On February 6, 1921, Thomas Lynn Bradford of Detroit, Michigan methodically sealed off his rented room before blowing out the pilot light on the room’s gas heater. He then turned up the gas jets and quietly waited until the gas asphyxiated him. Though the circumstances of Bradford’s suicide seemed mundane enough to the police investigators, his reason for committing suicide was, well, out of this world.
Bradford, who had claimed to be a former electrical engineer, actor and professional athlete, had devoted the last years of his life to spiritualism. Along with marketing himself as a psychic in the Detroit area, he also conducted numerous lectures on the occult. Though his lectures didn’t appear particularly popular, he still produced numerous (and mostly unpublished) essays on different supernatural topics. Not long before his death, Bradford had written that, “all phenomena are outside the realm of the supernatural” and that science would eventually prove the existence of the soul and its survival after death. All of which led to what would be the most radical scientific test of the paranormal ever attempted.
What Thomas Bradford planned was no less than an empirical demonstration of the afterlife. Not satisfied with waiting to die a natural death, he decided that committing suicide would allow him to make the needed arrangements to send a message from the other side afterward. To recruit a willing partner in this bold project, Bradford placed an ad in a local newspaper for “someone interested in the spiritualistic sciences.”. There seems to be no record of what kind of response he received to this ad but he managed to find one person, Ruth Starkweather Doran. A long-time resident of Detroit, Doran would later insist that she had responded to the ad on a whim. She had no previous involvement in the spiritualist movement and denied any strong beliefs about the supernatural or life after death. As a writer and local lecturer, she was still intrigued enough by the ad to agree to meet Bradford to discuss his plan of action.
Though Doran would later insist that she had no idea that Bradford intended to commit suicide, he put his plan into effect after their final meeting on February 5, 1921. He calmly reassured Doran that he would contact her and gave careful instructions about how to conduct the experiment. After she left, Bradford typed up his final thoughts and put his suicide plan into effect. When Bradford’s body was found soon afterward, police learned Doran’s name and contacted her. In the investigation that followed, Doran emphatically denied that a suicide plan had been in effect (which would have led to her arrest). No evidence of foul play was found and certainly no evidence of a motive for murdering Bradford (he died penniless).
Just days after Thomas Bradford’s death, Ruth Doran, who seemed remarkably composed for someone who claimed to have no knowledge of what he had been planning, arranged a gathering of Spiritualists in her home. To their credit, none of the Spiritualists seemed particularly impressed with Bradford’s plan or his attempt to contact them from the Other Side. Ruth Doran also downplayed her role as chief organizer of the vigils that had been planned to make contact. Still, she very much the one in charge and also directed much of what happened during the meetings.
In the days that passed, Ruth Doran made repeated efforts to contact Thomas Bradford with no success. Newspaper reporters covering the strange experiment found Doran brimming with confidence that Bradford would succeed in his plan. “I am his friend,” she told reporters. “If he can cause his spirit to come back to earth, I believe his spirit will come back to me first. I believed in him in life, and I will wait and see if there is any spirit manifestation. If there is such a thing as spirit communication, I believe he will make his presence known to me.”
Ruth Doran and her fellow spiritualists faced serious competition, however. Another psychic, named Lulu Mack made newspaper headlines by claiming that she had successfully contacted Thomas Bradford. According to Mack, who described her as a lifelong theosophist and spiritualist, Bradford was only in the early stages of his spiritual journey and was too weak to be heard by the world. Though his voice would become stronger in the years to come, he would be unable to communicate so soon after his death.
Drawing on theosophical lore in describing Bradford’s progress after death, he was unable to communicate effectively since he had only entered “the first sphere of the heavenly constellation.”. As he progressed from sphere to sphere and was purged of his earthly flaws, Bradford would eventually be able to communicate with other spiritualists. She suggested that he was paying the price for his suicide, which she described as “neither wise nor right.”. Mack also claimed to have had no idea who Bradford was before contacting him during the séance. Just three days after his down however, Lulu Mack claimed to have received a message from him at a séance and hearing his faint voice calling out his own name.
Undeterred by Mack’s claimed success and the openly skeptical press, Ruth Doran continued holding séances to try contacting Bradford. She even arranged for other spiritualist groups across the city to join in by forming “concentration parties” to “boost the signal” (so to speak). On February 12, a week after Bradford’s suicide, Ruth Doran reported hearing Bradford’s voice, which she then relayed for a fellow spiritualist to write down. According to Doran, Thomas Bradford had delivered the following message:
“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 traveled 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.”
After dictating this message, Doran fainted after insisting that Bradford’s voice had become too weak to be heard further. When asked whether she was certain that is was Thomas Bradford voice that she heard, she replied, “I am convinced. I never heard a spirit voice before. That was the professor, without doubt..
Unfortunately, Ruth Doran’s testimony fell somewhat short of the absolute proof of the afterlife that Thomas Bradford had given his life to provide. It probably goes without saying that Bradford’s great experiment did not end up rewriting the science textbooks as he had obviously hoped. I haven’t been able to find out anything about Ruth Doran’s life afterward and she apparently faded into obscurity, much as Thomas Bradford did. Even the spiritualists who followed his experiment seemed to forget about him since no claims of contacting his spirit were made in the years that followed.
Though he took more extreme measures than other spiritualists who made similar promises to provide a message after death, Thomas Bradford proved to be no more successful than any of the others. Still, it is entirely possible that Bradford’s experiment inspired the great magician Harry Houdini to arrange his own experiment with the help of his wife, Bess. The experiment involved an agreed-upon phrase, “Rosabelle believe” that would prove that the spirit message she would receive was genuine.
After Harry’s death in 1926, Bess Houdini would spend ten years attempting to contact her late husband on Halloween (the day of his death). Though Bess eventually gave up the séances, friends and colleagues of her husband have continued to the present day, most memorably in the form of an annual séance conducted by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry at their annual convention.
So, for those of you attending this year’s CSICON in Tacoma, Washington and staying up to watch the séance (just as I plan to do), spare a thought for Thomas Lynn Bradford. Though rating little more than a footnote in the strange annals of spiritualist research, he gave his life in an attempt to prove the unprovable. Whether he genuinely believed in his quest to establish an afterlife or whether his scheme was just an elaborate justification for suicide is a question that only he can answer. And he hasn’t been forthcoming on that (so far).
Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada. He is an active blogger and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Check out his blog, Providentia.