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Stephenson and Bell

Dreamed 1768 by Matthew Talbot

In the year 1768 my father, Matthew Talbot, of Castle Talbot, county Wexford, was much surprised at the recurrence of a dream three several [sic] times during the same night, which caused him to repeat the whole circumstance to his lady the following morning.

He dreamed that he had arisen as usual, and descended to his library, the morning being hazy. He then seated himself at his secretoire to write, when, happening to look up a long avenue of trees opposite the window, he perceived a man in a blue jacket, mounted on a white horse, coming towards the house. My father arose, and opened the window. The man, advancing, presented him with a roll of papers, and told him they were invoices of a vessel which had been wrecked, and had drifted in during the night on his son-in-law's, Lord Mount Morris's, estate close by, and signed "Bell and Stephenson."

My father's attention was only called to the dream from its frequent recurrence; but when he found himself seated at his desk on the misty morning, and beheld the identical person whom he had seen in his dream, in the blue coat, riding on the grey horse, he felt surprised, and, opening the window, waited the man's approach. He immediately rode up, and drawing from his pocket a packet of papers, gave them to my father, stating they were invoices belonging to an American vessel which had been wrecked, and drifted in upon his lordship's estate; that there was no person on board to lay claim to the wreck, but that the invoices were signed "Stephenson and Bell."

I assure you, my dear sir, that the above is most faithfully given, and actually occurred; but it is not more extraordinary than other examples of the prophetic powers of the mind or soul in sleep, which I have frequently heard related.

'Yours most faithfully,
Alton Towers, Oct. 23, 1842.


SOURCE: notes appended to Dr. Binns' Anatomy of Sleep; quoted in Frank Seafield's The Literature and Curiosities of Dreams (1865)

Among the myriad dream-reports before 1900, I selected this one to post for four reasons:

  1. Both the account and the observer are unusually precise: we get details like names and even colors. (One apparent discrepancy isn't; horsemen routinely call white horses gray, on the grounds nothing's perfectly white)
  2. It's structurally typical: I encounter thrice-dreamt predictive dreams in old European accounts far more often than once-, twice- or four times dreamt. Interesting! Of course tellers may "correct" two or four dreams to the local magic number--note that "three several" in the letter. It's not universal: most of my own and others' modern predictive dreams don't repeat. (But then neither I nor most of my correspondents are European. Predictive dreams there may still come in threes!)
  3. Its strange calm: most such dreams show the death of a loved one, or equally wrenching events. But here's a cool, precise prediction, not so much of news vital to the dreamer, but of a scene--a vivid visual image, then a sad but hardly devastating ritual culminating in the names of complete strangers. Having a cool, unemotional, yet vivid predictive experience like Talbot's myself (see Rhamphorhynchus) convinced me that both ESP skeptics and believers share an unproven assumption that the phenomenon is emotional: either wishful thinking or a need-based sense that rouses in times of crisis. What if it's just a neutral background sense we tune out most of the time? Talbot's dream suggests that. What possible passion is there in noting the color of the man's coat?
  4. Its potential traceability. More records go online every day. Was a vessel lost with all hands off Lord Mount Morris's estate in County Wexford, 1768? If you know, email me!
--Chris Wayan

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