The “Bridey Murphy” phenomenon

[amtap book:isbn=B001K26Z5G]

[amtap book:isbn=0385260032]

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History: It all started with a simple phone call and it ended with a world-wide phenomenon.

Morey Bernstein was the third-generation owner of a hardware distribution company in Denver. One evening in 1951, while working on a publicity campaign, he received a phone call. The caller introduced himself, said that he was stranded at the Denver Airport and said that his uncle said to call Morey if he needed anything. Morey recognized the name the caller mentioned, one of his best customers: all thoughts of the campaign were put aside as Morey drove out to the airport to pick up his guest.

At a loss as to what to do with him, Morey remembered a party that evening and decided to escort his guest there. At the party, his guest mentioned that he was a college student studying psychology and especially hypnosis. He proceeded to demonstrate to his unbelieving audience on a volunteer with excellent results: for instance, the woman volunteer, at the end of the demonstration, was profoundly surprised to discover her stocking in her hand and not on her foot. To say that Morey was fascinated with this demonstration of hypnosis was putting it mildly: he quickly obtained and read every book on the subject he could find and practiced on his friends and neighbors.

One of the volunteers was a neighbor woman named Virginia Tighe (in the book, she is named Ruth Simmons.) During one of his practice sessions,Virginia spontaneously began talking about a past-life experience as a woman named Bridey Murphy. Bridey was an Irish woman born around 1796, living in Cork, Ireland. He would record several sessions of Virginia recounting her past life and would then collate and publish them in a book he named "The Search for Bridey Murphy", as well as later releasing a record of one of his sessions.

The book was a sensation. It was a massive best-seller, the popularity of which put the subjects of hypnosis, past-life regressions and reincarnation into or back into the public consciousness. As with Coué in the 1920's, the Bridey Murphy story made the public aware of hypnosis again. Television having a limited reach at the time, hypnosis was largely confined to stage shows and movies that at the time were largely comedies or mysteries, nothing that would connect hypnosis to the average American. In addition, the subject of past-life regression was largely unknown and reincarnation was known in some small way to the general public, but it was a foreign subject, something associated with Eastern religions and philosophies. To have it all happen to a middle-class American woman was something unprecedented, and that connection to the average American opened up each concept to the public. As a result, there was a markedly increased interest in both hypnosis and reincarnation: reincarnation parties (not only "come as you were" costume parties but group inductions and past life regressions) became the latest fad, and movies involving hypnosis and reincarnation like "The She-Creature" (1956) and "The Undead" (1957) and books about reincarnation such as "The Search for the Girl With Blue Eyes" (1968) by Jess Stearn soon appeared, which also played on that interest.

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The book was turned into a movie, starring Teresa Wright and Louis Hayward. It was largely a documentary-style recounting of the story of how Morey became interested in hypnosis, jumping almost immediately then to his sessions with Virginia combined with re-enactments of her past-life regression story. (What I find amusing is the stereotypical "swinging watch" motif in the poster and cover artwork for the movie.)

But once the book was published, people starting checking into the story of Bridey Murphy and finding some glaring discrepancies in Virginia's recounts of her past-life. There are a number of questions about the existence of a person named Bridey Murphy and of the flaws in what Virginia recounted about Bridey and her life and time period.

  • There is no record of any person named Bridey Murphy of that time period: although records are incomplete for that era, as the wife of a lawyer, she would be expected to have a will, which would have been recorded. Nor was there any notice of her death (in 1864) in the (more complete) newspapers of the time.
  • Far too many of the details of her past life she recounted don't match up with recorded history: items she described were not introduced into Ireland until much later, customs she described were not followed by Irish culture, places she named and described did not exist at that time, and people she named (whose existence can be verified) could not be found. Others that were described were found, but they also were only in existence much later than the period of Bridey Murphy.
  • Too many of the pronunciations, language, foods and idioms she used do not date from that period or Irish culture in general: in fact, many appear to be either Americanisms or adaptations over time from the original.
  • Too many coincidences exist between the mundane life of Virginia and the past-life of Bridey: for instance, Virginia's husband's middle name is Brian, as is Bridey's, and Virginia knew an Irish woman named Bridie Murphy Corkell as a child.
  • Many of the references that can be confirmed are geographical, which changed little in the years between the time of Bridey and the present, and so are unusable as evidence when the possibility of contemporary cultural contamination is present.

As for Morey, he abandoned hypnosis after this and returned to business, although he continued to express his belief in Bridey Murphy. But there is no doubting the impact of that one phone call and what happened thereafter on the public. Hypnosis came back into the public eye and never really left, even though the prejudices and misconceptions remained (and remain in large part even to this day.)

Commentary: Unfortunately, any current attempt at any kind of objective exploration of the particular subject has been lost in time. Investigations at the time as to the reality of the Bridey Murphy story have uncovered a number of holes and anachronisms in the story, and claims and counter-claims and debunking and counter-debunking has continued ever since.

As for my opinion, I take the Occam's Razor approach and assign it to stories Virginia heard from her neighbor and from her own Irish parents (with whom she lived for the first three years of her life.)

Recommendation: For its historical value alone, the book is recommended.

Additional Material:

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References:

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