Irene Corbally Kuhn was a pioneering globe-trotting journalist in the first part of the 20th century. Her 1938 memoir, “Assigned to Adventure” chronicles her career exploits up to that date. What makes her book relevant to this blog is a passage where she describes an eerie experience that could be classified as either a time-slip or a psychic vision of future tragedy.
In 1922, Irene was working in Shanghai, where she married fellow reporter Bert Kuhn, who was the news editor for the "China Press." The following year, they had a daughter, Rene. In May 1925, riots broke out in Shanghai after Sikh police fired on several thousand Chinese students who were protesting the convictions of Chinese cotton-mill employees who had gone on strike. The situation was so dangerous, Bert persuaded his wife to go with their daughter for a visit to America, while he stayed behind in China.
One afternoon in December, Irene was walking down Chicago’s Michigan Boulevard. It was a fine day, and she was feeling in the best of spirits. Then…
"...suddenly and without warning sky, boulevard, people, lake, everything vanished, wiping from my vision as completely and quickly as if I had been struck blind. Before me, as on a motion picture screen in a dark theatre, unrolled a strip of green grass within a fence of iron palings. Three young trees, in spring verdure, stood at one side; beyond the trees and the fence, in the far distance, factory smoke-stacks trailed sooty plumes across the sky. Across from the trees stood a small circle of people, men and women, a mere handful, in black clothes. And coming to a halt on a gravelled road by the grass was a limousine from which alighted two men who turned to offer their hands to a woman in black, emerging now from the car. The woman was I.When the vision faded, Irene was left so visibly weakened that a passing stranger came to her aid. He called a taxi, which took her to the office of her brother-in-law. He was so startled by her haggard appearance that he instantly poured her a large glass of whiskey. Although Irene managed to persuade herself that the incident was merely the product of her imagination, she never forgot about it.
"I watched myself being escorted against my will to the group which now parted to receive me. I made no sound, but struggled against the necessity of moving towards them. I took one step and then stood stock still. Gently the two men urged me forward, a step at a time, until at last I was among the others, and looked at the small hole cut in the grass--a hole not more than two feet square.
"I looked once and turned my back on it, wanting to run away, but held there by some irresistible force. There was a small box which someone, bending over now, was placing in the earth with infinite tenderness—a box so small and light I could hold it in my hand and hardly feel it. What was I doing here? Where was I? Why was I letting someone put this box into the ground—this little box which held something very precious to me? I couldn't speak or move. These people—who were they? Then I recognized only the faces of my husband's family, tear-stained and sad. The silence screamed and tore at me. I looked about. All the clan were there. Only he was missing. Then I knew what was in the box, and I crumpled on the grass without a sound."
In February 1926, Irene began her journey back to China, sailing from Vancouver on the "Empress of Canada." As soon as she boarded the ship, the purser advised her to contact the passenger agent. When she did so, the agent showed her a wire from Bert’s family in Chicago reading, “Please advise Mrs. Bert L. Kuhn husband dangerously ill, best not sail.” When she left the ship, she received a second wire: “Bert dead.”
Irene returned to Chicago, where she was given a job on the “Mirror.” Meanwhile, Bert’s ashes were sent to the city for burial. She wrote:
"And it was on May 30 that, all arrangements having been completed, I went with my two brothers-in-law in a limousine to Rosehill Cemetery, which I had never seen before.
"We drove across the city, through the cemetery gates and came to a stop. The men got out first and waited to help me. I put my foot on the ground, and something held me back. For a second I couldn't raise my eyes because I knew what I should see. At last I looked. There was the spring grass underfoot. There were the three young trees in fresh leaf; there the fence of iron palings, and the smoke-stacks of the city's industries far beyond in the distance. My feet were weighted with lead.I didn't want to go.
"Bert's brothers urged me forward gently. I saw the ring of black-clad mourners over to one side, waiting. I stopped.
"'You didn't have to open a full grave, did you?' I asked.
"'How do you know?' asked Paul with astonishment.
"'There's just a little square hole big enough to take the box with Bert's ashes, isn't there?' I pressed on.
"Paul's face was white beneath his natural tan.
"'Yes, that's right. They said it would be foolish to open a full grave for a small box of ashes. But how did you know?' he persisted.
"I didn't answer. I was thinking of that December day on Michigan Boulevard when I had seen into the future, over the bridge of time. . . ."
[Note: Bert's death is in itself an intriguing mystery. The official medical report said only that he passed away from "unknown causes." He had secretly worked for U.S. Naval Intelligence, and Irene always suspected that his clandestine activities were somehow linked to his untimely demise.]