The Palm Sunday Case is an unique English case famous in the annals of psychical research for its evidence of Survival After Death. The Palm Sunday Case spanned more than 30 years and involved both complex and ideal Cross Correspondences, mental Mediumship and Automatic Writing. Principal participants included several automatists, several investigators for the Society of Psychical Research (SPR), London, and several deceased “communicators.”
There were two apparent motives to the communications. One seemed to be a group effort on the part of the communicators to provide evidence for survival. The second seemed to be the effort of one communicator to communicate with her beloved, one of England’s renowned statesmen. The case is considered by some psychical researchers to be compelling evidence in support of survival after death. However, it remains beyond proof Scientifically.
The Palm Sunday Case takes its name from the death date of one of the communicators, Mary Catherine Lyttleton, known as May, who was born in 1850. A vivacious and beautiful young woman, she attracted Arthur James Balfour upon their meeting in 1870. Both were from prestigious families. Lyttleton was daughter of the fourth Baron Lyttleton (Viscount Cobham). Balfour was the first Earl of Balfour, a statesman and philosopher, and was named after his godfather, Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, who had distinguished himself in the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.
For Balfour, it was love at first sight, but his relationship with Lyttleton progressed slowly. Eventually she apparently returned his ardor, which was known to her sister, Lavinia, but not to the rest of the family. Early in 1875, Balfour told Lyttleton he intended to propose. After this meeting, he never saw her again. Lyttleton fell ill with typhus fever, and after several weeks collapsed and died on the morning of March 21, 1875. It was Palm Sunday.
Balfour was so grief stricken that it took him years to recover any sense of joy in living. He never married. He became involved in philosophy and politics. Though he was cordial and sociable, he remained aloof from others. For 55 years, until his death in 1930, he visited the home of Lavinia and her husband, Edmund Talbot, every Palm Sunday and spent the day in quiet commemoration of May’s death. He earnestly believed in survival.
The first apparent communications in the Palm Sunday Case began in 1901, shortly after the death of Frederic W.H. Myers, one of the founders of the SPR. Myers had also believed ardently in survival and had stated while living that he would make an effort to communicate after death. As a psychical researcher, he knew that evidence would consist of information that was not known and could not have possibly been obtained by the living recipient.
Shortly after his death, Margaret Verrall, a friend of Myers and a classical lecturer at Newnham College, began receiving communications through automatic writing that seemed to come from Myers. They were veiled in symbolic references and laced with Latin and Greek terms and classical material.
In 1903, automatic writing scripts began to come through to Alice Kipling Fleming, sister of Rudyard Kipling (and who went by the pseudonym “Mrs Holland”) and to Helen Verrall, Margaret Verrall’s daughter, who married psychical researcher W.H. Salter. In 1908, Winifred Coombe-Tennant (later Willett) began to receive scripts, purportedly from Myers. She was related by marriage to Myers’s wife. These were the principal automatists; scripts were also received by other individuals.
All the scripts, like those of Margaret Verrall, were fragmentary and full of obscure and classical references. All of the automatists had mediumistic abilities of varying degrees. None knew of the story of the Balfour-Lyttleton romance cut short by death. Willett’s scripts later were determined to have provided introductory material to what would emerge later in her trance Mediumship.
The scripts were analyzed by the SPR. It became apparent over the years that a group of discarnate beings seemed to be producing the scripts. Some sense could be made out of them by piecing them all together, yet the overall meaning and purpose of the communications remained elusive. The investigators eventually included Gerald William Balfour, second earl of Balfour and Arthur Balfour’s younger brother; John George Piddington; Alice Johnson; Sir Oliver Lodge; and Eleanor Mildred Balfour Sidgwick.
The apparent purpose of the early fragmentary messages was to reveal the continuing, post-death personal identities of Lyttleton and Francis M. Balfour, one of Arthur’s brothers, who had been killed in the Alps in 1882. In addition to Myers, Balfour and Lyttleton, other communicators allegedly included Henry Sidgwick, a founder of the SPR; and Edmund Gurney, an SPR founder and close friend of Myers.
All of the messages seemed to be directed at Arthur Balfour, though that was not immediately known. Many of the symbolic references had personal meaning only to him concerning Lyttleton and the circumstances surrounding her death.
In the messages, Lyttleton was referred to as “the Palm Maiden,” and Arthur was referred to as “the Faithful Knight.” Lyttleton also was identified by mentions of cockleshells or scallop shells, apparently in reference to the nursery rhyme, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary.”
The use of symbols apparently was the preference of the communicators, who did not explain why they used them rather than speak more directly. Apparently, they were in no hurry to say much of anything until Arthur Balfour himself became involved.
Around 1910, the case began to change. Alice Kipling Fleming ceased to receive scripts. By 1911, Willett’s mediumship had developed dramatically. Initially, Gurney seemed to be her control, and then he was succeeded by Francis Balfour, known as the “Dark Young Man.” In time, Willet seemed to be able to communicate directly with discarnate personalities without need of a control. She was able to remain aware of what she said during a trance, and to recall details afterward. In 1911, Willett met Arthur Balfour for the first time. Upon shaking his hand, she suddenly felt “very queer.”
In 1912, the case took a dramatic turn. Lyttleton began to communicate through Willett in trance. It then became clear that the purpose behind the communications was her effort to reach Balfour and impress upon him that she survived death and loved him deeply.
When approached with this stunning information, Balfour at first refused to believe it, despite his desire to believe in survival. He was 64 years old. Thirty-seven years had passed since Lyttleton had died, and 30 since his brother, Francis, had been killed in the Alps.
Balfour consented to have sittings with Willett, during which she would “try” for messages. Like the automatic scripts, they were cryptic and indirect, and full of symbols. With the trance sessions, the automatic scripts then began to make more sense; the symbols in them could be interpreted in terms of the Palm Sunday story. The trance sessions became the focus of the case, though Margaret Verrall and Helen Verrall Salter continued to receive automatic scripts. Margaret Verrall died in 1916.
Over the years, Balfour seemed to accept that Lyttleton was communicating with him. However, he never sought a sitting of his own volition and never volunteered comment on anything that came out of the sessions. It was not until late in his life, when his health deteriorated, that the messages visibly excited him.
In 1926, Balfour contracted pneumonia, and his health began an irreversible decline. During one sitting in 1926, Willett said she saw a phantasm of a young lady with thick, beautiful hair dressed in an old-fashioned dress. The phantasm communicated that Balfour was never alone, implying her spirit was always with him, and that she wanted him to know that she was “absolutely alive, and herself, and unchanged.” She said she was with Francis Balfour on the Other Side.
In October 1929, six months before Balfour died, Lyttleton communicated that she was finished with trying to provide evidence of survival, and now was interested only in companionship with Balfour, or “deep calling unto deep.” Lyttleton said, “Tell him he gives me Joy,” which made Balfour visibly happy. Spiritually, he seemed renewed though his body continued to deteriorate. On March 19, 1930, he died. He was 81. His death brought the case to a close.
Despite the dramatic nature of the case and the fact that the automatists received material of which they had no personal knowledge, in the final analysis there was nothing revealed that was not known to someone living somewhere. Therefore, the possibility of telepathy and Clairvoyance among the living cannot be ruled out (see Super-PSI). However, the participants in the case believed that they were truly communicating with discarnate spirits.
Some of the material in the scripts did seem to arise from the minds of the automatists, or perhaps from telepathy among them, yet the source of the symbolisms is unlikely to have come from their individual unconsciousness. The scripts do seem to build in support of a discarnate group working to gain the attention and scrutiny of the living. Nothing like this had happened before in the history of psychical research. There did seem to be a purpose, and the symbols seem to have been accurately applied to the Palm Sunday case.
On the surface, it appears that Lyttleton ultimately loved Balfour more than he loved her, for she seemed to have devoted many years to the effort of communicating with him. Lyttleton’s family speculated that she never knew until after death how much she loved him. By modern standards, it seems odd that this passion would be expressed in indirect and cryptic messages. Perhaps this was due, at least in part, to the prevailing social formalities of the time. The Balfour-Lyttleton relationship had, in life, been hampered by the fact that they were never married and never even formally engaged; thus the public expression of intimate emotions was either alluded to or repressed.
If not for the Palm Sunday case, very little would be known about Balfour. He was an enigmatic man and left behind no private papers. The case was not made public until 1960, long after the deaths of all the participants.
- Balfour, Jean. “The Palm Sunday Case.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)52 (February 1960): 79– 267.