When Bad Things Happen to Good People

A broken woman finds physical and spiritual renewal

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars — Khalil Gibran

Gail E. Nelson, 1911 college yearbook photo

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick

In the tradition begun by Edgar Cayce's secretary, Gladys Davis, researchers at Cayce Universe continue to search for insights in the Cayce readings by studying the personal stories of the people who received them. Among these reading recipients is Gail E. Nelson, a college-educated government clerk working at the Bureau of Veterans Affairs in Washington D.C., who sought career advice from Cayce after suffering a horrific tragedy. A broken woman who found physical and spiritual renewal, her story speaks to the Divine in each of us and suggests why it may be that a God capable of interceding in the lives of His children would permit bad things to happen to good people.

As our research would reveal, the tragedy referenced in the reading took place on the afternoon of Saturday, May 8, 1926. Gail, 35 years old at the time, was staying with her parents in Columbia Heights, in northwest Washington D.C., while she cared for her infirm mother, Christine. Eager to get out of the house after being homebound for several weeks, she accepted an invitation to take a short drive along the Potomac River with a man she considered a friend—43-year-old real estate agent Edward Barron. They had met and struck up a friendship two years earlier on a train to Kansas City where both were attending a Masonic Shriners hospital convention. Later, when Barron had professed his love and desire to marry her, Nelson had declined, in part because he was already married. She had made clear that a physical relationship was out of the question. Barron told her that he understood and would accept her decision.

That Saturday afternoon, with the encouragement of her mother and father, Nelson put on a brightly colored dress and joined Barron on what he said would be no more than a ten-minute drive. Concern became alarm when, after leaving the city limits and driving into Virginia, Barron exited onto Collingwood Road in Arlington, and refused to turn the car around. Minutes later, they were on their way to Carlin Springs, deep in the Arlington forest—what today is the 92-acre Glencarlyn Park—where Barron drove up a wooded trail and parked in a grassy clearing. As Nelson would later tell Edgar Cayce, and Gladys Davis would later report: "He had a crazy look in his eyes; kept saying over and over that if he couldn't have her no one else should."

As it turned out, Barron had no intention of returning her home. Nor was he planning on ever returning home himself. Before meeting Gail at her parents' house that day, Barron had revised his last will and testament, had it notarized and delivered to his attorney, and packed a tool kit of instruments with which he intended to torture her. He dragged Nelson from the car and threw her down on the ground, cut her face and scalp with a knife, smashed her on the head with an ax, drove a brass rod into her chest, and shot her twice. Somehow or another she maintained consciousness until he had finished with her. She listened as he paced back and forth, reloaded his gun, and fired again.

Strangely, soon after hearing what turned out to be the shot that ended Barron's life, Nelson had the impression that he was still present with her. Only now, he was calling her to join him on the "other side."

The first miracle—that's how it would later be described—was the arrival three hours later of U.S. Naval Officer Holloway Frost, a celebrated Navy aviator and World War I submarine warfare officer. As was his routine, he rode his horse once a week on the same Arlington forest path where Barron had chosen to park his car. Nelson, blinded by her facial injuries, never actually saw the rider or his horse, but she could hear them.

Frost spotted Barron's crumpled body on the ground. The top of his head was blown off, and a shotgun lay on the grass beside him. He didn't notice Gail on the ground several yards away, even though she was wearing that brightly colored dress. Injured as she was, she couldn't call out to Frost or even move her body to catch his attention. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As her surgeon would later note, she would never have survived the ordeal of being lifted onto a saddle and ridden out of the woods.

The second miracle occurred before Frost could survey the crime scene. Just as he was about to dismount—when he would surely have noticed Gail's mutilated body—his horse inexplicably bolted into the woods. He could neither stop nor slow the horse down until they came to a farmhouse on Carlin Drive, approximately half-a-mile away. He dismounted and knocked on the door. When the homeowner answered, Frost explained that he had come upon a body in the woods and asked where he could find a coroner. There was no point in inquiring about a physician because the body in the woods was beyond resuscitation. The homeowner, Dr. Benjamin Swain, turned out to be the coroner. He was also one of Arlington's finest medical professionals. Without hesitation, he accompanied Frost back to the grassy clearing in the woods where he would find Gail's mutilated body. Swain immediately applied first aid to stem the bleeding. He knew better than to try to move Nelson without a stretcher.

The third miracle was that Gail lived to tell the story. Her recovery was in no small measure thanks to a surgeon visiting the Alexandria Hospital on Duke and Washington Street in Alexandria, Virginia. Surgeons weren't on staff on Saturday nights, but he happened to be in the ER when Nelson arrived by ambulance. After examining her, he concluded that her condition was fatal. Nelson had been slashed in the pupils of both her left and right eyes, her nose, both ears, cheeks, chest, and elsewhere on her torso for a total of 24 times. Her scalp was hanging loose from her skull. Bones in her head and throughout her body were broken, and the brass rod (which was used in a muzzle-loading rifle) was implanted eleven inches into her left lung. Even if she didn't die from blood loss, the wound to her lungs was sure to become infected, and she would die of blood poisoning (there was no means in 1926 to safely administer an antiseptic into a wound as deep as that suffered by Nelson). The surgeon communicated these things to Gail's parents and sister, who had been called to the hospital.

Despite the surgeon's pronouncement, he went to work immediately. More than just this—he felt strangely compelled to go beyond a reasonable measure to keep her alive. "Something kept him at it, even though he knew she was dead and couldn't live," one report stated. Other physicians eventually joined him. Later, they would marvel at her recovery and at the fact that, when her bandages were removed several weeks later, she had regained her eyesight. Moreover, her facial injuries did not require further reconstructive surgery. Several months after the assault, she had but one tiny scar at her side temple where her skull had been fractured. Her face returned to being perfectly smooth.

Nelson would go on to become an artist. There was no stopping her. She believed that her art was the reason she was alive. She sought confirmation of this when she obtained her reading from Edgar Cayce in February 1935. Her reading was conducted in Washington D.C. when Edgar was visiting the city from his home in Virginia Beach to inaugurate a new "Search for God" study group—a program in which students of the Cayce readings meet weekly to study, meditate and pray together. (Search for God study groups are still meeting in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada to this day!) Nelson obtained the reading and then joined Edgar, his wife, Gertrude, and their secretary, Gladys Davis, for lunch. Six days later she would attend the #11 Search for God study group weekly meeting.

Among the reasons Nelson sought psychic help from Cayce was what she believed to be continued visitations by the spirit of the man who had assaulted her. Edgar Cayce, too, would feel the "horrible" presence of this malevolent spirit hovering over her. In fact, he was himself so physically sickened that he had to cut short his luncheon meeting with Nelson. As Gladys Davis would afterward tell a friend and colleague, Edgar's face suddenly went grey. Later, he would tell Gladys that what he saw hovering over her was an apparition he described as a "thing" which was trying to strike Nelson with a weapon. Barron was apparently still trying to kill her even though he had been dead for nearly a decade and both he and the weapon that he wielded existed only in some non-physical dimension. When Edgar saw this "thing" he was so sickened that he felt he would throw-up. As quickly as he could, almost knocking his chair over, he moved with "dispatch" and disappeared into the bathroom where he remained for some time.

There is no archival record of what Cayce did in the bathroom or how he may or may not have dealt with this haunting, but based on remarks later made by Gladys Davis, there is ample reason to believe he quietly handled the matter in his own inimitable way. Souls of the deceased who suffered a variety of mental and physical conditions, such as addiction to alcohol or sex, sometimes can't move on from the earth plane because of their obsessions. In such instances, Cayce would sometimes converse with the spirit, helping them to understand their condition, and encouraging them to release their hold on materiality. Apparently, in this instance, however, while Edgar was in the bathroom, he called for angelic reinforcements. Someone or something assisted Cayce in removing the "thing" haunting Nelson. No further details are known.

The Cayce reading conducted for Nelson that same day confirmed what she already knew, and what Cayce, in a waking state, would not otherwise have known. As a child growing up in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Gail had known since her earliest days that she would devote herself to serving humanity. A devout Christian and an active member of the Eastern Star, the Masonic women's auxiliary, she had endeavored to always do good in the world, not to harbor evil thoughts, and to remain pure in heart. What she could not understand, and what she was now turning to Cayce for help in understanding, was the cosmic reason why she had undergone such a horrible tragedy. She had never harbored evil intent or had knowingly harmed anyone.

Cayce stated unequivocally in her reading that her vocation should be the arts and that it would be through painting and music too, that she would find meaning and expression in life, and would similarly help others do the same. Using biblical language, typical of many readings, Cayce said: "As [your art] brings that harmony in self, that joy in the hearts of those that behold same, and as thou hast been awakened… so does it bring into thine own life and the life of those that behold … that peace; and thus it comes a portion of thy labor of love in [what is considered] a sad and dismal life to many."

Nelson didn't need Cayce to tell her these things, but she was pleased to hear him say them. Although she had worked as a pharmacist, and actually may have been Washington D.C.'s first practicing pharmacist, the profession had left her unfulfilled. She had then taken a job as a government clerk and once again felt there was something more important she ought to be doing. Her lifelong passions were painting and music, vocations to which she now devoted herself.

As was commonly found in what are known as Cayce’s "life readings," Edgar outlined previous lifetimes which informed her present incarnation. Foremost among these past lives was an incarnation in the Holy Land where she had witnessed the crucifixion of Christ. This experience had touched her in profound ways and manifested in her nearly boundless capacity to show kindness to her fellow man. In a particularly beautiful passage in the reading, Cayce declared:

The entity came for the purpose… of making more manifest… in the hearts of those that are weak and distressed and stumbling as in the dark, seeking the light, those beauties… of the enlightenment that enraptures the soul into becoming one… in love, in harmony, in grace, in hope, in faith, which lifts up the INNER man to the more perfect at-oneness with Him who gave…'forgive them, they know not what they do.' … This is the greater purpose in the present. As there has been and may be that lifting up, through the meditating upon those experiences in that experience in the earth, as the song of the heart, as the thought of the self as purified in Him, so do those beauties of the earth—through the fogs and doubts and fears of many a soul find through this entity that which anchors them to that trust, even in the cross that all must bear if they would enter in at the straight gate. For, only light may shine down a straight way, unless it becomes deflected or only a lesser light through its reflection upon others.

Cayce's above reference to "the greater purpose" was not only in relation to Nelson's spiritual outlook—what she held in her head and in her heart—but a physical manifestation, too. And here is what makes the reading so unique in the greater body of Cayce's work. Nelson's "vocational" life-reading is mental, spiritual, AND what might be termed medical. Cayce provides a most remarkable "diagnoses" by declaring why she has undergone this horrible trauma: "That there might be the regeneration of thy body to the glory of that illumination necessary for the full awakening within." In other words, on a soul level, she had sacrificed her former physical self to be physically reborn in such a way as she could better touch the lives of others, perhaps similar to how Jesus died on the cross and was later reborn.

This horrific tragedy was, it seems, her own earthly resurrection!

This passage is also particularly insightful as it posits an answer to the question of why God might permit evil, a concept that seems inconsistent with the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity who, in Nelson's case, could reasonably be said to have "miraculously" shaped events that dispatched Nelson—not to the morgue—but to the Alexandria Hospital where her life was saved, against all odds. In response to Nelson's heartfelt plea for an answer, an explanation of why she suffered the unspeakable injuries, the reading did not confront her with a discussion of karma that could have simply accounted for her experience as the price she had to pay—or a lesson she had to learn related to some behavior in this or a past life. Instead, the reading offered her caring concern and inspiration and invited her to think about what had happened as an opportunity for her to bring about a higher good in this life. Horrendous as her experience was, the focus of the reading was on upliftment and empowerment.

"Think not upon those things that make for questionings or doubts," Cayce said, in closing. "Let thy meditation be, 'Here am I, O God, use Thou me! In my every action let them be for the glorifying of Thee in and through my fellow man!'"

Edgar Cayce, on a conscious level, could not have known how, in the years ahead, a higher good might manifest in Nelson's life, nor how truly remarkable that higher good might be.

Despite her doctor's orders that she not strain her eyesight by painting or reading, Nelson had begun doing both in earnest soon after the bandages had been removed from her face and eyes. Most notably, in 1932, four years before her Cayce reading, she had begun painting a portrait of Jesus. The canvas took her seven years to complete and later won her the acclaim of New York art critics. So compelling was Nelson's "Cosmic Christ" that it was hung in New York's Rockefeller Center.

Such was the transformational power of her art.

Cayce Universe researchers have found numerous press clippings referencing the 1939 national tour of Nelson's "Cosmic Christ" painting but have been unable to locate an image of the painting. Readers are encouraged to help us continue the search.

Newspaper accounts report that Nelson became a much-loved public speaker in addition to her career as an artist. She never married, lived for many years with her older brother, a Washington D.C. physician, pharmacist and attorney, died childless in 1969 at age seventy-eight, and was buried near her sister, brother, and parents in Glenwood Cemetery, on Lincoln Road in Washington D.C.* Her legacy will, however, live on in her art, and in those who are inspired by her story.

*The date on Gail Nelson's birth certificate and other important documents do not match the birthdate on her Glenwood Cemetery tombstone.

End Notes

The above account has been assembled from the online database of reports and readings in the Edgar Cayce Foundation in Virginia Beach; the Virginia Death Records, 1912-2014; Washington, D.C. Wills and Probate Records; articles in the Capitol Times Newspaper; The Cushing Daily Journal; The Wisconsin Journal; The Washington Post; The Washington Times, The Washington Evening Star, the Alexandria Hospital historical document collection in the City of Alexandria archives, and interviews conducted by Cayce Universe researchers in August 2020.