Annekatrin Puhle, Dr.phil. / PhD

Philosophie, Gesundheitsberatung, Bücher / Philosophy, Health Consulting, Books

Annekatrin Puhle, Dr.phil.  /  PhD header image 3

Paper: Psychic Crime

The Norwegian medium Ingeborg Dahl.

(Copyright unknown)

Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume 72.3, Number 892, July 2008, 164-179

(This is the original version. For the Norwegian translation please click “German”)


Adrian Parker and Annekatrin Puhle


The Ingeborg Dahl case, where a medium while in trance correctly predicted the date of her father’s accidental death, has remained for decades an enigma of psychical research. The report here presents the main material and conclusions from the psychological investigation of the Dahl mediumship conducted by the Norwegian Court. These were previously unavailable in English and released during the 1970s. The psychological aspects of the case illustrate modern concepts of dissociation.

It has sometimes been claimed that many of the best cases in the literature of psychical research would, if they had been tried in court, have received a positive legal verdict. Some of the older 17th and 18th century cases did receive favourable judicial outcomes and seemed to reveal important information about the death of the individual (Puhle, 2004). What is special in the case reported here, is that the court had to deal with not only with the claim that the circumstances of the death of the person was revealed by a dead relative through a medium but that the information was actually recorded secretively in advance, the claim being that it was given precognitively as evidence of the omniscience of spirits.

The case here, the Ingeborg Dahl‑Köber mediumship, is a relatively modern, occurring in the 1930s, and was investigated using the considerable psychological and forensic resources of the Norwegian High Court. Ingeborg Dahl was the daughter of Ludvig Dahl, himself a respected court judge and the mayor of Fredrikstad, a small town located on the west coast of Norway, south of Olso and close to the Swedish border. The Dahl family and many of their friends became completely convinced of post‑mortem survival and were determined to prove the claims associated with Ingeborg’s mediumship. Because of the social status of the family, the case became the object of an intensive national controversy.

The Dahl mediumship attracted the attention of some of the leading psychical researchers and psychiatric expertise of the period. What brought the case to a dramatic climax was that shortly after these investigations of the Ingeborg Dahl mediumship began, the medium predicted a year in advance that her father, Judge Dahl, would meet with an accidental death, and gave the exact month in which this would occur. The prediction, documented in the form of the automatic writing of her trance control, proved to be entirely accurate. However the event had a macabre twist to it. Ingeborg was the sole witness to the circumstance of her father’s death, making it possible for the critic to suspect that the medium perpetrated murder in order to see her prediction fulfilled. An initial hearing cleared Ingeborg Dahl of any such criminal role, but further circumstances came to light which appeared to make the accusations more plausible and culminated in one of the most highly published trials of pre‑war Norway. The court directive was to resolve the issue of whether or not the successful prediction occurred as part of a homicidal act or as the result of a self‑fulfilling suggestion. While any paranormal aspect was not overtly considered, substantial psychological resources were deployed aimed at determining the nature of her mediumship.

What motivates the present report is that most of the court’s proceedings became generally available only some forty years later and are now still only available in Norwegian. Two books were published with this material in the mid 1970s, one of them by the high court lawyer and chief prosecutor involved in the case (Eriksen, 1975) and the other by an established author (with the same Dahl surname,a common name in Norway) who followed up and interviewed the medium Ingeborg during her last years when she lived in Denmark (Dahl, 1975).

The material presented in the present paper has been culled from documents in four languages: Norwegian, Danish, German and English. One conclusion that immediately emerges from using this source material is that the existing English language accounts of the case (Tabori, 1951; Melton, 1994; Wereide, 1957) are incomplete and sometimes factually incorrect. These concern such critical aspects as the date when Dahl’s life insurance would terminate and the evidence giving grounds for suspicions of fraud. The report we present here utilises the detailed extracts from the Norwegian High Court investigation that were later published together with other archival material in Danish and Norwegian. Some additional material was made available or summarised by the contemporary Norwegian social historian Tonje Mehren (2004) and the German reports were made available by Andreas Sommer.

The Background

The Dahl family consisted of Judge Ludvig Dahl, his wife, Dagny Dahl, and their four children: the eldest son also called Ludvig, born 1894, the paternal twins Frithjof and Ingeborg born 1895, and the youngest son Ragnar born 1901. Ingeborg’s school report school report described her as being of superior intelligence, a daydreamer and psychologically well‑adjusted and her medical records report the absence of any sign of “psychopathology”.

The father, Judge Dahl, had at that time an interest in the automatic writing produced by his sister but apparently regarded it as the product of his sister’s own unconscious. He described himself at that time as agnostic until the tragic loss of two of his sons led to an interest concerning the evidence from spiritualism of an after‑life. Dahl’s first son Ludvig drowned while out sailing with friends in 1919 and five years later the another son, Ragnar, died from tuberculosis. Shortly after Ludvig’s death in 1919, Judge Dahl became heavily influenced by Lodge’s book Raymond, and the works of Allan Kardec. At the same time his two others sons, Ragnar and Frithjof, attended a lecture by Dr Thorstein Wereide, one of the founders of the Norwegian SPR. The brothers then began experimenting with table tilting and obtained meaningful raps which they attributed to their dead brother, Ludvig. Rather poignantly, a flower was seen to suddenly move from its vase and position itself on the top of Ludvig’s portrait. Ingeborg at that time had recently married and was living away from home and claimed to be initially sceptical towards these phenomena, only becoming convinced of their genuineness following a table levitation. When the flower levitation repeated itself on Judge Dahl’s birthday and at Christmas, the family became convinced that the dead son was communicating. These events led Dahl to publish a book in Norwegian concerning the evidence for an afterlife (Dahl, 1931).

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Evidence of an afterlife was sought through automatic writing, and from 1920 onwards Ingeborg became the main source for this. A form of the planchette was used, in which numbers represented letters of the alphabet. On the occasions when knowledge of the code was withheld from the medium, the sessions were run blindly. Ingeborg as the medium was described entering two possible trance states. One of these was a sleep-like trance state with control, “Ludvig” using the planchette, and apparently without seeing the letters or knowing the code used. During this state she was largely non‑responsive to sensory contact. She apparently had memory loss following this. The other state allowed some direct sensory contact with her surroundings but also with a perception of what she believed were her deceased brothers. During this state she was described as becoming child‑like and emotional and she passed on messages she believed came from the dead individuals she was meeting (Walther, 1931; Wereide, 1930).

From the early 1920s to the early 1930s, a large range of mediumistic phenomena was reported including apports, psychokinesis, clairvoyance, and messages claiming to be in the handwriting of the dead. Initially during this period of her life Ingeborg was married to the teacher, Alf Køber, with whom she had two children, but apparently the demands of mediumship and travelling led in 1931 to what was, by all accounts, an amicable divorce.

By the 1930s the Dahl mediumship was beginning to attract international attention. Thorstein Wereide, reader in physics at the University of Oslo, took an enthusiastic interest in the case and became its main publicist and investigator. Wereide presented a paper at the 4th International Congress of Psychical Research in Athens in 1930 on “The Trance Phenomena of Ingeborg Dahl” in which he attributed “a remarkable real life ghost story” in connection with the Dahl mediumship. The story is indeed by all measures remarkable. The events took place just after Wereide and his wife had moved into an old house in Oslo, when his wife, who apparently also had some mediumistic ability, reported experiencing a visual apparition of a person said to have lived in the house. When Ingeborg was invited to hold a séance in the house she claimed to receive two old letters apported into her hand from the apparition. She then said the apparition ordered her to burn the letters for the sake of a lady who had lived in the house. This event, along with the planchette readings, served to convince Wereide of the genuineness and strength of Ingeborg´s mediumship (Wereide, 1930). Since the letters were not examined before the burning took place, a plausible explanation is that they were produced by a sleight of hand. The tapping sound that was reported as being heard just before the appearance of the bundle of letters could be indicative of such trick.

It was not long after the above mentioned Congress, that the translation of Dahl´s book We are here (Dahl, 1931) was published containing an introduction by Sir Oliver Lodge. The book made claims for a variety of phenomena including successful clairvoyance tests, and the occurrence of apports witnessed by the family and visitors.

The Claims

There were four major sets of claims. The most demonstrative concerned the physical phenomena, in particular apports of books, locks of hair, and flowers, but these only occurred under uncontrolled conditions, often with family members or friends as visitors present.

A second major claim was that of the clairvoyant reading of sealed envelopes sent by correspondents or given directly to Ingeborg by visitors. A reply would then be given using the planchette with Ingeborg claiming (because of the use of a number-letter code) to be unaware of the meaning of the message. The codes were however often simple ones and may have been readily deciphered by Ingeborg. Book tests of clairvoyance were also demonstrated by Ingeborg reciting the text of a page from a book which she would then identify by its numbered placement in her father’s library. Sometimes a guest would select a book and Ingeborg would cite pages from the book. This is, however, hardly strong evidence of a paranormal ability since it is often a feature in memory demonstrations and in mentalism.

The most extraordinary claim concerns the evidence of a direct contact with the dead. Ingeborg was reported to be able to pick out deceased persons from among those depicted in group photographs. Again this occurred under what we would today regard as uncontrolled circumstances. It was, however, the production of letters claiming to be in the handwriting of dead persons that became Ingeborg Dahl´s speciality and most contested ability.

The following is given as example of such a letter produced by Ingeborg because it featured in Dahl’s books and because it became later the subject of analysis and heated debate. According to the testimony of her mother and that of two aunts who were present, the letter was produced in ten minutes using the left hand while reading aloud from a book. The text was purported to have come from a W. H. Lipscomb, the deceased aunt of a young English woman who was to visit in the course of the following week (see Figures 1‑3).

[Figures omitted to reduce file size]

4 Figure 1 A sample of Mrs W.H. Lipscomb writing

Figure 2 The message claiming to come from Mrs W. H. Lipscomb

Figure 3. Ingeborg Dahl’s handwriting

The correspondence of the automatic writing with the sample of the original writing was supported by a handwriting expert, Vilhelm Birch of Copenhagen (Dahl, 1922). Regrettably, no details are given of how scientific these tests actually were or of the basis to the expertise.

This aspect of the Dahl case is its most challenging, since it implies motor skills and intentionality on the part of the controlling personality that are characteristic of the deceased. The publicity surrounding Dahl’s book did lead to some attempts at investigation, and one of first investigators coming to Norway was Harry Price, who had visited the family by 1927. He wrote later (Price, 1939) that although he was convinced of the sincerity of the family, the séance he witnessed was “not particularly convincing” but unfortunately he did not elaborate on this judgment.

The first attempt at a real investigation was made in 1931 by Carl Vett, the president of the Danish SPR and secretary of the International Congress at which Wereide had earlier presented his report on the case. In order to test Ingeborg’s claim of being able while in trance to read sealed letters, Vett enlisted the help of the well known German‑Danish researcher Gerda Walther.

The Gerda Walther Investigation

Gerda Walther first sent judge Dahl a letter with the addressee’s first name and part of the sender’s name. She wrote that it was written in purple ink in thick light purple linen paper and put into threefold sealed envelope made of the same paper. In order to avoid subsequent criticism, she made sure that the envelope could not be made sufficiently transparent to read the letter by soaking it with ether, alcohol, etc. The letter’s content was not known to her. She continues:

Soon judge Dahl replied that even before he had introduced the letter into a sitting, he was told by Ludvig that he was visited by a German gentleman, ‘A… the first name of the addressee was given correctly, who stated that the letter was sent on by a lady ‘E…’ (the first name of the sender was correctly given) and that the communicator had already read the letter while it was written, and he would try to respond, which was attempted in a trance sitting. However, since the medium does not have the slightest knowledge of German, it was nearly impossible to make her repeat the foreign words… the sealed letter was returned to me by the medium’s father. The seals were still intact. (Walther, 1931, pp.12‑13)

Unfortunately, Gerda Walther writes that it was around this time that Carl Vett visited Fredrikstad and he gave the medium’s parents hints as to the sender and addressee of the sealed letter. This breach in security was revealed by Judge Dahl himself to Miss Walther, and as such it can be seen as confirming his integrity. Dahl’s correspondence with Walther from that time (Mehren, 2001) reveals that the case concerned Mrs Gabriele Schrenck‑Notzing and the attempt to reproduce the contents of the letter, communicated allegedly by her husband Albert (von Schrenck‑Notzing), written in German with some Norwegian spelling, had a content that was non‑evidential and rather “pointless”.

A further experiment was attempted following the above procedure (using sheets of red gelatine and enveloping the message in dark silk paper) but this time the message was written in Danish which the medium would be able to understand. Ludvig referred to the letter “addressed to a lady ‘R… (which was the correct name of the addressee, the surname is not given in my letter) and the letter refers to a certain lady ‘G…’ who was very close to the deceased lady ‘R’ and had died as well (this too is correct).” Unfortunately, once again the result was unsatisfactory since a relative of the investigator had previously had a sitting with Ingeborg in which she mentioned the deceased lady. Despite these flaws, Walther concludes “At least it seems definite that Frau Ingeborg, or her ‘control’, is capable of clairvoyantly reading sealed letters.” (Walter, 1936).

The second study was carried out in 1932 and involved a visit to the Dahl home by the SPR’s investigation officer at the time, Theodore Besterman. Besterman seemed well suited for the task, having an extensive experience of mediums in various countries and their methods of deception. Moreover, possessing an extraordinary gift at languages, Besterman was able to reach a level of conversational Norwegian within a few weeks of his stay with the family Dahl.

The Besterman Investigation

Besterman and his wife were able to stay with the Dahl family at their summer home on the island of Hankø for most of July 1932, during which they observed eleven séances. For three of these séances they were able to be alone with the medium. They were impressed by the ability of Ingeborg, while in trance and apparently without the use of her sight, to accurately spell out messages with the Ouija board’s triangular pointer. Besterman mentions that Thorstein Wereide once brought his own Ouija board, which Ingeborg apparently had never seen, but even this did not significantly affect the accuracy of the resulting communications.

Besterman also witnessed the dissociation that seemed to characterise the trance state. In this state, Ingeborg became detached from her outer world and began talking and physically reaching out via movements, facial expression and words to what she perceived as being the presence of her brothers.

Since he had no success at evaluating the claims for the clairvoyant reading of sealed envelopes or psychokinetic phenomena, Besterman decided to concentrate on the book test. For this test, they had prepared nine newly bought pocket books and placed these on the table at the hotel. They chose for the first (and only) test, Fielding’s The Adventures of Joseph Andrews, but were careful not to open the book. Besterman describes the procedure as follows:

After each sitting we returned to the hotel and put back the book with the others on the table. Between the placing of the book in my pocket and then replacing of it on the table it never left my pocket.”

Besterman kept this book with him in his pocket from session two (when the family were first informed of the book test) onwards. It was during session eight, that the communicators responded with their single attempt which is given as follows:

“I take the first section at top on page 49. Jo, Joseph, having put…something about his coat… Something about a man, Jo, Joseph. I detest him. (Why?) He put something in my mouth. There was forty one. (Besterman, 1932a, p. 342, 1932b, p. 28)

As Besterman reveals on page 41 of the book, there is a story about “Joseph, having put on his great coat, was lifted in to the coach.” The coach is robbed and one of the robbers takes a small bottle of alcohol from a woman in the coach “clapping it to his mouth and drinking her health”.

The full report of the visit, lodged in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research, records the transcript of the sessions and those present at it. During the first five sittings Illit Gröndahl, lecturer in Norwegian at UniversityCollege, London was present. It was Gröndahl who had alerted the SPR to the Dahl family and during the fifth sitting the medium communicated via the Ouija board that Gröndahl’s father had made notes in a little book, notes that he might not understand except for one of them which was vandrer varlig (literally: ‘wander carefully’). Gröndahl writes of this afterwards: “In the portion omitted from the record of Sitting IV, when Fru Ingeborg was in speaking trance, I produced a small personal notebook, now and then turning over the leaves. The medium spoke of my father bending over and taking notes from this notebook. She gave several significant extracts verbatim from its pages. The present additional one, ‘vandrer varlig’ (literally meaning “wander with care” – take care on your travels), is a highly characteristic one. I am satisfied that Fru Ingeborg had had no normal access to this very private notebook” (Besterman, 1932b, p. 20).

Besterman regarded the test as successful and concluded that “the conditions of the present test, which were intended to be the first in a series, were certainly not completely evidential. They were however sufficiently so as to make a supernormal explanation highly probable and to make a case for further investigation” (Besterman, 1932a, p. 342).

In November 1932, Eric Dingwall sent Ingeborg Dahl and her father some carefully sealed letters which she was to try to read clairvoyantly, but she did not succeed with these. Further testing was hindered by a series of dramatic events.

The Death Prediction

A friend of the Dahl family, Astrid Stolt‑Nielsen, attended a séance at Judge Dahl’s summer home on August 8th, 1933, at which she received communications via Ingeborg that were said to come from her dead daughter. Perhaps as an attempt to win over Stolt‑Nielsen, who merely regarded mediumship as a form of entertainment, the control told her that she would now receive a coded message via the Ouija board which would provide convincing proof of an after‑life. In compliance with the instructions, the message was kept in its coded form and sealed in an envelope and left as such. Ingeborg had said on regaining normal consciousness that she remembered nothing at all of the message (Eriksen, 1975, p. 44‑46) but nevertheless added a correction she said her control wanted made.

Some months after this event on December 4th 1933, the mayor’s deputy, Christian Apenes, on attending another séance with Ingeborg, received a confidential message from the control “Ragnar” that Judge Dahl would die at the end of the following year. Apenes kept the record of the message noting that Ingeborg did not seem to be aware of its gloomy nature. Further messages occurred, which in some form or other alluded to the forthcoming predicted demise.

The messages gained an auspicious quality to them when on 8th August, 1934, Judge Dahl did actually die, in an apparent swimming accident. The Stolt‑Nielsen message was opened in the presence of witnesses and found to contain the following predictive sentence: “In August 1934 Mayor Ludvig Dahl shall lose his life in an accident” (T.E. Dahl, 1975, chapter 2).

The actual circumstance as described by Ingeborg, the sole witness to her father’s death, was a result of her father’s wish to go swimming during their visit to the summer home on the island of Hankø. During the course of this, he called out to her that he had an attack of cramp. Ingeborg ran into the water, swam out to him pulling him into the shore, by which time he appeared to be dead. She sought help at a nearby hotel but the subsequent attempts at resuscitation were unsuccessful.

In English language accounts, it is wrongly stated that Judge Dahl’s life insurance terminated on the actual day of his accident but, being still in good health at the age of 69, he had actually had his policy extended to 70. The controversy was rather that Carl Vett and Thorstein Wereide, as well as many spiritualists, began to regard the prediction as persuasive evidence for the validity of spirit communication. In response to this, journalists, psychiatrists and lawyers started a newspaper campaign on the danger—as they saw it—of macabre self-fulfilling death predictions. The controversy became a particularly loaded one since the medium, claiming to have been in an involuntary trance state, could not legally be held responsible for the outcome of such predictions. The debate became polarised, first by insinuations and finally by direct accusations raised against Ingeborg of having actually herself murdered her father. Ingeborg Dahl became affected by these accusations and demanded a public hearing, which took place in February 1935. The hearing gave a judicial declaration that there was no reason to question the account that Ingeborg had given of her father’s death. However, the psychiatric expert for the court, Johan Scharffenberg, had a clearly divergent opinion, and gave press interviews in which he now accused Ingeborg of fraud and of being directly or indirectly responsible for her father’s death.

There seemed to be no grounds for this and public opinion tended to side with the Dahl family. However, in August 1935 another dramatic event occurred which led to a reversal of this opinion. Judge Dahl’s wife, Dagney Dahl, had held the position of community treasurer in Fredrikstad and a large deficit in the accounts was discovered. Although the money was then repaid into the account from donations and loans, this invited further speculation into the circumstances of her husband’s death and the role the family might have played in it.

On 10th September 1935, shortly after the news that the investigation into Judge Dahl’s death was to be re‑opened, Mrs Dahl committed suicide through an overdose of veronal, a sleeping pill. She left a suicide letter admitting to the misuse of the treasury reserve funds but explaining that she, unbeknownst to her husband and to her daughter as well as other family members, had been borrowing money from the treasury reserve funds in order to pay debts that were accumulating. Nevertheless, the inquiry resulted in Ingeborg being formally charged with murder. A year-long trial began in which 80 witnesses were called, a psychiatric report of 500 pages and the police report of 300 pages produced, and the records of 1503 séances examined.

The Accusations of Forgery

Following Mrs Dahl’s death, the police were given a warrant to “ransack” the Dahl family home in Oslo. As a result of this, 86 letters were subject to forensic examination. Amongst these were 23 letters that were found to have been opened and then re‑glued. A further 6 showed signs of being tampered with. The 19 letters that had not been opened were described as having been sealed so well that it was not possible to open them without using force. Inexplicably, given that this led to Ingeborg Dahl being accused of fraudulent practice, none of the letters bore her finger prints (Dahl, 1975, pp. 305‑306; Eriksen, 1975, pp. 79‑80). Even more enigmatic was the absence of any report of the letters being checked for the finger prints of other family members or séance participants.

The focus shifted now towards determining whether or not her so‑called “spirit letters” had been produced by forgery. The Lipscomb letter, reproduced above in Figure 2, became a test case. A Norwegian expert on handwriting, Christian Bruff, insisted (in contradiction to the opinion of the earlier Danish expert) that the individual letters in the message were simply copied or else traced from a genuine letter previously written by the living Lipscombe in 1920. The forensic expert noted that he could see that there were not only many alterations in the writing, but there was an alteration of the word “these” to “this”, a word that was lacking in the original letter, which contained only the word “these.” He insisted that the message must have been written earlier than the time of the actual sitting and written using the right hand. Since witnesses claimed Ingeborg wrote the letter at the time while she was reading from a book, he reasoned that the paper on which the message was written must have been deftly substituted for the paper that she actually wrote with her left hand. But what added further suspicion was the fact that the letters from Lipscomb were kept in her niece’s apartment in Oslo, which she happened to have shared with one of Ingeborg’s aunts. It was reported that Ingeborg sometimes stayed there and therefore could have had access to them (Eriksen, 1975, pp. 104‑105).

Yet in contrast to the accusations, a clear and unanimous picture of Ingeborg Dahl emerged as an honest and upright person possessing integrity, who impressed the court officials with her resilience in the face of the hardships of life. Moral support at the trial came not only from her lawyer fiancée but also from her former husband who claimed her genuineness had won over his extreme scepticism.

The Court Inquiry into the Cause of Dahl’s Death

The competing “normal” explanations for the accuracy of the séance prediction were that the judge had committed suicide under the influence of suggestion contained in the messages he had received via Ingeborg or alternatively that Ingeborg had murdered her father in a trance state or normal state for the purpose of economic gain or even just to gain fame by her successful prophesy.

There was no direct evidence for murder. Moreover Ingeborg was able to demonstrate in front of observers that although she was not a strong swimmer or skilled at life saving, she did have a basic swimming ability. The marks that had been found on her father’s body were consistent with her having dragged him onto shore, and most witnesses who saw her when she sought help described her wet clothing was consistent with having swum out to him.

It might be objected that the “implanted suggestion hypothesis” necessitated that the father had gained an access to the sealed messages but there were in fact several other sittings during which hints were being given that the judge “would soon come over”. His wife said first he had not known of the prediction but later admitted that her husband had some knowledge of this but she believed he put it out of his mind. Certainly none of the witnesses who knew him seemed to consider suicide to be a likely explanation.

Owing to the court’s focus on the alternatives of premeditated murder or the implanted suggestion hypothesis, the question of the validity of Ingeborg’s claims or having a paranormal ability was effectively circumvented and muted. The questions that were now being asked were: could she have murdered her father in an altered state or with premeditation? Or could Judge Dahl have killed himself under the influence of suggestion from the various messages that were been given out at the séances?

The Psychiatric and Forensic Report

One of the experts called to give evidence was at that time the young psychology professor, Harald Schjelderup, later to be regarded as the founder of Norwegian psychology. A student supervised by Freud, he was one of the first professors of psychology to bring psychodynamic psychology to Norway but he also commanded respect by being open to the new findings of behavioural psychology. Schjelderup had also a serious interest in parapsychology and he would go on to publish some of the classic books in Norwegian on the subject.

Schjelderup witnessed two of Ingeborg Dahl’s séances, which he described (Dahl, 1975, p. 267; Eriksen, 1975 p.118) as showing two states: the first was a sleep‑like trance which seemed quite similar to those he had observed with other mediums and which he regarded as a form of autosuggestion. The second state he observed was the so‑called waking trance, and this in his view seemed to be a mixture of acting and hysteria. It was during such a trance state that Ingeborg behaved in a childlike manner and could see and communicate with her brothers. Schjelderup offered the explanation that the phenomena were dream‑like representations imposing on the waking trance and causing a “hysterical state” to be reached. He reasoned that it also might be the case that what was first a form of hysteria or even simulated trance eventually became in itself a genuine altered state that was at times difficult distinguish from both hysteria and simulation. Concerning the issue of her claimed abilities, Schjelderup noted that genuine mediumistic abilities were relatively rare, but such abilities when they occurred, were associated with altered states of consciousness (Dahl, 1975, pp. 267‑8).

The two court appointed psychiatrists, Ragnar Vogt and Johan Scharffenberg and forensic consultant Francis Harbitz, came to similar conclusions. These are reproduced below in a slightly edited form (Eriksen, 1975, pp. 273‑276):

1. There was no support for the view of Ingeborg as mentally disturbed or unbalanced in any way. She had an impressive ability to cope with the setbacks of life, especially with those of the last years. Her father’s belief in an after‑life and her belief in the support from her deceased brothers had probably helped her in this respect.

2. The trance state appeared to be genuine and analogous to that of autohypnosis, and there was no convincing evidence for simulation. On the other hand, the trance state could shift from moment to moment into a more waking-orientated state. As concerns the opening of the sealed envelopes, some of this could be explained by the fact that she had received instructions to do so during the actual séances. Evidence for this was found in the recorded proceedings from these sittings. However this did not apply to the test cases: in these cases, it seemed that either she herself had broken into them or someone in her surroundings had done so with the purpose of using them as part of a trick. The physical phenomena also gave the impression of being tricks. The same applied to the so‑called handwritten spirit letters. No evidence of telepathy was found in the available material. On the other hand, it seemed plausible that she had developed a special sense for the needs of others which might either have been due to her altered state or due to her intuitive ability.

3. The planchette séances appeared to have gradually gave expression to characteristic roles in the form of Ludvig which developed their own identity, much in the way as in a well-developed novel. The waking trance gave a more chaotic impression with elements of regression to childhood.

4. Experiences from trance could have influenced her in the normal waking state without her knowing it.

5. Nothing amongst all the rich material that they had access to, which included the daily records of trances as well as the letters from her to her fiancée, indicated any signs of pathology or a distortion of consciousness – with the exception of the trance states. Even letters written to her fiancée written at the time of the first death prediction gave no indication of anxiety or inner tension. There was however a difference in her state of mind around the actual day of the death of her father: the letter of 4th August expressed anxiety and concern, and on 6th August it stated: “I am overcome with worry”, and the letter of 8th August (which was incomplete because the judge just then called for his daughter to go with her to the bathing place) stated: “I have the sinking feeling that something will happen, but what is it?” After this she wrote that she dreamt last night of her brother Ludvig who wanted to comfort her and said “we were not to forget that he and Skatt (the pet name for his dead brother) would do the best for us”. More than any of the earlier letters this one was a direct expression of anticipation and anxiety but gave no ground for assuming there was an ongoing mental disturbance, or insanity.

6. Apart from three clear death predictions, there was a series of hints that the “coming over” of the judge was nearing. Judge Dahl, who was nearly 70 years of age, may have reflected about these predictions and may have felt ready to die. The rather negative séance from the day before may have added to this feeling and together they could have given a suggestive influence which expressed itself in thoughts of death. The messages from his sons — in which he had an absolute belief — could have given these thoughts the final stamp of approval. The outcome of this could have created a disposition for the “coming over” — for example, by swimming too far, or if he did develop cramp, by reducing his willpower to fight for his life. The judge could be said to have actually been prepared for his own death. It was well known that death predictions could be self‑fulfilling without any help or intervention being necessary. For these the mechanism of suggestion was a sufficient and natural explanation.

7. The account that Ingeborg Dahl‑Køber gave of the walk to the final bathing place and her lifesaving attempt, was her own (uncorroborated) account, but there was no reason to doubt this. It sounded natural in this situation (as she described in her account) that she asked for help from her dead brother just as she had done for many years. During this the emotion was certainly so overwhelming that her memory would be expected to be incomplete and would lead to some limitations in awareness and recall. There were, on the other hand, no grounds for assuming that she was in a trance when she was bringing the judge to the shore. Even if she had been in a trance when the judge was out swimming, running into the water would have been sufficient to awaken her. That a trance state should occur when she was swimming in the water seems improbable.

The Outcome and Aftermath

The charges were dropped and Ingeborg Dahl was released from prison in October 1936. Nevertheless the publicity had a disastrous effect on psychical research in Norway, since in the public’s eye the paranormal could not be distinguished from spiritualism, which was now associated with fraud and even with suicide. As a consequence, the Norwegian Society for Psychical Research lost half its membership and meetings were suspended for two years. In 1957, nearly 30 years after he first established contact with the Dahl family, Thorstein Wereide wrote an article entitled Medium or Murderess? in which he still strongly protested Ingeborg’s innocence. His view was that “the most extraordinary phenomena in psychical research ought not to be published” because they were simply not tolerated by society. He expressed, like Besterman, incredulity as to how any normal hypothesis would suffice to explain how the planchette could be made to move with such rapidity and without any apparent sight of the letters or sometimes knowledge of their placement. Significantly, the three medical experts did observe a demonstration of this ability but dismissed it as being akin to many other motor abilities such as touch typing or playing music without notes — a level of performance which can be achieved without conscious steering.

On 16th December 1974, Ingeborg Dahl was interviewed in Copenhagen where she was then living and had nothing to add or change to her account of her innocence. She died in1977 at the age of 82 (Dahl, 1975).

Conclusions from the Case

It is not difficult in today’s society to imagine how the trial in Scandinavia of the early 1930s might occupy a central part in public debate in much the same manner as the O. J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials have come to do so in more recent times. However, in the Dahl case, the issue that fixated the national interest on the trial was not that of colour or sex but of materialism versus spiritualism.

In such an atmosphere, as contemporary trials also demonstrate, what might appear to be objective material evidence becomes the subject of opposing expert testimony. In the Dahl case, expectations might have been raised that the court officials would themselves have tested her claims for psychic ability but this does not appear to have ever been the case. After finding evidence of fraud in the form of opened envelopes, resources seem to have been entirely directed at finding a normal explanation for the accuracy of the death prediction. This is perhaps unfortunate given that John Palmer (2001) has shown how automatic writing – such as occurred in the Dahl case – can sometimes be an expression for ESP.

The one serious attempt, by Besterman, appears to have been flawed from the point of view of security. In raising these doubts, we refer to a report by the Oslo High Court (Eiksen, 1975, p. 46), which mentions that the guest rooms of the hotel where Besterman and his wife stayed were located in two buildings which lay near to the Dahl summer house. With the exception of the morning cleaning of the rooms, no staff were in attendance at this part of the hotel. It is therefore disconcerting to note that Besterman (1932) writes about the books he had with him for his crucial test, that he placed them out on the table in his hotel room. He goes on to add a rather abstruse reservation: “But they were not continuously on the table: once or twice a day one or other of the books was taken away for one purpose or another.” It would seem therefore not impossible that Ingeborg could have gained access to the room and found clues as to which book was to be chosen for the test. A similar access might also explain the revelations Ingeborg made concerning the “very private notebook” belonging to Gröndahl, who accompanied Besterman during the first five sessions. Unfortunately Besterman’s complete report, available from the Society’s archives in Cambridge, fails to reveal any further details which could shed light on this issue.

What remains enigmatic under the circumstances is that none of the opened envelopes showed Ingeborg Dahl’s fingerprints. Some of the letters had been deceptively opened and re‑sealed — and one of these had no less than five seals. It can be questioned whether Ingeborg could have done this without her father’s knowledge or help, given that he was very often present. One possibility proposed in her defence was that some of these letters had been opened and resealed by their senders with the intention of making a better seal or changing the contents. But it is even conceivable that there was collaboration between the father and daughter. Judge Dahl had become personally so convinced of the survival of his sons that he may have seen it to be his mission in life to convince others — by fair means or foul, and even using his own the death. Yet there is a more innocuous explanation: her father was elderly and lengthy swimming was perhaps a risky undertaking. Ingeborg’s mediumship was being used to predict several deaths during this period (Eriksen, 1975, pp. 69‑78) and some of them appeared also to be quite probable given the ages of those concerned. What is still remarkable is that her letters of the days just before the event indicate a foreboding of something dire.

Obviously at this distance in time it is impossible to reach any firm conclusions beyond those given in the psychiatric report. Nevertheless some of these are enlightening. Harald Schjelderup, called as an expert witness, described the trance states as a form of autohypnosis and a form of role playing with a “hysterical splitting” in the personality. The psychiatric report also describes autohypnosis and a regressive form of trance. The reports show a consensus in describing what was earlier and would also now be called a dissociative state. In this intervening period, the concept of dissociative states had completely fallen into disuse and disrepute. However, in using the term dissociation to describe this case, it should be pointed out that dissociation is not necessarily a sign of pathology.

It may be wiser even to see dissociation as a normal process. Although the Dissociative Experiences Scale is designed to identify individuals as having a Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) but a large number of normal individuals score higher than the cut‑off score (Khilström, 2005; Martinez‑Taboas, 2001; Ray, 1996). Indeed the modern socio‑cognitive model of DID treats dissociative trance states as a form of role playing in which otherwise normal individuals lose identity by becoming the role. In a comprehensive review of the literature on ‘multiple identity enactments’, Nicholas Spanos (1994) concluded that DID is socially constructed – meaning that it is a product of the context and the expectations of others. A somewhat opposing view is represented by John Kihlstrom (2005) who points out that the scores on the Dissociative Experiences Scale correlate with a wide range of psychological phenomena such as fantasy proneness, and various memory and attention errors. Thus for Kihlstrom while DID may have a socio‑cultural overlay, this does not necessarily detract from its meaningfulness. Indeed Stanley Krippner (2000) uses the dimensions of dissociation contra integrated awareness along with that of controlled contra uncontrolled flow, in order to create an understanding of the range of anomalous experiences (including creativity, possession and paranormal experiences) that occur in their various cultural contexts.

Applying this modern perspective to the Dahl case, it becomes noteworthy that Ingeborg’s school report described her as being preoccupied with daydreaming and the court’s psychiatric report dismissed the controls as being merely like those found in a novel. Tonje Mehren (1999, p. 102) writing about the history of the Norwegian SPR, summarises the form of afterlife that the family Dahl believed in: “as a Summerland which was free from all the worries of everyday life” and she believes this Summerland to have closely resembled that of Oliver Lodge’s. In his book Raymond, for instance, there were lower and higher spheres, spheres between which Ingeborg’s brothers Ludvig and Ragnar were also said to have travelled. Mehren continues: “The highest sphere illustrated the ideals of the society of the period between the wars: a sphere which Ludvig called the realm of Science, Discovery, and the perfection of technology.”

We should also bear in mind the cultural historical context: that mediumship from the 1880s until the 1930s fulfilled an important function as an outlet for the creative potential in women that was otherwise denied. It was said that women in the lower classes could gain an outlet for their creativity and emotion by becoming actresses (which had at that time a low status) while upper class women could become mediums giving free private sittings. The professional fee-charging mediums would occupy the middle ground with a somewhat shifting social status (Oppenheim, 1985; Owen, 1989). Several writers have pointed out how Ingeborg Dahl’s mediumship gave her the important role of a private medium, not only in the eyes of her father, but amongst the high society of Oslo. At the death of her father, she was on the verge of becoming internationally known, and whatever its explanation, the dire consequences of the prediction of his death has actually secured her place in history.


The authors wish to thank the Bridge Trustfor financial support in researching and producing this paper. Gratitude is also expressed to Eberhard Bauer, Steiner Johansen, Jon Mannsåker, Tonje Mehren, and Andreas Sommer for their help in gaining access to material in the various languages concerning this case. The conclusions expressed here are, of course, our own.

Department of Psychology.

University of Gothenburg,



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