“I can call spirits from the vasty deep” – William ShakespeareIn 1828, a seasoned thirty year old sailor named Robert Bruce was serving as first mate on a three-masted sailing vessel (called a barque) on regular trading runs from Liverpool, England to St. Johns, Newfoundland. Five weeks out from the Newfoundland Banks, the captain and his mate were taking navigational observations on deck. Bruce descended into his cabin to look over his calculations and see if his determinations of latitude and longitude matched up with his “dead reckoning” (estimating where you should be based on a previous point, your course, and your speed) of the ship’s position. He was having trouble with his math.
The cabin, a small one, was immediately at the stern of the vessel, and the short stairway descending to it ran athwart-ships. Immediately opposite to this stairway, just beyond a small square landing, was the mate’s state-room; and from that landing there were two doors, close to each other, the one opening aft into the cabin, the other, fronting the stairway, into the stateroom. The desk in the state-room was in the forward part of it, close to the door; so that any one sitting at it and looking over his shoulder could see into the cabin. The mate, absorbed in his calculation, which did not result as he expected, varying considerably from the dead-reckoning, had not noticed the captain’s motions. When he had completed his calculations, he called out, without looking round, “I make our latitude and longitude so and so. Can that be right? How is yours?” Receiving no reply, he repeated his question, glancing over his shoulder and perceiving, as he thought, the captain busy writing on his slate. Still no answer. Thereupon he rose; and, as he fronted the cabin-door, the figure he had mistaken for the captain raised its head and disclosed to the astonished mate the features of an entire stranger (Owen, 1859, p334).
Obviously, the first mate was abundantly familiar with all members of the crew, which made the presence of a complete stranger on a sailing ship in the middle of the Atlantic an especially puzzling occurrence. Bruce rushed on deck to find the Captain in a state of alarm. The Captain was puzzled by Bruce’s apparent consternation, suggesting that perhaps he had seen the ship’s steward, the only man who would dare enter the Captain’s cabin without permission. But Bruce was insistent stating, “But, sir, he was sitting in your arm-chair, fronting the door, writing on your slate. Then he looked up full in my face; and, if ever I saw a man plainly and distinctly in this world, I saw him.” Bruce and the captain descended to the cabin together and made a thorough search, finding it entirely empty. The only evidence that anyone had been there was a clearly written message on the Captain’s slate, which stated “Steer to the Nor’west”. Literate crew members were polled, and asked to write the same phrase, but no matches were evident. Captain and First Mate were now fairly certain there was a stowaway on board, ordering the crew to search the vessel from stem to stern. They turned up nothing.
Now the mate was a mighty sailing man, the Skipper brave and true, so they decided they would only lose a few hours if they heeded the message, and sailed northwest to see what might come of such eerie instructions. A trustworthy sailor was sent aloft with a spyglass to keep vigil.
About three o ‘clock the look-out reported an iceberg nearly ahead, and, shortly after, what he thought was a vessel of some kind close to it. As they approached, the captain’s glass disclosed the fact that it was a dismantled ship, apparently frozen to the ice, and with a good many human beings on it. Shortly after, they hove to, and sent out the boats to the relief of the sufferers. It proved to be a vessel from Quebec, bound to Liverpool, with passengers on board. She had got entangled in the ice, and finally frozen fast, and had passed several weeks in a most critical situation. She was stove badly, her decks swept—in fact, a mere wreck; all her provisions and almost all her water gone. Her crew and passengers had lost all hope of being saved, and their gratitude for the unexpected rescue was proportionately great (Harris, 1919, p122-123).
As the survivors were brought aboard, Bruce was startled to see a familiar face. The mystery man he saw in the Captain’s cabin was among the shipwrecked. Of this odd coincidence, Bruce immediately informed the Captain. The Captain, with some trepidation found the Captain of the wrecked vessel, and pulled him aside for a touchy conversation, inquiring as to the passenger Bruce had identified.
“Captain,” rejoined the other, “the whole thing is most mysterious and extraordinary; and I had intended to speak to you about it as soon as we got a little quiet. This gentleman,” (pointing to the passenger,) “being much exhausted, fell into a heavy sleep, or what seemed such, sometime before noon. After an hour or more, he awoke, and said to me, “Captain, we shall be relieved this very day.” When I asked him what reason he had for saying so, he replied that he had dreamed that he was on board a bark, and that she was coming to our rescue. He described her appearance and rig; and, to our utter astonishment, when your vessel hove in sight she corresponded exactly to his description of her. We had not put much faith in what he said; yet still we hoped there might be something in it, for drowning men, you know, will catch at straws. As it has turned out, I cannot doubt that it was all arranged, in some incomprehensible way, by an overruling Providence, so that we might be saved” (Owen, 1859, p339-340).
Just in case, they asked the passenger to write “Steer to the Nor’west” on a slate, and found his handwriting to be identical to the mysterious message of earlier in the day. This case has ever since been widely celebrated as a case of astral projection or out-of-body experience under time of stress (in one of those strange name coincidences that raise their ugly heads when it comes to anomalistics, one of the most noted current experts on out-of-body experiences is also named “Robert Bruce”). I’m comfortable with apparitions of the dead. I mean, it’s not like dead people have anything better to do, but instances of bilocation and apparitions of the living strike me as far stranger. Although, you might be able to save a lot of money on vacations.
Flammarion, Camille, 1842-1925. Death and Its Mystery. New York: The Century co., 1921
Harris, William Richard, 1847-1923. Essays in Occultism, Spiritism, And Demonology. St. Louis, Mo.: B. Herder Book Co., 1919.
Lombroso, Cesare, 1835-1909. After Death, What? Spiritistic Phenomena And Their Interpretation. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. Footfalls On the Boundary of Another World. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & co.,1859.