Gerald N. M. Tyrrell

G. N. M. Tyrrell

Educated at Haileybury and London University. In 1923 he decided to devote himself entirely to Psychical Research. Wrote several highly acclaimed works. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1908 and became President in 1945.

Discarnate Agency

More Evidence on the Discarnate Problem

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

          WE HAVE now examined briefly some of the material produced by different kinds of sensitives. All provide overwhelming evidence for telepathy, which no one has so far explained on any other hypothesis. But we found more than this. We found repeated claims that some of the material produced by sensitives proceeds from the dead. The claim in some cases turns out to be untenable; in other cases it is unacceptable in a direct and literal sense. But this by no means disposes of the possibility that the dead may be behind a good deal of the material produced by mediums and sensitives; for the process, by which the material is produced is evidently both complex and subtle. There is every indication that the messages are multiply caused, and the mind of a deceased person may quite well be one causal factor in a product which is far from being a straightforward communication. The best material contains strong evidence in support of this claim, although it is true that all the evidence can be otherwise explained.

Having considered some of the general evidence for discarnate agency contained in automatic and mediumistic material, it will probably be best to round off this evidence by citing a few specially cogent cases of apparent discarnate knowledge.

The following examples were obtained in three different ways, the first through a medium, the second through a dream, and the third through automatic writing.

The Dark Note-book Case

On the 17th and 19th December, 1917, a lady, Mrs. Hugh Talbot, arranged for two sittings with the medium, Mrs. Osborne Leonard. She says: "Mrs. Leonard at this time knew neither my name nor address, nor had I ever been to her or any other medium before in my life."

Through the control, Feda, a very accurate description was given of the personal appearance of Mrs. Talbot's deceased husband. "All that he said, or rather Feda for him, was clear and lucid. Incidents of the past, known only to him and to me, were spoken of: belongings, trivial in themselves, but possessing for him a particular personal interest of which I was aware, were minutely and correctly described and I was asked if I still had them. All this," says Mrs. Talbot, "was very interesting and seemed very natural. Suddenly Feda began a tiresome description of a book, she said it was leather and dark, and tried to show me its size (about 8 to 10 inches long and 4 or 5 inches wide). Feda said: 'It is not exactly a book, it is not printed, Feda wouldn't call it a book, it had writing in.' It was long before I could connect this description with anything at all, but at last I remembered a red leather note-book of my husband's, which I think he called a log-book: and I asked: 'It is a log-book?' Feda seemed puzzled at this and not to know what a log-book was and repeated the word once or twice, then said: 'Yes, yes, he says it might be a log-book.' I then said: 'Is it a red book?' On this point there was hesitation. They thought possibly it was, though he thought it was, darker. The answer was undecided, and Feda began a wearisome description all over again, adding that I was to look on page twelve, for something written (I am not sure of this word) there, that it would be so interesting after this conversation. Then she said: 'He is not sure, it is page twelve, it might be thirteen, it is so long, but he does want you to look and to try to find it. It would interest him to know if, this extract is there.'"

Mrs. Talbot was not very enthusiastic about the book, which she remembered having looked through at one time, wondering whether it was worth keeping. There were things in it about ships and her husband's work, but she also remembered a few notes and verses. She was not sure whether she had thrown it away or whether it was stacked among some luggage, and she replied rather indefinitely that she would see if she could find it. This would not do for Feda, who started in about it again, saying: "There are two books, you will know the one he means by a diagram of languages in the front - Indo-European, Aryan, Semitic languages and others." 

Mrs. Talbot rather reluctantly searched for the book, and right at the back of a top bookshelf found two old note-books of her husband's, one in shabby black leather of the size that had been indicated. Inside she was astonished to read: "Table of Semitic or Syro-Arabian languages." And on the other side: "General table of the Aryan and Indo-European languages." On page 13, was written the following:

"I discovered by certain whispers which it was supposed I was unable to hear and from certain glances of curiosity or commiseration which it was supposed I was unable to see that I was near death... Presently my mind began to dwell not only on happiness which was to come, but upon happiness that I was actually enjoying. I saw long-forgotten forms, playmates, school fellows, companions of my youth and of my old age, who one and all smiled upon me. They did not smile with any compassion, that I no longer felt that I needed, but with that sort of kindness which is exchanged by people who are equally happy. I saw my mother, father and sisters, all of whom I had survived. They did not speak, yet they communicated to me their unaltered and unalterable affection. At about the time when they appeared, I made an effort to realise my bodily situation ... that is, I endeavoured to connect my soul with the body which lay on the bed in my house... The endeavour failed. I was dead..."(1)

(1) Extract from "Post Mortem", author anon. Blackwood and Sons, 1881.

Corroboration from members of Mrs. Talbot's family about the incident is appended to the account.(2) This then, was the "something written" which would be "so interesting after this conversation." And Mrs. Talbot would have been very unlikely to have found it but for the description of the note-book given by Feda.

(2) Proceedings S.P.R., Vol. xxxi, p. 253.

The Fountain Pens Case

The percipient in this case, Miss I. Sollas, was personally known to Mrs. Salter, an officer of the Society for Psychical Research, and participant in the Cross-Correspondences (q.v.). The dream occurred and was noted down in May, 1937, and was described to the Society in a letter dated 14th January, 1938, as follows:

"In this dream my father came holding out to me a handful of fountain pens. I could not understand what he wanted me to do with them. He went away to his room and came again bringing another handful and anxiously asking me to send them to the same address. I awoke puzzled and began to remember that shortly before the end [Miss Sollas's father had died on 20th October, 1936] he had given me a parcel of silver paper saying it was the collection of a lifetime and would I take it for him to the hospital. Did I know the address? He said he would have taken it himself if he had known what address to take it to; was I sure I knew the address? It seemed to me very odd at the time because the hospital is a place everyone knows, including himself. Well, after some time, I was in his study and found a box with a label 'old fountain pens' containing a handful of them and thought this looked like something interesting. Later in another part of the room, I found another box similarly labelled and also containing a handful corresponding to the two handfuls of my dream. I asked a friend if she knew whether old fountain pens were ever collected for charities, and she said Yes, she had once seen an advertisement asking for them.

"My father was interested in the experiment made by - was it Myers - someone who left, a document locked up for survivors to see if they could tell its contents after his death. I remember my father saying he should have thought some simpler device should have been thought of, and this seemed to me like his simpler version of that experiment."

In the dream, Miss Sollas's father went from his study to his bedroom to fetch the second handful of pens. Actually one box of pens was found in his study and the other "in the remotest corner of a drawer in his chest of drawers" at the other end, the bedroom end, of the room which her father had used for both study and bedroom. Miss Sollas admits that she might possibly have seen the box at the study-end of the room before she had her dream without noticing it; but she is sure she can never have seen the other box till she found it after the dream. Again, memory belonging to a deceased, person is strongly suggested, though not conclusively proved.(3)

(3) Journal of the S.P.R., Vol. xxx, p. 182.

The "London" Case

The third case was obtained by myself through an introduction given me by a prominent member of the Society for Psychical Research to the principal witness. I am not allowed to disclose names, so have used pseudonyms. The daughter of the lady whom I will here call Mrs. Simpson, used to practise automatic writing, and the messages received often purported to come from a friend, D, who had been killed in the war of 1914-18. One evening in December 1916 D said be wanted to introduce a man he had met since his death, who was miserable because, after doing some fine things in his life, he did a mean thing at the end. Then the character of the writing changed, and this man purported to communicate direct. The script proceeded as follows:

Fear led me to do a very evil thing. I cannot forgive myself. It is not what the world thought. I have missed my chance.

(What is your name?)

Whiteman. I was here many-years ago. (At B    College?)

No, at X    College. [The actual name, of the college was given.]

(When did you die?)

I died about - so long ago I think about fifty years.

The communicator then stated that he had no grave.

(Did you die in battle?)

No, had I died fighting I should be happier now.

(Have you been unhappy for fifty years?)

No, but since I have seen so many splendid deaths I remember.

(What is your name?)

Whiteman. John Whiteman.

(What did you do?)

It did not succeed, but I would have saved myself at the expense of another. Intentions are everything - we neither of us escaped.

(Escaped what?)


(How did you meet D?)

In the field of battle I saw him die and since I have seen him help men to die.

(We tried to comfort him.)

Yes, that is what he tells me - to come and help, not to be stopped by things that were passed fifty years ago, but I stand by full of regret. I taught others. Myself I could not teach.

(Again we tried to cheer him.)

That is what he says.

(What was your work here?)

I taught the Word.

(A clergyman?)


(Where was your work?)

The name has gone - it was very far away.

(Were you married?)


(Can we do anything for you?)

I have only just begun to realise what I did. Help me by prayer - it is everything.

(Tell me where you died.)

[Written very faintly] L o n d o n.

This was very puzzling. If this man had died in London, how was it that he had no grave? Inquiries at X-College brought to light from the college registry the facts that John Wightman [the difference in spelling between the two original names is rather less than the difference between "Whiteman" and "Wightman"] born in 1829, had matriculated there in 1847, aged 17; had taken Orders and had set out for Australia, but was lost in the S.S. London, which foundered in the Bay of Biscay on 11th January, 1866. This, it will be seen, was just fifty years before the date at which the script was written, namely December 1916.

A work of reference shows that the Rev. John Wightman, identifiable from details given with the above, died unmarried in 1866.

Reference to the back numbers of The Times brought to light accounts of the wreck of the London in the issues of the 17th, 18th and 19th January 1866. It was a tragic disaster. The passengers were told by the captain some time before the ship sank that there was no hope for them and there were distressing scenes. The ship carried 270 passengers and there were only 19 survivors. The name John Whiteman (spelt as in the script) occurs in the second-class passenger list. The automatist had never heard of the wreck of the London, though Mrs. Simpson had a faint recollection that she had heard of it in her girlhood.

There can, of course, from the nature of the case be no proof that John Whiteman tried to save himself at the expense of another; but it is certain that he met his death under circumstances which might lead to a temptation to do such a thing.(4)

(4) Journal of the S.P.R., Vol. xxxi, p. 90.

There are other cases which point, like these three, to the memory of a deceased communicator as the source of the information, though none of them rigidly prove it.

Certain cases of a different type are interesting and suggestive from another point of view, and may be appropriately noticed here. They show that consciousness can continue when the body and brain are very far from being in a normal condition and suggest (though again they do not rigidly prove) that consciousness is not a resultant of the normally functioning brain but is only conditioned and canalised by it. In particular, some of these cases indicate a very important fact, namely, that under certain psychophysical conditions there is not only a separation of the self from the body but also a division occurring in the personality itself. The latter point was well illustrated in the case of Mrs. Willett's experience described on pp. 159-60.

An interesting variant of this was described by a lady well known to me in whose accuracy I have complete confidence. The account is in her own words, and the experience took place in August, 1921.

"I was lying in bed cogitating about doing something extremely agreeable but entirely selfish. I was suddenly aware of being in two places at once. One 'me' was still lying in bed looking as I normally do. The other 'me' was standing at the foot of the bed, very still, very straight, dressed in white with a Madonna-like veil over the head. I was aware of the extreme whiteness of the clothes. We then had a spirited discussion. The white 'me' said: 'You know that you will not do this. The 'me' in bed flung itself about in exasperation at the impassive authority of the white 'me' and said: 'I shall do what I like, you pious, white prig.' I was definitely both 'me's' and conscious in both places simultaneously. There was to sense of a third 'me' linking the two. Each 'me' could see the other, with its expected exterior surroundings all the time. The white 'me' felt sympathy, but contempt for the other 'me.' I may say that the white 'me' won. I have no memory of the process of coalescing; merely at a given moment both 'mes' were observing the exterior world from the same place."

One point of interest here is that the personality divided on a Jekyll-and-Hyde principle. But what is of still greater interest is that the two divided portions were both simultaneously the percipient. The two figures were merely dream-imagery seen from without, and each was seen as though the centre of perception was in the other. In some cases, one only of the two divided portions appears to the percipient to be the real self.

The following is another case. It was copied by Mr. Norman F. Ellison from a diary which he kept during the war of 1914-18. 

"We left Monchiet in the early afternoon, and after a gruelling march along a pave road, slippery with mud and melted snow, reached Beaumetz at night. The briefest halt, and then on to Wailly, immediately behind the line some eight miles south of Arras. From there we waded through a winding communication trench a mile long but seemingly interminable. Liquid mud to the knees and a bitterly cold sleet numbing us through. At last we reached the front line and took over from the French - a territorial reserve battalion. The worst trenches we had ever been in. No repairs had been done to them for months and months. At worst they collapsed inwards and did not give head shelter; at best they were a trough of liquid muck. H. and I in the game traverse and straight away on sentry duty. We were both too utterly fed up to even curse. Bodily exhausted, sodden and chilled to the bone with sleet; hungry and without rations or the means of lighting a fire to boil a dixey of water; not a dry square inch to sit upon, let alone a square foot of shelter beneath which to have the solace of a pipe, we agreed that this was the worst night of concentrated physical discomfort we had come across hitherto - and neither of us were strangers to discomfort.

"Several hours of this misery passed and then an amazing change came over me. I became conscious, acutely conscious that I was outside myself; that the real 'me' - the ego, spirit or what you like - was entirely separate and outside my fleshly body. I was looking in a wholly detached and impersonal way upon the discomforts of a khaki-clad body, which, whilst I realised that it was my own, might easily have belonged to someone else for all the direct connection I seemed to have with it. I knew that my body must be feeling acutely cold and miserable but I, my spirit part, felt nothing." 

His companion told him that his grim silence had suddenly given place to wit and humour and he had chatted as unconcernedly as if before a comfortable fire. 

"Nothing will shake my inward belief," he concludes, "and knowledge that on this particular night my soul and body were entirely separated from each other."(5)

(5) Journal S.P.R., Vol. xxv, p. 126.

Although the narrator speaks of a separation of soul from body and talks about being outside his body, it is clear that this, like Mrs. Willett's case, was an example of "splitting" of the personality. For it cannot have been his body alone which chatted humorously and unconcernedly while he was unaware of it. His personality must have divided.

Again, we may compare this with an interesting case cited by Sir Auckland Geddes in an address delivered to the Royal Medical Society on 26th February, 1927, and entitled by him A Voice from the Grandstand. The title is chosen merely because, in addressing the medical profession, Sir Auckland Geddes said that he felt like a critic of an International Rugby Match sitting in the grandstand on the strength of having, in years gone by, been a member of the school third fifteen.

The case, he says, is "the experience of a man who passed into the very portals of death and was brought back to life by medical treatment." "The record was taken down in shorthand by a skilled secretary as life was re-establishing itself." The account is here abridged.

"On Saturday, 9th November, a few minutes after mid-night, I began to feel very ill and by two o'clock was definitely suffering from acute gastro-enteritis, which kept me vomiting and purging until about eight o'clock... By ten o'clock I had developed all the symptoms of very acute poisoning; intense gastro-intestinal pain, diarrhoea; pulse and respirations became quite impossible to count, I wanted to ring for assistance, but found I could not, and so quite placidly gave up the attempt. I realised I was very ill and very quickly reviewed my whole financial position. Thereafter at no time did my consciousness appear to me to be in any way dimmed, but I suddenly realised that my consciousness was separating from another consciousness which was also me. These, for purposes of description, we could call the A- and B-consciousnesses, and throughout what follows the ego attached itself to the A-consciousness. The B-personality I recognised as belonging to the body, and as my physical condition grew worse and the heart was fibrillating rather than beating, I realised that the B-consciousness belonging to the body was beginning to show signs of being composite, that is built up of 'consciousness' from the head, the heart and, the viscera. These components became more individual and the B-consciousness began to disintegrate, while the A-consciousness, which was now me, seemed to be altogether outside my body, which it could see. Gradually I realised that I could see not only my body and the bed in which it was, but everything in the whole house and garden, and then I realised that I was seeing, not only things at home but in London and in Scotland, in fact wherever my attention was directed, it seemed to me; and the explanation which I received from what source I do not know, but which I found myself calling to myself my mentor, was that I was free in a time-dimension of space, wherein 'now' was in some way equivalent to 'here' in the ordinary three-dimensional space of everyday life."

The narrator then says that his further experiences can only be described metaphorically, for, although he seemed to have two-eyed vision, he "appreciated" rather than "saw" things. He began to recognise people he knew and they seemed to be characterised by coloured condensations around them. "Just as I began to grasp all these," he continues, "I saw 'A' enter my bedroom; I realised she got a terrible shock and I saw her hurry to the telephone. I saw my doctor leave his patients and come very quickly, and heard him say, or saw him think, 'He is nearly gone. I heard him quite clearly speaking to me on the bed, but I was not in touch with my body and could not answer him. I was really cross when he took a syringe and rapidly injected my body with something which I afterwards learned was camphor. As the heart began to beat more strongly, I was drawn back, and I was intensely annoyed, because I was so interested and just beginning to understand where I was and what I was 'seeing.' I came back into the body really angry at being pulled back, and once I was back, all the clarity of vision of anything and everything disappeared and I was just possessed of a glimmer of consciousness, which was suffused with pain."

The narrator adds that this experience showed no tendency to fade like a dream and no tendency to grow or to rationalise itself. Neither did it ever return after he was restored to life. Sir Auckland Geddes says: "What are we to make of it? Of one thing only can we be quite sure. It is not a fake. Without certainty of this, I should not have brought it to your notice."

One cannot help being struck by the similarity between Mrs. Willett's Mind No.2 and Mind No.1 and this narrator's A-personality and B-personality. But what I think we ought chiefly to learn is that selfhood has not the kind of unity which we associate with numerical separateness. What selfhood is - on what characteristics it depends - is probably beyond the capacity of our minds to grasp. But at least we can learn from such cases to avoid dogmatic statements, inadequate theories and hasty conclusions.

These out-of-the-body cases are of exceptional interest. It is worth pointing out that in two such cases recorded by the Society for Psychical Research, quite disconnected from one another and occurring in different countries (they are too long to quote here) the percipients describe the process of getting out of their bodies in almost identical terms. One said: "As I emerged from the head I floated up and down and laterally like a soap-bubble attached to the bowl of a pipe." The other said that he thought to himself: "... here I am, ball of air in the air, a captive balloon still attached to the earth by a kind of elastic string..."

Finally, a case was recorded by Sir Alexander Ogston, K.C.V.O., as having occurred to himself during the South African War. He had been admitted to the Bloemfontein Hospital suffering from typhoid fever. 

"In my delirium," he says, "night and day made little difference to me. In the four-bedded ward where they first placed me, I lay, as it seemed, in a constant stupor, which excluded the existence of any hopes or fears. Mind and body seemed to be dual, and to some extent separate. I was conscious of the body as an inert, tumbled mass near the door; it belonged to me but it was not I. I was conscious that my mental self used regularly to leave the body always carrying something soft and black, I did not know what, in my left hand - that was invariable - and wandered away from it under grey, sunless, moonless, starless skies, ever onwards to a distant gleam on the horizon, solitary but not unhappy, and seeing other dark shades gliding silently by until something produced a consciousness that the chilly mass which I then recalled was my body, was being stirred as it lay by the door. I was then drawn rapidly back to it, joined it with disgust, and it became I and was fed, spoken to and cared for. When it was again left I seemed to wander off as before by the side of a dark, slowly-flowing, great flood through silent fields of asphodel, knowing neither light nor darkness, and though I knew that death was hovering about, having no thought of religion nor dread of the end, and roamed on beneath the murky skies apathetic and contented, until something again disturbed the body where it lay, when I was drawn back to it afresh and entered it with ever-growing repulsion. As the days went on, or rather I should say as time passed, all I knew of my sickness was that the wanderings through the dim, asphodel fields became more continual and more distinct, until about the end of the term of high fever I was summoned back to the huddled mass with intense loathing, and as I drew near and heard someone say: 'He will live,' I remember finding the mass less cold and clammy, and ever after that the wanderings appeared to be fewer and shorter, the thing lying at the door and I grew more together, and ceased to be two separate entities.

"In my wanderings there was a strange consciousness that I could see through the walls of the building, though I was aware that they were there and that everything was transparent to my senses. I saw plainly, for instance, a poor R.A.M.C. surgeon, of whose existence I had not known, and who was in quite another part of the hospital, grow very ill and scream and die. I saw them cover over his corpse and carry him softly out on shoeless feet, quietly and surreptitiously, lest we should know that he had died, and the next night, I thought, take him away to the cemetery. Afterwards when I told these happenings to the sisters, they informed me that all this had happened."(6)

(6) "Reminiscences of Three Campaigns", Part II, South African War. Chapter xvi, pp. 222-3.

Perhaps we have not a sufficient number of well-authenticated cases of this kind from which to generalise; but to any thoughtful person, who does not reject evidence for the paranormal on principle, they must be very suggestive. When the bodily vitality is lowered beyond a certain point (starvation is said to produce a similar effect), extrasensory perception of the surroundings seems to occur. Also consciousness becomes very lucid and clear. Why, on the epiphenomenalist view, does this happen? Why, when the body is nearly dead, and the brain has almost ceased to function, is consciousness bright and clear; and why, as soon as the brain begins to function again, is it reduced to a sluggish glimmer?

More cases of this kind need to be properly recorded; but the evidence we have is sufficient to show how far we are from understanding our personalities.

Source: "The Personality of Man. New Facts and their Significance" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1946).


Other articles by G. N. M. Tyrrell

• Alternatives to Discarnate Theory
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 1
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 2
• What is Psychical Research?
• What is Science?
• The Significance of the Whole
• The Subliminal Self and the Unconscious
• Psychical Research and Religion
• Is there Anything Besides Fraud in the Physical Sιance Room?
• The Case of Patience Worth: An Outstanding Product of Automatic Writing
• Mrs Willet: Communications Ostensibly Proceeding from the Dead
• What is Science? The Opposition Between Science and Rationalism
• Trance Personalities
• Sense-Imagery
• Modus Operandi of the Mediumistic Trance
• The Boundary of the World of Sense
• The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

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