It was the summer of 1929 and Britain was in the grip of poltergeist fever. The rector of Borley, a lonely hamlet in north Essex, had contacted the media to report "unusual happenings" at his ramshackle 30-room rectory, which was said to be haunted by a medieval nun bricked up alive for having an affair with a coachman. Hundreds of sightseers converged on the village.
One of the first on the scene was Harry Price, Britain's most celebrated "ghostbuster". The honorary director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, he had established his credentials by unmasking a fraudulent spirit photographer in a carefully crafted sting seven years earlier. He was now at the forefront of a debate, involving some of the country's leading scientists and intellectuals, as to whether there was a spirit world with which it was possible to communicate.
Price's presence at Borley gave huge credibility to the stories about the rectory, which quickly became known as the most haunted house in Britain. Price himself wrote two books about his investigation. His examination of the house has been trumpeted by some as proof of life after death, and the novelist Dennis Wheatley said he should have been given a knighthood to honour "his long years as a pioneer".
But all was not what it seemed. Within hours of Price's arrival at the rectory, a string of new phenomena - bangs, clattering, keys being thrown and coins raining down - were observed. The rector's wife later said: "We could not help being led to suppose that Mr Price was producing some of the effects."
When windows mysteriously smashed themselves as he showed a journalist round, the latter noted that Price kept taking a step back just before it happened, and there was a swishing sound as if a missile had been thrown. Price then made a feeble attempt at ventriloquism and the journalist recalled: "I got hold of him and found two of his coat-pockets full of stones. He stammered but offered no excuses or explanations. He just asked, 'What are you going to do?'" The journalist said he would expose Price but in the event his newspaper's lawyers feared the ghostbuster might sue and the story was dropped. Chastened, Price did not monitor or visit the rectory for the next 18 months.
Believers in psychic phenomena still uphold this eccentric figure as a serious scientist who, in the words of Peter Underwood, life president of the Ghost Club Society, "fought a long, lone battle against those who derided the whole world of the occult on the one hand and the fanatical believers in spiritualism on the other". Underwood adds: "A charismatic and enigmatic character who bestrode the world of psychical research for something like 30 years, Harry Price's achievements were original, far-reaching and of considerable value to those who sought to follow his search for truth". [Quoted from the Introduction to this website]
But a new book by writer Richard Morris, drawing on a vast archive of Price's own papers bequeathed to the University of London, unmasks the self-styled scientist as a talented but greedy fraud with more than a whiff of corruption about him and - towards the end of his life - an unhealthy interest in Nazi Germany. "Although to some it was obvious he was living a pantomime, it is hilarious that this man, who did not seem to have a clue about what he was doing, duped the majority of his colleagues, the public, journalists and some of the greatest minds of his day with his po-faced seriousness, his great passion for phenomena and his bogus academic background," writes Morris. "It must have been a fantastic piece of acting."
Although Price's own autobiography was economical with the truth of his origins, he was born in a humble part of London to a grocer turned paper bag salesman - a role that Price himself would continue, even as he acquired national celebrity as a ghost-hunter. Young Harry left school at 15 but he was ambitious and tried to earn a living as a journalist, while also becoming a salesman in his father's firm and studying electrical, mechanical and chemical engineering in the evenings. He would later make fantastical claims about a great scientist under whom he studied, who actually died when Price was six.
He married a woman from a well-to-do family and settled in her native county of West Sussex, where he became a keen coin-collector and archaeologist. He lectured on Roman archaeology but was discredited when some of his "finds" turned out to be forgeries. In the First World War he claimed to have run his own munitions workshop, although Morris argues that he is more likely to have worked in a factory in Brighton. The war sparked a massive interest in spiritualism. One of the most public enthusiasts was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who lost his son, his brother, his two brothers-in-law and two nephews in the trenches. "The deaths occurring in almost every family in the land brought a sudden and concentrated interest in life after death," he wrote. "People not only asked the question, 'If a man die shall he live again?' but they eagerly sought to know if communication was possible with the dear ones they had lost."
It was a climate in which charlatans could prosper, and Price's exposure of a medium called Billy Hope - showing that his so-called 'celestial' photographs were nothing more than old pictures pasted on to photographic plates before the shot was taken - was a genuine public service. Invited to investigate other cases, he set himself the task of establishing a laboratory in Britain that would test mediums and supply the world with facts about the paranormal. He achieved his ambition in 1925 with the backing of the London Spiritualist Alliance. He made friends with Harry Houdini - although the friendship would founder when he later accused the world-famous magician of fraud - and with Conan-Doyle, and money poured in from wealthy and titled supporters to allow him to investigate the occult.
The problem, as price himself wrote, was that "so many people prefer the 'bunk' to the 'debunk'." Competing with the rival Society for Psychical Research, he would take practitioners under his wing - and sometimes it was inconvenient if they turned out to be frauds. One such was a famous medium called Helen Duncan who was said to emit milky "ectoplasm" from every orifice. Price had the stuff analysed and announced in a pseudo-scientific article that he was certain that it was the stuff of which ghosts were made. The article was never published - so when it was later proved by someone else that Mrs Duncan was actually regurgitating cheesecloth, Price could denounce her.
He also sought out a talking mongoose, which was supposed to appear on the Isle of Man, where it was said to speak several languages, recite poetry and eat cream buns. "The story was an absolute wonder because of the sheer ridiculousness," says Morris. "Price went to the Isle of Man where, lo and behold, he couldn't find the mongoose, but he wrote a book about the story and gave it oxygen. It was a purely commercial thing to do. People want to read about the fantastic and the motley, not about something pretty plain and prosaic, and Price was after financial success as much as scientific respect."
This view is not universally shared. Paul Adams, co-founder of website harryprice.co.uk, admits that Price could be his own worst enemy but claims he had a deep desire to uncover the unexplained. "His legacy is to encourage people to question things and not simply sit back and accept the things that orthodox science spoon-feeds them," he says. "He had a vast practical knowledge of spiritualism, mediums' tricks and the history of the paranormal, gained from hands-on experience, and he also amassed a vast library, which he bequeathed to the University of London." Adams admits that Price exaggerated things and "played the ghost at times". But he says: "At Borley Rectory the problem was that Price the man got in the way of Price the investigator. I believe there is genuine evidence for paranormal phenomena there, and if Price hadn't been so desperate to record all the alleged flying bricks and bottles, he would have seen that."
Morris does not agree. He has unearthed a letter in which Price himself blamed a later vicar's wife for faking the supposed ghostly activities at the rectory, which burned down in 1939. "If the authors and day-trippers to the rectory had cared to study the documents Price bequeathed to the University of London, they would have discovered that the story was decidedly fishy," he says. He adds that Price was a likeable man, so few bothered to look beyond his affability - even when he was visiting Nazi Germany shortly before the war in search of a university that would give his laboratory a home, and writing personal letters to Hitler, who was fascinated by the paranormal, asking for a VIP seat at one of his rallies.
Furthermore, he says, Price - who died in 1948 aged 68 - could never have afforded Rolls-Royces, antiques and rare books, to say nothing of keeping a string of mistresses, if he had not dipped into the funds his supporters had given his laboratory. "Price, the paper bag expert, knew that if he surrounded himself with the trappings of science and created the aura of a man deep in thought, he could get away with almost anything, helped by his skill as a showman," Morris concludes. "He should be thought of as a supreme bluffer, a hedonistic con-man, a great conjuror, a gifted writer and a wonderful eccentric."
© Simon Edge & Express Newspapers 2006
The Base Room . Biography . Timeline . Gallery . Profiles . Séance Room . Famous Cases . Borley Rectory . Books By Price . Writings By Price . Books About Price . Bibliography . Links . Subscribe . About This SiteAll original text, photographs & graphics used throughout this website are © copyright 2004-2007 by Paul G. Adams. All other material reproduced here is the copyright of the respective authors.