1970 The Princeton Conference

In February 1970, one hundred years after William Kingdon Clifford presented his paper On the Space Theory of Matter to the Cambridge Philosophical Society, a Clifford Centennial Conference was held at Princeton.

The theme of the Conference was:
Where do we stand today, and what developments can we look forward to on Clifford's vision of particles as made of curved empty space?

Among the 30 participants at the conference were: Nicola Cabbibo, Brandon Carter, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Hawking, Edwin Power, Arthur S. Wightman, and Eugene P. Wigner.
Professor John A Wheeler of Princeton wrote the following poem and read it at the conference. The poem was published in the article Exeter's Mathematician. W K Clifford, FRS. 1845-79, contributed by Professor E.A.Power to Advancement of Science, 26, 318-328 (1970)

A Mystery Solved ?
William Kingdon Clifford has the unusual distinction of being featured in a ghost story. Professor Sir Brian Pippard FRS contributed a generous review of Such Silver Currents to the Royal Society Magazine. In it he detailed a story which I had not come across. It casts new light on the mystery of Clifford's death and on the disposal of his body. Careful research in all available archives in Funchal revealed that many historical records for the year of Clifford's death had had been destroyed by fire. I could find no mention of what medical attention he had received, no certificate of death and no detail of what happened to his body in the days between his death and the departure of the gunboat that eventually brought his body back to England. However, Sir Brian brought to our attention a book titled Lord Halifax's Ghost Book. This is a curious volume of stories about supernatural occurrences, which were collected by Viscount Halifax (1839-1934) and published in 1936.

In the winter of 1889-90 Lord Halifax took his eldest son, Charles, who was seriously ill, to Madeira, where he consulted a Dr Grabham who was Lord Kelvin's son-in-law and a very well respected academic researcher and authority on the flora and fauna of the island. He chatted with Lord Halifax and, knowing that he was interested in tales of the supernatural, told him the following story. Lord Halifax notes that he was so struck by the prophetic nature of the story that he sat down immediately and wrote it out exactly as he had been told it.  

The Corpse Downstairs (as told to Viscount Halifax) 

Some years ago a Mr. Freeland was staying in Madeira. He was not at all well and, as a ball was going to be given at the hotel where he lodged, Dr Grabham invited him to come up to his house and stay with him for a night or two. A couple of days later, the doctor coming in late, found Mr. Freeman still up and sitting with Mrs. Grabham before the fire. 'My dear fellow', he said, 'why are you not in bed? You should have been there long ago.' 'I could not possibly go to bed,' Mr. Freeman answered. 'I had such a dreadful dream last night that I cannot endure the thought of it. I dreamt that someone was bringing a dead body and putting it away in the house.' 'What an extraordinary thing!' was Dr Grabham's reply. 'Not a soul, not even Mrs. Grabham, knows anything about it, but that is exactly what I am proposing to do.'

On being pressed for an explanation, Dr. Grabham told the following story.  

A certain Professor Clifford, who was staying in the Island, was at the point of death and had often expressed the greatest possible dislike of being taken to any Christian burying place. ' I have been attending him.' said Dr Grabham, ' and since he is a great friend of mine, I have told him that he need have no apprehension and that I would take care that his wish was respected. "After all," I said to him, "if you don't want to enter any Christian place of burial, no Christian place of burial would care to have you, so as soon as you are dead, I will take you up to my house and keep you there until you can be sent off to England by steamer." I thought,' Dr Grabham added, 'that nobody in the house would know anything about it. There would just be a long, oblong, packing-case stowed away somewhere and everything sold have been arranged in accordance with my patient's wishes.'

Mr. Freeland left me the next day, but that evening, as soon as i was able to persuade him to go to bed , I went straight off to Professor Clifford. I told him that there was a man in my house who had dreamt the very thing that I was intending to do, in other words that I had brought in a dead body. Professor Clifford was most interested and began to suggest all sorts of reasons why Mr. Freeland might quite naturally have had this dream.  

'The next day or the day after he died. At the end he was so perfectly conscious that Dr Grabham was able to say to him. 'You will be dead in a couple of hours, have you nothing you want to write?.' The professor found some difficulty in replying and Dr Grabham went on, 'Are you quite content and satisfied? Are you quite sure that death means the end of everything and that within an hour or two you will have ceased to exist? If you have anything to write or say, or if there is anything wish done, there is no time to be lost.'

Professor Clifford, however, appeared to be perfectly satisfied, and although he was very unwilling  to leave the world, he neither said nor wrote anything till just before the end, when he asked for writing materials. He succeeded in writing a message for his daughters, which was not to be opened until they were grown up. He also asked that this sentence might be put on his tomb:

'I was not, and was content. I lived and did a little work; I am not and believe not.'

Additional Items

The collection of Henry James's letters titled "Bravest of women and finest of friends" Henry James's Letters to Lucy Clifford was edited and annotated by Marysa Demoor and myself and published in 1999.

My biographical study Such Silver Currents:The Story of William and Lucy Clifford was published in 2002. Since those dates some interesting details have come to light and I will record them on this Web Page.

First of all I must record a very important event which was, by my error, omitted from Such Silver Currents. 

To William Kingdon Clifford
(Exeter 4 May 1845 - Madeira 3 March 1879)

Hero of young men,
Student of society as well as science,
Inventor of the algebra of today's
relativistic theory of the electron,
Why did you have to die at thirty-three?
Why did you, who anticipated Einstein,
Not live to be our Einstein?
No more daring visions can one name
in all of physics
Than yours of a hundred years ago:
Curved Geometry of Space
Is the magical material
Out of which atoms, men and stars are built.
Was it the greatness of the dream
that took away your breath?
How else explain that Riemann too fell to
the same sad malady at thirty-nine,
The prophet who you expounded,
Whose work inspired you to your greatest
How better than by falling young
Could you tell us what to you was paramount:
Find out if all that is, is naught

His body was put away in Dr Grabham's house until it could be sent to England as arranged.

[Lord Halifax adds a note: 'Mr. Freeland eventually fell ill at Malta, died on board his yacht, very rich, with nobody to call an heir, and left Dr Grabham £50']

From Lord Halifax's Ghost Book.
By Charles Lindley Viscount Halifax. Bellew Publishing, London
This story partly solves the mystery about William's medical treatment and death and certainly explains why I was so unsuccessful in finding legal records in Funchal of what happened to his body before it was shipped home.

Some interesting details of the ball at Mr. Freeland's hotel were recorded by William Cory and are included in the chapter 'Death in Madeira' in my biography of William and Lucy. A slightly different version of William epitaph as remembered by Dr. Grabham, appears on his tombstone in Highgate cemetery and is well known to his admirers. 

William and Lucy Clifford

A Story of Two Lives