On February 5th, 1921, Professor Thomas Lynn Bradford closed his bedroom door, blew out the pilot light on his heater, turned on the gas, and laid on his bed. Bradford was just 48 when he took his own life, which is a tragic event in any circumstance. However, Bradford’s reasoning for ending his life were a little more obtuse than most.
Bradford was a Spiritualist, meaning he was of the belief that the human spirit lived on after death and could return to the corporeal world when called upon. The Spiritualist movement was a modern belief system of life after death that swept throughout the western world from the mid-19thCentury onwards. While groups, séance circles and mediums sprung forth throughout the spiritualist world, there was no solid scientific proof of a spirit’s existence. The authenticity of mediums’ messages and manifestations were long-standing issues, and laymen, scientists and religious scholars alike were forever searching for the experiment that would prove their beliefs to be true.
In the UK, the Society for Psychical research was established 1882 with the aim of scientifically studying and investigating claims of psychic or paranormal matters; in the USA, the American Society for Psychical research was founded two years later. These early groups had vast memberships of learned individuals, with many conducting experiments of their own. Namely, the study of life after death was no new concept, yet Bradford’s ‘experiment’ was unlike any other.
Investigating police officers found a note, still in Bradford’s typewriter that read:
“And it is through scientific facts that I propose to demonstrate clearly the phenomena of spirits and prove that all the phenomena is outside the domain of super-natural.”
In killing himself, Bradford hoped to prove the existence of an afterlife by communicating in his spirit form, back to a living accomplice. If he was to be successful, his experiment would turn the world of scientific knowledge on its head. Bradford would go down in history as the man who proved God and heaven to be real and showed the continuation of the human consciousness beyond death; he would be greater than Einstein, Darwin or any that came before.
Although Bradford appeared to be of sound mind when he died, the act of suicide itself was incredibly transgressive in a Judaeo-Christian society, who believed suicide to be a destructive act against God. How Bradford’s spiritualist interests aligned with his destructive experiment is one of the great unanswered questions of the case.
Bradford had tried his hand at multiple careers over his life; spending time as an actor, engineer and athlete. In later life, he found a deep interest in Spiritualism, giving lectures on his beliefs around the Detroit area and even marketing himself as a psychic. Bradford was also a widower. It would be no great stretch to presume that the loss of his wife strengthened his obsession with the afterlife.
A little like German cannibal Armin Meiwes who met his victim through an internet advert, Bradford had also placed an ad in a local newspaper. Asking for a volunteer to take part in an experiment, termed as ‘spiritualistic science’, he received a reply from a woman named Ruth Doran.
Following the events, she said that:
‘I answered his advertisement through a simple desire to know more about a thing in which I was little versed.’ She also confirmed that she was not a spiritualist, nor a medium or believer in psychical science in any form. Ruth was simply curious.
In newspaper reports of the time, Doran is described dismissively as a ‘social service worker, magazine writer and “psychic”. In reality, Ruth was a woman of about 40, and a respected writer and lecturer from a prominent Detroit family.
Bradford came to the conclusion that, “that there was but one way to solve the mystery—two minds properly attuned, one of which must shed its earthly mantle”. Thomas Lynn Bradford would have to die.
Considering that Ruth could not even be said to have deeply held belief on the existence of the afterlife, did she fully agreed to be complicit in the death of another human? Without an earth-bound compatriot, Bradford’s ‘experiment’ could not take place, yet he appeared to have found one with ease. Although she claimed to simply want to ‘know more’, such a mild-mannered claim does not seem to marry up with the very real knowledge of a man’s imminent suicide.
Ruth was reported in the press as being fully aware of Bradford’s intentions, however in police statements, she said that she was a Protestant and that Bradford never made his intentions clear, simply stating that he intended to prove that spirits could communicate with the living. Doran’s statement was the key in helping the police to quickly rule ‘suicide’ as the cause of death.
Famous escapologist Harry Houdini had made a similar, more open, pact with his wife Bess – albeit one following ‘natural’ death – promising that after he died, he would attempt to contact her with a special coded message that only the two of them would know. After Houdini died in 1926, his wife held a séance on the anniversary of his death for ten years. However, after a decade of no responses, she gave up.
The local press watched Bradford’s case closely, but with little empathy. Instead, much like todays tabloids or gossip columns, they were interested in that which sold papers – constant updates as to the status of his spectral message. A few days later, the New York Press reported that:
’Though more than forty hours have elapsed since the body of Thomas L. Bradford, psychic investigator and lecturer, was found in the gas-filled room of the house where he had lived, no message has come back from the spirit world to Mrs. Ruth Doran.’
Several psychics, clamouring at reporters, claimed to have made contact with the professor, but all such claims were dismissed.
Ruth had said to the press that: “I am his friend. If he can cause his spirit to come back to earth I believe his spirit will come to me first.” Although they had only just met, she continually referred to Bradford as her ‘friend’ and, due to them both being unmarried (Bradford was a widower), theories of a romantic involvement have been circulated to this day.
Doran held true to her part of the bargain and held a two-week long vigil in her own house, waiting for Bradford’s message. However, Bradford did not come through.
However, another woman named Lulu Mack claimed to have encountered his spirit at another séance, in another house. A known spiritualist and theosophist, she told her tale to the local newspaper a week after Bradfords death. During a séance, Mack reportedly heard the name of Thomas Bradford shouted above the table. She claimed to have no knowledge of the case but would go on to speak widely of her experiences in the press.
Mack said that Bradford could not easily communicate with Doran as his suicide resulted in a weak spirit and that it would need to be purified before entering heaven. She explained that Bradford’s spirit would strengthen as he reached different heavenly ‘altitudes’
“I have heard the call of his spirit.” Said Mack. “It is calling to me even now. But I cannot hear the message it would send, because the spirit is too weak.”
A full week after his death, Ruth Doran claimed to feel a strange, weak presence, which she believed to be Bradford’s spirit. However, she predicted that at 9pm, Bradford’s message would come through. Following Doran’s claims, the wider spiritualist community banded together to ‘accelerate the return of his spirit’.
Spiritualist church leaders would encourage their congregations to concentrate at 9pm that evening, so as to encourage the professor’s spirit to manifest.
At 9pm, Doran and a small group of Spiritualists sat in her parlour and began a séance. After feeling a presence, the lights were turned off and, with her hands on her temples, she commanded the other sitters to write a message; a message dictated by Bradford’s weak, but talkative spirit.
“I am the professor who speaks to you from the Beyond. I have broken through the veil. The help of the living has greatly assisted me.
I simply went to sleep. I woke up and at first did not realize that I had passed on. I find no great change apparent. I expected things to be much different. They are not. Human forms are retained in outline but not in the physical.
I have not travelled far. I am still much in the darkness. I see many people. They appear natural.
There is a lightness of responsibility here unlike in life. One feels full of rapture and happiness. Persons of like natures associate. I am associated with other investigators. I do not repent my act.
My present plane is but the first series. I am still investigating the future planes regarding which we in this plane are as ignorant as are earthly beings of the life just beyond human life.”
Afterwards, Bradford’s voice grew weaker and faded away. Although she had never heard a spirit voice before, she was sure that it was the professor.
Bradford’s message does not read as anything particularly striking or different to many Spiritualist texts of the time and aligns far more with theosophical ideas of the afterlife, rather than the aforementioned Judaeo-Christian ideas of heaven and eternity. As such, the note has been placed under scrutiny since its ‘dictation’.
Despite Doran’s efforts, the Bradford experiments failed to provide satisfactory proof of the professor’s consciousness beyond death.
Did Doran receive a message from the professor’s spirit, or was it a simple lie from a woman who had warmed to the limelight or pressure of the press? All one can truly hope is that Bradford’s death was not in vain, and that some lasting good came of his well-meaning sacrifice.