I find older reports of near-death experiences interesting, because they predate the popular interest in the subject that developed once Life After Life was published in 1975. Such reports can be traced back at least as far as the Middle Ages, and arguably earlier. Two that recently came to my attention are mentioned in Guided by Spirit, by Charles Emmons and Penelope Emmons (p. 219).
The first involves a woman who went on to become a medium. Guided by Spirit offers a brief summary:
Mrs. J. H. Conant had [an NDE] in 1851 at age 20. When ill she was prescribed a large overdose of morphine and went unconscious. The doctor thought she was going to die. She went into trance and channeled a simple medication, and recovered. While in trance she went to "some beautiful place; she thought she was in heaven." There she met her mother, begged to be allowed to stay there, and was told she must return to Earth because "she had yet a mission to perform."
The source cited is Allen Putnam's Biography of Mrs. J. H. Conant, the World's Medium of the Nineteenth Century (1873). Intrigued, I Googled the title and found that it is available on Amazon. Using the "search inside" feature I was able to find the appropriate passage, written in the florid style of its day. The passage is reproduced below, broken up into shorter paragraphs for easier reading:
In the year 1851 [Mrs. Conant] left Lowell, and, with her husband, came to reside at the North End of Boston. Here her health, never robust, gave way, and she was again prostrated by sickness. Dr. Tobey, a well known physician, was summoned to attend her, who in view of the exigencies of the case, prescribed a certain preparation of morphine -- he being at the time, unfortunately, under the influence of stimulants. Mr. Conant obtained the prescription, as ordered, from a neighboring apothecary, and it was administered, per directions, to his wife. The amount written down by Dr. Tobey proved to be a large overdose; she was thrown into a semi-unconscious state, and began to sink so rapidly as to alarm all those residing in the house.
Mr. Conant immediately proceeded to the doctor's office to apprise him of the fact. He inquired concerning the medicine and its effect -- became agitated, and hurried to the sick chamber. A glance told him that there was some mistake in the remedy administered, and the imminent danger of his patient immediately sobered him. He doubted that he had prescribed so much, and was utterly confounded when, on applying to the druggist, he found the prescription filed in his own handwriting -- the apothecary meanwhile assuring him that he should not have put up the medicine in such quantity had he not known him well, and supposed that he was acquainted with his business. Dr. Tobey said there was no help for Mrs. Conant -- she must die. She, however, told him that she should not.
During the absence of her husband in search of the physician, the second time, Mrs. C. had been mysteriously aroused from the deadly stupor -- her body was shaking, involuntarily as it seemed, and a series of shocks, as from an electric battery, passed through her frame; she then began to speak, and prescribed for herself as she had done frequently before at Portsmouth in her childhood. The medicine, which was something of a simple nature, had been given to her, and by its influence, while the terrified physician stood by her side anticipating her speedy dissolution, perspiration began to set in, and witnessing this sign of returning power -- though ignorant of its cause -- he declared, with great relief to his mind, that she would yet survive.
Although neither herself nor the parties in the house were at that time disposed to attribute the cure to the agency of spirits -- by reason of want of information on the subject -- yet in after years she was told, through the organism of a medium, William Rice, whom she had never before seen, and who was a perfect stranger to the facts in the case, that she had been restored through the efforts of Dr. Kittredge, an old physician of her native town, who had been several years in the spirit world.
Nature rallied, and she rapidly recovered. When she regained full consciousness, she remembered that she seemed to have been in some beautiful place, she thought was heaven. Here she met the mother who left her in earlier years, and when she wept and begged to be allowed to stay with her, her parent gently but firmly told her that she must return to earth life -- that she had yet a mission to perform -- and her poor tempest-tossed bark was again obliged to put to sea from out the haven of peace where it hoped to rest; but blessed were the assurances she received, that in due time she should again and finally cast anchor amid the golden sand that sparkles in the river of Paradise.
Besides the channeled cure, what interests me about this material is that Mrs. Conant's subjective experience of heaven dovetails neatly with many modern accounts. She described it as a beautiful place where she was reunited with a deceased relative; she reported begging to stay, but being ordered to return because she had further work to do on Earth; and she remembered the assurance that she would return when her work was done. All of this is familiar to anyone who has read contemporary accounts of NDEs. It is sometimes argued that the similarities of modern accounts are attributable to the popularization of NDEs in movies and books. But this account, published 102 years before NDEs entered popular consciousness via Life After Life, contains many of the same elements.
Here is the other 19th century NDE mentioned in Guided By Spirit:
John Brown, the "medium of the Rockies", born in 1817, seemed to have one (sometime around 1850 perhaps), although without a vision of "the other side." They had not thought him to be "unusually ill," but then he had an out-of-body experience, looking down on his own body. He heard the doctor say, "He's dead." However, he revived. [p. 219]
On Google Books I found the relevant title, Mediumistic Experiences of John Brown, the Medium of the Rockies, written by Brown himself and published in 1897. Brown devotes a brief chapter to his NDE (p. 87-91), and it is reproduced in its entirety below:
Chapter VI, "John Brown Leaves The Body"
One bright Sunday morning a few years ago, I was not feeling very well, though not unusually ill. I took a bath and went up stairs to change my wearing apparel. I felt as if I was surrounded by a great many people who seemed to say: "John, wait a little while, lay down and take a rest." I did so; in a few moments Mrs. Brown entered with a comb and brush; as she entered the room there seemed to be two persons, Mrs. B. being one, the other resembling her in all respects; They [sic] moved side by side; as they approached the bed I drew the quilt over my head, feeling at the same time that I was in the hands of those not made of clay, in the hands of those I could not resist.
Mrs. Brown, seeing something strange in my appearance, asked me what was the matter; I made no reply, but tried to hide from her. She then went down stairs and requested my son-in-law, Mr. S.P. Waite, to "run up stairs and see what ailed Mr. Brown." Mr. Waite was at my door in a moment and asked if I wanted a doctor? I could not speak, yet I knew all. It then became dark, my eyes could no longer see. In a few minutes my room was filled with friends, among them was W.A. Conn, J.W. Waters, Dr. Peacock, Dr. Hickey, Dr. Oliver, and Dr. Herrold. By this time my limbs were useless, I could not move them; my breath had almost stopped, but I heard and knew all that was said and done. Before my arms had lost their power I shook hands with all and tried to bid them goodbye -- but all was darkness and I could not speak. I could inhale but little air, and that became less every moment, and I knew that I was dying, knew that in a few moments dissolution would take place, and I would no longer be an occupant of this, my earthly body.
Here, my reader, is where I lack the power -- the gift to convey to you the correct idea of this wonderful change of being "born again." It seemed as though a demand was made to settle all that was earthly, and give up all of me that was not spirit. To separate from this house of mine, that I had lived in and carried with me so long, was a thought that impressed me with sorrow. Yet, in all that was transpiring around me, I had no will, no desire, no control; all was outside and beyond; and, I alone seemed to be the entire subject of its lawful working.
In a few moments, my head fell to one side, my heart having ceased to vibrate; then the whole involuntary machinery made one last effort for breath, but in vain. In a moment my entire nervous system gave one shake and all was still; all was quiet. I heard the doctors say, "that is the last; he will not move again; he is dead." Yes, I heard all, but I did not see with my eyes.
At this time it seemed to me, that I was moving slowly through a warm atmosphere; and in the distance I began to perceive a lighter or whiter spot in the darkness. As this light gradually increased in size, it came nearer to me, till finally it filled the room, and all outside. It was not like the light of our sun -- it was more white, more still. It appeared to carry with it a life principle.
At this moment I found myself lying horizontally above my body and about 2 feet from it. With no effort on my part I moved off from over my body and stood upon my feet, about 5 feet from it. I knew that I had left my body. I could see it on the bed, and I saw Mr. Woodward, a near neighbor of mine to-day, let go my head that he had been holding, and straighten my body on the bed. I stood right there. I heard all that was said. I heard Dr. Dickey say to one he met he met on the stairs: "You are too late; he is dead." "Is that so?" replied the man. I could see and hear everything as well as I ever did in my life. I stood near the center of the room and did not move when others would pass where I stood. They seemed to go right through me and still not interfere with me in the least. They, to me, were like men and women of wood.
Oh, how I wished to take hold of them and give them a shake and make them know that I was not dead, but I could not. I viewed with care, the dress I had on. I was dressed, not naked. During the time I had stood on the floor, my [spirit] guide stood with me a little to my right. He was constantly writing in a small book or diary, and while I was examining the clothes I had one, he pointed to the corner of the room, saying: "That is the dress, John, you will put on, but not yet; you shall not die yet!" I looked in the quarter of the room and there stood a well formed body of a man. It did not resemble me; it was not so tall and a little darker than myself. I examined it minutely. It was well formed -- new, and still it might have been as old as time; but it had no marks of having been used. Its dress was rather after the Quaker style, with a star on each hip, with stripes of different width and color. It did not appear to me that his body was like the one I had just left; It [sic] was lighter and more spiritual, yet it was not condensed enough to admit of being seen by earthly eyes.
While standing there, I thought of all my business affairs, and was glad that two days before, I had arranged all matters and owed no man a cent. I thought of what I was told when a boy, that at death we went and kept going -- that we did not stop within the bounds of time and space. But, I saw no place to go to, and had made up my mind to stay with my family till something occurred to call me away; when all at once I was raised by a power, unseen by me, and moved directly over my body. The neighbors and friends had all left except two of the doctors, who were consulting in an adjoining room, as to what they should name the disease of which I had died. Up to this time, I had been conscious of all that had been said and done. I then lowered down and seemed to soak back into the body which all had pronounced dead.
Then, for the first time, I went into a sleep, which was of short duration, for, in a minute or two, something caused a rush of air and froth to emanate from my breast. My eyes could see, and I was alive in the same body I now inhabit. As soon as life was visible the doctors were recalled, but said they could do nothing for me, as they knew not the cause of my illness and had never seen or heard of a case of the kind before. They instructed my family to let me remain just as I lay until next day, and let nature have its own way, which they did. Doctors Peacock and Dickey are my neighbors, both eminent physicians, and loved by all.
As you can see, this NDE also has features found in modern accounts, specifically: hovering in a horizontal position directly above one's physical body; awareness of a wonderful, bright light that is not like sunlight and seems to contain a "life principle"; the frustrating inability to communicate with people in the room; the clear observation of what those people are saying and doing (including visual perception, despite the prior loss of eyesight); one's spirit body being clothed, not naked; communication with a spirit entity; sinking back into the earthly body prior to resuscitation; and a period of blackout.
There is also an unusual and rather enigmatic element, the apparently unused spirit body standing in a corner of the room. Brown's perception of his wife's double near the start of his experience may indicate that he was seeing her astral body, though he himself does not make this claim.