1759, July 19: Emanuel Swedenborg and the Great Stockholm Fire

Emanuel Swedenborg [1688-1772] was a Swedish theologian, scientist, inventor, and philosopher... and, some say, greatly gifted with strange powers.

        One story told about Swedenborg relates that on Saturday, July 19, 1759, after he arrived in Goteborg, Sweden, following a visit to England, Swedenborg was visiting friends when he became visibly restless and upset. It was around 4PM, and he excused himself from their company to go for a walk. Upon returning, he explained to them that he had seen a vision of a fire breaking out near his home in Stockholm, which was 300 miles away. Even as he spoke, Swedenborg asserted, the fire was still raging through the city. Swedenborg remained distressed until 8PM that same night, when he told his friends that the fire had finally been extinguished.

Swedenborg's Vision
Swedenborg's vision of the damage in Stockholm. [Larger version here]

        Swedenborg's claims were discussed widely, and the governor of Goteborg asked him to describe the vision to him personally. And, on Monday morning, a royal messenger arrived in Goteborg with news of what has since come to be called the Great Stockholm Fire of 1759... and, in every detail, Swedenborg's description of the event 300 miles distant was proven correct.

Digging Backwards

        The above is a summary of this event as described in the 1982 Reader's Digest book Mysteries of the Unexplained, which is where most modern versions of the story start... which is easy to confirm, because Mysteries of the Unexplained made a notable mistake in its presentation. The city the event took place in was Gothenburg, not Goteborg; therefore any newer book reporting the city as Goteborg took the story from Mysteries of the Unexplained.

        Reader's Digest states that their source for the event was volume 1, number 4 of The Unexplained: Mysteries of Mind, Space, & Time... which is one of a number of paranormal book sets offered in the 1970s and 1980s that shouldn't be trusted as a source. So, rather than track that down I went digging for much older mentions of the event, which proved very useful.

        The earliest source I found for the story is from 1766, seven years after the event would have happened. The matter is mentioned, briefly, in the German book Träume eines Geistersehers, erläutert durch Träume der Metaphysik [Dreams of a ghost-seer, explained by dreams of metaphysics] by Immanuel Kant, the very person the story above credits with investigating the matter!

        Immanuel Kant [1724-1804] was a very influential philosopher, whose work continues to affect modern fields of philosophy. Kant was interested in how the mind perceives and influences experiences... so, naturally, he occasionally looked at reports of strange experiences to see what he might discover in terms of his evolving philosophy. In his 1766 book, Kant sums up the story about Swedenborg in just one paragraph:

"It was, as I am well told, towards the end of the 1759th year, when Mr. Swedenborg, coming from England, came ashore to Gothenburg one afternoon. He was drawn the same evening to a company with a local merchant, and after some delay, with all the signs of dismay, gave the news that a terrible conflagration was raging in Stockholm in the Südermalm. After a few hours, within which he now and then sprang, he reported to the company that the fire was healed, and how far it had spread. The same evening, this strange news spread, and was carried around the whole city the next morning; after only two days, the report arrived from Stockholm in Gothenburg, completely unanimous, as they say, with Swedenborg's visions."

        It should be noted that all through the text Kant spelled Swedenborg's name as "Schwedenberg;" in an 1880 reprint of this book, Swedenborg's name is spelled correctly throughout. I would guess that Kant just didn't know the Swedish spelling of Swedenborg's name, and sounded it out in German.

Kant's Rant?

        In 1804, the biography of Immanuel Kant written by Ludwig Ernst Borowski -- Darstellung des Lebens und Charakters Immanuel Kant's [The Life and Character of Immanuel Kant] -- presented what was claimed to be a letter written by Kant that mentioned the Swedenborg incident with greater details.

        In this letter Kant states that a friend of his had investigated the claims made at both Gothenburg and Stockholm regarding Swedenborg's vision, speaking to witnesses, and Kant felt the facts were very credible, going as far as writing "The following incident ... seems to me to have the greatest evidential value among all, and indeed evokes the evasion of all conceivable doubt;" and yet, despite this, the letter then incorrectly reported that the fire occurred in September 1756 rather than in July 1759 as it had.

        After this error, the letter states that Swedenborg was visiting a Mr. William Castel and was one of a group of fifteen that was company that Saturday night. At 6PM Swedenborg first announced the fire to the group; he later said that the house of a friend of his had been reduced to ashes. At 8PM he announced the fire had been extinguished, and that it had come within three houses distance of his own home. Swedenborg's story spread through the town that night, and on Sunday morning Swedenborg was called and interviewed by the Governor of Gothenburg, and the details he stated concerning the start and end of the fire, as well as the extent of its destruction, were written down. Details of the fire, that matched Swedenborg's written statements, arrived in Gothenburg on Tuesday.

        As you can see, most of the details in the modern version of the story come from this letter presented in Borowski's book... which may be a big problem. The actual letter in the book is dated as having been written and sent on August 10, 1758... which would be about one year before the fire happened! Later researchers theorized that maybe this was just a typographical error made by the printers, who just accidentally substituted 1758 for a more believable 1768; but why would Kant also have gotten the date of the fire wrong? To supposed both were typographical errors is a bit ludicrous, since the word 'September' is spelled out, which is awful hard to do purely by accident!

        In addition, the letter claims that Kant had communicated with Swedenborg himself with questions on the matter, but was essentially told all the questions would be answered when Swedenborg published the details in an upcoming book... and, if we assume the letter was written in 1768, then Swedenborg only published four books after that date before he died:

  • 1768, (Conjugial Love, or Marriage Love) Latin: Deliciae Sapientiae de Amore Conjugiali; post quas sequumtur voluptates insaniae de amore scortatorio.
  • 1769, (Brief Exposition) Latin: Summaria Expositio Doctrinæ Novæ Ecclesiæ, quæ per Novam Hierosolymam in Apocalypsi intelligitur.
  • 1769, (Interaction of the Soul and the Body) Latin: De Commercio Animæ & Corporis.
  • 1771, (True Christian Religion) Latin: Vera Christiana Religio, continens Universam Theologiam Novae Ecclesiae

... and I can find no reference to the fire matter in any of Swedenborg's books. So did Swedenborg just blow off Kant's questions?

        There is another big problems with Kant's letter and the account of Swedenborg's vision given above: the timing. The actual great fire of Stockholm broke out on Thursday -- not Saturday -- July 19, 1759, around 4:15PM and, thanks to fire breaks created by those fighting it, the fire burned itself out on Friday, July 20, either at 7AM or 7PM. So are we to assume the party Swedenborg attended lasted from 4:00PM to 7:00AM?

The Cleanup

       Despite the obvious problems, it would seem many people wanted the account to be true... both because of a general semi-religious worship of Swedenborg after his death, and the desire to have a well-known public figure like Kant verify what would be otherwise an unbelievable story.

        In 1853 the publishers Crosby & Nichols of Boston, Massachusetts, in the US, compiled and printed a volume called A Compendium of the Theological and Spiritual Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, which, as it states, is just a bunch of previously printed articles and anecdotes about Swedenborg brought together for the new volume. Kant's letter from the 1804 book by Borowski appears in this volume... but with changes.

        Crosby & Nichols state that Kant wrote his letter in 1768, and that Swedenborg arrived in Gothenburg from England on July 19, 1759, the actual date of the fire, thus re-writing the very details that bring the letter's authenticity into question. The letter is then quoted from extensively, leaving out the reference to September, but leaving in the claim the fire happened on a Saturday.

        So, in one fell swoop, Crosby & Nichols created a version of the story that had the correct dates, and all the exciting details from Borowski's account of the letter... while completely failing to mention there were any problems to begin with. Not surprisingly, the version of the story that eventually ended up in the 1982 book Mysteries of the Unexplained -- which refers to the account as "a well-authenticated instance ... investigated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant" -- is almost exactly the same as the story presented in 1853 by Crosby & Nichols.

But... Did It Happen?

        Despite the questions regarding Kant's take on the event, there is still some evidence that claims it may have occurred. In a letter dated January 18, 1782, the Swedish consul at the port of London -- Christopher Springer -- wrote that he had talked to Swedenborg a few weeks before his death in 1772. He states:

"I then asked him whether it was true, as I was informed it was, that when he was at Gottenburg (a town about sixty Swedish miles from Stockholm), he had foretold to his friends, three days before the arrival of the post, the particular hour of the beginning of the great fire that happened at Stockholm; to which he replied, that it was exactly true."

Then we have what Mr. Carl Robsahm, Director of the Bank of Stockholm and an "intimate friend of Swedenborg," printed in a 1782 pamphlet of anecdotes about Swedenborg. Robsahm had collected the stories after Swedenborg's death, and doesn't appear to give credit for any of the individual accounts. He wrote:

"On arriving at Gottenburg from London, he [Swedenborg] was told that his house had been destroyed by the flames, in the great fire that burnt almost all the south suburbs of Stockholm, in 1756. No, answered Swedenborg, my house is not burnt; the fire only reached to such and such a part. What he said was true; and the circumstance was then of so recent a nature, that he could have had no particular account of it, either by letter or by any person. It likewise appears that he had predicted that such a fire would happen."

        While intriguing, both of these accounts first appeared ten years after Swedenborg died, sixteen years after Kant wrote his 1766 account of the matter, and fully twenty-three years after the fire actually occurred... which is a long time to wait to publish something about the story. Both stories also fail to add anything more to the account than Kant's first short version already said, so there has to be the suspicion that both Springer and Robsahm were just repeating an already known story that would get attention.

        So, unfortunately, the only clear evidence of the Swedenborg account is Kant's earliest -- and least detailed -- version of the story, written seven years after the event by someone who heard about an event in another country from someone else. Given the scant information included, I'm marking the story as 'Unreliable' as proof of the paranormal... but it's an excellent example of just how far a story will go if people like it!