Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

William Henry Harrison was an English journalist and a publisher of works on Spiritualism. He was the editor of The Spiritualist (an influential publication later called The Spiritualist Newspaper) and the author of several works. This included his anthology Psychic Facts (1880) in which he collected accounts of psychic phenomena, particularly mediumship, from various writers.

In the book commented here, Spirits Before Our Eyes, Harrison presented an examination of apparitions, mainly apparitions of the dying. His purpose, he wrote, was “to classify some of the authenticated apparitions of our own and past times, to examine the conditions under which the spirits of human beings are seen, to show that the spirit of man can sometimes temporarily leave the earthly body, and to seek to draw only those conclusions which well-proved facts warrant. Thus may laws and principles be deduced, to guide future explorers of the realm between the known and the unknown, in relation to spirit existence.” (p. 14)

Harrison Spirits before our Eyes

Harrison believed that, unlike mediumship, which critics tried to attribute to non-spiritual processes, apparitions could be explained “only by the presence of the spirit, the whole spirit, and nothing but the spirit” (p. 21). He started discussing what he referred to as deathbed apparitions. Not to be confused with what we refer to today as deathbed visions, or those visions experienced by a dying person, Harrison defined deathbed apparitions as the “occasional appearance of the spirit of a person in one place, at about the time that his body is dying in another place,” cases he believed were “so common as to indicate some connection beyond that of accidental coincidence between the two occurrences” (p. 24).

Such deathbed apparitions, the author believed, were caused by the spirit leaving the body. In his view the dying body provided the spirit “enough materiality to make itself visible” (p. 62). This speculation was similar to those presented by others at the time to account for materialization phenomena observed with mediums, something that was part of a rich history of ideas of vital forces to explain psychic phenomena.

Related to this idea, Harrison stated that some apparitions produced physical effects, being “objectively and palpably temporarily materialised” (p. 55). He further wrote about materialization to illustrate the point: “Spiritualists who have seen much of materialisation seances know that spirits have a remarkable power of duplicating, not only the forms of their mediums, but their clothes. . . . Still there is no creation of new matter. The law of the conservation of energy is not broken. Recent experiments . . . have shown by means of self-recording weighing apparatus that, while the duplicate form of the medium and his clothes is being materialised in one place, the weight of his normal body and clothes is diminishing in another, and vice versa. There is a play of forces between the two, underlying the vulgarly known phenomena of molecular physics. . . .” (pp. 60–61).

But Harrison also entertained some cases being explained differently. He believed some apparitions were perceived through normal vision and others were seen psychically, in response to the thoughts of spirits. As he wrote, “when apparitions are psychically recognised, what the spirit thinks the medium sees, and . . . the unearthly visitor becomes visible in consequence of his mesmeric influence over the spectator” (p. 83).

The thoughts of distant living persons were also believed by Harrison to be a cause for some apparitions of the living, an idea that had been discussed by others before. Harrison also argued that some cases of veridical dreams in which the dreamer visited a distant location were not necessarily the projection of the spirit. They “might be instances of natural clairvoyance, or of a dreamer seeing that which a spirit or mortal in rapport with him thought” (p. 146).

Like other writers before him Harrison cited a variety of cases to illustrate the existence of the spirit and its powers manifesting during life. He discussed apparition cases in which the appearer was not dying, cases in which the content of dreams was affected, and cases of mediumistic communications from living persons. As stated in the first chapter of the book, Harrison’s intent was an attempt to validate the movement of spiritualism by showing how the human spirit could act at a distance producing mental and physical effects, an idea that was in direct contradiction to the materialistic assumptions of the times.

Furthermore, Harrison made the observation that both apparitions of the living and of the dead were similar. He wrote that “there is no break of continuity in the phenomena of apparitions in consequence of the death of the body. So impossible is it to find any indication in the phenomena, of a natural dividing line coinciding with the death moment, that in this volume several cases of after-death apparitions are included, differing in no way from the apparitions of living persons whose mortal bodies are in a sleeping or quiescent state” (p. vii).

This appeared first as a book review in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 2011.