Monday, April 23, 2012

Real Ghost Stories and Estelle Stead

After the Titanic sank in April 1912, many people went back to their libraries to read the articles and ghost stories that William Thomas Stead had written before his death.  What they found spooked them.

Throughout his writing, Stead seems to have planted veiled references to ship disasters, exactly as if he had known he would be on Titanic.  According to Wikipedia:

"Stead had often claimed that he would die from either lynching or drowning. Stead published two pieces that gained greater significance in light of his fate on the Titanic. On 22 March 1886, he published an article named "How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor", where a steamer collides with another ship, with high loss of life due to lack of lifeboats. Stead had added "This is exactly what might take place and will take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats". In 1892, Stead published a story called From the Old World to the New, in which a vessel, the Majestic, rescues survivors of another ship that collided with an iceberg."

Legend has it that Stead told ghost stories at the dining room on Titanic, and held his audience spellbound throughout the evening of Friday 12 April 1912, ending the ghost story precisely at the stroke of midnight on Saturday the 13th.  The story dealt with Egyptians, mummies, and the Egyptian beliefs in the survival of the spirit after death.

Molly Brown must have been one of the people listening, because when Titanic struck the iceberg she lost no time, grabbed her Ushabti (an Egyptian good luck charm to ward off evil spirits) put it in her pocket, and headed straight for the lifeboats.

Stead was last seen sitting in the first-class smoking room, calmly reading a Bible as the ship sank.

What really caught the attention of the public, however, were the many magazine copies of Stead's ghost stories and his books on spiritualism.  Throughout his book Real Ghost Stories (a collection of many essays on psychic phenomena published in the American Review of Reviews during the 1890s) Stead expresses a rock-solid faith in "the Invisibles" and life after death.

Wikipedia: "Stead claimed to be in receipt of messages from the spirit world, and, in 1892, to be able to produce automatic writing.His spirit contact was alleged to be the departed Julia Ames, an American temperance reformer and journalist whom he met in 1890 shortly before her death. In 1909 he established Julia's Bureau where inquirers could obtain information about the spirit world from a group of resident mediums."

By popular demand, William's daughter, Estelle Stead, re-published this volume in 1921. She carefully notes in the introduction that her father's essays aren't exactly the campfire thrillers that most people expect.  Rather, they are essays on "psychic experiences" and the twilight zone or "borderland" between the conscious and unconscious mind.  They deal little with apparitions and much more with telepathy, automatic writing, clairvoyance, premonitions, second sight, "tragic happenings seen in dreams" and channeling the voices and spirits of dead loved ones.

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that many of Stead's friends had premonitions of his death and claimed to have seen his ghost or channeled messages from Stead immediately after the Titanic sank.

From "The Return of William Stead," part of a biographical sketch found at the Daily Grail:

Hester Travers Smith, a Dublin medium, recalled a sitting, on April 15, 1912, when she and a “Miss D.” received a very rapid message stating: “Ship sinking; all hands lost. William East overboard. Women and children weeping and wailing – sorrow, sorrow, sorrow.” They had no idea what the message meant and no more came through at that sitting. Later that day they heard that the Titanic had sunk. As a spirit claiming to be Stead communicated at subsequent sittings, Travers Smith concluded that because of the rapidity of the message they got the last name wrong the first time.

According to Rev. Charles L. Tweedale, the Church of England vicar of Weston, Stead appeared at a sitting given by Etta Wriedt in New York on April 17. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the physician who created Sherlock Holmes, called Wriedt the best direct-voice medium in the world, and the plan was for Stead to accompany Wriedt back to England on his return voyage so that she could demonstrate her gift there. Wriedt made the trip without Stead and gave a sitting on May 6 in Wimbledon. In attendance were Vice-Admiral W. Usborne Moore and Estelle Stead, Stead’s daughter. Moore reported that Stead talked with his daughter for at least 40 minutes. He described it as the most painful but most realistic and convincing conversation he had heard during his investigations of mediumship.

General Sir Alfred E. Turner reported that he held a small and private sitting at his home with Mrs. Wriedt. “We had hardly commenced when a voice, which apparently came from behind my right shoulder, exclaimed: ‘I am so happy to be with you again,’ Turner reported. “The voice was unmistakably that of Stead, who immediately began to tell us the events of the dire moments when the leviathan settled down. There was a short, sharp struggle to gain his breath and immediately afterwards he came to his senses in another stage of existence.” At a later sitting with Wriedt, Turner saw Stead materialize, wearing his usual attire.

Tweedale also recorded that Stead was seen and heard on July 17, 1912 at the home of Professor James Coates of Rothesay, a well-known author and investigator, who had Mrs. Wriedt give a sitting with a number of witnesses. “Mr. Stead showed himself twice within a short time, the last appearance being clearly defined, and none will readily forget the clear, ringing tones of his voice,” Tweedale quoted Coates. “There in our own home, and in the presence of fourteen sane and thoughtful people, Mr. Stead has manifested and proved in his own person that the dead do return.”

Dr. John S. King, a Toronto physician and president of the Canadian Society Psychical Research, reported receiving over 70 messages from Stead, the first one coming within two days of the Titanic disaster. They came through several mediums, including Mrs. Wriedt.

When the Titanic went down, Estelle, Stead’s daughter, was on a tour with her own Shakespearean Company. One of the members of the touring group was a young man named Pardoe Woodman. According to Estelle Stead, a few days before the disaster, Woodman told her over tea that there was to be a great disaster at sea and that an elderly man very close to her would be among the victims.

In 1917, shortly after being discharged from the army, Woodman began receiving messages from William T. Stead by means of automatic writing. Estelle Stead then started sitting with Woodman and observing. She noted that the Woodman wrote with his eyes closed and that the writing was very much like her father’s. Moreover, the writing would stop at times and go back to dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s,” a habit of her father’s which she was sure Woodman knew nothing about.

Stead informed his daughter that there were hundreds of souls hovering over their floating bodies after the big ship went down, some of them apparently not comprehending their new state as they complained about not being able to save all of their valuables. After what felt like a few minutes, they all seemed to rise vertically into the air at a terrific speed. “I cannot tell how long our journey lasted, nor how far from the earth we were when arrived, but it was a gloriously beautiful arrival,” Stead recorded through Woodman’s hand. “It was like walking from your own English winter gloom into the radiance of an Indian sky. There, all was brightness and beauty.”