Return from the Dead
The accompanying photo depicts an antique lithographed poster advertising a story to appear in the Boston American newspaper. Finding a “10-6-06” in the corner, I was able to track down a microfilm copy of the October 14, 1906, issue of that paper, which actually related four stories of people who “Came Back from the Dead.” I wondered how century-old narratives would compare with present-day ones that we now term Near-Death Experiences.
The main story, the one dramatized by the poster artist, told how Mrs. James A. Haskins of 82 Oak Street, Middleboro, Massachusetts,  had “apparently died during a recent attack of pleuro-pneumonia.” It was alleged that “For twenty-three minutes her heart ceased beating, no breath could be detected, and she made no sign of life when her eyes were closed by the nurse.” (Obviously at best this was only apparent; otherwise she would have suffered irreversible brain damage.)
The twenty-three-year-old Mrs. Haskins did relate a moving account, dictating it after her recovery. She stated she had suffered a fever of 104.5, had a fitful pulse, and experienced shortness of breath, whereupon she declared, “Mother, I’m going to die.” Soon she obtained relief: “I felt as if I had been lifted from my bed and was floating up and away on light fleecy clouds. At the same time I heard the nurse say: ‘Well, she’s gone.'” She felt the nurse close her eyes and heard her mother sobbing.
“Then,” Mrs. Haskins said, “my little dead baby, Doris, came to me. I held out my arms to her and held her close to my breast. Oh, I was so happy. Baby and I were together again. That was all I thought of or cared for.” Little Doris, her first of three children, had died when eight months old, a few years earlier. Now, Mrs. Haskins noted, “she looked happy and healthy,” although “she wore the short skirts and white stockings and shoes that she was buried in.”
She added: “Her coming back to me was not a shock. It seemed perfectly natural that she should come in that way. So I gathered her up in my arms and together we floated away in perfect happiness.” In time though, Mrs. Haskins felt herself gasping for breath, the pain of her illness returned, and she was caught up in her own mother’s arms. “Returning to life was the hard part,” she insisted. “Dying was peace and happiness.”
Mrs. Haskins’s encounter has much in common with today’s typical Near-Death Experience (NDE)-a term coined by physician Raymond Moody in the 1970s to describe the mystical experiences of some who return from death’s door. Although each individual’s experience is unique, Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience (Guiley 1991, 399) states:
In an NDE people generally experience one or more of the following phenomena in this sequence: a sense of being dead, or an out-of-body-experience in which they feel themselves floating above their bodies, looking down; cessation of pain and a feeling of bliss or peacefulness; traveling down a dark tunnel toward a light at the end; meeting nonphysical beings who glow, many of whom are dead friends and relatives; coming in contact with a guide or Supreme Being who takes them on a life review, during which their entire lives are put into perspective without rendering any negative judgments about past acts; and finally, a reluctant return to life.
This sequence generally describes Mrs. Haskins’s reported experience, except for a few elements. She did not mention the dark tunnel but did refer to the “brightness.” There was no life review by a guide or deity, but, perhaps significantly, Mrs. Haskins described herself as “not very religious,” adding, “I am not a spiritualist, either, and had never before seen the apparition of my dead baby, though I have thought and dreamed of her often.” Spiritualism, the supposed communication with the dead, was still a popular belief in 1906. (Interestingly, a one-paragraph account of the incident in the May 18, 1906 weekly, Middleboro Gazette referred to Mrs. Haskins’s experience as an example of “suspended animation,” and made no mention of the encounter with her deceased infant daughter.)
Viewed scientifically, the out-of-body experiences are actually hallucinations that can occur under anesthesia when one is nowhere near death, as well as when one is falling asleep, or even just relaxing or meditating, or that can be experienced in migraine and epilepsy. The tunnel-travel experience is again an hallucination, one attributed to the particular structure of the visual cortex, the visual-information-processing portion of the brain (Blackmore 1991), or to pupil widening due to oxygen deprivation (Woerlee 2004). And the life review results from the dying oxygen-starved brain stimulating cells in the temporal lobe and thus arousing memories.
It is not surprising that people’s longings for a dead loved one should be manifested in dreamlike imagery. During more than three decades of investigating the paranormal, I have encountered many such claims of direct contact with the dead, typically reported through dreams, waking dreams (hallucinations which occur in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep), apparitions (which tend to be perceived during daydreams or other altered states of consciousness), and deathbed visions (which are similar to NDEs). Having one of these experiences is probably physiological; the content of the experience is probably psychological and cultural (Nickell 2002).
Yet the NDE has aspects, says Blackmore, “that are ineffable-they cannot be put into words.” The experience can seem so real, so powerful in its import, that even thought it is “an essentially physiological event,” she says, it can profoundly change the lives of those to whom it happens.
Of the other three cases related in “Came Back from the Dead,” only one follows the essential NDE pattern. A Richard Howland of Brooklyn was on his deathbed when he apparently died and his sorrowful wife, Mollie, sent for the undertaker. When he arrived they found Howland sitting upright and calling, “Where’s Mollie?” He told how he had died, his body grew cold, and he felt his spirit transported into strange surroundings; at the end of the road he traveled down was “a great and glorious white light.” Then “some invisible intelligence” spoke, assuring him of “eternal happiness,” and concluding “You may return.” Howland found himself again in his body and spent many hours talking with his wife until “his spirit passed away finally.”
The next case involved a man named Edward McElroon of Yonkers who had suffered a skull fracture and underwent surgery. During the operation his heart stopped beating and he could not be revived. His body was taken to the morgue but was later seen to exhibit “a slight tremor of the chest muscles,” whereupon doctors were recalled and they resuscitated him. After two days he recovered consciousness, but the narrative ends without mentioning any NDE.
The fourth and final case is suspect in the extreme. One Henry Hutchinson of Croydon, England, supposedly gave a first-person account of dying and his spirit being lifted up “in a vortex of light.” He heard the physician pronounce him dead, was dressed on the following day for his funeral and “for three days I was exposed upon a bier” to friends and family. The undertakers roughly forced him into a too-narrow coffin, one placing his knee in Hutchinson’s chest to accomplish it. The lid was nailed shut, and Hutchinson recalled hearing a sermon preached over his grave before he heard the sod striking the coffin. He lay buried alive “for many hours,” when he became aware of his coffin being exhumed and was then transported a great distance.
“Soon after,” he said, “I heard the sound of many voices; hands touched me, and as it happened that some one raised the lid of my eyes"-so that, he says-"I saw myself in the amphitheater of a dissecting room in the midst of a great body of students!” Fortunately, he continues, they first decided to “galvanize” him, and the electrical jolt was applied: “At the second discharge every one of my nerves trembled like the strings of a harp, and my body rose to a sitting posture, with stiff muscles, open and staring eyes. They extended me again; the professor approached and made a light cut through the ligaments of my breast. At this moment an enormous change took place in my whole body, I succeeded in crying out; the bonds of death were separated, and I returned to life.” Believe it or not!
Hutchinson’s narrative reads like fiction. It is unlikely that an unembalmed body would be left unburied for four days, or that, if it was, the fact that it showed no obvious signs of decomposition would have failed to provoke astonishment. If he had family and friends, why could not a coffin have been found to fit him? The undertaker’s-knee-in-the-chest detail seems particularly literary. Then there are the fortuitous elements of grave robbers digging him up, someone raising one of his eyelids (enabling him to glimpse his presence in a medical amphitheater), and the application-such as was done to Frankenstein’s monster-of a reanimating electrical current.
As these stories demonstrate, examples of people recovering from “death"-sometimes with near-death experiences to relate-extend back a century; indeed they are probably as old as humankind.
I am grateful to three libraries for their crucial assistance: The Boston Public Library; the Center for Inquiry Libraries (Tim Binga, Director); and the Middleboro, Massachusetts Public Library (Betty Brown, Reference Librarian). I also thank colleagues Tim Binga and Andrew Skolnick for helpful discussions and Betty Brown for her generous assistance in researching the Haskinses and Dr. Hodgson.
- The Resident and Business Directory of Middleboro, Mass., for the Years 1906-1907 lists not “James” but John A. Haskins at 82 Oak Street; he was a shoemaker. Mrs. Haskins’s doctor, mentioned in the article (with an erroneous middle initial, “H”), was also listed in this city directory; he was Thomas S. Hodgson, a physician, at 47 South Main Street.
- Blackmore, Susan. 1991. Near-death experiences: in or out of the body? Skeptical Inquirer 16:1 (Fall), 34-35.
- Came back from the dead! 1906. Boston American, October 14, 14.
- Nickell, Joe. 2002. Visitations: After-death contacts. Skeptical Briefs 12:3 (September), 7-10.
- Woerlee, G.M. 2004. Darkness, tunnels, and light. Skeptical Inquirer 28:3 (May/June), 28-32.