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.