The Case of Lester Coltman
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Introduction by Arthur Conan Doyle
These messages were received by automatic writing through the hand of Miss Lilian Walbrook, who is the aunt of the young officer concerned. They came at the latter end of 1922, just five years after his death. Lester Coltman, the officer in question, seems to have had a very remarkable personality which impressed itself upon all who met him. He was educated in South Africa and made his mark at his school at Johannesburg and afterwards at the Agricultural College at Potchefstroom. There he won a scholarship which enabled him to go to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Whilst he was there the war broke out. He joined up and, after several intermediate stages, found himself in the machine-gun company of the 2nd Brigade of Guards. With his battalion he was engaged in the desperate fighting at Cambrai, in December, 1917, and there it was that he met his glorious death at the age of 22.
He was singularly gifted, for he was of splendid physique, with a remarkable intellect and with spiritual intuitions which are rare indeed at such an age. These did not ran in any conventional channels, but reached out into the unknown and caused him to take a deep though critical interest in all modern psychic developments. This knowledge of the subject, combined with the great energy of his character, mark him as one who would naturally give us psychic help from the other side.
It is interesting and indeed vital to compare the general style and character of Lester Coltman's writings when on earth with those which now come back in his name. He was clearly a very thoughtful man, in spite of his youth, with a turn for mental analysis and speculation. Here, for example, is the description of a friend at Cambridge taken from a letter to his aunt:-"He is a fine fellow and quite clever, but of that persistent thorough type of clockwork ability which combines competence chiefly with industry and admits not so much of imagination, which makes clever people so interesting and gives so much greater scope for their ability. He will confine himself in discussion chiefly to actual facts and decline to devote thought to anything not completely proven. He refrains from actually hoping, as prompted by imagination and a romantic tinge which science sometimes has, and should have, that certain phenomena are true, and it would give him no more joy to will a mountain to collapse than actually to blow it up with dynamite. He lacks the romantic phase of the logician and scientist."
Here is a record specimen of his style taken from a letter written to his aunt after his arrival in France:— "I have wandered over the whole of the battlefield round this camp, and all aspects of it offer ample food for the growing emotions of admiration and contempt, enthusiasm and lassitude, sorrow and joy, in *fact act, all and every possible emotion, corroborative and contradictory. But however terrible and regrettable many of its features, they have grandeur in their terror and dignity in their guilt, and have a complete power of sanitation to the mind, freeing it from every particle of pettiness. Those qualities of war exemplified on these blood-sodden areas are both good and evil, but chiefly evil, but all grand and none petty. This refers, of course, to war itself, not the motives of any participant.
"It is difficult to give such a description of the sights out here as will attune your mind to the same pitch as that beholding them. One can describe everything so that the hearer can realize visible outlines, but the grim and ghastly spectre of realization crawls straight from the fetid scenes to the mind of the beholder, where he lurks fearfully, and desperately, resisting the efforts of the most powerful narrative to banish him to any other. "To describe the visual sensation of the region here, I had better describe what can be realized was originally the condition of the country, and then the nature of obliteration it has undergone.
"This particular part was originally undulating country, with some beautiful copses and woods, and interspersed hills and valleys. If you can imagine such a region deprived of every leaf and blade of grass without exception, for miles, the beauty of every single tree in immense woods desecrated to grotesque and splintered stumps, and every square inch to which the eyes has access torn by the malicious talons of war into grimly leering shell-holes, in which, and around which, sprawl the lifeless hulks of men, or parts of men, you have an idea of a metamorphosis as great and as terrible as Death wreaks on the human forms themselves. Over all this area are dusted all existing means of agony and war, intact or shattered into parts of all conceivable sizes-immense shells, large fragments of shells, small fragments of shells, rifles, shattered rifles, rifles in large and small pieces, all intermingled in ludicrous promiscuity, with innumerable articles of utterly different nature. A bomb fragment leers jaggedly in conscious triumph at an adjacent bandage, while the corpse for which the two have waged, and the latter lost, scowls with distorted gaze upon its champion, its fingers resting as in caress upon the stifler of its life. Such paradox and irony are rampant. And in the dominions of ravage and slaughter the harmony of features is wrought by their very incongruity. "But pathos is there, and whispers to one of bleeding hearts, whom grief can wound more deeply than the wounds beneath a rough rude cross their eyes will never see, but always weep for. A small mound, surmounted sometimes by a rough cross, at others by a steel helmet, the make of which proclaims the nationality of the buried, sometimes a shattered fragment of a rifle or shell, sometimes a haversack, anything to indicate its identity as a grave, is all that remains of the hopes and plans valued in life above all existing things. And time will nibble at these scanty relics, demolishing their semblance, while Death creeps closer and closer to those in whom that semblance lives as memories, till the only relies of a fleeting life is the death that has replaced it, for death can only come to what has lived."
How many of us have ever written literature of that calibre to our aunts?
If you compare the qualities of mind and the precision of statement here displayed, with the script, I think that a great analogy will be perceived. In any case, with every respect for the mental and literary abilities of Miss Lilian Walbrook, which are each of a good average height, she would be the first to admit that she could not possibly have risen to the height of thought which is characteristic of both the living and the dead communication. But if not, then who produced the latter?
I would particularly call attention to Lester's account of his own death as given through Miss Walbrook's hand on page 31 of the script. Admitting that Miss Walbrook knew that her nephew was killed at Cambrai, that he was a machine-gun officer in the Guards, and that some general account of the death had reached her, whence came all these precise and realistic details which were entirely beyond her knowledge? I have taken the trouble to write to everyone who could furnish corroboration in any way, and their stories all tally very well with that in the script, though some allowance must be made for the fact that several of the witnesses bad themselves been wounded, and all had a more or less confused impression of these exciting events. The hour, the place, the circumstances, are all very correct. The only technical mistake which I could find was that he talked of falling across the wheel of the gun, whereas a machine-gun has, of course only a tripod. It was merely an attempt to describe the relative position of his body to the gun and is not of serious importance. The various accounts which I have read, from his company commander and the men who fought beside him, are all in accord with what he has said.
I have not been so fortunate in corroborating the names mentioned, though I have expended some time and trouble over it. These names are Burke, Peel, Wilson, and T. G. Names are always a difficulty in such communications which has been explained by the fact that a name is a purely artificial thing and differs entirely from an idea. We are conscious ourselves of how names evade us in life, especially as we grow older, though we may retain the clearest recollection of the individual. Another cause of confusion, in my opinion, is that such communications are often really clairaudient, even when the medium is not aware of the fact. The first impulse is an inward dictation and the second the actual writing. In such dictation it would be much easier to mistake an unfamiliar name than to mistake an idea. I have frequently observed in seances how the names come out nearly but not quite right.
At first I had thought that Burke might stand for Park, who was one of Coltman's closest friends, but the subsequent messages would not have it, but insisted that Burke be spelt with an "e". T. G. they said was a nickname and associated it with Sergeant Bowen, whom I was unable to trace, though I did run down a Sergeant Bowes. Peel was the name of a Grenadier officer who knew Lester Coltman and was with the battalion, but not at Cambrai. He is still alive. There were several Wilsons, Altogether it must be admitted that the names have proved unsatisfactory up to now, but men were coming and going all the time and the difficulty of identification is great. It is just possible that this publication may bring fuller corroboration. Mr.
Park says: "The men in the guns were so often being changed that naturally men and officers did not know one another's names."
A most interesting and convincing evidence of Lester Coltman's continued spirit activities is to be found in the experience of his mother in South Africa which throws a sidelight upon the European evidence. I would beg any sceptic to lay his preconceptions aside for the moment and do read this carefully, especially the part about the nickname. Mrs. Coltman had heard that some friends of an acquaintance of hers, the Johnstones, were in touch with spiritual things. She was invited to one of their sittings, but she expressly says in the report which lies before me, "When I went to the Johnstones' sitting, they knew nothing about me or my life. I had merely said that Lester was wounded and missing-nothing else." The messages were taken on a ouija board, Mrs. Coltman's hands not being upon it.
The two young Johnstones who had died in the war first sent messages and announced that they had brought a boy for Mrs. Coltman. The report goes on, "I asked if he could give me a nickname, and he said: 'Curley' (I thought it would be 'Susie'). I asked, 'Why Curley?' 'Because he was Curley. Curley is very appropriate!' Then Lester asked, 'Do you ever remember me being called "Curley Locks"?' (His father used often to call him that.) Lester then said, 'Curley is the name that stuck to me to the end, and though it does seem effeminate, don't you think it sounds more manly than "Susie"?' Then he said, 'I want you to realize that I am alive! I am here ready as I have always been to talk to you, to take you out, to enjoy a joke with you, and to sympathise where sympathy is necessary. What does it matter about my old suit?' (Meaning his body.) 'I have not changed one atom.' When I asked if he was happy, he said, 'So happy, that were I permitted I should take you with me now, but each soul has a certain work to do. I have to do this side what I did not do on earth. I am young in earthly experience. I have had my eyes opened here and, Oh, mother! It's the grandest place imaginable.' He said he had a wonderful library and everything he wanted, and even little children to Play hide-and-seek with. (The explanation to the last-named is this: When we went for our holiday to Umkomass the children all worshipped him, and were always around him. It was a law of the Medes and Persians that Lester and I never set out on any expedition until the children had had their game of hide-and-seek with him round the rocks, and he enjoyed it almost as much as they.) He also said: 'I hope some day to invent a wireless to your earth, but at present my ideas are in their infancy. I don't really know yet what I wish to do.' "When asked about his friends, he said: 'We collect together in the spirit as we did of old, in the flesh.
Sometimes I have brought as many as ten to tea with you, and we sit and chat with your thoughts as you call them. I have so often cheered you when tired and sad, and sent you to sleep by kissing your eyes.' I asked if he was ever a prisoner, and he replied, 'A prisoner? Oh, no, darling! It was as sudden as turning out this light. I felt nothing, only a nasty knock, and turned to look for the fellow who had struck me. I knew no more. I fell asleep. Then I saw lots of my friends, all smiling at me; a brother officer stretched out his hand, saying, "Come along, old chap." I took his hand, and knew that I had passed to where war is no more. I was pleased to see so many friends who were kind enough to bring me home! Strange to say, I knew I had made the great change, and things seemed familiar. Many places I had often visited in my dreams, so I was not strange. I love this place.' I asked, 'Don't you wish to be with me?' 'With you always, little mother, but I don't want to be on your earth.' I asked when, I could go to him. 'You must not be in a hurry, darling mother 'I want to use your hand.' I said I had given it up, I got impatient. 'So did I. Try again. Ten minutes a day is quite enough. I have to stop now, but hope to write to you every day. It
[book apparently manufactured with pages xv and xvi missing.]
never to follow them without question, but always to be the ultimate judges ourselves of the value of any communication.
Now I have said what I would. Let each read and form his own opinion. If you think this is not the young man who writes, then you have much to explain. If you think it is the young man, then this and other similar scripts become at once the most important documents in the world. Each must judge for himself, but it is worth while to take trouble in the judgement.
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE.