Harry Price – One Of England’s Original Ghost Hunters

Always up for an interesting research project, when Matthew Didier asked me to dig up one Harry Price I said, “Sure!” with the naïve enthusiasm of a toddler. Then I had a second thought; who is or was Harry Price? What follows is for those of you who are asking the same question. It isn’t an attempt to discredit him or praise him. It’s simply the facts as they seem to be.

Harry and his friend knew of a house in the area that was reportedly haunted. He and his friend locked themselves in the house overnight, equipped with a notebook and a powder flash camera. The boys heard footsteps in an upstairs bedroom and quickly set up the camera at the foot of the stairs. When they heard the footsteps begin to descend the stair, they snapped the photo-of a completely empty staircase. This was his first ‘case’.

Harry Price

Harry Price was born in London, England in 1881. His father was a grocer and traveling salesman-in other words, perfectly normal by all accounts. When Harry was about 8 years old, he saw a stage magician for the first time and that triggered an immense love of conjuring and magic. He amassed a great library on the subject. But at age 15, something happened that would send him down another path and change the lives of many. Harry Price had a ghostly encounter.

In time, Harry Price finished school and worked several jobs, including one as a journalist. He then met and married Miss Constance Mary Knight, a wealthy heiress. He then had the means to do what we all wish we could do-hunt ghosts full time. His passion was debunking the frauds, and his skills as a magician often helped expose the tricks of less than honorable mediums and self-proclaimed psychics. One of his most successful ‘debunkings’ was that of one photographer Mr. William Hope. Mr. Hope was renowned for taking portrait photos of his subjects and when the photo was complete it would show what appeared to be the dead relatives of the photographed. Hope met his undoing when Harry unearthed that Mr. Hope was using pre-exposed plates in his camera, creating the illusion. He discovered this by switching plates of his own with Mr. Hope’s plates.

Seance

Sometimes, however, Harry managed to find proof instead of fraud. One of the most interesting case studies done by Harry Price involved a young woman named Stella Cranshaw. Over the course of several months, Harry attended seances conducted by Ms. Cranshaw. To these he would bring a device he invented called a teleknetoscope. This device consisted of a telegraph key that when depressed would cause a light to turn on. The key was covered by a glass dome so that only psychic powers could operate it. Harry attended 13 of Ms Cranshaw’s seances, always attended by additional witnesses, and in every case Ms Cranshaw managed to produce some strange happening that Harry couldn’t debunk. She was also able to ‘operate’ the teleknetoscope. Harry took notes of all of these events, not only of the obvious phenomena but also of temperature changes and other notables. His journal not only helped Ms Cranshaw earn a great deal of respect as a psychic medium, but also established Harry as a serious researcher. He earned much respect for the way he handled this investigation.

Baron Albert Freiherr von Schrenck-Notzing

Inspired by a lengthy visit to the laboratory of Baron Albert von Schreck-Notzing in Munich, Harry set about trying to measure some aspects of the seances in a scientific manner. He was able to record strange temperature drops and other phenomena that finally convinced him fully of the reality of the paranormal. This was fortunate, because his constant haranguing of mediums didn’t set well with his group at the SPR (Britains Society for Psychical Research) which would rather he be supporting the psychics credibility. So he changed direction somewhat and began using his skills and knowledge to pursue genuine psychical items. The relationship with the Society remained strained, however, especially after Harry set up his own laboratory in 1926. The next year the SPR returned his rather extensive library collection to him and began severing ties. The American branch of the SPR didn’t feel the same about Harry however. He served as their foreign researcher from 1925 to 1931. After Harry’s death it was three members of the London SPR that sought to discredit him.

In 1929, Harry Price conducted experiments in his laboratory that involved one of the Schneider brothers, who had previously been tested by Schreck-Notzing. He developed a device that when wired the hands and feet of Rudi Schneider, and everyone else seated around a séance table, to a light that would signal if anyone moved enough to break the electrical circuit. Despite these controls, Rudi was said to have produced an array of effects, including ectoplasm, tappings and table levitations. Lord Charles Hope of the SPR was astounded, as was Harry. At the end of the sessions, Harry declared that the phenomena produced was “absolutely genuine” and “not the slightest suspicious action was witnessed by any controller or sitter.”

Price began testing Rudi Schneider again in 1932. This time Harry photographed the manifestations. There were some favorable results, but Schneider’s ‘talents’ seemed to have diminished. These tests were followed up by independent tests by Lord Hope and while he too noticed a decline in Schneider’s abilities, Lord Hope maintained that Schneider’s powers were genuine. But as Hope was preparing his report, Harry announced that Schneider was a fraud. He produced a photograph which was taken during a séance that showed Schneider reaching for a table. The camera had been set to go off if there was any movement by the medium and even though the quality of the photo was not good, it was enough to destroy Schneiders reputation as a medium.

Psychics became pretty scarce not long after Schneider was brought down, so Harry moved on to investigating other things. He traveled to Germany to ‘prove’ that a goat could be changed into a man. He didn’t stay long and the goat was still a goat when he left Germany. One visit to the Isle of Man, however, did in fact yield a talking mongoose. This was a rather famous mongoose in Cashen’s Gap, and was also witnessed by several people. All attempts to find fraud in said mongoose were fruitless. It did appear to in fact talk, and although Price personally believed it was somehow tied to poltergeist activity surrounding the 13 year old daughter living on the farm, that was never proven.

Borely Rectory

The pinnacle of Harry’s career of course is the famous Borley House, aka “The Most Haunted House in England.” Harry turned the Borley investigations into two books entitled The Most Haunted House In England (1940) and The End of Borley Rectory (1946). These books became like textbooks for researchers in the paranormal. Critics said he was a bit of a grandstander. Everyone agreed, however, that the publications established Harry Price as the standard bearer for well run paranormal investigations and gave the general public their first look at detailed paranormal research.

The Borley House was a rectory for the Borley Church. Borley Manor existed in Suffolk prior to 1066 and it is believed the original church dates back to about that time. The Rectory featured in Harry’s research was built by the Reverend Henry Bull in 1863, and local sources claim there had been a Benedictine monastery on the site in the 1300’s and that a monk attempted to elope with a nun from the nunnery down the road but was discovered and hanged. The first report of paranormal activity at the rectory was in 1885 when some poltergeist activity was reported. The next year a nursemaid left her position at the rectory because of ghostly footsteps. For many years there were reports of various persons seeing an apparition of a nun in and around the premises.

Rev. Bull’s son Henry, Junior (whom they called Harry so as not to cause confusion with his father) had the nickname of Carlos. Henry Junior took his father’s position as rector when after his death and served until his own death (in Borley Rectory) in 1927. Henry/Harry/Carlos had often claimed he had communication with spirits and that after his death he would throw mothballs as a sign that spirits existed.

In 1929, Rev. Guy Eric Smith and his family contacted a newspaper named The Daily Mirror for assistance with ongoing paranormal activity. The newspaper published the story and contacted Harry Price who then came to the rectory to investigate. He brought along his personal secretary and a reporter from the Mirror and all reported seeing and hearing the strange things, including the reporter’s sighting of the ghostly nun. The Smith family eventually moved and were replaced by Rev Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne, and their adopted daughter Adelaide. Harry’s association with the rectory continued and in the 5 years the Foysters lived in the rectory over 2000 incidences were reported. The apparition of Henry Bull, Junior was said to have appeared, bells rang, objects appeared out of nowhere, and shortly after an attempted exorcism of the home, Marianne Foyster was thrown out of her bed. After the Foysters left the house and Lionel died, Mrs. Foyster remarried and moved to the United States where she died in 1992. Her adopted son Vincent O’Neil continues researching the events of the old rectory.

In 1937, Harry Price leased the old rectory for a year and invited others to come and document for themselves what phenomena may occur. He wasn’t selective of his guests. He advertised in a newspaper for those who were serious about this sort of research and eventually established a team of 48 researchers. Many events were noted, not the least of which was a séance in 1938 in which ‘spirits’ told all present that the rectory would catch fire in the hallway and the skeleton of a nun would be found among the ruins. Exactly 11 months to the day after the séance, and while the rectory was occupied by a Captain Gregson, an oil lamp unexplainably fell over in the hall of Borley Rectory and the house burned to the ground. Five years later, in 1943, Harry returned to the site of the rectory and while digging in the cellar discovered a jaw bone of a young woman. Harry Price believed this to be the remains of the nun and gave it a Christian Burial in the hopes it would relieve the area of its hauntings.

Harry Price died in March 1948, After his death, Harry’s books were bequeathed to The University of London Library on the condition that they are made available only as a discrete collection, At least one source believes that JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter series is based on Harry Price.

The rectory no longer exists, but the hauntings continue. Most visitors say the whole town of Borley is a rather eerie place and that the site of the old rectory is still home to several spirits, possibly including Harry himself! There are those who say Harry’s spirit has come back to help prove the incidents, and in fact Harry himself, were not frauds. It is generally accepted that while some of the incidents Harry reported can be explained as natural occurrences or possible fraud, enough of his work stands the test of the sceptic to allow him a great degree of respect long after his death.

Links:

http://www.ull.ac.uk/historic/hpl.shtml

http://www.borleyrectory.com/misc/history.htm

http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/hauntings/borley.html

http://www.mythographica.fsnet.co.uk/borley/chronology.html

http://www.urbanchillers.com/haunted/haunted.asp?hl=19

http://www.geocities.com/edwyuk/Episode_6.html

http://www.occultopedia.com/p/price.htm

http://www.britannia.com/history/legend/borley.html

http://www.prairieghosts.com/harryprice.html

http://moebius.psy.ed.ac.uk/~spr/

http://www.harryprice.co.uk/