], Oh I am feeble with eagerness. How can I best be identified! It means so much apart from the mere personal love and longing. Edmund's [Mr. Ed. Gurney] help is not here with me just now. I am trying alone amid unspeakable difficulties."


Now Mrs. Sidgwick had asked Mrs. Verrall, who was also a remarkable automatist, as a test to give a favourite text of her husband's and a fairly satisfactory answer was obtained; of this Mrs. Holland knew absolutely nothing, but on the very same day, Jan. 17th, 1904, that Mrs. Verrall's script in Cambridge made references to a sealed letter and to a text, Mrs. Holland's hand in India automatically wrote the message just quoted. The text i Cor. A, 13, was not the one asked for by Mrs. Sidgwick, but it is the one inscribed in Greek over the gateway of Selwyn College, Cambridge, which Mr. Myers constantly passed, and on which, owing to a slight verbal error in the Greek inscription, Mr. Myers had more than once remarked to Mrs. Verrall. Mrs. Holland had never been in Cambridge, had no connection with the University, and knew absolutely nothing of the Greek inscription on the gateway of Selwyn College.

The text incident may be an example of what has been already referred to as "cross-correspondence," that is two widely separated automatists, giving somewhat similar replies, or giving a sentence the meaning of which is unintelligible until it is supplemented by a further communication through another automist, who has no knowledge of the other fragmentary message. All this looks as if a single unseen personality controlled the two automatists, in order to avoid any explanation by telepathy or the subliminal self. The interesting point being, as I have pointed out already, that only since the death of Mr. Myers and Dr. Hodgson, - who were familiar with this favourite method of explaining away the significance of these messages, - have numerous cases of cross-correspondence arisen among independent and widely separated automatists.


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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