Mediumship of Willi
and Rudi Schneider
ANATOMY OF A FRAUD: Harry Price and the Medium Rudi Schneider. By Anita Gregory. Annals of Science, 34, 1977, pp. 449-549.
The "fraud" of Mrs. Gregory's title is a fraud allegedly perpetrated by the late Harry Price during the course of his third and final investigation (February to May 1932) of the Austrian physical medium, Rudi Schneider. The fraud consisted, Mrs. Gregory believes, in the faking of photographs which made it appear as though Rudi had cheated when in fact he had not. Price's purpose in manufacturing these photographs was to embarrass certain former colleagues of his, who had incurred his anger by mounting an independent investigation of Rudi from which he was excluded.
Mrs. Gregory draws extensively upon an earlier and unpublished work of her own, a general study of Rudi Schneider's mediumship (there is a typescript in the SPR Library). This is, I believe, the most detailed and scholarly account of a single physical medium so far written, and it is a great pity that its considerable length and specialist nature have (one assumes) so far prevented its full publication. The publication of even a part of Mrs. Gregory's materials is to be welcomed; though I have to confess that the part here presented is the part which I personally would have placed bottom of the batting order.
The kernel of Mrs. Gregory's present enquiry is her analysis of four of the photographs reproduced in Price's An Account of some Further Experiments with Rudi Schneider (London, 1933), published as Bulletin IV of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research (an organization founded and largely run by Price). I will return to this analysis in a moment. But first it is necessary to consider certain background personalities and events which Mrs. Gregory sketches for us in some detail.
No doubt most readers of this Journal will know something of Harry Price's career and character (Mrs. Gregory gives on pp. 470—472 a most judicious summary of his strengths and shortcomings). By the time of which we are talking he had established himself in the eyes of press and public as psychical research's leading impresario, and, though he undoubtedly sought the limelight with an almost monomaniac single-mindedness, he had also, as Mrs. Gregory remarks, a passionate interest in psychic phenomena and their investigation. His methods, however, did not commend themselves to the SPR's leaders. Moreover, he was not a gentleman; or perhaps in some ways too ostentatiously a gentleman. Price returned the dislike of the SPR leaders with interest.
There were, however, a few members of the SPR Council who were on (more or less) friendly terms with Price. Lord Charles Hope, for instance, attended 19 of the 27 Schneider sittings which Price arranged between February and May 1932. Sometime in this period Hope, and certain other participants in the séances, came to the conclusion that the medium's phenomena ought to be subjected to an independent investigation, and opened private negotiations with Rudi for sittings to be held after the expiry of his contract with Price. (Mrs. Gregory persistently attributes to Hope suspicions of Price arising from Mr. Charles Sutton's story that he had detected Price in fraud at Borley in 1929. It appears, however, somewhat unlikely that Hope heard a detailed version of this tale until 20 years later—see Proc. S.P.R., 55, pp. 85-88. The "conspirators' " knowledge that Price was widely disliked and distrusted is by itself sufficient to account for their actions.) Price heard of this sometime in April, and he was understandably enraged. Nothing could have made plainer to him the low esteem in which he was held in certain influential quarters; and, besides, he found himself in danger of being up-staged. The conspirators must have been very poor judges of men if they thought that Price would, with scientific detachment, appreciate the need for an independent investigation. Furious rows ensued. Shortly afterwards, at a sitting on 28 April 1932, the incriminating photographs were ostensibly taken. Well might Price have thought that the Lord had delivered his enemies into his hands; we must, however, ask whether he may have lent the Lord some assistance.
His conduct over the next few months left, by any standards, a great deal to be desired. He told only a very few persons about the photographs—how many is far from clear. Not only did he let the conspirators proceed unwarned with their own investigations; he also let persons who had remained "loyal" to him publicly avow their belief in Rudi's phenomena without giving them any indication of the card which he had up his sleeve. When almost a year had passed, and the Hope-Rayleigh report on Rudi Schneider was imminent, Price published his photographs, and voiced various (more or less) rhetorical questions about the validity of Rudi's phenomena. To his way of thinking, Hope and his fellow-conspirators had been thoroughly discomfited.
At first sight, Price's conduct in the matter looks like the unreasoning and childish vindictiveness of an egomaniac whose ego had been severely bruised. He has been described to me, by someone who knew him, as emotionally an adolescent, and his actions during this period exhibit a blindness to consequences which rather confirms the diagnosis. In spiting his enemies, he trampled on his friends; by throwing Rudi to the wolves, he laid himself open to the charges of inconsistency and incompetence which were remorselessly cast in his teeth by, for instance, Walter Franklin Prince in Bulletin XX of the Boston SPR. Probably he did not foresee these consequences; almost certainly he was indifferent to them.
Mrs. Gregory, however, attributes to Price a deeper and more calculated kind of wickedness. She believes that he faked the incriminating photos, and that there are features of the photographs themselves which support the hypothesis of trickery. I am sorry to say that her analysis of these features of the photographs seems to me to be misconceived.
The photographs concerned are plates XVIII, XIX, XX and XXI of Bulletin IV of the NLPR (Mrs. Gregory's figures 19, 18, 16 and 20). Mrs. Gregory thinks that these plates are of suspiciously poor quality, and evidently regards this as part of a covering-up operation. To me they seem neither better nor worse than others of Price's seance-room photographs; and Price's plate XX shows more details of the sitters than does Mrs. Gregory's figure 16, which is taken from the same negative. She adds (p. 528), "Price never published any prints other than the ones reproduced in his Bulletin and in the Sunday Dispatch, and declined to allow anyone to inspect his negatives." I do not know what Mrs. Gregory's grounds for the latter assertion may be, but the former assertion is not strictly true. Plates XX and XXI are reproduced in Price's Leaves from a Psychist's Case-book (London, 1933), plate XXI was reproduced on a printed circular advertising Bulletin IV, and plate XVIII is reproduced in Fodor's Encyclopedia of Psychic Science (London, n.d.).
For purposes of discussion it will be best to start with plate XX, which is a general view of the sitters and seance room. Like the other photographs it is a double exposure, due to the fact that the two bulbs in Price's flash apparatus did not explode quite synchronously. Some of the sitters moved in the interval between the two flashes. Rudi's left arm, which Price had been controlling, can be seen extended behind him towards the "counterpoise table". It was the displacement of a handkerchief from this table that triggered the flashgun.
Mrs. Gregory finds grounds for suspicion in various details of this photograph. She says, for example (pp. 528—529), "According to Price's legend under the figure, 'handkerchief has been dropped behind curtain. Corner of handkerchief can be seen under table.' What can in fact be seen under the table is what looks like the vertical edge of a fold of the curtain. ... It seems strange that Price should have particularly drawn attention in the legend to ... whatever was the 'corner of handkerchief. . . under table.' " However, the handkerchief is just visible under the table to the right of the illuminated edge of the curtain, and would be more plainly visible in a better reproduction than Mrs. Gregory's figure 16. It is perfectly comprehensible why Price should have drawn attention to it—Rudi Schneider had, ostensibly, just snatched it off the table-top.
Again, she asks (p. 529), "What on earth is the bolster or cushion doing that has been hung up by a piece of string from a book case behind the medium's outstretched arm? There is nothing like it in any other photograph of a séance or the séance room." Later (p. 535) she relates this "black backcloth" to her theory that Price created the plate by superimposing two pictures. However, Bulletin IV contains no photographs of the arrangements in the séance room between sitting 10 (8 March) and sitting 25 (28 April), and it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that among the later changes introduced was a mattress or cushion slung up so as to protect the glass-fronted bookcases from the violent movements which the entranced Rudi commonly made. The cushion, furthermore, can be seen in the better reproductions to have stripes or corrugations which would have lessened its value as a backcloth.
Mrs. Gregory also seems to read sinister significance into the fact that the plate-glass negative of plate XX in the Harry Price Library was found to have a brown paper mask stuck on it, with a window in it corresponding to the region enlarged as plate XXI in Bulletin IV. Apparently she thinks that the brown paper was put there not for photographic purposes, but to prevent examination of certain peripheral details of plate XX. I will return to these details in a moment. Meanwhile I can only say that I do not understand why, if there had been incriminating details in plate XX, Price should simply have stuck easily removable brown paper on the non-emulsion side of the glass negative. The sensible course of action would have been to destroy the negative, not to draw attention to it with brown paper. Many of his negatives are in fact missing from the collections in the Harry Price Library, so that the absence of one more would hardly have constituted grounds for suspicion.
The principal conclusion which Mrs. Gregory wishes to draw from her examination of plate XX is that it represents the re-photographing of a composite photograph, and hence a piece of jiggery-pokery by Price. She thinks that this interpretation is strongly supported by two further facts, viz. (a) that no hand can be clearly seen at the end of the extended arm of Rudi's pyjama jacket, and (b) that Rudi's back is at an impossible angle with respect to his legs.
The former of these points does not seem particularly remarkable in view of the fact that the end of the pyjama sleeve is shaded from the flash by a heavy curtain. Furthermore, in Plate III of Leaves of a Psychist's Case-book (a less heavily printed version of plate XXI of Bulletin IV) the fingers of a lightly clenched hand can be clearly if faintly seen at the end of the pyjama sleeve (which was obviously too long for its wearer). Indeed they are just detectable in Mrs. Gregory's figure 16 (Price's plate XX), though not in her figure 20 (Price's plate XXI), which has been heavily over-cooked somewhere along the line.
Mrs. Gregory states her position with regard to (b) as follows (pp. 532—533): "Several enlargements of the parts previously covered by the brown paper tape were made. The most compromising detail of all was perhaps an enlargement showing part of Rudi's left leg, sock and shoe (figure 21). They can be seen between Harry Price's right foot and Mrs. de Gernon's feet, which are partly obscured by some flowers with large leaves resting on the upturned wastepaper basket immediately under the suspended lamp. Rudi's left foot is facing Price and is quite clearly at an angle of about 90° to the camera. Rudi's foot has moved slightly between flashes by not more than about half an inch; in other words, corresponding to the foot and leg one would expect in the main picture two side views of Rudi. Yet there are two back views, and this is amply borne out by the new enlargements. Little is visible of Rudi's right leg except the knee-folds, but it seems to have been virtually stationary between the two flashes. The conclusion seems to me inescapable that the back belongs to a different occasion from that on which the legs were taken."
I am baffled by these statements. Rudi's legs do not seem to me to be parallel to the front of the camera and I am at a loss to know how Mrs Gregory can conclude from the small part of Rudi's heel visible in the enlargement that his left foot is "clearly" at an angle of about 90° to the line of view of the camera. It seems to me that in fact Rudi's legs are turned somewhat anticlockwise away from the frontal-parallel plane, and that his shoulders have been rotated still further anticlockwise so that they are nearly though not quite parallel to the front of the camera. This position is not a natural one, but it is not impossible or even particularly difficult to assume, as I have verified by experiment. A loose jacket hanging down from the shoulders will conceal the twist of the trunk below, and make the whole back appear almost square on to the viewer. And of course if Rudi did displace the handkerchief himself by means of a freed left arm, he would have had to twist round anticlockwise in order to reach it.
The photograph reproduced as Price's plate XX was taken by a camera with a wide-angle lens standing well back from the sitters. When the double flash went off a second camera also recorded the scene. This was a stereoscopic camera, placed further forward, and trained upon the counterpoise table. It, too, picked up Rudi's extended arm. Now if Price faked plate XX, he must also have faked plate XIX, the corresponding stereoscopic picture, and have faked it in such a way that the details of all the photographs precisely correspond. Surely this is a very tall order. Mrs. Gregory, however, seems prepared to accept this implication, and sees indications that plate XIX has been doctored. She says (p. 529) "... one is struck by the strange white vertical object in the upper part of the right-hand edge on the left stereogram, which cuts across the medium's arm. At first one thinks this must be the medium's back, seen from the slightly different and lower angle of the stereocamera. However it cannot be the back, since this is curved forwards whereas this white object is straight; nor can it be the lamp covering which [in plate XX] is plainly much darker."
It seems to me absolutely certain that the "strange white vertical object" is the lamp-covering, with the bottom of Rudi's pyjama jacket appearing beneath it. From the position of the stereoscopic camera, which is shown in plate XX, it is clear that the lamp covering partly interposes between the stereoscopic camera and Rudi. The fact that it appears white in plate XIX and dark in plate XX is simply due to the fact that the stereoscopic camera which took plate XIX was close enough to the lamp covering to receive a good deal of reflected light from it. Even a black object can appear white under these circumstances—an effect well known to all photographers.
Mrs. Gregory has a further argument in connection with the strange white object of plate XIX. It is as follows (p. 529): "Now in Price's plate XVIII (my figure 19), which is supposed to be an enlargement of the left-hand stereogram of plate XIX (my figure 18), this important detail is completely different in shape from the 'same' detail in plate XIX (my figure 18). This something or other hiding a large part of Rudi shows every sign of having been painted in; and figure 19 is plainly not an enlargement of figure 18 (left side) as claimed by Price."
Once again I can only say that it seems to me absolutely certain that plate XVIII is a perfectly ordinary enlargement of the left-hand stereogram of plate XIX. The correspondences of detail are too numerous for it to be anything else. Plate XVIII differs, of course, from the left-hand stereogram of plate XIX in two respects. The high contrast of plate XIX has been toned down (which any competent photographic technician could do), and a larger area of the left half of the negative has been printed, which accounts for why more of the "strange white object" is visible at the right-hand edge of the picture (there is, however, no difference of shape as Mrs. Gregory suggests). Plate XVIII in fact represents half of a half-plate stereoscopic photograph, whereas plate XIX gives both halves of the same photograph, but each half has been trimmed at the edges and the whole reduced in size. That the two halves have been trimmed is not by itself a suspicious circumstance. It must be borne in mind that the two halves of the stereoscopic negatives from Price's camera (as from others) meet in the middle, and that in order to obtain prints with sharp white edges a mask with two windows would have been required. A mask for a stereoscopic picture, having as it were a bar down the middle, inevitably cuts out some of the right side of the left-hand stereogram and the left side of the right-hand stereogram. Of course a mask has similarly to be used to give a definite border to all photographic prints. Normally standard masks are used, but for stereoscopic work Price no doubt cut his own from thin card or opaque brown paper, and removed some peripheral areas of the pictures.
My own view is thus that there is no direct evidence worthy of the name that Price tampered with these photographs. Furthermore, so expert a photographer as he was would surely have been too well aware of the risk of detection to stick his neck out by attempting to produce three different fraudulent views of the same complex scene. Probably the easiest and certainly the safest way for him to have "framed" Rudi would have been to have manipulated the latter's hand when acting as "Controller" and to have released control at a moment when it seemed likely that the tendency of Rudi's clonic movements would be to jerk that hand into a compromising position. Price's own story was simply that he had unwittingly lost control of the hand for a moment because he was distracted by toothache. His face certainly looks strained in the pictures. Even at the time, however, some of Price's opponents clearly thought that he had released the hand on purpose—the pictures were from his point of view so timely. Whether or not he did act on purpose we shall never know. He undoubtedly carried the secret to the grave with him. That being so, I cannot help regretting that Mrs. Gregory has devoted to this ultimately irresolvable issue 100 pages of print which might have been used for the publication of other parts of her valuable study of Rudi Schneider's mediumship.
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