Dreaming Murder in Parliament #11: A Conclusion November 17, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
***Dedicated to all those, who have helped Beach with this series, particularly Bob S***
A couple of comments before driving on to a general conclusion on the Perceval murder [for all previous posts follow this link], comments that will surprise no one who reads this blog regularly. Beach is a hoary old sceptic. He is up for evidence of telepathic dreams should that evidence be good. But, in the interests of honesty, he should confess here, at the beginning, that: (i) he would sleep better at night if that evidence could be destroyed (who wants to be pre-cogging anything?); and (ii) that something that remarkable would need some extremely good evidence to convince.
How does John Williams’ dream measure up? Let’s just set out the genealogy of the sources again. The murder took place in May 1812. The first written account was published in 1828, some sixteen years later: let’s call this (A). Source (B) was written by John Williams himself and dates to 1832: there is the suspicion that it was composed in some respects to answer some of the inexactitudes of source (A) or perhaps because other versions were leaking out e.g. Source (C). Source (C) also came out in 1832 and this was an account of the dream that came to one Dr Abercrombie (a dream expert) through a British doctor who had been born in India (!). In Clement Carlyon’s Early years and Late Memories (1856) there is reference to a further manuscript account in the Williams family (D) apparently lost: Carlyon writes that this second account resembles (C) and he is a trustworthy witness. Then (E) there is Mr Fox’s bizarre topsy-turvy version that may have been written in 1867 by Rennie. Then (F) there is the account in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (apparently published in the 1885 edition) that includes some names not found elsewhere: it is not clear what the original source was here, but this is extra information be it reliable or unreliable. There are also some other minor late sources, but let’s leave the six above as the main ones.
Two comments on sources are necessary. First, it would be desperately important to understand who wrote (A). (A), indeed, is earlier than the other sources but more importantly it has a rather different perspective. One possibility is that (A) was written by the friends of Mr Rennie, referred to in (A) in the summer of 1812. In (B) JW writes ‘I detailed at the time the particulars [to these friends], then fresh in my memory, which form the subject of the above statement’. That could mean that JW is remembering the discussion and that that discussion forms the basis of his writing in 1832 or, surely more likely, the written account of that discussion forms the basis of his writing in 1832. If the second then actually we have in (A) a piece of evidence dating back to the summer of 1812, which would be exciting.
The second important point to say is that despite the likes of Andrew Lang carping about differences, in fact, there are not that many brutal contradictions between (A) and the other accounts: between (B), (C), (D, according to Carlyon) and (F) there are no really substantial variations. The three contradictions that stand out are (i) the wrong date of the dream – when in (B) Williams admits that it had taken place ten days before – and (ii) the claim that JW had never been in parliament before – when in (B) JW admits he had often been there; and (iii) the claim that JW did not know who Mr Perceval was. Beach would like to make much of these but they can probably be easily explained away with the exception of (iii) (more of that later). The writers of (A) or perhaps the journalists who produced the published article, let’s call it (A1), may have misunderstood the exact chronology: JW was later vague about the date and this may have caused an inexact sentence or sentiment to be expanded. The claim that he had not been in Parliament, meanwhile, might have been caused by the sentence ‘This place is as distinctly within my recollection, in my dream, as any room in my house.’ That might be taken to mean that Perceval had never been to Parliament before, perhaps that is what a journalist (A1) put into the original to give it more vim?
Let’s accept, against the prejudices of this author, that (A) is actually a text from the summer of 1812, do we have proof for a telepathic dream? Well, yes and no. Every night in 1812 perhaps twelve million Britons lay down to sleep and all dreamed dreams. Thinking of our own dream habits, how many of these will have involved deaths? Perhaps one million? Of these, let’s say, one million, how many will have involved deaths of famous individuals? Perhaps a hundred thousand: Pope, Christ, the King…. In short, how many times did members of government get offed in dreams? Probably a couple of hundred times a night and presumably the Prime Minister was among their number: particularly as Perceval was rather unpopular at the time, let’s say ten or twenty times. In the ten days before his murder perhaps ten or twenty people will have dreamt of Perceval’s death every night. Statistically dreaming about Perceval’s death and nothing more need have meant little. How many times does Obama die every night as billions dream around the world?
However, JW’s dream was special. He had it three times in sequence. He told everyone about it immediately afterwards, even at the risk of making a fool of himself. And he dined out on the story for the next thirty years, as well he may have. Is there a way that it can be explained away? Beach would certainly not take the fact of the clothes in the dream being the same as those in the picture Williams bought that seriously. As noted in an earlier post (and in comments by the Count) this could be the picture filling in gaps in a dream memory: secondary elaboration in Freudian terms. Then, there is the crucial doubt about who was actually killed: was it the Chancellor or the Chancellor of the Exchequer? If the single most interesting question about the sources is ‘who wrote (A)?’, the single most interesting textual question is ‘why was the detail that JW did not know who had been killed changed?’ Beach would guess that it was changed because Williams skipped over this awkward fact subconsciously as it threatened the authority of his dream. Today ‘Chancellor’ means little. In the nineteenth century there were a broader series of words that this could have been fit to not least the Courts of Chancery: a greater number of reasons to dream of a ‘Chancellor’ in symbolic terms.
None of this is to say that the dream did not make a huge impression on JW. It clearly did. It is only to say that to dream about a Chancellor dying might not have been that strange for a man of business. Where would the Chancellor be killed? Why in Parliament, of course. What part of Parliament did Williams know? The lobby where he had often been. (Remember this was before constant media coverage of the chamber). How in the nineteenth century would someone have been killed? A pistol. Above we noted that it would be very exciting that (A) comes from the summer of 1812, but the truth is that the summer was too late, what we really needed was an account from May 1812 and preferably before the bullet had been shot: even if this is asking something practically impossible. It is certainly a coincidence that a man was killed in the lobby of the Commons ten days after someone has a very strong dream, but given the numbers having dreams in Britain the coincidence should not concern us so very much. It would be a remarkable for someone to roll six sixes on a dice: but not if millions are throwing those dice. JW’s experiences may be indicative of telepathy or pre-cognition, but for those like Beach who are scared hairless by the unknown there are other ways out. These things probably happen all the time, what was unusual about JW was that he was a man who was ‘known about town’ and a man with a stolid reputation: coming from him (rather than Mystic Meg the gypsy or a little boy growing up in a London slum) the account became interesting to society more generally. Not the least striking things about nineteenth-century commentary of the dream is the way that it became an argument against atheism, in much the way that ghosts were employed in the seventeenth and part of the eighteenth century.
23 Nov 2013: Bob sent in this information from Notes and Queries. In the interests of keeping all information together I post it here with huge thanks to him. ‘In Notes and Queries Series 7 Vol 11 p. 121-3 (an excellent source on this case) H Wedgwood quotes John Williams as follows in respect to Mr Rennie (senior, it would appear) and his involvement in getting Williams to retell the story: “The singularity of the case, when mentioned among my acquaintance, naturally made it the subject of conversation in London; and, in consequence, my friend, the late Mr. Rennie, was requested by some of the Commissioners of the Navy that they might be permitted to hear the circumstances from myself. Two of them accordingly met me at Mr. Rennie’s house ; and to them I detailed at the time the particulars, then fresh in my memory, which form the subject of the above. I forbear to make any further comment upon the above narration, further than to declare solemnly that it is a faithful account of facts as they actually occurred.” Wedgwood then goes on to comment on the mistakes appearing in the account of the case by Sir John Rennie in his in his autobiography: The meeting at Mr. Rennie’s mentioned by Williams, where he narrated his dream to the officials of the Admiralty, took place in the year 1815, and, by a singular chance, it is also recorded in the ‘Autobiography ‘ of Sir John Rennie, then a youth of twenty-one, who was himself present at the breakfast ” I heard him relate the dream,” he says, “and my father and all present believed him.” But writing after an interval of sixty years, it is not surprising that he should fall into various errors, attributing the dream to Williams’s partner, R. W. Fox, and placing the occurrence on the night of the murder instead of eight days previous. Wedgwood more generally makes a good point regarding the date of the dream in saying: “It is certain that the circumstances accompanying a dream which made so deep an impression in the seer must have been indelibly fixed in his memory; and if the dream had really occurred on May 11, the evening of the murder- a fact that must have been notorious to all his family and connexions — he never afterwards could have attributed to it such a date as that assigned to it in the authentic narrative above cited, ” about the 2nd or 3rd of May.” Thanks Bob for this and all your heroic work in the series!