"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Strange Death of Ludwig Dahl; Or, If the Dead Speak to You, Don't Listen

Ludwig Dahl

The history of spiritualism is littered with cautionary tales of overenthusiastic dabblers who sought enlightenment via the world of ghosts, but instead found themselves delving into dangerous psychic waters that brought them to disaster.

In the example we will be examining today, spirits may even have led to one man's murder.

In the early part of the 20th century, Judge Ludwig Dahl worked as a magistrate in the Norwegian town of Fredrikstad. He also served as mayor of Bergen. In his private life, Dahl followed more unusual interests than law and politics. From around 1915, he and his family became deeply involved in psychic and occult matters. After Dahl's two sons Ludwig and Ragnar died in separate accidents within a few years of each other, this hobby became what could be called an obsession. His daughter, Mrs. Ingeborg Køber, believed she had talents as a medium. She spent many hours in a self-induced trance, where she allegedly "channeled" the spirits of her deceased brothers. (Among the guests at these seances was Arthur Conan Doyle, who called Ingeborg "the most remarkable medium I ever came across.")

Ingeborg Kober

Dahl kept transcripts of these spirit communications, which he never doubted were completely genuine. The belief that he continued to have contact with his sons was the only thing that enabled Dahl to cope with his loss. "The passing of the two boys," he once wrote, "made our lives richer, fuller, than ever before." In short, the spirit world was becoming more important to him than the world of the living.

In 1927, the famed "ghost hunter" Harry Price visited Norway, where he made the acquaintance of the Dahl family. He attended one of their seances, where Ingeborg went into a trance and--so all the Dahls believed--communicated messages from Ludwig Jr. and Ragnar. Price was privately unimpressed. Although he liked the Dahls, and had no doubt that the family sincerely believed they were "talking" to their dead loved ones, he noted that there was no unimpeachable proof that this was truly happening. As evidence of life after death, he considered the experience something of a bust. However, he remained friends with the family and succeeded in finding a publisher for Dahl's transcripts of his spiritualistic researches. They were issued in 1931 with the title "We are Here: Psychic Experiences." The book received international attention, leading many to refer to him as the "father of Scandinavian spiritualism."

In 1933, Dahl's "psychic experiences" suddenly took an ominous turn. A family friend, Astrid Stolt-Nielsen, also fancied herself to be a trance medium. During one of her seances, she gave Dahl a grim message from his son Ragnar: the spirit announced that in August 1934, Dahl would have a fatal accident. The judge's specific reaction to this news was not recorded, suggesting that--as befitting someone who was convinced there is eternal life after death--he took the warning in stride.

On August 8, 1934, Dahl and Ingeborg paid a visit to Hankø Island, a seaside resort a few miles from their town. It happened to be the place where Ludwig Dahl Jr. had drowned fifteen years earlier. While Ingeborg sunbathed on the beach, the judge went out for a swim. He was an excellent swimmer, in very good health for his 69 years, and the water was no more than three feet deep.

This swim proved to be the last thing he ever did on this earth. While he was in the bay, something terrible happened. According to Ingeborg, he suddenly began to sink from the surface. By the time she was able to reach Dahl and pull him from the water, he had drowned.

A tragic and--if you believe in the ghost of Ragnar Dahl--unsurprising accident. Sad, certainly, but entirely normal.

The site of Dahl's death

Well, perhaps not. The inquest into the judge's demise revealed a number of interesting details. After his death, it was discovered that he had serious financial problems. There was a very large insurance policy on his life--which happened to expire one day after his death. There was also testimony from Christian Apenes, Dahl's deputy-mayor. In December 1933, he had attended one of Ingeborg's seances. Apenes said that during this trance session, Ragnar Dahl had, through Ingeborg, delivered the news that his father would die within a year. He would meet his end by drowning in shallow water. The spirit added that as proof of this claim, it would give this same information to another medium. (That is to say, Astrid Stolt-Nielsen.) "Ragnar" instructed that the prediction of Ludwig's untimely end should be written down and placed in a sealed envelope. Apenes dramatically produced this envelope, where it was opened in front of witnesses.

The peculiar circumstances surrounding the judge's death became the focus for an intense public debate over spiritualism. Was this, as psychic researchers insisted, proof of the afterlife? Or did Dahl kill himself under the "hypnotic influence" of the death prophecy? Or were the skeptics right in their suspicion that all this talk of spirit communications was merely a cover for something far darker?

Law enforcement began to cast a very critical eye on the only witness to Ludwig's death...his daughter Ingeborg. The autopsy on Dahl revealed that before he died of drowning, his neck had received a fracture between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. It was also noted that after pulling her father from the water, Ingeborg did not immediately summon medical help. Instead, she and Mrs. Stolt-Nielsen (whom she had supposedly accidentally run into) phoned her mother. It took Mrs. Dahl several hours to arrive at the scene. She was accompanied by Christian Apenes. Doctors were not called until it was too late for them to do anything but certify "death by drowning." Police officers were not notified until later--so much later, that lurid gossip spread that the judge had really been murdered by his family, in order for them to collect that much-needed insurance money. Apenes also benefited from Dahl's death--after the judge drowned, Apenes took over as mayor. The most popular theory was that Apenes had invented the "death by accident" prophecy, and then hypnotized Ingeborg into drowning her father on the beach.

The many questions surrounding Ludwig Dahl's death wound up being aired in Oslo's Central Criminal Court. Ingeborg herself instigated bringing the case to court, as she was anxious to disprove the allegations that her father had killed himself. Instead, she found herself facing a charge of being part of a murder plot involving her mother, Astrid Stolt-Nielsen and Christian Apenes.

Ingeborg's trial (which gained international fame as "The Witch Trial of Oslo,") dragged out for no less than three years. It became a battle of science versus spiritualism. The prosecution presented psychologists who opined learnedly on what they saw as Ingeborg's mental aberrations. The defense countered by quoting from the works of psychic researchers. Ingeborg spoke excitedly of eternal life and the Great Beyond. Her accusers talked of life insurance.

During the trial, it was revealed that Mrs. Dahl, who served as her town's treasurer, had embezzled public funds. The cash apparently went to pay the steep premiums for her husband's insurance policy. Several days after this exposure, she killed herself. She left a note admitting the theft, but vehemently proclaiming her daughter's innocence of murder.

What it all boiled down to was this: Did the judge kill himself so his family would get his insurance money? Was he driven to suicide after hearing a prophecy of his death from the other world? Did his family conspire to murder him? Or was his death mere mischance after all, with the alleged "message" from Ragnar being merely a creepy coincidence?

The jury, faced with this array of unproven, unprovable theories, chose to deliver an acquittal. Ludwig Dahl's death was finally officially ruled to be accidental.

Despite the jury's verdict, many Norwegians still consider Dahl's death to be an unsolved mystery. At least one criminologist even had his suspicions about the death of the judge's sons, wondering if "under the cloak of Spiritualism an extremely cunning criminal was carrying out a series of murders."

We will never know if he could have been right.


  1. The fracture of the judge's neck seems very suspicious. I doubt that he would have done that to himself, and then swim out to sea. I think someone got away with murder - if not in public opinion.

  2. Is it easy or difficult to drown in three feet of water?


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