By Edward T. O’Donnell
Forty-nine years ago this week, on Nov. 29, 1952, Morey Bernstein placed Virginia Tighe into a deep hypnotic trance. Bernstein, an amateur hypnotist, had finally found someone willing to try what believers in reincarnation call “past-life regression.” Through the power of hypnosis, he believed, he could lead Tighe back through time and into her previous life. To his delight, she soon told him she had previously been Bridey Murphy, an Irish woman who lived between 1798 and 1864. When it became public a few years later, the extraordinary story of Bridey Murphy took the nation by storm.
Morey Bernstein hailed from Pueblo, Colo. The grandson of a successful Jewish immigrant, he’d graduated from the Wharton School of Business and gone on to inherit the family business of selling heavy machinery, farm equipment, and plumbing supplies. After he witnessed a friend perform hypnosis at a party in the late 1940s, he became an avid amateur hypnotist. He read every book on the subject and began hypnotizing friends. At first it was just a party gag, but with time Bernstein came to believe that hypnosis had the power to cure ailments like stuttering and insomnia. Perhaps, he thought, it might be the key that could unlock the mysteries of the subconscious.
Virginia Tighe possessed only one important qualification for Bernstein’s past life regression experiment: she was willing to give it a go. Until she met Bernstein, the 27-year-old had lived the quiet life of a housewife. Her husband owned a local car dealership and they had two children.
“Keep you eye on the candle flame,” Bernstein instructed her on the night of Nov. 29, 1952. “You will fall into a deeper and deeper sleep.” He then instructed her to regress to age 7 and answer a few questions. Pleased with her responses, he pressed on to age 5, then 3, and finally 1 year of age.
Now came the moment of truth. In a moment he’d learn if it was possible to push her back even further, into her previous life. “I want you to keep going back and back in your mind,” he told her. “Keep going until you find yourself in some other scene at some other time.” Several minutes later he asked, “How old are you?”
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
“Eight,” replied Tighe.
“Do you know what year it is?” he continued.
“What is your name?” he prodded.
“Bridey . . . Bridey Murphy.”
What followed in this and four subsequent hypnotic sessions was an astonishing set of alleged interviews with “Bridey” through Virginia Tighe. In a convincing Irish brogue she told Bernstein she’d been born in County Cork in 1798 and later married one Brian McCarthy. They eventually settled in Belfast, where she died in 1864. To this she added a torrent of detail about her life in Ireland — names of neighbors, important events, and folk stories. When prompted, Tighe sang Irish songs and even danced a jig. This from a woman who never set foot in Ireland.
When Bernstein went public with his “discovery” two years later, the Bridey Murphy story became an international sensation. On one hand, it was a story of the occult, sorcery and reincarnation. Yet on the other, Bernstein’s use of hypnosis lent the story an air of scientific sobriety. Either way, the public was fascinated. Bernstein’s book, “The Quest for Bridey Murphy” (1956), topped the New York Times best-seller list for 26 weeks. It eventually was translated into 30 languages and sold worldwide. LP records of the hypnosis sessions sold 30,000 copies. Before long there was a hit song and feature film, “The Search for Bridey Murphy.”
As the Bridey Murphy mania grew, curious journalists began to investigate the details of the story. For example, researchers in Belfast turned up the names of two grocers named Farr and Corrigan in an 1865 directory — names that matched those mentioned by Bridey. Here and there other tantalizing clues suggested her story might be true, while the lack of any birth certificate or direct evidence of a Bridey Murphy in Cork or Belfast was attributed to Ireland’s lack of such records in the early 1800s.
But investigators from the Chicago American, a Hearst paper eager for a scoop, eventually uncovered the most likely source of Virginia Tighe’s “memory.” It turned out that one Bridey Murphy Corkell lived across the street from the house where Tighe grew up. This Bridey had indeed been born in Ireland and she loved to tell stories about the “ould sod” to her neighbors. Undoubtedly Tighe absorbed many of these Bridey recollections into her subconscious only to have them unleashed through Bernstein’s hypnosis. Further research revealed that Tighe had an uncle who often recited Irish folklore and that she’d learned to do an Irish jig in high school.
When these details came out toward the end of 1956, many denounced Bernstein and Tighe as conspirators in a hoax. Yet there is every indication that Bernstein was an honest man who simply allowed himself to believe what he wanted to believe — that hypnosis could facilitate past-life regression. Moreover, experts in hypnosis today consider Tighe’s “recollections” to be a classic case of a vivid imagination combined with a desire to please her hypnotist.
The Bridey Murphy story faded by 1957. Bernstein soon lost his interest in hypnosis and returned to anonymity of running his business. He sold it in 1970, used the profits to make a fortune on Wall Street, became a major philanthropist, and died in 1999. Tighe likewise dropped out of sight and died in 1995. By then the Bridey Murphy story was nothing but a distant memory for most Americans, a short-lived thrill that now resided alongside subsequent “paranormal” fads like UFOs, Big Foot, killer bees, and the Bermuda Triangle.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Nov. 30, 1900: Playwright Oscar Wilde dies in Paris.
Dec. 1, 1917: Father Edward Flanagan opens Boys Town, in an area west of Omaha, Neb.
Dec. 2, 1954: The U.S. Senate votes to condemn Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy for conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute.”
Nov. 29, 1898: Writer C. S. Lewis is born in Belfast.
Nov. 29, 1927: Broadcasting Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully is born in New York City.
Nov. 30, 1667: Writer and dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Jonathan Swift, is born in Dublin.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.