W. H. Salter

William Henry Salter

1880-1969. Went to Trinity College, Cambridge, with a Classical Scholarship in 1899, took a first class degree in 1901, turned to read Law, and was called to the Barin 1905. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1916, to become a member of its Council three years later. From 1920 to 1931, a very difficult financial period, he served as Honorary Treasurer; and from 1924 to 1948 he was Honorary Secretary. He was President from 1947 to 1948. He made many contributions to the SPR Journal and Proceedings, and published two admirable books, Ghosts and Apparitions (1938) and Zoar (1961).

From Zoar, or The Evidence for Psychical Research Concerning Survival
(1961, Sidgwick and Jackson, London).

Chapter 4: Apparitions: Some Special Types

- W. H. Salter -

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          THE QUESTION is often raised as to whether apparitions are objective, and this can only be answered by the further question as to what sense "objective" is to receive. Apparitions, as was shown in the preceding chapter, are fairly common, and those of recognised persons not very much rarer. But veridical apparitions, corresponding to some verifiable event outside the percipient's normal knowledge or inference, form a very much smaller class. They cannot be considered, as the other two classes might, as beginning and ending within the percipient's mind, conditioned perhaps, as many dreams are, by internal conflicts, but unrelated to anything external to his personality. They have therefore a sort of objectivity that cannot be claimed for the others.

But those who raise the question probably have a more materialistic conception of objectivity in view, and they point to certain types of apparitions which do not seem amenable to the telepathic hypothesis. There are three principal types which they specify: (a) "collective" apparitions, i.e., such as are seen by more than one percipient at the same time: (b) "iterative" apparitions, to use Professor Broad's phrase, i.e., such as are seen on more than one occasion whether by the same or different percipients: (c) apparitions seen a considerable time after the death of the agent and conveying information outside the percipient's normal knowledge or inference, as to things that have happened since the agent's death. These three types will be considered in that order.

As to the nature of collective cases Gurney and Myers expressed different opinions in Phantasms. Gurney's view was that perception spread from the percipient who first had the experience to the others by telepathic infection, so to speak. Myers's view is very hard to state clearly and briefly, but his remarks on p.291 of the second volume give the gist of it. He regarded the respective hallucinations of each member of the group as all generated by a conception in a distant mind, being

"diffused from a 'radiant point' or phantasmogenetic, focus, corresponding with that region of space where the distant agent conceives himself to be exercising his supernormal perception."

Both of them rejected what Myers called "the gross conception of a molecular metaorganism."

Neither Gurney's nor Myers's views have met with universal acceptance among psychical researchers, and other hypotheses have been put forward. Mention should be made of Professor Hornell Hart's paper, "Six Theories about Apparitions," in SPR Proc. 50. He argues (p.228) that "Apparitions and their accessories are semi-substantial" as having several characteristics which he lists, one of them being that "they are often seen collectively by two or more persons at the same time".

It is not surprising that opinions among well informed students should differ, owing to the scarcity of collective cases which are not wholly illusory, i.e., due solely to misinterpretation of actual, normal persons and things, and owing also to the varied conditions in which experiences occur. Are the percipients two, or a small group, or a crowd? Was the apparition observed indoors, out of doors, in a public place? Under what conditions of visibility? How soon after the experience was it described to persons who had not themselves shared it? Did all the percipients describe their share in it independently? What was their emotional state at the time?

When considering the objectivity or semi-objectivity of collective apparitions it is first of all necessary to set aside the pure illusions. Among these I would include two cues that have received wide publicity in our time, the Versailles "Adventure" and the Borley Nun.

In the Versailles case the belief that two English ladies in August 1901 saw the grounds and buildings of the Petit Trianon as they were at the time of the French Revolution and there met and conversed with several persons of that period is based on a confusion between the first reports of their experiences which they each wrote in November of that year, and second accounts which they wrote out at some uncertain date between 1902 and 1906 after consultation with each other. The originals of this later version they destroyed in 1906 after making fair copies. The earlier version is consistent with the persons and scenes described being such as anyone else might have seen in 1901 by normal eyesight; the second is not. It is considerably expanded and altered so as to form a picture inconsistent with the normal contemporary scene. In the first edition of the book the second version is printed as if it were the first, and it is the only one printed in most of the later editions. For a more detailed criticism of the evidence I would refer to my article in SPR Journal XXXV, 178, and The Ghosts of Versailles, 1957, by Lucille Iremonger. Attempts have been made to fit the descriptions of persons and places in the first version, the only one worth considering, to actual persons of the Revolutionary period, giving those words a wide sense, and to buildings either existing some few years before the Revolution or planned. The essential thing however would be to show that the descriptions in the first version are definitely inconsistent with what a visitor to Versailles in an ordinary state of consciousness would have seen. From this angle these attempts seem to me quite inconclusive.

Borley Rectory was built in 1863. In consequence of several illusory or hallucinatory incidents a belief grew up in the neighbourhood that it was haunted by a nun. One summer evening in 1900 four daughters of the house thought that they had seen the nun in the garden. Their good faith is above suspicion, but unfortunately they made no written record of what they had seen. The earliest written or printed accounts are of the statements they made verbally to other people in 1928, and these accounts, as reported by the persons who received them, do not agree on the crucial point as to how far the evening was advanced or how much light there was to see the figure by.

Until 1929 Borley had not been the scene of any psychic occurrence of an indubitably physical kind, but from then on there is no lack of ostensibly paranormal phenomena that were certainly physical. The only doubt is whether any were genuine. The fact that there never was a nunnery anywhere near Borley, and that therefore it was improbable that any living nun had any connection with the place, has not prevented the wildest conjectures as to the supposed nun's identity and fate. The astounding structure of fantasy and fraud connected with Borley is described in Proc. 51.

It is a misfortune that there are so few collective cases that are both veridical and well-authenticated, as much might be learnt from them. The case now to be mentioned is of the tantalising class all too frequent in psychical research, in which exceptional features are present that might be useful clues to problems still obscure, if only the evidence were a little better. In 1863 Mr. Wilmot sailed from Liverpool for New York in a ship which in mid-Atlantic ran into a heavy gale lasting several days. He had a lower berth in a state-room, the upper berth of which was occupied by Mr. Tait. One night, when the storm was beginning to abate toward morning, he dreamed that his wife, then in the United States, came to the door of his state-room, clad in her nightdress. She seemed to discover that he was not the only occupant of the room, hesitated a little, then came to his side, stooped down and kissed him and, after caressing him for a few moments, quietly withdrew. On his waking, Tait leant over and said "You're a pretty fellow to have a lady come and visit you in this way," and on being pressed for an explanation, related what he had seen while wide awake in his berth. It exactly corresponded with Wilmot's dream. The following morning Tait, thinking that possibly the visitor was Wilmot's sister, a passenger on the same ship, asked her whether she had been to see her brother during the night. On her saying "No", he said he had seen some woman in white, who went up to her brother.

The day after landing Wilmot joined his wife. Almost her first question was "Did you receive a visit from me a week ago Tuesday?" (i.e., the night of Wilmot's dream). Asked to explain, she said that, being anxious as to her husband's safety owing to the reported loss of another vessel, she had lain awake that night for a long time thinking of him. About four o'clock in the morning it seemed to her that she went out to seek him, crossing a wide and stormy sea, to a black steamship up whose side she went. She descended to a state-room in the stem, saw a man in the upper berth looking right at her, was for a moment afraid to go in, but soon went up to the side of her husband's berth, bent down, kissed and embraced him and then went away. Her description of the ship, the position of the state-room and the arrangement of the berths in it was correct.

It is a serious weakness that no written account of the case was made for more than twenty years, by which time Tait was dead. His part in the incident rests on Wilmot's statement, supported by that of his sister, when she was questioned about it in 189o. The case seems to me evidentially good enough to warrant consideration, even though any theoretical interpretation of it can only be put forward tentatively.

As between Mr. and Mrs. Wilmot the case is veridical because, as Mrs. Sidgwick puts it (Proc. VII, 45), "Each perceived the other in the situation in which the other supposed himself or herself to be". As between Wilmot and Tait it was collective, but as one was awake and the other asleep the nation that both "saw" Mrs. Wilmot because she was present in some quasi-material form is ruled out. The experience is therefore of the "mental" order and, since more than one percipient is involved, telepathic. It implies, however, a more complex conception of telepathy than the old one of single-way thought-transference from one agent to one percipient.

In general the chance that normal persons have been mistaken for paranormal is increased if the experience has occurred out of doors, especially if it has occurred in a public place, a street or a park, where it is impossible to be sure who was or might have been present in the flesh. Uncertainty is still further increased if the percipients are members of a crowd who cannot, all of them, be questioned as to just what their experience was, or how far collective perception was spread by the cries or gestures of those first affected.

Perhaps in the discussions that have taken place on these cases too sharp a distinction has been made between collective illusion and collective hallucination.

in the night, imagining some fear
How easy is a bush supposed a bear.

One sees the rough dark shape in one's path. Part of it projects: the head doubtless. A chill wind blows. The outline wavers: the beast must be bristling with anger. So far all is just illusion due to misinterpretation of something actually seen. Suppose however that growls are then heard proceeding from the imaginary bear, there being in fact no such noise. The illusion has now developed adjuncts that axe hallucinatory.

The Fatima visions, seen in Portugal in 1917, are by now so well-known as to make a full account of them here superfluous. There were, it will be remembered, visions of the Virgin, repeated at fixed intervals and culminating in October of that year in an experience shared by several thousand spectators. The visions of the Virgin, being supernatural, and the devotional feelings inspired by them, lie altogether outside the province of psychical research. There is however an incident forming part of the culminating experience which can be discussed as a proper subject for ordinary physical and psychological enquiry.

It concerns the motions, or apparent motions, of a natural object, namely the sun. This appeared to sweep round the sky in circles, and to approach the earth. As Father Martindale says in his book, The Message of Fatima, "No one supposes that the sun was physically dislodged from its place in the solar system". Astronomers did not observe-any disturbances corresponding to the descriptions of members of the crowd, and had those descriptions been even approximately true, that would have been the end of life on this planet. It was naturally impracticable to obtain accounts from more than a few eye-witnesses and these did not exactly tally, but the behaviour of the crowd showed that there was a widespread sense of having observed something in the sky quite outside the habitual course of things.

The experience, that part of it which relates to the apparent motions of the sun, cannot be considered either as pure illusion or pure hallucination. It was an illusion, because an actual object, the sun, was involved, but its apparent movements went far beyond mere misinterpretation of actuality. That point may be academic, but it is a point of importance, whichever view be taken, that collective mis-perception even on a massive scale is no guarantee of physical objectivity.

Of the other, psychological, type of objectivity described at the beginning of this chapter, a good example is the experience of two English women taking a holiday on the French coast near Dieppe who on 4th August 1951, between 4 and 7 a.m., heard the noise of cries, gunfire and dive-bombing out at sea. Both percipients had read newspaper accounts of the actual Dieppe raid of 1942, but neither had looked up the history of it in connection with their visit to the French coast. The sounds heard by the percipients extended over the hours when similar sounds would have been heard on the coast during the actual raid, and the variations in sound corresponded to some extent with the different stages of the attack. The account of the case in SPR Journal (Vol. 36, 607-618) by Mr. G. W. Lambert, an experienced official of the War Office and President of the Society 1955-1958, and Mrs. Gay, prints in parallel columns the times at which the percipients heard the different noises, and the times of the stages of the attack as recorded in official documents and by press correspondents.

The authors point out that the experience cannot be explained as due to misinterpretation of actual noises "heard off" but that

"it would ... be rash to assume that the sounds heard were a sort of 'sound-track' repetition of the sounds of the Raid. The various kinds of sound heard, gunfire, dive-bombing, planes, a rifle shot, shouts and cries, are all appropriate, but there is not enough detailed information as to when the several kinds of sound first occurred to enable one to judge whether they are 'phased in' correctly.... Both as regards form and content we think the experience must be rated a genuine psi phenomenon, of which little or nothing was derived from previous normally acquired knowledge."

There is nothing in the experience to suggest that it was the result of post mortem activity by any person.

"Iterative" cases fall into three groups: (a) Those relating to some recognised dead person; (b) those where the main phenomena consist of apparitions, but not of any recognised person; a class including most cases that are called "haunts"; (c) those in which the main phenomena are objectively physical, i.e., "Poltergeist" cases.

A good example of group (a) is to be found in Proc. XXXIII, pp. 167- 176. Captain Bowyer-Bower of the R.F.C. was shot down and killed on the Western Front soon after dawn on the 19th March 1917. News that he was missing was received by his mother on the 23rd. In the late part of the morning of the 19th his sister, then in India, was nursing her baby when she turned round and saw her brother. She supposed he had been posted to India, and said "Fancy coming out here". She turned to embrace him, but he had gone. Until a few weeks before his death he had been for several months in England and his sister had not heard that he had returned to France.

Before she received the War Office telegram announcing that he was missing his mother received a letter from another sister saying that her little daughter then under three years old had told her that her uncle, to whom she was devoted, was downstairs, and persisted in this statement when told he was in France. The sister believed this to have happened about 9.15 on the morning of the 19th, but owing to the letter having been destroyed there is no full confirmation of the date or hour.

On the afternoon of the 19th, an old friend of the mother's, who had not corresponded with her for quite eighteen months, had a "certain and awful feeling" that Captain Bowyer-Bower had been killed, and wrote to his mother expressing her anxiety.

After his death had become known two other incidents occurred, both towards the end of 1917, though the exact dates cannot be fixed. In one his mother, who had a sudden sensation of "most unnatural coldness", saw all his face, except the chin, gradually emerge in a yellow-blue ray of light. In the other his fiancée, after hearing some raps, went to sleep and then woke up to see him on the bed beside her. His lips moved in a whisper. She tried to touch him and he disappeared.

Of this striking series of incidents the first is a very good example of a crisis-apparition at the time of death, and the second and third may with less assurance he also classed as veridical death-coincidences. The fourth and fifth incidents are not veridical as both percipients knew of the death, but have elements which may perhaps have been physically objective, the cold felt by the mother, and the raps heard by the fiancée: she had "asked him to rap twice if he was ever going to show himself" to her, and two raps came, followed by sleep and a vision which she was certain was not a dream. Cold is reported as part of many psychic experiences, but it is not demonstrably objective. Those of us who live in old houses often hear raps of natural origin, but the raps the fiancée heard came in answer to her request, and seem not to have been casual or purposeless. That however does not settle the question whether they were objective, a point on which she seems herself to have had some doubt when she writes of the whole experience, "I certainly did not dream it, or imagine it, but of course it may be something to do with my brain".

Leaving for later consideration the haunts and poltergeists, in which there is little evidence for the agency of an identifiable person, I will turn to cases where evidence to that effect is stronger, and has been claimed to suggest continued activity after death. In Phantasms of the Living the authors regarded as death-coincidences cases occurring within twelve hours before or after the death. For the purpose of estimating whether such cases could be explained by chance it was necessary to fix a definite time limit. Twenty-four hours was convenient for this purpose, and the results of experiments in thought-transference suggested that twelve hours was about the limit for which a telepathic impression might remain latent in the percipient's subconscious. But memories may remain latent for many years, and there seems no reason why a shorter period of latency should be definitely fixed for telepathic impressions. Mere lapse of time since the death is therefore a very insecure reason for distinguishing between phantasms of the living and phantasms of the dead. If the experience conveys to the percipient no knowledge he did not already possess, it must reckon as one of the very numerous class for which no paranormal explanation is needed. If knowledge is conveyed of things not normally known to him but occurring during the agent's life, it can be considered a case of latent telepathy, but this explanation becomes less and less probable with the lapse of time. If the knowledge conveyed is of things unknown to the percipient but happening after the agent's death, the argument for the agent's survival and continued activity is stronger.

Not however conclusive, unless the events lie outside not only the percipient's normal knowledge but such paranormal knowledge as he may have acquired e.g. by telepathy from some living person. This last is a difficulty which constantly besets the seeker for evidence of survival. It will be more fully discussed later in the book, in relation to "communications" received through mediums. The possibility of telepathy from the living detracts from the value as evidence for survival of some of the instances of apparitions which have often been quoted.

There is for example the American case (Proc. VI, 17) in which a man, who in 1876 was attending to his business correspondence in broad daylight, saw standing by him the figure of his sister, who had died in 1867. The figure in every respect resembled the sister when living, except that there was a bright red line or scratch on the right-hand side of the face. He hurried home and told his father, who was inclined to ridicule him at first. He also told his mother, who nearly fainted away and on recovering said that he had indeed seen his sister, as no living mortal but herself was aware of that scratch which she had accidentally made while attending to the body after death, when she had obliterated the traces of it with powder. This is an interesting case but of little value in proving the agency of the dead, rather than telepathy from the living. The scratch was known to the mother, a possible origin for a telepathic impression. On either hypothesis it is curious that there should have been a lapse of nine years between the death and the experience.

From this weakness at any rate the Chaffin Will Case appears to be free. I take a personal interest in it, as I prepared it for publication in SPR Proceedings (Vol. XXXVI, pp. 517-524). James Chaffin, a farmer in North Carolina, died in 1921 as the result of a fall, leaving a widow and four sons. In 1905 he made a will leaving his whole property to his third son, Marshall, who proved the will, and himself died about a year later, leaving a widow and a son, a minor. In June 1925 the second son, James, began to have vivid dreams of his father appearing at his bedside and speaking. This vision may have been a "borderland" experience occurring between sleep and waking. It was more realistic than pure dreams usually are, but in an experience as informative as this the distinction is of little importance.

The figure was dressed in a black overcoat which James had often seen his father wearing.

"He took hold of his overcoat this way and pulled it back and said, 'You will find my will in my overcoat pocket,' and then disappeared."

James went to his elder brother's house and found the coat, and inside the inner pocket, which was sewn up, a roll of paper with the words "Read the 27th Chapter of Genesis in my daddie's old Bible". James found the old Bible in a drawer in his mother's house and in the presence of witnesses found between two folded pages on which the 27th Chapter of Genesis was printed another will, dated 16th January 19 19, whereby the Testator "After reading the 27th Chapter of Genesis", in which the supplanting of Esau by Jacob is related, divided his property equally between. his four sons, and added, "You all must take care of your Mammy".

The second will, though unattested by witnesses, was valid by the law of the State and was admitted to probate in December 1925, Marshall's widow, who had at first contested it, withdrawing her opposition on being shown the actual paper. Before probate however the Testator appeared again to his son, James, saying: "Where is my old will?" and showing "considerable temper".

This experience, whether dream, apparition, or borderland case, has a fuller content and is more impressive than most apparitions, if we can be certain that we have all the facts. It detracts from the force of a narrative of supposedly paranormal events if any part of it which is not paranormal is improbable. In this case the Testator's action as to his second will during his life seems hard to explain. The second will was apparently intended to set light what he regarded as the injustice of the first, but he took the trouble to make arrangements likely to prevent the second will ever being effective, - a paper in a sewn-up coat pocket, an unattested will in an old Bible not in ordinary use - unless, which he can hardly have foreseen, he were able to reveal the will's existence and whereabouts by appearances after his death.

On the other hand it is hard to believe that the whole story was a put-up job between the Testator's widow, the three surviving sons and the widow of the son who died, the last named having an interest opposed to the provisions of the second will. The American lawyer, with whom I exchanged several letters, said that to anyone who knew country folk in that area there would be nothing incredible in the action of the Testator during his life, or of his family after his death, and on that assurance the case was published.

If the case is accepted as genuine, it is probably the best case of an apparition (or realistic dream, or borderland case) providing evidence of activity after death, by the purposiveness of the repeated appearances and the detailed information conveyed as to matters outside the percipient's normal knowledge. But the purpose was a limited one, put into effect within a few months of the first appearance, and though the experience may be regarded as a "vehicle" by which the Testator communicated, it has much less claim to be considered a manifestation of complete personality than the phenomena of trance-mediumship and automatic writing discussed later in this book.

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