Saturday, 11 December 2010

From Magic Lantern to Movies: The Optical Magic Lantern Journal 1889 – 1903 – A review

Digitisation of old newspapers and journals is making a wealth of hitherto difficult-to-access material available to researchers. At one time you might have to travel long distances to a specialist library which carried increasingly fragile (having generally been considered ephemeral when first produced) periodicals you wished to examine. The situation was improved by microfiche, though even if a title was available this still entailed a trip to use expensive, cumbersome and often fiddly equipment, and searching was difficult (and off-puttingly noisy). Since then digitisation is increasing apace, though many very worthy projects are only available online via academic institutions, and therefore not generally accessible.

Sometimes material appears on CD and DVD, making it easy to search large quantities of text at home. Instead of having to devote several feet of shelving to yellowing publications, or travel to see them, one can obtain the lot in a convenient form. One such venture is this DVD, published by PhotoResearch. Its genesis lies in the purchase by a pair of collectors of 139 issues of the Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger on eBay, and these have been supplemented with copies from Oxford’s Bodleian Library to complete the set.

The OMLJ was published from 1889 to 1903 as a trade paper for lanternists, though it did stray into general photographic matters (the editor for all but its last year was J Hay Taylor, son of J Traill Taylor, editor of the British Journal of Photography). One hundred and sixty issues were produced, totalling nearly 5,000 pages. The complete run is presented here as PDFs in two versions – a high definition copy of each issue, and a lower resolution one that is searchable. The issues are arranged by volume, all thirteen of them, so if a particular issue is required, it is simple to access.

To make navigation easier, the issues are indexed with a couple of thousand content items, with links to the issues. These are arranged in several ways: by title, listed alphabetically; by contributor; by type of item – editorials, articles, letters, obituaries and so forth; by people mentioned, including contributors, with biographical information where available; and by advertiser. Fortunately all the advertising, often discarded when journals are bound, is included, providing important information on the trade.

Despite the journal’s title there much here to interest early film enthusiasts. It allows the reader to track the magic lantern as it gives way as an entertainment medium to films (or rather, “animated photographs”), which move from a novelty in the mid-1890s to an increasingly significant medium in the early twentieth century (hence the disc’s title). Thus the April 1896 issue could imply that they were a passing fad with “The present boom, as regards the lantern, appears to be in the direction of ‘animated projection.’ Some time ago we had Friese Greene's apparatus, but latterly quite a host have arisen.” A mere seven years later, J Page Croft was surely swimming against the tide when he wrote an article which appeared in the last issue, entitled ‘How to Become a Lantern Lecturer’. A lesson that the Journal teaches is that cinema did not spring ex nihilo, but came from a well-established culture of projection.

It could be argued that using a disc instead of leafing through the pages removes something from the experience of research, and it is true that a connection is formed when handling paper that is missing from a computer screen. But the advantages of being able to scan large quantities of information quickly, along with the conservation aspects, and the sheer convenience of being able to do it at one’s desk, means that ventures such as this are to be applauded. One day such individual initiatives will be integrated into a Grand Unified Database, with sophisticated search facilities that can range widely over vast tracts of newsprint. In the meantime this will do nicely.

From Magic Lanterns to Movies, published by PhotoResearch, October 2010, ISBN 978-0-9523011-1-0, £60 including UK and international airmail postage. Contact: Mike Smith, South Park, Galphay Road, Kirkby Malzeard, Ripon, North Yorkshire, HG4 3RX, UK or email:

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Hiding the Elephant - A review

Hiding the Elephant, by Jim Steinmeyer

Jim Steinmeyer has provided a very entertaining look at the history of stage magic from the early nineteenth century to the 1930s. This was one of the art’s golden ages – we are arguably living through another, though after reading Hiding the Elephant one might be forgiven for thinking it is in large part derivative of past achievements – and he gives us a lovingly crafted (and crafty) look at the personalities and some of their tricks.

His structuring device is Harry Houdini making an elephant vanish on the stage of New York's Hippodrome Theatre in 1918. It’s one of the most famous acts in the history of magic, but was received with general indifference by those who saw him perform it; the only people who could appreciate it were those sitting directly in front, which was a tiny proportion of the audience. Nevertheless it has intrigued magicians ever since. The author has investigated and puts forward his theory of how Houdini did it at the end of the book, along with a description of his own effort at doing the same with a rather more compact donkey.

While we are waiting for that, we are treated to a history of magicians and their cunning. Steinmeyer is as much interested in the personalities of the magicians who turned magic into an art form as he is in the technology, and gives a flavour of the intrigues behind the development of some of the greatest tricks, the schemes and professional jealousies, friendships and rivalries, the thefts of ideas and sometimes equipment, and despite all that a sense of camaraderie among fellow professionals.

The book’s scope is ambitious, and an extensive cast of larger-than-life characters parades through it. The dramatis personae are listed at the front, with pen portraits, and this is the first indication that this is going to be a complicated story, with names such as Goldin, Goldston and Thurston, Hermann and Kellar, to keep straight.

He covers well-known figures such as the Maskelyne dynasty and David Devant at Egyptian Hall, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, mainly remembered because Houdini borrowed his name, and Georges Méliès, known today as a film pioneer, and who makes a very brief walk-on appearance (it has to be said that the book’s focus is mostly Anglo-American). Others are undeservedly obscure, such as Charles Morritt and P T Selbit, and Steinmeyer provides a valuable service in bringing the achievements of a range of lesser-known performers to a wider audience.

To add to the complexity, Steinmeyer generally analyses the technical aspects of the tricks with just enough information to convey a sense of the mechanics, but descriptions can get quite complicated, even with the aid of line drawings. The chapters are choppy, with individuals, perhaps appropriately but not always elegantly, appearing and disappearing from the narrative, which never spends too much time on any one before going on to the next, and then back again often over several chapters. While written in a clear style for the general reader, it does help to have some background knowledge of the subject already. Yet despite the stylistic infelicities Steinmeyer has a good sense of momentum, keeping the reader wanting to know the secret of whatever he happens to be discussing.

Not least we get a sense of the stresses involved in having constantly to find the next big thing, while at the same time Steinmeyer shows how themes could be endlessly recycled, a vivid demonstration that still-drinkable old wine could be put in shiny new bottles. The emphasis is not so much on the mechanics but the presentation and showmanship of the performer, that is, it’s not about the idea of the trick as much as what you do with it. And some tricks were amazing, whether small or large scale: sawing a woman in half or levitating her for example.

A motif running through the book is the versatility of glass. In the nineteenth century, competing magicians combined advances in optics with mirrors that permitted people to disappear, or "ghosts" to appear, combining the art and science of reflected images to create attractions such as Pepper's Ghost, Proteus, the Oracle of Delphi and the Sphinx. As the cliché indicates, they really did do it with mirrors, though sometimes wires came in handy. One marvels at the ingenuity and leaps of imagination which some of these devices required for their conceptualisation and development.

The methods were often cruder though. The Davenport Brothers took advantage of the popularity of Spiritualism, touring with a ‘séance’ cabinet, and their strength was the ambiguity of their act. Steinmeyer looks at their career in terms of magic rather than the physical phenomena of Spiritualism, and finds that actually they weren’t that good because they did too much: by showing themselves untied they undermined their own illusion. It is ironic that Houdini, scourge of mediums, should seek out the aged Ira Davenport, and in his 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits exclude the Davenports from his general blasts against the purveyors of the paranormal, even though Ira and brother William had capitalised on it.

It is sad that so many of the artists so lovingly describes have been eclipsed by the myth created by Houdini‘s tireless self-promotion. In their own time Howard Thurston was as famous, but is largely forgotten today outside specialist circles. Houdini was a remarkable personality, but in terms of magical ingenuity and presentation he was not in the first rank – he was a great escape artist but a poor stage magician, and this is not a flattering portrait of him. Steinmeyer, though, clearly has a huge affection for most of those he covers, for all their personal frailties.

As one of the world's leading designers of stage illusions, Steinmeyer writes from a fund of practical experience, which gives his account not only the evocative warmth of a fellow professional, but also a practical appreciation that would be lost if the book had been written by an armchair theoretician. He too has confronted logistical problems and overcome them, and so has an insider’s understanding.

He also provides a little of the philosophy of magic, describing what distinguishes a good trick from a bad one. The result is an engaging and accessible (as far as possible given that some of the tricks are pretty mind-bending) guide showing “How magicians invented the impossible” – or at least gave the impression they had, which is truly magic.

Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible, by Jim Steinmeyer, London: William Heinnemann, 2003.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Eleanor Sidgwick and her Doctorates

Some time ago I reviewed a book called The Articulate Dead by Michael E Tymn. He had referred to Eleanor Sidgwick, a significant early figure in the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), as “Dr Sidgwick”, and I wrote that she did not have a doctorate and was always referred to as “Mrs Sidgwick”. More recently I reviewed a DVD, This Life, Next Life: Evidence for the Afterlife, by Keith Parsons, who also referred to “Dr Sidgwick”. I wondered if Keith had picked up the reference from The Articulate Dead.

Shortly afterwards I had an email from Michael Tymn saying that he had read somewhere that Eleanor Sidgwick had a doctorate, possibly an honorary one, but that would still count. He had been in touch with Keith Parsons, who said that he too had come across this information somewhere, though not in The Articulate Dead (Keith later remembered that it was in an online piece – by Mike Tymn). I was left with the question of whether Eleanor Sidgwick had achieved a doctorate, if so where from, and whether it was legitimate to refer to her as “Dr Sidgwick”, a title which she seems never to have used herself.

While she did not possess an earned doctorate, she was awarded several honorary ones later in her career, not primarily for her psychical or mathematical research but rather for her administration and efforts in promoting women’s education. The basic information is contained in the book written after her death, which occurred on 10 February 1936, Mrs. Henry Sidgwick: a Memoir by her niece Ethel Sidgwick (London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., 1938, pp. 165-6):

“Mrs. Sidgwick's services to Universities and to education generally, were recognised by four Honorary Degrees: the first being offered by the "Victoria" University, uniting Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. Birmingham was the second, St. Andrews the third. Her fourth degree, late but not least valued, was conferred by Edinburgh.”

Helen Fowler’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography refers to the honorary degrees in similar terms and is presumably drawn from the Memoir. They do not specify whether the degrees were doctorates, but it was a reasonable assumption that they were. To find out more about what kinds of degrees she was awarded, and when, I contacted all four institutions mentioned, plus Newnham College, Cambridge, with which she had had a long relationship.

Ann Thomson, archivist at Newnham, replied that the college records showed that Eleanor Sidgwick received the four honorary degrees for her services to education, and added that she had never seen Eleanor referred to as Dr Sidgwick, which would more likely have been used in connection with her husband Dr (later Professor) Henry Sidgwick. She added that in 1921 women were granted the 'title of degree' but it was not until 1948 that they were granted full membership of Cambridge University. She told me that there is no mention in the Newnham records of Eleanor Sidgwick ever taking a doctorate in her own right.

I did a search of the 'Times' online archive and indeed found that only Henry was ever referred to as ‘Dr’, never Eleanor. So what exactly were these degrees which were awarded to Mrs Sidgwick? The four institutions replied, some with more detail than others, but all supplied the basic information. To take the awards in chronological order:

The Victoria University

The Victoria University was a federal institution established in 1880, incorporating what eventually became the universities of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. Jenny Wallwork at Manchester told me that their records showed that the Victoria University awarded Mrs Henry Sidgwick the honorary degree of Litt.D. in 1899. Ms Wallwork kindly checked the online records of the ‘Manchester Guardian’ newspaper, and said that the decision was approved by the University Court at a meeting on Thursday 22nd June, 1899. The degree ceremony was fully reported in the newspaper issue dated July 3, 1899. The full citation read out at the ceremony was included, and it stated that the degree was awarded to recognise "the varied accomplishments and the self-sacrificing devotion of the successful administrator".


Philippa Bassett confirmed that the University of Birmingham awarded Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick an honorary LLD in 1909. According to the minutes of University Council, a Special Degree Congregation was planned to follow the royal opening of the University’s Edgbaston buildings in July 1909, and the relevant minute book contains a printed list of persons whom the Senate wished to invite to accept the Honorary Degree of LLD: “The matter has been carefully discussed in the several Faculties, as well as at meetings of the Principals’ and Deans’ Committee and each outside name is recommended by the Faculty which contains experts in the specific subject.” Eleanor Sidgwick is listed as Mrs Sidgwick and is described as Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge. The reason for the award is not given in the Council’s minutes, and Ms Bassett concludes that the minutes of these various bodies might throw light on a more specific reason for Eleanor Sidgwick’s selection, but she did not have the resources to undertake a search of them.

It is worth adding that the Principal of the University of Birmingham from 1900 to 1919 was Sir Oliver Lodge (knighted in 1902). Lodge was a colleague of Mrs Sidgwick’s in the SPR, and it is likely that that he exercised some influence in the award of the honorary doctorate.

St Andrews

St Andrews dealt with my enquiry as a Freedom of Information request. June Weir wrote that

“ELEANOR MILDRED SIDGWICK received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (LLD) in person at a ceremony in St Andrews as part of the Quincentenary celebrations of the University on Thursday 14 September 1911 at 1030 am. She was one of two women so honoured, amongst 86 recipients of the LLD on that occasion, the other being Louisa Innes Lumsden. Both women were pioneers in the field of the education of women. There does not seem to have been a normal laureation address, since there were so many graduates at the ceremony. Rather, a souvenir handbook was published in 1912 which contains a potted biography of the honorary graduates. Mrs Sidgwick is described as follows:

“‘74 Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, sister of the Right Honourable A.J. Balfour and widow of Professor Henry Sidgwick, Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1892-1910. Mrs Sidgwick has been closely connected with the progress of secondary Education in many ways. Most notable perhaps is her work for Newnham College for women, which owes an untold amount to her extraordinarily calm clear good sense and judgment, her great administrative ability, her generous outlook and living sympathy. For 35 years she has been, and still is, Treasurer to the College, and has had the finance practically in her hands, and it is impossible to overpraise the wise, sound, far-seeing policy, pursued by her throughout with marked success. In 1892 she became Principal, an office which she has only recently resigned, and she is now President of the Newnham Council. She was a most useful and active member of the Royal Commission on Education, the first Royal Commission on which women were appointed to sit, and has been on many Educational bodies since. Mrs Sidgwick has taken an active part in the work of the Psychical Society [i.e. the Society for Psychical Research] from its commencement and has made valuable contributions to its proceedings.’

“Her name was suggested to the University Senatus by the Honorary Degrees committee but there does not seem to be a record of who might have nominated her.”


The final honorary doctorate awarded to Mrs Sidgwick was also that of LLD, significantly for her academic work as much as for her contributions to sound administration. Arnott Wilson supplied the text of a letter written by Mrs Sidgwick, as well as the relevant part of the encomium read at the ceremony.

The letter from Mrs Sidgwick, dated from Fisher's Hill, 25 March 1923, states: "I am in receipt of your letter enclosing the offer of the Senatus Academicus of the University of Edinburgh to confer on me the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws. I cannot refuse so great an honour and am much gratified that the University should consider me worthy of it. My only hesitation about replying at once has been due to the fact that at my age [she was 78] one cannot rely on the health and strength necessary for long journeys and fatiguing ceremonials some months ahead, so that element of uncertainty must accompany my acceptance".

It appears that she did manage to attend the graduation ceremony which was held on the morning of 12th July 1923, when the degree was conferred. In presenting the thirteen candidates for the honorary LLD degrees (which included Winston Churchill), the Dean of the Faculty of Law, Professor James Mackintosh, stated: "Women figure so prominently in our Ordinary list of graduands that it would almost seem invidious if they were not represented in the Honorary list as well. Fortunately, Mrs Sidgwick has seen her way to accept our invitation, and it would be hard to find a lady better entitled to University honour or more deserving of the gratitude of her sex. During her long connection with Newnham College as Principal and Bursar, she proved herself a sane and judicious leader in the movement for the Higher Education of Women. She has contributed materially to the progress of Electrical Science by the part she took in investigating the absolute values of the fundamental electrical units. In the more occult region of psychical research, she has pursued her inquiries in the same strictly scientific spirit, not without a certain measure of philosophic doubt. It adds to the warmth of our welcome that Mrs Sidgwick is a member of the brilliant family which has given us our revered Chancellor."

The “revered Chancellor” of the University was Mrs Sidgwick’s brother, Arthur Balfour, who had been appointed in 1891 and was created The Earl of Balfour in 1922.

One further source of information is Burke’s Peerage. The 96th edition of 1938, p.207, in the section devoted to the Balfour family, refers to Mrs Sidgwick as in possession of the four doctorates, which it then lists, along with the relevant institution. It does not say that these are honorary doctorates, the implication being that Burke’s is above such mundane distinctions, and one might (at a stretch) assume that Mrs Sidgwick had achieved them in a non-honorary way. The wording was essentially unchanged in the 107th edition of 2003, and it is conceivable that this has been a source of confusion.

So Eleanor Sidgwick was awarded four honorary doctorates, her tally being one Litt.D and three LLDs, but the question still remains whether this would entitle her to use the title. Who better to ask than the University of Cambridge, and I received a reply from Tim Milner, who is the University’s Ceremonial Officer. He said that there were no hard and fast rules. Within the University, a person with an Honorary Cambridge Doctorate, but not a substantive one (i.e. one for which a thesis has been submitted), might be addressed as Dr in formal and social correspondence. However, in the outside world it would be up to the recipient: “Some clearly like the style Dr, others do not. Some people think it should be used socially and formally, and others not”, he concluded. Wikipedia also distinguishes honorary from substantive degrees and says that although honorary ones are not generally considered to be of the same standing as the substantive ones, in principle the honorary ones "may be considered to have technically the same standing, and to grant the same privileges and style of address as their substantive counterparts, except where explicitly stated to the contrary".

With no fixed rules and fluid conventions regarding honorary doctorates, I have to say that Tymn and Parsons were not incorrect in referring to Eleanor as “Dr Sidgwick”, so I withdraw my criticism of the usage. However, the point remains that, as far as I have been able to establish, this was not a style used either by her, or by her contemporaries either to or about her. I suspect that while she was happy to receive the recognition for her efforts, thereby publicising the cause of women’s education, she did not consider it right to use a title more appropriate to academic achievement. She might even have considered the use, based on only an honorary award, pretentious. The irony is of course that she would have been more than able to achieve the distinction on the basis of her intellectual capacities had the times been more favourable.

As a side issue, Ann Thomson at Newnham refers to Henry as “Dr Sidgwick”, but he was in the same position as his wife, his degrees being honorary. According to his biographer, Bart Schultz, he had a number of these, from the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Leipzig, Oxford and Budapest. He became Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1883.

Eleanor Sidgwick's scrolls seem to have disappeared. In addition to Newnham, I asked Jonathan Smith at Trinity College if they were there, as its library holds some of Mrs Sidgwick’s papers, and Peter Meadows at Cambridge University Library, which houses the SPR’s archives, but drew a blank.


In addition to the archivists mentioned, thanks are due to Alan Gauld for checking Ethel Sidgwick’s book on her aunt and to Trevor Hamilton for the relevant section of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (and for the information that before her untimely death Janet Oppenheim planned to write a full biography of Mrs/Dr Sidgwick, a project which is clearly overdue).

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Case of the Phantom Polaroid

This article appeared in Fortean Times No 261, a special issue dated April 2010, pp.64-65. The issue had a number of articles related to photography, and included my review of Melvyn Willin’s Ghosts Caught on Film 2.

After the publication of the article I obtained a copy of Robin Foy’s monumental Witnessing the Impossible, described as “the definitive story of the Scole Experimental Group”, which contains an account of every séance it held. The session which produced the Conan Doyle image about which I had written is described on p.111 (it is unfortunate that such a large book – xvi+560pp – does not have an index, though there is an appendix listing new phenomena, with dates). It took place on Friday 13 January 1995 with the entire Scole group present.

The entry surprisingly says that two images of Conan Doyle were obtained, “one of which was clear and upright, with the other being more blurred and sideways on.” Which one is reproduced in Grant and Jane Solomon’s The Scole Experiment is unclear (they refer to the Conan Doyle picture on p.60 but only do not say that there was another one). If Foy is referring to the positioning of the face, the one published would be the first, which is full face rather than in profile, and anyway it seems reasonable that they would have chosen the better of the two for publication, though it is an exaggeration to call it “clear”.

Foy reproduces exactly the same version as in the Solomons’ book as Plate 3, but does not specify which of the two it was either. Curiously the appendix merely says “Photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”, suggesting that there was only one image. As far as I am aware the other picture, if it still exists, has not been published.

The article below is as it appeared in FT, except that the published version included references within the text to previous FT articles on the Scole Experimental Group and Ted Serios, turned my own embedded references into footnotes (with TinyURL links), and put the reference to the SPR’s Scole Report as a separate “See also...”. The FT article included Gates’s painting and an enlargement of the picture in the Solomons’ book, cropping the latter slightly. The picture above is my own attempt to recreate the Scole image, manipulating the painting digitally.

The Case of the Phantom Polaroid

Tom Ruffles offers a possible identity for a supposedly unknown image of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle obtained during a Norfolk séance.

Roger Straughan’s recent book A Study in Survival: Conan Doyle Solves the Final Problem mentions a Polaroid photo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which was obtained during a séance held by the Scole Experimental Group in 1995 (Straughan, 2009, p.136). This was a circle that met for séances at Scole, Norfolk, led by Robin and Sandra Foy. Robin Foy had also formed an organisation called the Noah’s Ark Society for Physical Mediumship (NAS) in 1990.

The photograph of Conan Doyle was reproduced in The Scole Experiment by Grant and Jane Solomon (1999, opposite p53). Straughan was intrigued by it as he did not recognise the source. He asked the late Montague Keen, an investigator from the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and co-author of an extensive report on Scole published by the SPR, if the picture had been identified by the Group. Keen said that it hadn’t. Nor was a friend of Straughan’s, who was knowledgeable about Conan Doyle and to whom he showed it, able to match it to an existing photograph.

This was significant, because if the Scole Polaroid did not correspond to a photograph of Conan Doyle taken during his lifetime, the implication was that it was a post-mortem portrait impressed on the Polaroid, and therefore evidence of Conan Doyle’s survival of death. As Straughan says: “So if fakery of any kind had been involved (as sceptics will always maintain in such cases), where did the original come from which the fake picture would have had to use?”

While reviewing Straughan’s book (Ruffles 2010), I felt that I had managed to trace the source of the Scole image, not to an existing photograph but to a painting. I thought that the original was a portrait painted in 1927 by Henry L Gates and owned by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG4115). It was not a straight copy, however, but had been manipulated by being reversed and closely cropped, converted to black and white and degraded.

I put this theory to Straughan and we had a friendly discussion during which he said that he and his colleague had considered the painting but had dismissed it as not bearing enough similarity to the Scole picture. He naturally asked me how I felt the alterations had been achieved, and I offered a suggestion, while acknowledging that manipulation, if that is what had occurred, could have been done by other means. My way would require access to a darkroom to reverse the picture.

The method I suggested to Straughan would be to take a reproduction (perhaps a postcard from the Gallery); photograph it on ordinary colour film stock which could be processed commercially; put the negative in an enlarger, but reversed; print a copy on black and white paper, which gives a low-contrast look when using a colour negative and, as the original portrait has a very dark background, there would be no tell-tale extraneous features at the edges; take a Polaroid of the print, coming in close with just the head in the frame.

The result of re-photographing the original would be a loss of detail such as the image in the Solmons' book shows. With the facilities to make prints it would be easy to do, using trial and error with the exposure and filters on the enlarger to get a satisfactory result – clear enough to show who the subject was but blurry enough to disguise the starting point. I did consider the possibility of using an acetate sheet in a photocopier, which would be simpler, but discarded the idea as it seemed likely that, if anything, the contrast would be increased rather than reduced.

I think it is fair to say that Straughan was not convinced by my hypothesis, so we agreed to disagree. And it could be argued that a discarnate Conan Doyle had utilised an existing portrait to prove his survival, impressing it on the Polaroid by paranormal means, or that one of the Scole sitters had done so, distorting a memory of the painting in the process (as Ted Serios was said to impress pictures of real yet strangely altered places on Polaroids). But the argument – that if the Polaroid does not correspond to an image of him when alive, then the case for the continuation of his personality after death is bolstered – looks weaker if an original is identified

If non-paranormal means were employed, and if the painting was the starting point, it would not have been necessary to go far for a copy. The front cover of Psychic News for 7 November 1992 carried an exposé of medium ‘Lincoln’ (Colin Fry), with the headline “Medium Caught Holding Trumpet” which began: “Shocked sitters witnessed physical medium Lincoln ‘standing in the middle of the room holding a spirit trumpet in his hand’ when the lights suddenly came on during a Noah’s Ark Society (NAS) séance last month. The séance held before an invited audience, took place at NAS chairman Robin Foy’s home in Scole, Norfolk.” (The articles can be found on

Next to this article is another entitled “Conan Doyle letters are auctioned”, with a picture of the man himself. This is the NPG portrait, cropped, degraded and in black and white. Someone wanting to use it as a source would have had an available image that could be re-photographed, reversed, printed and turned into a Polaroid (the Psychic News version is cropped, but the Scole picture is tighter still). A further article in Psychic News the following April stated that the NAS had carried out an investigation of the trumpet incident and still supported Fry, so they must have seen the initial front-page report, and the picture of Conan Doyle, in November.

It might be argued that this is all a lot of bother for such a meagre result, but it would be straightforward for someone experienced in a darkroom. Reversal makes it slightly more complicated than straight re-photographing but disguises the origin of the result beautifully – certainly enough to deceive a number of people familiar with pictures, including Gates’ painting, of Conan Doyle. It would be useful if other researchers were to examine the two pictures, the NPG one altered in the way I suggest, and see if they find my argument convincing.


Keen, Montague, Ellison, Arthur and Fontana, David, The Scole Report: An Account of an Investigation into the Genuineness of a Range of Physical Phenomena associated with a Mediumistic Group in Norfolk, England. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1999.

Psychic News, 7 November 1992, 10 April 1993.

Ruffles, Tom. Review of A Study in Survival,, January 2010.

Solomon, Grant and Jane, The Scole Experiment: Scientific Evidence for Life After Death. London: Piatkus, 1999.

Straughan, Roger, A Study in Survival: Conan Doyle Solves the Final Problem. Ropley, Hampshire: O Books, 2009.

Youens, Tony. Articles on Noah’s Ark Society and Colin Fry in Psychic News,

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Jack the Ripper: The Casebook - A review

Jack the Ripper: The Casebook, by Richard Jones

In a crowded marketplace even the keenest student of Jack the Ripper has to ask if yet another book is worth adding to the groaning shelf devoted to those bloody weeks in the autumn of 1888. The answer in this case is an equivocal yes - not for the text, which is basic, but for the facsimile documents that put me in mind of the old Jackdaw folders, information combined with replicas of contemporary papers.

The writing is straightforward and presented in a logical sequence, starting with a brief overview of social conditions in London’s East End, the economically precarious nature of life in which created a large population of prostitutes, and a tendency to scapegoat the influx of Jews escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe. Brief descriptions of the major police personnel involved in the investigation are followed by accounts of what are generally regarded as those killings attributed to the Ripper, set in the wider context of Whitechapel murder.

Interspersed in the descriptions of the deaths are sections recounting the police investigation and the growing anxiety of the local population. Jones sketches in the backgrounds of Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly, rather than leaving them as semi-anonymous bit-players in the drama. A section asks if the Ripper possessed medical knowledge, another examines the murders as a catalyst for social reform.

Individuals suspected at the time are described, along with weaknesses in the evidence against them, as are those who have come under suspicion in more recent years, such as Patricia Cornwell‘s allegations against Walter Sickert, the’ James Maybrick’ diary, and Francis Tumblety. The Royal family and freemasons get their name checks and are promptly exonerated. Very brief overviews of why the police didn’t catch the Ripper, the ambivalent attitudes of the press and what the area looks like now round things off.

With the foregoing are eighteen contemporary documents, each keyed in to the relevant section. These range from reports on the individual murders, some of the various cards and letters sent to the police in the name of Jack, a handbill, to newspaper reports, including a page from the ‘Illustrated Police News’, the date of which is not given (6 October).

The book’s presentation is gimmicky, glossy paper with fake stains and fingerprints, sidebars made to look like newspaper clippings, with pretend staples or paperclips to give the impression that the reader is perusing the original file, and therefore closer to the experience of what it would be like to handle original paperwork. The ‘stains’ give the pages a magazine feel, and are similar in style to the presentation of ‘Ghost Voices’ magazine: lavishly illustrated, short bursts of easily-digestible prose, the whole given a distressed veneer with stains and marks for atmosphere (though the Casebook‘s pages are always legible despite the treatment).

The photographs, which take up about half of the space, are generally well chosen but occasionally there is a sense that the picture editor was struggling to find something relevant to the topic. The cover should have had a warning that some of the post-mortem illustrations are graphic.

The book is fine as far as it goes but feels like an opportunity lost. Jones knows the material and has produced a good primer which will help to orient the reader new to the subject. But many enthusiasts buying the book for the documents will find the text perfunctory; at only 64 pages, all the sections are given only a double-page spread which means that nothing can be covered in depth.

Yet the documents themselves are of limited value as they are hard to read. Transcripts would have helped enormously, as it is very few will manage to plough through all the reports. Also, the documents are housed in very flimsy pockets which are delicate and will crease and tear with anything other than light use. The package has a natty magnetised flap to close it, which presumably is designed to hold the pockets in place when the book is shelved so that the weight of the contents does not weaken them.

The overall impression of the Casebook is that it is elegant and beautifully designed, but not functional, to be admired rather than used as a research tool. Really, there is no need to have physical copies of the documents, as full-colour illustrations would have served just as well. Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell by Stewart P Evans and Keith Skinner managed to combine colour illustrations (and more clearly than Jones’s facsimiles, which have lost some definition in the reproduction) with transcriptions, making it a model of its kind.

Jones has produced a clear introduction to the case and the issues it throws up, but it does not, provide, as the introduction claims, “everything you need to understand and launch your own investigation into the mystery of Jack the Ripper”. The would-be Ripperologist needs rather more than these materials allow to be able to do that.

Jack the Ripper: The Casebook, by Richard Jones. Andre Deutsch, 2008.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Displaying the Paranormal

The following article appeared in Fortean Times, No 229, November 2007, pp.38-41.  It supported ‘Harry Price Investigates’, a spin-off article by Richard Morris, who had recently written a biography of Price.  Morris also contributed sidebars on Borley and Rudi Schneider, plus a further article on ectoplasm.  My title was reduced to ‘Displaying the Paranormal’, and some minor alterations of punctuation and wording were made (most notably the deletion of the reference to Of Monsters and Miracles, though I did refer to this event in a follow-up letter replying to some silliness by Morris, who was keen to keep plugging his book). The editor inserted a sub-heading: “In 1925, Harry Price opened a remarkable event in London – a public display of spirit photographs, automatic writing, apports and more.  TOM RUFFLES tells the story of the Exhibition of Objects of Psychic Interest.”  It appears here as submitted.

Displaying the Paranormal: The Exhibition of Objects of Psychic Interest

Readers of this magazine may remember the exhibition of Fortean objects, Of Monsters and Miracles, held at Croydon Clocktower in 1995.   It had an antecedent seventy years before in an even more ambitious enterprise staged at Caxton Hall on 20 and 21 May 1925.  Boasting a slightly less snappy title than the F.T. version, the Exhibition of Objects of Psychic Interest contained a large quantity of items with a paranormal element – almost 1,300 according to the catalogue produced to accompany it, or “many thousands” in the illustrated report which appeared in the July issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR).1  The exhibition aroused a great deal of interest at a time, less than seven years after the end of the Great War, when Spiritualism was flourishing.

The idea originated with J.S. Jensen, president of the Danish Psykisk Oplysnings Forening, the Society for the Promotion of Psychic Knowledge.  He had been collecting objects related to the subject for some years, and had eventually gathered enough material for an exhibition in Copenhagen in January 1925.  Psychical researcher (and self-publicist) Harry Price was invited open it.

Price had been a last-minute replacement for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had originally accepted an invitation to lecture in Denmark.  Unfortunately, according to Price’s later account in Search for Truth, shortly before Conan Doyle was due to leave he had attended a séance at which he was warned by the spirit world that the trip might prove injurious to his health, and he had cried off.  Price went in his stead, and the visit was a great success, especially the catering.  Jensen suggested that the exhibition might travel to London, and, impressed by the idea, Price agreed to make arrangements.

He needed a venue, and fortunately the London Spiritualist Alliance (LSA, later the College of Psychic Studies) was planning a grand bazaar and fête, with the purpose of raising funds to purchase a new headquarters building.  It agreed that the two enterprises would complement each other.

This was useful for Price because in March he floated the idea of a National Laboratory of Psychical Research, for which he required a home.  He had used rooms at the LSA’s premises in Queen Square previously, but he had ambitions for a much grander research facility, and it made sense to cohabit with the LSA.  One problem, though, was Price’s ambivalent relationship with Conan Doyle who, being the most prominent exponent of Spiritualism in the country, had a great deal of leverage with the LSA.  Price’s efforts to organise the proposed exhibition, thereby boosting the profile of the LSA’s bazaar, would provide him with an advantage in his negotiations with them.

The LSA Council announced the exhibition in its publication Light on 18 April 1925, and launched an appeal for loans to supplement Jensen’s collection, which was to be brought to London in its entirety.  Lenders were asked to supply a statement giving the background to the object, plus “the signatures of those able to testify to its genuineness.”  Given that there was only a month to the opening, the organisers did well to obtain the amount they did.  However, the bulk of the display – items 1 to 1,109 – was made up of Jensen’s material mounted on panels.  These, with objects gathered in Britain, filled Caxton Hall’s main space, two further rooms and a gallery, totalling, according to Price’s estimate, about 5,000sq ft.

The 36-page catalogue emphasised the breadth of a collection “illustrating the history, literature and development of Spiritualism and psychical Research from the period of Mesmer (1778) to the present day.”  In the foreword, Price warned that a guarantee could not be given that all objects were genuine, and referred to “fraud, folly, self-deception” and “credulous owners.”  He stressed that no selection to “segregate the sheep from the goats” had taken place on the grounds that “the investigator does not yet know what is, or is not, psychic fraud.”2  Despite this caveat, he concluded that “No one – however sceptical – can regard the mass of material brought together at this Exhibition without coming to the conclusion that there is a strong prima facie case for very serious investigation and scientific research.  The observer who will not admit this is not honest” (italics in original).

On show was a selection of books, portraits of mediums and Spiritualist leaders, and “relics”, including Kate Fox’s marriage certificate which, along with pictures of the Fox sisters, harked back to the origins of Spiritualism in 1848.  There were examples of trance drawings and automatic writing, including texts dictated by Solon, Bishop Wilberforce, Plato, Seneca and Beethoven.  Captain Bartlett, drawing in semi-trance as John Alleyne, presented eight pastels of Glastonbury Abbey as he envisioned it to have looked in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  There were a number of notebooks and drawings which had belonged to William Stainton Moses, one of the founders of the LSA, and various apports (objects transported by paranormal means into the séance room), including a pair of polecat tails and a wreath of leaves from Summerland.

There were many spirit photographs on display, including examples taken by Ada Emma Deane (who had been exposed by The Daily Sketch the previous year), Harry Blackwell, Robert Boursnell, William Hope’s Crewe Circle (investigated by Price in 1922 with ambiguous results), and Édouard Isidore Buguet, who had confessed to fraud – but later retracted – in 1875.  Conan Doyle’s 85 spirit ‘Garscadden’ photographs had an area to themselves. (By 1942, twelve years after Sir Arthur’s death, Price felt brave enough to dismiss the “large collection, every one of which was, apparently, a fake!  Poor, dear, lovable, credulous Doyle”; a verdict curiously absent from Price’s report compiled while Doyle was still corporeal.)  American medium ‘Margery’ (Mina Crandon), “whose phenomena are the wonder of the civilised world” according to the catalogue, was represented by two photographs.  One section was devoted to what the catalogue described as fake photographs, the implication being that all the others were genuine: “Anti-Spiritualistic experiments by Faustinus, Marriott and Rinn.”

Slates used by the medium Henry Slade were shown, as was his table, the catalogue noting that it had been “described by [John Neville] Maskelyne as a ‘Trick Table’ in the prosecution of Slade.”  This piece of furniture had been used in experiments by Price with the medium Stella C. (Dorothy Stella Cranshaw) at Queen Square in 1923, and then by the LSA as a packing table.3  There were mementos of Madame d’Espérance and records of sittings with a large number of mediums, including Slade, D.D. Home, Florence Cook, Kathleen Goligher, Stainton Moses, Eusapia Palladino, and Mrs Guppy “of aerial transit fame”, i.e. she was said to have teleported across London in 1871.  Captain Pearse’s trance drawing of Elsie Cameron, who was killed in December 1924, and which was said to have been drawn two days before the crime was uncovered, drew a great deal of prurient interest in a case that had achieved notoriety as the Crowborough Chicken Farm Murder

A number of people well known in the field were on hand to explain the significance of the exhibits to visitors.  Among these was Price who, with J.S. Jensen’s son, held sway over the Copenhagen material, as well as his own loans and artefacts associated with Stella C.  Bligh Bond was present to explain the Glastonbury scripts and drawings, and Conan Doyle did the same for his collection.  Dr Abraham Wallace showed lantern slides of the pioneers at work, and Blackwell discussed his spirit photographs.

A private view was held on the afternoon of 19 May, mainly for the press, and according to Light the resulting publicity attracted many non-Spiritualists.  Notwithstanding the organisers’ impression that the press was entirely sympathetic, the sceptical Daily Sketch of 20 May declared it to be the “queerest exhibition ever held in London” and felt obliged to mention two spirits that had been photographed in a semi-nude state.  It explained the pair’s unfortunate condition thus:  he had been an athlete while she had given herself up to pleasure, and both, having neglected to attend to spiritual matters while alive, were now unable to “weave” spirit robes on the other side.

However, the dailies were, on the whole, respectful in tone.  All were primarily fascinated by plaster casts of spirit hands (‘pseudopods’) loaned by the British College of Psychic Science, obtained through the mediumship of Franek Kluski by the hands plunging into buckets of wax before dematerialising.  The Yorkshire Post of 22 May, though, after a positive review, struck a warning note by opining: “One feels, however, that any such exhibition should make a clearer distinction between purely physical phenomena and phenomena having some bearing on human survival”, although it failed to define what it meant by physical phenomena other than that displayed by mediums, which they would automatically consider to imply survival.  As Light put it on 30 May: “Almost every phase of physical mediumship was represented.”

There was a decidedly Society component to the affair.  The first day was opened by Sybil Viscountess Rhondda, and the second by Susan Countess of Malmesbury and Viscountess Molesworth.  Conan Doyle made introductory remarks on both occasions.  As well as the exhibition, there were stalls selling good quality bric a brac, an auction, concerts and variety shows, and “seers” who, in the words of Light’s advance publicity, would “exercise their various gifts to amuse, and perhaps enlighten, visitors for a few quiet minutes away from the bustle of buying and of viewing exhibits…”

There were a number of curious occurrences during the two days, such as Iltyd B. Nicholl, who claimed that he was a frequent target for apports, being struck on the shoe by a safety pin while walking up some stairs with Price.  Price picked it up and declared that it felt warm, though tactfully not that it was the same sort of warmth which would have arisen from it being kept in a pocket.  Another apport, “in the shape of an African native’s leather apron” arrived “especially for the Exhibition.”  As the description of these wonders occurs in the same paragraph in the ASPR article in which Price warns of folly and self-deception, one can assume he is being tongue-in-cheek.4

Attendance was excellent, with £850 changing hands according to the ASPR Journal account (“nearly £1,000” in Search for Truth), which amounted to £600 profit.  The article goes on to state that many well-known people attended, including “everyone in the psychic world”, notably the “late Sir William Barrett”, although it does not add that he was pre-mortem at the time.

Light declared the event a resounding success, giving it extensive coverage.  There were a number of reviews in its 30 May issue, concluding that the bazaar, fête and exhibition would “leave a shining mark in the annals of our subject.”  They noted that Kluski’s casts, Captain Bartlett’s drawings and Conan Doyle’s photographs had attracted particular attention, though in the last-mentioned case whether that was because of the attraction of the pictures themselves or because the creator of Sherlock Holmes was present to discuss them is open to question.

The success of the exhibition oiled Price’s relationship with the LSA, which agreed that his National Laboratory of Psychical Research could occupy the top floor of its new premises in 16 Queensberry Place to which it moved later in the year, and the laboratory duly opened on 1 January 1926.  Conan Doyle, though, continued to blow hot and cold in his relationship with Price, and the intermittent antagonism seems to have caused the LSA some embarrassment, caught as it was in the crossfire between the pair.

Price, foreseeing the exhibition’s success, suggested in the catalogue’s foreword that it should form the nucleus of a permanent museum, and in his ASPR Journal report stated that it had been decided to restage the exhibition.  In a note in the October 1925 Journal he mentioned that Conan Doyle had acted on his suggestion by mounting a display of objects associated with Spiritualism in the basement of his psychic bookshop that could be viewed for a shilling.

Price, perhaps not to be outdone by his rival, also announced that the Council of the National Laboratory had decided to found a museum which would show items he had been collecting for the purpose.  And indeed, Paul Tabori in his biography of Price mentions that Jensen sent material for a display at the Laboratory, of which he became an honorary corresponding member.

While the exhibition was undoubtedly fascinating, Price’s triumphant echoing of a newspaper verdict that it had been “the most wonderful exhibition ever held in London” seems peculiar given that as he wrote, over in Wembley the British Empire Exhibition was in full swing, having opened in April 1924, and finally closing in October 1925.5  Perhaps Price felt that the doings of the spirit realm were more wonderful than those of empire builders...


1 Although unsigned, the Journal article was written by Harry Price.  It formed the basis for the chapter entitled ‘A Unique Exhibition’, in Price’s Search for Truth.  Price was the ASPR’s ‘Foreign Research Officer’.

2 One feels that Price, with his first-hand knowledge of the field, would have had a good idea of what was fraudulent.  The verdict in Search for Truth was not so even-handed, adopting a sneering tone.

3 It now resides in the President’s office at the College of Psychic Studies.

4 In the ASPR account the gentleman remains anonymous and is identified by name only in Search for Truth, by which time he was presumably dead.

5 One of the Light reviews refers to the Caxton Hall display as a “Wembley” of psychic exhibits.

Further reading:

[Harry Price], ‘The Psychic Exhibition’, Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, July 1925, pp382-386.

Harry Price, Search for Truth – My Life for Psychical Research, Collins, London, 1942.

Paul Tabori, Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, The Athenæum Press, London, 1950.


Thanks are due to Dr Julia C Walworth, Head of Historic Collections at the University of London Library, for producing the exhibition catalogue from the Harry Price Collection (gone, alas, are the days when one could look for oneself); and especially to Kay MacCauley, General Administrator of The College of Psychic Studies, for delving into back issues of Light.

Course Works

This article appeared in the readers’ views column at the back of Amateur Photographer, 30 October 1999, p.106, under the title ‘Course works’. The darkroom references give it an air of nostalgia, and I still recall fondly messing around with tests strips and the magic, which never palled, of putting the paper in the developer and seeing an image emerge. It’s a sensation you just don’t get with Photoshop. Alas when I tried to book up for the next module I found the course full, then I moved, then digital came along. It is good though that there is still an interest in old processes. I recently decided to part with my film cameras (including the Pentax Super-A referred to in the article) and lenses, and donated them to my local charity shop. A lady picked them up eagerly for her daughter, telling me that the students at the village college had a darkroom and were avid users of film cameras. It’s nice to think that old techniques survive alongside new ones, and that future generations will experience the pleasure of the real – as opposed to the digital – darkroom.

For years I, like many other amateur snappers, did not particularly consider what went on between pressing the button on the top of my automatic camera and getting the packet of photos through the post. The most technical thing I ever did was press '+2' when there was a lot of sky in the frame. I enjoyed taking pictures, and tried to improve my composition - I even asked for a roll of black and white film one birthday so that I could try some arty shots - but something was lacking, as I realised when I compared my efforts to work in magazines.

Help was needed if I wanted to create something more than a record of family life. There was nothing for it but to enrol in an evening class, and I discovered that my local FE college had a decent photographic department. Armed with a second-hand Pentax Super-A, I enrolled on a City and Guilds course, where I knew that I would be mixing with other mature students. My original aim was to pick up a few tips about technique, and the theoretical sessions went a long way towards giving me the confidence to take more than random snaps. We were also able to try out the well-equipped studio, which was interesting, and not something I would have done otherwise.

After a term we moved into the darkroom to do black and white processing and printing. What a revelation that was. For the first time I could control the sequence from raw material (bulk film for economy) through to final image. I was no longer reliant on a machine and an anonymous operator. If I mucked it up (which I frequently did) I had nobody else to blame.

Perhaps it was something in the chemicals, but I found the process addictive, as I suspect many of my colleagues did, judging by the number that came in early, worked like demons, and left as late as possible. People did drop out: some decided that a camera club would be more suitable for their level of aspiration, others lacked patience and could not get the hang of the technical aspects. But most stuck with it, and we learned together. Well before the end of the year I knew I wanted to do the other modules.

What have I learned so far? For a start, the considerations involved in taking good photographs, and in the darkroom how to try variations on a theme to obtain the best effect. There is something incredibly satisfying about manipulating an image for optimum impact, and I never tire of seeing the picture magically appear in the developer, faint at first, then stronger and stronger. The materials are fairly cheap, so if an idea does not work, not much has been lost, and the syllabus provides a framework so that the experimentation has a goal.

OK, I'm not an expert by any means, but there is a sense of satisfaction in having a go which is denied to those who send off their films in an envelope or drop them off at a high street processor. So if you haven't previously considered it, find out about a class. The mix of the teaching staff's expertise, mutual assistance (and friendly rivalry) with the other students, and access to facilities denied to the average amateur, will give you confidence to take better pictures. It's definitely a worthwhile investment.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Television review: Ghosts of Hollywood

This is another brief review which appeared in the Newsletter of the Society for Psychical Research, in 1989. Such programming is ubiquitous now but was much rarer back then. I seem to have been mildly scandalised that the programme was so light-weight, but I expect such naivety was soon dispelled on further exposure to the genre.

SPR Newsletter No 31, October 1989, p.31.

Ghosts of Hollywood (ITV, 28/8/89): A Review

The main interest of this look at ghosts of Hollywood (on and off celluloid) was the old film clips. The serious element was lightweight, despite the presence of the oddly-termed “psychic researchers”, a CSICOP representative and (usually celebrity) subjects of hauntings thrown in to leaven the mix.

There were some interesting moments: A mysterious light captured on film in a Longleat corridor (the term “Hollywood” liberally interpreted!); the strange fogging of the middle frames in a roll of film; and photographs showing nasty-looking wounds to the people who inspired The Exorcist and The Entity. I would have liked to know more about all these. The rest was mostly unsubstantiated assertion.

Particularly unsatisfactory was the section on The Amityville Horror, which could have presented the case against the Lutzes much more forcefully (the Amityville episode is a horror, but not in the sense usually intended). The useful bits in this programme seemed to be dropped in at intervals, a pity, as examining Hollywood ghosts was a good idea. The result was, like the “medium” it was based on, two-dimensional.

Friday, 30 July 2010

This Life, Next Life: Evidence for the Afterlife - DVD review

This Life, Next Life: Evidence for the Afterlife (2009) by Keith Parsons

It may seem odd reviewing a film that cannot be seen by the public.*  Keith Parsons’s documentary is currently in limbo because of copyright issues; it contains quite a few archive photos and downloaded clips which have not been cleared because of the expense.  But in case the DVD acquires a kind of samizdat existence, passed round aficionados for private study until such times as the intellectual property difficulties are resolved, it is worth outlining its content and evaluating it.

Keith is a retired BBC radio producer who has single-handedly put together a well-structured and informative 54-minute documentary presenting the arguments for life after death.  He is unashamedly pro-survival which may grate with those who expect their documentaries to present a balanced view.  The reason for this partisan approach is because Keith sees a bias against the survival hypothesis in media presentations and wants to cover aspects that are less frequently aired; apart from occasionally in religious programming, the subject is generally treated as entertainment and not taken seriously.

An engaging and sincere host, Keith’s stated aim to present the scientific case for the afterlife, which as far as he is concerned is too strong to be discounted.  He begins his investigation with an anecdote which had a great deal of significance for him.  When he visited a medium he was given messages from his deceased father and sister (whose names were supplied to him by the medium), and as far as he was concerned the choice was between the messages being genuine spirit communication, and the medium reading his mind.  His thesis is that an examination of the evidence leads to the conclusion that the former is far more likely than the latter.  Other possibilities, cold reading for instance, are not explored.

That experience was of course convincing on a personal level, but not necessarily to others, and Keith focuses on a number of areas, some historical, some contemporary, which he feels should convince the impartial viewer.  The first of these is the cross-correspondences, scripts independently recorded by a number of mediums, separated geographically, in the first third of the twentieth century.  He gives some simple examples of how these correspondences worked, fragments that by themselves were obscure and only made sense when combined.

The next stop is a brief look at Tom Oliver Whitlock, who died in action in 1916 and came through at séances in the 1950s.  This was one of Alan Gauld’s ‘drop-in communicators’, recorded in the literature with the pseudonym Harry Stockbridge.  ‘Tom’ supplied items of information which turned out to be correct but had to be verified by reference to a variety of sources, making fraud and super-psi less likely explanations than spirit communication.

For The Scole experiment Keith is fortunate to have been able to interview both Robin Foy, who was the main organiser of the séances, and David Fontana, a primary investigator.  They run through some of the phenomena recorded there and Keith exhibits the book written by Jane and Grant Solomon, but does not mention the SPR Proceedings which examined the phenomena in much greater depth, nor does he mention the critical comments Scole has attracted, apart from the locked box in which test films were kept during sittings.  Foy mentions that the sitters were never searched by the investigators, though he says that they would have complied had they been asked, but the investigators did search the séance room before and after each sitting.  Fontana vouches for the honesty of the sitters and stresses the implementation of controls to eliminate the possibility of fraud, though there is no mention that séances took place in complete darkness and the spirits refused to allow the use of infra-red cameras.  Fontana points out that the investigators had challenged conjurors to duplicate the phenomena under the same conditions but had not had any takers.  Overall, despite flaws, Parsons seems convinced of the genuineness of the bulk of the evidence gathered during the Scole sittings.

A description of an electrical device through which the Scole group received a twenty-minute message leads into a discussion of Electronic Voice Phenomena and Instrumental Transcommunication. Beginning with Frs Ernetti and Gemelli and their contact with the latter’s deceased father when the wire on the recorder they were using kept breaking, Keith moves on to Friedrich Jurgenson, Konstantin Raudive, and George Meek’s Spiricom.  He also visits Anabela Cardoso in Spain to see her experimental set-up.  Keith acknowledges that sounds can be open to interpretation, the background noise rendering it difficult to understand what is being said, but again considers this approach valuable in demonstrating survival.

The mediumship of Leonora Piper is covered, including the investigation mounted by Richard Hodgson, previously a sceptic and scourge of Madame Blavatsky, who changed his mind about survival as a result of his contact with Mrs Piper.  The final part of the documentary comprises a discussion of the relationship between brain and mind.  Bruce Greyson is interviewed saying that current discussions of how the brain relates to mental function are inadequate.  If the mind is not dependent on brain, then survival becomes more tenable.  To illustrate this point we are shown a clip from the BBC programme The Day I Died featuring the well-rehearsed Pam Reynolds case in which she had an aneurism and the blood was drained from her brain to repair it, yet she had an NDE.  It would be ironic if this is one of the items causing publication difficulties as the entire documentary is freely available (at least at the time of writing) on YouTube.

In addition to these strands, Keith lists a number of well-known researchers into life after death such as Sir William Crookes, Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, Alfred Russel Wallace, Sir Oliver Lodge, Thomas Edison, John Logie Baird, William Barrett, William James, James Hyslop, Lord Rayleigh, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (illustrated with the portrait from the National Portrait Gallery implicated in the Scole Polaroid of Conan Doyle – see Fortean Times Issue 261, April 2010, pp.64-65) and Arthur Balfour.  This is certainly an impressive list, and is intended to reassure the doubter that if such eminent men were convinced, there must be something in it.  Of course as reassurance for the doubter goes this is of limited value, though it is always worth being reminded of the range of talented individuals with an interest in survival.

While the presentation is generally sound, there are some issues with which it is possible to quibble.  For example Keith makes assumptions about the narrow extent of Mrs Piper’s knowledge (she is often portrayed as a woman of limited education), something about which I have always thought it pays to be cautious; and he repeats the myth that Edison invented the light bulb (Joseph Swan).  More significantly, he characterises Colin Brookes-Smith’s conclusion after studying the cross-correspondences to be that survival was the only conclusion to be drawn by any reasonable person, and that the SPR should announce this breakthrough to the world.  Keith believes that the SPR did not make such an announcement only because it has sceptics among its membership, individuals who present a major obstacle to the acceptance of survival.

However, this is not actually what Brookes-Smith said.  He talked (in the June 1963 issue of the SPR’s Journal) in weaker terms: “There must now be in existence a very large amount of script material from which, after making due allowance, it can be inferred that discarnate intelligences have at least partly contributed to the subject matter”.  He also talks about the scientific arguments for survival being presented to the public by “a team”, not as an official announcement by the SPR.  Making such an announcement would contravene the Society’s principle of not holding corporate views, so would not be possible.  This misrepresentation (or more likely misunderstanding) seems to have come from Victor Zammit’s book A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife, which is featured in the documentary.

Later Keith discusses Hodgson’s attack on Madame Blavatsky and says that in 1986 the SPR “officially retracted its verdict on her”.  The SPR did no such thing because it had no verdict to retract.  Keith is referring to an article by Vernon Harrison in the April 1986 issue of the SPR Journal which was critical of Richard Hodgson’s role in the original investigation of Blavatsky.  Harrison’s article was prefaced by an editorial note which says in part:

“Although, as it has been repeatedly pointed out, The S.P.R. holds no corporate opinions, it has widely been regarded as responsible for endorsing the 'Hodgson Report' (as we shall hereafter refer to the report as a whole) and hence as being on record as condemning Mme. Blavatsky.”

Critics of the original report have long, as indicated in the quotation, assumed that the Hodgson Report represented an official SPR ‘line’, but from the beginning of the SPR’s existence it has held that its publications are the responsibility of the authors, and do not represent an official view by the Society.  Harrison’s opinions were his alone, as would have been apparent from reading the editorial note accompanying his article.

Clearly Keith is impressed by much of the research he presents, and sees an increasing feeling among scientists that a theory of everything needs to incorporate consciousness.  He predicts a paradigm shift in which spirit and other dimensions are considered essential components in an understanding of reality.  As he rightly concludes, if we accept survival, that acceptance causes a change in our view both of ourselves and of the world.

There is a limit to what can be achieved in under an hour, and the resulting briskness could be confusing for the newcomer, but seeing it might encourage viewers to seek out a wider range of resources.  Unfortunately having produced the documentary at his own expense and in his own time, Keith has not been able to find a broadcaster willing to take it on.  It would be a shame if nobody heard about Keith Parson‘s project, and it joined those films which for one reason or another cannot be shown.

It would also be a pity to lose the interviews he conducted with a number of eminent researchers in the field: Archie Roy, David Fontana, Victor Zammit, Robin Foy, Anabela Cardoso, Bruce Greyson and Peter Fenwick.  In commercial terms its lack of balance is bound to harm its prospects so it seems unlikely that it will be picked up for national broadcast.  The alternative approach would be to strip out the elements for which copyright permission has not been granted and post it online.   Whatever one’s view of the individual topics covered, it is still good to see them aired in an accessible way, even though the overall feel is one of preaching to the converted.

I would like to thank Keith Parsons for his kindness in supplying a copy of the documentary.

*Update 21 June 2015

On 20 June 2015 a copy of the film was uploaded to YouTube.  I don’t know if Keith was involved in this or if it was done solely by other hands: the upload credit is to the cleverly named iDigitalMedium, part of whose aims is ‘To share all aspects of spirituality and creativity as they relate to our everyday lives in this age of technology, on the cusp of the re-enlightenment of the consciousness of mankind’.  It may have been carried out without Keith’s knowledge – Tim Coleman, for example, has long been fighting pirates who have illegally uploaded his film The Afterlife Investigations, but that is commercially available, whereas This Life, Next Life never has been.  iDigitalMedium seems a reputable organisation judging by its website so it is likely that Keith gave his permission.  The YouTube film is the same length as the DVD Keith sent me in 2010, so either copyright issues have been resolved, or simply ignored.  The film may disappear as suddenly as it appeared, but for the moment it can be found at:

Update 25 August 2015

Keith wrote to me to tell me about the film’s availability (24 August 2015).  I hadn’t been sure if he was aware that it is now on YouTube, but it was indeed done with his consent; a copy had been seen by someone in the US who asked Keith if he could upload it.  To date it has been viewed almost 15, 500 times and Keith was pleased with its reception, which has been largely positive.  As to copyright, the start of the online video has a declaration: ‘Produced for free, educational viewing only.  THIS IS NOT A COMMERCIAL VIDEO PRODUCT. Copyright – Keith Parsons – 2009.  Unlicensed materials are included under applicable Fair Use provisions.’  The first and last statements have been added to the beginning for the YouTube presentation (the middle two were on the original DVD).  Perhaps the copyright owners will be content to acknowledge fair use, or alternatively waive fees on the grounds that Keith is not making any money out of it, or they may not even notice his incorporation of their material.  It is certainly gratifying for Keith that after being in limbo for so long his labour of love is finally reaching an enthusiastic audience.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Tony Cornell: An Appreciation

Part of the display at Tony's memorial

Veteran psychical researcher Anthony Donald Cornell died on 10 April 2010.  His memorial service was held at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, on 20 June, on what would have been his 87th birthday.  The event, ably organised by Ali Cornell and Tony’s sons David, Martin and John, was very moving.  We had reminiscences from Alan Gauld, who had known Tony for almost sixty years, and carried out investigations with him (‘Tony as I knew him’), and Bernard Carr, a member of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research (CUSPR) in the late 1960s/early 70s, and a firm family friend ever since (‘Tony Cornell: Psychical researcher, intrepid investigator and mischievous spirit’).  Both Alan and Bernard are of course senior figures in the London-based Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  David Cornell spoke about his father’s role - extremely underrated - as a councillor active in planning matters in Cambridge.  We sang For Those in Peril on the Sea, which tied in with Tony’s wartime naval career, and there were some touching readings.  The chapel was packed with his friends, and while the mood was one of sadness, there was much humour, to reflect Tony’s irrepressible extravert nature.

Along with a buffet afterwards, we were treated to a slide show and display of photographs and articles on Tony’s life and manifold activities, covering his schooldays, his naval service, his travels, his politics, and his psychical research, not to mention his fondness for dressing in silly costumes and headgear.  There was also a loop of his appearances in television programmes discussing ghost hunting, though alas not my favourite, mentioned by Alan, in which Tony set out to test G W Lambert’s ‘underground water’ hypothesis to account for poltergeist phenomena.  It featured Tony, hanging out of an upstairs window while the house was shaken to pieces round him, shouting out that the poltergeist effects, which he argued should have occurred if the theory was valid, had not happened. (Tony’s mad antics, before the days of risk assessments, were great television but of course the sorts of vibrations Lambert suggested were responsible for poltergeists were of a different kind to those produced in this demonstration.)  Obituaries of Tony will appear in the SPR Journal and Fortean Times in due course which will describe his life, and particularly his significant contributions to psychical research, but in the meantime I want to record some personal thoughts of my own.

I first met Tony in 1990, when I was co-opted onto the SPR Council. Eventually I moved to Cambridge and we lived quite close to each other, so I would regularly pop round and spend a couple of hours drinking coffee and eating cake while telling him bits of SPR news and listening to his views on the state of psychical research, notably the lack of cases these days, the absence of decent photographic evidence for the paranormal, and generally whether we were all wasting our time.  I thoroughly enjoyed these visits, mainly because he had a vast amount of experience in the subject he was willing to impart, but also because he was astonishingly indiscreet and had an amazing store of anecdotes, both about psychical research and his life.  We would chat, often with the indoor rabbits underfoot, and I would look out of the window at the birds, mostly feral pigeons, and squirrels in the garden.  He bought seed in large sacks and must have spent a fortune on feeding wildlife over the years (including foxes as we were told at his memorial).

I spent a lot of time with him for an extended period helping to clear decades of possessions and rubbish from the damp-riddled basement of his house in Victoria Street, venue for the CUPSR, and immortalised in the large number of interviews that Tony gave for both television and print media.  I decided that Tony was himself a squirrel of the first order, partly because he had accumulated so much junk over the years, and partly because he remained reluctant to part with a lot of it. I did many trips to the tip with enormous bags of rubbish, but even so I would regularly say, “shall I throw this out Tony?”, and he would frown and reply, “no, it could come in useful,” even though he must have realised it probably never would.  These visits were particularly noteworthy for the drive there and back in his car.  After his stroke he had limited mobility in one arm and although he continued to drive, he tended to disregard the road markings.  At Mitcham’s Corner in particular he would always be on the wrong side of the line and would swoop across at the last moment to take the left turn, occasionally prompting a vigorous honking behind us.

One of my regrets is not having been around during the glory days of the CUSPR.  Those Sunday evenings in Tony’s basement sound as if they were great fun, even though Tony and his colleagues were conducting serious research.  Tony was always disappointed that there was insufficient interest among the university’s undergraduates to keep CUSPR going.  Another disappointment was that his book Investigating the Paranormal was not distributed as widely as its importance merited.  Hopefully now that the rights are in other hands this will be rectified and marketing will be more vigorous.  Who knows, we might one day even see a second edition with the bits that Helix Press cut out the first time round reinstated.

Sadly I never accompanied Tony on a proper investigation; the closest I came was when we went to The Bell at Thetford to participate in the making of a television programme for a series called Ghosthunters.  I was there with my local group, and we tried to simulate a vigil while the room was bathed in bright light aimed in from a cherry picker parked outside.  I also had to describe Tony’s SPIDER (Spontaneous Psychophysical Incident Data Electronic Recorder) to camera after Tony had given the background to the case.  Alas while Tony’s contribution remained the rest never made it into the programme. (Rather curiously, as I was typing this the magazine produced by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena arrived, and on opening it the page fell open at an article by Lionel Fanthorpe describing his recent visit to The Bell.  No mention of Tony though.)

The overarching theme of the memorial, which tied together his various interests, was his essential decency.  In his public life he always tried to do the right thing.  David Cornell’s account of his father’s tenacity as chair of the Council’s planning committee – not you would have thought the world’s most exciting topic, but as Tony was involved it was bound to be lively – was punctuated with “…and then there was an almighty row.”  Tony did not curry favour, and although a staunch Conservative, was not a party hack. That could be why, despite his long service to the City, he never obtained the gong which those of lesser achievement often receive.  He was willing to challenge developers and fellow Councillors if he thought they were in the wrong, and Cambridge is the richer for it.  In particular, as David pointed out, Tony was the inspiration for the Cambridge Science Park, an achievement of which he was enormously proud, but for which he never received his due recognition.   It was also this tenacity which led to his long tenure (over twenty years) as Hon Treasurer of the SPR during some financially difficult times.

I last saw Tony two days before he died.  He had come home from Addenbrooke’s and was installed in his room at the front of the house, in a peaceful road with the sun streaming in and spring flowers in the garden.  Ali said that I could hold his hand, but I was reluctant as holding hands with Tony was not something I would normally have done.  He was heavily sedated and although he was conscious I didn’t know if he could understand what I was saying to him.  While Ali made coffee I told him some news about the SPR, and mentioned the names of people I knew annoyed him, hoping that doing so would engage his attention.  If nothing else I thought that he would at least know he was not alone.  Shortly afterwards the nurse came and I felt I was in the way and should leave.  Before doing so I did hold Tony’s hand briefly and said goodbye.  I told Ali I would like to come back to see him again but he died before I could.

After the memorial, resolutely not called that on the programme, but “A celebration of the life of Tony Cornell”, Karen and I walked back to the car which was parked at the front of the college.  I sat in it while Karen changed her shoes, and something on the grass by the car caught my eye.  For a moment I could not work out what it was, and then realised it was a green woodpecker, just a few feet away, on the ground with its wings spread.  I told Karen not to move and for about half a minute we watched it sit there before it flew away through the trees and across the Huntingdon Road. Karen reckoned it had a glint in its eye so was probably Tony, wearing one of the masks of which he was so fond, saying cheerio.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Tales of Terror – A Review

Tales of Terror, presented by The Happiness Patrol, featuring ghost stories by Louisa Baldwin, M R James, Lafcadio Hearn and Edgar Allen Poe.

ADC Theatre, Cambridge, 25 May 2010.

Calling a production Tales of Terror is a hostage to fortune because you expect at the very least to have a chill down the spine at some point in the proceedings, even if the company does have ‘Happiness’ in its name. Unfortunately this was an event distinctly short on terror, or tension of any kind. You may also assume, given the venue, that it is going to involve some element of dramatisation (much as we had a perfectly serviceable adaptation of The Woman in White at the ADC a few weeks ago). Tales of Terror instead involved a cast of one giving us a recitation that would have worked well on Radio 4 but wasn’t best suited to the stage, even though the mise-en-scène nodded to the spooky by being completely black, with black-clad narrator Philip Holyman lit from below, and ‘eerie music’ between the stories.

Holyman knew the words, which as far as I can tell were word-perfect, and he varied his tone to match the speaker when there was dialogue (though they all appeared to be from the West Midlands). The tales were sufficiently different to prevent him from becoming monotonous. But the choice was surprising. There are plenty of out-of-copyright stories that he could have used, and one wonders why he selected these ones.

The first was ‘How He Left the Hotel’ by Louisa Baldwin, who was Prime Minister Stanley ‘Farmer’ Baldwin’s mother. It got us off to a good start, but unfortunately was entirely predictable, and Holyman was just not able to make it sound uncanny. ‘There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard’, by M. R. James, was of course creepy, as you would expect. Unfortunately it has a frame which is perfectly understandable on the page, and would be if told around a roaring fire to a few admiring acolytes in the Jamesian manner, but in the larger space of the ADC sounded confusing.

‘In a Cup of Tea’, by Lafcadio Hearn, came across well, aided by the exoticism of its setting, but is just as incoherent a narrative when spoken as it is when read. The final one, given in isolation after the interval, was the strongest: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’, a splendid character study of Poe’s ‘imp of the perverse’, though a bit of an ordeal for animal lovers.

Alas for the element of surprise, none of these was a neglected story plucked from some dusty and long-forgotten repository. ‘The Black Cat’ would be known to many in the audience from page and screen, not least Roger Corman's 1962 effort in which he combined it with 'A Cask of Amontillado' as one of a trio of Poe stories in the film Tales of Terror. ‘In a Cup of Tea’ may be familiar to some because of its appearance in the 1964 portmanteau film based on Hearn’s writings, Kwaidan. Including M R James was nice because of his Cambridge connection, but again his work is well known, and Holyman’s effort suffered in comparison to the superb one-man adaptations done by Robert Lloyd Parry in which he creates a James persona. Only the Baldwin was relatively obscure, but even that has been anthologised and is not hard to find.

The venue was a problem because the stage was too big for just one person, and the effort of projection meant that subtlety was lost. Dressing it in black with minimal lighting was not enough to generate the required atmosphere. The intimacy of the Corpus Christie Playroom, where I have seen Lloyd Parry perform, might have given the material a better chance. Finally, the running time was a lot shorter than the 1 hour 20 minutes the programme promised. Both halves together clocked in at under an hour, which isn’t much of an evening’s entertainment at the theatre. There were mutterings in the audience which suggested that dismay was not mine alone.