In his book The History of Spiritualism, Vol. II, Arthur Conan Doyle relates the following story. (This material appears in Chapter 9, "Spiritualism and the War.")
Of the many cases recorded of the return of dead soldiers, the following stands out because the particulars were received from two independent sources. It is related by Mr. W. T. Waters, of Tunbridge Wells, who says that he is only a novice in the study of Spiritualism:
In July last I had a sitting with Mr. J. J. Vango, in the course of which the control suddenly told me that there was standing by me a young soldier who was most anxious that I should take a message to his mother and sister who live in this town. I replied that I did not know any soldier near to me who had passed over. However, the lad would not be put off, and as my own friends seemed to stand aside to enable him to speak, I promised to endeavour to carry out his wishes.
At once came an exact description which enabled me instantly to recognize in this soldier lad the son of an acquaintance of my family. He told me certain things by which I was made doubly certain that it was he and no other, and he then gave me his message of comfort and assurance to his mother and sister (his father had died when he was a baby), who, for over two years, had been uncertain as to his fate, as he had been posted as "missing." He described how he had been badly wounded and captured by the Germans in a retreat, and that he had died about a week afterwards, and he implored me to tell his dear ones that he was often with them, and that the only bar to his complete happiness was the witnessing of his mother's great grief and his inability to make himself known.
I fully intended to keep my promise, but knowing that the lad's people favoured the High Church party and would most likely be absolutely sceptical, I was puzzled how to convey the message, as I felt they would only think that my own loss had affected my brain. I ventured to approach his aunt, but what I told her only called forth the remark: "It cannot be," and I therefore decided to await an opportunity of speaking to his mother direct.
Before this looked-for opportunity came, a young lady of this town, having lost her mother about two years ago, and hearing from my daughter that I was investigating these matters, called to see me, and I lent her my books. One of these books is "Rupert Lives," with which she was particularly struck, and she eventually arranged a sitting with Miss McCreadie, through whom she received such convincing testimony that she is now a firm believer. During this sitting, the soldier boy who came to me came to her also. He repeated the same description that I had received, mentioned in addition his name -- Charlie -- and begged her to give a message to his mother and sister-the selfsame message which I had failed to give. So anxious was he in the matter, that at the close of the sitting he came again and implored her not to fail him.
Now, these events happened at different dates -- July and September -- the same message exactly being given through different mediums to different persons, and yet people tell us it is all a myth and that mediums simply read our thoughts.
When my friend told me of her experience I at once asked her to go with me to the lad's mother, and I am pleased to state that this double message convinced both his mother and his sister, and that his aunt is almost brought to the truth if not quite.
Now, at first glance this seems like quite a strong case, but when we look more closely, its evidential value is harder to establish.
For one thing, apparently no one in the soldier's family actually knew how (or even if) he had died, so the detailed report of his capture by the Germans and subsequent death cannot be verified.
Second, the soldier had been missing for two years, so it was probably safe to assume he was dead.
Third, in a relatively small town, word of the family's predicament would have spread to strangers. (Tunbridge Wells today has a population of 56,000; probably it was even smaller in Doyle's day.)
Fourth, the two mediums could have been in collusion. In his book The Psychic Mafia, M. Lamar Keene (a reformed fake medium) reports that unscrupulous mediums routinely exchange information.
On the other hand, the case does have its interesting features. Note that the dead soldier was "the son of an acquaintance of [the sitter's] family." This connection is close enough to explain why the spirit chose to come to this particular sitter, yet distant enough to make it unlikely that the medium could have known about it.
Also, the second sitter had no obvious connection to the narrator (unless of course she mentioned him to the medium), yet she got the same message.
It's also perhaps of interest that the soldier's name was not given in the first séance but was supplied in the second. If the first medium had already researched the family, why hold back this piece of evidence? But if genuine communication was going on, the absence of the name makes more sense, since names are often the most difficult facts to receive (and some mediums are better with names than others).
Overall, the case shows both the strengths and weaknesses of reports of this kind. It helps us see why spiritualism became so very popular during the First World War, but also why the doubts of skeptical critics were never quite assuaged.
Doyle also makes some interesting points about reports of mediumship by the early Fathers of the Christian Church. We'll cover that next time.