Thursday, 29 April 2021

The Society for Psychical Research at 100: Beyond the Threshold

When the Society for Psychical Research reached its centenary in February 1982, the anniversary was marked by a number of events.  Heinemann published a series of books, edited by Brian Inglis; Renée Haynes wrote a history of the Society; and Ivor Grattan-Guinness edited a collection of introductory essays on various aspects of psychical research.  Michael Thalbourne carried out an SPR Centenary Census to which half the membership responded, and the results of which were reported in the Journal of Parapsychology in 1984 and the SPR’s Journal in 1994.

The regular lecture series held at the Kensington Central library was titled the ‘Centenary Year 1982 Lecture Programme’ (as was the custom in grander days, the Presidential Address was given at the Royal Society, as was the Myers Memorial Lecture that year).  In August, a ‘Centenary Jubilee Conference’ took place in Cambridge in conjunction with the Parapsychological Association, including a formal banquet, and the following year an issue of Research in Parapsychology appeared containing conference abstracts and papers.

The BBC broadcast a 45-minute radio programme, Beyond the Threshold, on Radio 4, and thanks to ‘evpman’ it has been uploaded to YouTube.  Presenter June Knox-Mawer traces the history of the Society, setting its origins in the context of loss of faith in Christian dogma, the growth of Spiritualism, and an interest in abilities that exceeded the limits of human senses such as thought transference.  She emphasises its elite membership in the early years, and the investigations of telepathy and survival resulting in such pioneering works as Phantasms of the Living (1886), the ‘Census of Hallucinations’ (1894), and extensive Proceedings.

Knox-Mawer highlights various notable points in the SPR’s history, and there are interviews with senior SPR members.  Historian of the early SPR Alan Gauld, the only participant still with us, talks about the early interest in survival and mentions the sceptical approach exemplified by Frank Podmore, a co-author of Phantasms of the Living.  He draws attention to the tremendous energy expended in the first decades, and particularly the importance of the seminal work on hypnosis.

Arthur Ellison was the president at the time of the broadcast and he discusses the change from mediums as an object of scrutiny to a more collaborative approach (the consequences of which were seen later in the study of the Scole phenomena he undertook with Montague Keen and David Fontana, when the three were criticised for lack of rigour in excluding fraud).  He refers to the Toronto Philip experiment, but curiously neither he nor the other interviewees mentions the Enfield poltergeist case, though both Haynes and Grattan-Guinness include references to it in their books.

Renée Haynes, who joined in the 1940s, talks about the composition of the Society in those days, members sharing a similar outlook grounded in membership of institutions such as the older universities, the Civil Service and the military.  She recounts that when a fellow member said she did not want a person to join because he wasn’t a ‘gentleman’, she meant there was no guarantee he would meet the requisite standards.  In other words, he wasn’t one of us.  When I joined in the late 1980s I found a similar condescending attitude on the part of the Council Old Guard.*  Having known Renée, I’m sure she brought a breezy informality with her from the start.

Brian Inglis notes a divide between those who pursue scientific programmes and those with a more general interest who find articles in the Journal to be too technical and difficult to understand (hence a newsletter was instituted in 1981, to appeal to a broader audience, and this evolved into the current glossy magazine).  He refers to the split which created ASSAP, the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (also created in 1981, still thriving, and still with an anti-SPR animus among some members after 40 years), alluding vaguely to ‘internal rows’ as a cause of the schism.  Unfortunately, he is unable to remember what the acronym stands for.

The Hon. Secretary, Anita Gregory, sadly speaking only a couple of years before her untimely death, discusses spontaneous cases and the kinds of approaches the Society receives from the public, not all of them from individuals of sound mind, she claims.  Such requests, she continues, give rise to a conflict between wanting to help and wanting to observe for the sake of research, never an easy issue to resolve (today’s ethical standards would disagree).

Discussing why investigators so often find phenomena have died down, she responds that it can be difficult to know whether there was nothing there in the first place, or whether some subtle effect created by the investigator’s presence inhibits it.  There is evidence the most violent phenomena occur in the early stages of a case, and later on people help things along.  It had been the general rule to stop taking an interest once people were caught cheating, but Gregory believes this is a mistake, as cases are often a mix of genuine and fake.  Gregory was depicted in The Conjuring 2, which was – very loosely – based on the Enfield case.

In answer to the key question of how the SPR would measure its achievements and influence, Haynes claims there is now more knowledge of the subject and acceptance of telepathy.  Gauld argues there is a wider understanding that looking into these matters is not the province of cranks or the credulous.  He makes the bold assertion that if there had been no SPR then there would have been no American SPR, and consequently no Duke University laboratory (where J B Rhine had established an influential parapsychology unit).

Ellison thinks the present moment is a watershed, with greater appreciation among scientists that there is something meriting study.  In particular, he sees an increasing awareness that psychical research has important implications for an understanding of personality.  Optimistically he considers scientific acceptance to be close, with more rapid progress likely as the SPR enters its second century.  There is no sense nearly forty years on that his upbeat assessment has been borne out.

Inglis, who seems to have had an ambivalent attitude towards the SPR, pointing out he had ‘many harsh things to say’ about it, thinks it will cope with new developments, maintaining its high standards and integrity.  The influence of Uri Geller at this time can be gleaned from Inglis’s prediction of psychokinesis as the coming thing because with metal bending one can observe the metal bend, even though, he continues, many in the Society consider Geller to be a fraud.  Like Ellison, Inglis forecasts science and psychical research coming closer together, but with the latter prone to the ‘inkfish effect’ (a term apparently from Arthur Koestler which has not caught on): things go wrong or the desired result fails to occur, thwarting the investigator’s endeavours

Haynes and Gauld both bemoan an increasing focus on technique and the drive to create perfect experiments in the artificial circumstances of the laboratory, with a loss of psychological richness, rather than on what happens in real-life situations: pursuit of the experimental method has for some become an end in itself.  Gauld suspects the founders might feel we had lost the larger question: the experience of people in ordinary situations, rather than in the restricted lab context.  On the other hand, he sees a swing back to an interest in spontaneous phenomena, tackling puzzles that we find in everyday life.  Forty years on, the tension between the experimental and spontaneous is still with us.

The programme can currently be found on YouTube:


*As an example of how little in some respects the SPR’s ‘not one of us’ attitude had changed since its foundation, even beyond its centenary, the January 1997 issue of Uri Geller’s Encounters (subtitled ‘The World’s Most Paranormal Magazine’) carried an article devoted to the SPR.  This contained a reference to an investigation the Anglia Paranormal Research Group, of which I was a member, had conducted at St Botolph’s, a redundant church at Skidbrooke, Lincolnshire, and about which I had written in the SPR’s magazine The Psi Researcher the previous year.

The article also included an interview with Arthur Ellison.  Arthur was very excited about this and brandished a copy at an SPR Council meeting.  He informed the gathering we had kindly been offered a full-page advertisement for the SPR in the magazine gratis.  As the SPR article formed the basis of Uri Geller’s editorial (calling it ‘our major feature on the Society for Psychical Research’) it is entirely possible this gesture came from the man himself.

I thought it a generous offer, and would enable us to reach a large number of potential members, yet there was reluctance by some present to take it up, and after discussion it was decided to decline on the grounds it could attract the ‘wrong’ kind of person, one who failed to conform to our standards (i.e. the typical reader of Uri Geller’s Encounters).  When I had joined a decade earlier it was still a requirement to have two members vouch for an applicant.  Fortunately, such ossified attitudes have faded with the passing of that generation.



Blackmore, Susan J. Beyond the Body: An Investigation of Out-of-the-Body Experiences, London: Heinemann, 1982.

Gauld, Alan. Mediumship and Survival: A Century of Investigations, London: Heinemann, 1982.

Grattan-Guinness, Ivor, ed. Psychical Research, A Guide to its History, Principles and Practices: In Celebration of 100 Years of the Society for Psychical Research, Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1982.

Haynes, Renée. The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History, London: Macdonald, 1982.

MacKenzie, Andrew. Hauntings and Apparitions, London: Heinemann, 1982.

Richards, Mel. ‘Society for Psychical Research’, Uri Geller’s Encounters, Issue 3, January 1997, pp. 30-33.

Roll, William G, John Beloff & Rhea A. White, eds. Research in Parapsychology 1982: Jubilee Centenary Issue. Abstracts and Papers from the Combined Twenty-Fifth Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association and the Centenary Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. Metuchen, N.J. and London: Scarecrow Press, 1983.

Ruffles, Tom. ‘Field Investigation – St Botolph, Skidbrooke: A Follow-Up’, The Psi Researcher, No. 20, February 1996, pp. 7-8.

Thalbourne, Michael A. A Glossary of Terms Used in Parapsychology, London: Heinemann, 1982.

Thalbourne, Michael A. ‘The SPR Centenary Census. I. The ESP Test’, Journal of Parapsychology, Vol. 48, 1984, pp. 238-239.

Thalbourne, Michael A. ‘The SPR Centenary Census. II. The Survey of Beliefs and Experiences’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 59, 1994, pp. 420-431.

Zohar, Dana. Through the Time Barrier, London: Heinemann, 1982.

Friday, 2 April 2021

B.P. Hasdeu’s Psychic Photographs

Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu was a writer, editor, historian, philologist, folklorist, jurist and politician, described by Mircea Eliade as ‘the most erudite Romanian of the 19th century.’  He was born in 1838 at Cristinești, Moldavia, where his middle-class family owned a small estate.  His father, also a polymath, had an interest in esoteric writings.  The story of the grand building Bogdan Hasdeu erected at Câmpina, known as the Iulia Hasdeu Castle, is well known, his experiments in psychic photography less so.

His beloved only daughter Iulia contracted tuberculosis and died in 1888 at the age of 18.  She was buried in Bellu Cemetery in Bucharest in an elaborate tomb.  Highly talented, she had studied at the Sorbonne, spoke several languages, and left a large quantity of writings that indicated great promise.  As a result of his bereavement, Hasdeu became a Spiritualist, or perhaps had previous Spiritualist leanings confirmed, and was influenced by the ideas of Allan Kardec.

His Sic Cogito, the first book on Spiritualism in Romanian, was published in instalments in his journal Revista Nouă from March 1891, and in book form in 1893, with a third edition in 1895.  In it, he describes how in March 1889, six months after his daughter died, he was sitting at his desk when he suddenly began to write automatically, producing a message in her handwriting which said she was happy, she loved him, and they would meet again.  This was the first in a series of communications purporting to come from Iulia.

Iulia’s Castle was intended both as a tribute to her and as a way to maintain contact.  The elaborate structure, full of esoteric symbolism, was built between 1894 and 1896 to his own design in mediumistic consultation with Iulia, and séances were held there.  As well as his daughter, his father, grandfather, brother and wife (also named Iulia, who died in 1902) communicated.  Hasdeu lived in the house from 1897 to his death in 1907.  Restored after having fallen into neglect during the Ceaușescu years, it is now the Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu Memorial Museum.

As well as conducting séances, Hasdeu actively pursued his interest in Spiritualism more broadly.  A brief news item in Two Worlds in July 1891 relates that he had written to the Revue Spirite to introduce a young Romanian medical student, ‘mechanical writing medium’, and member of the Spiritual Society of Bucharest (of which Hasdeu was presumably also a member) who was about to arrive in Paris.

Determined to put his investigations on a scientific basis, Hasdeu explored the possibilities of photography as a means of objectively recording psychic phenomena.  His article ‘Studie Fisice asupra Spiritului: D. Fourtier si Fotografia Extra-Retinala’ [‘Physical Study on the Spirit: D. Fourtier and Extra-Retinal Photography’] which appeared in the February-March 1894 issue of Revista Nouă was accompanied by one of his psychic photographs (Appendix 1 lists publications in which Hasdeu’s photographs can be seen).

The Religio-Philosophical Journal of 2 June 1894, and Light, 30 June 1894, both carried articles drawing on a report by Rossi de Glustlanianl in La Revue Spirite.  This stated that Spiritualism was making great progress in Romania, largely thanks to the efforts of Hasdeu.  He was holding seances twice weekly, the sitters were all professionals, and allegedly even the mediums had university degrees.  Whatever the truth of the latter claim, Hasdeu’s social standing had certainly attracted a circle of intellectuals.  The reports referred to photographic experiments in similar terms, that in Light concluding:

‘Some spirit heads, more or less visible, have been obtained by photography in the most complete darkness, the photographic apparatus being hermetically closed and sealed.  M. Hasdeu expects, in a new work which he is preparing, and which will be a sequel to his “Sic Cogito,” to include all the spirit photographs which he has obtained, and to give, at the same time, all the details of these curious and interesting experiments.’ (Hasdeu’s obituary in The Annals of Psychical Science in 1907 states that Sic Cogito was ‘his only spiritistic work.’)

Reference was made in an article on spirit photography written by M. Lecomte in Paris-Photographe (30 December 1894) to two articles Hasdeu had published in Bucharest.  Lecomte included one of Hasdeu’s images that had appeared in the February-March 1894 issue of Revista Nouă.  Hasdeu was in close touch with his counterparts in France, but Paris-Photographe was a general photography magazine, suggesting interest outside Spiritualistic circles in his activities.

Hippolyte Baraduc (who the same year Hasdeu died himself lost a child of a similar age to Iulia) promoted Hasdeu’s photographic experiments in his book L'Ame Humaine, published in 1896 and translated into English as The Human Soul in 1913.  L'Ame Humaine was drawn on by the July 1896 issue of W T Stead’s Borderland, which included a lengthy section devoted to articles on ‘psychic photography’, largely dealing with images obtained without an exposure.

Baraduc printed what he termed a ‘psychicone’ (‘psychic icon’) made by Hasdeu and described as showing ‘the possibility of the creative spirit acting on a plate without the help of the hand.’  A patch in a photograph was said to represent Hasdeu’s brother Nicolae, who like Iulia had died at the age of 18, his image having been ‘modulated’ in Hasdeu’s mind and then projected (in a chapter in Sic Cogito on ‘Materialism in Spiritualism’, Hasdeu said that ‘In the phenomenon of the spiritualist photography, the sensitive plate does not transcribe a real shape, but only an idea that is occurring in a medium’s brain at that moment’).

Baraduc and Borderland also provided an account, and psychicones, of an experiment with Istrati.  This involved telepathic transmission between Hasdeu and his colleague and friend Dr Constantin Istrati.  Istrati was, according to Baraduc, about to travel to ‘Campana’ (actually Câmpina, location of both his home and the future location of Iulia’s Castle, just under a hundred kilometres from Bucharest), and he agreed to try to project himself onto Hasdeu’s plates at Bucharest.  When Hasdeu went to bed on the night of 4 August 1893, he placed a camera at his head and another at his feet (Borderland erroneously assumed he had only put plates at his head and feet).

As Istrati fell asleep, he exerted his will to appear on Hasdeu’s plates.  When he awoke, he felt he had succeeded, as he dreamt he had appeared to Hasdeu.  The Borderland article reprints part of a letter Hasdeu wrote to ‘M. de R’ (Albert de Rochas) and forwarded to Borderland: ‘Upon the plaque A there are are (sic) three attempts of which extremely successful. The doctor is seen looking attentively into the apparatus, the bronze extremity of which is illuminated by the light peculiar to his spirit.’ On his return to Bucharest, Istrati was astonished at the resemblance to himself of ‘the fluidic image’.  Borderland refers to ‘the already famous portrait of Dr. Istrati,’ implying wide circulation.

Hasdeu has generally been overlooked by recent historians of psychic photography.  A notable exception is Andreas Fischer, who opens his essay ‘“La Lune au Front”: Remarks on the History of the Photography of Thought’ in the 2005 volume The Perfect Medium with an account of Hasdeu’s August 1893 experiment.  Fischer states that Hasdeu used cameras set up in his bedroom with the shutters open, and quotes from a letter Hasdeu sent to de Rochas, dated 12 August 1895 (presumably the letter a copy of which de Rochas sent to Stead at Borderland), held in the Rochas Archives, American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia: ‘I picture the Doctor with the…desire to bring his spirit before my cameras during the night.’

Fischer notes that this has generally been considered the first experiment in thought photography, but points out that it differs little from previous attempts at photographing a double, for example the 1875 projection of the ‘spirit’ of Stainton Moses while asleep in London to the camera of Édouard Isidore Buguet in Paris.  He reproduces one of Hasdeu’s images, with a comparison portrait of Istrati, which are held in the Rochas Archive in Philadelphia.  This is taken from an original gelatin silver print and is uncropped, whereas that in L'Ame Humaine and Borderland shows only the portion said to be of Istrati.

In recent months the website Camera Arhiva has scanned and put online a large number of Romanian magazines published between 1947 and 1989.  Perhaps surprisingly, given the ideological climate, in 1979 Revista Manuscriptum published a number of Hasdeu’s psychic photographs, though less surprisingly Hasdeu’s preoccupation was cast in pathological terms.  An accompanying article signed by C. Săvulescu describes how he was researching a history of Romanian photography when he discovered a large quantity of Hasdeu’s plates, and six of these are reproduced (as shown above).  Constantin Săvulescu was a historian of photography who published Cronologia Ilustratǎ a Fotografiei din România : Perioada 1834-1916 in 1985.


This is a translation of Săvulescu’s text:

‘During research undertaken for a possible history of photography in Romania, a lot of 68 original images (12 x 16 format), made by B.P. Hasdeu between 1893-1896, were identified in the holdings of the State Archives in Bucharest.

‘Examining them, I found that on the back of many of them the writer had made some notations in pencil. Here are some: Code II, 825/3 <<No. Wednesday to Thursday, 21 July. You were evoking Dr. Istrati who is in Constanța. Not only was the room made a dark room, but precaution was taken so that no light would pass through. The device was opened in the dark at 11 hours, closed at 8 ¼ >>.

‘Code II, 825/2: << No. G. 15 July, Thursday to Friday. Went to bed late, woke up around 8 o’clock, it was exposed too short a period >>.

‘Code II, 825/17: << No. V. Tuesday to Wednesday 18 Oct with the red light and the camera open, and on Wednesday, evoking Dr. Istrati, there was nothing >>.

‘The photos represent some curiosities, the consequence of some obsessions arising from the famous drama that marked the last years of the writer's life. Experiences like this represent an unwelcome scene, just as at the time they aroused the irony and compassion of some of his contemporaries. Dr Istrati, invoked here, recorded in his diary on 1 August, 1907: <<... so many charlatans pretending to be inspired and who deceived him with their mediumship, distancing him from his real friends. Now there is nothing left to squeeze, they are notable by their absence>>.

‘Entrusting these few photos to the press, we are left with the feeling that another secret from the nebulous universe of the romantic poet was betrayed by reality.

C. Săvulescu


Săvulescu’s reference to 68 images means there are 62 more sitting in an archive in Bucharest that have possibly never been published.  One or two points are raised by these sample descriptions, and doubtless further study of the collection would raise more.

The dates Hasdeu provides are ambiguous as a single date is assigned to two days, but presumably indicate that the experiments were carried out overnight.  This is indeed the case: 21 July was a Tuesday in 1891, a Thursday in 1892 and a Friday in 1893; 1892 was a leap year, hence there was no Wednesday 21 July.  So ‘Wednesday to Thursday, 21 July’ must refer to Thursday 21 July 1892.  15 July was a Friday in 1892.  Thus, it can be seen Hasdeu was conducting experiments at least a year earlier than the famous 4 August 1893 effort, attempting to communicate with Istrati at Constanța on the Black Sea coast.  The other date noted, 18 October, was a Wednesday in 1893.

There is clearly further research to be conducted on Hasdeu’s experiments, in order to assess which archives hold his results, to ascertain the composition of those experiments, and to examine what he himself said about them.  He made a significant contribution to the field of psychic photography, and his output deserves to be better known.



Lacroix, Henry. ‘The “Revue Spirite” (Paris)’, The Two Worlds, Vol. 4, No. 190, 3 July 1891, p. 396.

Hasdeu, B.P. ‘Studie Fisice asupra Spiritului: D. Fourtier si Fotografia Extra-Retinala’ [‘Physical Study on the Spirit: D. Fourtier and Extra-Retinal Photography’], Revista Nouă, Nos.11-12, February-March 1894.

‘Spiritualism in Roumania’, The Religio-Philosophical Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2 (new series), 16 June 1894, pp. 40-41.

‘Interesting Experiments in Roumania’, Light, Vol. 14, No. 703, 30 June 1894, p. 304.

Lecomte, M. ‘Photographie Spirite’, Paris-Photographe, 30 December 1894, pp. 433-41.

Hasdeu, B.P. Sic Cogito: E Viaţa? Ce e Moartea? Ce e Omul? Bucharest: Editura Librăriei Socecŭ, 3rd edition, 1895.  First published in instalments in Revista Nouă from March 1891.

‘Psychic Photography’, Borderland, Vol. 3, No. 3, July 1896, pp. 313-21.

Baraduc, H. L'Ame Humaine, ses mouvements, ses lumières, et l'iconographie de l'invisible fluidique. Paris: Georges Carré, 1896.

‘The Death of Prof. Bogdan P. Hasdeu’, The Annals of Psychic Science, Vol. 6, No. 36, 1907, pp. 440-442.

Flournoy, Theodore. Spiritism and Psychology (translated and abridged by Hereward Carrington). New York: Harper & Bros., 1911.

Delanne, Gabriel. ‘Le Spiritisme est une Science’, La Vie Mystérieuse, 10 December 1911, pp. 356-7.

Baraduc, H. The Human Soul, its Movements, its Lights, and the Iconography of the Fluidic Invisible. Paris: Librairie Internationale de la Pensée Nouvelle, 1913.

Duxbury, E. W. ‘M. Leon Denis on Automatic Writing’, Psychic Science, Vol. 6, No. 2, July 1927, pp. 123-28.

Săvulescu, C. ‘B. P. Hasdeu’, Revista Manuscriptum, Issue 34, 1979.

Fischer, Andreas. ‘“La Lune au Front”: Remarks on the History of the Photography of Thought’ in The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005, pp. 139-153. Originally published in French as Le Troisième œil: La photographie et l'occulte, Paris: Gallimard, 2004.

Mihalcencova, Corina. ‘B. P. Hasdeu Under the Lens of Spiritual Practice’ in conference proceedings Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu: Patrie, Onoare şi Ştiinţă [Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu: Homeland, Honor and Science], Cahul, Moldova, 23 March 2018. Cahul: 2018, pp. 70-80.

Nemes, Constantin. ‘Practica spiritista a lui Hasdeu’ [‘Hasdeu's Spiritualist Practice’],, 11 June 2011, retrieved 17 March 2021.

Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu Memorial Museum website,, retrieved 30 March 2021.


Appendix 1

Images by Hasdeu can be seen in the following publications.  As a number reprinted the same images, these represent only a small proportion of his output.  I would be interested to hear of other publications which have covered Hasdeu’s photography.

Hasdeu, B.P. ‘Studie Fisice asupra Spiritului: D. Fourtier si Fotografia Extra-Retinala’ [‘Physical Study on the Spirit: D. Fourtier and Extra-Retinal Photography’], Revista Nouă, Nos.11-12, February-March 1894.*

Lecomte, M. ‘Photographie Spirite’, Paris-Photographe, 30 December 1894.

‘Psychic Photography’, Borderland, Vol. 3, No. 3, July 1896.

Baraduc, H. L'Ame Humaine, ses mouvements, ses lumières, et l'iconographie de l'invisible fluidique. Paris: Georges Carré, 1896.

Baraduc, H. The Human Soul, its Movements, its Lights, and the Iconography of the Fluidic Invisible. Paris: Librairie Internationale de la Pensée Nouvelle, 1913.

Săvulescu, C. ‘B. P. Hasdeu’, Revista Manuscriptum, Issue 34, 1979.

Fischer, Andreas. ‘“La Lune au Front”: Remarks on the History of the Photography of Thought’ in The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

*Illustrated in blogpost by Constantin Nemes, ‘Practica spiritista a lui Hasdeu’, posted 11 June 2011.


Appendix 2

A note on spelling.

While Hasdeu did not spell his name using the diacritic (i.e., Hașdeu), it is pronounced as though the diacritic is present.  Romanian-language sources are divided on whether to include the diacritic or omit it, and I have chosen to spell the name as Hasdeu himself did.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Cambridge University Library and those Missing Darwin Notebooks

CUL, looking secure

Astonishing news reaches us that Cambridge University (CUL) has lost two valuable Darwin notebooks.  Even more astonishingly they vanished 20 years ago.  The assumption was that they had been misshelved, and they were only reported missing to the police last month.  A pundit was on the Radio 4 lunchtime news yesterday opining on what he thinks happened.  This is in essence what he suggested:

Regular readers become familiar faces to librarians.  Said librarians are so used to those readers that security becomes less stringent than it should.  Some readers become heavily invested in their research materials to the extent that they develop a proprietorial attitude towards them.  With relaxed security, opportunities arise to make off with said research materials.  Librarians don’t notice.  If they do realise something is not where it should be, they assume it has merely been misplaced and no alarm bells are raised.

What a load of tosh.

I would be amazed if this scenario had occurred.  The following procedure has been in place for many years.  When ordering from the stacks in a CUL reading room, a request slip on carbonless paper is filled in, and it is retained by the librarians while the item is with the reader.  When it is returned to the librarians’ desk, a receipt is handed to the reader and a copy kept for CUL’s records, enabling them to track who has had what.  If someone walked out with material it would quickly become apparent because the sheet to be given back to the reader would still be attached to the library’s copy.  I cannot imagine a librarian dishing out anything without obtaining a filled-in slip, much less valuable Darwin manuscripts.  It is a system designed precisely to prevent theft.

The administrators back in 2000 were unquestionably slack by failing to maintain the requisite vigilance.  According to a Guardian report of 24 November 2020, the notebooks were taken out of storage to be photographed in November 2000 (the photographic unit is in the same building so they did not have to leave the premises), and a routine check in January 2021 noted the box containing them was not in its correct place.  Plainly there was inadequate oversight, but with no indication the manuscripts were requested by a reader in the intervening period.

The librarians complacently assumed they were somewhere about and instituted ‘extensive’ searches for them over the ensuing two decades, a new management team only now, after a final look, conceding they are nowhere to be found.  ‘Extensive building work’ in 2000 has been propounded as a potential scapegoat, hinting at outsiders being responsible, but it seems most unlikely a hod carrier targeted these particular items in an opportunistic theft while nobody was around, or a cat burglar shimmied up scaffolding and prised open a window in the dead of night.

It is worth bearing in mind that a similar situation to the Darwin scandal has arisen before.  In 1989 the archive and rare books of the Society for Psychical Research were transferred from the SPR’s premises at Adam & Eve Mews in London to CUL, because of security concerns.  Rare SPR books were categorised ‘Z’, and I remember long-serving Council member Tony Cornell walking into the building waving a Z book and saying he had stolen it – in order to demonstrate how easy it was to remove them without detection.  This situation led to negotiations for the permanent loan of the SPR’s paper archive (the audio-visual component is housed elsewhere) and Z books to CUL, where they remain today.

Unfortunately, a short time later red-faced CUL officials informed the SPR that several of its rare books had been stolen, though thankfully it didn’t take 20 years to find out.  To their credit they did make efforts to replace the missing volumes as best they could, and following a lengthy internal investigation it was concluded the theft had been an inside job.  The affair was hushed up because it looked bad to have to confess that a member of staff had walked off with valuable property (and in this case belonging to someone else).  No lackadaisical librarian had unwittingly allowed them to be removed by a cunning reader, they were lifted directly from the stacks.  My money is on the Darwin notebooks having gone in a similar manner, the perpetrator taking advantage of their trip to reprographics.

The ‘expert’ on Radio 4 thought they would turn up eventually because their fame makes them instantly recognisable, which is to be hoped for, but he had already argued that readers can become greatly attached to their research objects (though not usually to the extent of taking them home), so they could be sitting in a private library being gloated over.  They may come to light as the result of a sale or be voluntarily returned to CUL, but perhaps only on the death of the holder, a possibility floated by the deputy director of Research Collections who was interviewed by the Guardian.  If that is the case, we could be in for a long wait.

Though I am not an authority on international crime, it seems doubtful they are being used as collateral by organised crime interests because, unlike an old master painting, they will not look obviously hugely valuable to the untutored eye; but I could be wrong.  Let’s just hope they do not suffer the same fate as those rare books boosted from a warehouse while waiting to be shipped off to auction which were found in a damp hole, or have not been seized by disgruntled creationists who consider Darwin to have been Satan’s catspaw and destroyed.  The only positive note in this sorry tale is that the manuscripts have been put online, so at least the contents are still available, even though they do not possess the aura of the missing originals.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

The Society for Psychical Research’s electrocardiograph and the Whipple

Courtesy Whipple Museum, Cambridge

On Friday 13 November 2020, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, one of the University of Cambridge’s museums, tweeted:


For #FridayThe13th, it's #MuseumsUnlocked day of demons, devils & ghosts! This #Cambridge Instrument Company portable electrocardiograph belonged to the Society for Psychical Research & was probably used to record the physiology of mediums!

 This was accompanied by two photographs, one a general view of the electrocardiograph, the other a close-up of a plate on the side, which says:





I retweeted it on the Society for Psychical Research’s Twitter feed (@spr1882), pointing out that the Society’s name had been spelled incorrectly.  The Whipple responded by asking if I knew why.  I didn’t, and said I would check with the SPR’s archives officer.  He stated it was before his time and he had no idea either.


Courtesy Whipple Museum, Cambridge


Curious, I sent a private message to the Whipple asking what they could tell me about their acquisition of the device.  They said it was donated in 1976 by someone from the University’s Department of Colloid Science.  Intriguingly, my anonymous correspondent added: ‘I'm afraid I cannot give you their name’ but noted that an online search did not indicate an association with the SPR.  The individual responsible for adding the plate, which looks pre-1976, was obviously not completely familiar with the Society’s name. 

I wondered how this piece of apparatus arrived at the Whipple.  The museum’s online catalogue page states it was built by the Cambridge Instrument Company, Ltd, in 1933, and the symbol in the middle of the plate is the company logo.  Robert Whipple, whose collection of scientific instruments formed the basis of the Whipple Museum, was an early employee, rising to become managing director and chairman of the company.

 The reference to colloid science was a starting point, though it could have been a red herring with no relevance other than that the person last in possession happened by chance to be a member of the department.  However, it proved a fruitful lead, and led me to conclude that there is a strong possibility this device may have been used in experiments with Austrian medium Rudi Schneider, who was tested by the Society for Psychical Research between October 1933 and March 1934.

 The term colloid science appears in SPR publications only once, in the Journal for March/April 1942, referring to the endowment of a studentship at the University of Cambridge to honour the memory of Oliver Gatty, an SPR member.  The studentship was ‘to give an opportunity to scientists of any nationality working in any branch of Science to carry on their work for a year in the Department of Colloid Science at Cambridge, provided that in this work Physics was being used to help Biological Research, or Biology was helping Physical Research.’  Aged only 32, Oliver Gatty was severely injured in a gas explosion while conducting research in Cambridge, dying at Addenbrooke’s hospital on 5 June 1940.  He left a widow, Penelope, and a posthumous daughter, Tirril.

 Gatty worked with Eric Rideal, who was Professor of Colloid Science at Cambridge, and he also worked in the University’s Department of Zoology.  He had joined the SPR in 1933 and became a Council member the following year.  He was a member of ‘the Cambridge Committee’ exploring paranormal cognition; investigated Rudi Schneider with Theodore Besterman, about which they co-authored a paper in the SPR’s Proceedings; and at the time of his death was conducting dowsing experiments.  His obituary in the SPR’s Proceedings stresses his enthusiasm and likeability.

 Oliver’s family background is interesting.  His sister Hester was unhappily married to Siegfried Sassoon.  His brother Richard, who attended one of the Besterman/Gatty Schneider sessions, married Pamela Strutt, granddaughter of John James Strutt, second Baron Rayleigh.  Her uncle, John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, was SPR President in 1919; her cousin Robert John Strutt, 4th Baron Rayleigh, was SPR President in 1937-1938.

 Most of the 1933.34 Schneider sittings took place in a purpose-built seance room at its premises in Tavistock Square, London, not in Cambridge.  They were led by Besterman, the SPR’s Investigation Officer, with his collaborator Oliver Gatty monitoring the equipment.  Besterman and Gatty’s article in the SPR’s Proceedings, ‘Report of an Investigation into the Mediumship of Rudi Schneider’, describes the set-up at length.

 Gatty installed infrared equipment, following a similar arrangement that had been used with some success by Eugene and Marcel Osty at the Institut Métapsychique in Paris during a series of 90 sittings with Rudi in late 1930 and 1931 (which the SPR helped to fund) and in a series of 27 sittings conducted in London by Lord Charles Hope for the SPR between October and December 1932.  The aim of utilising infrared was to see if a psychic emanation from Rudi would interfere with the beam but Gatty did not observe any absorptions, indicating the beam remained unobstructed.

 The Besterman/Gatty report includes the following statement:

 ‘The space C (see plan, Fig. 1) is divided from the cabinet by a solid partition, reaching from floor to ceiling.  It contained a shelf, later two shelves, stretching from wall to partition, on which stood a Moll galvanometer, with its lamp and scale, a cardiograph embodying an Einthoven string galvanometer, a voltmeter and a switchboard. This apparatus was observed by 0. G. [Oliver Gatty], who had to crawl under the lower shelf in order to get to and from his chair.’ (p. 254)

 Later we learn:

 ‘The [photo-electric] cell has an approximate resistance of 1800 ohms and was connected in series to a Cambridge Instrument Co. portable electrocardiograph Einthoven galvanometer having a 1400 ohms gilt glass fibre.’ (p. 279)

 The technology brought to bear on Rudi was highly sophisticated and drew heavily on Gatty’s physics expertise.  Sadly, after the extensive series of 55 sittings with Schneider (including four informal sittings, three held at Oliver Gatty’s home in Lowndes Square, London SW1.), the authors concluded that ‘In the event no phenomena clearly of a paranormal kind were obtained’ (p, 252) so their elaborate procedures were in vain.

 My Whipple informant confirmed that the description in the report matches the device held by the museum: the Einthoven galvanometer is a key element of the Cambridge Instrument Company’s electrocardiograph.  Thus it can be seen that an electrocardiograph manufactured by the Cambridge Instrument Company was employed by Theodore Besterman and Oliver Gatty for these SPR sittings.  The 1933 date for the Whipple’s machine ties in with the start of the experiments in October the same year.

 It is a reasonable assumption that the Whipple’s electrocardiograph is the one used in the Schneider sessions.  Oliver Gatty moved to Cambridge, having been there for several years before his death according to his obituary in the SPR’s Proceedings.  It is likely he took the electrocardiograph with him and it languished in his department for nearly four decades until a member of staff donated it in 1976.  Whoever was responsible for arranging the transfer, the survival of this historic item from 1933 is remarkable, and the Whipple are to be congratulated for carefully preserving it.

 The Gatty family retained their connection with the SPR after Oliver’s death, and several members died in the mid-1970s, around the time of the Whipple’s acquisition.  Oliver’s widow Penelope, who had helped her husband with experiments, joined the SPR in 1940, becoming a Council member and later a vice-president.  She married Thomas Balogh, Baron Balogh, in 1945 but continued to style herself Mrs O. Gatty in membership lists (apart from being listed as ‘Gatty, Mrs O., Lady Penelope Balogh,’,in the 1974 list though divorced from Balogh by 1970).  She died in June 1975.  Richard Gatty died in September 1975.  He was not a member of the SPR but his wife Pamela joined in 1945.  She died in 2009.  Oliver and Penelope’s daughter Tirril was also a member for a while.  Hester Sassoon, who had married Siegfried in 1933, joined the SPR in 1944 and died in 1973.  Theodore Besterman died in November 1976.


Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my contact at the Whipple Museum for prompt and helpful responses to my questions.


Besterman, Theodore & Gatty, Oliver. ‘Report of an Investigation into the Mediumship of Rudi Schneider’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 42, 1934, pp. 251-85.

‘Obituary: Mr Oliver Gatty’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 46, 1940. pp. 206-207.

‘A Memorial to Oliver Gatty’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 32, 1942, p. 154.



Saturday, 17 October 2020

A Natural History of Ghosts gets controversial

Radio 4 is running a ten-part series, starting Monday 19 October, called A Natural History of Ghosts, which also happens to be the title of a 2012 book by Roger Clarke.  One might readily assume the series is based on the book, and Roger would be amply rewarded for his involvement, but it soon transpired that the first he had heard about the series was when the BBC promoted it.

 The radio series is co-written and presented by Kirsty Logan, a novelist, mentor and speaker (for £175 an hour plus travel), but not a name particularly known in the field of psychical research, and therefore possessing no obvious credentials for her participation.  As is the way, she took to Twitter to announce in a proprietorial manner her pleasure at the forthcoming broadcasts, declaring ‘I’m so glad my ghosts are being unleashed!  A Natural History of Ghosts starts on Monday 19 October, 1.45, on @BBCRadio4, then a new episode every weekday until Halloween,’ with a link to the programme page on the BBC website.

 Roger replied to say he was unsure why the title of his book was being used, and disappointed it had been done without letting him know.  Logan responded in an ebullient tone to thank him for alerting her to his work, stating she did not know it was the title of his book, and assuring him that none of the content of the book was used or referred to in the series.  Roger was puzzled, and replied, ‘You’ve never come across my book?  On internet searches?  On Twitter?’  He received a flat denial, Logan promising to pick it up and adding that although she had co-written and was narrating the series, she had not chosen the title.

 This is where it gets unsavoury.  Roger was interested to know who chose the title, as he had pitched it to Radio 4 in 2013-14 (the book had received a huge amount of positive press when it was published and would have made an excellent series).  To his enquiry answer came there none from Logan, but in the meantime an observer, Richard Kovitch, weighed in to show her claim not to know about the book was inaccurate.

 He wrote: ‘You [Logan] read Roger’s book in 2016, and even list it on your website as ‘Best Beautifully-Written, Rambling Book about Ghosts: A Natural History of Ghosts, Roger Clarke.’  No ambiguity about that, and a screenshot from said website supported his contention (as of this writing it is still there, having been deleted then restored).  As someone else noted, she had actually tagged Roger in a 2016 tweet listing his book in her top 50 of the year.

 Logan promptly did some judicious pruning of her tweets, but as Roger noted, ‘you can never really erase things properly from the internet.’  As an example, someone else popped up to tell him about a tweet by producer Elizabeth Ann Duffy in March 2020 declaring ‘Right Twitter, @kirstylogan and I are using this time to start on out projects (sic) on the cultural evolution of ghosts.  So recommend reading to me, tell me which cool academics are doing the most interesting #ghostlore research.  I need all things #ghost related to read.’  A reply listed two titles, one being Roger’s book.  Ignorance by either Logan or Duffy was therefore hard to plead.

 Following this shabby episode Roger called on Radio 4 to change the title of their series, something unlikely to happen as it was being heavily trailed (it may be that I have not been listening at the right time, but I get the impression they ceased after the controversy broke) and for Logan to apologise for lying to him, which seemed equally unlikely as she was ignobly pretending the sorry business had not happened (as was Duffy).  He also asked fans of the book to listen carefully to the series to see if any of his book’s content had been lifted without credit, while wondering aloud why, as there was clearly an alignment of approach judging by the common title, he had not only not been invited to contribute but told they had not heard of him.  Perhaps he wasn’t ‘cool’ enough.

 The result of this BBC foot-shooting was a massive outpouring of support for Roger, and a boost in sales of the book, plus others tagging Radio 4 and asking what the station intended to do about it.  What Radio 4 intended to do about it was borrow the Logan playbook and remain silent.  Someone who did not remain silent was Christopher Josiffe (author of Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra-Special Talking Mongoose) who announced that he had been interviewed for the episode on poltergeists but had asked for his contribution to be removed as he now felt uncomfortable being associated with the project.

 While there is no copyright on titles (hence those crying plagiarism on the title alone are wrong), it could be construed as passing off, and according to Roger some contributors had assumed he was involved.  However, it is difficult to argue he has suffered any loss of income when sales have increased as a result; but it does seem a shame to have lifted the distinctive title of a well-regarded book without acknowledgement.  Roger asked me to read it and comment when it was in draft, and I thought it sensitively written and informative, and a solid overview.  Even without her own evidence that Logan had read it, it would be hard to believe she could have researched an entire series, if she had done so properly, and not come across it.

 One wonders how the duplication came about.  Did a producer (Duffy?) think it up independently, was it perchance a case of cryptomnesia, or just a cynical disregard for the feelings of an author, caring more for the snappy title than the effect it would have; or perhaps in the arrogant way media people often have, assuming Roger would be flattered.  In the event, they have done Roger a backhanded favour by giving him exposure, but it hardly excuses the way the situation has been handled.

 Let’s hope that after this entirely avoidable unpleasantness the series is worth listening to, and makes good on Logan’s assurance Roger’s book was not tapped for its content.  Many ears will be listening to make sure such is the case.  It is hard enough for freelancers to make a living, and people who work for the national broadcaster should be careful how their actions may affect others with less power.  It is also pathetic that Logan should be caught out saying she did not know about Roger’s book when it was one of her top reads only four years ago – and the evidence was so readily apparent.  Unless of course she does not in fact read the significant number of books she claims to get through, and really had forgotten all about it.

 I’m sure I’ll be updating this story.


 Update 8 November 2020:

 More evidence of Logan’s knowledge of Roger’s book emerged before the broadcasts commenced in the form of her holding a copy on her Instagram feed in 2016 and referring to a startling detail that had caught her eye, indicating she had at least skimmed it.  Her initial profession of ignorance sounded more and more hollow with each new revelation, and actually peculiar; did she not realise how easy it was to check?

 One positive result of the debacle was the edition of Roger’s book selling out and requiring a reprint.  Less satisfactory was a meeting he eventually had with the BBC in which he expected to be offered an apology, not least for the corporation misleading contributors who assumed he was involved, but he was told by the executive that they did not feel they had done anything wrong.  Roger was offered a link on the series website, but declined on the grounds it would be confusing.

 It was too little too late anyway, and the negative comments continued until eventually the BBC cracked.  After transmission had already begun it quietly retitled the series A History of Ghosts, dropping the Natural.  Roger still had to find out from a supporter, though, as the BBC did not let him know they had done it, and Natural still appeared in the actual episodes as Logan spoke the title.

 Then belatedly, as the series wended its way to the Hallowe’en conclusion, Roger reported that he had heard from the BBC, apologising for any distress caused and telling him they had changed the title to make the lack of connection with the book clear, adding, ‘The title clash was coincidental.’  As Roger sarcastically pointed out, because Logan and Duffy both knew of his book beforehand it was ‘a very special and entirely new form of coincidence previously unknown to science.’

 The Beeb certainly must have been rattled to make the change after commencement, and Roger’s assessment that they knew they were passing off was reasonable, thanks to Logan and Duffy’s clear previous knowledge of the book.  Such attempts to mollify Roger did not prevent the story (sans names) appearing as a gossip item in the Times Literary Supplement, then in Private Eye, which included names and did not shrink from using the term ‘shameless lie’ in connection with Logan’s claim not to have known of Roger’s book.

 As for the series itself, it was well-written, enjoyable, appropriately atmospheric, and refreshingly incorporated ghost lore from around the world.  Logan’s generalisations and anecdotal approach were balanced by website-only podcasts featuring experts who grounded each episode (apart from the one on poltergeists, which was missing Chris Josiffe’s contribution), and were generally more informative than Logan.

 The broadcasts are sufficiently distinct from Rogers’s words to ensure no charge of plagiarism could be supported, and Logan is experienced enough not to have needed to resort to such tactics.  The difference between the two writers is illustrated by the unlikelihood Clarke would mistake Henry James for his brother William, as Logan did when quoting William’s famous remark about white crows.

 It is a pity the BBC ran into so much needless controversy over the title when in all other respects the programme was fine for a 15-minute slot between the lunchtime news and the afternoon repeat of The Archers.  Logan and Duffy must be fervently wishing they had called it something else, and saved all the fuss over such a minor point that has tainted their efforts and damaged their reputations.


Update 1 December 2020:

 After the flurry of critical activity in the run-up to Hallowe’en, things went quiet following the series’ conclusion.  On 25 November Roger tweeted that as he had decided Kirsty Logan was unlikely to apologise he was not going to talk about her further, and added that there was no need for his supporters to continue to be active on his behalf.

 It wasn’t quite the end of the matter, however, as the Christmas 2020 issue of Fortean Times (FT400, p.55) carries a Forum article on the subject written by Roger, ‘An unnatural history of ghosts’.  This runs briefly through the chronology, and concludes with the declaration: ‘Under conventional plagiarism laws, I don’t own the title of my book.  But I do own the private haunted space it has made.’

 Whatever the legal and moral ins and outs of the ownership of haunted spaces, he is entitled to feel miffed by Logan and Duffy’s contortions and the grudging way the BBC handled his complaint.  What puzzled me, though, was his assertion earlier in the article that ‘A Natural History of Ghosts has only ever been used once before, and that was by me.’  While it may be the first use for a book title in English, it has certainly been used before, albeit in German.

 Ernst Krause gave it to his 1863 book, Die naturgeschichte der gespenster; physikalisch-physiologische studien (The Natural History of Ghosts; Physical-Physiological Studies).  I had assumed this was Roger’s source, though Krause’s name does not appear in his book, but apparently it wasn’t.  While strictly speaking his title is not original, Roger’s reuse has no bearing on the passing-off issue with the BBC as the English-language version is so closely identified with him.

 As a firm supporter of the BBC I was sorry to contemplate this self-inflicted wound, but I am also sad the podcast Christopher Josiffe narrated about Gef was not, at his insistence, included on the series website, as while they were all excellent, it is one I would have particularly enjoyed.  Presumably it still exists in the BBC’s archives and hopefully one day, in another context, we will be able to hear it.