The strange case of Harry Price
A famous ghost hunter
To give an example of the difficulties and contradictions that mediumistic phenomena can arouse in the human mind, I report in this page a case described by the English parapsychologist Harry Price (1881-1948) in chapter 8 (Rosalie) of his book Fifty Years of Psychical Research, published in 1939. Harry Price was an interesting, complex and controversial character. Detailed information on his personality and his work as an investigator of the occult can be found on the site www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk devoted to him, or on this Wikipedia page. The most relevant aspect of Price's personality, as regards the interpretation of Rosalie's case, is that his activity was aimed above all at exposing the numerous fraudulent mediums or photographers of spirits, as well as at investigating infested buildings. Being himself a good illusionist, he believed he was perfectly capable of distinguishing genuine mediumistic phenomena from those obtained by fraud. His mentality, however, led him to oppose any spiritualistic interpretation of genuine mediumistic phenomena, so much so that Ernesto Bozzano called it «a tough one to convince», commenting the case of Rosalie in the last chapter of his book I morti ritornano (The Dead Return). It must be said that the only testimony regarding this case is that of Price himself: we must therefore trust him, also because we can not see why he should have invented, in whole or in part, the story reported below.
Before we leave the subject of physical phenomena, I must describe the most remarkable case of materialization, or rather alleged materialization, I have ever witnessed. It is with considerable hesitation that I publish this account, as I have had only one sitting, and have been unable, as yet, to obtain independent corroboration of the extraordinary phenomenon which I witnessed. Though I am satisfied that I took every precaution against deception which my long experience in these matters suggested, it is still possible that I was deceived, and I do not, as yet, accept the materialization at its face value. But if I was deceived, how was it done and what possible motive could there have been?
The séance was held fifteen months before these introductory remarks were written, and the publishers of this volume saw the report soon after I wrote it, within a few hours of the termination of the séance. After careful consideration, they think that, with the above reservations, the protocol of the séance should be printed. Striking as my experience was, it is not comparable with the classic experiments of Sir William Crookes with the medium Florrie Cook, more than sixty years ago. He not only saw, felt, and embraced the spirit, Katie King, but actually photographed it forty times. Sometimes Florrie and Katie appear in the same photograph. To the end of his days, nothing could shake Sir William’s conviction that he had contacted with the spirit world. To conclude, although I am publishing a record of this most interesting séance, which much impressed me at the time, I am suspending judgment as to whether the materialization was what it purported to be.
December 15, 1937
On the morning of Wednesday, December 8, 1937, I was rung up at my office by a lady, obviously educated and cultured, who informed me that she had read in The Listener the published version of a broadcast talk which I had given on haunted houses. The reason she gave for communicating with me was that she was impressed with my efforts to ascertain the truth in such matters. She told me that she had noted that I could guarantee a ghost in a particular haunted house which I mentioned in my broadcast; she, too, could guarantee a ghost, but one of a much more objective nature than any I had experienced. My informant lives in one of the better-class London suburbs, and every Wednesday evening, she told me, she and her friends hold a family séance at her house, at which a little girl spirit, known as Rosalie, always materializes. The reason for approaching me, she said, was to invite me to join the family circle any Wednesday, by arrangement, and she was certain that I should be convinced of the phenomenon of materialization, of which she knew I was very sceptical.
Conditions of sitting
Of course, there were conditions, which I anticipated. But I was genuinely astonished at the simple rules to which. I was asked to adhere. In the first place, if I accepted the invitation to attend a séance, I was to promise not to reveal the identity of any of the sitters, or the locality where the séance was held. I could write an account of the séance, giving my candid views of it, provided I mentioned no names. If I were impressed with the proceedings, I was not to seek a scientific inquiry, as the mother of Rosalie, who attended each sitting, was terrified that her girl might be frightened away. These Wednesday meetings were in the nature of a sacred communion with the spirit of her daughter, and would be maintained as such. I was not to bring to the séance any light (such as a torch); I was not to speak to or touch the materialization without permission, and I was not to do anything, or make any experiment, without the sitters’ consent. I would not be asked to sign any document embodying these arrangements: it was to be a gentlemen’s agreement.
And now came the surprise. If I accepted their invitation, I would be allowed full control of the room and the sitters up to the beginning of the séance. I could search the house from top to bottom, seal all external windows and doors, search the séance room (the drawingroom), all doors and windows of which I could lock and seal, I could move – or remove – any furniture, ornaments, etc., from the séance room which I thought fit, I could control the room to the extent of sprinkling powdered starch or other substance round doors or windows, or place electrical contacts there (she admitted that she had gathered that this was what I did, from my broadcast from the haunted house), I could search the sitters or any person in the house immediately before or after the séance. But once the sitting had begun, I was to remain passive and ask permission if I wanted to do anything, or make any alteration during the séance. I told the speaker that I was impressed with the conditions imposed, and that I would think the matter over and write to her. She replied that if I accepted, I was to be at the house soon after seven p.m. and that the séance commenced usually at about eight o’clock.
On Monday, December 13, I wrote to Mrs. X, saying that I would accept her invitation and agree to all the conditions. As I happened to have lunch with Mr. R. S. Lambert, then editor of The Listener, on the day that she telephoned me, I asked her whether she would permit him to accompany me as a sort of witness of anything striking that might occur. I told her that I would personally guarantee that he would fulfil all the conditions that I had accepted, and that he had said as much at lunch on the day she rang me up. If the idea of a witness was acceptable, I asked her to telephone or telegraph her consent on receipt of letter, in order that Mr. Lambert could make the necessary arrangements. This confirmatory message was not forthcoming, so on Wednesday, December 15, I journeyed alone to the London suburb – to the most amazing séance that even I have experienced. I arrived at M. just after seven o’clock and made my way to Mrs. X’s residence, which I found was a large double-fronted, detached house, in a good-class road, with a flight of twelve stone steps leading to the. front door, on each side of which was a large room with bay windows. It was at a corner of another road, and had an area... (Price continues giving a detailed description of the house, and in particular of all the windows and access doors on the ground floor). I have given a description of the house in some detail, in order that the reader can visualize the sort of place it is: a typical, largish, mid-Victorian, double-fronted, detached suburban house.
The history of Rosalie
I was admitted by a trim parlour-maid and shown into the dining-room (the apartment on the right of the stone steps), where I was greeted by Mr. and Mrs. X, and their daughter, aged nearly seventeen. A simple meal was set. Introductions over, we sat round the table and enjoyed a light supper, during which I heard the complete story of Rosalie. Mr. X is in business in the City and both he and his wife are charming, with most affable personalities. They are not spiritualists, but are interested in psychical research, though they have read little of the standard literature. However, they listen to broadcasts on the subject, and I found that they knew something of my work from The Listener and other journals. They appeared pleased to make my acquaintance. My hostess has a friend named Madame Z, whom she met when helping at a local church bazaar. Madame Z is of French extraction, was a nurse, and married an English officer at the beginning of the Great War. Her husband was killed in action in 1916, leaving his wife with a baby, Rosalie. Rosalie was never strong and at the age of six she contracted diphtheria and passed away (in 1921) in her mother’s arms. She was ill for only a few days. Madame Z is a spiritualist, though she belongs to no church or group. She rents two rooms in the neighbourhood, her only home. In the spring of 1925 – according to my hostess – Madame Z was awakened during the night by the sound of her dead girl’s voice crying «mother». This occurred so frequently that Madame Z got into the habit of lying awake at night, waiting for the voice. Gradually, she thought she could see (in the dark) the dim outline of Rosalie and hear her footsteps in the room. Finally, the mother declared, one night she put her arm out of bed and her hand was clasped by that of her little girl.
Having very few friends in England, Madame Z became intimate with the X family. It was my host and his wife who suggested that regular séances should be held in their house (because Madame’s apartments are quite unsuitable for the purpose) in order to encourage the visits of Rosalie. The X’s knew enough of séance technique to furnish what they thought were the right conditions, and the sittings began. This was towards the end of 1928. It was nearly six months before there was any sign of Rosalie, though she visited her mother’s bedroom, as formerly. In the late spring of 1929 Rosalie materialized without warning and made her presence known (of course, in complete darkness) by again gently clasping her mother’s hand. From that evening the girl appeared regularly. Very gradually, they introduced a little light into the séances by means of ordinary cheap hand mirrors, the glass being covered with luminous paint. Four of these are sometimes used simultaneously. Finally, Rosalie began to speak, usually to her mother, answering simple questions, and replying in monosyllables. Very rarely did she say more than yes or no, appearing extraordinarily shy. The original circle, with little alteration, developed the materialization, but a very occasional visitor appeared to make little difference to the coming of Rosalie, if that visitor was well known to the circle. Hence my invitation to be present. I heard a great deal about the questions that Rosalie was alleged to have answered, but it would take too long to detail them here. Such is the history of Rosalie, whom I was so soon to see, feel, and hear.
By the time we had finished supper and I had heard the story of Rosalie, the two remaining sitters had arrived, and were waiting for us in the room opposite, across the hall – the drawing-room (séance room). I was first introduced to Madame Z, a pleasant French lady, and on the right side of fifty as regards her age. She said she was very pleased to meet me and apologized for not being able to admit my friend (Mr. Lambert) to the séance, as they had never risked two strangers at a sitting in case it frightened Rosalie. The other sitter was a cheerful young fellow, whom I will call Jim. He is a bank clerk in the City, and I suspect his presence in the circle is due more to his interest in the daughter of the house than in Rosalie. Jim is a typical, gentlemanly bank clerk, aged about twenty-two. After the introductions, I said I would make a tour of the house. I was accompanied by Mr. X and Jim, and I explored the place from attics to area. I could go where I pleased, and asked to be taken to every room. I had brought with me a gimlet, screw-eyes, white tape, adhesive surgical tape, a dredger full of powdered starch, and a pocket torch (which I did not take into the séance-room). As I came to a window, I closed and fastened it and stuck a strip of tape (which I initialled in ink) across the join where the sashes met. In the case of two dormer-type windows, I twisted the tape round the fasteners, and secured the initialled sticky ends to the window frames.
I sealed the three external doors and the French window of the house with screw-eyes, through which I threaded adhesive tape, tied in three knots, which I initialled. The staff of the house consisted of the parlour-maid (whom I had seen) and a cook, whom I saw in the kitchen. I was warned to drop no word concerning Rosalie. The women knew that séances were held in the house, but had not been informed as to what took place at them. They were instructed not to answer any knock or ring during the séance, and telephone callers were to be told to ring up later. I now turned my attention to the drawing-room, where the séance was to be held, and I examined it with great care. It was nearly square, measuring twenty-four feet by twenty-one feet, by nine feet six inches high. In the bay of the window was a settee and against the opposite wall was a long mahogany sideboard with eight drawers.
On a square occasional table near one corner was an electric transportable Pye radio, plugged into a socket near the floor. From this same socket a wire led to a small electric stove in the opposite corner, the flex trailing across the hearthrug. In another corner was a round occasional table, supporting a work-basket. On the mantelpiece were a clock and some ornaments. Six solid mahogany chairs completed the furniture of the room – with the exception of an Airedale dog which was now lying in front of the electric fire, having just shifted his quarters from in front of the grate. There had been a big fire in the grate, but it had been allowed to go out. One element of the electric fire was switched on. The ceiling of the room was of plaster and there were six pictures on the walls, which were distempered. The curtains which screened the windows had been purchased specially for these séances. They were of thick, heavy material, suspended on rails, and the edges overlapped, effectively preventing any street light from entering the room. On the floor, composed of polished hardwood boards, were spread four large Persian rugs.
Controlling the séance room
Having assembled all the sitters in the room, I looked around to see what could be done without in the way of furniture, etc. I decided that the ornaments, clock, pictures, and workbasket were not wanted, and these were removed into the dining-room. Then I sprinkled starch powder in the hall outside the séance room door. I then locked the door, put the key in my pocket, and proceeded to affix my seals. These were the usual tapes and screw-eyes. Then I stuck four strips of adhesive tape across door and lintel, and initialled them. I treated the windows in the same way, and was confident that no one could enter the room via door or window. But there remained the chimney, and for a moment I was puzzled as to how I could control it. Then I hit on the idea of placing a sheet of an evening newspaper (which I had with me) flat on the top bar of the low grate, just under the chimney aperture, and sprinkling it thickly with the starch powder. Then, with my finger, I drew my monogram in the starch, the printed matter beneath showing through. No one could have tampered with the grate or chimney without disturbing the starch.
Having sealed the windows, door, etc., I examined everything in the room very thoroughly. With the aid of Mr. X, I moved the large settee and the heavy sideboard. Each drawer was emptied. They contained such articles as clean table napkins, gramophone records (the gramophone was in an upper room) and the odds and ends that accumulate in every house – especially in drawers. The settee I turned upside down, trod on the two loose cushions, punched the canvas and webbing beneath and made the springs creak. Then we removed the four rugs and I minutely examined every inch of the polished boards, which I found were nailed, tongued and grooved. It was a well-built house, and I was unable to get my penknife blade between the boards, every one of which appeared as solid as a rock. To finish my inspection of the room, I opened the back of the wireless cabinet, and saw nothing unusual. In any case, I was informed that the radio was going to be used.
I had been told that I could examine the persons of the sitters before and after the séance, if I wished. I could not very well search the three ladies, but I asked permission to explore the clothing of Mr. X and Jim, and they at once turned out their pockets. I ran my hands over their clothes and satisfied myself that they were concealing nothing which could be used to simulate a phenomenon. The two elder ladies realized my predicament in not being able to examine them, and we compromised by their agreeing to my request that I should sit between them. Miss X had, it appeared, attended a health and beauty class earlier in the evening and she had on some sort of gymnasium clothes under her house dress. Without my requesting it, she immediately pulled up her skirt and revealed a pair of tightfitting dark knickers. I was quite convinced that she had nothing concealed on her person. My last act before switching off the five (four bracket and one ceiling) lights and the fire, was to sprinkle starch dust in front of the door and chimney, after directing the sitters to their seats. The arrangement of the chairs, and the general lay-out of the room can be seen from the plan which I made before the séance, reproduced herewith. It was exactly 9.10 p.m. when the séance began.
The materialization of Rosalie
I myself decided the arrangement of the sitters. Four of the luminous plaques, already mentioned, had been handed round, and they rested on the floor face downwards, by the sides of the chairs occupied by Madame Z, Mrs. X, Jim, and myself. The luminous surface of each plaque had been activated at an electric light bulb previous to the séance. We were informed (by Mrs. X) that we could talk quietly unless told not to. There was neither hymn-singing nor prayers, nor any suggestion of the pandemonium which often accompanies a séance. Although it was pitch dark, I could accurately determine where a voice was coming from, and whose voice it was, and could even hear the breathing of the various sitters. After chatting quietly for about twenty minutes, we were asked to stop and Mr. X said he would put on the wireless. He left his seat and groped his way to the small table behind me, to my right. He had some difficulty in finding suitable music, which he finally received from a foreign station. The small lamps which lit up the stations panel also illuminated the room and I could see the sitters distinctly. Madame Z appeared to be crying. Within five minutes of turning on the radio, X switched it off again and resumed his seat. Then we were asked to remain quiet. No one spoke. A little later I heard Madame Z softly whisper «Rosalie!» This was repeated, at intervals, for about twenty minutes. Sometimes Mrs. X also called her. I could hear both Madame Z and Miss X sobbing quietly. I had been warned that the séance was of a sacred character, but I had not anticipated such a display of emotion. I could not help contrasting this sitting with the matter-of-fact laboratory experiments with which I was much more familiar.
It was a few minutes after I heard the clock in the hall strike ten that Madame Z gave a choking sob and said something about «my darling». Mrs. X leant towards me and whispered, «Rosalie is here – don’t speak!» At the same moment I, too, realized that there was something quite close to me. I neither heard nor saw anything, but the sensation was an olfactory one – I seemed to smell something that was not there previously. It was a strange, not unpleasant smell. Everyone was silent except for the rather distressing emotion of the mother. I sensed, rather than knew, that she was fondling her child. The next sound I heard was a sort of shuffling of feet on my left at the same moment as something slightly touched the back of my left hand, which was resting on my knee (we were not holding hands in any way). It felt soft and a little warm. I did not attempt to feel what had touched me, but sat very still. Madame Z continued to whisper to the child, and her sobbing ceased somewhat.
After a few minutes, Mrs. X asked the mother whether I could touch the materialization. Permission was given, and I stretched out my left arm and, to my amazement, it came in contact with, apparently, the nude figure of a little girl, aged about six years. I slowly passed my hand across her chest up to her chin and cheeks. Her flesh felt warm, though (and this may have been imagination) not so warm as one would expect to find normal human flesh. I laid the back of my left hand on her right cheek: it felt soft and warm and I could distinctly hear her breathing. I then placed my hand on her chest again and could feel the respiratory movements. My hand travelled to her thighs, back and buttocks, then traversed her legs and feet. They were the normal limbs of a normal six-year-old. I estimated her height at about three feet, seven inches. I could feel her hair, long and soft, falling over her shoulders.
There are no words to express how I felt at the appearance of the form before me – or rather to the left of me. A supreme scientific interest, with a feeling of absolute incredulity, would best describe my reactions. I had not bargained for anything so wonderful (or so clever!) as this. But if I had been tricked, so had the mother, and that was unthinkable. She, at least, was not acting a part. I asked whether I could hold Rosalie. I was told that I could move my chair nearer to the child and this I did. I was now able to use both hands and again felt every inch of that little form. If it is a spirit – I argued to myself – then there is no difference between a spirit and a human being. With my right hand, I lifted Rosalie’s right arm and felt her pulse. It appeared to be too quick and I estimated a rate of 90 to the minute. I put my ear to her chest and could distinctly hear her heart beating. I then took both her hands and asked X, his daughter, and Jim to speak in order to prove their presence in their respective seats. They did so. I knew that Madame Z and Mrs. X were on either side of me, as I had only to put out my hand to touch them.
At this juncture I asked my hostess if Madame Z would allow me to use the luminous plaque. After a little discussion it was agreed that both Mrs. X and I should shine our plaques on Rosalie, the stipulation being that we should begin at the feet of the form, and then later illuminate the upper part of the child. I picked up my plaque and in turning it over a soft, fluorescent glow flooded the feet of Rosalie. They were the normal feet of a normal child. Mrs. X held her plaque to the left side of the girl, while I illuminated the front of her. I could see the soft texture of the flesh, which appeared to be without a blemish. As our plaques travelled upwards the face of the form was revealed and we beheld a beautiful child who would have graced any nursery in the land. Her features were classical and she looked older than her alleged years. Her face appeared very pale, but the fluorescence would tend to kill any colouring in her cheeks. Her eyes (they appeared to be dark blue) were bright with an intelligent gleam in them. Her lips were closed, with rather a set expression. Madame Z said the examination must now cease as Rosalie was wanted. As a special favour, I requested that I might put some questions to Rosalie and this was granted with the remark that it was unlikely that she would speak that night.
If the reader were suddenly faced with an alleged spirit, what questions would he ask it? With some preparation, a series of useful inquiries could be drawn up, but on the spur of the moment it is extremely difficult to make proper use of such an opportunity – especially when the spirit is so young and unsophisticated. However, I suppose I must have subconsciously imagined that the child was a real one; that it lived in a real place; and that it understood perfectly what I was saying. I found myself asking Rosalie what I should ask any other little girl, who had come from some strange place and whom I chanced to meet. I was permitted one minute only in which to question her, and this is what I asked her: «Where do you live, Rosalie?» (No answer). «What do you do there?» (No answer). «Do you play with other children?» (No answer). «Have you any toys there?» (No answer). «Are there any animal pets?» (No answer). The questions were asked deliberately and I paused between each one. Rosalie simply stared and did not seem to understand what I was saying. I asked her a final question: «Rosalie, do you love your mummy?» I saw the expression on her face change and her eyes light up. «Yes», she lisped. Rosalie had barely uttered this single word when Madame Z gave one cry and clasped her daughter to her breast. Mrs. X placed our plaques on the floor again and asked for complete silence – rather difficult as all the women in the circle were crying. I must admit that I was rather affected myself – it was a touching and pathetic scene.
In about fifteen minutes Rosalie had gone. I neither heard nor felt anything of her leaving, but as the hall clock struck eleven, Mrs. X informed me that the séance was over. X switched on all the lights and invited me to make any search I liked. I examined all my seals and every one was intact. I again removed the furniture and examined the floor, sideboard, settee, etc., and found everything normal. The starch powder was undisturbed. Even the Airedale was still asleep in front of the cold electric fire. At least, the séance had not affected him. My host asked me to remove the seals – which I did – and he opened the door and rang for refreshments. While these were being brought, I accompanied Jim in another tour of the house. All my seals were intact. I remained at the house until nearly midnight, when I took my leave with many thanks for an extraordinarily interesting and
December 16, 1937
I began writing this report (which is printed verbatim and uncorrected) within two hours of the termination of the séance, in bed at the Royal Societies Club. I purposely wrote the report at once, while my impressions were still fresh. I feel I have not done justice in this report to the amazing events of last night, and I am still wondering if Rosalie was a genuine spirit entity, or whether the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. If the latter, then the hoax has been going on for years and no actress in the world could simulate Madame Z’s poignant emotion. And where did the spirit come from? These are questions which Ishall have to think about, and answer.
If I had witnessed the materialization of Rosalie in my own laboratory, I should not hesitate to proclaim to an incredulous world that survival was proved. It is possible – though very doubtful – that last night’s historic (as far as I am concerned) séance may be repeated under better conditions in a laboratory. But Madame Z is convinced that Rosalie would be frightened away. The sitting I have just attended is at least distinguished by the complete absence of blasphemous humbug and hymnsinging, which characterize so many pseudo-spiritualist séances run by rogues for profit. Looking at it in retrospect, I can think of several things I ought to have done that I did not do, and one of these is the taking of Rosalie’s finger-prints. I had ample opportunity, but no materials. Another thing I might have done was to have ascertained who the medium was. Madame Z herself denies that she is mediumistic, but I can think of no one else. Apparently, there was no medium.
This is the report published by Harry Price. As he had arranged all the controls to prevent possible fraud during the séance, we wonder where his residual doubts about Rosalie entity originated. His statement that – if the materialization had occurred in his laboratory – he would have proclaimed without reticence that it was a definitive proof of survival, should be taken with the benefit of the doubt, first of all because even after having successfully performed experiments in their laboratories many researchers are assailed by posthumous doubts (as has occurred in other cases), and then because the ascertained possibility of ghost materializations could be a proof of the existence of non-human intelligences that are able to produce these phenomena, and not necessarily a proof of our survival. This proof, if anything, should be sought in the tests of personal identification of the entities, of which there is no trace in the séance described by Price.
After the publication of Price's book, Rosalie's case aroused much interest, and there was no lack – as always – of people who tried to argue that the whole story was an invention. Yet in 1958 two SPR members, E. J. Dingwall and Treword Hall, in their book Four Modern Ghosts, credited the thesis that the story of Rosalie was not true on the basis of a document in Price's legacy, which would have shown that the séance had taken place in a house in the London suburb of Brockley, where there were no buildings like the one he described. But other researchers denied this thesis and the good faith of Dingwall and Hall, showing that the document quoted by them made no mention of Rosalie's case (as they had claimed), but referred generically to one of the many séances in which Price took part as an investigator. In addition, the authors did not mention the existence of a copy of the letter sent by Price to Mrs. X, which confirmed what Price had written about his involvement, nor contacted Mr. Lambert (Price's friend who was at the time editor of The Listener), still alive in 1958, who could have confirmed the story of Price.
It is always better not to give unconditional trust to debunkers, that is those who proclaim themselves as demystifers in the name of the search for truth: often the psychic motivations on which they act are more ambiguous than the same facts that they want to expose. In any case, if we do not want to doubt Price's faithful testimony regarding the objective reality of the events he described, the hypothesis of a fraud perpetrated against him does not stand for the following reasons.
The cause of our uncertainty lies in the human psyche itself
As we can see, there is in our way of arguing and reasoning a precise limit that leads us to resort to the most convoluted hypotheses, to avoid having to admit the evidence of facts that transcend the order of things which we are accustomed to. Price's psyche forced him to express his skepticism towards the reality of events which he himself had witnessed in full autonomy and on which he had been able to freely adopt every control he considered adequate. It therefore remains a basic ambiguity in the answers offered by our psyche when it is confronted with facts of a paranormal nature. Precisely this ambiguity should at least make us very cautious in relying on the mental resources available to us when we try to explain some of the mysteries of the world and life (not to mention death and the afterlife!).