Harry Price was a British psychic researcher and author, who gained public prominence for his investigations into psychical phenomena and his exposing of fake Spiritualists.
Born: January 17, 1881, United Kingdom
Died: March 29, 1948, Pulborough, United Kingdom
Organizations: The Magic Circle, American Society for Psychical Research, The Ghost Club
If there was a single person to come out of the "golden age" of Spiritualism, and the investigations that surrounded the movement, with the most influence on the field of paranormal investigation as we know it today, that person was Harry Price. Although disliked and distrusted by many, there is no denying that he was one of the most influential figures in the formative years of ghost research. He was a highly charismatic personality whose energy and enthusiasm for the paranormal made him the first “celebrity ghost hunter”. Price was instrumental in bringing ghost research to the general public, realizing that only by making the research entertaining could he attract the attention of the many. Because of this, after his death in 1948, jealous “colleagues” would attack not only Price’s research, but also the man himself, staining his reputation for years to come.
Price was regarded as an embarrassment during his time and lingering effects from this still linger today. Despite more recent work supporting his claims and methods, many British researchers still regard Price as something of an enigma. Because of his flamboyant manner and continuous self-promotion, Price made a number of enemies within the psychical research field. Much of the resentment revolved around that fact that Price had no real scientific training but was still so skillful at what he did. Price was a deft magician and an expert at detecting fraud, so he was not taken in by many of the fraudulent mediums that plagued paranormal research of the time. His success was a slap in the face to what many considered the “established” psychical researchers.
Regardless, his work is considered groundbreaking for many today and his investigations at the house known as Borley Rectory became some of the first documented attempts to track down the ghosts of a single haunted location. I have never made it a secret that I have a great admiration for Harry Price and his work and continue to defy those who disregard him to show another investigator who has so shaped the methods that we continue to use today. If you are not familiar with his work, you should be and this section will reveal just how influential he remains.
It was during the golden age of Spiritualism that Price first emerged as an investigator of psychical activity. During this era, researchers were working in a volatile climate that was charged with accusations of fraud against many of the mediums — as well as some of the investigators. Price began to make a name for himself in the waning days of the Spiritualist movement —- and began to make many enemies as well.
THE BEGINNINGS OF A GHOST HUNTER
Harry Price was born in London in 1881, the son of a grocer and traveling salesman. His interest in the paranormal began in 1889 when he saw his first performance by a stage magician. From that point on, he became an amateur conjurer and began collecting what would become an immense library of books on magic.
His first psychical investigation took place when he was only 15 and still in school. He and a young friend obtained permission to spend the night in an old manor house that was rumored to be haunted. They experienced disembodied footsteps in the house and attempted to photograph the ghost, which failed when Price loaded far too much flash powder into his camera. The incident made for an amusing anecdote that Price often re-told later in life. However, it did guarantee his future interest in ghosts and strange phenomenon.
After graduating from school, Price worked at a number of jobs, including as a journalist. Then, in 1908, he met and married a wealthy heiress named Constance Mary Knight. He then settled down to become what all of us wishes we could be, an independently wealthy ghost hunter.
By the time that Price joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1920, he had already begun his career as Britain’s most famous ghost investigator. He had spent many hours at alleged haunted houses and in the investigation of Spiritualist mediums. He was also an expert magician and soon made a name for himself within the SPR for using his magic skills to debunk fraudulent psychics, then in keeping with what was the main thrust of the current SPR investigations.
One of Price’s first efforts exposed the work of spirit photographer William Hope (described in detail earlier in the book), who was making a fortune taking portraits of people that always seemed to include the sitter’s dead relatives. Price was sent to investigate and soon published his findings. He claimed that Hope used pre-exposed plates in his camera, which he learned by secretly switching the plates the photographer was using with plates of his own.
It was only chance that led Price into another aspect of his career. One afternoon, while taking the train from London to his country home near Pulborough, Price met a young woman named Stella Cranshaw. The two happened to strike up a conversation about psychic anomalies, during which Stella, who was a hospital nurse, told the investigator that she had been experiencing strange phenomena for years. She said that rapping noises, cold chills and household objects inexplicably taking flight had been bothering her for some time. Price, excited at the prospect of a new test subject, told her that he was a psychic investigator and asked if she would submit to being tested as a medium. Stella agreed and a series of séances were scheduled at the London Spiritualist Alliance. Stella was given a modest payment for her time since she was required to take off work in the afternoons to come to the sittings.
he first séance brought some surprises, namely that Stella, who had never considered herself a medium, had a spirit control who came through to the sitters. The spirit guide, “Palma”, communicated by rapping and would follow requests made to it, like moving a heavy oak table in various directions around the room. At the same séance, thermometers recorded rapid temperature drops. These swift changes would become a staple of Stella’s séances.
Price brought a number of devices into the séance room in an effort to study the phenomena scientifically. One of the regular sitters built a special double table with the inner portion of it being a wire cage where items that were to be manipulated could be placed. The first time that it was used, several musical instruments were placed inside and a rattle was somehow thrown out of the closed cage.
Price, being an amateur inventor, designed new equipment of his own to test the young woman’s abilities. One of them was the “telekinetoscope”, a clever device that used a telegraph key that when depressed would cause a red light to turn on. A glass dome then covered the key so that only psychic powers could operate it. During the séances, the red light occasionally turned on.
During the sittings, always conducted in front of witnesses, Stella managed to produce all sorts of strange, physical phenomena. During one séance, for example, she managed to levitate a table so high that the sitters had to rise out of their chairs to keep their hands upon it. Suddenly, three of the table legs broke away and the table itself folded and collapsed. Needless to say, this ended the sitting.
The first series of séances ran for 11 sittings and was finally stopped by Stella, who was exhausted by the weekly trials. She often grew very tired during the séances, her pulse would race and the sudden drops in temperature caused her to shake uncontrollably. She saw a doctor about her exhaustion and he recommended that she rest. Her exhaustion and her frequent absences from work caused her to lose her job at the hospital where she was employed.
Price also suffered because of the séances with Stella. He had a background in conjuring and had only recently entered into psychical research. His fellow magicians criticized him for taking Stella’s phenomena seriously. In addition, he was criticized from the other side of his research as well. The SPR was uncomfortable with Price’s affiliation with the London Spiritualist Alliance, feeling that it was too closely aligned with the Spiritualist community, even though an SPR officer had attended Stella’s sittings. They convinced Price that any further séances should be held at the SPR headquarters.
It was with some difficulty that Price was able to convince Stella to continue the experiments. She had found a secretarial job with a manufacturing company and was reluctant to jeopardize her new employment. Finally, she agreed to two more séances in late 1923. After this, she immediately ended her association with him. Their relationship, which had been warm, now turned chilly, for reasons that are not altogether clear. Stella publicly pleaded fatigue but different reasons are suggested in a letter that she wrote to him in 1926. By this time, whatever had occurred was forgotten and Stella began working with Price again after an absence of three years. In her letter, she apologized and stated that she had “badly misjudged” him in 1923.
The 1926 sittings were held at Price’s National Laboratory for Psychical Research, which was then newly established at the London Spiritualist Alliance. Stella’s phenomena was similar to what it had been, although weaker than it been a few years before. She offered 14 séances before bringing things to an end in August. She returned to work with Price again in 1927, so that he could study the anomalous temperature drops and participated in a series of 9 final sittings with him in 1928, shortly before she was married.
Stella married Leslie Deacon in August 1928 and she brought her short career as a medium to an end. She never worked professionally and all of her sittings were conducted with Harry Price. What became of her later in life is unknown but she is believed to have lived into her 60’s, spending the remainder of her life in London.
In the end, Stella’s career as a medium turned out to be short-lived but the careful research earned her great respect in psychical circles. Harry Price’s handling of the investigation earned him prestige and respectability, as well.
After the end of the sessions with Stella, Price began searching for further mediums to investigate. He traveled to Munich for a series of sittings with Willi Schneider at the laboratory of Baron Albert von Schreck-Notzing, a flamboyant investigator. Price was so impressed with what he saw during the séances, that he invited Willi to his own laboratories in 1929. He was also impressed with the publicity-seeking methods of von Schreck-Notzing too and decided to emulate him in his own career.
Soon, Price began testing additional mediums and set about trying to measure some aspects of the séances in a scientific manner. He managed to record strange temperature drops and other phenomena that finally convinced him of the reality of the paranormal. From this point on, he devoted more of his time to pursuing genuine phenomena rather than debunking mediums, which did not sit well with the SPR.
The relationship between Price and the society had always been strained so Price formed the National Laboratory for Psychical Research in 1923. It would take three additional years for the laboratory to get up and running and would be located in the London Spiritualist Alliance. This was the final straw for the SPR and in 1927, they returned Price’s donation of a massive book collection. To make matters worse, after Price’s death, it would be three members of the SPR who would attempt to discredit him.
Most of the members of the SPR treated Price with something verging on contempt. In those days, the main officers of the society were made up of the British upper class and most were related to one another by marriage. Price was most definitely not of their class and breeding, as his father was salesman for a paper manufacturer, and this in itself seemed to make his research suspect in many of their eyes. He was simply, in the words of one of the members of the society’s governing council, “not a gentleman.” He was also looked down upon for the fact that he was not as well educated as other members and had no formal scientific training. He remained a member of the organization until his death in 1948 but he was not always a welcomed one.
In 1926, Price came across the case of a Romanian peasant girl named Eleonora Zugan, who was apparently experiencing violent poltergeist phenomena, including flying objects, slapping, biting and pinching. The girl had been rescued from an insane asylum by a psychic investigator that Price had met in Vienna. Price returned to London, with the girl, and began a series of laboratory tests that were only partially successful.
Testimony and reports from the testing claimed that “stigmata” appeared on the girl’s body under conditions that precluded the possibility of the girl producing them by natural means. It was also stated that she was able to move objects with her mind, although no cause could be discovered for her abilities outside of the fact that she had been severely abused as a young child. Eleonora’s abilities ceased abruptly at the age of 14 when she entered puberty.
In 1929, Rudi Schneider, whose abilities were said to surpass those of his brother, traveled to England to be tested by Price. The investigator was still adding new scientific technology to his array of gadgets and one device wired the hands and feet of Rudi, and everyone else seated around the séance table, to a display board. A light would signal if anyone moved enough to break the electrical circuit.
Despite these controls, Rudi was said to have produced an array of effects, including ectoplasmic masses, rappings and table levitations. Lord Charles Hope, a leading SPR investigator, was astounded, as was Price himself. At the end of the sessions, Price declared that the phenomena produced by Rudi was “absolutely genuine” and “not the slightest suspicious action was witnessed by any controller or sitter.”
In the spring of 1932, Price began testing Rudi again. In these sessions, he planned to photograph Rudi’s manifestations as further evidence of his psychic abilities. Although Price obtained some favorable results, the sittings were not as successful as before for Rudi’s talents seemed to have diminished. In the fall, Lord Charles Hope conducted more tests of the young man and while he too noticed a decline in his abilities, still maintained that his powers were genuine.
And then, even as Hope was preparing his report, Price rocked the paranormal community with the announcement that Rudi was a fraud. As evidence, he produced a photograph that was taken during a séance and which showed Rudi reaching for a table. The grainy image managed to destroy Rudi’s reputation and embarrassed the investigators who had declared him to be genuine, including Harry Price. Those who claimed that Price was simply a publicity-seeking fraud were hard-pressed to explain why he would have damaged his own reputation in this way.
By the time of Rudi Schneider’s downfall, the appearance of credible new mediums had all but ceased. Soon, Price had turned his attention from investigating mediums and psychics to investigating haunted houses and bizarre phenomena.
But not all of Price’s cases (or publicity-seeking antics, as some would call them) were as successful. One trip took him to Germany where he went to test a spell that would convert a mountain goat into a man. Needless to say, the spell failed and Price was the subject of much ridicule.
Another of Price’s strangest (although possibly genuine) cases was that of Gef, the Talking Mongoose of Cashen’s Gap, and yes, if you are not familiar with the case, you did read that right — a talking animal! The case began in 1931 with a disembodied voice claiming to be that of a mongoose, a weasel-like creature. It began at an isolated place on the Isle of Man and according to the Irving family, who lived at Cashen’s Gap, this creature ate rabbits, spoke in various languages, imitated other animals and even recited nursery rhymes.
Price personally investigated the case in the company of R.S. Lambert, then editor of a popular radio show called The Listener, but the animal refused to manifest until after they had left.
The case may have been related to poltergeist phenomena, as Voirey Irving, the 13-year old daughter in the family, was closely associated with the manifestations of the talking mongoose. Price failed to detect any evidence of fraud.
Lambert, who investigated other supernatural cases with Price, almost lost his job over the Cashen’s Gap affair. The publicity around the case caught the attention of his employers at the BBC and one of his supervisors concluded that Lambert’s interest in the supernatural reflected poorly on the broadcaster’s competence. Lambert sued him for defamation of character and kept his job.
The Cashen’s Gap case was also investigated by Nandor Fodor, a pioneer in the field of poltergeist phenomenon related to human subjects, who interviewed a number of witnesses to the phenomena, many of them hostile to the haunting, but couldn’t shake any of the testimony to say that it was not real. Fodor did not accept the explanation of a poltergeist and half-seriously suggested that it might have actually been a mongoose that learned to talk. Many years later, after the affair had died down, a strange and unidentified animal was killed in the area. Some suggested that it might have been Gef.
During this period, Price also made some serious contributions, although they were not as widely publicized. In 1933, he persuaded the University of London to open a library and set up a University Council for Psychical Investigation. The library still exists today at the university and consists mainly of Price’s enormous occult collection.
The year 1929 marked a turning point in Price’s career, although the case would not be made public for several years yet. In was in that year that he became involved in a case which would take over his life and for which he would become most famous. The case involved a deteriorating Essex house called Borley Rectory. It would be during Price’s investigations of Borley Rectory that he would become the best known and most accomplished of the early ghost hunters, setting the standard for those who would follow. He carefully documented both his findings and methods and established a blueprint for paranormal investigations.
Many of Price’s accounts from Borley would be first-hand, as he claimed to see and hear much of the reported phenomena like hearing bells ring, rapping noises and seeing objects that has been moved from one place to another. In addition, he also collected accounts from scores of witnesses and previous tenants of the house, even talking to neighbors and local people who had their own experiences with the rectory.
Price even leased the house for an extended one-year investigation that was supposed to run around the clock. He ran an advertisement looking for open-minded researchers to literally “camp out” at the rectory and record any phenomena that took place in their presence. After choosing more than 40 people, he then printed the first-ever handbook on how to conduct a paranormal investigation. A copy was given to each investigator and it explained what to do when investigating the house, along with what equipment they would need.
Price turned the Borley investigations into two books entitled The Most Haunted House in England (1940) and The End of Borley Rectory (1946). Both books became very popular and entrenched Price solidly as the organizer of well-run paranormal investigations.
Despite what his detractors would claim, the books would set the standard for future investigations and would mark the first time that detailed accounts of paranormal research had been exposed to the general public. While his critics saw this only as further grand-standing, future investigators were able to use the books when researching their own cases.
Regardless of what some may think of his methods and research, Harry Price must be remembered today as a pioneer in paranormal research. He is the one person who so many of modern researchers (even unknowingly) emulate today with their investigations. Price managed to give ghost research a place in the public eye and opened it up to those who don’t fit into the categories of professional scientists, hardheaded skeptics, nor fall into the realm of gullible “true believer”. If for no other reason that this, we owe him a debt of gratitude.
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