IN these memoirs I have attempted to epitomise the more interesting incidents of a particularly happy and colourful life, the last thirty years of which especially have been full of exciting adventures in the realm of the Unknown and Unaccountable. My psychic experiences have, as far as possible, been related in non-technical language for the benefit of lay readers, and represent work done with all the most notable mediums, good and bad.
A few of the 'cases' and incidents recorded in this volume have been described in my earlier works-most of which are out of print and difficult to obtain. In an autobiography such as I have written, this has, of course, been unavoidable. But the accounts of these cases have been brought up to date, and fresh information added, where possible. And in every instance the original notes and official publications have been drawn upon.
Those readers who would wish to know more of the many mediums, miracle-mongers, and mountebanks who figure so largely in these pages are recommended to consult the technical reports of the experiments and séances, of which minute-by-minute protocols have often been published in our official records. These publications are: The Proceedings and Bulletins of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research; The British Journal of Psychical Research; the Bulletins of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation; and the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.
I am indebted to a number of my friends and others for assistance in various ways: for permission to reproduce letters; for supplying details of interesting cases, which I am invited to investigate; and for suggestions and other kindnesses. Some acknowledgments have been made in the text, but I am particularly grateful to: Dr. Phythian-Adams, Canon of Carlisle; the Rev. H. J. Fynes-Clinton, the Rev. A. C. Henning, Mrs. Beatrice Cooper, Professor Cyril Burt, Dr. C. E. M. Joad, Mr. R. S. Lambert, Mr. Victor Gollancz, Colonel Henry M. Hardcastle, and Mr. William Marriott. I also wish to thank Mr. E. V. Knox ('Evoe'), the editor of Punch; and the Correspondence Editor of The Times, for permission to reproduce extracts from their respective journals.
I am afraid that I have used the capital letter 'I' rather freely in my life-story, a reprehensible habit into which those who write autobiographies are apt to fall. I apologise.
THE SAVAGE CLUB,
CARLTON HOUSE TERRACE, S.W.1.
IF a certain small Shropshire lad had not had toothache, these memoirs, in all probability, would have remained unwritten.
One cold January morning the 'Great Sequah,' with his brass bands, gilded chariots, and troop of 'boosters' in the garb of Mohawk Indians, pitched his tent-so to speak-in Shrewsbury's principal square. And, to the accompaniment of sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, announced in stentorian tones (he would have used a battery of loud-speakers to-day) that he was there to extract every bad tooth in the county, and to cure every ailment with which his bucolic listeners were cursed-all 'free of charge,' except for a small matter of a shilling or so, for his celebrated 'Sequah's Oil' and 'Prairie Flower,' 'as used by all the crowned heads of Europe.' Incidentally, there were more of them then than there are now.
Among the cripples, epileptics, dyspeptics, consumptives, et hoc genus omne, who clamoured round his band wagons for free treatment was a poor woman who dragged her shrieking offspring to one of the gilded chariots where willing hands hauled him aboard. His mother said he had toothache. The boy, blue with pain, cold, and fear, was placed in a huge gilt chair to the back of which his neck and hands were strapped. His feet were secured to the legs of the chair and-the band began to thunder its loudest.
If the 'music' fulfilled its mission in drowning the cries of the lad, something more was needed to distract the victim's attention from the collection of instruments of torture which the 'operator' was about to wield with not too skilful a hand. But this emergency had been foreseen and provided for: one of the 'Mohawks' was a clever conjurer. Borrowing a hard hat (he could hardly use his own feathered head-dress for the purpose), the spell-binder proceeded to do a number of miracles with it. Though the hat was undoubtedly empty when handed up, to the amazement of the crowd a pair of snow-white doves immediately flew out of it and settled, one on each shoulder, of the Great Sequah himself.
After the release of the doves, flags, bags of sweets, small toys, etc., were 'produced' in rich profusion in the time-honoured manner and thrown among the juvenile members of the crowd. The boy - who had forgotten his toothache -stopped shrieking and before
one could say 'Jack Robinson' the aching molar (or at least one of his teeth) was out, and that, too, was tossed to the gaping audience.
After that came many sufferers who trooped up to be cured of their ailments, real or imaginary, and the show concluded with the sale of the various nostrums and a bonfire of the crutches of the delighted Salopians who were convinced that they had been cured at this Shropshire, Lourdes. During the whole of this eventful morning I stood, cold but happy, open-mouthed at this display of credulity, self-deception, auto-suggestion, faith-healing, beautiful showmanship, super-charlatanism, and 'magic.' The miracles of the market-place left me spellbound. The above events, which probably were entirely responsible for shaping much of my life's work, occurred a week or so before my eighth birthday.
On my arrival home I demanded from my astonished parents an explanation of how it was that an empty hat had contained two doves, and would they please show me exactly how it was done. After several days' pestering on my part, my father finally succumbed and, as one of my birthday gifts, presented me with a copy of 'Professor Hoffman's Modern Magic, a well-known conjuring primer, which really did inform one how white doves could be extracted from-apparently-empty hats. This book was the first of my collection of 17,000 volumes on magic of all kinds which I subsequently assembled.
The following Christmas I received another book on magic, of a very different type. It was calledThe Tiny Mite, Describing the Adventures of a Little Girl in Dreamland, Fairyland, Wonderland and Elsewhere. No author's name appears on the title-page and, although profusely illustrated, the artist's name does not emerge.
There is a mystery about this book. It was published by Swan Sonnenschein, Le Bas & Lowrey in 1889, and is the most wonderful child's book I have ever seen. It is more amusing, better illustrated, better written, and with a more varied 'magical' content than Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and I cannot conceive why this book did not compete with 'Lewis Carroll's' classic. Both books appeal to the imagination of children and their sense of humour, but the Tiny Mite is more wonderful and more amusing. It is the story of the adventures of a little girl, her cat, her dog, and a doll, in the realms of magic. Fairies, giants, dragons, witches and magicians are all visited, as they fly through fairyland on their magic carpet.
1. i.e. Angelo John Lewis, M.A., a mathematician and author of many works on conjuring. In 1887, he formed one of Prof. Balfour Stewart's committee (which included Crookes, Lodge, and others) to inquire into the truth of spiritualism.
There is even a chapter about a conjurer who performs real feats of magic. The book still fascinates me, and as I gaze at my father's inscription on the verso of the frontispiece, a lump comes into my throat as I think of those happy childhood days when my love for the miraculous was as boundless as it is now. The inscription reads: 'Harry Price, from his loving father, E. D. Price, Xmas, 1889.'
The mystery concerning the Tiny Mite lies in the fact that I have neither seen nor heard of another copy. Of the many thousands of booksellers' catalogues I have perused, the title has never appeared in any list, and the book must be rare. The work made a most profound impression on my childish mind and was largely responsible, I am sure, for my early and sustained interest in the apparently miraculous.
Though I was transfixed with wonder at the clever Sequah show, looking at the incident in retrospect, I feel that on that eventful morning I did not believe a word I heard or a thing I saw. It was the novelty of it all, rather than genuine amazement, that made such an impression on me. The fact that I at once demanded 'how it was done' is proof, I think, of that inherent scepticism - coupled with the critical faculty - with which my existence has been cursed. And when I say 'cursed,' I mean it, because I think my life would have been still happier had I believed more and criticised less. But I cannot help it.
I think I must have inherited a good deal of that scepticism that has landed me in hot water so many times. My maternal grandfather was a solicitor and my father's father was an amateur of the law. Both were very critical men. And there is a tradition in the family that we are collaterally descended from Laurence Price, the seventeenth-century ballad-monger and pamphleteer. I am not boasting about this, as he was rather disreputable.
Laurence (always a favourite Christian name with the Price family) flourished - when he did flourish, which was seldom - between 1628-1680. He was a writer of ballads, squibs, pamphlets, and broadsides in verse on political and social subjects. During the civil wars he was in some way connected with the Parliamentary army.
Speaking of Christian names, I have had trouble with mine frequently. Every time I entered a new school and had my first interview with the' head,' the following conversation would ensue:
One headmaster even went so far as to tell me that my proper name was 'Henry Ap Rhys ' (Henry, the son of Rhys), which is probably true, though I am glad the name has been whittled down through the centuries. This particular head was a Welshman.
'Harry' as a Christian name proper has become fashionable and is establishing itself, as a writer in the Observer recently pointed out. Shakespeare popularised the name, especially in King Henry IV, where 'Harry' occurs as frequently as 'Henry.' Even the opening lines contain the reference: 'Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars...'
But to return to Laurence Price, of whom little is known except through his publications, all of which are now very rare. Sixty-eight works are extant and many are signed only with the initials 'L.P.' They are to be found in the Roxburghe Ballads and other collections.
I do not think I should have mentioned Laurence Price at all except that (a) he was concerned with the occult follies of the day, as I am, and wrote against them; and (b) he was very sceptical! I do not suppose for a moment that he ever imagined that, three hundred years later, one of his collateral descendants would be doing the same thing!
Amongst Price's 'occult' contributions to literature were: Strange Predictions Related at Cateriche, London, 1648; The Shepherd's Prognostication Foretelling the Sad and Strange Eclipse of the Sun which will happen on the 29 of March this present year 1652, which Eclipse will begin about eight of the Clock in the fore noon, and so continue till past the hour of eleven, which will be the dismallest day that ever was known since the year 33, when our Savior Christ suffered on the Crosse for the sins of Mankind, at which time the Seas did roare, the earth did quake, the graves did open...This Prediction also foretells of many strange Presages and Passages which will follow after that horrible Eclipse of the Sun, and what Will issue. With a perfect way whereby to avoid the insuing danger. London, 1652.
Of course, the above tract was delightfully satirical and unmercifully pulled the legs of those who believed that every unusual natural phenomenon portended some catastrophic cataclysm.
A few days after the eclipse - on April 9th, 1652, to be exact - Price published another little book, The Astrologer's Bugg Beare, telling his readers how the people behaved themselves on the great
day. For example, 'A usurer that was to receive money of a country man that was his debter on that day, durst not to venter fourth of his house; by which meanes the man rid forth out of London and paid not in his moneyes, for which cause the Usurer was about to cut his own throat, and had don it, if he had not bin prevented by some of his Neighboures.'
And again: 'Some other Christians were so fearefull of what would befall, that they sent their maids two dayes before Black monday for to fetch in faire water in a redynesse to wash, fearing that the ayre would infect the water. Some tooke Medicines, Pills, and Antidotes, which was administered unto them by a supposed out landish doctor, which he had set bills for in several places, calling his Medicines, an Antidote against the tirrible Eclipses of the Sun, so he got money, and they went away as wise as woodcockes.'
Our author presents us with a quaint woodcut on the title-page of The Astrologer's Bugg Beare - a picture that is sufficiently indicative of the delicious leg-pulling to be found within. Price tried to shame the people out of their credulity. Did he succeed? A glance at the astrological features of certain modern popular journals will supply a complete answer to the query as to whether the public has grown a whit less gullible or less credulous than Price's circle of readers in the seventeenth century.
So, I repeat, I think I must have inherited some of my scepticism which will be much in evidence in the present volume.
If the reader anticipates that my early experiences with the market-place magician inspired in me a desire to become a professional conjurer, he will be disappointed. It did nothing of the sort. But it did bring to the surface my subconscious interest in the wonderful and the marvellous, and especially in the mechanics of how 'miracles' were performed. Never in my life, I think, have I ever missed an opportunity of ascertaining, if possible, how the many wonders I have witnessed were produced.
My schooldays were uneventful, except for one occasion when I investigated a Shropshire haunted house, an account of which will be related in another chapter. I received few prizes, but those I managed to secure were for literary composition and English - an indication that I was going to begin to write at an early age. Schooldays over, it was at first decided - at least, I decided - that I should become a mechanical engineer. My passion for mechanics was equalled only by my love of the apparently miraculous, and I was to realise later that, very often, mechanisms and 'miracles' are synonymous terms. So it was arranged that I should be an engineer.
Articles of agreement were drawn up between my father and Merryweathers, the engineers, and I was looking forward to a life amongst the machine tools and in the drawing-office, when my father suddenly changed his mind! He decided that I should enter the paper trade, with which he was intimately connected.
I was disappointed, but I was still able to amuse myself amongst machinery, and nothing, I think, is more interesting than papermaking and its allied processes.
If I could not be a professional engineer, I was at least determined to become an amateur one. I now had more leisure than I had anticipated, and devoted much of it to what used to be called 'improving one's mind.' I joined classes at Faraday House, where I received some grounding in electrical engineering; and, later, spent several years at the Goldsmiths' College (now a part of the University of London), where I joined evening classes in mechanical engineering, chemistry, photography, and photographic optics. These evenings were some of the most pleasant I have ever spent in my life, and the chemical experiments (the Department was then in charge of Charles Loudon Bloxham) specially fascinated me. Though I was unaware of it at the time, I was unconsciously training myself for my future career in psychical research, where a knowledge of mechanics, chemistry, photography, and many other sciences is absolutely necessary for successful research work. My early scientific training, plus my hobby of conjuring, have often stood me in good stead when disentangling the problems of the séance-room. Few mediums - and fewer phenomena - can stand up to scientific investigation. The outcome of my pleasant evenings at the Goldsmiths' College (where, forty years later, I was to lecture on psychical research) was my establishing in my own home a laboratory and a power workshop - and the very few houses I have occupied in my life have always contained these appendages to a happy home in which, even now, much of my time is spent in experimentation. If I had a son, the first thing I would give him would be a workshop where eye, hand and brain would be simultaneously - and usefully - employed.
I have remarked that in my early youth I had much leisure, and a good deal of this was spent in haunting the fair-grounds and market-places round London, such as Petticoat Lane, East Street, Walworth, and the New Cut. More frequently did I visit the Deptford fair-ground. We then resided at Brockley (almost a rural suburb!) and the fair was convenient for me. I have spent many nights watching the illusionists, hypnotists, conjurers, thought-readers, fortune-tellers, 'monstrosities,' fire-eaters, fakirs, quacks
and mountebanks who performed there. I had my 'fortune told' many scores of times and, of course, it was different each time! But I have known cases where the - alleged - gypsy seer was uncannily accurate in forecasting the future. But this has never happened so far as I am concerned. It is possible that 'mediums' or clairvoyantes, with some good powers, do gravitate to the smaller fair-grounds, and occasionally score successes.
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