Perhaps the most famous case of past life recall is that of Virginia Tighe who recalled her past life as Bridey Murphy. Virginia was the wife of a Virginia businessman in Pueblo, Colorado. While under hypnosis in 1952, she told Morey Bernstein, her therapist, that over 100 years ago she was an Irish woman named Bridget Murphy who went by the nickname of Bridey. During their sessions together, Bernstein marveled at detailed conversations with Bridey, who spoke with a pronounced Irish brogue and spoke extensively of her life in 19th century Ireland. When Bernstein published his book about the case, The Search for Bridey Murphy in 1956, it became famous around the world and sparked an excited interest in the possibility of reincarnation.
Over six sessions, Virginia revealed many details about Bridey's life, including her birth date in 1798, her childhood amid a Protestant family in the city of Cork, her marriage to Sean Brian Joseph McCarthy and even her own death at the age of 60 in 1858. As Bridey, she provided numerous specifics, such as names, dates, places, events, shops and songs - things Virginia was always surprised about when she awoke from the hypnosis. But could these details be verified? The results of many investigations were mixed. Much of what Bridey said was consistent with the time and place, and it seemed inconceivable that someone who had never been to Ireland could provide so many details with such confidence.
However, journalists could find no historical record of Bridey Murphy - not her birth, her family, her marriage, nor her death. Believers supposed that this was merely due to the poor recordkeeping of the time. But critics discovered inconsistencies in Bridey's speech and also learned that Virginia had grown up near - and had known well - an Irish woman named Bridle Corkell, and that she was quite likely the inspiration for "Bridey Murphy." There are flaws with this theory, too, however, keeping the case of Bridey Murphy an intriguing mystery.
The famous Bridey Murphy case not only remains one of the most famous past-life memory cases on record but is also notable for being one of the few that has been both successfully debunked and subsequently 'un-debunked' (a double debunking?)
Though savaged by its critics within months of the stories release in 1956, it has managed something of a rebound among reincarnationists over the years, who have been able to punch holes in the skeptic's best explanations for the mysterious Bridey Murphy's apparent recall of a full life lived in nineteenth century Ireland. Even the venerable Dr. Stevenson—considered by many the most practical and objective of the reincarnationist investigators—accepts the Bridey Murphy case as credible, despite the decades of debate that has raged around it. As such, I thought it might be interesting to briefly reexamine the case here, for it is a perfect example of how any paranormal account can be demolished with a few well-placed shots, and then just as easily resurrected with a few return salvos. This is not a story of reincarnation per se, but a quick look at how the skeptical community operates and how it is just as willing to grasp at straws in its determination not to believe in the possibility of life after death—usually in any capacity—as the proponents of post-mortem existence are to embrace evidence in support of their beliefs. In other words, this should demonstrate how both sides basically think alike in their quest to prove their position. It's all part of human nature, I suppose, and human nature can be as fascinating a subject for study as even the most inexplicable mysteries often prove to be.
The Basics of the Story:
In November of 1952, a 29-year old Pueblo, Colorado housewife by the name of Virginia Tighe was put into a deep trance by a self-taught hypnotist Morey Bernstein in an effort to ascertain whether there was such a thing as reincarnation. Much to Bernstein's surprise, Mrs. Tighe, speaking in a mild Irish brogue, claimed to be a woman named Bridey Murphy, born in the town of Cork, Ireland in the year 1798, and went on to describe in considerable detail a life lived in nineteenth century Ireland. More just a few vague details and unverifiable claims, Mrs. Tighe, over the course of several sessions (all of which were carefully recorded on cassette tape) made a number of statements which were potentially capable of being verified: for example, she recounted having been born to a barrister father named Duncan and his wife Kathleen, of marrying a Catholic man from Belfast named Brian McCarthy, and described her death after a fall down a staircase in 1864 at the age of sixty-six. Further, she named a number of places (including the names of locations that had long since been renamed but were in use in nineteenth century Ireland) as well as acquaintances from her previous life in intricate detail and, even more impressively, used archaic terms that only someone who studied the local dialects of Ireland would have recognized. She even correctly named several household items by their proper nineteenth century terms and identified the currency of the era (which included a little known monetary denomination known to exist only during the early nineteenth century.) In all, Mrs. Tighe made more than two dozen specific statements that provided precise details of a verifiable nature, many of which were later demonstrated to be correct. She did all of this, we are assured, with no prior knowledge about or interest in Ireland or Irish folklore, history, or customs (and, we are told, possessing no prior interest in reincarnation either.)
Understandably impressed, Mr. Bernstein went on to write a book detailing the woman's remarkable story, which became a national best seller upon its release in January of 1956. It didn't take long for the scientific and religious communities (inedvertently acting in concert) to notice and within weeks of Mr. Bernstein's book hitting the shelves, objections to the story emerged. The criticism came primarily from three camps: first, from the religious detractors who considered reincarnation incompatible with their Christian beliefs; second, from the medical/scientific community who questioned both the validity of hypnosis itself as a tool for accessing subconscious memories as well as the idea of life after death in general; and, finally, from the press, who challenged the supposed evidence designed to bolster the credibility of the story. While the religious opponents attacked from the standpoint of Biblical innerancy and the medical and scientific communities worked from the premise that it all lacked empirical evidence, it was the press that proved to be most damaging to Mrs. Tighe's claims. Doing their own digging, they were the ones who, writing through a series of damning exposés, torpedoed Mr. Bernstein's book and reduced the Bridey Murphy story from that of a metaphysical mystery to a text-book case of cryptomnesia.
It wasn't the fact that there were no written record of either a Bridey (or, actually, a Bridgette, for which 'Bridey' was a common nickname) Murphy, or for her parents, or her husband—all of which Mr. Bernstein acknowledged in his book—that was most damning. Record keeping in nineteenth century Ireland was notoriously bad, and considering the commonality of the names Murphy and MacCarthy, such a lack of physical evidence was understandable. What the critics had the most success with was in delving into Mrs. Tighe's past, where they made the following “discoveries” about Mrs. Tighe:
* As a girl growing up in Chicago in the 1920's, Virginia Tighe had a neighbor by the name of Bridie Corkell, whose maiden name was Murphy. Obviously, this was the subconscious origin of the name Bridey (sp) Murphy.
* For a time Mrs. Tighe lived with an aunt of Irish descent who apparently regaled the impressionable young girl with tales of Ireland. These stories were subsequently forgotten by the young girl but remained as 'hidden' memories that were later to serve as the basis for much of the later Bridey Murphy mythology.
* A Chicago clergyman by the name of Rev. Wally White, whose church Mrs. Tighe had supposedly attended as a child, admitted that the girl had proven especially precocious and had a notable interest in all things Irish. He was a major source of information to the reporters of the Chicago American in writing their series of exposés debunking her story.
* Mrs. Tighe supposedly learned how to speak in an Irish brogue and perform Irish jigs from a teacher named Saulnier in Chicago when she was twelve years old. Apparently, she had a considerable gift for acting and dancing, elements of which would later play a dramatic role in her Bridey Murphy persona.
* Bridey Murphy remembered having a brother who died in infancy. According the first exposé, Mrs. Tighe also had a brother who was stillborn, which undoubtedly served as the source for Bridey's memories of losing her brother.
* There was no evidence of a Father John Gorman or a St. Theresa's Catholic Church in Belfast, at which Bridey and her husband were apparently married, existing at the time Bridey supposedly lived. Even if record keeping was poor, it is unlikely something as substantial as a church would not be found somewhere in the public record.
* Bridey described herself as growing up in a wooden house at a time when wood was scarce in Ireland and rarely used as a building material. Bridey also recalled scratching paint off of the bedposts of her iron bed as a child, years before iron beds had been introduced to Ireland.
" There were a number of other objections and inconsistencies as well, most having to do with some of the phraseology she used, as well as other historical inconsistencies.
The conclusion, then, was that Mrs. Tighe was the unwitting victim of a form of self-delusion known as cryptomnesia (lost or hidden memories accessible only through hypnosis) combined with a fertile imagination, all enhanced and encouraged through no small amount of leading and coaching by a self-taught hypnotist and author who was to realize a tidy profit from the story. Just as much of the public had been quick to accept Bridey Murphy's story at face value, they were equally as quick to accept the verdict of the 'professionals' that it was much ado about nothing. Within months, then, the debunkers had successfully destroyed Mr. Bernstein's credibility and the subject quickly faded from public interest, along with serious interest in the subject of reincarnation in general.
The "Real" Story of Mrs. Tighe
Unbeknownst to most people, however, Mr. Bernstein did not take to having either his reputation nor the reliability of his work sullied without a fight. Aided by a reporter for the Denver Post named William Barker (who had first ran the Bridey Murphy story in 1953) and assisted by a number of allies, Mr. Bernstein fought to set the record straight.
Several months of investigation, including a careful study of Mrs. Tighe's background, revealed that the debunkers had been less than honest in their 'facts' concerning the woman's upbringing, and were proven repeatedly to either be flat-out wrong in what they said, or were frequently caught portraying the opinions of 'experts' as though they were irrefutable facts. Writing a supplement to later reprints of Mr. Bernstein's book, Mr. Barker successfully debunked every point the skeptics had made, using careful investigation and corroborative facts to make his case that the Murphy story, while not irrefutable proof of reincarnation, was not mere nonsense either. Some of the more interesting discoveries he made are as follows:
* Virginia Tighe did in fact have a neighbor in Chicago by the name of Bridie Corkell, who had, indeed, grown up in Ireland. However, it was never clearly established that her maiden name was, in fact, Murphy , nor was it obvious how Mrs. Tighe would have learned either her first or maiden names as a girl in any case. She was not a close associate (Mrs. Tighe barely remembered her, according to her own account) plus children rarely were privy to what would have been considered personal information such as first or maiden names of non-related adults. (The author himself has several aunts and to this day has yet to learn the maiden name of even one of them.) Additionally, if Mrs. Corkell was the source for Bridey Murphy, why would Mrs. Tighe have used her maiden name rather than her married name? Wouldn't it have been more consistent—if, indeed, Bridie Corkell was the source for Virginia Tighe's past life persona—that she would have referred to herself as Bridie Corkell rather than Murphy? Additionally, Mrs. Corkell was not from county Cork as Bridey Murphy claimed to have been, nor had she ever been to Belfast; she grew up in County Mayo in western Ireland, a region of Ireland Bridey Murphy made no mention of during her detailed regression sessions. Again, if Bridie Corkell was the source of Bridey Murphy, why the abrupt and inexplicable change in locales?
* Mrs. Tighe's 'Irish aunt' Marie, who had lived with her family briefly when Mrs. Tighe was 18 years old, was not from Ireland, but was born in New York City and lived most of her life in Chicago. Contrary to what the skeptics have maintained, she did not 'regale' Mrs. Tighe with stories of Ireland, simply because she had never been to the place nor any particular interest in it. In any case, 18 years of age is a bit old for one to acquire 'hidden' memories. Had Mrs. Tighe actually heard her aunt speak of Ireland, this should have been easily recalled in later years—if not the specifics, at least the fact that she had spoken of the place—implying that either there were no stories for Mrs. Tighe to remember, or that she was being less than honest when later asked about them. Additionally, even if we accept the possibility that Mrs. Tighe's Irish aunt had told her stories of Ireland, where would the aunt have gotten such a considerable amount of richly detailed information, especially considering she had never been to Ireland herself? She would need have acquired it from somewhere. Further, even if she had read about Ireland somewhere and inadvertently passed that information on to an apparently easily impressionable 18-yr old girl, how did she accrue such a wealth of little-known historical facts and the unique details 'Bridey Murphy' was later to reveal? Obviously, someone had to have done their research with no one being the wiser for it, and then that same someone had to have lied about the fact—a contention which has never been validated.
* It turns out Mrs. Tighe had never heard of the Rev. Wally White until he showed up on her doorstep some months after the release of the book, offering to 'pray' for her. Not surprisingly, he went on to be a major contributor to the Chicago American article exposing Mrs. Tighe supposed past, despite having never known the woman as a child at all. Clearly, if this was the case, the Rev. White was a self-imposed 'plant' designed to discredit the story for the obvious reason that reincarnation was incompatible with his religious beliefs and therefore a threat to be eradicated. There is no evidence the American knew the good Reverend was mounting his own one-man disinformation program, but likely simply accepted his word that he had known the woman based upon the presumption that being a 'man of the cloth' made it unlikely he would lie. (Author's note: history has repeatedly demonstrated that even deeply religious people—and, in some cases, especially deeply religious people—will lie, distort and withhold information if they believe it is for the greater good. Did the Reverend White fit into this category?)
* Mrs. Tighe did take 'elocution' lessons from a Mrs. Saulnier in Chicago when she was twelve years old but, according to later investigators who managed to locate and interview the woman, Mrs. Tighe apparently demonstrated no particular gift for acting and never learned Irish jigs from her but only contemporary dance numbers.
* Though Bridey Murphy claimed to have had a brother who died in infancy, thus paralleling Mrs. Tighe's childhood memory of having a stillborn brother, this proved to be completely erroneous: Mrs. Tighe had no such ill-fated sibling, and never claimed to have. Where this information came from is anyone's guess.
* While admittedly there was no evidence of either a Father John Gorman or a St. Theresa's Catholic Church in Belfast, it had to be remembered that there were literally hundreds of small parishes peppered throughout Belfast in the early nineteenth century. While larger churches would likely be found in the public record, it would not be difficult to imagine smaller parishes flourishing for a time before dying out, moving, or being renamed without leaving a trace in the public record they ever existed. (Author's note: the fact that Bridey recalled having Father Gorman over to her house on numerous occasions would seem to imply he was able to spend considerable time away from his congregation; something which would only be possible if his 'flock' was a reasonably small one.)
* While much has been made of Bridey's supposed wooden house (a scarce building material at the time) it has to be remembered that her home was apparently in a meadowed, forested area outside of Cork itself, which might have made a wooden house (or, at least, a partially wooden one) at least feasible. There is also some confusion as to whether she said on the tape that she lived in a 'wood' house or a 'good' house. Her Irish brogue was, at times, difficult to make out and the tapes, being produced on an early recording machine, were not of the highest sound quality. The fact that Bridey also recalled scratching paint off of the bedposts of her iron bed as a child, years before iron beds had been introduced to Ireland, is also a non-starter. Later research demonstrated that while iron beds were not common in Ireland at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they were not unheard of either. Since Cork was a major Irish seaport that served as a conduit for a large number of imports, it's not inconceivable that her father may have been able to procure an iron bed, even at such an early date.
* Other objections and inconsistencies later proved to be largely red herrings as well, leaving much of the skeptic's case in tatters. Additionally, Mr. Barker noted that two of the Belfast merchants Bridey named, a Mr. Carrington and a Mr. Farr, were found listed on a registrar of Belfast merchants from that era, straining the chances of coincidence to its limits. Even a local coin Bridey named—a tuppence—that was originally dismissed as nonexistent, turned out to have been in common use during the time that Bridey lived. In all, while there were some elements of the Bridey Murphy saga that proved to be unverifiable and a number of questions that need to be asked, for the most part Mrs. Tighe's story proved to hold up better under scrutiny than did those of her skeptics, a point that has since been largely lost on most people.
While the Bridey Murphy story is not the strongest case of reincarnation on record, it is not the weakest either. What's most curious about it is that even though the debunkers were themselves debunked—from which they have never answered back, it might be added—skeptics continue to use these objections today without a second thought. I assume most are simply unaware of these points or refuse to accept them because they do not conform to their preconceived biases. While the pro-reincarnation lobby is occasionally just as guilty of this themselves, it seems that men and women who pride themselves on accuracy and honesty should know better. No one is demanding they accept the Bridey Murphy story as true, but it strikes me as dishonest and unprofessional to continue to use long-ago discredited material to make their tired and oft-repeated case for cryptomnesia. It simply isn't there, and saying so—even fifty years later—does not make it so.