The Psychiatrist Who Believed People Could Tell the Future

After a national disaster, a British doctor began collecting foreboding visions. Soon, they closed in on him.
Illustration of person with glasses
John Barker recruited a group of people whose predictions were uncannily prescient. Then one foresaw Barker’s death.Illustration by Matthieu Bourel
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For many years, Kathleen Lorna Middleton lived at 69 Carlton Terrace, in the North London suburb of Edmonton. The house, which faced one of the main roads leading out of the city, had a small plaque to the left of the front door: “Miss Lorna Middleton, Teacher of Pianoforte and Ballet.” Middleton was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1914. She was a talented dancer as a child and had friends who went to Hollywood, but, during the Depression, Middleton’s parents, who were English, lost everything and moved back to London. Middleton, who had small hands, buck teeth, and a pronounced New England accent, opened a school for dance and music in the front room of No. 69 and called her students the Merrie Carltons.

Middleton played the piano, swivelling on her stool, while six girls at a time practiced port de bras using the bookcases for balance. The next class waited on the stairs. The house was crowded with dark furniture and programs from Middleton’s childhood performances with the dates erased. “There was always something—not exactly exotic, but she was totally different,” Christine Williams, who started taking classes with Middleton when she was four, told me recently. “Whatever she did, she posed. She never just stood.”

On a winter’s day, when she was seven years old, Middleton watched her mother, Annie, frying eggs on the stove. “After about two minutes, and without warning the egg lifted itself up. It rose up and up until it almost touched the ceiling,” Middleton wrote, in a self-published memoir. Middleton giggled, but her mother was concerned. She consulted a fortune-teller, who told her that an egg that flew out of the pan often symbolized a death. A few weeks later, one of Annie’s best friends, who had recently married, died and was buried in her wedding dress.

“I cannot say what I really felt or indeed what I feel now,” Middleton wrote. She experienced premonitions, in one form or another, throughout her life. A headache would precede an earthquake. Names and numbers would appear to her. “I am drawn to these events by what appears to be a blaze of light,” she wrote. “An electric light bulb.” Middleton never worked as a psychic or seemed unduly bothered by her sensations. Williams took lessons with Middleton into adulthood, and the piano teacher would bring out sketches of recent visions and occasionally complain about all the information reaching her. “She would say sometimes, ‘I just turn it off. I am too busy. I am too busy,’ ” Williams recalled. “And she would wave her hand.”

At around 4 A.M. on October 21, 1966, when Middleton was fifty-two, she had a powerful feeling of foreboding. “I awoke choking and gasping and with the sense of the walls caving in,” she wrote soon afterward. She told Alexander Bacciarelli, her lodger, about the ominous feeling when he came home from a night shift. At 8 A.M., Middleton accepted a cup of tea from Bacciarelli, although she didn’t usually drink tea in the morning.

A little more than an hour later, a group of laborers, who were working on an enormous heap of coal waste in South Wales, also paused to make a cup of tea. The pile stood on a steep hillside, and had shifted because of weeks of heavy rain. As the water boiled over a small fire, the waste began to move. Tall black waves crawled up the slope before a hundred and fifty thousand tons of slurry rushed into the valley below, overwhelming Pantglas Junior School, in the village of Aberfan. Children and staff heard what sounded like a jet plane, and then were buried.

A hundred and forty-four people—including a hundred and sixteen children—were killed in Aberfan. Eighteen houses were destroyed. In places, the slurry lay thirty feet deep. Within hours, the village, an isolated place off the road to Merthyr Tydfil, was clogged with press trucks, ambulances, and earthmoving machinery. Miners, volunteers, and sightseers descended on Aberfan. Phone lines were jammed with offers of help. When a call went out for rubber gloves, six thousand pairs were sent. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, arrived at nightfall, as children’s bodies were being laid out for identification by their parents. The Duke of Edinburgh came the next morning. “There was a greyness everywhere,” the Merthyr Express reported. “Faces from the tiredness and anguish, houses and roads from the oozing slurry of the tips.”