The Case of Bridey Murphy

Assembled by

Malcolm Macmillan

University of Melbourne and Deakin University

 

Malcolm Macmillan is Professorial Fellow in Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, and the School of Psychology at Deakin University.  He is the author of many scientific papers, especially on the history of psychology, and of two books:

Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc (MIT Press, 1991/1997)

and

An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage (MIT Press, 2000).

See also his "Phineas Gage Information Page".

In the course of preparing his book on Freud, Prof. Macmillan became interested in the case of Bridey Murphy.  At a party in 1952, Virginia Tighe, an American woman living in Colorado, was hypnotized by Morey Bernstein, an amateur hypnotist.  During this session, Tighe ostensibly recovered memories of a past life as an Irish woman in the 19th century.  

The case was first publicized in a series of articles in empire, the Sunday magazine of the Denver Post, by William J. Barker (September 12, 19, and 26, and December 5, 1954), and then detailed in Bernstein's own book, The Search for Bridey Murphy (Doubleday, 1956), subsequently made into a movie starring Teresa Wright.  

Bernstein's book was serialized in the Chicago Daily News, which sent a reporter, Ernie Hill, to Ireland to try to uncover independent corroboration of Bridey's memories.  The Denver Post sent Barker on the same mission, resulting in his article, "The Truth About Bridey" (March 11, 1956).  Both missions largely failed.  

When the paperback edition of The Search was published later that same year (Penguin, 1956), it contained an appendix by Barker, "The Case for Bridey in Ireland", essentially reprinting his article.

After Bernstein's book was published, the Bridey case was also analyzed by a group of skeptical professionals in A Scientific Report on the Search for Bridey Murphy (Julian Press, 1956), edited by Milton V. Kline, one of the founders of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis and the first editor of the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, the leading journal for hypnosis research.. 

Life magazine first took notice of the Bridey Murphy case in its March 19, 1956 issue, with an article by Herbert Brean entitled "Bridey Murphy Puts Nation Into a Hypnotizzy" that told how publication of Bernstein's book had begun a nationwide craze for "parlor hypnosis" and "Bridey gags".  It also discussed expert professional opinion about the case, as reflected in Kline's Scientific Report on the Search for Bridey Murphy. Perhaps most important, it summarized the findings of a group of investigative reporters -- Barker, of the Denver Post, Hill of the Chicago Daily News; and Ruth Lynam of Life -- who attempted to confirm various aspects of the Bridey story in London.  Their search was largely unsuccessful.  For example, they found no birth or death record for a Bridey Murphy in either Cork (where she said she was born) or Belfast (where she said she had died).

Time magazine also carried a brief article in the Press section of its March 19, 1956 issue, entitled "Found: Bridey Murphy", essentially repeating the information in the Life article.  

Life  printed a number of letters to the editor stimulated by the article in its issue of April 9, 1956,.  

In its June 25, 1956 issue, Life magazine summarized the Chicago American series in an unsigned article (p. 109) labeled "Sequel", accompanied by photographs of Virginia Tighe and the real Bridie Murphy Corkell.  

Time published a similar article in its issue of June 18, 1956.  

In October 1956, the Denver Post published an interview with Tighe by Barker, entitled "How Bridey Changed My Life".  

Virginia Tighe died on July 12, 1995.  Her obituary appeared in the New York Times, and was reprinted in 52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas Jr., edited by Chris Calhoun (2001).and Morey Bernstein died in 1999.  

The March 1956 Life articles are fairly well known.  What is hardly known at all is that, later that year, the case was thoroughly debunked by a series of articles in the Chicago American, a now-defunct newspaper (May 27-June 7,1956).  Rather than follow "Bridey Murphy" back to Ireland, the Chicago American team -- which consisted of a local minister aided by two professional reporters -- followed Virginia Tighe back to her girlhood in Madison, Wisconsin and Chicago -- where, it turns out, she became close to a recent Irish immigrant named Bridie Murphy Corkell.  The young Virginia was infatuated with Bridie, and had a crush on her son John.  

Martin Gardner cited the Chicago American series in his chapter on the case in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957).  The series, and Gardner's critique, were also cited by E.R. Hilgard in Divided Consciousness: Multiple Controls in Human Thought and Action (1979).  

Macmillan became interested in Bridey in the context of what was known about the effects of the demand characteristics that clients/patients read into their therapists' expectations (Freud Evaluated, MIT Press Edition, 1997, pp. 210-216). He writes (hypnosis listserv posting, 10/21/2011):

What I had said was that the experimental and clinical evidence was well-illustrated in her age regression and what happened when scientology auditing guided the pre-clear to memories of life as other life forms or as thetans who had been implanted with false memories on other planets. He then went on to make a detailed analysis of how Freud's expectations guided what he said he had done in recovering the seduction 'memories.'

The Chicago American reports were necessary to tease out what Morey Bernstein had done but apart from that, I wasn't really interested in Bridey. Had I known about Ducasse, I would have considered his rebuttal. But his name did not appear in anything I searched for and the JASPR was not a source that suggested itself to me. I still haven't read it although I would like to. It doesn't seem to be in any library here in Melbourne.

One of the well-known problems in evaluating the evidence for past lives is that of locating or ruling out sources and influences from present lives. Unless one is very lucky, it is almost impossible to do so as can be inferred from the study by Kampmann and Hirvenjo. In some lectures on 'Abnormal Psychological Phenomena' I gave some years ago, I set students various tasks to test some 'psychic' claims. The tasks ranged from easy, e.g. Conan Doyle's fairy photos, to difficult, e.g. past lives, and the students were able to appreciate the difficulties of getting evidence and the part luck played even in investigating the easy tasks.

As to Bridey's songs etc, when I wrote Freud Evaluated I knew that what we call 'Danny Boy' had been set by the Australian composer Percy Grainger in various versions from about 1902, but I did not know it had no words. Percy found the tune in a collection of ancient music of Ireland published in 1855 by George Petrie who had been given it by Jane Ross, of Londonderry. Petrie/Ross called it 'Air from County Derry.' Percy retained part of its original and simple name by calling it 'Irish Tune from County Derry' and it was not given the 'Danny Boy' words until 1910/1913 (by Fred Weatherly).

'Danny Boy' is not and could not have been a folk song that Bridey Murphy learned to sing in Ireland. But that would not matter to the true believer: Bridey's memories of 'Danny Boy,' they would say, are an amalgam those of the real Virginia Tighe, who learned 'Danny Boy' with words in Madison or Chicago, and of Bridey's, the colleen who heard or even hummed the tune in Ireland. An unassailable argument. It also points to one of the main logical constraints on the kind of evidence that disproves or at least causes one to be sceptical about the reality of past lives.

Despite all the evidence -- journalistic and scientific -- that the Bridey Murphy case was not one of genuine reincarnation, belief in the case persists in some quarters.  C.J. Ducasse  identified what he considered to be inaccuracies in the Chicago American series (J. Am. Soc. Psychical. Res., 1960, 54, 3-22).  Barker himself wrote an essay, "Bridey Murphy Debunkers Debunked", which appeared as an afterword to the 1965 edition of Bernstein's book.  Neither author was able to offer positive evidence for the existence of Bridey in the 19th century, much less her reincarnation in the 20th.  Far from accepting Bridey as evidence of reincarnation, Ducasse himself suggested that the case showed that hypnosis could stimulate "paranormal knowledge" (p. 22) of the past.

The bottom line is that there was never any reason to think that regression to a previous life was possible, or that such claims were valid (which is what Kline et al. argued, on theoretical grounds), nor any positive evidence that Virginia Tighe's of Bridey, a 19th-century Irish girl whose favorite song was "Danny Boy", ever existed (which is what both the Denver Post/Life and Chicago American reporters found, each in their own way, empirically, on the ground).  And there is every reason to think that Tighe's Bridey was a sort of cryptomnesia -- an imaginative reconstruction, based on her contact with Bridie Murphy Corkell and other sources, aided and abetted by the suggestive context of hypnosis.

This page presents the photocopies and transcriptions of the original Chicago American newspaper articles, plus the two Life magazine articles.  Click on the logos below to access the material.

 

This page last updated 10/28/2011 06:56:04 AM.