The “Bridey Murphy” phenomenon

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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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