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Spirits, Did you ever see a ghost? - The Atlantic

"Did you ever see a ghost?" said a gentleman to his friend.

"No, but I once came very nigh seeing one," was the facetious reply.

The writer of this article has had still better luck,—having twice come very nigh seeing a ghost. In other words, two friends, in whose veracity and healthy clearness of vision I have perfect confidence, have assured me that they have distinctly seen a disembodied spirit.

If I had permission to do so, I would record the street in Boston, and the number of the house, where the first of these two apparitions was seen; but that would be unpleasant to parties concerned. Years ago, the lady who witnessed it told me the particulars, and I have recently heard her repeat them. A cousin, with whom her relations were as intimate as with a brother, was in the last stages of consumption. One morning, when she carried him her customary offering of fruit or flowers, she found him unusually bright, his cheeks flushed, his eyes brilliant, and his state of mind exceedingly cheerful. He talked of his recovery and future plans in life with hopefulness almost amounting to certainty. This made her somewhat sad, for she regarded it as a delusion of his flattering disease, a flaring up of the life-candle before it sank in the socket. She thus reported the case, when she returned home. In the afternoon she was sewing as usual, surrounded by her mother and sisters, and listening to one who was reading aloud. While thus occupied, she chanced to raise her eyes from her work and glance to the opposite corner of the room. Her mother, seeing her give a sudden start, exclaimed, "What is the matter?" She pointed to the corner of the room and replied, "There is Cousin ———!" They all told her she had been dreaming, and was only half wakened. She assured them she had not even been drowsy; and she repeated with great earnestness, "There is Cousin ———, just as I saw him this morning. Don't you see him?" She could not measure the time that the vision remained; but it was long enough for several questions and answers to pass rapidly between herself and other members of the family. In reply to their persistent incredulity, she said, "It is very strange that you don't see him; for I see him as plainly as I do any of you." She was so obviously awake and in her right mind, that the incident naturally made an impression on those who listened to her. Her mother looked at her watch, and despatched a messenger to inquire how Cousin ——— did. Word was soon brought that he died at the same moment he had appeared in the house of his relatives. The lady who had this singular experience is too sensible and well-informed to be superstitious. She was not afflicted with any disorder of the nerves, and was in good health at the time.

To my other story I can give "a local habitation and a name" well known. When Harriet Hosmer, the sculptor, visited her native country a few years ago, I had an interview with her, during which our conversation happened to turn upon dreams and visions.

"I have had some experience in that way," said she. "Let me tell you a singular circumstance that happened to me in Rome. An Italian girl named Rosa was in my employ for a long time, but was finally obliged to return to her mother, on account of confirmed ill-health. We were mutually sorry to part, for we liked each other. When I took my customary exercise on horseback, I frequently called to see her. On one of these occasions, I found her brighter than I had seen her for some time past. I had long relinquished hopes of her recovery, but there was nothing in her appearance that gave me the impression of immediate danger. I left her with the expectation of calling to see her again many times. During the remainder of the day I was busy in my studio, and I do not recollect that Rosa was in my thoughts after I parted from her. I retired to rest in good health and in a quiet frame of mind. But I woke from a sound sleep with an oppressive feeling that some one was in the room. I wondered at the sensation, for it was entirely new to me; but in vain I tried to dispel it. I peered beyond the curtain of my bed, but could distinguish no objects in the darkness. Trying to gather up my thoughts, I soon reflected that the door was locked, and that I had put the key under my bolster. I felt for it, and found it where I had placed it. I said to myself that I had probably had some ugly dream, and had waked with a vague impression of it still on my mind. Reasoning thus, I arranged myself comfortably for another nap. I am habitually a good sleeper, and a stranger to fear; but, do what I would, the idea still haunted me that some one was in the room. Finding it impossible to sleep, I longed for daylight to dawn, that I might rise and pursue my customary avocations. It was not long before I was able dimly to distinguish the furniture in my room, and soon after I heard, in the apartments below, familiar noises of servants opening windows and doors. An old clock, with ringing vibrations, proclaimed the hour. I counted one, two, three, four, five, and resolved to rise immediately. My bed was partially screened by a long curtain looped up at one side. As I raised my head from the pillow, Rosa looked inside the curtain, and smiled at me. The idea of anything supernatural did not occur to me. I was simply surprised, and exclaimed, 'Why, Rosa! How came you here, when you are so ill?' In the old familiar tones, to which I was so much accustomed, a voice replied, 'I am well, now.' With no other thought than that of greeting her joyfully, I sprang out of bed. There was no Rosa there! I moved the curtain, thinking she might perhaps have playfully hidden herself behind its folds. The same feeling induced me to look into the closet. The sight of her had come so suddenly, that, in the first moment of surprise and bewilderment, I did not reflect that the door was locked. When I became convinced there was no one in the room but myself, I recollected that fact, and thought I must have seen a vision.

"At the breakfast-table, I said to the old lady with whom I boarded, 'Rosa is dead.' 'What do you mean by that?' she inquired. 'You told me she seemed better than common when you called to see her yesterday.' I related the occurrences of the morning, and told her I had a strong impression Rosa was dead. She laughed, and said I had dreamed it all. I assured her I was thoroughly awake, and in proof thereof told her I had heard all the customary household noises, and had counted the clock when it struck five. She replied, 'All that is very possible, my dear. The clock struck into your dream. Real sounds often mix with the illusions of sleep. I am surprised that a dream should make such an impression on a young lady so free from superstition as you are.' She continued to jest on the subject, and slightly annoyed me by her persistence in believing it a dream, when I was perfectly sure of having been wide awake. To settle the question, I summoned a messenger and sent him to inquire how Rosa did. He returned with the answer that she died that morning at five o'clock."

I wrote the story as Miss Hosmer told it to me, and after I had shown it to her, I asked if she had any objection, to its being published, without suppression of names. She replied, "You have reported the story of Rosa correctly. Make what use you please of it. You cannot think it more interesting, or unaccountable, than I do myself."

A remarkable instance of communication between spirits at the moment of death is recorded in the Life of the Rev. Joseph S. Buckminster, written by his sister. When he was dying in Boston, their father was dying in Vermont, ignorant of his son's illness. Early in the morning, he said to his wife, "My son Joseph is dead." She told him he had been dreaming. He calmly replied, "I have not slept, nor dreamed. He is dead." When letters arrived from Boston, they announced that the spirit of the son had departed from his body the same night that the father received an impression of it.

Such incidents suggest curious psychological inquiries, which I think have attracted less attention than they deserve. It is common to explain all such phenomena as "optical illusions" produced by "disordered nerves." But is that any explanation? How do certain states of the nerves produce visions as distinct as material forms? In the two cases I have mentioned, there was no disorder of the nerves, no derangement of health, no disquietude of mind. Similar accounts come to us from all nations, and from the remotest periods of time; and I doubt whether there ever was a universal superstition that had not some great, unchangeable truth for its basis. Some secret laws of our being are wrapt up in these occasional mysteries, and in the course of the world's progress we may perhaps become familiar with the explanation, and find genuine philosophy under the mask of superstition. When any well-authenticated incidents of this kind are related, it is a very common inquiry, "What are such visions sent for?" The question implies a supposition of miraculous power, exerted for a temporary and special purpose. But would it not be more rational to believe that all appearances, whether spiritual or material, are caused by the operation of universal laws, manifested under varying circumstances? In the infancy of the world, it was the general tendency of the human mind to consider all occasional phenomena as direct interventions of the gods, for some special purpose at the time. Thus, the rainbow was supposed to be a celestial road, made to accommodate the swift messenger of the gods, when she was sent on an errand, and withdrawn as soon as she had done with it. We now know that the laws of the refraction and reflection of light produce the radiant iris, and that it will always appear whenever drops of water in the air present themselves to the sun's rays in a suitable position. Knowing this, we have ceased to ask what the rainbow appears for.

That a spiritual form is contained within the material body is a very ancient and almost universal belief. Hindoo books of the remotest antiquity describe man as a triune being, consisting of the soul, the spiritual body, and the material body. This form within the outer body was variously named by Grecian poets and philosophers. They called it "the soul's image," "the invisible body," "the aërial body," "the shade." Sometimes they called it "the sensuous soul," and described it as "all eye and all ear,"—expressions which cannot fail to suggest the phenomena of clairvoyance. The "shade" of Hercules is described by poets as dwelling in the Elysian Fields, while his body was converted to ashes on the earth, and his soul was dwelling on Olympus with the gods. Swedenborg speaks of himself as having been a visible form to angels in the spiritual world; and members of his household, observing him at such times, describe the eyes of his body on earth as having the expression of one walking in his sleep. He tells us, that, when his thoughts turned toward earthly things, the angels would say to him, "Now we are losing sight of you": and he himself felt that he was returning to his material body. For several years of his life, he was in the habit of seeing and conversing familiarly with visitors unseen by those around him. The deceased brother of the Queen of Sweden repeated to him a secret conversation, known only to himself and his sister. The Queen had asked for this, as a test of Swedenborg's veracity; and she became pale with astonishment when every minute particular of her interview with her brother was reported to her. Swedenborg was a sedate man, apparently devoid of any wish to excite a sensation, engrossed in scientific pursuits, and remarkable for the orderly habits of his mind. The intelligent and enlightened German, Nicolai, in the later years of his life, was accustomed to find himself in the midst of persons whom he knew perfectly well, but who were invisible to others. He reasoned very calmly about it, but arrived at no solution more satisfactory than the old one of "optical illusion," which is certainly a very inadequate explanation. Instances are recorded, and some of them apparently well authenticated, of persons still living in this world, and unconscious of disease, who have seen themselves in a distinct visible form, without the aid of a mirror. It would seem as if such experiences had not been confined to any particular part of the world; for they have given birth to a general superstition that such apparitions are a forerunner of death,—or, in other words, of the complete separation of the spiritual body from the natural body. A friend related to me the particulars of a fainting-fit, during which her body remained senseless an unusually long time. When she was restored to consciousness, she told her attendant friends that she had been standing near the sofa all the time, watching her own lifeless body, and seeing what they did to resuscitate it. In proof thereof she correctly repeated to them all they had said and done while her body remained insensible. Those present at the time corroborated her statement, so far as her accurate knowledge of all their words, looks, and proceedings was concerned.

The most numerous class of phenomena concerning the "spiritual body" relate to its visible appearance to others at the moment of dissolution. There is so much testimony on this subject, from widely separated witnesses, that an unprejudiced mind, equally removed from superstition and skepticism, inclines to believe that they must be manifestations of some hidden law of our mysterious being. Plato says that everything in this world is merely the material form of some model previously existing in a higher world of ethereal spiritual forms; and Swedenborg's beautiful doctrine of Correspondences is a reappearance of the same idea. If their theory be true, may not the antecedent type of that strange force which in the material world we call electricity be a spiritual magnetism. As yet, we know extremely little of the laws of electricity, and we know nothing of those laws of spiritual attraction and repulsion which are perhaps the cause of electricity. There may be subtile and as yet unexplained causes, connected with the state of the nervous system, the state of the mind, the accord of two souls under peculiar circumstances, etc., which may sometimes enable a person who is in a material body to see another who is in a spiritual body. That such visions are not of daily occurrence may be owing to the fact that it requires an unusual combination of many favorable circumstances to produce them; and when they do occur, they seem to us miraculous simply because we are ignorant of the laws of which they are transient manifestations.

Lord Bacon says,—"The relations touching the force of imagination and the secret instincts of Nature are so uncertain, as they require a great deal of examination ere we conclude upon them. I would have it first thoroughly inquired whether there be any secret passages of sympathy between persons of near blood,—as parents, children, brothers, sisters, nurse-children, husbands, wives, etc. There be many reports in history, that, upon the death of persons of such nearness, men have had an inward feeling of it. I myself remember, that, being in Paris, and my father dying in London, two or three days before my father's death I had a dream, which I told to divers English gentlemen, that my father's house in the country was plastered all over with black mortar. Next to those that are near in blood, there may be the like passage and instincts of Nature between great friends and great enemies. Some trial also would be made whether pact or agreement do anything: as, if two friends should agree, that, such a day in every week, they, being in far distant places, should pray one for another, or should put on a ring or tablet one for another's sake, whether, if one of them should break their vow and promise, the other should have any feeling of it in absence."

This query of Lord Bacon, whether an agreement between two distant persons to think of each other at a particular time may not produce an actual nearness between their spirits, is suggestive. People partially drowned and resuscitated have often described their last moments of consciousness as flooded with memories, so that they seemed to be surrounded by the voices and countenances of those they loved. If this is common when soul and body are approaching dissolution, may not such concentration of loving thoughts produce an actual nearness, filling the person thought of with "a feeling as if somebody were in the room"? And if the feeling thus induced is very powerful, may not the presence thus felt become objective, or, in other words, a vision?

The feeling of the nearness of spirits to when the thoughts are busily occupied with them may have led to the almost universal belief among ancient nations that the souls of the dead came back on the anniversary of their death to the places where their bodies were deposited. This belief invested their tombs with peculiar sacredness, and led the wealthy to great expense in their construction. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans built them with upper apartments, more or less spacious. These chambers were adorned with vases, sculptures, and paintings on the walls, varying in costliness and style according to the means or taste of the builder. The tomb of Cestius in Rome contained a chamber much ornamented with paintings. Ancient Egyptian tombs abound with sculptures and paintings, probably representative of the character of the deceased. Thus, on the walls of one a man is pictured throwing seed into the ground, followed by a troop of laborers; farther on, the same individual is represented as gathering in the harvest; then he is seen in procession with wife, children, friends, and followers, carrying sheaves to the temple, a thank-offering to the gods. This seems to be a painted epitaph, signifying that the deceased was industrious, prosperous, and pious. It was common to deposit in these tombs various articles of use or ornament, such as the departed ones had been familiar with and attached to, while on earth. Many things in the ancient sculptures indicate that Egyptian women were very fond of flowers. It is a curious fact, that little china boxes with Chinese letters on them, like those in which the Chinese now sell flower-seeds, have been discovered in some of these tombs. Probably the ladies buried there were partial to exotics from China; and perhaps friends placed them there with the tender thought that the spirit of the deceased would be pleased to see them, when it came on its annual visit. Sometimes these paintings and sculptures embodied ideas reaching beyond the earthly existence, and "the aërial body" was represented floating among stars, escorted by what we should call angels, but which they named "Spirits of the Sun." Families and friends visited these consecrated chambers on the anniversary of the death of those whose bodies were placed in the room below. They carried with them music and flowers, cakes and wine. Religious ceremonies were performed, with the idea that the "invisible body" was present with them and took part in the prayers and offerings. The visitors talked together of past scenes, and doubtless their conversation abounded with touching allusions to the character and habits of the unseen friend supposed to be listening. It was, in fact, an annual family-gathering, scarcely sadder in its memories than is our Thanksgiving festival to those who have travelled far on the pilgrimage of life.

St. Paul teaches that "there is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body." The early Christians had a very vivid faith, that, when the soul dropped its outer envelope of flesh, it continued to exist in a spiritual form. When any of their number died, they observed the anniversary of his departure by placing on the altar an offering to the church, in his name. On such occasions, they partook of the sacrament, with the full belief that his unseen form was present with them, and shared in the sacred rite, as he had done while in the material body. On the anniversary of the death of martyrs, there were such commemorations in all the churches; and that their spirits were believed to be present is evident from the fact that numerous petitions were addressed to them. In the Roman Catacombs, where many of the early Christians were buried, are apartments containing sculptures and paintings of apostles and martyrs. They are few and rude, because the Christians of that period were poor, and used such worldly goods as they had more for benevolence than for show. But these memorials, in such a place, indicate the same feeling that adorned the magnificent tombs of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. These subterranean apartments were used for religious meetings in the first centuries of our era, and it is generally supposed that they were chosen as safe hiding-places from persecution. Very likely it was so; but it is not improbable that the spot had peculiar attractions to worshippers, from the feeling that they were in the midst of an unseen congregation, whose bodies were buried there. If it was so, it would be but one of many proofs that the early Christians mixed with their new religion many of the traditions and ceremonies of their forefathers, who had been educated in other forms of faith. Even in our own time, threads of these ancient traditions are more or less visible through the whole warp and woof of our literature and our customs. Many of the tombs in the Cemetery of Père la Chaise have pretty upper apartments. On the anniversary of the death of those buried beneath, friends and relatives carry thither flowers and garlands. Women often spend the entire day there, and parties of friends assemble to partake of a picnic repast.

Most of the ancient nations annually observed a day in honor of the Souls of Ancestors. This naturally grew out of the custom of meeting in tombs to commemorate the death of relatives. As generations passed away, it was unavoidable that many of the very old sepulchres should be seldom or never visited. Still it was believed that the "shades" even of remote ancestors hovered about their descendants and were cognizant of their doings. It was impossible to observe separately the anniversaries of departed millions, and therefore a day was set apart for religious ceremonies in honor of all ancestors. Hindoo and Chinese families have from time immemorial consecrated such days; and the Romans observed a similar anniversary under the name of Parentalia.

Christians retained this ancient custom, but it took a new coloring from their peculiar circumstances. The ties of the church were substituted for ties of kindred. Its members were considered spiritual fathers and brothers, and there was an annual festival in honor of spiritual ancestors. The forms greatly resembled those of the Roman Parentalia. The gathering-place was usually at the tomb of some celebrated martyr, or in some chapel consecrated to his memory. Crowds of people came from all quarters to implore the spirits of the martyrs to send them favorable seasons, good crops, healthy children, etc., just as the old Romans had been accustomed to invoke the names of their ancestors for similar blessings. Prayers were repeated, hymns sung, and offerings presented to the church, as aforetime to the gods. A great banquet was prepared, and wine was drunk to the souls of the martyrs so freely that complete intoxication was common. In view of this and other excesses, the pious among the bishops exerted their influence to abolish the custom. But it was so intertwined with the traditional faith of the populace, and so gratifying to their social propensities, that it was a long time before it could be suppressed. A vestige of the old anniversaries in honor of the Souls of Ancestors remains in the Catholic Church under the name of All-Souls' Day.

In France, the Parentalia of the ancient Romans is annually observed under the name of "Le Jour des Morts." All Paris flock to the cemeteries, bearing bouquets, crosses, and garlands to decorate the tombs of departed ancestors, relatives, and friends. The gay population is, for that day, sobered by tender and solemn memories. Many a tear glistens on the wreaths, and the passing traveller notices many a one whose trembling lips and swollen eyelids indicate that the soul is immersed in recollections of departed loved ones. The "cities of the dead" bloom with fresh flowers, in multifarious forms of crosses, crowns, and hearts. From all the churches prayers ascend for those who have dropped their earthly garment of flesh, and who live henceforth in the "spiritual body," which becomes more and more beautiful with the progress of the soul,—it being, as the ancients called it, "the soul's image."