1878, February 24: Lord Dufferin's Vision

A story is often told regarding a strange event in the life of Englishman Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava [1826-1902], more popularly known simply as 'Lord Dufferin.'

Lord Dufferin
Just call him Lord Dufferin... it's easier. [Larger version here]

Lord Dufferin was a very successful Victorian diplomat who was also publically well-known for his account of his travels in the North Atlantic.

        According to the story, Lord and Lady Dufferin were staying at the home of a friend in Ireland on a bit of a holiday. One night, Lord Dufferin awoke suddenly for no apparent reason, and couldn't get back to sleep. In his restlessness he went to the window and looked out; it was a brightly moonlit night. Dufferin noticed movement in the shadows of the house, and watched as a man bearing a large object slowly walked into view. As this man passed close to the window, it became clear the large object he was bearing was in fact a coffin!

        Then the man under the coffin lifted his face to gaze back at the window and Lord Dufferin. The man was so indescribably ugly that Dufferin was shocked beyond the ability to react. The man soon continued his walk, and Dufferin was unable to step away until he had seen the figure walk out of view... then he went back to bed, where he had much trouble getting back to sleep.

        In the morning Dufferin asked his host about the strange man, but quickly found that they knew of no one fitting the description; nor was there any burials scheduled for the village at the time. So no answers were to be had.

        Years passed. On February 24, 1878, Lord Dufferin -- now England's Ambassador to France -- was attending a diplomatic reception being held at the Grand Hotel in Paris with his private secretary. They waited for the lift to take them to the correct floor with a several state officials attending the same event; and when the lift arrived, they allowed Dufferin to go first in respect of his position. But Dufferin found himself unable to enter the lift... for the man operating it was the same strangely ugly man who had gazed up at him all those years ago in Ireland.

        Dufferin stepped back. He excused himself, stating he had forgotten something, and he and his secretary headed for the hotel's office as the others loaded into the lift, intending to once and for all find out the identity of the strange man who had startled him twice now. But he failed to ask the question when he reached the office.

        For, with a horrifying crash, the lift smashed into the bottom of the shaft.

        It had lifted up several floors before a catastrophic failure had sent it plummeting back down. All aboard were killed instantly, crushed and mutilated.

        In the aftermath of the accident, Dufferin did eventually get some answers; but they didn't help. The lift operator had been a vagrant hired for the day as an extra helper... and the hotel management knew nothing more about him.

A Rough History

        I've encountered the story of Lord Dufferin's rescue in many, many places; and almost none agree on when it happened. It took some digging, but I found out why... in the earliest report of the story, no dates were included.

        The first appearance in print of this event was in Camille Flammarion's 1922 book Death and its Mystery: At the moment of death. Flammarion was a very well-known astronomer and author of a number of books on paranormal matters. Death and its Mystery was a study of the evidence he had assessed regarding life after death and other strange topics, and in this volume he printed a letter he had received in 1920 from a "distinguished psychologist," Monsieur R. de Maratray, which told the tale above of Lord Dufferin's adventure. According to Flammarion, Madame de Maratray was a relative of Lord Dufferin, and therefore the de Maratrays were informed about the events in Dufferin's life.

        De Maratray does not give any dates within his accounting of the event, instead offering: "The accident is historic, and its precise date could be easily verified;" which proved to be true. Previous to World War I, there was only one elevator failure that resulted in people dying from the fall of the cage, and that was in Paris on February 24, 1878, and at the Grand Hotel... which is why I set that as the date for this event.

        Of course, looking that detail up also exposed a major problem; the nature of the accident that actually occurred.

        The Grand Hotel in Paris had installed a hydraulic lift system, that used a piston to lift the cage. On February 24, 1878, the lift was at the second floor of the hotel when an operator and two passengers entered it to head to the first floor; but the casting that attached the piston to the bottom of the cage broke free. The piston headed down, but the cage, pulled by the action of the counter-weights that normally assisted the piston in the lift, shot upwards towards the top of the shaft.

        When the cage hit the cross-beams at the top of the shaft, the impact broke the chains connecting the counter-weights to the cage... and the cage then plummeted back to the bottom of the shaft, falling 65 feet into the basement, and killing all on board. No one was crushed or mutilated; though dead, only minor traces of blood flowed from ears and noses. The shock of the impact had shattered bones and organs.

        So: if the lift was at the second floor and heading down, then was Dufferin and the hotel office on the second floor? Perhaps more notably, there were very few people on the lift when the accident happened... and there is no indicator that any sort of special event involving public figures was involved. So the reason for Dufferin to be at the Grand Hotel doesn't appear to exist.

        All of which leads to the one question most of you should have asked already: If this event happened to Lord Dufferin in 1878, why is the first mention of it in 1922? What's most annoying about this story is that Camille Flammarion, who was attempting to be scientific in his assessment of paranormal events, failed to double-check the story himself. Perhaps de Maratray was a trusted friend; still, it would not have been hard for Flammarion, whose first language was French, to have checked the basic premises of the account. And because the public at large had come to respect Flammarion's work, later authors all just took his word for the story being true and kept repeating it.

Reading Too Much Into Too Little

        As I mentioned, later authors often attached a variety of dates to when the event might have happened; this was apparently largely to try and make their presentations of the story look more authentic. Many of these later authors also claimed that the event had been studied by the Society of Psychical Research [aka "SPR"], which is another claim that adds a feel of authenticity to the story... but this claim is likely due to a mistake, rather than a trick.

        Camille Flammarion was associated with the SPR at times, though he was the only person involved in the publication of de Maratray's letter. There was, also, one mention of the name Dufferin that turned up in the December 1898 edition of the Journal of the SPR, which reprinted a short section of a book by Lady Dufferin that related to an entirely different strange matter (follow the 'See Also' link below for 'A Singular Drowning').

        Finally, in 1933 a version of the story was printed in an issue of the Reader's Digest magazine -- which is probably the main reason the story became so well known -- which was written up for the magazine by "Louis K. Anspacher, Playwright and member of The American Society for Psychical Research," which not only added an air of authenticity to the Reader's Digest presentation, but also added to the idea that the SPR was somehow involved. So it appears that someone eventually assumed that the story had been researched by the SPR, and that other authors copied from them... but the SPR was never actually involved.

        Frankly, the only thing about this whole matter that I still found curious is the fact that Lady Dufferin lived until 1936, but doesn't appear to have ever made a public statement against the truth of the tale... but it turns out she may have had a vested interest in the tale being left alone. And, as it turns out, de Maratray didn't invent the story; he'd heard someone else tell it. Someone he trusted.

The Unlikely Source

        The answer can be found in the book Helen's Tower by Harold Nicolson, published in 1937. Nicolson was actually a nephew of Lord Dufferin, and Helen's Tower was a biography of his uncle from an insider's point of view. It included an account of the elevator story. Nicolson had heard it when he was very young, and from someone he was bound to trust on the matter... Lord Dufferin himself.

        The general story of "face remembered, deadly elevator avoided" had turned up at least two times right around the time Dufferin was telling the story as true about himself, one in an issue of Light and one in an issue of The Progressive Thinker, both of which were magazines devoted to following tales of ghosts, premonitions, and all things that would generally be considered 'psychic' phenomena [follow the 'See Also' links below for more on those stories]. The earliest of these stories was published in 1892; so it's likely after that when Dufferin started to tell his own version of the story. It's also quite likely that de Maratray's account of the story was just a memory of what he'd heard Lord Dufferin tell him once upon a time.

        So, unfortunately, the tale of Dufferin's amazing escape is just a 'False Lead,' a story that was never true to begin with... but the tales it was based on may have occurred. It's a funny old world, ain't it?