They Never Come Back (Dec, 1952)

They Never Come Back

… say the scientists who claim no one has ever returned from the spirit world. Still there are things even they can’t explain …

By Lester David

THE tanker Watertown, owned by the Cities Service Oil Co., was chugging slowly through the blue Pacific when gas fumes from a cargo tank touched off a double tragedy and a mystery deeper than the ocean itself. Two seamen, overcome by the gas, died despite all attempts to resuscitate them and were buried at sea.

In the shadowy dusk of the following day, a choking cry pierced the stillness from amidships. A young sailor, his features paralyzed into a mask of terror, was pointing at the spot where the bodies had been consigned to the deep. There, on the catwalk, were the heads of the two dead seamen!

The crewmen rushed over and stared awe-struck. The phantom heads vanished slowly—and then reappeared. Daily throughout the long voyage the apparitions came and went, remaining visible for a few seconds at a time. On docking at New Orleans, the first mate bought a camera and stood watch. He took six pictures as the heads came into view and, on docking again, had the roll developed.

Five pictures showed nothing—nothing but the sky, water and an empty catwalk.

But on the sixth, two heads were clearly visible, the heads of the two seamen who had been buried at sea!

Can the dead return to the world of the living in some form or another? Are there really such things as ghosts? The heads on the catwalk—the white-garbed apparitions that float down the stairs of gloomy old houses—the spectres that spread mischief in their former haunts—the spirit voices and rappings that bridge the misty veil between the living and the departed—are these all just the product of fevered brains or clever fakes, or do they really exist?

Don’t think that only the backward and superstitious believe in ghosts and spirit messages. Actually, a number of scientists and intellectuals of the first rank are convinced that supernatural phenomena, including ghosts, are proven facts. On the other hand, equally noted men of learning scoff.

Who is right—what are the facts? Let’s clear the air of all the cobwebs, hearsay and half-digested proofs and explore the arguments. Here are the reasons advanced by the disbelievers to prove that there are no such things as ghosts. Ghosts, they say, can be actually pathological hallucinations, spectres that result from a variety of conditions of the brain or nerves, from disease, fever, insanity, the abuse of drugs or alcoholism. Any of these can make things appeal-. They cite the goblins and demons that torment dope addicts, the pink elephants and little men that plague drunks. Less well-known is the fact that certain brain lesions can beget ghosts, they point out. One form results in a tall, glowering figure that stands at the foot of a bed, balefully staring at the patient. Sir Henry Head, famed British neurologist, declared it’s the only ghost that science can actually treat.

You don’t have to be sick, crazy or an addict, say the anti-ghost groups, to have hallucinations. Normal persons have them, too. They ask you to think back—have you ever been engrossed in work and thought you heard someone call your name? Vivid dreams at the point of waking can also make people believe they see things that actually aren’t there.

Ghosts can be illusions. An hallucination is something conjured up in the mind, while an illusion is created by an outside force. Take the case of the ghostly old lady who terrified neighbors by flitting through the rooms of an old house, moving always from front to rear. The story came to the ears of Edward Saint, the famed ghost hunter, who learned upon investigating that the old lady made her appearance only at night and just as a car was driving up. The explanation? The windows, Saint found, were of wavy glass which caught the reflections of approaching headlights and ran them from window to window all around the house in eerie fashion.

Endless hours spent by investigators for the American and British Societies for Psychical Research in tracking down so-called ghosts have revealed many of the classic spectres to be nothing more than loose roofing chattering in high winds, echoes in ancient plumbing, creaking floor boards, groaning joists and tree branches swishing against windows.

Ghosts and spirit messages can be man-made fakes. Unearthly howls, weird clanking of chains, sudden eruptions of violence in an old house have been traced to practical jokers, psychopaths or kids. The ghostly goings-on at the Wild Plum schoolhouse in North Dakota not long ago is an excellent case in point. Without apparent explanation, small fires broke out in the corners, stones and lumps of coal were tossed about, mysterious writing appeared on the slates and, to top it off, a tall, cloaked figure peered through the windows, disappearing as soon as he was spotted. It was evidently the work of poltergeists, those noisy, mischievous spirits who make nuisances of themselves. Or was it?

Authorities quizzed the terrified children and soon learned the reason for the strange manifestations. The kids themselves were the culprits! They lit matches when the teacher wasn’t looking, threw stones and coal, wrote on the slates. And the tall figure? Purely imaginative.

Many instances of white-clad apparitions, haunted photographs, statues that walk, ghostly voices and the like have been traced to ingenious mechanics who rigged up devices as practical jokes. As a matter of fact, there’s a fellow named Robert Nelson of Columbus, Ohio, who actually manufactures ghosts to order and has built up a thriving business in haunting houses down to the last skeleton rattle and horrible scream.

The monumental frauds of some seance artists have been exposed frequently—the invisible wires which agitate the tables, the speaking tubes extending to a far-off room where an accomplice sits and utters messages from the “dead,” the hidden mechanisms which create rappings and tappings.

Not too well-known, though, are the tricks of the spirit photographers. They take pictures of you and you are stunned to see ghostly shadows in the background, or perhaps even a face peering over your shoulder. These, say the disbelievers, are the tricks.

The simplest methods are double exposure and double printing. Wraith-like figures can be put on plates by using an unevenly mixed developer. Another clever way of producing ghostly images is to drop a tiny crystal of hypo on the plate while it is being developed. The chemical dissolves slowly, creating the weird effect.

These, then, are the arguments against the existence of ghosts and against the validity of spirit messages from the beyond. What is the rebuttal?

Interviews with many individuals and groups reveal that the one big argument, in fact, the only argument that ghosts exist, is just this, “There are many ghosts actually seen by people for which science can offer no reasonable explanation.” Is this a valid one?

Believers agree frankly that the vast majority of the spectral figures people claim to see are fakes, illusions or figments of the mind. Harry Price, founder and director of England’s National Laboratory of Psychical Research, declared before his recent death that fully 99 per cent of all supernatural happenings were phonies.

But what about that one per cent?

Says Hereward Carrington, director of the American Psychical Institute, “Despite the illusion, fraud and superstition which have unfortunately associated themselves with this subject, there are genuine psychic phenomena which are unexplained by modem science.”

The American and British Societies for Psychical Research, two separate organizations, have delved for years into psychic manifestations. Investigators have approached all ghost stories with hard common sense, rejecting the trappings, trickery, fear and expectancy which often play very strong roles. And, says Professor Gardner Murphy, chairman of the American group’s research committee: “There is enough well-authenticated evidence, even when studied with a cold and critical eye, to show that the paranormal is not only a legitimate field of inquiry but one of great importance. Workers in this field stand on the threshold of a huge unknown, urgently calling for investigation.”

Mr. Price devoted a lifetime to exposing fake spiritual phenomena, yet he admitted having seen, touched and spoken to a ghost! “Unquestionably,” he said, “it was the most thrilling experience in a lifetime of debunking spiritualist charlatans.”

This is his amazing story: A six-year-old girl died of diphtheria and many years later her mother began receiving nightly visits from her. She would remain for a few moments and then disappear. Some friends to whom she confided the story arranged for regular seances in their home, and the spirit of the little girl began appearing there regularly. The story came to Price’s attention and he received permission to attend and make whatever tests he wanted.

On the night of the seance, Price sprinkled starch powder outside the room, locked the door and pocketed the key. He put more powder in front of the door and pasted strips of adhesive along the door and windows. A half dozen persons, including the child’s mother, sat and waited.

And then it happened. In the darkness Price heard the mother sobbing and calling the child by name. Something brushed his hand, something warm and soft. Price held his breath.

Slowly, he stretched out his hand after asking permission to touch the spirit. To his utter amazement, he felt the warm flesh of a child! He was so close that he could hear her breathing—he placed his hand on her chest and actually felt it rise and fall softly. Her legs and feet, he noted, were those of a normal six-year-old child and her long hair cascaded over her shoulders. Price put his ear to her chest and heard her heart beating.

And now he asked if he might talk to the spirit. He got no answer to his first question, “Where do you live?” None to the second or third. But then he asked, “Do you love your mummy?” The little girl replied gently, “Yes.”

A few moments later the spirit vanished. Price thereupon examined the starch powder inside and outside the room and looked at the strips of adhesive on door and windows. There were no footprints—nothing had been touched!

Fake? Illusion? Hallucination? Or was it a real ghost?

Mr. Carrington of the American Psychical Institute points out that a large segment of psychical manifestations concerns the appearance of apparitions at the moment of death. That is, an individual may be seen alive and well at a certain spot despite the fact that sudden death came to him at a point many miles away. The American Society for Psychical Research once received 30,000 replies to a questionnaire it distributed on this phase. After studying the reports, it concluded: “Between deaths and apparitions of the dying person a connection exists which is not due to chance alone. This we hold as a proven fact.”

Mediums, those persons supposedly gifted with the powers to communicate with the dead, have been much maligned—and many rightfully so. Many are out-and-out frauds but consider Mrs. Leonore Piper, perhaps the greatest of all time, whose achievements are still talked of in hushed whispers.

Psychic researchers, including William James, Dr. Richard Hodgson, Sir Oliver Lodge, Dr. Walter Leaf and many others, studied Mrs. Piper for years, even had her shadowed by detectives to learn if she got her information by normal methods. But they could find out nothing.

Mrs. Piper would pass into a deep trance and then start writing. She would give information such as names, dates, facts of all kinds, which she couldn’t possibly learn by herself. William James wrote that she had knowledge that she could not have acquired “by the normal use of her eyes and ears and wits.”

Once Prof. James H. Hyslop, a noted psychic researcher, tiptoed into the room after Mrs. Piper had gone into her trance. Heavily masked, he took a chair directly behind her. Not only was she unaware of his presence but she had never seen or heard about him and knew nothing of his background. Yet on questioning, she wrote out a voluminous account of the professor’s family and early life. It took him six months of digging to check the information. It was all correct!

Many hundreds of persons heard Mrs. Piper tell them detailed facts about loved ones long since dead. How did she do it? Here is Mr. Carrington’s explanation.

“To all appearances Mrs. Piper’s soul was in some manner removed from her body during the trance and somehow replaced by another spiritual entity who then succeeded in communicating through her.”

Another amazing medium was Eusapia Palladino of Naples. Even though she was held securely hand and foot by impartial observers, she would cause tables to tilt, rise and quiver in the air. She would cause a zither to play though no fingers were near it. She would make lights appear and things dart around a room.

Once Howard Thurston, the famed magician, watched her perform. She impressed him so much that he offered a $1,000 reward if any magician matched her feat. No one ever took up the challenge.

Scientific investigators have tried to analyze Eusapia’s remarkable powers in terms of the concrete, the realistic, the scientific. They have failed. Does the answer lie in another world?

If there are unexplained mediums such as the amazing Neapolitan woman, there are also blatantly fraudulent ones like the 30 psychic performers who staged a shindig not long ago at Falcon’s Lair, home of the late Rudolph Valentino. The occasion was the great star’s birthday and the object was to get in touch with his spirit, presumably to wish him well.

To the tune of “Clementine,” the group began to sing, “Valentino, Valentino, we desire to contact you.” The second stanza began: “Raise the table, raise the table, raise the table, Rudy dear.”

All at once, one woman screamed. She rose and began to twitch violently, whirling about the room as she did so. “A message is coming through!” she shrieked. The mediums crowded around, gasping, “What’s he saying, what’s he saying?”

“It’s very terrible,” the woman moaned. “Valentino said to tell you he is disappointed —yes, disappointed. And what is he disappointed in? He is disappointed in the quality of current motion pictures!” Whereupon she collapsed into a chair.

Yes, that’s the story of ghosts in two nutshells. On the one hand there are strange things happening, weird things that baffle science and give promise of other worlds where unexplained things emanate. On the other hand, there are silly shenanigans.

What do you think? Are there ghosts that slither silently through this world of living men? Can the dead come back, tell where they have been and what they have seen? Or is the whole business completely explicable in terms of modern, materialistic science. How do you figure it? •

  1. Hirudinea says: February 13, 201211:14 am

    What’s with that “Metacom” on page 4, did they lose the planchet for their ouija board?

  2. Kosher Ham says: February 13, 20121:25 pm

    That would be a major breakthrough and perhaps put to rest many theological controversies if we could travel to and from the spiritual world. Essentially this would mean being able to travel between universes.

  3. Stephen says: February 14, 20126:15 am

    Houdini was a great sceptic of spiritualism. He was determined to give them a fair chance, though, and let it be known that when he died if he had any consciousness he would make every effort to contact the living and pass on to the medium the combination of a safe he had locked. There were many claims (including from an Italian medium who, according to Ricky Jay’s account, announced “This-a Houdeen’!”) but the safe was never opened.

  4. recarr says: February 14, 20124:15 pm

    Isn’t it strange that the prices for the power tools advertised in 1952 are very close to the prices for the same tools today.

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