When World-Class Scientists Saw Ghosts (Part 2)


It is generally stated that the theory of evolution by natural selection was co-founded by two people: Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. But an NPR article tells us, “Wallace actually came up with the idea twenty years earlier, says David Quammen, author of the book The Reluctant Mr. Darwin .” Wallace's paper “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” was written in February 1858. Wallace sent it to Darwin in early 1858, and in the summer of 1858 it was read at a scientific meeting. Darwin didn't publish his influential book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life” until November, 1859. Below are some excerpts from Wallace's paper showing he published Darwin's main ideas before Darwin's "Origin of Species":

The life of wild animals is a struggle for existence....It seems evident that what takes place among the individuals of a species must also occur among the several allied species of a group,- viz., that those which are best adapted to obtain a regular supply of food, and to defend themselves against the attacks of their enemies and the vicissitudes of the seasons, must necessarily obtain and preserve a superiority in population; while those species which from some defect of power or organization are the least capable of counteracting the vicissitudes of food, supply, &c., must diminish in numbers, and, in extreme cases, become altogether extinct....But this new, improved, and populous race might itself, in course of time, give rise to new varieties, exhibiting several diverging modifications of form, any of which, tending to increase the facilities for preserving existence, must by the same general law, in their turn become predominant....Even the peculiar colours of many animals, especially insects, so closely resembling the soil or the leaves or the trunks on which they habitually reside, are explained on the same principle; for though in the course of ages varieties of many tints may have occurred, yet those races having colours best adapted to concealment from their enemies would inevitably survive the longest....We believe we have now shown that there is a tendency in nature to the continued progression of certain classes of varieties further and further from the original type.

Nowadays proponents of evolution by natural selection tend to dismiss the possibility of ghosts. But ironically the co-originator of that theory (Wallace) reported some spectacular reports of ghosts. Before looking at Wallace's first hand accounts, let's look at some of his writings about other people's ghost sightings. In this post I will use a definition of a ghost the same definition I stated in part I of this three-part series. There I defined a ghost as “a human form, full or partial, that appears and disappears mysteriously.”


Alfred Russel Wallace

In his book “Of Miracles and Modern Spiritualism,” which can be read here or here, Wallace had a chapter entitled, “The Evidence of the Reality of Apparitions." On page 69 he began the chapter by stating, “I now propose to give a few instances in which the evidence of the appearance of preter-human or spiritual beings is as good and definite as it is possible for any evidence of any fact to be.” Wallace discusses on page 70-71 a ghost story he read about and found compelling. A man saw a strange figure, and pointed it out to another man who identified the figure as his brother who lived far away. The figure disappeared. Word later came that the brother had died at the same hour and day as the strange figure was seen.

On page 73-74 Wallace describes another ghost sighting he read about, saying, “Here we have the same apparition appearing to two ladies unknown to and remote from each other on the same night; the communication obtained through a third person, declaring the time and mode of death ; and all coinciding exactly with the events happening many thousand miles away.” He describes on page 76 another dramatic ghost story he did not personally witness:

However much any one of these incidents might have been scouted as a delusion, what are we to say to the combination of them ? A whole household hear distinct and definite noises of persons walking and speaking. Two ladies see the same appearances, at different times, and under circumstances the least favourable for delusion. The name is given to one by voice, to the other by writing; the date of death is communicated. An independent enquirer by much research, finds out that all these facts are true ; that the christian name of the only " Children " who occupied and died in the house was Richard, and that his death took place in the year given by the apparition, 1753. Mr. Owen's own full account of this case, and the observations on it should be read, but this imperfect abstract will serve to show that none of the ordinary modes of escaping from the difficulties of a " ghost story " are here applicable.

Wallace's conviction about the reality of ghosts came before there was even published the most compelling work on the topic,  the massive and thoroughly researched work "Phantasms of the Living" by Gurney, Myers and Podmore, which can be read here.  Wallace's eyewitness reports of ghost sightings appeared in Chapter 37 of Volume 2 of his biography “My Life.” You can read his original accounts by using this link, or this link (to get the text version), and going to page 327.

On page 327 to 328 Wallace describes the following event he saw very much resembling the phantom appearances described in my previous post. From the wording, it is hard to tell whether the “Miss C.” referred to is Florence Cook or her sister Kate. Wallace states the following:

I attended a series of sittings with Miss Kate Cook, the sister of the Miss Florence Cook, with whom Sir William Crookes obtained such very striking results. The general features of these séances were very similar, though there was great variety in details. They took place in the rooms of Signor Randi, a miniature painter, living in Montague Place, W., in a large reception-room, across one corner of which a curtain was hung and a chair placed inside for the medium. There were generally six or seven persons present. Miss Cook and her mother came from North London. Miss C. was always dressed in black, with lace collar, she wore laced-up boots, and had earrings in her ears. In a few minutes after she had entered the cabinet, the curtains would be drawn apart and a white-robed female figure would appear, and sometimes come out and stand close in front of the curtain. One after another she would beckon to us to come up. We then talked together, the form in whispers; I could look closely into her face, examine the features and hair, touch her hands, and might even touch and examine her ears closely, which were not bored for earrings. The figure had bare feet, was somewhat taller than Miss Cook, and, though there was a general resemblance, was quite distinct in features, figure, and hair. After half an hour or more this figure would retire, close the curtains, and sometimes within a few seconds would say, "Come and look." We then opened the curtains, turned up the lamp, and Miss Cook was found in a trance in the chair, her black dress, laced-boots, etc., in the most perfect order as when she arrived, while the full-grown white-robed figure had totally disappeared.

On page 328 to 329 Wallace tells us two similar tales of mysterious materializations of human figures during seances. Then on page 330 he gives an astonishing eyewitness account of a ghostly phantom appearing out of the body of a medium. Wallace states the following:

It was a bright summer afternoon, and everything happened in the full light of day. After a little conversation, Monk, who was dressed in the usual clerical black, appeared to go into a trance; then stood up a few feet in front of us, and after a little while pointed to his side, saying, "Look." We saw there a faint white patch on his coat on the left side. This grew brighter, then seemed to flicker, and extend both upwards and downwards, till very gradually it formed a cloudy pillar extending from his shoulder to his feet and close to his body. Then he shifted himself a little sideways, the cloudy figure standing still, but appearing joined to him by a cloudy band at the height at which it had first begun to form. Then, after a few minutes more, Monk again said "Look," and passed his hand through the connecting band, severing it. He and the figure then moved away from each other till they were about five or six feet apart. The figure had now assumed the appearance of a thickly draped female form, with arms and hands just visible. Monk looked towards it and again said to us "Look," and then clapped his hands. On which the figure put out her hands, clapped them as he had done, and we all distinctly heard her clap following his, but fainter. The figure then moved slowly back to him, grew fainter and shorter, and was apparently absorbed into his body as it had grown out of it.

We will see in my next post that this type of astonishing thing has been reported very many times by observers such as Schrenck-Notzing, who thoroughly documented all of his observations and published many photographs of them.

On pages 338 to 339 Wallace gives the following astonishing eyewitness account, in which he describes eight phantom figures appearing mysteriously and disappearing as mysteriously:

I attended several séances at the house of Mrs. Ross, a very good medium for materializations, in the company of one or more of my friends. I will state what occurred on one of these occasions. The séance took place in a front downstairs room of a small private house, opening by sliding doors into a back room, and by an ordinary door into the passage. The cabinet was formed by cloth curtains across the corner of the room from the fireplace to the sliding door. One side of this was an outer wall, the other the wall of the back room, where there was a cupboard containing a quantity of china. I was invited to examine, and did so thoroughly— front room, floor, back room, rooms below in basement, occupied by a heating apparatus ; and I am positive there were no means of communication other than the doors for even the smallest child. Then the sliding doors were closed, fastened with sticking-plaster, and privately marked with pencil. The ten visitors formed a circle opposite the cabinet, and I sat with my back close to the passage door and opposite the curtain at a distance of about ten feet. A red-shaded lamp was in the furthest corner behind the visitors, which enabled me to see the time by my watch and the outlines of every one in the room; and ,as it was behind me the space between myself and the cabinet was very fairly lighted. Under these circumstances the appearances were as follows:—
(1) A female figure in white came out between the curtains with Mrs. Ross in black, and also a male figure, all to some distance in front of the cabinet. This was apparently to demonstrate, once for all, that, whatever they were, the figures were not Mrs. Ross in disguise.
(2) After these had retired three female figures appeared together, in white robes and of different heights. These came two or three feet in front of the curtain.
(3) A male figure came out, recognized by a gentleman present as his son.
(4) A tall Indian figure came out in white mocassins; he danced and spoke; he also shook hands with me and others, a large, strong, rough hand.
(5) A female figure with a baby stood close to the entrance of the cabinet. I went up (on invitation), felt the baby's face, nose, and hair, and kissed it—apparently a real, soft-skinned, living baby. Other ladies and gentlemen agreed.

Directly the séance was over the gas was lighted, and I again examined the bare walls of the cabinet, the curtains, and the door, all being just as before, and affording no room or place for disposing of the baby alone, far less of the other figures.

In the description above one of the mysterious figures is described as recognized by one observer as his son, apparently his deceased son. Wallace notes that the doors ("fastened with sticking plaster" that would be disturbed if someone opened them) were "just as before," indicating no one had gone through the doors.

On page 339 to 340 Wallace tells us the following, which occurred under conditions identical to those described in the previous account. He again refers to phantom figures appearing from a closed off “cabinet” offering no possibility of external entrance. He mentions that he recognized one of these figures as his dead cousin Algernon. Here is Wallace's eyewitness account:

At another special séance for friends of Dr. Nichols and Mr. Brackett, with Professor James and myself—nine in all, under the same conditions as before, eight or nine different figures came, including a tall Indian chief in war-paint and feathers, a little girl who talked and played with Miss Brackett, and a very pretty and perfectly developed girl, "Bertha," Mr. Brackett's niece, who has appeared to him with various mediums for two years, and is as well known to him as any near relative in earth-life. She speaks distinctly, which these figures rarely do, and Mr. Brackett has often seen her develop gradually from a cloudy mass, and almost instantly vanish away. But what specially interested me was, that two of the figures beckoned to me to come up to the cabinet. One was a beautifully draped female figure, who took my hand, looked at me smilingly, and on my appearing doubtful, said in a whisper that she had often met me at Miss Kate Cook's seances in London. She then let me feel her ears, as I had done before to prove she was not the medium. I then saw that she closely resembled the figure with whom I had often talked and joked at Signor Randi's, a fact known to no one in America. The other figure was an old gentleman with white hair and beard, and in evening-dress. He took my hand, bowed, and looked pleased, as one meeting an old friend. Considering who was likely to come, I thought of my father and of Darwin, but there was not enough likeness to either. Then
at length I recognized the likeness to a photograph I had of my cousin Algernon Wilson, whom I had not seen since we were children, but had long corresponded with, as he was an enthusiastic entomologist, living in Adelaide, where he had died not long before. Then I looked pleased and said, "Is it Algernon ?" at which he nodded earnestly, seemed very much pleased, shook my hand vigorously, and patted my face and head with his other hand. These two recognitions were to me very striking, because they were both so private and personal to myself, and could not possibly have been known to the medium or even to any of my friends present.

Partially because of his own abundant experiences with the paranormal, Wallace made clear that he did not believe that the theory of natural selection could explain the human mind. In his essay “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man,” Wallace argued that humans have a variety of mental characteristics that do not increase survival value, and cannot be explained as being the product of natural selection. He stated in that essay, “Natural Selection could only have endowed savage man with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher.” He also stated in that essay, “A superior intelligence has guided the development of man in a definite direction, and for a special purpose, just as man guides the development of many animal and vegetable forms.”

Clearly Alfred Russel Wallace was quite a ghost observer and ghost believer. It is amusing to consider a possible conversation between a mainstream biologist and a historian.

Biologist: Please believe in Darwin's wonderful insight that natural selection and random mutations are the cause of all biological wonders.
Historian: You forgot to mention that this theory was co-founded by Alfred Russel Wallace, and some think he first came up with it. 
Biologist: I don't care who thought of it first – just believe it.
Historian: It is interesting that the co-founder of the idea of evolution by natural selection believed in ghosts and reported some astonishing apparition sightings he personally saw.
Biologist: Well, don't believe him about that!
Historian: And also Wallace said natural selection could not explain the human mind, that it must have resulted from the guidance of some superior intelligence.
Biologist: Don't believe him about that either. Much better to believe that natural selection explains it all.
Historian: So what are you saying – that I should believe very strongly what Alfred Russel Wallace taught about animals, but I should not believe what he taught about humans and ghosts?
Biologist: Exactly.

In the third and last in this three-part series, which you can read here, I discuss how a Nobel prize winner in Medicine and Physiology reported seeing the appearance of a mysterious phantom, and how abundant further observations by others tended to corroborate his report.

Postscript:  On page 286 of Alfred Russel Wallace's My Life, we read the following account:

On one occasion Home was the medium and Mr. (now Sir William) Crookes was present. As I was the only one of the company who had not witnessed any of the remarkable phenomena that occurred in his presence, I was invited to go under the table while an accordion was playing, held in Home's hand, his other hand being on the table. The room was well lighted, and I distinctly saw Home's hand holding the instrument, which moved up and down and played a tune without any visible cause. On stating this, he said, "Now I will take away my hand"—which he did; but the instrument went on playing, and I saw a detached hand holding it while Home's two hands were seen above the table by all present. This was one of the ordinary phenomena, and thousands of persons have witnessed it; and when we consider that Home's séances almost always took place in private houses at which he was a guest, and with people absolutely above suspicion of collusion with an impostor, and also either in the daytime or in a fully illuminated room, it will be admitted that no form of legerdemain will explain what occurred.

This account matches a similar account by Sir William Crookes (discoverer of the element thallium), who states on page 13 of his Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism  the following:

But the sequel was still more striking, for Mr. Home then removed his hand altogether from the accordion, taking it quite out of the cage, and placed it on the hand of the person next to him. The instrument then continued to play, no person touching it and no hand being near it.

The accordion in question was one Crookes had bought himself, and this was when the world had no such invention as a self-playing accordion. In the same book, Crookes on page 92 lists self-luminous hands as Class IX among 13 paranormal phenomena he has observed, listing something similar to the "detached hand" described by Wallace. For more about Crookes' observations of the paranormal, read here