“New roads; new ruts” – Gilbert K. Chesterton
Sigmund Freud once referred to dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious”, which makes them sound pretty important, but reduces them to illusory wish fulfillment in a universe largely unwilling to fulfill your wishes. Sorry, no pony for you. Go dream something twenty years later. Jung was a little more upbeat, and said they were messages to the dreamer to which we should pay attention. Pioneering sleep researcher William Dement figured dreams were a safety valve that “permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives”. Some folks just aren’t satisfied with such mundane interpretations, and just want to see if we can put dreams to good use. If they truly are the “royal road” to unlocking the utility of all the creepy things that go on in human heads, who better to assess them than a road inspector. Enter H.M. Wesermann.
Herr H.M. Wesermann, Government Assessor and Chief Inspector of Roads in Dusseldorf, Germany had an odd hobby, as man cannot live on beer and road inspections alone, even if its good German Beer and the roads are relatively smooth. Every once in a while a civil servant has to let his hair down and get wacky on the way to his government pension. Wesermann was no exception, and had the good fortune to be alive in the early decades of the 19th Century, when curious ideas about animal magnetism and Mesmerism were causing a commotion. Every hip Herr and Fraulein in the North Rhine-Westphalia area was talking about telepathy and clairvoyance.
Now, Wesermann was a serious man (a member of the Batavian Society for Experimental Philosophy and several other respectable scientific societies) who worked at scale and looked for practical applications. Roads are very long and potholes don’t fill themselves. And he really hated potholes. You don’t want to approve a road only to have someone break an axle on their carriage or lame their horse. Such oversights can really ruin your reputation. He didn’t like intellectual potholes either. Wesermann decided that it was time for a series of experiments to see if he could perform “spooky actions” at a distance. Basically he had the sneaking suspicion that he could cause any friend or acquaintance to dream of any subject he chose. How he initially determined that this was his superpower is not entirely clear, but his self-esteem was good and opted to set up some empirical tests to document this talent and convince the haters. In furtherance of this cause, he authored a book called Der Magnetismus und die allgemeine Weltsprache, published in 1822, wherein he documented the results of five experiments he conducted in telepathic projection. Madame Blavatsky, Russian mystic and leading theoretician of Theosophy would later sing his praises.
The case of a High German official, a counsellor Wesermann, was mentioned in a scientific paper. He claimed to be able to cause any friend or acquaintance, at any distance, to dream of any subject he chose, or see any person he liked. His claims were proved good and testified to on several occasions by skeptics and learned professional persons. He could also cause his double to appear wherever he liked; and be seen by several persons at one time. By whispering in their ears a sentence prepared and agreed upon beforehand by unbelievers for the purpose, his power to project the double was demonstrated beyond any cavil (Blavatsky, 1919, p477).
In a series of five trials, Wesermann chose an uninformed target and decided on information he wanted to communicate. His method was simple. He went to sleep (good work if you can get it), but apparently slept rather fitfully. When he awoke in the middle of the night he concentrated extremely hard, and sent a telepathic burst of information to his unsuspecting collaborator. His first four experiments gave everybody the heebee-geebees, and we have the accounts in his own words.
First Experiment at a distance of five miles: “I endeavored to acquaint my friend the Hofkammerrath of G. (whom I had not seen, and to whom I had not written for thirteen years) with the fact of my intended visit by presenting my form to him in his sleep through the force of my will. When I unexpectedly went to him on the following evening he evinced his astonishment at having seen me in a dream on the preceding night.” Second Experiment at a distance of three miles: “Madame W., in her sleep, was to hear a conversation between me and two other persons relating to a certain secret, and when I visited her on the third day she told me all that had been said and showed her astonishment at the remarkable dream.” Third Experiment at a distance of one mile: “An aged person in G. was to see in a dream the funeral procession or my deceased friend S.; and when I visited her on the next day her first words were that she had in her sleep seen a funeral procession, and on enquiring had learnt that I was the corpse. Here then was a slight error.” Fourth Experiment at a distance of one-eighth of a mile: “Herr Doctor B. desired a trial to convince him, whereupon I represented to him a nocturnal street brawl. He saw it in his dream to his great astonishment.” (Podmore, 1910, p95).
It was Wesermann’s fifth experiment that pushed the boundaries of creepitude. You see, he was unsatisfied with the moral character of a particular dissolute officer of his acquaintance, stationed at Aix-la-Chapelle, and had resolved to prompt him to reform his ways. This fifth trial was successful, but peculiar.
One of the trials was singularly successful, and, though the record is not exactly in the form in which the psychical researcher of the present day would put it, the case is well worth quoting. A lady who had been dead five years was to appear to Lieutenant A.B. in a dream at 10.30 p.m., and incite him to good deeds. At half past ten, contrary to expectation, Herr A.B. had not gone to bed, but was sitting in the ante-room with a friend, Lieutenant S., discussing the French campaign. Suddenly the door opened and a lady entered, dressed in white with a black kerchief and uncovered head; she waved her hand three times to a friendly manner, then turned to A.B. and nodded to him, and went out again by the door. On receiving this account from Lieutenant A.B., Wesermann was much struck by it, and wrote to the other percipient, Lieutenant S., who lived some six miles away, for his account of it, which was as follows:—”On the 13th of March, 1817, Herr A.B. came to pay me a visit at my lodgings, about a league from A. He stayed the night with me, and after supper, when we both were undressed, I was sitting on the bed and Herr A.B. was standing by the door of the next room, also on the point of going to bed. This was about half-past ten. We were speaking partly about indifferent topics and partly about the events of the French campaign. Suddenly the door out of the kitchen opened without a sound and a lady entered, very pale, taller than Herr A.B., about 5 ft. 4 in. in height, strong and robust in figure, dressed in white but with a large black kerchief, which reached to below the waist. She entered with bare head, saluted me in complimentary fashion three times with her hand, turned to the left to Herr A.B. and waved her hand to him three times. After this the figure went noiselessly out without any creaking of the door. We followed at once to see if there was any deception, but found nothing…The important point of the story is that the hallucination was shared by a second percipient, who was we may perhaps assume, ignorant of the intended trial. Even if that were not so, his narrative seems to make it clear that he was unacquainted with the deceased lady. If therefore the apparition which he saw exactly resembled her—and Wesermann assures us that it did (Thomas, 1905, p98-100).
From these tests, Wesermann drew a few conclusions.
- That waking persons, as well as sleeping, are capable of perceiving the mental pictures of distant friends through the inner sense as dream images. For not only the opening and shutting of the door, but the figure itself—which, moreover, exactly resembled that of the dead lady—was incontestably only a dream in the waking state, since the door would have creaked as usual had the figure really opened and shut it.
- That many apparitions and supposed effects of witchcraft were very probably produced in the same way.
- That clairvoyants are not mistaken when they state that a stream of light proceeds from the magnetiser to the distant friend, which visibly presents the scene thought of, if the magnetiser thinks of it strongly and without distraction (SPR, 1890, p218-219).
What Wesermann didn’t bank on was that his experiments suggested that ghosts are not in fact real spirits with individual motivations and desires. He had after all, managed to project the image of a dead lady to two individuals in a waking state. Ghost hunters generally don’t like these sort of hypotheses since they don’t come with a scary back-story, unless of course you consider someone inserting themselves into your dreams (or even your waking life) the very essence of preternatural stalking.
Facts like these naturally raised in the minds of many of the investigators a belief that quite possibly ghosts could be explained without resorting to the alternative of dogmatically denying their reality or regarding them as supernatural beings. This belief was strengthened by other facts brought to light in the course of experiments to determine the actuality of telepathy, or thought transference as it used to be called (Bruce, 1914, p43).
More skeptical folks, while not denying the general good character and logical mind of Herr Wesermann, and declining to question the positive results of the experiments he reported, fell back on an all too common retort, suggesting “Sure, it worked a few times, but think of all the times it didn’t work”. That sort of scientism is a bastardization of empirical methodology. If a complex phenomenon should occur exactly zero times according to the prevailing wisdom, it is the heart of hubris to point out that even though it seems to have been reproduced on a number of occasions, there were no doubt failures, and thus conclude there’s nothing to see here.
More philosophic or more successful than recent investigators, Wesermann, it will be seen, varied the form of his experiment. In the first he caused his own figure to appear, but in each of the subsequent trials he chose a fresh image, meeting on each occasion with equal success. It should be observed, however, that though Wesermann seems to have been a careful as well as a philosophic investigator, he has omitted to record how often he made trials of this kind without producing any result, and it cannot fairly be assumed that there were no failures (Podmore, 1902, p232).
When you start mucking about in people’s dreams, you never know what you’re going to find. Maybe there are ghosts, doppelgangers, and spectral projections lurking in each of our unconscious minds just waiting for a road inspector to fill in the potholes that are preventing us from coming to this realization. Then again, maybe Wesermann was just looking for a way to sleep more productively, for as T.E. Lawrence once said, “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible”
Blavatsky, H. P. 1831-1891. Isis Unveiled: a Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology. 3d Point Loma ed.–rev. Point Loma, Calif.: The Aryan theosophical press, 1919.
Bruce, H. Addington b. 1874. Adventurings in the Psychical. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1914.
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Stanton, Horace Coffin. Telepathy of the Celestial World: Psychic Phenomena Here but Foreshadowings of Our Transcendent Faculties Hereafter. Evidences From Psychology And Scripture That the Celestials Can Instantaneously And Freely Communicate Across Distance Indefinitely Great. New York: F. H. Revell, 1913.
Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). “Experiments of H.M. Wesermann”. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research v4 (March). London: Society for Psychical Research, 1890.
Thomas, Northcote Whitridge, 1868-1936. Thought Transference: a Critical And Historical Review of the Evidence for Telepathy. London: Moring, 1905.