In his book Dark Trails: Adventures of a Naturalist (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1930), celebrated American naturalist and explorer George K. Cherrie wrote about his adventures around the world. Cherrie engaged in many expeditions, perhaps most famously accompanying Theodore Roosevelt on his nearly disastrous 1913–1914 jungle descent of Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida (“River of Doubt,” later renamed the Roosevelt River). The book provides a fascinating look at a prominent explorer’s enthnographic, botanical, and zoological studies, primarily in South America.
Cherrie’s memoir reflects a generally hard-nosed skepticism one would expect to find in a man of science. For example, in a section where he recounts being a witness to faith healing among a South American tribe, Cherrie could be channeling James Randi half a century later: “Of course it was a piece of crude prestidigitation. But the widespread success of such charlantry testifies to the high value of mental suggestion; on the other hand, suggestion of evil [e.g., a curse] works with equal efficacy” (p. 48–49).
However Cherrie—whether out of desire to tell a great story or a lapse into gullibility—occasionally succumbs to magical thinking where the supernatural is involved. One such episode appears in a chapter titled “Death and After Death,” in which Cherrie recounts for his readers a ghost story he endorses. Cherrie begins by noting:
For some years I have noted that when a group of people are thrown together for a few days or weeks, or sometimes for just a few hours, sooner or later the subject of ghosts will be broached. At such times there usually follows a period of silence. Then some one, with more or less diffidence, will relate an experience with what might be termed invisible or supernatural forces.
Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the famous Philadelphia neurologist, held no brief for ghosts any more than I do. His life work with the inner mechanism of the mind and nerves should have tended, and doubtless did tend, to make him cynical regarding supernatural phenomena. But there is a strange story told of the great man, a story that he is said to have related many times himself. He told it in a way that left his listeners with a feeling that there was a question in the narrator’s mind as to its significance. The story was a curious incident of his medical career.
One evening after an exhausting day with patients, Mitchell had got into his dressing gown and retired with a book to rest. After reading for a few minutes, he dozed. He was awakened by the violent ringing of his front doorbell. When the maid did not answer it, he arose and went to the door himself. There he found a little girl, thinly clad and plainly in distress. Without waiting to be accosted, she said: “It’s my mother—she’s very sick, sir. Won’t you come, please?”
The night was cold with snow whirling and drifting before a bitter wind. Dr. Mitchell was very tired. He expostulated with the child and suggested that there were other doctors at the local hospital. Besides, she was a stranger to him. But the little messenger would not be put off; there was something in the way she spoke that caused the doctor to relent. Bidding her wait in the warm front hall, he got into his clothing and great-coat and followed her.
He found the mother ill with a violent form of pneumonia. If my recollection is correct, she turned out to be an old servant of the doctor’s. At any rate, Dr. Mitchell quickly telephoned for the proper medical help. Later, while sitting by the bedside, he complimented the sick woman on the intelligence and persistence of her little daughter. “But my daughter died a month ago!” cried the woman weakly. “Her shoes and shawl are in that little cupboard.”
Dr. Mitchell, amazed and perplexed, opened the cupboard door and saw the exact garments worn by the little girl who had brought him tither. The clothing was warm with the room’s warmth and could not possibly have been out in the cold and snow of that wintry night. “Not that I hold any brief for ghosts,” he concluded in recounting the incident, “but there you are!”
It seems that George Cherrie got suckered. This is, of course, a version of the venerable “Ghost in Search of Help” urban legend. As Joe Nickell has noted, “a book by Billy Graham contains a remarkably similar story, wherein the implication is that the little girl in the tale is not a ghost but rather an angel” and references a Reader’s Digest story. Predictably, however, “Graham provides no documentation beyond the vague reference to Reader’s Digest, which in any event is hardly a scholarly source. In fact, I soon discovered that the tale is an old one, circulated in various forms with conflicting details” (Nickell 2011). Indeed, in his Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, folklore expert Jan Brunvand (2012) notes that “Evidence suggests that Dr. Mitchell himself sometimes spread the story, possibly as a deliberate hoax” (264). It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a genial but mischievous prankster accidentally launched a mystery when a little fib got out of hand and was later retold as avowed truth.
There is irony in the fact that this pioneering naturalist and self-professed skeptic would relate a well-worn urban legend as ostensible fact. Elsewhere in Dark Trails, Cherrie recounts seemingly supernatural stories recounted to him by others during his travels, though Cherrie seems to lend this story much credence—after all, Mitchell was a respected doctor. (Though Cherrie exhibits respect for other cultures and seemingly primitive tribes he encountered on his journeys, there is a perhaps inescapable sense that an improbable ghost story would be more believable to Cherrie when related by a Caucasian British doctor than, say, a Brazilian peasant farmer.)
Cherrie, to his credit, tacitly acknowledges that he has no firsthand knowledge of the veracity of Mitchell’s “strange story,” one “that he is said to have related many times himself.” Nevertheless, he clearly takes Mitchell’s anecdote at face value in offering it as evidence of an encounter with the supernatural—complete with the classic pseudoskeptical rejoinder: “Not that I hold any brief for ghosts, but there you are!”
It’s a good lesson for skeptics to question all extraordinary claims—not only from those with whom we may disagree or who may hold a different worldview, but also those whom we consider friends. An ounce of undue credibility can easily become a pound of mystery when compounded and spread by well-meaning but unskeptical folks.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. 2012. Encyclopedia of Urban Legends: Updated and Expanded Edition. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
- Cherrie, George K. 1930. Dark Trails: Adventures of a Naturalist. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
- Nickell, Joe. 2011. The doctor’s ghostly visitor: Tracking ‘the girl in the snow.’ Skeptical Briefs 21(2). Available online at http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/the_doctors_ghostly_visitor_tracking_the_girl_in_the_snow/.