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Harry Price: The Case for the
Defence by John L. Randall Reproduced
from the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (Vol. 64.3,
No. 860) July 2000
Harry Price (1881-1948) was the best-known British psychical researcher of the twentieth century and his output of published work was immense.
Yet during his lifetime he was scorned by some of the leading members of the SPR, and after his death attempts were made to destroy his reputation by accusations of fraud.
The present paper examines some of the reasons for the antipathy to Price, and argues that the case against him has been grossly overstated.
It is suggested that a careful reappraisal of his earlier work with physical mediums might yield valuable clues for the understanding of macroscopic PK phenomena.
Living as we do in an age when media interest in serious parapsychological work is almost non-existent, it may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that there was once a time, just within living memory, when things were very different.
From the mid-1920s until the outbreak of the Second World War interest in psychical research gradually increased until it reached an all-time high.
Eminent scientists of the calibre of Lord Rayleigh,(1) Sir Julian Huxley and Professors A. O. Rankine and David Fraser-Harris participated in experimental projects.
Leading British newspapers and magazines carried long, and often well-written, articles on psychical topics.
At least one large biology reference book devoted a fifteen-page chapter to what it called "borderland science" (Wells et al., 1931).
Even Nature, the prestigious science journal which later became notorious among psychical researchers for its rooted hostility to all investigations of the paranormal, sometimes carried articles which portrayed the subject in a positive light (e.g. Tillyard, 1926).
In 1933 its editor, Sir Richard Gregory, FRS, addressed the guests at a dinner held in honour of the distinguished French parapsychologist Monsieur
René Sudre, and told them that he saw nothing whatsoever in the aims and objectives of psychical research "to which any scientific man could take exception" (Price, 1942, p. 126).
Most significant of all, perhaps, was the statement by the University of London Senate in 1934 that they considered psychical research to be "a fit subject of University study and research" (Price, 1942, p. 105).
The growth of so much interest within the academic world and among the general public was largely due to the efforts of one man, Harry Price.
He undoubtedly put more time, effort and money into psychical research than any other Englishman since the days of the founding fathers of the SPR.
His experimental and investigative work was extensive, his reports voluminous and detailed.
Yet after his death he was vilified and portrayed by several writers as a liar and a cheat, with the result that much of what he achieved has been rendered null and void.
It is my contention that the case against Harry Price has been overstated, and that a serious reappraisal of his work is long overdue.
Unfortunately, the primary sources needed for a fair assessment of Price's work are not easily accessible to the public, with the result that popular writers simply repeat the views of critics as if they were established fact.
For example, Scott Rogo in his Mind Over Matter (1986) repeats Anita Gregory's accusation that Price faked photographs of Rudi Schneider (Gregory, 1977; 1985).
Nowhere in his book does Rogo give the slightest indication that this interpretation has been challenged by others (e.g. Anderson, 1986; Gauld, 1978; Harrison, 1979).
Similarly, I have come across numerous books and articles which cite the famous 'debunking' report on Borley Rectory (Dingwall, Goldney & Hall, 1956), but very few which mention the criticisms of that report by Michael Coleman and Robert Hastings (Coleman, 1956; Hastings, 1969).
Although much has been written about him over the years, there is no really satisfactory biography of Price.
Paul Tabori's book (1950; 1974) bristles with simple errors of fact, while Trevor Hall's
Search for Harry Price (1978) displays so much spleen that I feel it should be recommended to the compilers of the
Guinness Book of Records for the title of The Most Spiteful Book Ever Written!
Price's autobiography (1942) is quite informative, but it says little about his personal and business activities, and it glosses over the less pleasant conflicts and failures with which he was involved.
PRICE AND THE SPR
Harry Price joined the SPR in 1920, and remained a member until his death in
1948.(2) Eric Dingwall, a Cambridge graduate and professional librarian, joined in the same year, and for a time the two men seemed to get along well together.
Both were members of the Magic Circle, and both were interested in the problem of physical mediumship, a topic which the hierarchy of the SPR viewed with some disdain.
Both felt that the SPR was in dire need of rejuvenation, since it was then producing very little in the way of original research (cf. Inglis, 1984, Ch.6).
In 1922 'Ding' was appointed to the post of Research Officer to the Society, and during that year he and Price collaborated on several projects.
These included the exposure of a fraudulent spirit photographer (Price, 1922), a visit to Schrenck-Notzing's famous laboratory at Munich (Dingwall, 1922), and the joint editorship of a facsimile edition of a rare old book on the techniques used by fraudulent mediums (Price & Dingwall, 1922).
The latter was reproduced by sacrificing one of two copies of the original work which existed in Price's personal collection.
Unfortunately, the partnership between Dingwall and Price was not to last.
Dingwall, who was actually Price's junior by almost ten years, sometimes adopted a hectoring attitude towards colleagues which Price may have resented (cf. West, 1987).
In Dingwall's account of the Munich visit Price receives only the briefest mention, and in the report on the later experiments with Willy Schneider he is never mentioned at all, although he was present at some of the sittings (Dingwall, 1926; Price, 1933a, p. 29).
In his earlier writings Price gives full and appreciative descriptions of Dingwall's contributions to psychical research, but by the time he came to write his autobiography he had evidently lost patience with Dingwall, whose name appears nowhere in its pages.
Dingwall's frank appraisal of the deteriorating relationship between the two men was subsequently published by Trevor Hall (1978, pp. 9-12).
Other members of the SPR seem to have treated Price with something verging on contempt.
In those days the Council of the Society was dominated by a small group of people belonging to the British upper class and closely related to one another by marriage.
Several writers have commented on the selectivity displayed by this group towards evidence provided by people of other social classes (cf. Haynes, 1982, p. 21; Inglis, 1984, p. 43).
Harry Price was most definitely not a member of the British upper class: his father had been a commercial traveller for a firm of paper manufacturers.
This in itself may have made his work suspect to some members of the SPR.
Mrs Sidgwick's snobbish comment that she did not want Price on the Council of the Society "because he is not a gentleman" has been defended by
Renée Haynes on the grounds that in those days the word 'gentleman' had an ethical connotation (Haynes, 1982, p. 147).
This I find hard to believe. I have looked through several dictionaries of the period and talked to a number of older people, and none of them gives such a meaning to the word.
The primary meaning of the word 'gentleman' always involves reference to social status and ownership of property.
Price's educational background may be another reason why his presence was less than welcome in SPR circles.
The upper echelons of the Society seem to have been dominated by the 'literati', and there have always been some of these with a tendency to look down upon the 'mere scientist'.
This attitude was very prevalent when I was studying science in the sixth form at school.
A distinguished modern physicist, now working in Australia, has expressed himself forcefully on this topic
By tradition, British intellectual life is dominated by the arts-and-literary fraternity, as readers of C. P. Snow will be aware.
Indeed, scientists are rarely even afforded the status of 'intellectuals'.
Science ... is regarded as at best a necessary evil required to propel money-spinning technology, and at worst a technocratic conspiracy.
So long as scientists restrict themselves to their laboratories, they are tolerated by the literary
establishment - shrugged aside as nerds of little consequence - and the implications of their obscure and incomprehensible work are ignored.
But what incenses these opinionated literati most is when scientists dare to tangle with 'meaning-of-life' issues.
The arts-and-literary community have long believed they possess a God-given monopoly on such matters.
[Davies, 1995, p. 184]
The extent to which such attitudes prevailed in the SPR of the 1920s is debatable.
There were a few famous scientists, notably Lodge and Barrett, among its ranks, but they were not always comfortable.
Sir William Barrett, who was one of the founder members, told Price that he was "treated like a child" at Council meetings, and that "Mrs Sidgwick always gets her own way" (Price, 1939, p. 52).
Yet Barrett was a professor, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Harry Price held no such distinctions; he lacked even the glamour of a university degree.
His tertiary education was obtained through a series of evening classes at the Goldsmith's College, London, where he studied the applied sciences of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemistry and photography.
These down-to-earth subjects, so alien to the ruling spirits of the SPR, were later to prove immensely useful in his study of physical mediumship.
It is likely, then, that Harry Price was on the receiving end of a certain amount of class and cultural snobbery from fellow members of the SPR, and this may explain (although it does not excuse) his rather paranoid behaviour in later years.
But it would be wrong to assume that all members of the Society were against him.
He remained on good terms with the Hon. Everard Feilding, one of the SPR's most distinguished investigators, until the latter's death in 1936, and he also received a lot of support and encouragement from Lord Charles Hope, Lord Rayleigh, Professor F. C. S. Schiller (SPR President, 1914) and Mrs Mollie Goldney.
Unfortunately, some of these were to fall out with him in later years.
Renée Haynes described him as "a man of great ability, great energy and great kindness", and expressed her gratitude for all the trouble he took to respond with careful source references and helpful comments when she consulted him about a certain poltergeist case; however, she also referred to the "ingrowing chip on his shoulder" which made it difficult for others to work with him (Haynes, 1982, p. 146; see also Haynes, 1984).
In Price's favour it is worth noting that foreign organisations, perhaps because they lacked the class and cultural prejudices of the British, found it easier to work with Price.
Thus, he was appointed Foreign Research Officer to the American SPR in 1925 and continued in that post for about six years, contributing numerous articles to their Journal.
German scientists also showed great interest in his work, and in 1937 he was invited to transfer his laboratory and library to Bonn University, to form the nucleus of a new Department of Abnormal Psychology and Parapsychology; Price himself was to receive an honorary doctorate and the Rote-Kreuz-Medaille I. Klasse from the German government.
His unwillingness to leave his native land and the onset of the Second World War put a stop to these plans.
THE CONVERSION OF A SCEPTIC
Harry Price's attitude to the paranormal was initially that of a hard-baked sceptic, and for all of his life he remained convinced that the majority of mediumistic effects were fraudulent.
He developed a profound contempt for the army of fraudulent mediums who battened on the grief of those who had lost relatives during the First World War.
He was often very scathing towards gullible Spiritualists, some of whom he categorised as 'Cheese-Cloth Worshippers' (Price, 1933b).
However, after observing Willy Schneider in Munich he felt certain that there were some phenomena which could not be explained in terms of conjuring, and that these phenomena were worthy of scientific investigation.
In later years he was to describe the feeling of exhilaration which this discovery gave him (Price, 1933b, p. 28):-
I returned to London with a feeling that life was worth living after all.
The Munich miracles acted like a tonic: at last I had discovered that genuine phenomena could be produced by at least one medium under a controlling system which seemed perfect.
From that time onwards Spiritualists began to talk about 'the conversion of Mr Price' (cf. Edwards, F., 1923), but they were mistaken if they thought he was prepared to relax the very high standards which he had set for himself and other people.
Throughout his life he continued to expose fraud whenever he found it, and he had many acrimonious disputes on this score with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the great champion of the Spiritualist faith.
THE NATIONAL LABORATORY
Disgusted by the exploitation of human suffering which he witnessed during and after the First World War, Price had long had a dream of establishing a national testing centre where putative mediums could be examined under strictly scientific conditions of control.
If found to be genuine, they would be issued with a certificate of authenticity which would enable them to practise their profession without risk of harassment from the police.
In this way genuine mediumship would be encouraged, while the simple-minded 'faithful' would be protected from the machinations of the charlatans.
Obviously, such a role could not be fulfilled by the SPR, which, as a scientific society, does not express any corporate views.
Price's 'National Laboratory of Psychical Research' was formally opened on 1st January 1926, in a flurry of media attention.
On its Council were some of the world's leading parapsychologists, including Schrenck-Notzing of Munich, Eugene Osty and
René Sudre of Paris, Fritz Grunewald of Berlin and Christian Winther of Copenhagen.
Lord Sands, a distinguished Scottish judge, accepted the Presidency of the new organisation, and Harry Price took the title of Honorary Director.
Members of the public paid a membership fee of one guinea (£1.05 in modern currency), for which they received copies of the Laboratory's publications.
These included the bi-monthly British Journal of Psychical Research and miscellaneous
Bulletins and Proceedings. Within a very short time the membership of the Laboratory topped the 800-mark, rivalling that of the SPR.
Quite a number of people, including Mollie Goldney, were members of both organisations.
The establishment of the Laboratory was, by any standards, a most remarkable achievement, especially when it is realised that Harry Price was a sick man.
He had been a heavy smoker ever since childhood (he describes how he and a schoolboy friend took packets of 'forbidden' cigarettes when they went, at the age of 15, to investigate their first poltergeist!).
People who still remember him have told me that his study in Pulborough was usually thick with smoke.
This undoubtedly contributed to the angina which, increasingly over the years, made it painful for him to walk or climb stairs.
He also suffered from debilitating attacks of migraine. In February 1931, he transferred his Laboratory from the upper floor of 16 Queensberry Place (where there were no lifts) to a basement flat in Roland Gardens.
In 1934 the management of the Laboratory was handed over to a group of academics from London University (the 'University of London Council for Psychical Investigation') which included the psychologists Cyril Burt, J. C. Flugel and C. A. Mace, and the popular philosopher C. E. M. Joad.
The organisation eventually petered out during the years of the Second World War, the books and equipment being transferred to the care of London University.
YEARS OF ACHIEVEMENT
It has often been argued that in psychical research there is no such thing as a foolproof experiment, and therefore we can never know with certainty whether a given phenomenon is genuine or fraudulent.
Harry Price did not accept this view. The very idea of a testing centre which issues certificates of authenticity implies that it is possible to distinguish between the genuine and
the false. Price, an accomplished conjurer, had observed telekinetic phenomena in Schrenck-Notzing's laboratory under conditions which he considered to be impeccable.
Much of the work he did in his own laboratory was an extension of that done by Schrenck, who died suddenly in February 1929.
Following Schrenck, Price constructed several ingenious pieces of equipment (such as his 'telekinetoscope'), which were intended to prevent fraud and automatically register such paranormal effects as might occur.
To this end, he put to good use his extensive knowledge of photography and mechanical and electrical engineering.
Within the scope of a single paper it is obviously impossible to give even a superficial description of the huge amount of work published by Harry Price during his most productive years, which ran roughly from 1925 until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, he set new standards in the study of physical mediumship.
At least in Britain, no one had previously attempted such a high level of instrumental control, and Price's minute-by-minute descriptions of his experiments with Stella Cranshaw and Rudi Schneider are masterpieces of precision reporting (Price, 1925; 1930).
It is instructive to compare Price's reports with those of a near-contemporary, Harry Edwards, who wrote a 119-page volume on the mediumship of Jack Webber (Edwards, H., 1962).
As Dr Coleman has pointed out, "Edwards's book is essentially anecdotal, written from memory, often long after the events described.
Thus we do not know where, when or for how long the individual sittings were held.
We do not know how many sitters were present at each sitting, and we know the names of very few of them.
But most importantly, we do not have those detailed sequences of events, with timings, that are necessary to arrive at a realistic assessment of any supposedly paranormal occurrences.
Most of Edwards's account is unsupported by any independent witnesses" (Coleman, 1998).
None of these criticisms can be levelled against the séance reports of Harry Price.
Price believed, with some justification, that he had solved the age-old problem of psychical research: how to distinguish the genuine from the bogus.
It was no use worrying about whether the medium, or one of the sitters, or several of them in combination, might be fraudulent; the investigator must arrange things so that fraud is absolutely impossible.
This he considered he had done in his sittings with Rudi Schneider, in which the medium and all the sitters were electrically controlled.
Under this relentless control Schneider had produced indisputable evidence for what was then called 'telekinesis'.
Price issued a certificate to Rudi declaring that he had produced "absolutely genuine phenomena", and towards the end of his book he wrote some words which, in retrospect, seem somewhat ironic:-
If Rudi were to be 'exposed' a hundred times in the future, it would not invalidate or affect to the slightest degree our considered judgement that the boy has produced genuine abnormal phenomena while he has been at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research.
No medium in this or any other country has produced such phenomena under our scientific and merciless triple control; and this report represents the most complete scientific investigation of any physical medium who has ever placed himself at the disposal of British psychists.
The severity of our control conditions has never been approached previously. [Price, 1930, p. 214]
Convinced of the strength of his position, Price publicly challenged the conjuring fraternity to produce the same effects as Schneider under the same conditions, and offered a £1,000 prize to anyone who could do so.
There were no takers. I have often wondered what Harry Price and James Randi would have made of each other.
ACTIONS AND REACTIONS
Price's boastfulness over his Rudi Schneider sittings may seem distasteful, but it was not entirely unjustified: he had achieved a remarkable breakthrough.
Unfortunately, it was to bring down upon his head the wrath of some of the most powerful people in the SPR.
Mrs Sidgwick, formidable widow of the Society's first President, sent a letter to W. H. Salter, the Honorary Secretary, criticising Price and the Schneider experiments (at which, of course, she had not been
present).(3) The letter was marked 'Private', a device which, as Gregory points out, serves to shield the writer from criticism while at the same time "being able to set in motion a widespread whispering campaign" (Gregory, 1985, p. 162).
It seems clear to me that, following the success of the Schneider experiments, certain members of the SPR were
'Out to get' Harry Price. The steady increase in membership of the National Laboratory and its success in attracting the interest of prominent intellectuals may have seemed to some to be a direct threat to the existence of the SPR itself.
There is direct evidence of at least two 'dirty tricks' played upon Price by members of the SPR.
On October 9th, 1931, W. H. Salter travelled to Borley to try to persuade the Rector, the Revd Lionel Foyster, to sever his links with Price and accept the ministrations of the SPR instead (Banks, 1996, p. 92).
Since Price had been studying the phenomena at the allegedly haunted rectory since June 1929, this was a clear example of unprofessional conduct.
The reader may like to imagine how the BMA would respond to a medical practitioner who tried to steal a colleague's patients.
Yet this highly unethical act is not mentioned by Gregory in her article on "Ethics and Psychical Research" in which Price is condemned unreservedly (Gregory,
The second 'dirty trick' had more serious repercussions.
Early in April 1932, Price discovered that several members of his Council, led by Lord Charles Hope, had been conducting secret negotiations with Rudi Schneider, the aim being to set up a further series of experiments at the SPR.
It seems likely that the "widespread whispering campaign" at the SPR, referred to by Gregory, had begun to undermine confidence in Price as an experimenter.
Since it was Price who had brought Rudi to England in the first instance, the attempt to set up further experiments behind his back was seen by him as an act of betrayal.
At this point it should perhaps be pointed out that Price was not usually as 'possessive' towards his experimental subjects as he has been made out to be.
He had allowed the SPR to experiment with Stella Cranshaw, even though she was his own discovery, and he had willingly absented himself from some of the Schneider sittings so that others could obtain independent evidence.
He had also advised Rudi to go to Paris for independent testing at the Institut Meta-psychique.
If he had been approached openly he would probably have been prepared to allow Lord Charles and his SPR friends to conduct their experiments.
But the fact that the arrangements had been made behind his back must have come as a bitter shock, indicating as it did the lack of confidence in which he was held.
A furious row ensued when the Council of the National Laboratory met on 26th April, and several resignations followed.
A few days later Price obtained photographic evidence that Rudi had attempted to cheat during a
séance by freeing his left hand and using it to displace one of the target objects, a handkerchief, from a table.
Anita Gregory (1977; 1985) suggested that Price deliberately faked the incriminating photographs and then kept them secret for almost a year.
His aim was, supposedly, to discredit Lord Charles Hope's research by producing evidence of Rudi's fraudulent behaviour after Hope and his colleagues had issued their report.
She pointed out that Price was still making favourable comments about Rudi long after the incriminating photographs had been developed.
Gregory's work was meticulously researched and appears very convincing; nevertheless, other interpretations are possible.
In the first place, it is by no means certain that the photographs were faked, and at least one photographic expert has testified to the contrary (Harrison, 1979).
To me, a mere amateur in matters photographic, the pictures seem to show exactly what Price claimed, namely that the boy had freed a hand and was reaching behind him with fraudulent intent.
I cannot agree with the suggestion, made by Dr Fraser-Harris and others, that the movement was accidental, caused by Rudi making a sudden jerk as the flash went off.
The pictures clearly show Rudi's trunk twisted round and his arm extended in a straight line towards the
Secondly, it is clear that Price did not keep the matter secret, except from those whom he considered disloyal to the National Laboratory.
Rudi, Mitzi (Rudi's fiancée) and Ethel Beenham, Price's secretary, saw the photographs on the very day they were developed, and Mrs Goldney saw them a little while later.
Many years later Mrs Goldney was to claim that Price made her swear to keep silent about what she had seen, but by that time she was firmly in the camp of the opponents of Price, and we have no way of telling how reliable her memory may have been.
As long ago as 1955 Dr Robert Thouless protested vigorously about the unethical practice of promising to keep something secret and then revealing it many years later, when the alleged culprit is dead and unable to defend himself (Thouless, 1955).
Price certainly told several of his friends about the photographs, including Feilding, who referred to the revelation as "a fine bombshell" (Tabori, 1974, p. 114).
In a later letter to Feilding, Price said that he had also informed René Sudre and Eric Dingwall, but did not see why he should throw all his cards on the table for the benefit of those who were playing dirty tricks on him (Gregory, 1985, p. 292).
There is in existence a letter, partly reproduced by Gregory, in which Price clearly invites Dr Fraser-Harris to examine the photographs.
My own view is that Price found himself in an appalling dilemma.
He had trumpeted his confidence in the genuineness of Rudi's mediumship to the whole world.
He still believed that Rudi had genuine mediumistic ability, and to the end of his life he stood by the results of the 1929 experiments, which he thought had been obtained under infallible conditions.
He knew (and later freely admitted) that the fiasco of 28th April was entirely his own fault; he had chosen not to use the 'merciless' electrical control on which he had previously placed so much reliance, and had failed in his duty to control the medium manually.
He knew that the honest and truly scientific thing to do was to publish the photographs, admit his failure, and take the consequences; yet he also knew that the SPR followed the principle of
'Once a fraud, always a fraud', and that publication would play right into the hands of the dogmatic sceptics.
Not only would Rudi be shamed, but all of Price's own work with the young medium would be discredited
- work which Price believed was destined to become a classic. He had said that the records of his experiments with Schneider "may some day adorn a museum devoted to the birth of a science which is destined to revolutionize, perhaps even regenerate, mankind" (Price, 1930, p. 219).
That year of 1932 must have seemed to Price to be his annus horribilis.
By September he had still not made up his mind what to do. He wrote to Rudi:-
I have not yet decided what to do with that photograph we took of you when trying the handkerchief experiment.
It is so suspicious-looking that there is really only one construction to be put on it.
I shall have to consider what I shall do with it. [Tabori, 1974, p. 113]
Gregory sees this letter as containing a "veiled threat" to Rudi; to me, it seems like the letter of a sick, tired and confused man, painfully impaled on the horns of a dilemma.
Whatever action he took was bound to have unpleasant repercussions. That he succumbed to paranoid forms of thinking is obvious from his correspondence, but then he had been on the receiving end of spiteful gossip and malicious attempts to undermine his work.
I see no reason to suppose, as Gregory does, that Price was prepared to destroy his own work and Rudi's reputation in order to get revenge on his enemies.
Such a Samson-like act would be incompatible with his near-fanatical devotion to psychical research, as well as with what we know of his character from other sources.
In the end, Price took the only honest course: he published a full account of all the
séances, including the incriminating photographs and his own interpretation of them (Price, 1933a).
The immediate effect of the 'bombshell' was a string of resignations from the National Laboratory of Psychical Research; but at least no sceptic could accuse Harry Price of suppressing negative evidence.
Like J. B. Rhine a generation later, he had done the only honourable thing when confronted with a case of fraud in his own laboratory.
Harry Price died on Easter Monday, 29th March 1948; he was 67 years old.
Within a few months of his death the attacks on his reputation began.
Charles Sutton, a journalist who had been present at some of the Schneider experiments, wrote in a popular magazine that he had caught Price faking phenomena at Borley (Sutton, 1948).
W. H. Salter pressed his SPR colleagues to launch a
re-investigation of the case. The result was the publication, in 1956, of the now famous 'Borley Report' (Dingwall, Goldney & Hall, 1956).
The 180-page report was essentially a systematic attack on the honesty and integrity of Harry Price; it was, as
Renée Haynes put it, "the case for the prosecution". Every event was interpreted in such a way as to present Price in the worst possible light, and alternative interpretations were played down or ignored.
The Sutton allegations and the Borley Report (which drew heavily upon them) came as severe shocks to Price's widow and to his many friends.
The general feeling was one of indignation and dismay. Mrs Lucie Meeker (nee Kay) who had been Price's secretary, denied that there had been any such incident as that described by Sutton, and added:-
... it is my considered conviction that Harry Price never, at any time, faked phenomena.
I worked with him in close collaboration for some five years and, indeed, remained friends with him to the day of his death, and I am convinced he was a man of unimpeachable
integrity. [Hastings, 1969, p. 83]
That seems to have been the verdict of nearly all the people who worked at all closely with Price.
Sydney Glanville, his chief collaborator at Borley, described him as "an outstanding worker" for psychical research and a friend for whom he had "a very great regard and respect" (Tabori, 1974, p. 277).
Geoffrey H. Motion, a neighbour of Price's who also accompanied him to Borley, was also convinced that he did not fake
phenomena.(5) The Revd George Royle,(6) Rector of Pulborough from 1944 to 1970, said that he counted Price among his best and most loyal friends, and told enquirers that he regarded him as "a man of complete integrity" (Royle, 1948; Underwood, 1985).
The Bishop of Chichester, Dr George Bell, described him as "not only a famous and highly honoured worker in the field of Psychical Research, but a devoted member of the Church of England" (Bell, 1948).
Price had been made a churchwarden of St Mary's, Pulborough, just a few weeks before his death.
It is clear, then, that during Price's lifetime most of his associates, including several eminent churchmen, regarded him as a man of honour and trustworthiness.
Yet if the authors of the Borley Report were correct, he had perpetrated one of the most impudent frauds in the whole history of psychical research.
But many members of the SPR felt uneasy at the obviously biased nature of the Report, and in 1965 a grant of £50 was given to Robert J. Hastings towards the expenses involved in a re-examination of the case.
The resulting 'Hastings Report' was published in 1969; it uncovered a number of errors in the original evidence, and was widely interpreted by the media as the official exoneration of Harry Price.
To correct this impression the Honorary Secretary of the Society, John Cutten, wrote to
New Scientist magazine, pointing out that the Society holds no corporate views:-
The Society has never attacked Mr Price, nor is it about to exonerate him, as the statement to which you refer claimed.
We may publish papers in our Journal or Proceedings, and at a later date publish opposing views of other members; but
providing facilities for free expression in our publications does not imply that the Society identifies itself with any particular
opinion. [Cutten, 1969]
This is technically correct, of course, but it is surely also rather naive.
When, as happened in 1956, a learned society publishes a book-length attack on a man's reputation, it is bound to be seen by the general public as representing the views of that society.
The Borley Report was badly flawed and very heavily biased, and Hastings believed that the Society should not have published it.
He felt that the attack on Price may have opened the door to a subsequent wave of denigration of other psychical researchers (Hastings, 1969, p. 77).
SEARCH FOR TREVOR HALL
Trevor Henry Hall was an estate agent, local magistrate, amateur conjurer and writer of popular books on Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy L. Sayers.
In 1954 he was awarded the Perrott Studentship in Psychical Research, although he was not then a member of the SPR (he joined, but only for a short time, a few years later).
He was said to be doing research into "special conditions which appear favourable to the emergence of ESP", but I have found no evidence that it was ever published.
Although Hall never met or corresponded with Harry Price, he seems to have conceived an almost fanatical hatred for the famous ghost-hunter.
Hall joined the team working on the Borley Report and, according to his own account (Hall, 1965) was responsible for four of the eight chapters it contained.
Ivan Banks has surmised, I think correctly, that it was the participation of Trevor Hall which gave rise to the uncompromisingly hostile tone of the Borley Report (Banks, 1996, p. 207).
In the years that followed, Hall produced a series of books aimed at 'debunking' many of the most famous cases in the history of psychical research and undermining the reputations of some of the most respected researchers (Campbell & Hall, 1968; Dingwall & Hall, 1958; Hall, 1962; 1964; 1965).
Hall had a remarkable flair for ferreting out obscure pieces of information which he then inflated with masses of unbridled speculation, usually introduced by irritating phrases such as 'the reader may think that. . . ', 'the reader will no doubt wonder . . . ', and so on.
The tendentious nature of Hall's writing evoked many criticisms, most of which were ignored (cf. Gauld, 1965; Lambert, 1969; Medhurst, 1967; Slomann, 1963; Stevenson, 1963).
Perhaps the comments by R. G. Medhurst may be taken as fairly representative of parapsychological opinion:-
Mr Hall's book includes an autobiographical introduction.
I cannot help feeling that his account of his career in psychical research over-rates his contribution to the subject.
Though he is not reticent regarding favourable notices of his work in the general press, Mr Hall has never, so far as I know, made any reference in print to rather exhaustive, and on the whole unfavourable, analyses of his earlier books that have appeared.
It seems to me to be hardly possible for an author to be regarded as a serious worker in a research field while he fails to reply to detailed and, on the face of it, damaging criticisms, and continues to address the general public as though such criticisms had never been made and his previous work were all of solid repute.
[Medhurst, 1967, p. 100]
With these comments in mind we are perhaps in a better position to assess the value of Hall's biography of Harry Price, which was published in 1978.
I have read many biographies, some of a highly critical nature, but I can honestly say that I have never read anything so infused with unmitigated malice as Hall's book.
The Revd Joseph McCulloch, who reviewed the book for The Times, said that it "left no stone unturned or unthrown" and wondered whether "the same Karma may not be meted out to Trevor H. Hall" (McCulloch, 1978).
McCulloch may have prophesied better than he knew, for in recent years several people have begun to question Hall's credentials.
Thus, Robert Wood (1992) refers to "Hall's boundless respect for Cambridge, expressed in his own fantasy that he was a Cambridge graduate himself, which he wasn't."
Ivan Banks writes that "there have been doubts expressed as to his true academic background.
Among other qualifications he applied for a Litt.D. from Leeds University, but was turned down" (Banks, 1996, p. 207).
There are sound reasons for these misgivings. In his Who's Who entry, Hall describes his education as "Wakefield Sch.; Trinity Coll., Cambridge (Perrott Student; MA)."
Alan Wesencraft and I have independently checked these statements with the authorities at Cambridge University, and we received the same answers.
Although Hall held the Perrott Studentship from 1954 to 1956, he was never a member either of Trinity College or of Cambridge University, nor was he awarded any degree by that University.
In the circumstances, his self-righteous condemnation of Harry Price's supposed duplicities would seem to be a case of 'pot calling kettle
The motive for Hall's attack on Price is not hard to find: he was clearly annoyed by the failure of the Borley Report to put paid to what he called the "Borley legend".
Although the Hastings Report is not mentioned in Search for Harry
Price, it was obviously at the back of Hall's mind, for he devotes no less than four pages to deploring what he calls the "resurgence of popular belief in Borley".
It would take a large volume to deal with all the accusations made by Hall against Price.
Most are quite trivial. For example, Hall takes Price to task for referring to The Lees at Walcot (an old house where Price encountered his first poltergeist) as a Manor House when in fact it is merely a farm house.
Yet Price makes it quite clear to his readers that, for obvious reasons, he is disguising some of the details of the house.
Actually, it is a sinister-looking old building with large ornamental iron gates, just the sort of place that would be suggested to the English mind by the term 'Manor House'.
Many of the accusations in Hall's book should be aimed at other people.
For example, Price can hardly be blamed for the duplicity of C. E. M. Joad (cf. p. 171) unless we adopt a principle of 'guilt by
association'.(8) Hall takes great delight in exposing scandalous events involving other members of the Price family, some of which occurred before Harry Price was born.
As far as Price himself is concerned, the most serious accusation seems to be that he gave false information about his own background.
In fact, I believe he was very careful not to do so. In all his published writings Price was
extremely reticent about family and business affairs. I can find no evidence that he ever claimed in print that he was born in Shrewsbury, or that his father was a wealthy paper manufacturer.
The most he ever said was that his father was "intimately connected" with the paper trade, a description which is in perfect accord with Hall's discovery that Price senior worked as a commercial traveller for a paper-making firm.
In pursuing matters connected with Price's birth and upbringing, Hall seems to have compounded a number of mistakes made by Dr Paul Tabori, Price's first biographer.
Mostyn Gilbert, in reviewing Hall's book, took the author to task for failing to contact Price's surviving family (Gilbert, 1979).
I have done this, and I have been told that, after Hall's book was published, Price's nephew wrote twice to Trevor Hall, but received no reply.
The same gentleman also wrote to The Times, the Daily Telegraph and London Weekend Television, protesting about the misrepresentation of his family's affairs.
According to the family, Hall's assertion that Price "married into money" is simply untrue.
Connie Price "had virtually no personal income at all and any capital was in a trust to which neither she nor her husband had access" (Knight, 1994).
The oft-repeated suggestion, based on Hall's book, that Price used his wife's money to finance his psychical experiments is just one of many falsehoods which have been put around since Harry Price's
So far in this paper I have tried to show that the two major accusations made against Price, namely that he practised deception in regard to Rudi Schneider and at Borley, are almost certainly false.
No court of law would convict a man on the slender evidence which has been presented for these alleged offences.
I have also tried to show that he was, to some extent, the victim of a class and cultural prejudice to which, at times, he over-reacted.
He was reticent about his family background, but he does not seem to have lied in print about such matters, although he may well have maintained a discreet silence when people such as Dr Tabori jumped to incorrect, though flattering, conclusions.
Of the accusations made by Trevor Hall, some are inaccurate, most are trivial, and a few are applicable to persons other than Price.
However, there remain a few general criticisms of Price which are worth examining, since they have implications for the current practice of psychical research.
Choice of Subject-Matter
According to the definition provided by the Society's founders, psychical research is concerned with "those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognised hypothesis".
This covers a wide field, and in practice most researchers have a 'boggle threshold' beyond which they are not prepared to probe.
J. B. Rhine was adamant in refusing to allow his students to investigate such topics as 'pyramid power', which he felt carried too much risk of failure to be worth the expenditure of valuable research time and money.
This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable line to take, but it is not the only one.
It is arguable that, since we really know very little about the hidden factors which underlie paranormal phenomena, it is unwise to rule out anything on a priori grounds.
It is conceivable that one reason for the slow progress of parapsychology comes from the fact that we have turned a blind eye to certain phenomena; we may be in the position of trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with certain pieces missing.
Unlike most researchers, Price believed in testing everything, no matter how absurd it seemed to be.
Although he made it plain that he did not believe in the Indian Rope Trick, the Talking
Mongoose (10) or the ritual of the Bloksberg Tryst, he was prepared, as an open-minded scientist, to submit them to test.
This led to his being widely ridiculed in the press. I think that in later years he came to regret his involvement in some of these matters, particularly the experiment on the
Brocken,(11) which is rapidly glossed over in his autobiography (Price, 1942, p. 172).
Love of Publicity
Price certainly courted publicity. More than a hundred of his articles appeared in newspapers and popular magazines, and the press were invited to all his major investigations.
Naturally, critics have seen this as evidence of a desire for self-aggrandisement; but was it?
It must be remembered that where psychical research was concerned, Price was a fanatic.
He agreed with Gladstone that it was "the most important work being done anywhere in the world", and he could not understand the rather detached attitude taken by some leaders of the SPR.
People who are fanatically committed to a cause often appear arrogant to those who do not share their enthusiasm.
Whether we like it or not, publicity is essential if psychical researchers are to obtain the raw material for their studies.
As Hastings remarks, "even our founders wrote popular articles to attract cases".
Price himself was quite open about the matter :-
No newspaper . . . can afford to ignore a subject which is exercising the minds of a large and increasing section of the public.
Such publicists as Lodge, Doyle, Julian Huxley, Joad, Wells, and the present writer have contributed scores of articles to the Press on the question of survival, phenomena, spiritualism and the churches, and similar topics.
And the day of the purely 'exposing' article has gone. We are becoming
more enlightened. After a long period of fraud, exploitation, and aggressive incredulity, psychical research has emerged as something worthy of scientific investigation and university study.
And the Press is largely responsible. [Price, 1942, pp. 303-304]
Attitude to Other Researchers
I can find no evidence that Price behaved spitefully towards other researchers except in the case of Lord Charles Hope, who had gone behind his back in negotiating with Rudi Schneider.
In fact, Price seems to have actively sought co-operation with other organisations, including spiritualist ones.
For five years his famous library was housed at the SPR's headquarters in Tavistock Square, where it was made freely available to members.
It was removed in 1927 at the behest of W. H. Salter, who had become Honorary Secretary in 1924 and had developed a strong antipathy to Price.
However, Price continued to invite leading members of the Society to participate in his experimental projects.
In January 1929, he published in the British Journal of Psychical Research a penetrating analysis of the relationships
- more or less hostile - between the various psychical organisations, under the title
A Plea for Better Understanding: A Seasonable Effort to Repair Some Shattered
Friendships. It seems to have had little or no effect.
As he found his health failing, Price made repeated efforts to persuade one or other of the psychical organisations to take over his National Laboratory (cf. Gregory, 1985).
Unfortunately, none of them was willing to do so. No doubt the struggles which went on between the various organisations in those days are deplorable; yet they are also a measure of the intense interest which existed in the subject.
If today there is greater harmony, it may be partly because there is less vitality.
Accuracy in Reporting
All of Price's books and articles are written in impeccable English, printed on superb paper and indexed with a detail which puts many modern books to shame.
It is precisely because of this careful indexing that it is possible to find a number of a small mistakes by comparing accounts of the same incident in different books, or even within the covers of the same book.
In fact, Price probably did far too much writing for his own good. He tended to use the same material over and over again, sometimes writing entirely from memory.
During the war years he worked alone in Pulborough, while the files containing details of his numerous case studies were in London.
It is not surprising, therefore, that errors crept into his work. The errors are mostly slight, and in no case that I have seen can they be said to have any relevance to the paranormality, or otherwise, of an event.
Robert Hastings makes the important point that Price's work should be judged by his research files, not by his popular writing.
Popular accounts inevitably over-simplify, and therefore to some extent falsify.
In the case of Borley, the sheer quantity and complexity of the material makes it unreasonable to expect that a popular account could be written without any errors at all.
In general, Price seems to have been far more meticulous in his checking and referencing of factual material than many modern writers; but like all of us, he made mistakes.
Since the end of the Second World War quite a large industry has developed based upon the denigration of once-famous men (and, occasionally, women).
Such giants as Lewis Carroll, J. M. Barrie, Baden-Powell, Montgomery and, more recently, Arthur Koestler, have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Often the accusations are based on little more than idle gossip, or the memories of people recalling events of more than half a century ago.
The victim, being dead, is unable to defend himself, and because his character is deemed to have been flawed, his work can also be disregarded.
Trevor Hall went through the small details of Harry Price's life with a fine-tooth comb, collecting everything that could be interpreted to his discredit and ignoring everything else.
The result was the portrait of a man left "without a rag of integrity, and with utterly nothing to his credit except a final grudging admission that in collecting a large library of books on his subject and leaving it to the University of London, he rated one useful achievement" (McCulloch, 1978).
This portrait was not recognisable to Price's family, friends, fellow church-goers and co-workers in psychical research.
Of course, no human being is perfect, and I rather fancy that if the same sifting process were to be applied to the life of any one of us the result might not be very flattering.
Price flourished before the development of the 'Rhine Revolution', so he did not use statistical
methods.(12) He worked almost entirely with gifted subjects such as Willy and Rudi Schneider, Stella Cranshaw, Eleonore Zugun, Anna Rasmussen, Maria Silbert and Eileen Garrett.
He was a careful experimenter and meticulous record-keeper. I am convinced that a detailed re-examination of his experimental work is long overdue, and might reveal much that could be of value to present-day parapsychology.
For example, his observations of the physiological changes which occurred in Stella Cranshaw and Rudi Schneider during the production of phenomena, and the corresponding fluctuations in room temperature, could provide useful clues to an understanding of the energetics of spontaneous PK.
To the general public, Price's name is inextricably coupled to that of Borley Rectory.
This is a pity since some of his best work was done in the early years, before he had even heard of Borley.
Even so, the Borley case remains the most fully documented example of a haunting in the annals of psychical research, and Price's accumulation of a vast dossier of eye-witness reports is a major contribution to the study of spontaneous phenomena.
His work on poltergeists (1945) is a useful source-book which has been quoted in several more recent publications (e.g. Carrington & Fodor, 1953; Gauld & Cornell, 1979).
The late Brian Inglis drew attention to the insidious process by which important discoveries in psychical research are rendered 'null and void' to later generations by speculative character assassinations directed against the researchers.
In this paper I have tried to show that although Harry Price was no saint, neither was he the villain he has been made out to be.
Perhaps the time has now come to restore him to his rightful place as one of the SPR's most
talented and hard-working former members, and submit his work to the careful scrutiny which it deserves.
There is no need to carry the personal animosities of the past into the new millennium.
1 The fourth Baron, Robert John Strutt, FRS (1875-1947); SPR President 1937-38.
2 Tabori wrongly implies that he ceased to be a member in
3 Mrs Sidgwick thought that a confederate of Rudi's, a "smart girl or boy" must have entered the
séance-room, dressed in black, during one or other of the numerous pauses in the proceedings. This is extremely unlikely. For a discussion of this possibility, see Gregory (1985).
4 It has been claimed, by Salter's defenders, that he acted ethically in that he was trying to prevent undue publicity at Borley. However, he had no right to interfere at all
- the SPR is not a psychic police force. As for publicity, this had already happened, via the
Daily Mirror (10th June 1929), before Price went near the place.
5 Personal communication from Mr Motion's son, Mr Barry Motion.
6 The Rector always disclaimed any knowledge of Price's psychical activities; however, he accompanied him on at least one poltergeist investigation, as is shown by the article and photographs in
Picture Post, 22nd December 1945.
7 Hall's genuine qualifications were obtained at Leeds University. The Registrar informed me that he received a Ph.D. in 1970 for a thesis on conjuring books, and an M.A. in 1971 following a course in bibliography and textual criticism.
8 Joad apparently claimed as his own a paranormal experience which actually happened to Dr Tillyard. (See Hall, 1978, pp. 172-173).
9 The Editor has raised the question of where, in fact, Price got the money to spend on his famous library and laboratory. The family told me that he worked all his life for the paper-making firm of Edward Saunders & Son, which occupied premises at 81 Cannon Street,
EC1, and later at Park Royal Road, NW10. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any surviving documents relating to this firm. In the Harry Price Library there are the specifications of a paper-corrugating machine invented by Price, and patented by Edward Saunders. Price's technical expertise and inventive ability may have enabled him to rise to quite a high position in the firm.
10 "Gef', the talking mongoose, supposedly lived on the Isle of Man. He was heard scratching behind the panelling of a remote farmhouse, and he allegedly spoke to people in a squeaky voice. At first, Price ridiculed the whole affair, but after several people had expressed themselves puzzled, he went to visit the farmhouse with R. S. Lambert, editor of
The Listener. They judged the case to be almost certainly fraudulent. It is worth noting that there were other serious researchers who considered the Talking Mongoose case worthy of investigation: see Carrington & Fodor (1953), pp. 166 et seq. A description of the case and its consequences is given by Tabori (1974).
11 The "Brocken" affair involved Price and other participants in going up the Brocken to re-enact an ancient witchcraft ceremony. Since they were accompanied by numerous paparazzi, the press had a field-day. It did a lot of harm to Price's reputation in academic circles.
12 His Fifty Years of Psychical Research (1939) contains a cautious assessment of Rhine's early experiments.
In preparing this paper I have been grateful for the help of the following, who are not, of course, responsible for the opinions I have expressed: Ivan Banks, Revd Paul Benfield, A. D. Cornell, Nicholas Jeffs (curator, Harry Price Library), the Knight family, Dr Elizabeth Leedham-Green (Cambridge University), Barry Motion, Alan Wesencraft (former curator, HPL) and the staffs of the Birmingham University Library and the County Record Office at
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