Harry Price – Paranormal Pioneer by Paul Adams
Without a doubt Harry Price is a seminal figure in the field of modern day ghost hunting. Paranormal investigators of today, even though they may know little about Price himself are following the procedures that he used to bring the scientific study of psychical research firmly into the public eye over fifty years ago.
However, several of his cases – the most famous and long lasting of which is the haunting of Borley Rectory – have been the subject of much critical study in the years since his death, as has Price’s own personal reputation. Controversial amongst his colleagues in the field of psychical research during his lifetime, this critical attention continues to this day and as an individual he continues to arouse interest and comment. Recent studies have uncovered much about Price the man that will of course be used by his critics to dismiss his work and the achievements obtained during his lifetime, but although as a person he was indeed a shrewd, complicated and at times calculating individual, his writings and adventures provide a legacy that continues to inspire to this day.
Harry Price was born in Holborn in London on 17 January 1881. His father was a traveling salesman for a firm of paper manufacturers and after trying his hand at several diverse types of work Harry entered this line of employment himself, becoming a salesman for the same company as his father. Despite being famous as a ghost-hunter Price never actually gave up his day job and worked in the paper industry all his life. Evening classes at Goldsmiths College where Price studied amongst other things photography and engineering gave him practical skills that he later used to his advantage.
In 1908 Price married Constance Mary Knight and the couple set up their home in the village of Pulborough, West Sussex. The Knights were a somewhat affluent family and Constance had the benefit of a small trust fund that supplemented Price’s income, enabling him to establish what would become the greatest occult library in the world. Price became interested in magic at the age of eight, developing into a competent amateur conjuror and these skills gave him an insight into the workings of the many mediums that he became interested in before and especially after the Great War ended.
Fake psychics and mediums abounded during the 1914-1918 conflict, feeding off the slaughter in the trenches. Price knew many of their tricks and became exceptionally scathing towards Spiritualism, which he described in his writings as being riddled with fraud. He came to the firm decision that when he was able he would establish a scientific facility where mediums and psychics who claimed supernormal powers could be tested to prove their claims. At this time, the dawn of the 1920s, the phenomena of the séance room was the area where paranormal study was most heavily focused.
Price’s uneasy relationship with organized British psychical research began when he was elected a member of the English Society for Psychical Research in June 1920 to whom he gave the benefit on loan of his by then vast library of occult literature. Price came onto the paranormal scene when he was nearly forty and was looking to make his mark in a career in which he was passionately interested. As a person he had a great desire to be famous and felt he had a lot to contribute to the subject. Eventually he made up his own mind that he would reorganize psychical research in Britain on his own terms and used his contacts in the SPR to gain experience of the scientific study of the paranormal before putting his plans into action.
Price encountered much fraud during his early years including ‘spirit’ photographer William Hope whom he exposed in February 1922, but after attending séances with the young Austrian medium Willi Schneider in Munich he was convinced that genuine paranormal phenomena did exist. In the following year he met a young English nurse named Stella Cranshaw who claimed to have had strange experiences including poltergeist phenomena. Price organized a series of sittings with Stella at the London Spiritualist Alliance and published impressive results in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.
On 1 January 1926, Harry Price’s dream of a scientific establishment for the testing of claimants to paranormal powers became a reality when the doors of his National Laboratory of Psychical Research opened in Queensbury Place, London with himself as the Honorary Director. This had involved nearly a year of not only hard work but also considerable personal expense on Price’s part as he had equipped the facility to an impressive standard out of his own pocket. His library, now known as the Research Library of the National Laboratory, was relocated from the SPR’s headquarters.
The investigation of mediumistic phenomena still took up much of his time but Price was prepared to allow all and sundry who claimed paranormal abilities to be examined including contortionists, thought readers and performance artists whose real home was undoubtedly the fairground rather than the laboratory of an organization whose aims were the scientific study of the occult. This being the case, Price’s National Laboratory attained in the eyes of mainstream science, and particularly bodies such as the SPR, a vaudeville atmosphere that consigned his work to the fringes of recognized science. Price wrote often amusing accounts of many of these experiments in several of his books but the result of all this was that by the end of the decade, Price was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the way his work was not only progressing but the response it was receiving from orthodox scientific bodies.
Price’s work shows an amazing dichotomy between the undertaking of serious scientific study and blatant publicity seeking and sensationalism. Compare his reporting of the séance room phenomena of Willi Schneider’s younger brother Rudi whom Price brought to England in 1929 with publicity episodes such as the opening of the locked box of the eighteenth century prophetess Joanna Southcott in 1927 and the Brocken Experiment of June 1932 when Price traveled to Germany to attempt the transformation a goat into a handsome young man by means of a magical formula. The former, published as a book in 1930, is a model of detailed reporting and shows the great pains that Price went in achieving scientifically acceptable conditions in which to carry out his experiments, while the latter are clearly headline generating escapades designed to keep Price and his organization firmly in the public eye. Consequently newspaper editors loved him as anything that involved Price was guaranteed to generate good copy and he soon became the most well known psychical investigator during the late 1920s and this notoriety was to continue.
During the 1930s Price’s organization underwent a period of upheaval. By 1934 Price had dissolved the National Laboratory and reformed his organization as the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation, taking advantage of the successful result of negotiations he had undertaken with the University of London to create a Department of Psychical Research. Despite the title the organization in fact had no official connection with the University although they benefited from the transfer on permanent loan of Price’s laboratory equipment and his extensive library.
Harry Price’s new organisation existed for five years until the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 when he closed his office and retired from active investigation. These could well be described as Price’s true ‘ghost hunting’ years. As well as the Brocken Experiment he investigated an alleged talking mongoose on the Isle of Man, carried out fire-walking experiments in Surrey, investigated the Indian Rope Trick and made the first live radio broadcast from a haunted house. In all these investigations he projected the role of a modern paranormal investigator. His ‘ghost hunter’s kit’, a suitcase containing cameras, measuring equipment, a thermograph and other devices reinforced the impression of the scientific study of the supernatural. The equipment of today’s investigators may be far more sophisticated but the application of Price’s gadgets was the same.
Sadly Price was missing out on new developments taking place that were revolutionizing paranormal research. In America J.B. Rhine was ushering in the new science of parapsychology with its emphasis on the study of ESP. This was something which Price, now in his mid fifties and not in particularly good health was unable to embrace or possibly even take seriously. However, even at this late stage of his career, in terms of classic ghost hunting, the close of the 1930s saw Harry Price able to produce the magnum opus that has sealed his fame forever as the greatest ghost hunter of all time. This was his investigation of Borley Rectory, ‘the most haunted house in England’.
Borley Rectory has become the classic haunted house and one that now has legendary status. Situated in a lonely district of rural Essex, Price first became aware of it in June 1929 through his good relationship with the editor of the Daily Mirror. Over the years the Bull family who lived at the Rectory from 1863 until 1927 reported at a local level many ghostly incidents including footsteps, strange lights and apparitions. When the new rector and his wife curiously brought these occurrences to the attention of a national newspaper, the arrival of a reporter and a day later Harry Price, they set in motion the most controversial case in the history of paranormal investigation.
Initially Price was unimpressed with Borley but this was to change. In October 1931 Price returned to Borley but again was unconvinced with the phenomena the new rector Lionel Foyster and his family were apparently experiencing. Price told the vicar to his face that his wife was playing the ghost and the two men parted on bad company. The Foysters left Borley in 1935 and in 1937 Price himself rented the Rectory, carrying out a yearlong observational experiment using a hand picked team of observers recruited through the classified section of The Times. On the night of 27/28 February 1939 the next owner of Borley Rectory torched the building in an insurance scam and the ruins were eventually demolished in 1944. With his organisation disbanded the journalist in Harry Price came to the fore and by 1946 he had published two full-length books on Borley. In both he stated his total belief that Borley Rectory gave incontrovertible proof of a genuine haunting. Price was preparing a third book on the Borley case when he suffered a massive heart attack and died at his home in Pulbough on Easter Sunday, 28 March 1948.
Borley Rectory was a tragedy for Harry Price in many ways. The case came to him when he had lost his critical stance as a practical and skeptical investigator. With the watering down of his own organization to little more than an honorary title he used Borley as a means to generate interest in not only himself but also the subject in which he was still passionately interested – psychical research. By playing up the sensational side of the case he in fact missed the evidence that does exist for a genuine case of haunting at Borley. A particular tragedy is that Borley has diverted attention away from his most important contribution to paranormal research, namely the studies of Stella Cranshaw and the Schneider brothers. Here, by using the stringent methods demanded by orthodox science he demonstrated the existence of paranormal forces, which at the present time this same orthodox science cannot explain.
The above is a fairly brief look at the life and career of Harry Price. He is often described today as a ‘psychic journalist’, which is partly correct in that he only reported on the phenomena he experienced and did not put forward any specific theories to explain them. One thing is for certain; all active ghost-hunters of today owe much to ‘Uncle Harry’ and his adventures over half a century ago.
More information about Harry Price including detailed accounts of his many cases, a comprehensive bibliography of his books and writings and the latest news about things connected with his life and times can be found at the Harry Price Website www.harryprice.co.uk which was set up in December 2004 by Paul Adams and Eddie Brazil.