Sir William Barrett

Death-Bed Visions - The Psychical Experiences of the Dying
Publisher: Rider & Co.
Published: 1926
Pages: 123

Chapter 4: Visions seen by the Dying of Living Persons at a Distance - in some cases Reciprocal

 - William Barrett -

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          WE now come to a somewhat different and large class of cases where the veil which hides the spiritual world is not for a few moments lifted for the dying percipients, but their souls appear to be transported to a different place on earth and they are able to see persons who may be at a remote distance. Such cases are usually called instances of "travelling clairvoyance" and numerous well-attested facts of this kind have been collected in Phantasms of the Living, to which my readers are referred.

There are, however, a few cases which are worthy of special notice, wherein the dying persons appear not only to make themselves visible at a distance, but also inform those around them where they have been, and that they have visited those whom they desired to see.

One of the most remarkable and pathetic of these so-called "reciprocal cases" was related to me by that gifted and venerable Quaker lady, Miss Anna Maria Fox, when we were on a voyage to Canada for the British Association Meeting in 1884. Miss Fox and her sister Caroline were well known to savants in the last generation(1), for their beautiful place "Penjerrick," near Falmouth in Cornwall, was the rendezvous of many eminent scientific and literary men, and nearly fifty years ago I had the privilege of enjoying their hospitality. When narrating the incident, Miss Fox referred me to her relatives, the Birkbecks, for confirmation of it: and this was given me when I made inquiries shortly afterwards.

(1) See "Memoirs of Caroline Fox."

Mr. Myers has given an abridged record of the same case(2), which he obtained from another member of the same family, Mrs. Charles Fox of Falmouth, who had heard the account from one of the percipients.

(2) See "Phantasms of the Living," Vol. II, p. 560.

The incident is nearly two centuries old, but as Mr. Myers says, the Fox family is one which would carefully preserve evidence of this kind. As an illustration of this fact I may state that the narrative which Miss Anna Maria Fox gave me was practically identical with that given by Mrs. Charles Fox, which I now quote:

"In 1739 Mrs. Birkbeck, wife of William Birkbeck, banker, of Settle, and a member of the Society of Friends, was taken ill and died at Cockermouth, while returning from a journey to Scotland, which she had undertaken alone - her husband and three children, aged seven, five, and four years respectively, remaining at Settle. The friends at whose house the death occurred made notes of every circumstance attending Mrs. Birkbeck's last hours, so that the accuracy of the several statements as to time, as well as place, was beyond the doubtfulness of man's memory, or of any even unconscious attempt to bring them into agreement with each other.

"One morning, between seven and eight o'clock, the relation to whom the care of the children at Settle had been entrusted, and who kept a minute journal of all that concerned them, went into their bedroom as usual, and found them all sitting up in their beds in great excitement and delight. 'Mamma has been here!' they cried, and the little one said,' She called "Come, Esther!"' Nothing could make them doubt the fact, and it was carefully noted down, to entertain the mother on her return home. That same morning, as their mother lay on her dying bed at Cockermouth, she said, 'I should be ready to go if I could but see my children.' She then closed her eyes, to reopen them, as they thought, no more. But after ten minutes of perfect stillness she looked up brightly and said, 'I am ready now; I have been with my children'; and then at once peacefully passed away. When the notes taken at the two places were compared, the day, hour, and minutes were the same.

"One of the three children was my grandmother, nee Sarah Birkbeck, afterwards the wife of Dr. Fell, of Ulverston. From her lips I heard the above almost literally as I have repeated it. The eldest was Morris Birkbeck, afterwards of Guildford. Both these lived to old age, and retained to the last so solemn and reverential a remembrance of the circumstance that they rarely would speak of it. Esther, the youngest, died soon after. Her brother and sister heard the child say that her mother called her, but could not speak with any certainty of having themselves heard the words, nor were sensible of more than their mother's standing there and looking on them."

The case of Mrs. Goffe is also of remote date, 1691, but is taken from a contemporary report made by the Rev. T. Tilson in a letter he addressed to the famous divine, Richard Baxter, who published it in a book he wrote(1). The case is given in Phantasms of the Living (Vol. II, pp. 558, 559) and the authors state that the narrative cannot be impugned on the ground of any credulity on the part of Baxter, and quote an authority on this point. It will be seen that the incidents in the following narrative are curiously parallel to the preceding case of Mrs. Birkbeck. Though Mr. Tilson's letter which we now quote, is somewhat long, it is better to give his own words rather than an abstract.

(1) See Baxter's "The World of Spirits" (1691), pp. 147-51.

"July 6th, 1691

"Mary, the wife of John Goffe, of Rochester, being afflicted with a long illness, removed to her father's house at West Mulling, which was about nine miles distant from her own; there she died, June 4th, 1691. The day before her departure she grew impatiently desirous to see her two children, whom she had left at home, to the care of a nurse. She prayed her husband to hire a horse, for she must go home to die with her children.

"Between one and two o'clock in the morning she fell into a trance. One widow Turner, who watched with her that night, says that her eyes were open and fixed, and her jaw fallen; she put her hand on her mouth and nostrils, but could perceive no breath; she thought her to be in a fit, and doubted whether she was alive or dead. The next day this dying woman told her mother that she had been at home with her children. 'That is impossible,' said the mother, 'for you have been here in bed all the while.' 'Yes,' replied the other, 'but I was with them last night while I was asleep.'

"The nurse at Rochester, widow Alexander by name, affirms and says she will take her oath of it before a magistrate, and receive the sacrament upon it, that a little before two o'clock that morning she saw the likeness of the said Mary Goffe come out of the next chamber (where the elder child lay in a bed by itself, the door being left open), and stood by her bedside for about a quarter of an hour; the younger child was there lying by her; her eyes moved, and her mouth went, but she said nothing. The nurse, moreover, says that she was perfectly awake; it was then daylight, being one of the longest days in the year. She sat up in her bed, and looked steadfastly upon the apparition; at that time she heard the bridge clock strike two, and a while after said, 'In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, what art thou?' Thereupon the appearance removed and went away; she slipped on her clothes and followed, but what became of it she cannot tell. Then, and not before, she began to be grieviously affrighted, and went out of doors, and walked upon the wharf (the house is just by the river-side) for some hours, only going in now and then to look at the children. At five o'clock she went to a neighbour's and knocked at the door, but they would not rise; at six she went again, then they rose and let her in. She related to them all that had passed; they would persuade her she was mistaken, or dreamt; but she confidently affirmed, 'If ever I saw her in all my life, I saw her this night.' [The writer than gives an account of how one of those to whom she related the story confirmed the above narrative.]

"The substance of this statement was related to me by John Carpenter, the father of the deceased, the next day after the burial - July 2. I fully discoursed the matter with the nurse and two neighbours, to whose house she went that morning. Two days after I had it from the mother, the minister that was with her in the evening, and the woman who sat up with her last that night. They all agree in the same story, and every one helps to strengthen the other's testimony. They all appear to be sober, intelligent persons, far enough off from designing to impose a cheat upon the world, or to manage a lie; and what temptation they should lie under for so doing I cannot conceive.


The next case, also contributed by Mr. Myers, is an account given by the Ellis family to Mr. Myers, of a vision which their father, Mr. Ellis, who was dying in Kensington, had of his son, Robert, at that time in Australia. The Misses Ellis state:

"On Wednesday, December 29th, 1869, my father, who was dangerously ill at the time, awoke from a sleep, and raising himself up in the bed pointed and looked most intently to one corner of the room and said to us (my sister Mary and me), 'Look I don't you see? it is my poor boy Bob's head!' Then turning to me, he said, 'Norman Town, don't forget, Gulf of Carpentaria.' He then sank back exhausted. This happened about three p.m. We found, after his death, he had entered the address in red ink in his pocket-book - my brother having left Bourke Town and gone to Norman Town - so that the next packet of letters were sent there. My father died on Thursday, Dec. 30th, 1869. When my brother returned from Australia a few years after, he told us that one night, whilst camping out, he had gone to rest and had slept, and he awoke seeing my father's head distinctly in one part of his tent. It made such an impression on him that he went to his mate in the adjoining tent and said, 'I have seen my father; you must come and stay with me.' By the next mail he received my letter telling him of my father's death.

"My brother said it must have been about three a.m. when he saw my father. Would not that correspond with our three p.m.? I always think they must have seen each other at the same time.


Mr. Myers states that in conversation with the narrators, he ascertained that Mr. Ellis was not in the least delirious during his last days, and that he was deeply attached to his absent son.

In this case in connexion with the vision of his father seen by Mr. Robert Ellis, it may be interesting to note that another case of apparition, occurring to her husband some years later, is given by Mrs. Robert Ellis. She states that on Tuesday, December 19, 1876, between 6 and 7 p.m., when she and Mr. Ellis were sitting talking together, he suddenly looked over his shoulder with a startled, almost terrified look, and on being asked what was the matter, he said that he had imagined he saw someone coming in at the door. Subsequently he stated that, he distinctly saw the tall dark figure of a man, but could not distinguish his features. He was greatly agitated. Later on a telegram was received, giving news of the sudden death of Mrs. Robert Ellis' brother in Mexico on Tuesday, the 19th December, at seven o'clock in the evening. He and Mr. Robert Ellis had been very great friends.

This case is taken from Phantasms of the Living, Vol. II, p. 253:

"The lady who sends us the following narrative occupies a position of great responsibility, and desires that her name may not be published, but it may be given to inquirers:

"'When I was eight months old, my mother's youngest sister, Mercy Cox, came to reside with us and to take charge of me. My father's position at the Belgian Court as portrait painter obliged him to be much abroad, and I was left almost wholly to the care of my very beautiful aunt. The affection that subsisted between us amounted almost to idolatry, and my poor mother wept many bitter tears when she came home to see how little I cared for anyone else. My aunt took cold, and for three years lingered in decline. I was a quick child and could read well and even play prettily, so that I was her constant companion day and night. Our doctor, Mr. Field, of the Charter House, greatly disapproved of this close contact, and urged my parents to send me quite away. This was a difficult feat to accomplish, the bare mention of the thing throwing my aunt into faintings. At last Mr. Cumberland (the theatrical publisher) suggested that I should join his two daughters, Caroline, aged 16, and Lavinia, younger, at Mrs. Hewetson's, the widow of a clergyman resident at Stourpaine, in Dorsetshire, who only took four young ladies. This was represented to my aunt as something so wonderfully nice and advantageous to me that she consented to part with me. My portrait was painted and placed by her bed, and I remember how constantly she talked to me about our separation. She knew she would be dead before the year of my absence would be ended. She talked to me of this, and of how soon I should forget her; but she vehemently protested that she would come to me there. Sometimes it was to be as an apple-woman for me to buy fruit of, sometimes as a maid wanting a place, always she would know me, but I should not know her, till I cried and implored to know her.

"'I was but nine when they sent me away, and coach travelling was very slow in those days. Letters too were dear, and I very rarely had one. My parents had sickness and troubles, and they believed the reports that I was well and happy, but I was a very miserable, ill-treated little girl. One morning at break of day - it was New Year's Day - I was sleeping beside Lavinia. We two shared one little white tester bed with curtains, while Caroline - upon whom I looked with awe, she being 16, slept in another similar bed at the other end of a long, narrow room, the beds being placed so that the feet faced each other, and two white curtains hung down at the sides of the head. This New Year's morning I was roughly waked by Lavinia shaking me and exclaiming, "Oh, look there! There's your aunt in bed with Caroline." Seeing two persons asleep in the bed I jumped out and ran to the right side of it. There lay my aunt, a little on her right side, fast asleep, with her mouth a little open. I recognized her worked nightgown and cap. I stood bewildered, with a childish sort of wonder as to when she could have come; it must have been after I went to bed at night. Lavinia's cries awakened Caroline, who as soon as she could understand, caught the curtains on each side and pulled them together over her. I tore them open, but only Caroline lay there, almost fainting from fright. This lady, Miss Cumberland, afterwards became Mrs. Part, wife of a celebrated doctor at Camden Terrace [and now deceased].

"'I never talked of what had occurred, but one day after I had returned home, I said to my mother, "Do you know, Mamma, I saw Auntie when I was at school." This led to an explanation, but my mother instead of commenting upon it, went and fetched her mother saying to her, "Listen to what this child says." Young as I was I saw they were greatly shocked, but they would tell me nothing except that when I was older I should know all. The day came when I learned that my dear aunt suffered dreadfully from the noise of St. Bride's bells, ringing in the New Year. My father tried to get them stopped but could not. Towards morning she became insensible; my mother and grandmother seated on either side of her and holding her hands, she awoke and said to my mother, "Now I shall die happy, Anna, I have seen my dear child." They were her last words.

"'(Signed) D. E. W."

"No general register of deaths was kept at the time of the incident here related, and we have exhausted every means to discover a notice of the death, without success. But we have procured a certificate of Mercy Cox's burial, which took place on January 11, 1829. This is quite compatible with the statement that the death was on January 1st (though such an interval, even in winter, is no doubt unusual), as the lady was buried in a family vault, and probably a lead coffin had to be made. January 1st would be, at the very least, a day of very critical illness. As to the date of the apparition, the marked character of New Year's Day decidedly favours the probability that Miss W.'s memory is correct.

"In answer to inquiries, Miss W. says:

"'I was born in 1819. The death of my aunt took place in 1829. Though to my most intimate friends - as Sir Philip Crampton, the late Earl and Countesses 2) of Dunraven - I have often mentioned the event (and to Judge Halliburton), I think I never wrote it fully except for Lord Dunraven and his mother, in 1850, who were very desirous to publish it, but I declined. I think that a great reason I have always had for not talking of it was the awe with which it inspired my mother, and her strict commands that "I should not mention it to anybody." Then, too, I went to school and lost sight of Lavinia Cumberland, and I shrank from the comments of strangers.'

"In conversation Miss W. added that she had never experienced any other hallucination; also that the Cumberland girls had visited her home, and seen her aunt - which accounts for Lavinia's recognition of the figure.

"[We learn through a relative of Miss Lavinia Cumberland that she herself does not recall the incident; but that she remembers hearing her sister speak of a 'ghost case' in which they had both been somehow concerned.]"

The following case Mr. Myers contributes to Phantasms of the Living (Vol. II, p. 305), and he remarks that it is a narrative of whose accuracy there is no reason to doubt, as the narrator, Dr. O. B. Ormsby - who wrote from a place called Murphysborough, Illinois, U.S.A., in 1884 - had been in communication with Mr. Myers, and replied to his questions.

The narrative, which I abridge, is a follows:

In 1862 Dr. Ormsby was acting as Assistant Surgeon to the 18th Illinois Volunteers; the regiment having gone forward to attack Fort Henry, he was left behind in charge of the sick. Among these was a young man called Albert Adams, a sergeant-major, in whom the doctor seems to have been specially interested. He removed him from the hospital and took him into a private house; the adjoining apartment to that occupied by the patient was divided from his room only by a thin partition; this other room was occupied by the doctor's wife.

The man was dying and all the afternoon he could only speak in whispers; his father was sent for, and at 11 p.m. Sergeant Adams to all appearance died. Dr. Ormsby, who was at the time standing beside the father by the bed, states that, thinking the bereaved man might faint in the keenness of his grief, he led him away to a chair in the back part of the room, and himself returned to the bedside, intending to close the eyes of Adams, who he thought had expired. Dr. Ormsby then states: "As I reached the bedside the supposed dead man looked suddenly up in my face, and said, 'Doctor, what day is it?' I told him the day of the month, and he answered, 'That is the day I died.' His father had sprung to the bedside, and Adams turning his eyes on him said, 'Father, our boys have taken Fort Henry, and Charlie (his brother) isn't hurt. I've seen mother and the children, and they are well.'

"He then gave comprehensive directions regarding his funeral, speaking of the corpse as' my body,' and occupying, I should think, as much as five minutes. He then turned towards me and again said, 'Doctor, what day is it?' and I answered him as before. He again repeated, 'That's the day I died,' and instantly was dead. His tones were quite full and distinct, and so loud as to be readily heard in the adjoining room, and were so heard by Mrs. Ormsby.

"(Signed) O. B. ORMSBY, M.D."

In reply to further questions, Dr. Ormsby wrote that he had no opportunity to learn whether what was said about the mother and children was correct, but that he learned afterwards that Fort Henry was taken, and the brother was uninjured.



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