Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Psychiatrist Who Believed People Could Tell the Future


John Barker recruited a group of people whose predictions were uncannily prescient. Then one foresaw Barker’s death.
Illustration by Matthieu Bourel

The Psychiatrist Who Believed People Could Tell the Future

After a national disaster, a British doctor began collecting foreboding visions. Soon, they closed in on him.

John Barker recruited a group of people whose predictions were uncannily prescient. Then one foresaw Barker’s death.
Illustration by Matthieu Bourel

For many years, Kathleen Lorna Middleton lived at 69 Carlton Terrace, in the North London suburb of Edmonton. The house, which faced one of the main roads leading out of the city, had a small plaque to the left of the front door: “Miss Lorna Middleton, Teacher of Pianoforte and Ballet.” Middleton was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1914. She was a talented dancer as a child and had friends who went to Hollywood, but, during the Depression, Middleton’s parents, who were English, lost everything and moved back to London. Middleton, who had small hands, buck teeth, and a pronounced New England accent, opened a school for dance and music in the front room of No. 69 and called her students the Merrie Carltons.
Middleton played the piano, swivelling on her stool, while six girls at a time practiced port de bras using the bookcases for balance. The next class waited on the stairs. The house was crowded with dark furniture and programs from Middleton’s childhood performances with the dates erased. “There was always something—not exactly exotic, but she was totally different,” Christine Williams, who started taking classes with Middleton when she was four, told me recently. “Whatever she did, she posed. She never just stood.”
On a winter’s day, when she was seven years old, Middleton watched her mother, Annie, frying eggs on the stove. “After about two minutes, and without warning the egg lifted itself up. It rose up and up until it almost touched the ceiling,” Middleton wrote, in a self-published memoir. Middleton giggled, but her mother was concerned. She consulted a fortune-teller, who told her that an egg that flew out of the pan often symbolized a death. A few weeks later, one of Annie’s best friends, who had recently married, died and was buried in her wedding dress.
“I cannot say what I really felt or indeed what I feel now,” Middleton wrote. She experienced premonitions, in one form or another, throughout her life. A headache would precede an earthquake. Names and numbers would appear to her. “I am drawn to these events by what appears to be a blaze of light,” she wrote. “An electric light bulb.” Middleton never worked as a psychic or seemed unduly bothered by her sensations. Williams took lessons with Middleton into adulthood, and the piano teacher would bring out sketches of recent visions and occasionally complain about all the information reaching her. “She would say sometimes, ‘I just turn it off. I am too busy. I am too busy,’ ” Williams recalled. “And she would wave her hand.”
At around 4 a.m. on October 21, 1966, when Middleton was fifty-two, she had a powerful feeling of foreboding. “I awoke choking and gasping and with the sense of the walls caving in,” she wrote soon afterward. She told Alexander Bacciarelli, her lodger, about the ominous feeling when he came home from a night shift. At 8 a.m., Middleton accepted a cup of tea from Bacciarelli, although she didn’t usually drink tea in the morning.
A little more than an hour later, a group of laborers, who were working on an enormous heap of coal waste in South Wales, also paused to make a cup of tea. The pile stood on a steep hillside, and had shifted because of weeks of heavy rain. As the water boiled over a small fire, the waste began to move. Tall black waves crawled up the slope before a hundred and fifty thousand tons of slurry rushed into the valley below, overwhelming Pantglas Junior School, in the village of Aberfan. Children and staff heard what sounded like a jet plane, and then were buried.
A hundred and forty-four people—including a hundred and sixteen children—were killed in Aberfan. Eighteen houses were destroyed. In places, the slurry lay thirty feet deep. Within hours, the village, an isolated place off the road to Merthyr Tydfil, was clogged with press trucks, ambulances, and earthmoving machinery. Miners, volunteers, and sightseers descended on Aberfan. Phone lines were jammed with offers of help. When a call went out for rubber gloves, six thousand pairs were sent. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, arrived at nightfall, as children’s bodies were being laid out for identification by their parents. The Duke of Edinburgh came the next morning. “There was a greyness everywhere,” the Merthyr Express reported. “Faces from the tiredness and anguish, houses and roads from the oozing slurry of the tips.”

Watch “The Backstory”: Sam Knight on how a psychiatrist set out to collect the premonitions of the British public.
John Barker was among those who reached Aberfan that day. Large and somewhat brusque, Barker was a forty-two-year-old psychiatrist with a keen interest in esoteric mental conditions. “A lot of his thinking was a bit futuristic,” Harry Sheehan, a former nurse at Shelton Hospital, near Shrewsbury, where Barker worked, told me. At the time, Barker was researching a book about what he called psychic death—what happens when people come to believe that they are about to die. In the early reports from Aberfan, he had heard that a boy had escaped from the school unharmed but had died of fright. When Barker arrived at the scene, victims were still being dug out. “The experience sickened me,” he wrote. The devastation reminded him of the Blitz, in London, where he had grown up. “Parents who had lost their children were standing in the street, looking stunned and hopeless and many were still weeping.”
In the hours that he spent in Aberfan, Barker was struck by “several strange and pathetic incidents” connected with the coal slip. Bereaved families spoke of dreams and portents. On the eve of the disaster, an eight-year-old boy named Paul Davies had drawn massed figures digging in the hillside under the words “the end.” Davies died in the school. Barker heard the story of Eryl Mai Jones, a ten-year-old girl, “not given to imagination,” who had told her mother two weeks before the collapse that she was not afraid to die. Then, according to an account written by Glannant Jones, a local minister, signed by Eryl Mai’s parents and later published by Barker:
The day before the disaster she said to her mother, “Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.” Her mother answered gently, “Darling, I’ve no time. Tell me again later.” The child replied, “No Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it!”
Barker was a member of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research, which was founded in 1882 to investigate the paranormal. In a paper for the S.P.R.’s journal, he wrote that, even if people had experienced a plausible prophecy of what happened in Aberfan, there had been no way to report a warning, let alone for it to be believed: “Firstly because their premonitions would probably have been insufficiently clear, and secondly because no means existed for them to communicate them to the proper authorities.”
Given the singular nature of the disaster, Barker decided to collect premonitions of Aberfan from across the country. He asked Peter Fairley, the science correspondent of London’s Evening Standard, to publicize the experiment. Fairley was a tubby, jovial man, who got his big break in April, 1961, when he predicted, on the basis of little more than a warning to ships in the Pacific and a feeling that something was up, that the U.S.S.R. was about to launch its first manned spaceflight. Fairley’s story ran on the front page of the newspaper, Yuri Gagarin flew into space two days later, and Fairley’s pay was almost doubled.
On October 28th, a week after the disaster, Fairley carried Barker’s appeal in his “World of Science” column. “Did anyone have a genuine premonition before the coal tip fell on Aberfan? That is what a senior British psychiatrist would like to know,” Fairley wrote. The Evening Standard had a circulation of almost six hundred thousand; Middleton would read it in bed in the afternoon. She mailed an account of her premonition on November 1st.
Barker belonged to a generation of psychiatrists which was transforming Britain’s mental hospitals. An only child, he had studied at Cambridge before qualifying as a doctor, in 1948. At medical school, he was nicknamed Small Print Barker, for his mastery of the course materials. “He knew what he was doing,” Sheehan told me. Unlike Shelton Hospital’s superintendent, a former colonial administrator who suffered from bouts of ill health and often stayed in his office, Barker was energetic and physically imposing. He made things happen. “If he had started on something,” Sheehan said, “nobody would say, ‘No, you are not doing that.’ ”
In the hospital, Barker was best known for his work on aversion therapy, a technique that involved the use of electric shocks and nausea-inducing drugs to treat addictions and other behaviors. He had a slot machine installed outside his office which gave a seventy-volt shock when the lever was pulled, and he sought attention for his successes. In 1966, the Daily Mirror reported that Barker had cured a man of an extramarital affair. But his hard work disguised a certain frailty. In his late thirties, Barker, who occasionally suffered what he called “emotional stress almost to the point of ‘crack up,’ ” had left his previous job, as the superintendent of a mental hospital in Dorset. He had the heavy frame and the bulging eyes of an older man. “When I first saw him, I thought he had gone to seed,” David Enoch, a fellow-psychiatrist at Shelton, recalled. “People said, ‘Why did he come to Shelton?,’ ” Enoch told me. “For shelter, really.”
The hospital was a large red brick asylum, built in 1843 and obscured from the road by a screen of tall pine trees. In the mid-sixties, Shelton was “a remote bin,” Enoch said, with around seven hundred and fifty patients, overseen by a clique of older doctors and senior nursing staff, many of whose families had worked there for generations. The hospital had its own church, cricket pitch, farm, and kitchen garden. The roof of the hay barn leaked, and the grounds were infested with feral cats. “The old chaps told me, ‘You can do anything, David. But don’t ruffle us,’ ” Enoch said. “The mind-set was, people came in through the walls and never went out again.”
Enoch had worked at Runwell Hospital, a pioneering mental-health facility in Essex, before going to Shelton, in 1962. Barker arrived the following year. Together, he and Enoch modernized treatments at the hospital, phasing out “straight” electroconvulsive therapy, in which ECT was administered without drugs. They opened windows, provided cupboards for patients’ possessions, and argued to remove all but a few locks from the ward doors. “He and I were kindred spirits,” Enoch said. “As a result of the two of us there, heaps of things happened.” In 1965, they co-wrote a paper for The Lancet which showed that many hospitals were misusing their powers under the country’s mental-health legislation; they were summoned to the Ministry of Health to discuss their findings. Enoch never asked much about Barker’s past. “He was very able,” he said. “I didn’t want to know.”
The two men shared a fascination with what Enoch called “psychiatric orchids”—the most unusual mental illnesses. Barker wrote his doctoral thesis about Munchausen syndrome, whose sufferers feign disease or harm themselves out of a compulsive need to be seen as ill or injured. Enoch invited Barker to contribute a chapter on Munchausen’s to his own larger study of rare conditions, “Some Uncommon Psychiatric Syndromes,” which was published in 1967.
The book is now considered a minor classic. Its case studies of erotomania, Othello syndrome, and Couvade syndrome (in which a man seems to experience pregnancy at the same time as his partner) have a fable-like, poetic quality. Enoch, who is ninety-three, is currently at work on the book’s fifth edition. During five years together at Shelton, Enoch and Barker were friends and rivals. They talked late over coffee and swapped ideas. “We were innovators,” Enoch told me. But Barker never once spoke of his interest in the occult. “There may be a reason for that,” Enoch said. “I don’t think he wanted to be in trouble again.”

Barker’s father, Frederick, an accountant whom he described as “a precise, matter-of-fact man,” had supernatural experiences while serving on the front lines during the First World War. As a young man, Barker went ghost hunting at Borley Rectory, a notorious haunted vicarage in Essex. At St. George’s Hospital, in London, where he went to medical school, he stayed up late one night in the library with a friend, attempting to make contact with John Hunter, a distinguished surgeon, who collapsed and died at the hospital in 1793. “We experienced no physical manifestations as such, although we nearly scared ourselves to death,” Barker wrote in the school magazine.
Barker met his wife, Jane, at St. George’s, where she was training to be a nurse. One evening, in the winter of 1947, they found an empty sitting room, near the women’s cloakroom, and turned the lights off. Half an hour later, the door suddenly flew open, “as if it had been blown by a powerful but non-existent wind,” Barker wrote. As the young couple ran out, they heard a crash behind them. But, when Barker returned to investigate, “all was just as we had left it, and perfectly quiet.”
In the summer of 1965, two years after he arrived at Shelton, Barker read a letter in the British Medical Journal about the death of a forty-three-year-old woman in Labrador, in Canada. The patient, Mrs. A.B., the wife of a fur trapper and the mother of five children, had been admitted to a hospital in the small town of North West River to undergo minor surgery to help her with incontinence. The operation, a repair of her vaginal wall, was completed within an hour. Shortly after she regained consciousness, however, Mrs. A.B. complained of pain on her left side and went into shock. Her blood pressure collapsed, and she quickly died.
A postmortem revealed that she had suffered an adrenal hemorrhage—a rare failure of the adrenal glands—but had no underlying illness. Afterward, doctors at the hospital learned that, as a child, Mrs. A.B. had been told by a fortune-teller that she would die at the age of forty-three. Her birthday had been the previous week, and she had confided to her sister and to a nurse at the hospital that she was sure she would not survive. “These fears were not known to us at the time of the operation,” the doctors wrote. “We would be grateful to hear from any reader who has had experience of a patient dying under similar circumstances.”
Barker was intrigued. He believed that he had treated at least two men during his career whose extreme agitation had either killed them or hastened their demise. Medicine seemed only partly able to explain what had happened. In 1942, Walter Cannon, the head of physiology at Harvard Medical School, had used the phrase “voodoo death” to describe a potential biological mechanism by which someone could be frightened to death—an overload of the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands. Cannon confined his research to “primitive people” and “black magic,” but Barker believed that the phenomenon could exist in Western societies, too. He contacted the doctors in Canada and exchanged letters about the case in the BMJ, in which he proposed foreknowledge and extrasensory perception as valid subjects for modern psychiatry. Where Cannon had been tentative, Barker’s letters were confident and confrontational. “What is now unfamiliar tends to be inadmissible and is therefore just not accepted,” he wrote. “Thus for generations the earth was traditionally regarded as flat.”
It was Barker’s letters about the Labrador case that brought him to the attention of Fairley, at the Evening Standard. “It was unusual for a well qualified doctor to be dabbling in such matters,” Fairley wrote in a memoir. One question that interested Barker was how fortune-tellers conveyed worrying predictions to their clients. Fairley offered to hold a dinner for Barker and a collection of astrologers, clairvoyants, and card readers, if he could write it up for the newspaper.
The group met in a suite at the Charing Cross Hotel, in London, where Fairley laid on filet de bœuf, pineapple surprise, and plenty of wine. Barker interviewed the fortune-tellers about whether they had forecasted their clients’ deaths and if they could foresee a greater role for E.S.P. in medicine. Fairley interjected with questions about solving murders and whether clairvoyance was useful for gambling tips. “What about horse racing?” he asked.
In his writing, Barker described his involvement in the paranormal as something almost outside his control. He wrote of “a conscious rationalism” in conflict with his own feelings and experience. Though Barker was an experienced doctor who published in medical journals, he did not observe conventional boundaries, or seek to protect himself, when dealing with the occult. During his research for “Scared to Death,” the book that grew out of the Labrador case, which he was working on when he visited Aberfan, Barker consulted a dozen psychics to see if they would predict the date and the cause of his death.
Only one complied, and she got it wrong. But several fortune-tellers impressed him. Four observed that Barker was divided between his “hobby” and his work. One recounted his breakdown and illness before going to Shelton. Another remarked that Barker himself might have a supernatural gift, something that he did not disagree with. “Much as I dislike it,” he wrote, “I have to admit that I appear to be subject to premonition, usually non specific, vague forebodings, but none the less worrying and always followed by some sort of accident or disaster.” A palm reader in London told Barker that he was marked by the psychic cross.
Barker received seventy-six replies to his Aberfan appeal. Two nights before the disaster, a sixty-three-year-old man from Bacup, in Lancashire, had dreamed that he was trying to buy a book. He faced a large machine with buttons, which he thought might be a computer. White letters spelled “aberfan” on the screen, a word he had not heard before. In Plymouth, the evening before the coal slide, a woman had a vision at a Spiritualist meeting. She told six witnesses that she saw a schoolhouse, a Welsh miner, and “an avalanche of coal hurtling down a mountainside” toward a boy with long bangs. Within minutes of the disaster, a thirty-year-old film technician from Middlesex jumped up from her chair complaining of an earthy, decaying smell, which she recognized as that of death.
Barker was particularly drawn to a group of seven correspondents, including Kathleen Middleton, whose premonitions were accompanied by physical as well as mental symptoms. In the manner of Enoch’s uncommon syndromes, Barker posited the existence of a “pre-disaster syndrome” experienced by a small subset of the population. These “human seismographs” have bodily sensations ahead of important or emotional events, not unlike twins who say that they feel each other’s pain even when they are hundreds of miles apart.
In the weeks after the Aberfan disaster, Barker replied to sixty “percipients,” as he called them, and travelled to meet several. The material he gathered convinced him that precognition was not unusual—he speculated that it might be as common as left-handedness—and he wondered how to broaden the experiment. At the time, Fairley was a regular science commentator on the BBC and on ITV, Britain’s first commercial TV channel. On December 2, 1966, Fairley, Barker, and a number of the Aberfan seers were invited to appear on “The Frost Programme,” a live ITV interview show with David Frost, the twenty-seven-year-old star of late-night television.

Fairley had not met Barker’s correspondents until the night of the broadcast. When they gathered in the greenroom, he was taken aback. “ ‘Weirdos’ would be too strong a description, but they were certainly ‘different,’ ” he wrote. During the first half of the show, Frost interviewed John Betjeman, the poet laureate. Barker’s group was supposed to appear after the commercial break. But the call never came. On a monitor, the group watched Frost in conversation with the production team. Fairley learned later that Frost had peeked through the greenroom door and decided against going in. After the break, he continued talking to Betjeman.
Barker was furious. He had told Enoch that he was going to be on the program, but not why. “He was very, very, very cross,” Enoch said. But Fairley understood Frost’s reluctance. According to his memoir—Fairley died in 1998—he advised Barker to think about logging premonitions before events occurred, and to measure their success that way.
In the weeks that followed, Fairley and Barker persuaded Charles Wintour, the editor of the Evening Standard, to open a premonitions bureau. For a year, readers would be invited to send in their dreams and forebodings, which would be compared with actual events. Fairley had a date stamp made. The experiment began on January 4, 1967. Fairley devised an eleven-point scoring system for the predictions: five points for unusualness, five points for accuracy, and one point for timing.
The day of the launch was a Wednesday. Shortly before 9 a.m., Donald Campbell, a forty-six-year-old serial speed-record holder, died while attempting to break his own world water-speed record, on Coniston Water, in the Lake District. On the second run, travelling at around three hundred miles per hour, Campbell’s bright-blue jet-powered boat somersaulted and killed him. Campbell had been a superstitious man who was afraid of the color green and played solitaire to pass the time. The day before he died, he had turned over an ace of spades, followed by the queen. He had told reporters that Mary Queen of Scots had drawn the same cards before her execution, in 1587. “I know that one of my family is going to get the chop,” Campbell had said. “I pray to God it is not me.”
Premonitions are impossible, and they come true all the time. The second law of thermodynamics says it can’t happen, but you think of your mother and then she calls. In 1773, Samuel Johnson visited the Hebrides and found that second sight was nothing unusual among the islanders. They saw their friends fall from horses when they were far away from home, and watched future bridal parties and funeral processions making their way across the fields. “It is an involuntary affection,” Johnson wrote. “Those who profess to feel it, do not boast of it as a privilege, nor are considered by others as advantageously distinguished.”
Seeing the future was more common in the past. The Bible hums with premonitions. “And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams,” the Lord says, in the Book of Joel. I had never come across that quote, or heard of the Book of Joel, until I read it in the dedication to Middleton’s memoir, last November. The following morning, I walked into my bedroom and heard it on the radio.
The rational explanation for premonitions is that they are coincidences. But it is not easy to accept the force of randomness in our lives. Evolution has trained our brains to sense patterns—a tiger in the shadows—and to make connections that do not necessarily exist. It is safer to fear the worst, more consoling to tell stories. Arthur Koestler, the author of “Darkness at Noon,” concluded that your relative sense of fate and chance in the world is inextricable from what kind of person you are. In April, 1909, Jung and Freud had an argument about precognition in Freud’s apartment in Vienna. As the two men disagreed, Jung experienced an odd hot sensation in his chest, and crashing sounds came from the bookcase. Jung attributed the disturbance to E.S.P. “Oh, come,” Freud replied. “That is sheer bosh.” But he had a good look afterward.
The Premonitions Bureau was not the first attempt to capture the visions of the British public. In the late nineteen-twenties, J. W. Dunne, a British aeronautical engineer, wrote a popular book called “An Experiment with Time,” which combined an account of his precognitive dreams with a discussion of relativity theory and quantum physics. Dunne’s own theory about how time worked, which he called Serialism, was hard to follow, but he encouraged readers to keep dream diaries and to see if their presentiments materialized. In 1963, the playwright J. B. Priestley, who was heavily influenced by Dunne, appeared on the BBC and invited viewers to send in their strange experiences of time. Priestley received fifteen hundred letters.
Barker wanted the bureau to be more than another collection of anecdotes. The Aberfan material had convinced him that it was no longer necessary to prove the existence of precognition. “We should instead set about trying to harness and utilize it with a view to preventing further disasters,” he wrote in the Medical News, soon after the experiment began. In theory, the Premonitions Bureau could be a repository for the nation’s dreams and visions—“mass premonitions,” Barker later called them—and become an early-warning system. “Ideally the system would need to be linked with a computer,” he wrote. “With practice, it should be possible to detect patterns or peaks which might even suggest the nature and possible date, time and place of a disaster.” In its first forty-eight hours, the Premonitions Bureau received more than twenty warnings. One predicted a catastrophe in Kensington. If the yearlong trial showed promise, Barker and Fairley planned to present the results to Parliament and to the British Medical Research Council.
“There might be numerous false alarms, particularly in the early stages, when the operators were inexperienced,” Barker conceded. The bureau also faced a version of the quandary that haunted Jonah, in the Old Testament. God asked Jonah to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh, but Jonah reasoned that, if the people of Nineveh heard his warning and repented, God would forgive them, and his prophesy would be false. So Jonah ran away and ended up inside a whale. If a calamity is averted, how can it generate a vision to precede it? “Theoretically, there might be no premonitions since no disaster would have occurred,” Barker wrote. Over all, though, it was worth a shot. “If only one major catastrophe could be shown to have been prevented by this means,” Barker wrote, “the project would have more than justified itself, perhaps for all time.”
The bureau got its first major hit in the spring of 1967. Alan Hencher, one of the Aberfan seers, telephoned Barker to predict a plane crash “over mountains.” “There are one hundred and twenty-three people, possibly one hundred and twenty-four,” he told Barker, who made notes during the call, which was at 6 a.m. on March 21st.
Thirty days later, a turboprop Britannia passenger aircraft, carrying a hundred and thirty people, attempted to land in Nicosia, Cyprus, during bad weather. The plane, which was on its way from Bangkok to Basel, made a low circuit of the airport, its lights visible through the clouds, before crashing into a hill, breaking into pieces, and catching fire. “124 die in airliner,” the Evening Standard reported on its front page. (Two more people later died.) Fairley published Hencher’s premonition alongside the news coverage. “the incredible story of the man who dreamed disaster,” the headline read. Hencher was a gaunt forty-four-year-old telephone operator for the Post Office, who lived with his parents in Dagenham, in Essex. The other members of the family were drinkers; Hencher preferred to read. “He was just different to the rest of them,” his niece, Lynne, told me. “He was very intense about everything.”

Hencher’s premonitions began after he suffered a head injury in a car crash, in his mid-twenties. Like Middleton, he had physical symptoms, which he described as “a sick headache, a heavy dull feeling, until it is as if a band of steel were around my head.” On the day of the plane crash, Fairley tried to call Hencher but failed to reach him. Barker had arranged to speak to him the following day.
Shortly before one in the morning, Barker’s telephone rang. It was a panicked-sounding Hencher, who told Barker to check his gas supply. He had been worried about him all day. Barker lived with Jane and their three young children in a large rented house named Barnfield, on the edge of the village of Yockleton. There was no gas supply.
“Have you a dark car?” Hencher asked. Barker replied that it was dark green. “Be very careful,” Hencher warned. “Look after yourself.” Barker asked Hencher if he believed that his life was in danger.
“Yes,” the seer replied.
“I could not obtain any further information from Mr. Hencher,” Barker said, in a four-page memo that he dictated the following morning.
I found the memo, on Shelton Hospital letterhead, last December, along with some letters from Barker, in a brown envelope in the S.P.R. archive, which is kept in the Cambridge University Library. Barker gave a detailed history of Hencher and his premonitions of Aberfan and the recent plane crash. He called the memo “Some Interesting Predictions and a Possible Death Sentence”:
It would be wrong for me to say that I was not frightened by a prediction of this nature. I intend keeping a diary from now on and to record my reactions to this on a daily basis. I suppose anybody who plays about with precognition in this way to some extent sticks his neck out and must accept what he gets. The important thing though is for this information to be recorded so that if anything does happen it should cause some interest and may stimulate others to continue in this important work. Of course, it is possible that this prediction as with the others may not be fulfilled in a literal way. It would be curious and remarkable indeed if Mr. Hencher could bring off a “psychic ‘hat-trick’ ”. Having recently written a book on people who were “scared to death,” I am perhaps beginning to feel what this would be like.
The psychiatrist was both laconic and somehow heedless in his dealings with the paranormal. “I am not ‘sold’ on E.S.P., but I have always maintained that a purely physical view is far too restricted,” he wrote, in a letter to Guy Lambert, a former president of the S.P.R. In another letter, Barker said that he was considering buying a former pub close to Shrewsbury, named the Squirrel, in part because it was haunted. A ghost named Joe was said to walk around upstairs. “Personally, I would be fascinated to buy such a house from the scientific point of view,” Barker wrote. “But I do not know whether this would apply to my wife and children.” Jane was pregnant with their fourth child.
Fairley later recalled that he opposed engaging with people who sent hunches to the Premonitions Bureau. He believed that precognition was largely unconscious. “When you start to think about these things, you might as well forget it,” he said in a BBC interview in 1977. But Barker had no such compunction. He shared his memo about Hencher’s warning with Middleton, who was also writing to him regularly. In the bureau’s first few months, Middleton and Hencher were among its most prolific contributors. Middleton foresaw a shipwreck in France, floods in Alaska, and tornadoes in the U.S. When there was a possible match, Barker congratulated his percipients. On April 23, 1967, Middleton shared a vision of a spaceman “petrified, terrified and just frightened,” the night before Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet cosmonaut, died on his return to Earth. “You were spot on,” Barker wrote to Middleton. “Well done!”
On May 1st, ten days after his late-night call, Hencher telephoned Barker again. Another air disaster would take place within three weeks. The plane had distinctive tail fins, and there would be children involved. Before he went to bed, Barker wrote a breathless letter to Fairley, seemingly dazed by the importance of the information he had been given. “What if Mr. Hencher is right again? But how can we stop it? If we could then Mr. Hencher would not be warned of this possible terrible tragedy in the way he was. If only we could get more information,” Barker asked. “If only we had more details. If only . . .”
In “Scared to Death,” which was published in 1968, Barker considered the question of who is most likely to be affected by an ominous warning. “It is necessary to consider the seed and the soil,” he wrote, ascribing the potency of a prediction to its “sense of inevitability,” the personality of the person who receives it, and the way it interacts with our deepest beliefs about illness and death.
The influence of negative expectation—of fear—on our health is known as the nocebo effect. Walter Kennedy, a British doctor and drug expert, first used the term in 1961, to describe the opposite of the better-known, more benign “placebo.” (“Placebo” means “I will please,” in Latin; “nocebo” means “I will harm.”) Most researchers agree that the way we react to spurious worrying information is not dissimilar to how we respond to a sugar pill.

The nocebo effect is most often observed in connection with the side effects of drugs, cases in which self-fulfilling prophecies are common. During a 2003 trial of beta-blockers, one group of male patients was told that a drug could cause erectile dysfunction, while another group was not. After three months, thirty-two per cent of those in the first group complained of erectile problems, compared with three per cent in the second. In 2007, the maker of Eltroxin, a thyroid-replacement drug distributed in New Zealand, moved its manufacture from Canada to Germany. The active ingredients in the drug remained the same, but the new pills were larger and a different color. After the media reported that the new drug was cheaper to make, reports of side effects rose by a factor of two thousand.
Whether a nocebo can kill is an open question. In the seventies, oncologists in Australia and the U.S. reported cases of patients dying before their cancers were sufficiently advanced to end their lives. “The realization of impending death is a blow so terrible that they are quite unable to adjust to it,” Gerald Milton, the founder of the Sydney Melanoma Unit, wrote.
Between 1977 and 1982, more than fifty Hmong refugees, primarily from Laos, died in the U.S. from sudden-nocturnal-death syndrome, which the community generally interpreted as lethal nightmares, known as dab tsog. Postmortems revealed that some of the victims suffered from abnormal heart rhythms, which could have been exacerbated by the stress of immigration and the fear of an evil spirit crushing their chest in the night. “You can’t help but behave in a way that is the result of having been immersed since birth in a certain set of attitudes and thoughts,” Shelley Adler, the director of the Osher Center at the University of California, San Francisco, who interviewed hundreds of Hmong people about the deaths, told me. During a placebo trial described in 2006, a twenty-six-year-old man swallowed twenty-nine inert capsules, thinking they were antidepressants, in an apparent suicide attempt. His blood pressure collapsed and he was taken to the hospital, where the symptoms abated when he was told what he had taken.
In its first year, the Premonitions Bureau collected four hundred and sixty-nine predictions. Not all of them were frightening. A young Australian living in Beckenham, named George Cranmer, claimed to foresee the winner of the Grand National horse race. His tip for the Derby came in second. But Hencher and Middleton were the experiment’s stars. In the fall of 1967, both predicted a railway crash on a main line heading into London. On November 1st, Middleton had a vision of a crowd on a railway platform and the words “Charing Cross.” Four days later, a passenger train from Hastings was derailed on its way to the station, killing forty-nine people. Hencher was on a night shift, and was taken to the sick bay with a headache at the time of the crash. The Evening News, which was the Evening Standard’s main rival, put “the strange case of the two who knew” on its front page. “Quite honestly it staggers me,” Barker said. The newspaper reported, “Somehow, while dreaming or awake, they can gate-crash the time barrier.”
In early 1968, Hencher told Barker that his life was still in danger. In a newspaper interview the following year, Hencher said that he had been convinced that the psychiatrist would die soon, in Yockleton. On February 7th, Middleton had a vision of Barker, in which she saw his head and shoulders on one side and her parents, who were dead, on the other. The image persisted for a week. “Not wishing to alarm anyone . . . I merely said that my parents were trying to tell me something,” Middleton wrote. “I interpreted this as something concerning the doctor.”
Shortly before midnight on February 25th, a fire started in a locked ward for female patients on the second floor of Shelton Hospital. Patients woke up to find the ward filling with smoke and no nurse on duty. The hospital’s fire-training procedures had not been updated for twenty years. Twenty-four women died in the fire. Four survived because they had been locked insideantiquated individual cells with heavy doors, which kept them safe. The outlines of patients who had huddled in the smoke were visible for weeks on the stone floors of the burned-out ward.
The accident helped to catalyze the reform of Britain’s Victorian mental hospitals. “These asylums,” Enoch said. “Anything could have happened.” Enoch was helping a social worker and campaigner, Barbara Robb, to highlight overcrowding and the neglect of older patients. Two weeks after the fire, Barker and a fellow-doctor at Shelton, Mabel Miller, published a survey of chronic patients at the hospital. Sixty-nine per cent had been there for more than five years. “Many of the long-stay male patients were poorly attired; the fronts of their thick serge shirts were heavily stained with food and there was a dearth of ties,” they wrote.
On May 8th, Barker travelled to the U.S. for a three-week lecture tour on aversion therapy. During his visit, he gave a talk about the Premonitions Bureau to the American Society for Psychical Research, on West Seventy-third Street. Robert Nelson, a young executive at the Times, was in the audience, and he set up an American version of the experiment, the Central Premonitions Registry, the following month.
By the time Barker returned home, it was almost summer. Middleton had been worried about Senator Robert Kennedy for months. She had sent her first warning on March 11th. Four days later, she wrote to Barker again: “The word assassination continues. I cannot disconnect it from Robert Kennedy.” In early June, Middleton became frantic. She called the Premonitions Bureau three times on June 4th; Kennedy was killed shortly after midnight. Barker described it as Middleton’s best prediction. “You were insistent,” he wrote. The following month, she had another dream about her parents, which she later interpreted as a warning to Barker. In the dream, Middleton was staying in a boarding house by the sea. “For a brief period, we were happy and had tea,” she recalled. Then her mother rose and climbed into a black car, pushing Middleton away. She understood the dream to indicate the passing of someone close to her. It was lunchtime, on Sunday, July 28th. “this may mean a death,” Middleton wrote to the Premonitions Bureau. “All day I have felt as if in a trance.”
Barker’s experiment closed in on him. Eighteen months after the Premonitions Bureau was launched, his two most reliable percipients had received signs that he was about to die—eliciting in him a state of mortal anticipation such as he had studied and thought about for years. When I told contemporary nocebo researchers about Barker’s work, they sensed a lure in the trap. “He wanted to know,” Ted Kaptchuk, a professor at Harvard Medical School, told me. “I work with that.” In a study that Kaptchuk led, in 2006, he found that around one in four participants reported negative symptoms in a harmless situation. “Barker’s case might be one in a hundred thousand,” he said. “And, once you get to that, you are not able to do science, you really have to just stand in awe, and say we can’t know.” In the early Middle Ages, it was a sign of a good life to sense that your death was at hand. “Know ye well,” Gawain said, “I shall not live two days.” Adler, who studied the Hmong deaths in the eighties, described the moment of a death, even of someone who is terminally ill, as a meeting point between what we know and what we never will. “It’s an asymptote,” she said. “We can get closer and closer and closer, but I am not sure we will ever have the answer.”
On August 18, 1968, Barker suffered a brain hemorrhage at home, in Yockleton. He was taken to Copthorne Hospital, in Shrewsbury, where he died. He was forty-four years old. Enoch, his closest colleague at Shelton, went to visit. “You just stood outside,” he said. “It shook me rigid.” Enoch exchanged Christmas cards with Jane, Barker’s widow, until a few years ago, when she died. I contacted one of Barker’s sons for this story, but he had been very young at the time, and was reluctant to speak. “There was kind of this myth that he worked himself to death,” he told me. On the day that the psychiatrist died, Middleton found herself awake in the early hours. She was choking and gasping for breath. She called out for help. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the March 4, 2019, issue, with the headline “The Premonitions Bureau.”
  • Sam Knight is a staff writer at The New Yorker based in London.
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