In this contemporary reincarnation case an English woman, Jenny Cockell, recalled memories of the life of a working class Irish woman in the early twentieth century. The case is unusual for the richness, strength and durability of the memories, and for their close correspondence to the life of a verifiable deceased individual, as was eventually confirmed by this person’s grown-up children.
Details are drawn from Cockell’s books Yesterday’s Children (1993) and Journeys Through Time (2008).
See also Jenny Cockell
Mary Sutton was born in 1898, the daughter of the stationmaster at Portmanock, north of Dublin. She married John Sutton, who worked as a scaffolder. She bore eight children: four boys, Sonny, John, Christopher and Frank, and four girls, Philomena, Mary, Bridget and Elizabeth. The family lived in a hamlet on Swords Road, a mile outside the village of Malahide, north of Dublin. As her husband became increasingly abusive and absent, Mary found herself struggling to make ends meet; the family lived largely on home-grown vegetables supplemented by meat from trapped animals.
Mary Sutton died in hospital of pneumonia and toxaemia in 1932, aged 35. After her death Sonny lived with his father; the other children were placed in orphanages.
Jenny Cockell was born in Barnet, Hertfordshire, in 1953. From an early age she had memories of previous lives, both while dreaming and when awake. The most vivid and persistent of these related to a life of a poor working-class woman in Ireland, whose name was Mary and who had borne seven or eight children before dying at an early age, feeling a strong sense of guilt of having abandoned them to an insecure fate.
The most vivid memories were of the family’s cottage, a single-storey building constructed of buff-coloured stone (sometimes appearing to be white), with a solid wooden door and a slate roof that sagged noticeably. The cottage was at one end of a row of ten or twelve homes along a lane; the opposite side was a boggy meadow; a stream ran nearby. At the rear was a small vegetable patch, then woodland. Within the building itself the chief memory was of a cramped and dark kitchen, where Mary cooked on an unfamiliar looking range, making round flat bread loaves.
As ‘Mary’, Cockell recalled strong images of the nearby village, where she shopped alone and visited with all the children, possibly to church on Sundays, since they were wearing their best clothes. She recalled the layout of the village in some detail: a shopping street that ran north to south through the middle, where there was also a small church; a railway station set back from the main road. The village seemed to lie north of a major city, beyond walking distance.
There were clearly identifiable memories of the children’s appearance and characters. They included an older boy who was confident and straightforward; the oldest girl who was patient and helpful; two more boys, one energetic and relentlessly humorous, the other more quiet; a young girl who was pretty with blonde hair and blue eyes; a small boy, who was very quiet.
There were fewer memories of the husband, beyond the feeling that he was something of an outsider, had once been a soldier, and had much to do with large timbers and roof work. She felt he was taciturn and seldom around.
Cockell could not visualize Mary but remembered the clothes she habitually wore: a blouse with sleeves gathered into a band just below the elbow, and a dark long woollen skirt. The memories that occurred in night-time dreams especially seemed fraught with money worries. Mary seemed to have a strong interest in steam trains, although there was no memory of actually travelling on them. She remembered standing on a small wooden jetty at dusk, waiting for a boat to arrive, wearing a flimsy dark shawl and shivering in the cold wind.
Feelings and Behaviours
As a child, Cockell’s behaviours were concordant with the memories in certain ways. She echoed in her play Mary Sutton’s actions in cooking and cleaning, and dressed her best on Sundays ‘because it was Sunday’, although her family were not churchgoers and had no special reason to do so.1
She particularly felt a strong sense of guilt of having abandoned her children by dying:
I wanted to fight death, to avoid that final separation – but death came, inevitably and repeatedly, in my dreams, and I would wake in tears. It was too soon to go, much too soon to leave the children. My sense of guilt was powerful. I was filled with a confusion of emotions that would have been difficult for an adult to cope with. But I kept my tears to myself: a rather withdrawn child, I felt that the grief was too private to speak of, even to my mother.2
Cockell describes the way in which she identified Mary Sutton’s village as follows:
One day, as a child, I felt sure that if I could look at a map of Ireland I would know, deep down, where the village was located, and could match it with the maps I had been drawing ever since I was old enough to hold a pencil. The only map I could find was in my school atlas; with the whole of Ireland on just one page, the detail was not very great, so I would be unlikely to succeed in my hoped-for match, but I tried anyway. I sat with the map in front of me, then shut my eyes for a few moments to let memory take over. Several times I tried, and each time I was drawn back to the same spot on the map. Mary, I felt sure, must have seen maps, or I would not have been able to draw these maps on my own. The place I had been drawn to was called Malahide, and it was just north of Dublin.3
As a young adult Cockell embarked on regression hypnosis sessions to try to recover more detailed memories. New and persistent images emerged of a butcher’s shop and a church, although accompanied by a sense that were not ones that Mary herself frequented. In one particularly vivid incident she recalled the children rushing in one day when she was washing dishes to tell her they had trapped an animal; she went out with hands still wet, saw a hare in the trap, and exclaimed in alarm that it was still alive.
Pressed by the hypnotist to name her husband, Cockell (as ‘Mary’) voiced the name ‘Bryan O’Neil’, although feeling uncertain about this. She writes:
The hypnosis was undoubtedly helping, but how far could I trust what it was dredging up? There was a consciousness that, although it was revealing a lot I had not remembered, this knew knowledge lacked the fine detail which I believed necessary to a successful search. Each time I was hypnotised I saw a great deal, but did not actually record it in words – usually because I was not asked about it, or because I was asked the wrong question… 4
When Cockell had married and borne a child of her own, a strong need grew in her to trace the family that Mary had involuntarily abandoned. She found the addresses of people named O’Neil in the area and wrote to them with the map she had drawn from memory to ask if they knew of a family that matched her memories. This did not yield direct results. However, it led her to discover maps of greater detail and granularity, which she found corresponded closely with her own, showing the station, churches, jetty and roads all as she had drawn them, the distances more or less to scale. The name ‘Gay Brook’ leaped out, and she was able to identify Swords Road, about a mile from the centre of Malahide, as the site of Mary’s cottage. She realised that tracing the family’s home would be a more certain way of discovering its identity than by a possibly spurious surname.
Cockell now enlisted the help of individuals who might be able to furnish further information. In June 1989, she was at last able to visit Malahide herself, finding the layout – including jetty, a butcher’s shop and church that Mary had often passed by and other details – ‘so familiar that I was flooded with relief’.5 Walking up Church Road she experienced ‘an overwhelming sense that this was a road walked regularly by Mary’, and was struck by the close concordance between the detailed images of the scene that they had seen under hypnosis and the reality, which she had not been expecting. She writes:
The sight of the church, St Andrew’s, represented a wonderful confirmation of the accuracy of my memories. I found myself trembling with excitement. It proved that all the dreams, memories and images released by hypnosis were based on reality. That meant there was a real chance of my being able to trace the children.6
When she reached Swords Road she identified the stream that had run close to the house, and an old building that might have been Mary’s cottage, although she was unable to identify it with certainty (she later learned that this building had not existed in the 1930s). She did not see a derelict house that was obscured behind a wall; on her return to England she was put in touch with a local landlord who indicated this as the only building in the lane that had been occupied by several children, whose mother had died in the 1930s. He later provided a list of nineteen families who had lived in Swords Road in the 1920s, of which one in particular closely matched Cockell’s memories. He identified the mother as Mrs Sutton, the wife of a British soldier who had fought in World War I, and revealed that following her death the children were sent to orphanages.
Cockell now started contacting individuals named Sutton in the locality, at first without success. She also contacted orphanages, and eventually received a letter from a priest in charge of a boys home in Dublin who had traced records of baptism for six of the Sutton children. She also received a copy of Mary’s death certificate, stating that Mary Sutton of Gaybrook, Malahide, died in 1932 aged 35, of toxaemia, sceptic pneumonia and gas gangrene.
In response to publicity in a local newspaper Cockell received a call from the daughter of John Sutton, Mary’s second son, and spoke briefly to John himself. The daughter confirmed that Mary had had eight children. She agreed with Cockell’s descriptions of her father as ‘mischievous and humorous’, and those of some of the other brothers. She gave various family details and provided contact details for two of the other brothers, Sonny and Frank. It appeared that the four boys had been reunited a few years earlier, but that contact with the girls had been lost.
Cockell did not hear from John again. But in 1990 she had a telephone conversation with Sonny, Mary’s eldest son, who was now 71 and lived in the north of England. This led to a face-to-face meeting at his home at which it was confirmed that her memories were almost all accurate for the life of Mary Sutton, Sonny’s mother: the people, the buildings and environment, the daily concerns and activities, and particular incidents. Among other details Sonny confirmed Cockell’s impressions of the cottage, which had been the lodge of Gaybrook house; the colour of the outside walls, which were sometimes whitewashed; the pronounced dip in the roof; the layout of the rooms; the range in the kitchen fireplace, with a hob on either side and a hook down the chimney for pots; and the vegetable patch.
Sonny agreed that the appearance and personality of each of the children was as Cockell remembered them, and with her memory of Mary wearing a blouse, calf-length woollen skirt and shawl. He confirmed Cockell’s description of the incident of the trapped hare, and was shocked by its accuracy. Sonny also helped fill in missing details, for instance why Cockell had visualized herself waiting on the jetty. As a teenager he had had a part-time job caddying for a golf club on an island in the estuary, and his mother would wait for him in the evening to return home.
Sonny revealed that Mary’s husband John Sutton had worked as a scaffolder, which explained the impression that he had to do with large timbers and roof work. John was an outsider in the sense that he was not from the locality, and although he was Irish, not British, he had served in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and fought in World War I. John, Cockell now learned, had become a violent drunkard, which explained the feelings of overriding protectiveness towards the children, and the sense of caution and fear.
Sonny recalled visits to his aunt, Mary’s sister, of whose existence Cockell learned for the first time. The outings took them past a butcher’s shop and a church, explaining why these featured strongly in her memories, although she did not recall having actually entered them.
Following Mary’s death Sonny went to live with his father, while his younger siblings were placed in local orphanages, the father having been deemed unfit to look after them. He and his three brothers had become reunited a few years before Cockell’s first contact, but they remained out of touch with the three surviving girls (the oldest daughter Mary had died aged 24). Sonny quickly accepted Cockell’s memories as genuine, and thought of her as his mother reborn. John was more reticent, and died soon after the initial contact, but Frank travelled to Dublin to meet her.
Cockell published an account of the case in her first book Yesterday’s Children, which led to considerable media publicity. In 1990 she heard from Mary’s youngest child Elizabeth, whom she was able to put in touch with her brothers for the first time since their separation. Later she also discovered and met with Philomena (who now called herself Phyllis). There followed a slow but steady exchange of letters. On a second visit to Malahide she was able to enter the derelict cottage, now about to be demolished, and met with other of the Sutton children. A bond developed between them in the remaining years of their lives.
In a 1998 article for the Skeptical Inquirer, skeptic Joe Nickell, a professional investigator and fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, argued that Cockell’s description of herself shows traits of a fantasy-prone personality, and that her early memories of Mary Sutton could be explained as those of a child fantasizing as a means to escape from reality. Nickell emphasizes the unreliability of memories recalled under hypnosis, and complains of an ‘overwhelming lack of factual information’ provided in the Mary Sutton memories, particularly with regard to names of people and places, and dates, also an lack of exactness in the details, which could have been ‘retrofitted’ to the facts. Nickell writes:
She employs circular reasoning. She sent out queries that sought a village with certain sketchy requirements and, when such a village was — not surprisingly — discovered, she adopted it as the one she was looking for. Obviously if it did not fit she would have looked further. Such an approach amounts to drawing a target around an arrow once it has struck something.
Critics of Nickell have pointed out that these approaches, commonly advanced by debunking skeptics, are questionable with regard to Cockell’s experiences, and in many respects are directly at variance with the facts as described by her. Having a fantasy-prone personality does not explain why a child should harbour feelings of guilt; nor is it clear in what sense having such feelings is consistent with a desire to ‘escape from reality’.
While the unreliability of memories recovered under hypnosis is widely acknowledged, Cockell claims in her case to have experienced a notable concordance between these and the reality that was independently identified from spontaneous memories. With regard to the absence of factual labels in terms of names and dates, this may simply be a characteristic of past life memory; it does not of itself weaken the impact created by the abundance of imagistic information she recalled.
Further, Nickell’s description of how Cockell identified Mary Sutton’s village is inconsistent with hers: at an early age she had been drawn to the name Malahide on a small-scale atlas, and had always focused her attention on this locality, finding that her detailed recollections of the streets and buildings matched exactly.
Ian Wilson, a British historian and strong critic of past life claims based on regression hypnosis, reviewed Yesterday’s Children for the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.7 He concurs with Nickell as to ‘the unreliability of memories retrieved under hypnosis as a means of eliciting hard facts, accurate names, dates, etc.; hence in the case of Mary’s husband the totally misleading name “Bryan O’Neil” when, if Jenny Cockell’s findings are to be accepted, his true name was John Sutton. Likewise Jenny’s “hypnotic” names for Mary’s children turned out to be moonshine.’8
However, Wilson adds:
The fascination of Jenny Cockell’s book is its underlying substratum of ‘Mary’ images and incidents that did check out, and with none other than the son of the Mary who Jenny Cockell believes herself to have been in her previous incarnation… [A]ssuming that Jenny’s account is not unduly fictionalized, we have a thinly verbal, but more substantially visual and emotional, set of mental impressions which really do seem somehow to have been transmitted from Mary Sutton, deceased Malahide 1932, to Jenny Cockell, present-day Northamptonshire housewife, born 1953.9
Wilson warns against regarding the case as evidence necessarily of reincarnation. He considers that the theory of genetic memory is unlikely, since Cockell’s only known Irish relative, a great grandmother, was from Ireland’s west coast and had no Dublin connection, but suggests a form of haunting or possession by a discarnate Mary cannot be ruled out.
Cockell, J. (1993). Yesterday’s Children: The Extraordinary Search For My Past Life Family (London: Piatkus).
Cockell, J. (2008). Journeys Through Time: Uncovering My Past Lives (London: Piatkus).
Nickell, J. (1998). A Case of Reincarnation – Reexamined. Skeptical Briefs Vol. 8/1. http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/case_of_reincarnation_reexamined
Wilson, Ian. (1993). Review of Yesterday’s Children: The Extraordinary Search For My Past Life Family, by Jenny Cockell, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 59, pp. 307-9.