W.T. Stead on Premonitions & Second Sight
Excerpted from W. T. Stead, Borderland: a Casebook of True Supernatural Studies (1970) part I, ch. III, pp. 68-75. Previously published as W. T. Stead, Real Ghost Stories (1897)
I can make no claim to the proud prerogative of the seer, but upon several occasions I have had some extraordinary premonitions of what was about to happen. I can give no explanation as to how they came, all that I know is they arrived, and when they arrived I recognised them beyond all possibility of mistake. I have had three or four very striking and vivid premonitions in my life which have been fulfilled to the letter. I have others which await fulfilment. Of the latter, I will not speak here—although I have them duly recorded—for were I to do so I should be accused of being party to bringing about the fulfilment of my own predictions. Those which have already been fulfilled, although of no general importance to any one else, were of considerable importance to me, as will be seen by the brief outline concerning three of them.
The first occasion on which I had an absolutely unmistakable intimation of the change about to occur in my own circumstances was in 1880, the year in which I left the editorship of the Northern Echo to become the assistant of Mr. John Morley on the Pall Mall Gazette.
On New Year’s Day, 1880, it was forcibly impressed upon my mind that I was to leave Darlington in the course of that year. I remember on the 1st of January meeting a journalistic confrere on my way from Darlington station to the Northern Echo office. After wishing him a Happy New Year, I said, “This is the last New Year’s Day I shall ever spend in Darlington; I shall leave the Northern Echo this year.” My friend looked at me in some amazement, and said, “And where are you going to?” “To London,” I replied, “because it is the only place which could tempt me from my present position, which is very comfortable, and where I have perfect freedom to say my say.” “But,” said my friend, somewhat dubiously, “what paper are you going to?” “I have no idea in the world,” I said; “neither do I know a single London paper which would offer me a position on their staff of any kind, let alone one on which I would have any liberty of utterance. I see no prospect of any opening anywhere. But I know for certain that before the year is out I shall be on the staff of a London paper.” “Come,” said my friend, “this is superstition, and with a wife and family I hope you will do nothing rashly.” “You need not fear as to that,” I said; “I shall not seek any position elsewhere, it will have to come to me if I have to go to it. I am not going to throw myself out of a berth until I know where my next place is to be. Humanly speaking, I see no chance of my leaving Darlington, yet I have no more doubt than of my own existence that I shall be gone by this time next year.” We parted. The General Election soon came upon us, and when the time came for renewing my engagement on the Northern Echo, I had no option but to renew my contract and bind myself to remain at Darlington until July, 1880. Although I signed the contract, when the day arrived on which I had either to give notice or renew my engagement, I could not shake from me the conviction that I was destined to leave Darlington at least six months before my engagement expired. At that time the Pall Mall Gazette was edited by Mr. Greenwood, and was, of all the papers in the land, the most antipathetic to the principles upon which I had conducted the Northern Echo. The possibility of my becoming assistant editor to the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette seemed at that time about as remote as that of the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland receiving a cardinal’s hat from the Pope of Rome. Nevertheless, no sooner had Mr. Gladstone been seated in power than Mr. George Smith handed over the Pall Mall Gazette to his son-in-law, Mr. Henry Yates Thompson. Mr. Greenwood departed to found and edit the St. James’ Gazette, and Mr. Morley became editor. Even then I never dreamed of going to the Pall Mall. Two other North-country editors and I, thinking that Mr. Morley was left in rather a difficulty by the secession of several of the Pall Mall staff, agreed to send up occasional contributions solely for the purpose of enabling Mr. Morley to get through the temporary difficulty in which he was placed by being suddenly summoned to edit a daily paper under such circumstances. Midsummer had hardly passed before Mr. Thompson came down to Darlington and offered me the assistant editorship. The proprietor of the Northern Echo kindly waived his right to my services in deference to the request of Mr. Morley. As a result I left the Northern Echo in September, 1880, and my presentiment was fulfilled. At the time when it was first impressed upon my mind, no living being probably anticipated the possibility of such a change occurring in the Pall Mall Gazette as would render it possible for me to become assistant editor, so that the presentiment could in no way have been due to any possible calculation of chances on my part.
The second presentiment to which I shall refer was also connected with the Pall Mall Gazette, and was equally clear and without any suggestion from outward circumstances. It was in October, 1883. My wife and I were spending a brief holiday in the Isle of Wight, and I remember that the great troopers, which had just brought back Lord Wolseley’s army from the first Egyptian campaign, were lying in the Solent when we crossed. One morning about noon we were walking in the drizzling rain round St. Catherine’s Point. It was a miserable day, the ground slippery and the footpath here and there rather difficult to follow. Just as we were at about the ugliest part of our climb I felt distinctly, as it were, a voice within myself saying, You will have to look sharp and make ready, because by a certain date (which as near as I can recollect was the 16th of March next year) you will have sole charge of the Pall Mall Gazette. I was just a little startled and rather awed because, as Mr. Morley was then in full command and there was no expectation on his part of abandoning his post, the inference which I immediately drew was that he was going to die. So firmly was this impressed upon my mind that for two hours I did not like to speak about it to my wife. We took shelter for a time from the rain, but afterwards, on going home, I spoke on the subject which filled me with sadness, not without reluctance, and said to my wife, “Something has happened to me which has made a great impression upon my mind. When we were beside St. Catherine’s Lighthouse I got into my head that Mr. Morley was going to die.” “Nonsense,” she said, “what made you think that?” “Only this,” said I, “that I received an intimation as clear and unmistakable as that which I had when I was going to leave Darlington, that I had to look sharp and prepare for taking the sole charge of the Pall Mall Gazette on March 16th next. That is all, and I do not see how that is likely to happen unless Mr. Morley is going to die.” “Nonsense,” said my wife, “he is not going to die; he is going to get into Parliament, that is what is going to happen.” “Well,” said I, “that may be. Whether he dies or whether he gets into Parliament, the one thing certain to me is that I shall have sole charge of the Pall Mall Gazette next year, and I am so convinced of that that when we return to London I shall make all my plans on the basis of that certainty.” And so I did. I do not hedge and hesitate at burning my boats. As soon as I arrived at the Pall Mall Gazette office, I announced to Mr. Thompson, to Mr. Morley, and to Mr. Milner, who was then on the staff, that Mr. Morley was going to be in Parliament before March next year, for I need hardly say that I never mentioned my first sinister intimation. I told Mr. Morley and the others exactly what had happened, namely, that I had received notice to be ready to take sole charge of the Pall Mall Gazette by March 16th next. They shrugged their shoulders, and Mr. Morley scouted the idea. He said he had almost given up the idea of entering Parliament, all preceding negotiations had fallen through, and he had come to the conclusion that he would stick to the Pall Mall. I said that he might come to what conclusion he liked, the fact remained that he was going to go. I remember having a talk at the time with Mr. Milner about it. I remarked that the worst of people having premonitions is that they carefully hide up their prophecies until after the event, and then no one believed in them. “This time no one shall have the least doubt as to the fact that I have had my premonition well in advance of the fact. It is now October. I have told everybody whom it concerns whom I know. If it happens not to come to pass I will never have faith in my premonitions any more, and you may chaff me as much as you please as to the superstition. But if it turns up trumps, then please remember that I have played doubles or quits and won.” Nobody at the office paid much attention to my vision, and a couple of months later Mr. Morley came to consult me as to some slight change which he proposed to make in the terms of his engagement which he was renewing for another year. As this change affected me slightly he came, with that courtesy and consideration which he always displayed in his dealings with his staff, to ask whether I should have any objection to this alteration. As he was beginning to explain what this alteration would be I interrupted him. “Excuse me, Mr. Morley,” said I, “when will this new arrangement come into effect?” “In May, I think,” was the reply. “Then,” said I, “you do not need to discuss it with me. I shall have sole charge of the Pall Mall Gazette before that time. You will not be here then, you will be in Parliament.” “But,” said Mr. Morley, “that is only your idea. What I want to know is whether you agree to the changes which I propose to make and which will somewhat affect your work in the office?” “But,” I replied, “it is no use talking about that matter to me. You will not be here, and I shall be carrying on the Pall Mall Gazette>; then what is the use of talking about it.” Then Mr. Morley lifted his chin slightly in the air, and looking at me with somewhat natural disdain, he asked, “And, pray, do you mean to tell me that I have not to make a business arrangement because you have had a vision?” “Not at all,” said I; you, of course, will make what business arrangements you please,—I cannot expect you to govern your conduct by my vision;—but as I shall have charge of the paper it is no use discussing the question with me. You can make what arrangements you please so far as I am concerned. They are so much waste paper. I ask you nothing about the arrangement, because I know it will never come into effect so far as relates to my work on the paper.” Finding that I was impracticable, Mr. Morley left and concluded his arrangement without consultation. One month later Mr. Ashton Dilke sickened with his fatal illness, and Mr. Morley was elected on February 24th, 1884, as Liberal candidate for Newcastle-on-Tyne. I remember that when the news came to Northumberland Street, the first remark which Mr. Thompson made was, “Well, Stead’s presentiment is coming right after all.” I remember all through that contest, when the issue was for some time somewhat in doubt, feeling quite certain that if Mr. Morley did not get in he would die, or he would find some other constituency. I had no vision as to the success of his candidature at Newcastle. The one thing certain was that I was to have charge of the paper, and that he was to be out of it. When he was elected the question came as to what should be done? The control of the paper passed almost entirely into my hands at once, and Mr. Morley would have left altogether on the day mentioned in my vision, had not Mr. Thompson kindly interfered to secure me a holiday before saddling me with the sole responsibility. Mr. Morley, therefore, remained till midsummer; but his connection with the paper was very slight, parliamentary duties, as he understood them, being incompatible with close day-to-day editing of an evening paper. Here, again, it could not possibly have been said that my premonition had any share in bringing about its realisation. It was not known by Mr. Ashton Dilke’s most intimate friends in October that he would not be able to face another session. I did not even know that he was ill, and my vision, so far from being based on any calculation of Mr. Morley’s chances of securing a seat in Parliament, was quite independent of all electoral changes. My vision, my message, my premonition, or whatever you please to call it, was strictly limited to one point, Mr. Morley only coming into it indirectly. I was to have charge of certain duties which necessitated his disappearance from Northumberland Street. Note also that my message did not say that I was to be editor of the Pall Mall Gazette on Mr. Morley’s departure, nor was I ever in strict title editor of that paper. I edited it, but Mr. Yates Thompson was nominally editor-in-chief, nor did I ever admit that I was editor until I was in the dock at the Old Bailey, when it would have been cowardly to have seemed to evade the responsibility of a position which I practically occupied, although, as a matter of fact, the post was never really conferred upon me.
The third instance which I will quote is even more remarkable, and entirely precluded any possibility of my premonition having any influence whatever in bring[ing] about its realization. During what is known as the Armstrong trial it became evident from the judge’s ruling that a conviction must necessarily follow. I was accused of having conspired to take Eliza Armstrong from her parents without their consent. My defence was that her mother had sold the child through a neighbour for immoral purposes. I never alleged that the father had consented, and the judge ruled with unmistakable emphasis that her mother’s consent, even if proved, was not sufficient, Here I may interpolate a remark to the effect that if Mrs. Armstrong had been asked to produce her marriage lines the sheet anchor of the prosecution would have given way, for long after the trial it was discovered that from a point of law Mr. Armstrong had no legal rights over Eliza, as she was born out of wedlock. The council in the case, however, said we had no right to suggest this, however much we suspected it, unless we were prepared with evidence to justify the suggestion. As at that time we could not find the register of marriage at Somerset House the question was not put, and we were condemned largely on the false assumption that her father had legal rights as custodian of his daughter. And this, as it happened, was not the case. This, however, by the way. When the trial was drawing to a close, conviction being certain, the question was naturally discussed as to what the sentence would be. Many of my friends, including those actively engaged in the trial on both sides, were strongly of opinion that under the circumstances it was certain I should only be bound over in my own recognisance to come up for judgment when called for. The circumstances were almost unprecedented; the judge, and the Attorney-General, who prosecuted, had in the strongest manner asserted that they recognised the excellence of the motives which had led me to take the course which had landed me in the dock. The Attorney-General himself was perfectly aware that his Government could never have passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act—would never even have attempted to do so—but for what I had done. The jury had found me guilty, but strongly recommended me to mercy on the ground, as they said, that I had been deceived by my agent. The conviction was very general that no sentence of imprisonment would be inflicted. I was never a moment in doubt. I knew I was going to gaol from the moment Rebecca Jarrett broke down in the witness-box. This may be said to be nothing extraordinary; but what was extraordinary was that I had the most absolute conviction that I was going to gaol for two months. I was told by those who considered themselves in a position to speak with authority that I was perfectly safe, that I should not be imprisoned, and that I should make preparations to go abroad for a holiday as soon as the trial was over. To all such representations I always replied by asserting with the most implicit confidence that I was certain to go to gaol, and that my sentence would be two months. When, however, on November l0th, 1885, I stood in the dock to receive sentence, and received from the judge a sentence of three months, I was very considerably taken aback. I remember distinctly that I had to remember where I was in order to restrain the almost irresistible impulse to interrupt the judge and say, “I beg your pardon, my lord, you have made a mistake, the sentence ought to have been two months.” But mark what followed. When I had been duly confined in Coldbath-on-the-Fields Prison, I looked at the little card which is fastened on the door of every cell giving the name of the prisoner, his offence, and the duration of his sentence. I found to my great relief that my presentiment had not been wrong after all. I had, it is true, been sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, but the sentence was dated from the first day of the sessions. Our trial had been a very long one, and there had been other cases before it. The consequence was that the judge’s sentence was as near two months as he possibly could have passed. My actual sojourn in gaol was two months and seven days. Had he sentenced me to two months’ imprisonment I should only have been in gaol one month and seven days.
These three presentiments were quite unmistakable, and were not in the least to be confounded with the ordinary uneasy forebodings which come and go like clouds in a summer sky. Of the premonitions which still remain unfulfilled I will say nothing, excepting that they govern my action, and more or less colour the whole of my life. No person can have had three or four premonitions such as those which I have described without feeling that such premonitions are the only certainties of the future. They will be fulfilled, no matter how incredible they may appear; and amid the endless shifting circumstances of our life, these fixed points, towards which we are inevitably tending, help to give steadiness to a career, and a feeling of security to which the majority of men are strangers.