Harry Price: Author, Bibliophile, Spiritualist, Conjurer, and most famously the author of the two books that made Borley Rectory’s name well-known, too often operated in the grey area between spin and fraud. In an extraordinary career, he often overstepped the mark into deceit: He was, however, at his best as a Grand Conjuror, and Borley Rectory was his greatest illusion. To argue that there really were spirits, ghosts or poltergeists is as absurd as arguing that the lady really is sawn in half on stage. Harry Price, like the best conjurers such as Davenport, Meskeleyn, or Houdini performed their tricks deadpan, spouting ‘spin’ or ‘mumbo-jumbo’, and telling half-truths merely to distract the audience.
Harry Price had enormous energy and enthusiasm. For part of the week, he was a travelling Salesman, a sales rep., for a paper-bag manufacturer, without academic qualifications. For the rest of the week, he was a gentleman of private means, a scientific expert psychic researcher. The public, fantastic, image of Harry Price, which took as its inspiration his hero, Sherlock Holmes, is the one that many people desperately wanted to believe in. He even became the inspiration for some of Dennis Wheatley's later 'Occult' novels.
Harry Price was driven by two passions, a yearning for academic respectability, and the esteem of his peers. He always gave a first impression of an extremely likeable and clubbable man, and when the subsequent showed his more devious and ruthless side, it took others off-guard. He was always a salesman. It was something he had learned from his father and added to over his forty years representing a firm that sold greaseproof paper. His self-esteem was extremely brittle, and he was renowned as an abrasive, hostile and vindictive man when he considered that he had been crossed. He was suspicious and quick-tempered. By the end of his life he had few friends, and his most loyal acolytes had hardly met him, and were familiar only with the public persona
Spiritualism wasn't his first choice as a medium in which to achieve fame. He had tried previously tried Archaeology. Price had been fascinated by old coins from his schooldays. He copied out sections on Shropshire and Kent from the standard work on Trade Tokens’ written by George C Williamson, and published the results under his own name. Bizarrely, the secretary of the Ripon Naturalists Club read the article and invited him to become their Curator of Numismatics. The Club met in the evenings in rooms leant to them by the Ripon Museum, and price accepted the appointment, but calling himself the ‘Hon Curator of Numismatics, Ripon Museum. So, passing himself off as an expert on coins, with a bogus qualification, and a published article plagiarised from a textbook, he bought a collection of Roman and Anglo-Saxon coins from a local farm worker called Mickelthwaite in Pulborough, soon after he moved there in 1909. This coin collection had apparently been the fruit of a lifetime’s amateur archaeology in the area and Arundel. He then passed these off as his own and gave lectures on them. He supplemented these coins with another collection of gold coins bought from dealers, and wove a fantastic tale of how he had found them over the course of several years diligent archaeology. As these went down so well, he then obtained some clumsy forgeries of spectacular finds, such as silver ingots and bronze figures and passed these off as his own archaeological finds. All this went down well in the local papers and his fame spread. He was soon heralded as the ”Well-known Sussex Archaeologist”
In his lectures, and subsequently in his autobiography, he claimed, falsely, to have helped with the excavation of a Roman Villa at Greenwich Park in 1902. ‘Excavating Roman Villas is one of the most exciting jobs imaginable’. The truth is more prosaic: he had reviewed A.D.Webster’s book of the excavation in his School magazine in 1902. He went on to claim that he had supervised the archaeological work at Borough, 2 ½ miles from his home in Pulborough. He hadn’t.; and the Royal Society of Antiquaries had to issue a denial. He also claimed to have been engaged, since 1903, on a major work ’The Numismatistic History of Sussex’.
After Price was exposed publicly in the local newspapers in 1910, by the President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, one hears no more of Harry Price the ”Well-known Sussex Archaeologist” . This left him with certain difficulties, and a redundant coin collection. In 1923, he leant the coins to the church for an exhibition. The church was, at the time, in an almost ruinous state, the coins were left in the empty unlocked church and were uninsured. Inevitably, there was a theft, though there is some confusion as to what was taken. Harry Price announced, as a direct consequence, the end to his work as a Numismatist (coin expert) and the abandonment on his ‘Great work ’The Numismatistic History of Sussex’. No trace of this work has ever surfaced, despite Price’s claims that it was ‘Nearly completed’, and ‘all the plates had been engraved’. However, for Price, it brought down the curtain on ‘Harry Price the Archaeologist’, just as ‘Harry Price, psychic Investigator’ was taking off well in the public eye.
There was a time, just within living memory, when countless people were gripped by Spiritualism. It was comforting to think, especially after the millions of deaths of the First World War, that the dead walked in a new place and could come back to earth to see loved ones for a quick chat, hug and a squeeze.
In the early 1920s, mediums that claimed they were able to photograph auras, apparitions, séances, levitations and the spirits of the dead were in great demand, helped in part by the fanatical advocacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Although many of the believed the photographs to be fakes, it was hard getting evidence to prove it since the photographers were reluctant to sit for psychical scientists. Then one man exposed the movement for what it was.
Harry Price, was, at that time, a 41-year old amateur photographer, paper bag salesman, freelance journalist, former Spiritualist and conjurer, who had successfully won membership to the Magic Circle, that exclusive body of magicians.
In early 1922, together with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) Price used his Spiritualist contacts (blithely unaware of what he was up to) to lure the spirit photographer William ‘Billy’ Hope into a carefully crafted sting. Through this he was able to show the world that Hope’s ‘celestial’ photographs were nothing more than pictures ripped from long forgotten periodicals, or family albums, and pasted onto photographic plates before a photograph was taken in the normal way.
It was enough to give him the status of a minor celebrity. A position he had enjoyed some years earlier after a short journey into archaeology ended when experts, amazed at his luck in discovering rare artefacts, found he had forged a Roman silver ingot which on closer inspection turned out to be a crude slab of lead.
Following the Hope success, he was invited to accompany the SPR research officer Eric ‘Dirty Ding’ Dingwall to witness the astonishing feats of an Austrian medium named Willi Schneider, who claimed to have the gift of communicating with the spirit world via his guide Lola, the former mistress of Ludvig the First, the blind king of Bavaria.
When Willi produced such remarkable phenomena as invisible hands playing an accordion, discarnate lungs puffing chilly breath through witnesses’ hair and a crawling disembodied hand, Price set himself the task of establishing a laboratory in Britain that would test mediums and supply the world with unknown facts about the paranormal.
He got off to a remarkable start by being told about a 21-year untried medium called Stella Cranshaw, a tractable young nurse who claimed to possess supernatural powers. In a series of exhaustive experiments with Price, she was reported to be able to summon a violent force that broke tables, chairs levitated, and mysterious objects were seen to crawl along the floor of séance rooms: and through her the dead prophesised the future. The séances with Stella were reported as a world first, but other psychical investigators, notably those from the Society for Psychical Research distrusted Price’s experiments and as a result he found himself marginalized, a situation he responded to with calculated insults, attributing the Society’s attacks on his character to sectarian jealously.
After falling foul of the SPR, Harry had several attempts at trying to prise money from leading spiritualist organisations with a view to establishing his own psychical organisation.
In 1925, he managed to form the National Laboratory of Psychical Research (NLPR) a project backed by the London Spiritualist Alliance.
With his celebrity rising, he made friendships with well-known magicians, scientists and show people including Harry Houdini, a relationship that petered out a few years later after accusations of fraud.
But that did not matter. At the NLPR, Price had the ear of eminent men of letters and since he regarded life after death as now proven, he became a friend of Conan Doyle. He was also investigating areas of the occult others had only dreamt of doing.
This included attempting to contact the planet Mars, a fascination that had begun with the late Victorians after the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli had claimed to see canals on the planet through his telescope, a claim supported by Camille Flammarion.
At first Price used clairvoyants who claimed a familiarity with the solar system and stars, then he used an odd invention made by a City of London solicitor to try to contact Martian savages. When this proved inconclusive he travelled to the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland where he considered making an attempt to contact the Red Planet using a huge beam of light but the project was abandoned on account of the cost.
Each experiment at the NLPR was too preposterous, too remarkable for any sensible person to ignore. Every strange incident or miserable plaything of the dead was publicised to keep pace with the public’s appetite, which Price had whetted.
He was rapidly becoming the natural leader for a nation in thrall of what happened to the soul after death. No newspaper report or broadcast on a haunted house was complete without Harry’s thoughts about the matter. He had a status and reputation that no ghost hunter of today can hope to share.
He claimed that his findings were bolstered through his training as a scientist and engineer but in reality, the man who had left school at 15, was an academic failure. His scientific methods were nothing more than an act using scientific apparatus and the trappings of a chemical laboratory merely to convince people that he was a scientist.
He thought instinctively and impulsively and instead of trying to disprove his theories, he sought only to prove them. At one stage in his career, he believed he had discovered the very substance that ghosts were made of and thought it might be possible to recreate them from a piece of regurgitated cheesecloth, iron filings and albumen.
He sought out a talking mongoose on the Isle of Man called Gef who it was said spoke several languages, could recite poetry, travelled around the island on a bus to bring back gossip and was partial to cream buns.
Price also set out to prove the uselessness of transcendental magic by showing how turning a goat into a handsome man on top of the Harz mountains in Germany was bound to fail. It did, but he got to smear the chest of an attractive girl with a sticky black substance, which he claimed was an alchemical ointment though The Times described it as ‘looking and smelling exactly like boot polish.’ The event did bring him an appreciative audience largely made up of prominent Nazi’s.
Impatient for academic and financial success, which had eluded him in Britain, Price was wooed by the Third Reich to establish an institute for psychical research, a project Hitler took great personal interest in. It was an idea he had promised Erik Jan Hanussen, his personal seer, before he had him murdered.
When war looked inevitable, and warned off by MI5, the idea was dropped. Following the failed airlift of his laboratory to Bonn, Price’s offices in London were closed, the contents crated up and transferred to the University of London after his friend the philosopher Cyril Joad had successfully negotiated their safe berth.
Now on his own, Price, still selling paper bags began to invent phenomena to supplement his earnings. Perhaps the best example of this is the haunting of Borley Rectory in Essex. It was a period when he would do anything for cash.
Since his death two biographies have been published. Paul Tabori his literary executor paved the way with his Biography of a Ghost Hunter, a book written under strict terms of engagement with Harry’s widow so anything that deviated from her husband’s carefully crafted autobiography was snuffed out and replaced with tall ‘facts.’
In 1978, Trevor H Hall, a successful businessman and author on the esoteric, published a revised version of Harry’s life, Search for Harry Price. Though he discovered a lot Price had written was invented, Hall just skimmed the surface of who the real Harry Price was partly due to the sheer quantity of documents his subject had bequeathed to the University of London. Fifty-seven years after Price’s death, in 2005, his vast archive was at last catalogued into two hefty bound indexes, each 6in thick, a project undertaken by Lesley Price (no relation) and Stefan Dicker at the university’s Special Collections Unit.