Harry Price – Famous English Ghost Hunter
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.
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 – 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!
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.
Harry Price Collection:
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
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