Feature Articles The Eager Dead
Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters and Archie E Roy’s The Eager Dead focus on the so-called Cross-correspondences, which in the eyes of some is definitive proof that we survive death.
by Philip Coppens
Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters and Archie E Roy’s The Eager Dead have both focused on the so-called Cross-correspondences. Blum’s book is somewhat larger in scope, in the sense that she commences her story by providing an interesting and detailed overview of what the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) did and tried to accomplish; Roy’s book focuses almost exclusively on the Cross-correspondences, and hence provides more detail; yet, and especially when read in the Blum-Roy sequence, both books manage to convey a tremendous amount of information on these Cross-correspondences.
Largely, one group of people will never have heard of the Cross-correspondences. The other – much smaller – group will argue that the Cross-correspondences are the best if not definitive proof that something of us survives death and is able to communicate back to the world of the living. To quote from Colin Wilson in his introduction to The Eager Dead, the Cross-correspondences are “a series of scripts, apparently authored by several deceased founders of the Society for Psychical Research, including Frederic Myers, Edmund Gurney and professor Henry Sidgwick, whose purpose was to provide irrefutable evidence of the reality of life after death.” The Cross-correspondences are an enormous amount of literature, which – as a result of their sheer volume – few people have been able to tackle or understand. The (privately) printed volumes detailing the case alone amounts to over 6400 pages. The “Notes and Excursuses”, also privately printed, adds 4,400 pages more, to which the SPR Proceedings, “only” 3000 pages long, provides us with a grand total of 14,000 pages.
Few have therefore studied this massive amount of information, and Blum merely touches upon the basic outline of the story. Roy, however, has been able to do a detailed study, which seems to have taken him approximately thirty years of his lifetime. Even then, in his introduction, he makes it clear that rendering that information in a book aimed towards the general public was not an easy task – but one in which he has succeeded. What made the Cross-correspondences so special? Let us quote from W.H. Salter, who also studied the correspondences, and how he summed them up: “It began with Mrs Verrall starting to write automatically in the spring of 1901, so as to give F.W.H. Myers an opportunity to communicate, if he could. [Myers had been a founder of the SPR and hence was “felt” to potentially try and make contact with the living.] He died 17th January 1901: her first script was written on 5th March 1901 and her scripts continued till shortly before her death in July 1916. [This was therefore a period of 15 years, in which Mrs. Verrall, through automatic writing, received transmissions apparently coming from beyond the grave.]
In 1903 Mrs. Holland began writing. She was the wife of an officer serving in India, named Fleming and the sister of Rudyard Kipling. Her scripts continued till 1910, when her health broke down.
Also in 1903 Helen Verrall [Mrs. Verrall daughter], now Mrs Salter, began writing. Her scripts continued till about 1930, when Mr Piddington invited her and also Mr Stuart Wilson to discontinue as he had more to annotate than he could manage.
In 1908 Mrs Willett got in touch with Mrs Verrall.
In 1915 Mrs Stuart Wilson the American wife of Brig. Gen. Wilson began telepathy experiments with Helen Verrall. Her scripts, which were contemporary records of impressions received before going to sleep, showed signs of connection with the scripts of earlier members of the group, of whom only Helen Verrall was known to her. Her scripts continued until about 1930.
There was also a family group in Scotland, known as “the Macs” (the Mackinnon) who wrote a few scripts that also fitted in, between 1908 and 1911.” Frederick Myers The people trying to contact the living became were largely Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, Edmund Gurney, Francis Maitland Balfour, Annie Marshal, Laura Lyttleton and Mary Catherine Lyttleton. This group included members, founding members and presidents of the SPR, which had been founded in 1882 by Frederic Myers himself. But as the correspondence lasted several decades, other people died, and some joined the group of communicators.
Gurney had died in 1888 at the young age of 41. Sidgwick was the SPR’s first president and had died in 1900. He was succeeded by Myers, who died on January 17, 1901 in Rome. Mrs. Verrall, who had been a friend and neighbour of Myers in Cambridge, began her automatic writing again in case Myers was able to communicate proof of his survival to her. It seems her idea to “open up” a channel with the Afterlife, was the start of the saga – allowing Myers to contact the living.
In the end, several mediums were involved, including the prominent American Leonaro Piper. As mentioned, in 1903, Mrs. Holland, who was in fact Mrs. Alice Fleming, the sister of Rudyard Kipling, who lived in India, received communications which she sent into the SPR. And Margareth Verrall’s daughter Helen too became a channel for the dead eager to communicate. In short, all of these women sent their automatic writings into the SPR, not knowing that they were not the only channel through which this specific group of dead people were communicating with the living. It was during 1906-7 that “it was discovered that the automatic scripts from different automatists bore certain significant resemblances to one another and to the material being produced by Mrs. Piper. From then on, efforts were made by the society to keep the automatists in ignorance of each others output.”
As they were all in different places, it was not too difficult. In fact, the honour of discovering that certain mediums across the world seemed to be channelling the same information was made by Alice Johnson, who recognised the ingenious nature of the communications and their relation to each other. She was also the person who labelled them “Cross-correspondences”.
Reflecting on her findings, she noted: “Thus, in one case, Mrs. Forbes’ script, purporting to come from her son, Talbot, stated that he must now leave her, since he was looking for a sensitive who wrote automatically, in order that he might obtain corroboration of her own writing. Mrs. Verrall, on the same day, wrote of a fir-tree planted in a garden, and the script was signed with a sword and a suspended bugle. The latter was part of the badge of the regiment to which Talbot Forbes had belonged, and Mrs. Forbes had in her garden some fir-trees, grown from seed sent to her by her son. These facts were unknown to Mrs. Verrall.”
She concluded: “We have reason to believe that the idea of making a statement in one script complementary of a statement in another had not occurred to Mr. Myers in his lifetime – for there is no reference to it in any of his written utterances on the subject that I have been able to discover. Neither did those who have been investigating automatic script since his death invent this plan, if plan it be. It was not the automatists themselves that detected it, but a student of their scripts; it has every appearance of being an element imported from outside; it suggests an independent invention, an active intelligence constantly at work in the present, not a mere echo or remnant of individualities of the past.” When the “dead psychical researchers society” realised the living understood they were using different mediums, each message “cross corresponding” to other messages, in an effort not merely to communicate, but to “prove” they had survived death, the messages became even more complex, with references to obscure Classical authors and quotes which the living had no idea about, and sometimes had to ask for clues from the “Script Intelligence”. Eventually, it was found to come out of a book, Greek Melic Poets, the only source in which all references found in the Cross-correspondences occur. No-one but a specialist in or student of the Classics would be likely to read this book, but Dr. Verrall was known to have used it as a textbook in connection with his lectures. The dead, while alive, had therefore been aware of the book, and in death, were quoting it to the living, to signal they were alive.
Montague Keen observed that “by scattering fragments of these messages, in themselves meaningless, through scripts recorded by different mediums at different times in different places, the ostensible communicators appeared dedicated to the provision of unchallengeable evidence and when the disparate pieces were fitted together they would show unmistakeable signs of an organising intelligence.” And that is precisely why some, who have known about and studied the Cross-correspondences, argue it is scientific evidence that something survives death. Because of the family connection, Salter focused on the Verralls, and even though they were instrumental, the experiment involved a much wider group of people – all women involved with automatic writing – that received messages from the beyond. These women were scattered across the world, including India and America. And though with names such as Kipling, some prominent members of society have already been mentioned, they were not the most prominent of those involved.
First of all, Mrs. Willett was known as one of Britain’s best mediums, but it was only after her death in 1956 that it was revealed, with the permission of her family, that she was actually Winifred Coombe-Tennant, a well-known British figure, known for fighting several social causes.
The biggest name in this story is nevertheless that of the Balfour family, and, specifically, British Prime Minister (1902-1906) Arthur James Balfour. Sidgwick himself, one of the Script Intelligences and a founder-president of the SPR, had married a sister of the Balfours. Arthur Balfour never married. He was known for being a very private individual. Very few people knew that Arthur had once been in love, but the love of his life Mary Lyttleton had died. Mary was one of the intelligences that contacted the living through the mediums – and would provide some clear evidence that the Intelligence passed on information which the mediums could never have known themselves.
It was Mrs. Willett who channelled her and it was in 1916 that the Script Intelligence implored Arthur to sit with Willett, which he reluctantly did. The Intelligence passed on certain information, which Arthur – the private individual he was – refused to confirm or comment upon at the time. It was only a long time after the session that Arthur sat down with his brother Gerald and told him about the action he had taken after Mary’s death four decades ago. All of sudden, some of the enigmatic references in the automatic scripts became clear, and both men knew something of Mary had survived death
Specifically, the SPR had labelled the references “The Palm Sunday Maiden”. It was a reference to how, on Palm Sunday, 1875, Mary Lyttelton had died of typhus. At the time of her death, Arthur and Mary’s sister Lavinia had decided to remember Mary in a very special and most intimate way – a secret rendez-vous, each Palm Sunday, to remember Mary, involving e.g. a lock of hair in a special reliquary that only the two of them knew about. But the Script Intelligence knew about it too.
Indeed, throughout his very public life, Arthur would keep Palm Sunday as a special day of remembrance, passing it in seclusion with Lavinia. For him, Mary’s death had been devastating, and he never married.
Because the Cross-correspondences lasted so many decades, after Mrs. Willett’s own death, Miss Cummins channelled her in 1958. In these communications, Willett’s spirit talked about Arthur – who had since died too – and how Mary had stayed in apparently a type of “waiting room” of the Afterlife waiting for him to arrive: “they tell me that she remained waiting, waiting at the border for him, returned from the higher level, at what sacrifice! A world so tempting, beckoning, but she ignored it. She put all that away from her so as to meet an old man’s soul. Therefore it need hardly be said that she was the first to greet A.J.B. when he came home to her. […] They have gone to that other level together.” Arthur Balfour, with Winston Churchill It should not come as a surprise that the events of 1916 and the Cross-correspondences as a whole convinced Arthur Balfour that something of us indeed survived death.
No wonder therefore that Jean Balfour had observed, when being around Arthur, that “it seemed to me that there were people there too; they had no concern with me, they were invisible; but I knew that they were clustered about A.J.B.’s bed, and that their whole attention was concentrated on him. They seemed to be me to be most terribly eager, and very loving and strong.”
Lots of work into the Cross-correspondences was done by Jean Balfour, daughter-in-law of Gerald. She became the official custodian of “a secret” in 1930 and continued to keep it till her death in 1981. It was her daughter Lady Alison Kremer who contacted Roy to study the Cross-correspondences and to reveal what the secret was. Again, to quote from Wilson’s introduction: “As she [Mrs. Willett/Winifred Coombe-Tennant] became more involved in mediumship, the ‘communicators’ made it known that they had in mind an interesting plan that involved Winifred. This was nothing less than that she should bear a child, a kind of ‘designer baby’, whose paternity should be, in effect, divided among the Cross Correspondence group”, in particular Edmund Gurney. Indeed, the dead were eager to create a child, which they considered to have fathered. The actual father would be Gerald Balfour, the younger brother of Arthur J. Balfour. That child was a son, who would be named Augustus Henry. The plan was apparently for Henry to be a type of Messiah, an instrument of the spirits, destined to bring peace to the warring human race. As it was noted later, the Script Intelligence “seemed to be claiming an ability to influence the birth of children and the minds and characters of children yet born.”
The communications came through Piper: “It is a request made by E.G. [Gurney] to Mrs. Willett that she will allow him to exercise spiritual control over yet another child – girl or boy not specified – a child by no means yet in contemplation.” But Mrs. Willett did not specifically want to have another child. Nevertheless, she made “preparations” so that she could conceive; but even before the conception of the child, she had a most peculiar dream. She “saw a tall majestic figure coming toward” her, glowing with rays of yellow light and all the figures, except three women, bowed down before it. The entity said “You have not chosen me but I have chosen you”, followed by “Mother.”
Henry was born on April 9, 1913 and it was felt, during birth, that because of complications, he would be stillborn. Later, she admitted that she herself wanted to die in childbirth. His early life seemed indeed to set him apart because of an above average intelligence. To close personal friends, he confided he had had a terrifying dream, which he related on the beach of North Berwick to his sister-in-law, who noted: “He himself seemed to be three persons: he would rise up from the bed, and look at his three selves. There were other people in his bedroom and he got the impression that they were trying to make him do something.” On other occasions, he said he felt as if God had certain plans for him: “I always felt that my hand was held in God’s.”
The Balfour family estate in Scotland at the time was Whittinghame, near Haddington, East Lothian. About the house, Jean Balfour wrote: “I just know the House has another house within its walls which is full of the dead, who simply wait, and watch the world from here.” But when Henry came to visit, she added: “The dead
loved you when you were with us… there were the eager dead waiting.” And elsewhere: “The dead are frightfully pleased with him: I think he excites them somehow.” Whittinghame House, Haddington During the Second World War, Henry enlisted and was taken a prisoner of war, but escaped. After the war, he worked for British Intelligence. But a Messiah, a Saviour, he never seemed to become, or became. Why? Those who were close to him noted that he lacked emotional enthusiasm, “inner fire”. He never had a love affair and seemed incapable of loving. Some felt that his mothered had smothered him in his youth, overprotected him, which never allowed him to become “fully” adult, which involves some form of rebellion.
Equally, his mother never revealed details of why he was born or the “Plan” “they” had for him. In the end, he withdrew, to become a Benedictine monk, where he seemed to find rest and satisfaction.
Still, some of his closest friends, like Jean Balfour, wondered whether he was indeed not a success, that he had something of an angel, and that he seemed to be a sexless person.
The Script Intelligence had stated before his birth: “You don’t realise that this coming child has been the result of immense work here and that its object is to give you something to live for because we want you where you are and we want to reconcile you to staying there.” When reading Roy’s account, one does ponder the notion that references to the “Plan” might have been some flowery speech by the Script Intelligence to see how much they could accomplish – and nothing more, or rather, to tell Mrs. Willett she would conceive a Messiah, merely to test how much the dead could accomplish with the living.
It is almost a tabloid story, but not unique. Still, in this particular case, only in 1960 did part of mystery become clear. To quote Roy: “There has never been as many as a dozen people who have known the story in its main outline. Indeed for many decades all that a larger number of people knew was that there was some secret, the exact nature of which could not be pinned down.” Both books provide an overview of the history of psychical research, and some of the famous mediums that existed roughly fifteen and ten decades ago. In this list, Roy has included John Brown, Queen’s Victoria trusted consultant after the death of her husband Albert. Roy is actually able to find evidence that goes some way in showing that at the very least people believed Brown was somehow channelling the dead Albert, that Victoria may have believed this as well – and that before his death, to some extent, Albert told his wife Brown would be the medium that would keep them united until she would pass over as well.
It was only in the late 19th century that individuals became organised and seriously began to question whether they could prove the existence of the hereafter. That the likes of Sidgwick and Myers would have tried their utmost to communicate with the living once dead, is obvious. As early as 1874, Sidgwick, Myers, Gurney and Arthur Balfour were conducting a series of investigations into both physical and mental mediumship. As soon as some of them “transferred” over, it is clear that if “something” of them did survive, they would have done their utmost to prove from the other side that the other side existed. And that is what the Cross-correspondences show. Henry Sidgwick Throughout decades of correspondence, the dead were able to convey some information about what it felt like to be dead. Gurney communicated: “You never seem to realize how little we know. I’m not – sometimes I know and can’t get it through, but very often I don’t know.” Myers sent: “the nearest simile I can find to express the difficulties of sending a message – is that I appear to be standing behind a sheet of frosted glass – which blurs sight and deadens sound – dictating feebly – to a reluctant and very obtuse secretary. A feeling of terrible impotence burdens me – I am so powerless to tell what means so much – I cannot get into communications with those who would understand and believe me.”
Other communications read: ““It is for us a Gargantuan task the reaching back. It is only to those whose Hearts hold a welcome for us that we can come with any ease.” And: “The inner mind is very difficult to deal with from this side. We impress it with our message. We never impress the brain of the medium directly. That is out of the question. But the inner mind receives our message and sends it to the brain. The brain is a mere mechanism. The inner mind is like soft wax, it receives our thoughts, their whole content, but it must produce the words that clothe it. That is what makes cross-correspondence so very difficult.”
They also noted that “when an intruding stranger is driven by a powerful emotion of love, jealousy or hatred he appears to be able, through its power, to overcome all difficulties of transmission and to be able to convey verifiable facts.” And that may be why the Cross-correspondences were, in essence, a family affair. After all she had seen and witnessed, in 1917, Eleanor Sidgwick said that the Cross-correspondences, which at the time would still go on in full force for another 13 years, had convinced her that survival of death took place. In the later years of the experiment, most efforts were largely taken up by securing that all the transcripts would not be destroyed by accident, or worse, neglect.
Though the Cross-correspondences are therefore a tremendous body of information, in the end, what they “only” seemed to prove – both to those who studied them and those that were involved with them – is that “something” survived. But, as W.H. Salter wrote in Zoar: “Something continues, and the question that needs an answer is, what is that something?” Especially Roy’s book lays the foundation for the reader to have an understanding of how our ancestors might have become convinced of the existence of the Afterlife, and why they devoted so much attention to their ancestors and ancestor worship.
The need for a “designer baby” is, as mentioned earlier, not unique, but its inclusion in the Cross-correspondences provides so much detail, that for the first time, we have a body of material that places it into a context. Indeed, “spirits” creating special children for Roy and others is very much like the Virgin birth of Mary, the Son of God, but it also brings up various folkloric themes, such as the changelings, if not the so-called Horus children – Horus himself “spiritually” conceived from Osiris, as Osiris at the time of conception was not only dead, but the dead body actually missing its reproductive organs. Hence, when we read how the Pharaoh was supposedly the child of a or several gods, somehow favoured by them, noting that ancient Egypt was largely an institutionalised shamanic civilisation – and still profoundly into ancestor worship, as the Valley of the Kings and other temple complexes show – The Eager Dead actually allows the reader to transpose all of this material quite easily into an ancient Egyptian setting. As with the ancient Egyptians – and every other culture – the role of the dead and ancestors is explained as one of giving advice to the living, as well as even making plans of their own: gods/spirits from another dimension concocting plans from that other realm for us. It happened in the first half of the 20th century with a most important and influential British family; when reading about ancient history, it is clear that it happened there too. And it might be that there is indeed very little new under the sun.