Mysteries of Mind Space and Time

Strange tricks of fate

Charles Wells
In 1891 an unknown Englishman named Charles Wells became an overnight sensation as The man that broke the bank at Monte Carlo, as a music-hall song later called him. Using no apparent system, he three times 'broke' the 100,000-franc 'bank' allocated to his roulette table at the famous Monte Carlo casino (seen as it is today, above left; in a contemporary drawing from the Illustrated London News, above right). Can coincidence explain how Wells was somehow able to sense the winning numbers? We shall never know; after winning for the third time, Wells disappeared, taking his secret with him. He was never seen again

Some people seem to be able to sense in advance the clusterings of random events that we call coincidences, and use them to their advantage. PERROTT PHILLIPS describes some of these cases

IT WAS ONLY WHEN his train steamed into Louisville station that George D. Bryson decided to break his trip to New York and visit the historic Kentucky town. He had never been there before and he had to ask where to find the best hotel. Nobody knew he was in Louisville, and, as a joke, he asked the desk clerk at the Brown Hotel, 'Any mail for me?' He was astonished when the clerk handed over a letter addressed to him and bearing his room number. The previous occupant of Room 307 had been another, and entirely different, George D. Bryson.

A remarkable coincidence, by any standards, but made particularly piquant by the fact that the man who tells it most frequently is Dr Warren Weaver, the American mathematician and expert on probabilities, who believes in the theory that coincidences are governed by the laws of chance, and rejects any suggestion of the uncanny or paranormal in coincidences.

Dr Weaver
Above: Dr Warren Weaver, the American mathematician and probability expert whose study of coincidence has led him to oppose any suggestion that a paranormal force is involved

On the opposite side of the fence are those who follow the 'seriality' or 'synchronicity' theories of Dr Paul Kammerer, Wolfgang Pauli, and Carl Gustav Jung.

Although the three men approached the theory of coincidences from different directions, their conclusions all hinted at a mysterious and barely understood force at work in the Universe, a force that was trying to impose its own kind of order on the chaos of our world. Modern scientific research, particularly in the fields of biology and physics, also seems to suggest a basic tendency of nature to create order out of chaos.

The sceptics, however, stand firm. When events are happening at random, they argue, you are bound to encounter the clusterings we call 'coincidence'. It is even possible to predict such clusterings or, at least, to predict the frequency with which they are likelv to happen.

Newark Bay
When a commuter train plunged from an open drawbridge into Newark Bay in New York (below), over 30 people lost their lives. By an ironic coincidence, this tragic incident won many New Yorkers large sums of money. A newspaper picture of the accident (left) showed the number 932 on the rear coach of the train, and many people, sensing some meaning in the number, put their money on it in the Manhattan numbers game -and won

If you toss a coin many times, the laws of probability dictate that you will end up with an almost equal number of heads and tails. However, the heads and tails will not alternate. There will be runs of one and runs of the other. Dr Weaver calculates that, if you toss a coin 1024 times, for instance, it is likely that there will be one run of eight tails in a row, two of seven in a row, four of six in a row and eight runs of five in a row.

The same is true of roulette. 'Evens' once came up 28 times in succession at Monte Carlo casino. The odds against this happening are around 268 million to one. Yet the randomness experts claim that, as it could happen, it did happen - and will happen again somewhere in the world if enough roulette wheels keep spinning long enough.

Mathematicians use this law, for example, to explain the fantastic series of winning numbers that earned Charles Wells the title -in song - of The man that broke the bank at Monte Carlo.

Wells - a fat and slightly sinister English-man - became the subject of the popular music-hall ditty in 1891, when he broke the hank at the Monte Carlo casino three times. He used no apparent system, but put even money bets on red and black, winning nearly every time until he finally exceeded the 100,000 francs 'bank' allocated to each table. On each occasion, attendants lugubriously covered the table with a black 'mourning' cloth and closed it for the rest of the day. The third and last time Wells appeared at the casino, he placed his opening bet on number five, at odds of 35 to 1. He won. He left his original bet and added his winnings to it. Five came up again. This happened five times in succession. Out came the black cloth. And out went Wells with his winnings, never to be seen there again.

The seriality and synchronicity theorists -and those who have extended the work of Kammerer, Pauli and Jung - accept the idea of 'clusters' of numbers. But they see 'luck' and 'coincidence' as two sides of the same coin. The classic paranormal concepts of ESP, telepathy and precognition - recurring elements in coincidences - might offer an alternative explanation of why some people are 'luckier' than others.

Modern research breaks coincidences down into two distinct types: trivial (like spinning coins, runs of numbers and amazing hands of cards) and significant. Significant coincidences are those that shuffle together people, events, space and time - past, present and future - in a manner that seems to cross the delicate borderline into the doubtful region of the paranormal.

Coincidence links the fates of the Titanian (above) and the famous Titanic. Both hit icebergs in the same waters; but the Titanian survived

Macabre significance

Sometimes a coincidence occurs that seems to link, almost capriciously, the rival theories. After a New York commuter train plunged into Newark Bay - killing many passengers - work started on recovering the coaches from the water. One front-page newspaper picture showed the rear coach being winched up, with the number 932 clearly visible on its side. That day, the number 932 came up in the Manhattan numbers game, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars for the hordes of people who- sensing an occult significance in the number - had put their money on it.

Modern researchers now divide significant coincidences into several categories. One is the warning coincidence, with its presentiment of danger or disaster.

Warning coincidences often have an extraordinarily long reach, which is why many are ignored or go unrecognised. That was certainly the case with three ships, the Titan, the Titanic and the Titanian. In 1898, the American writer Morgan Robertson published a novel about a giant liner, the Titan, which sank one freezing April night in the Atlantic after hitting an iceberg on her maiden voyage.

Fourteen years later-in one ofthe world's worst sea disasters - the Titanic sank on a freezing April night in the Atlantic after hitting an iceberg on her maiden voyage.

The coincidences did not end there. The ships, both fact and fiction, were around the same tonnage and both disasters occurred in the same stretch of the ocean. Both liners were regarded as 'unsinkable', and neither carried sufficient lifeboats.

Coincidence and premonition

With the extraordinary story of the Titanian, the Titan- Titanic coincidences begin to defy human belief. On watch one night in April 1935 - during the Titanian's coal-run from the Tyne to Canada - crewman William Reeves began to feel a strong sense of foreboding. By the time the Titanian reached the spot where the two other ships had gone down, the feeling was overpowering. Could Reeves stop the ship merely because of a premonition? One thing - a further coincidence - made the decision for him. He had been born on the day of the Titanic disaster. 'Danger ahead!' he bellowed to the bridge. The words were barely out of his mouth when an iceberg loomed out of the darkness. The ship avoided it just in time.

Another category is the 'it's-a-small-world coincidence', which brings together people and places when least expected - a phenomenon vouched for by Arthur Butterworth, of Skipton, Yorkshire.

Charles Coghlan
Above: Charles Coghlan, whose dead body made an immense sea journey before being cast up on the shore of his home town

During the Second World War, while serving in the army, he ordered a secondhand book on music from a London bookseller. The book eventually reached him at his camp - disguised by the usual military postcode -in the grounds of Taverham Hall, near Norwich. Standing at the window of his army hut, he opened the parcel and, as he did so, a picture postcard - presumably used as a bookmark - fell out. The writing on one side showed the postcard had been written on 4 August 1913. To his astonishment, when he turned it over, the picture showed 'the exact view I had from my hut window at that very moment . . . Taverham Hall.'

If coincidence can reach so easily across time and space in its quest for 'order out of chaos', it is not surprising that it can stretch beyond the grave, too.

While on a tour of Texas in 1899, the Canadian actor Charles Francis Coghlan was taken ill in Galveston and died. It was too far to return his remains to his home on Prince Edward Island, in the Gulf of St Lawrence -more than 3500 miles (5600 kilometres) away by the sea-route - and he was buried in a lead coffin inside a granite vault. His bones had rested less than a year when the great hurricane of September 1900 hit Galveston Island, flooding the cemetery. The vault was shattered and Coghlan's coffin floated out into the Gulf of Mexico. Slowly, it drifted along the Florida coastline and into the Atlantic, where the Gulf Stream picked it up and carried it northwards.

Eight years passed. Then, one day in October 1908, some fishermen on Prince Edward Island spotted a long, weather-scarred box floating near the shore. Coghlan's body had come home. With respect mingled with awe, his fellow islanders buried the actor in the nearby church where he had been christened as a baby.

Chance? Destiny? A mere trick of 'randomness'? Or that strange and powerful force, striving to make sense of the Universe, that some call coincidence?

On page 658 we take a closer look at the theory of synchronicity developed by C. G. Jung

Reproduced from THE UNEXPLAINED p638