The Bridey Murphy Case and Reincarnation

Introduction - It is with some interest that I read the article "Belief in Rebirth and After life in the West" by Dr. Granville Dharmawardena – (The Island Midweek Review of 19.05.10). In the course of the article the writer mentions the case of Bridey Murphy. However, having done some research in the internet on this particular case a few years ago, I would like to present some facts, that I then gathered, which gives the other side of the story, which I think would interest readers. I confine my comments only to this case.

In 1952 the case of Bridey Murphy brought the attention of the Western world to the notions of past lives and reincarnation. I can remember reading an article on it in the Readers Digest, when I was a final year medical student about fifty five years ago. It caused quite a stir world-wide. The book "The Search for Bridey Murphy" written on it by Morey Bernstein, published in 1956, was an immediate best-seller, though the movie on it was not a box-office draw.

The Case – The book is a record of revelations made by one Ruth Simmons to Morey Bernstein, while under hypnosis. Ruth Simmons was really a pseudonym for Virginia Tighe (VT) (1923-1995). In 1952, in Pueblo, Colorado, US, Morey Bernstein hypnotized VT, a young house-wife then aged 29. Bernstein, a self-taught amateur hypnotist and a local businessman, also happened to be a neighbour of VT.

Bernstein found VT unusually susceptible to hypnosis. Under hypnosis by Bernstein, who used the technique of ‘past life regression’, VT claimed to be a 19th century woman from Cork in Ireland. She said her name was Bridey Murphy (BM). In subsequent sessions she claimed to have been born on December 20, 1798, the daughter of Kathleen and Duncan Murphy. The family had lived outside of Cork, in Ireland; the house she lived in was mostly of wood. Her father was a barrister. She had patronized grocers named Carr and Carrigan. They moved to Belfast, attended St. Theresa’s church, and they remained there until Bridey’s death at age 66 following a fall downstairs.

While under hypnosis, she spoke in an Irish brogue, sang Irish songs and told Irish stories, always as BM. There were six sessions conducted by Bernstein over a period of eleven months.

Some Subsequent Findings – Subsequent to the publishing of the book The Search for Bridey Murphy, several findings have surfaced. Some of these are:

* Reporters who went to Ireland could find no verification of a person called Bridey Murphy or that of her parents. The St.Theresa’s church which BM was said to have attended in Belfast was built only in 1911.

* The groceries where BM had shopped were in existence. Descriptions of the Antrim coastline in Ireland were very accurate. So, too, was her account of a journey from Belfast to Cork.

* Houses at that time were mostly of brick not wood as VT said.

* Although the book mentions that Ruth Simmons (really VT) was brought up by a Norwegian uncle and his German-Scottish-Irish wife, it did not state that her actual parents were both part Irish and she had lived with them until the age of three. Life magazine also reported that VT knew so much Irish folklore because as a child she had lived with an aunt, Mrs. Marie Burns, who was Irish and well informed about the "Old Country".

* VT’s early childhood was in Chicago, Illinois, and a persistent journalist from the newspaper Chicago American reported that across the place where VT had lived as a child, there had been, at that time, an Irish woman named Bridey Murphy Corkell - (the first two names are significant). This caused many to dismiss both Bernstein and VT as frauds. Whether this is justified is left to the individual to decide.

* The obituary of Bridey Murphy Corkell appeared in Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1957. Bridey Corkell immigrated to the US in 1908. Although VT claimed that she did not know Mrs. Corkell’s maiden name, Bridey’s spinster sister Mary Murphy was living with the Corkells, as seen in the 1930 census – (U.S.Census, April 1, 1930, State of Illinois, County of Cook, City of Chicago, enumeration district 1955, p. 19-A, family 428 – details given in Wikipedia). Pro Bernstein websites mention that Mrs. Corkell’s maiden name was not known.

* Mrs. Corkell (nee Bridey Murphy) was the mother of seven. Virginia (VT), as a little girl was curious about the Corkell family’s Irish background. All this information was in Chicago American.

* Life magazine reported that a childhood friend of VT said that when VT was very young she was in the habit of speaking in an Irish brogue. Another one-time neighbourhood play mate of VT, who remembered her well said: "She had a good imagination. I always thought she could write a book." The June 25, 1956 issue of Life published a short article "Bridie Search Ends at Last" and a photograph of Mrs. Corkell with her grandchildren.

An Explanation - The details of VT’s hypnotic memories no doubt look impressive. Indeed several newspapers sent reporters to Ireland to investigate, and some of the names and places mentioned by VT were confirmed. However the names and the incidents connected with VT look plainly like the ‘raw material’ for the Bridey story. Consider the following – the "Irish" background of VT, the association with a family with an Irish background during her impressionable years; there was a real live "Bridey Murphy" (Bridey Murphy Corkell) of the 20th century who was her neighbour – these are all significant findings. Almost any hypnotic subject capable of going into a deep trance will babble about a previous existence if the hypnotist asks him/her to. It has often been found that these subjects are just weaving together long forgotten bits of information acquired during their early years. These subjects, who are highly suggestible, manufacture their previous "lives" out of bits and pieces of their own past in order to please the hypnotist.

All things considered, ‘Bridey Murphy’ provides a classic case of cryptoamnesia – a phenomenon first described by 19th century Swiss psychologist-philosopher-physician, Theodore Flournoy. According to this theory, the human mind is like a library filled with years and years of overheard conversations, pictures, newspaper stories, TV shows, books and songs. Nothing is ever lost; everything seen or heard remains ‘on file’. Though consciously forgotten, these bits and pieces of information and experience can later form the basis of fully blown fantasies that emerge under hypnosis, as personal "memories."

In fact, experts who examined the case of VT came to the conclusion that the best way to examine the truth was not to check back to Ireland, but to her own childhood and her relationship with her parents.

Past-life Recall as Proof for Reincarnation – Many people who accept reincarnation today, claim that it can be scientifically proven. They usually ground their belief on actual instances of such recall. There are two distinct forms of this phenomenon

1. Hypnotic Regression – Hypnosis is a method of inducing an altered state of consciousness, which causes a person to become very receptive to the hypnotists suggestions. It is however a fact that hypnosis can mix fantasy with real memories. Since the information the subjects supply couldn’t have been normally learned during their normal life span, it is supposed that they really recall past lives. There are however other possibilities of explanation.

One is that of cryptoamnesia, mentioned above, which seems to explain the Bridey Murphy case. Another factor is the influence of the hypnotist himself and the receptivity of the subject to the hypnotist’s suggestions. Also, the subject is prepared before hypnosis; he/she is informed about its purpose, which induces a high expectancy state. The conscious desire to know the content of "previous lives" influences the response under hypnosis as does the asking of leading questions. Hypnosis is valuable in psychiatric treatment, but when used for past life regression, it can contaminate the subject’s story. In fact Dr. Ian Stevenson himself (author of Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation), has said: "In my experience, nearly all so-called previous personalities evoked through hypnosis are entirely imaginary and a result of the patient’s eagerness to obey the hypnotist’s suggestions." (Omni Magazine 10(4):76 – 1988).

2. Spontaneous Past-life recall by Children – these cases are almost all under ten years. Several have been mentioned by Dr. Ian Stevenson. Here again, these stories can be explained in an alternate way, not necessarily as proof for reincarnation. There is the possibility that these children are contacting ‘external spirits’ through channeling. It is called possession of children by external spiritual entities. Most cases are children 2 to 5 years of age, when spiritual discernment is almost non-existent. As these children grow up, the entities lose their power of influence upon them. All past life memories are generally lost after the age of ten.

There have been cases where the possessing spirit enters the child’s body long after he/she was born. In one case, Lurancy Vennum, a fourteen year old girl began to display the personality of Mary Roff when she (Mary Roff) died. This lasted several months, while Mary Roff claimed to have occupied the body of the girl. After this period ‘Mary Roff’ departed, and Lurancy Vennum resumed control – (Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations p 32)

These cases of children are culturally dependant. Most cases are in India and South Asia where reincarnation is fully accepted. Stevenson admits:

"All the cases I’ve investigated so far have shortcomings. Even taken together, they do not offer anything like proof." (Omni Magazine)

Conclusion –This article is not meant to debunk any religious view. I have only questioned whether past life recall under hypnosis is of value in proving rebirth. I have not read the book The Search for Bridey Murphy, though I have read magazine and newspaper articles of the case several decades ago. Very often, when a past life regression story has been thoroughly investigated, deeply buried present life memories, along with some added gap filing, has been found to account for the detailed "memories." Some cases of course are not easily explained and remain "metaphysical mysteries". Most of the information in this article is from the internet, which I am aware, should not be accepted without question. If any information and the quotations attributed to Dr. Ian Stevenson are wrong or out of context, I apologize. There are two sides to any question. One can read the book and gather all the "pros"; I have only presented some of the "cons".

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