‘Whilst they were looking and wondering, my wife’s sister, Miss Towns, came into the room, and before either of the others had time to speak, she exclaimed, “Good gracious! Do you see Papa?” One of the housemaids happened to be passing downstairs at the moment and she was called in, and asked if she saw anything, and her reply was “Oh, Miss: the master.” Graham–Captain Towns’ old body-servant–was then sent for, and he also exclaimed, “Oh, Lord save us! Mrs. Lett, it’s the Captain!” The butler was called, and then Mrs. Crane, my wife’s nurse, and they both said what they saw. Finally Mrs. Towns was sent for, and, seeing the apparition, she advanced towards it … as she passed her hand over the panel of the wardrobe the figure gradually faded away, and never again appeared.
‘These are the facts of the case, and they admit of no deceit; no kind of intimation was given to any of the witnesses; the same question was put to each one as they came into the room, and the reply was given without hesitation by each.
‘Mrs. Lett is positive that the recognition of the appearance on the part of each of the later witnesses was _independent_, and not due to any suggestion from the persons already in the room.’
Then follows a statement by two of the witnesses that this account is correct.
In the lapse of twelve years between the incident and its narration a story of this nature would have been re-told many times, and we know what happens under such conditions. As the tale is given, however, it reveals more than the narrator thinks it does.
Most interesting is the denial of suggestion when we have present all the factors necessary for suggestion of the most powerful kind. Picture Miss Towns coming into the room whilst the first two were ‘looking and wondering’ (and not in silence, we may be sure, in spite of the words ‘before either of the others had time to speak’, which are interpolated to strengthen the story); she straightway experiences the same emotion as do the others and sees what they see. Now we have three emotional people, and as each new witness is brought along the emotion increases till it would require a very self-possessed and sceptical person to resist its influence. The butler and the nurse simply _had_ to see the ghost, though the account is a little ambiguous at that point.
‘The same question was put to each one as they came into the room’, but is it likely that under such a condition of excitement enough self-control was left to every individual to ensure that the same question, _and nothing else_, was put to each newcomer? Such a thing could only happen by careful pre-arrangement, which was lacking here, and the writer’s insistence shows that somewhere in his mind was present the suspicion that suggestion had a hand in the production of the unanimous evidence.
Mrs. Lett is equally insistent that the recognition was not due to any suggestion from the persons already in the room, but she was unaware that suggestion can occur without intent and that the most powerful suggestion is that which is unintentional. Can we suppose that there were no signs of wonder and awe on the faces of those present, no excited exclamations, no glances towards the wardrobe, no pointing of hands: only a few calm and self-possessed people asking each newcomer if he or she saw anything? If two or three people tried by suggestion to persuade others to see a ghost they would not be able to reach the emotional state of the actors in this scene, and the intentional effort at suggestion would have a good chance of failure.
The minute account of the apparition, given by some one who was not present, and told as if it were the result of the immediate observations of the first two witnesses, has been influenced by discussion after the incident and is itself another product of suggestion. The narrator has over-shot the mark in his protest against the possibility of suggestion, and has produced a story in which the apparition is not the only improbability.
I have given this analysis because the story is quoted repeatedly by writers on the spiritualist side, and until one examines it critically it appears convincing.
The rumour of the Russian troops passing through England in September, 1914, will go down in history as a proof that mass credulity was then as powerful as ever. The rumour, however it began, was aided by the usual forces: Herd Instinct (for what every one believed was felt to be true), the desire to believe in what we wanted to happen, and the desire to be personally connected with important events. The last factor was shown by the number of people who claimed to have personal experience of the transit of the Russian reinforcements; every one had seen the troops or knew some one who had. One of my friends, a man eminent in a profession which demands clear thinking, told me that his own brother-in-law was responsible for arrangements for their railway transport.
The reader will see in this rumour a perfect example of the working of suggestion in a case familiar to every one, and if the lesson is borne in mind a list of believers in some unnatural occurrence will not necessarily carry conviction.