Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


The Booth family have all keen eyes for business. If they shut their eyes you can see it by their noses. It is not surprising, therefore, to find Mrs. Booth-Tucker capping Mr. Stead's ghost stories with a fine romance about her dead mother. While the "Mother of the Salvation Army" was dying, the Booth family made all the capital they could out of her sufferings; and when she expired, her corpse was shunted about in the financial interest of their show. Perhaps they would be exhibiting her still if there were no law as to the disposition of corpses. But as that avenue to profit is closed, the only alternative is to make use of Mrs. Booth's ghost, and this has just been done by one of her daughters.

Mrs. Booth-Tucker contributes her ghost story to the Easter number of All the World. No doubt Easter was thought a seasonable time for its publication. Christians are just then dreaming about the great Jerusalem ghost, and another "creeper" comes in appropriately.

Mr. Stead catches up Mrs. Booth-Tucker's ghost story and prints it in the Review of Reviews. He admits the want of evidence "as to its objectivity," which is a euphemism for "no evidence at all," and then observes most sapiently that if it was only a dream, "the coincidence of its occurrence at the crisis in her illness is remarkable"—which is precisely what it is not.

Mrs. Booth-Tucker was very ill on board a steamer when she saw her mother, fresh from "the beautiful land above." "Those with me," she says, "thought I was dying, and I thought so too." When a person is in that state, after a wasting illness, the brain is necessarily weak. But this was not all. "I had not slept," the lady says, "for some days, at any rate not for many minutes together." Her brain, therefore, was not only weak, but overwrought; and in ingenuously stating this at the outset the lady gives herself away. Given a wasted body, weakness "unto death," a brain ill supplied with blood and ravaged with sleeplessness; does it, we ask, require a "rank materialist" to explain the presence of "visions" without the aid of supernaturalism?

"Suddenly," Mrs. Booth-Tucker says, "I saw her coming to me." But how "coming"? The lady tells us she was lying in "a small sea cabin." This does not leave much room for the "coming" of the ghost. We should also like to know why a lady thought to be dying was left alone. It is certainly a very unusual circumstance.

Mrs. Booth's ghost, after as much "coming" as could be accomplished in "a small cabin," at last "sat beside" her sick daughter "on the narrow bunk." No doubt the seat was rather incommodious, but why should a ghost sit at all? It really seems to have been a mixed sort of ghost. Apparently it came through the ship's side, or the deck, or the cabin-door, or the key-hole; yet it was solid enough to touch Mrs. Booth-Tucker's hand and kiss her? Nay, it was solid enough to carry on a long conversation, which does not seem possible without lungs and larynx.

Mrs. Booth's ghost said a great deal. "Wonderful words they were," says Mrs. Booth-Tucker. This whets our curiosity. We are always listening for "wonderful words." But, alas, we are doomed to disappointment. The lady knows her mother's words were "wonderful," but she cannot reproduce them. Here memory is defective. "I can remember so few of the actual words," she says. Nevertheless, she gives us a few samples, and they do not seem very "wonderful." Here are two of the said samples: "Live, live, live, remembering that night comes always quickly, and all is nothingness that dies with death!" "Fight the fight, darling; the sympathy of Christ is always with you, and every effort you make is heaping up treasure for you in Heaven."

We fancy we have heard those "wonderful words" before. For all their wonderfulness, ghosts are seldom original. Mrs. Booth-Tucker reminds us of the gushing lady novelist, who describes her hero as divinely handsome and miraculously clever, but when she opens his mouth, makes him talk like a jackass.

"General" Booth's daughter does not see that she found words for her mother's ghost. She is not so sharp as Dr. Johnson, who carried on a discussion with an adversary in a dream, and got the worst of it. For a time he felt humiliated, but he recovered his pride on reflecting that he had provided the other fellow with arguments.

When Mrs. Booth-Tucker tells that "the radiance of her face spoke to me," we can easily understand the subjective nature of her "vision," and as readily dispense with a budget of those "wonderful words."

Nor are we singular in incredulity. Mr. Stead cannot put his tongue in his cheek at a member of the Booth family, but the Christian Commonwealth says "the story is both improbable and absurd," and adds, "it is just such fanaticism as this that brings religion into contempt with many educated people." Our pious contemporary, like any wretched materialist, declares that many persons have seen ghosts "when under the influence of fever or in a low state of health."

All this is sensible enough, and in a Christian journal very edifying. But if our pious contemporary only applied this criticism backwards, what havoc it would make with the records of early Christianity! Mrs. Booth-Tucker is not in all points like Mary Magdalene, but she resembles her in fervor of disposition. Out of Mary Magdalene we are told that Jesus cast "seven devils," which implies, rationalistically, that she was strongly hysterical. She was more likely to be a victim of "fanaticism" than Mrs. Booth-Tucker. Yet the ghost story of Mrs. Booth's daughter is discredited, and even stigmatised as discreditable, while the brain-sick fancies of Mary Magdalene are treated as accurate history. She was at the bottom of the Jerusalem ghost story, and her evidence is regarded as unimpeachable. So much do circumstances alter cases!

Our pious contemporary regards all modern ghosts as "fever dreams." So do we, and we regard all ancient ghosts in the same light The difference between ancient and modern superstition is only a question of environment. Superstition itself is always the same; it no more changes than the leopard's spots or the Ethiopian's skin. But the environment changes. From the days when there was no scientific knowledge or rigorous criticism we have advanced to an age when the electric search-light of science sweeps every corner and criticism is remorseless. Hence the modern ghosts are served up in Christmas "shockers," while the ancient ghosts are worshipped as gods. But this will not last for ever. The rule of "what is, has been," will eventually be applied to the whole of human history, and the greatest ghost of the creeds will "melt into the infinite azure of the past."

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