As an antidote to my recent story on evil spirits, I’ve updated a piece I wrote four years ago on “the third man.” I find the idea of guardian angels compelling (I wrote about them last month). In this story, I call out several historical examples from John Geiger’s book The Third Man where some type of guiding force seemed to lead those in imminent danger to safety.
Have you heard the story of “the third man” encountered by Ernest Shackleton during his legendary Antarctic expedition? You may already know the tale of how Shackleton’s boat The Endurance became trapped in the ice and how he and his crew narrowly escaped with their lives—but one fascinating fact that drew less attention was the otherworldly presence that accompanied him during the final leg of his journey.
After a harrowing 800-mile open water voyage, Shackleton and two crewmen then had to make an exhausting 23-mile trek over ice-covered mountain ranges to reach a British whaling station on the island of South Georgia. In his memoir, Shackleton reported that he and his two traveling companions, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, weren’t alone. They were joined by a fourth person, an “unseen presence,” that he explained like this:
I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean confessed to the same idea.
While Shackleton later referred to this presence as his “divine companion,” in other circles the phenomenon became known as the third man. Reading the book The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible by John Geiger, I discovered that this presence has been encountered countless times, on land and at sea, by both men and women who were in crisis situations and facing the real possibility of death.
Geiger has uncovered over 100 instances where those in duress have been accompanied by the “presence of some ineffable good.” At times plainly visible, at other times off in the shadows, sometimes talking, sometimes silent, the presence has been perceived as a ghost-like apparition, a guardian angel or a visitor from another realm. The author recounts how the stories have a common theme.
All have escaped traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a companion and helper. This presence offered a sense of protection, relief, guidance, and hope, and left the person convinced he or she was not alone but that there was some other being at his or her side, when there was none.
In the 1930s, a British explorer named Frank Smythe was lost high on a Himalayan mountain in near-blizzard conditions. He suddenly sensed a presence alongside him, an old man who appeared out of nowhere, whispering advice. The climber saw him as “a guardian angel—a wiser self, prompting caution” and offering suggestions that led him to safety.Among other notable cases where the third man has made himself known:
During the 9/11 attacks, Ron DeFrancisco was trapped high above the impact zone when a plane hit his World Trade Center building. He was overcome by smoke and began to fall into unconsciousness. At that point, DiFrancesco said, “someone called me and told me to get up.” The voice did not belong to a person around him, but what he calls “a presence.” It encouraged him and directed him to “run through the fire” as it was his best means of escape. It then encouraged him to keep moving until he reached safety, when “it let me go.”
Stephanie Schwabe was a biologist and experienced diver. On a cave dive collecting specimens near Grand Bahama Island, she made the critical mistake of losing sight of her guideline. A few minutes later, still unable to find it, she fell into a deep panic. Stephanie suddenly felt a presence beside her that telepathically called her by name and offered encouragement, urging her to “calm down” which she did immediately. With a diminishing amount of air in her tank, she sat down on the floor of the cave, and calmly looked around until she saw the guideline in the distance. (She later claimed the voice was that of her dead husband.)
While on his historic flight from the U.S. to England aboard The Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh had an odd encounter that he did not report until almost 20 years later. He said there were “disembodied beings” in the cockpit with him. According to Lindbergh, “I’ve never believed in apparitions, but how can I explain the forms I carried with me through so many hours…transparent forms in human outline—voices that spoke with authority and clearness.”
After a difficult night struck on the side of an ice-covered mountain with an injured companion, the famed climber Reinhold Messner found they were not alone. In his words, “Suddenly, there was a third climber next to me. He was descending with us, keeping a little to my right and a few steps away, just out of my field of vision.” He felt a renewed sense of calm. “The mere presence somehow helped me regain my composure.” He and he his companion made their way to safety.
The third man has been termed many things by medical professionals who try to explain it rationally: “A sensory illusion caused by extreme physical exertion or monotony” and “a condition attributable to low blood glucose or cerebral edema.” But there seems to be something more to it than that.
One researcher believes there is an “angel switch” in our brain, an otherworldly mechanism that kicks in when we reach our limits of endurance. Peter Hilary, a noted adventurer who has witnessed the third man himself, believes that “there is a benevolent being assigned to each of us on a permanent basis, who sometimes works in the background like a discreet servant” and in times of real emergency makes itself known in the physical realm.
Three questions to ponder: Do each of us have a guardian angel assigned to us that we don’t yet know about? Is the third man a higher form of our own being that leaves the body at the moment death seems imminent, much like those who recount leaving their body while on the operating table? Since the “third man” seems to only appear during times of great need, might we also be able to summon it to assist us in our everyday struggles?