I've had a bit of correspondence from people who heard me talking about crisis apparitions on Radio 4 last month. For instance Chris from Lancaster writes to tell me about a late nineteenth century case said to have occurred in the village of Chipping near where he lives. He saw it mentioned in a 1960s walking book by a local author named Alan Lawson, but doesn't think the story is well known locally.
In the early part of the last century, young Phillip Weld went on a group picnic excursion on the river from St Edmund's college, Ware. Towards the end of the afternoon, he dived off the river bank but failed to surface. The other boys and a master who was in charge dived in and searched but failed to find Phillip. They managed to persuade the lock keeper to lower the surface of the water. Phillip's body was found wedged in the mud of the river bed.
The corpse was taken to the college, and the headmaster set off early the next morning to inform the boy's parents, who lived at Lulworth. He travelled in his own chaise for most of the day. As he entered the park of Lulworth he was met by Phillip's father who stopped the coach. "You have no need to tell me the sad news," said Phillips father. "We all know here that he was drowned yesterday." The headmaster was astonished, as it was impossible in those days for news to have travelled so fast.
Settled before the fire in the study, Phillip's father continued. "Yesterday evening my wife, my daughter and I were taking a short stroll through the grounds. On approaching a junction in the park my wife exclaimed that Phillip was standing at the corner. We all looked and saw Phillip with two figures in clerical dress on either side, both young and smiling. Phillip and the other figures were solid, we could not see through them, and the only curious feature was that Phillip was wet through, so much so, that the water formed a pool at his feet. My daughter ran towards the apparition, but as she approached they vanished from view. After returning to the house to comfort my wife, who was very upset, we concluded that Phillip must have been drowned and the figures were sent to tell us.
Phillip's father had no idea who the young men in clerical dress were, and a mystery it remained, until Mr and Mrs Weld came to stay at Leagram Hall near Chipping. After mass on the Sunday the priest invited them into the sacristy. In those days the Jesuits had charge of the church and etchings of Jesuit saints were hung on the walls. As they entered Mr Weld suddenly shouted "That's one of them, one of those who appeared with Phillip!" The picture was of Stanislaus Kostka, an obscure saint who was supposed to have care of drowned persons. The priest presented the picture to the Welds and it was hung in Leagram Hall.
Chris says he has looked into the life of Stanislaus Kostka and finds he is often depicted standing by a fountain holding a piece of wet linen.
The story is similar enough to many others collected by psychic researchers at this time, in no fewer than four details. One is that the apparition was collectively perceived, in this case by three people. That is actually quite unusual, and applies to a minority of cases in the literature. But it's quite significant, because if more than one person can see it, it's vastly less likely to be a subjective hallucination than if only one person had seen it. (I have come across attempts to explain it away, but they're convoluted, and life's too short).
A more common feature, of course, is the coincidence of the apparition appearing at the time of death of the person who is seen. When I raised this on the programme Professor Richard Wiseman, who was sitting next to me, immediately explained that this is an effect of the Law of Large Numbers - in other words pure coincidence. If we hadn't been running out of time I'd have pointed out that this requires us to believe that people are seeing apparitions all the time, but only bother mentioning it to anyone if the person they saw is later discovered to have dropped dead at precisely that moment. It's true that apparitions are more commonly experienced than is generally supposed - a fact that psychic researchers themselves uncovered - but not on the scale required to make this thesis work.
Then there's the fact of an unknown figure in the vision being later recognized. This forms a significant third group in the literature, particularly with hauntings of specific locations, for instance of hotels where a guest encounters a ghost and later matches the figure to a photograph.
Finally there's the veridical information - in this case, Phillip appearing to be wet through and a puddle forming at his feet - that conveys what has happened to him. Again, this is very common in the episodes that researchers collected: for instance the apparition of a soldier might appear with a bloody chest wound, indicating that he had just been killed in battle,
For all four features to turn up in a single case ought to make this a strong one. However one would look for one or more of the parties to have written an account immediately afterwards, and for researchers to have got corroborating testimony from all three family members, the headmaster, etc.
As it is, it's purely anecdotal - at least as far as I know; I haven't come across it anywhere before. And the fact of one of the figures turning out to be a sixteenth century Polish saint somewhat weakens it. That kind of colourful twist just doesn't occur much in the literature. In fact I can't recall a case at all like it. Ordinariness, repeated over a large number of instances, makes the phenomenon seem like a consistent human experience, where a more dramatic case like this seems more made up. Which is not to say that it is, only to acknowledge that the story departs from the norms.
Incidentally, Chris adds: "Chipping and the Hodder valley is one of the most beautiful places in England, and around Stonyhurst, on the lower reaches of the river Hodder, they call it "Fairy Land". Well worth anyone stopping off on a journey to the Lake District." I just might.