Harry Price – Famous English Ghost Hunter

Harry Price photographed by William Hope
Harry Price photographed by William Hope | Source

Today we are familiar with TV shows like ‘Ghost Hunters’, ‘Ghost Adventures’ and ‘Most Haunted’, where haunted locations are investigated by a skilled team with cameras, sound recorders, EMF meters and a host of other hi-tech gizmos.

But long before all the modern technology and paraphernalia of ghost hunting became available, pioneers in the field of parapsychology were investigating hauntings and psychic phenomena.

One of the most famous of these early paranormal investigators was Harry Price, who made it his life’s mission to find evidence to prove there was life after death and that poltergeist and other psychic occurrences were real.

He investigated many of the most famous hauntings in Britain during the early part of the 20th century and was also relentless in his quest to expose any fakery such as fraudulent mediums and psychics.

Born in 1881 in Victorian London, he grew up with an interest in archaeology, magic and conjuring. He spent a lot of time in his youth perfecting his conjuring skills and working out magic tricks, and these skills would stand him in good stead in his later career, as he knew what sleight of hand and other mechanisms mediums could use to produce fake phenomena during a séance.

He was such a good conjuror that he was accepted as a member of the Magic Circle in the UK and elected to the Society of American Magicians.

His career as a ghost hunter took off when he joined the Society for Psychical in 1920 and by 1926 he had formed his own organisation the National Laboratory of Psychical Research.

He put together and refined his own guidelines for investigating an alleged haunting or for debunking a séance and invented some early ghost hunting equipment.

It is important to note that Harry Price, although he abhorred the tricks used by some of the charlatans who claimed to be in contact with the spirit world in order to make money from people’s grief and would ruthlessly expose them where he could, was a genuine believer.

He did think that some spiritual mediums were honest in their claims and that their messages were really from the world of spirit and that some of the ghosts he researched were also real.

He became a member of the acclaimed Ghost Club in 1927, although dwindling attendance led it to being closed down in 1936.

However, he successfully reopened it again some eighteen months later as a dining club where prominent experts in the field would give after dinner talks. Women were also allowed to join the Ghost Club for the first time.

Harry Price built up a huge library of books, documents and case files relating to his career and the occult during his lifetime, which he bequeathed to the University of London.

He was also the author of over twenty books many of which, including ‘The Most Haunted House in England’ (1940), Poltergeist Over England (1945) and ‘The End of Borley Rectory’ (1946), are still consulted and regarded as classics today.

Harry Price conducted his paranormal investigations for over thirty years, so what were some of his better known cases?

Joanna Southcott’s Box - 1927

This mysterious box was said to contain a series of prophecies by the mystic Joanna Southcott that was only to be opened at a time of great national peril in the presence of all the bishops of the Church of England, of which there were twenty four at the time.

Calls were made to open the box during the Crimean War and then the Great War, but it was not investigated until 1927 when it came into the hands of Harry Price and the National Laboratory of Psychical Research.

Some say the box was x-rayed and some say it was opened, but apparently all the researchers found in it was a pistol, a lottery ticket from the 19th century, a night cap, some books, a purse and a dice box.

Rumours abounded that his was not the real box and that Harry Price was using a fake to gain more public awareness of his newly formed National Laboratory of Psychical Research and to discredit the legacy of Joanna Southcott.

The prophetess, who was born in 1750, had written several volumes of divine revelations and had also announced at the unlikely age of 64 she was due to give birth to a new saviour for the world called Shiloh, who was to be one in the same as the messiah described in the book of Genesis.

The said messiah, perhaps unsurprisingly, failed to appear as promised and Joanna Southcott died shortly afterwards, bequeathing her enigmatic box to posterity.

Helen Duncan producing fake ectoplasm
Helen Duncan producing fake ectoplasm | Source

The Medium Helen Duncan - 1931

Helen Duncan was perhaps the most popular medium working in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. Her séances were famous and she was renowned for producing physical phenomena such as ectoplasm and apports.

Harry Price was convinced she was faking these phenomena and apports, believing she was swallowing cheesecloth before the séance started and regurgitating it in the darkened room so it looked like genuine ectoplasm.

Accordingly, he arranged for the National Laboratory of Psychical Research to invite Helen Duncan to undergo some tests and experiments in 1931 for which they would pay her the sum of fifty pounds, which was a lot of money in those days. Unfortunately for the famous medium these tests did not go well for her. She was very unhappy at the prospect of being x-rayed before a séance to be held under test conditions, so became hysterical and ran out screaming into the street. Price was convinced she had passed over the incriminating cheesecloth to her husband as he tried to calm her down. On other test occasions, the ectoplasm when it was analysed proved to be egg white and also paper saturated with egg white.

Now totally convinced she was a fraud, Harry Price went on to testify against her at her infamous court case in 1944 where she was on trial for witchcraft after bringing through the spirit of a sailor who claimed to have drowned on the HMS Barham after it was sunk. As the sinking of the Barham had not yet been released to the public, this revelation drew the attention of the authorities and she was arrested. She was sent to prison for nine months.

The Brocken Experiment
The Brocken Experiment | Source

The Brocken Experiment – 1932

One of Harry Price’s more bizarre studies was The Brocken Experiment which he undertook in 1932, where he performed black magic rituals designed to transform an ordinary goat into a handsome young man. He travelled to the Harz Mountains in Germany with some of his colleagues and using a magical formula from a 15th century German ‘Black Book’ performed a ceremony known as the ‘Bloksberg Tryst’, Bloksberg being the archaic name for Brocken. It involved a beautiful young maiden and a male goat that had never been mated, with the young girl leading the goat on a silken cord through some magical symbols, incantations, incense and required the moon to be riding high in the night sky.

There was a rehearsal on the evening of June 17th which did not go perfectly, although there was a huge cadre of journalists and photographers present to record the event. The following night the main event took place, although the moon very disobligingly failed to rise in the sky. Despite a lavish dinner party and a lot of pageantry however, the goat did not undergo any magical transformation during the ritual and did not change into a beautiful male youth!

The Infamous Borley Rectory
The Infamous Borley Rectory | Source

Borley Rectory

However, Harry Price’s most famous investigation is surely that of Borley Rectory, allegedly ‘the most haunted house in England’. His interest in Borley Rectory was to span many years, spawn two successful books and bring him both fame and claims of fakery, which would tarnish his reputation in his later years and after his death.

He first visited the property, a house built in 1862 to accommodate the growing family of the incumbent minister the Reverend Henry Bull, in 1929. There was a local legend from medieval times of a nun in a nearby convent who engaged in an illicit affair with a monk from a monastery that was thought to have once been situated close to where the new rectory was built.

The affair was discovered and as punishment the monk was killed and the nun walled in alive in the convent and left to starve to death. Although no historical evidence of the legend being true ever surfaced, there was soon talk of a ghostly nun walking the rooms of Borley rectory during the hours of darkness. There were also reports of unexplained footsteps, other noises and the apparition of a coach driven by headless coachmen was sighted.

When Reverend Bull died in 1928, the living was taken over by Reverend Eric Smith and one day while his wife was doing some spring cleaning, she discovered a woman’s skull wrapped in brown paper in one of the cupboards. After this grisly discovery, Borley Rectory regularly became subjected to poltergeist activity, such as the servant’s bells ringing of their own accord, more phantom footsteps and unexplained lights appearing in windows.

The distressed family contacted a national newspaper, who arranged for Harry Price to investigate in June of 1929. During his time at the house, new phenomena were reported such as messages from spirit being tapped out and stones being thrown. As this strange activity ceased immediately after Price left, there were already some mutterings he was producing these effects himself.

In 1930 a new vicar, Reverend Lionel Foyster moved in with his family and the poltergeist activity started up again, with Reverend Foyster keeping written records of the incidents as they occurred. Much of this seemed to centre on their young adopted daughter Adelaide, who was mysteriously locked in her room, dragged out of her bed and attacked by some unseen entity. The written reports were sent to Price and after the Foyster’s quit the rectory in 1935, he took up a tenancy on the haunted building for a year in order to undertake further investigations. He got together a group of people who stayed at Borley Rectory at the weekends to observe and record any paranormal occurrences that took place.

Borley Rectory was destroyed by fire in 1939 after the new owner knocked over an oil lamp and the house burst into flames. It was subsequently demolished, but strange happenings have since been reported in the grounds and nearby churchyard. The spectral nun was seen once more in one of the shattered windows before the house was knocked down and the Mr Price himself, while excavating in the ruined cellars in 1943, unearthed a couple of bones he claimed were from a woman’s skeleton.

Harry Price died of a heart attack in 1948 and shortly afterwards some of his colleagues from the Society for Psychical Research published a book called ‘The Haunting of Borley Rectory’ where they stated that at least some of the supposedly paranormal events had been staged by Harry Price himself and yet more were the result of natural causes. The nail in the coffin of the authenticity of Borley Rectory’s hauntings was driven in when Marianne Foyster, the Reverend Lionel’s wife, confessed she had made up many of the reports of ghosts and had enjoyed playing pranks on her husband to scare him and get him to believe.

So did Harry Price fake paranormal activity and spirit communication for his own ends? Perhaps, for the publicity? Several of even his longest standing colleagues thought so and he certainly had the conjuring skills and showmanship to pull it off. But whether he did or didn’t produce some of the psychic experiences himself, there is no doubting that he added greatly to our knowledge of British hauntings, séances, and the paranormal. He put together the first protocols for undertaking a ghost hunt under scientific conditions and founded and nurtured societies and organisations which are still investigating ghosts and the occult today.

Sources:

Harry Price Collection:

http://senatehouselibrary.ac.uk/our-collections/historic-collections/printed-special-collections/hpl/

Harry Price - Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Price

Borley Rectory - Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borley_Rectory

Harry Price Website - http://www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk

© 2014 CMHypno

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Comments 24 comments

Enelle Lamb profile image

Enelle Lamb 12 months ago from Canada's 'California'

Again, another very interesting article. I think it will take me quite a while to catch up on your hubs!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 14 months ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for the read and comment FatBoy Thin. If you fancy a spot of ghost hunting there are many groups and organisations now that take groups around supposedly haunted locations, so check out what is going on in your local area


FatBoyThin profile image

FatBoyThin 15 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

I really like the idea of 'hunting' ghosts! I'd heard of Harry Price and the Borely Rectory, but didn't know much else about him. Very interesting story. Great Hub, voted up.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 19 months ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks fro reading and commenting on the hub yohewriter. I used to watch a programme called Ghost Hunter that researched paranormal events and hauntings across the UK which pre-dated the now much more famous US Ghost Hunter by quite a lot of years, is this the one you mean?


yohewriter profile image

yohewriter 19 months ago from St. Louis

Nice work covering the life of Harry Price and thanks for introducing me to Helen Duncan. As a paranormal writer and researcher I have recently taken up an interest in the events at the Borley Rectory. Have you heard of the book and follow up TV series by Neil Spring entitled "Ghost Hunter"? It is based on the events in your article.

Thank you for sharing this well-written hub! Voted up!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Yes there were Mel. Because Helen Duncan had said the HMS Barham had sunk before it was officially announced (and they could take months to let relatives know for security reasons) the authorities thought she was a spy. But because they couldn't try her for this, they dug up the old witchcraft laws and sent her to prison so she couldn't have the chance to reveal any further military or naval secrets they felt might harm the war effort. Thanks for reading and leaving such a great comment.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

Were there really still witchcraft trials in 1944? As usual this was a brilliantly written piece and captivated me from start to finish. I had never heard of this fellow, so thanks for adding this bit of knowledge to my arsenal. Great hub!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad you found the hub interesting seanorjohn. I think one of the problems is that the public tend only to be interested in dramatic paranormal activity, so although a psychic researcher is interested in all phenomena maybe he felt the need on occasions to put a bit more of a show to gain attention


seanorjohn profile image

seanorjohn 2 years ago

Very interesting account. I guess he was truly interested in psychic phenomena but the temptation to be deceptive and make money sometimes proved too appealing. Voted up


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad you enjoyed reading about Harry Price ris8994 and thanks for the vote up and leaving a great comment


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Cheers Nell, thanks for the read and the vote up. For some reason we always expect our heroes the be whiter than white and when we find out they have human flaws or have done a few dodgy things we chuck all their achievements and good deeds out with the bathwater. Yes Harry Price may have pulled a few fast ones but he also did a lot of ground breaking work


rls8994 profile image

rls8994 2 years ago from Mississippi

This was so interesting to read. I had never heard of him before. You did a great job telling about this man and his life. Great hub! Voted up! :)


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

Hi Cynthia, yes I am sure he did put on a few tricks occasionally, but as you say he is the father of how we do it today, fascinating read! voted up and shared, nell


Angela Jeter 2 years ago

Thanks CMHypno!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for reading the hub Alicia. I also only knew a little about Harry Price before I did more research. Some people really do have fascinating lives and even if he did pull a few fast ones in his time, he was also passionate about his work and did a lot to push paranormal investigation forward


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad you have found a path forward Angela and I will look forward to interviewing you in the future for an exclusive hub on your work and accomplishments


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Just the thought of swallowing all that cheesecloth makes me feel sick. Looking at the photos now, it seems hard to see how credulous some people were. But that's the power of grief and loss and anyone who sets out to deliberately cash in on people's pain like that deserves to be exposed for what they are. Thanks for reading the hub and leaving a comment.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is an interesting and informative hub, Cynthia. I've heard of Harry Price before, but I didn't know much about him until I read your hub. Thanks for sharing all the great details.


Angela Jeter 2 years ago

Thanks CMHypno:) Did and done:) Love! Hope one day you will write about me! Future Ghost Talker, legit tho xo


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

The woman who is believed to have swallowed cheesecloth in order to fake a spirit -- over the top! What people won't do for fame, money or just a little bit of attention. This was excellent and very entertaining!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad you enjoyed the hub bac2basics. I also believe in ghosts and the spirit world and it's a shame there are so many tricksters and charlatans out there. From what I've read I think Helen Duncan was a good medium, but I suppose once the pressure to perform is on and there is money to be made it is too easy to start faking phenomena. Same with Harry Price - the temptation to embellish cases sometimes must have been great


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for the read and leaving a great comment Angela. If you are interested in ghost hunting and psychical research why not look and see if there is a group locally to you?


bac2basics 2 years ago

I really enjoyed reading this, what a cracking hub CM. It surprised me to read that a trial for witchcraft was held as late as 1944. I think old Harry may have done a bit of trickery to enhance his finds, but he probably did also discover some psychic goings on too. As you know I do believe in ghosts and the spirit world so no need to convince me of their presence I have experienced it first hand and have hubs about my own experiences. This is such a cracking read I have voted up and am now going to share it.


Angela Jeter 2 years ago

Great editorial. I skimmed through it, but the facts and research is excellent. I would love to be a ghost talker. Wouldn't even have known about this person, if it wasn't for you!

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