THE inaugural meeting of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research at the Royal Societies Club on March 25, 1925, was a milestone in the scientific investigation of the paranormal. No similar organisation had been formed in any country previously. True, there were séance-rooms at certain centres of psychic activity on the Continent, and in some of these scientific apparatus had been installed. At the Institut Métapsychique, Paris; at Schrenck-Notzing's house in Munich; at Fritz Grunewald's flat in the Spandauerstrasse, Charlottenburg district of Berlin (and at a few other places), there were instruments that had been specially devised for testing mediums. I examined all these laboratories. But nowhere in the world was there a fully-equipped laboratory, organised and staffed for the sole purpose of studying and recording psychic phenomena. Such a laboratory had been my dream for many years.
Among those who attended the meeting at the Royal Societies Club were some of the sitters who had helped me with the Stella experiments in 1923. Although they considered that mediums should be subjected to scientific investigation, they were really spiritualists at heart, and most of these gentlemen resigned in due course. However, we formed our Council, and among the members were Schrenck-Notzing of Munich, Dr. Eugène Osty (Paris), Professor Christian Winther (Copenhagen), René Sudre (Paris), and Fritz Grunewald (Berlin). Many other Continental savants joined us later. I became the Honorary Director, and Major W. Tudor-Pole was appointed Treasurer.
We drew up a 'Declaration of Principles,' which was to the effect that the 'National Laboratory of Psychical Research has been founded to investigate in a dispassionate manner and by purely scientific means, every phase of psychic or alleged psychic phenomena. Starting with no preconceived theories - scientific, philosophical, or religious - the Council of the National Laboratory will endeavour to ascertain and demonstrate the laws underlying psychic or abnormal manifestations...and the most modern laboratory methods will be employed in putting upon a permanent footing in Great Britain this most important science of Psychical Research.'
We decided to invite those members of the public interested in our subject to join the Laboratory, and we charged only a nominal
subscription. For one guinea per annum a member would be supplied free with the bi-monthly British Journal of Psychical Research (which I founded), our Proceedings, and all other publications issued by the Laboratory. The subscription included free admittance to all lectures; free use of the rooms of the organisation; facilities for photography, enlarging, chemistry, metal-working, etc., under supervision, and so far as they related to psychic experiments made in the Laboratory. Free tuition in these subjects was provided where necessary. Members could borrow lantern-slides and lectures, books, etc., and facilities were available for attending experiments with well-known mediums. The rooms of the Laboratory were used by members as a sort of club, and many had their correspondence addressed there.
I spent the whole of the summer and autumn of 1925 buying, making, and assembling apparatus for installing in the Laboratory when it was ready to receive it. The equipment and furniture were valued for insurance purposes at £3000. Finally, we were all ready, and we opened our doors at 16 Queensberry Place, South Kensington, S.W.7, on January 1, 1926. On January 21 following we gave a sort of 'house warming' to all those interested, and the function was a brilliant success. Crowds surged through the various apartments, and many persons were unable to gain admittance owing to the crush. The novelty of the whole idea strongly appealed to the public.
Great interest was displayed in the wonderful apparatus on view; in the demonstrations of the various lighting arrangements of the séance-room; the Laboratory fittings and the facilities for chemical experiments, glass-blowing, automatic enlarging, etc.; the instruments for measuring temperatures and air pressures; and in the microscopes, cameras, dictaphones, etc. An automatic stereoscope showing glass transparencies of the phenomena of several mediums (Willi Schneider, Frau Silbert, etc.) was continually surrounded. Amongst the optical equipment was a beautiful 5-inch quartz crystal, true to .0001 of an inch in every diameter, and valued at £200, used for 'scrying,' and this attracted the attention of the lady visitors. The men were more interested in the workshop, where facilities were available for turning out a complete scientific instrument - if one had the skill, of course.
An amusing feature of the evening was the number of fake mediums who turned up and furtively examined the 'instruments of torture' (as one of them termed it) that were to be used on them. An electro-mechanical séance chair that recorded when a medium was not sitting on it (when he should have been!) was closely studied
by more than one charlatan who had had 'successes' among the credulous.
There were genuine mediums there, too. Miss Stella C. and her fiancé were present. She had just previously promised to return to us for some further experiments, and these were made in due course, with convincing results.
Representatives of the Press arrived in good force, and next morning at breakfast I saw in the newspapers such headings as 'Ghosts Under the Microscope,' 'Science Gets to Grips with Spiritualism,' and similar titles. The new project impressed them as one that was badly needed in Great Britain. Even the foreign newspapers were represented, and I see in my Press-cutting books that the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger (January 26) gave us a 1½-column account of the Laboratory, which I will now describe.
The Laboratory suite comprised the whole of the top (fourth) floor of 16 Queensberry Place, and consisted of six rooms: the chemical and physical laboratory, the séance-room, a dark room, a workshop, and office, and a 'baffle chamber.' This latter apartment was a narrow room separating the laboratory from the séance-room. This arrangement served two purposes: it enabled apparatus, etc., to be transferred from the laboratory to the séance-room, or vice versa, without the admittance into the séance-room of unwanted light during experiments.
The Laboratory, its various departments, and its equipment have been illustrated and fully described in detail elsewhere.(1) But I will mention that every scientific instrument (cameras, microscopes, dictaphones, microphones, thermographs, chemicals, lathes, etc.) thought likely to help investigation, together with many special pieces of apparatus, were installed. Racks and benches were fitted in laboratory, workshop and dark-room, and instruments were placed in the séance-room that would not only automatically record a phenomenon but would also register the period of its duration.
Persons interested in psychical research joined the National Laboratory in large numbers, and at one time we had as many as 800 members, including many scientists. We had the use of a lecture hall on the second floor of the Laboratory building, but the accommodation provided proved inadequate for our audiences, and we had to hire a larger hall for our lectures, which were of a scientific, though popular nature. Many distinguished lecturers addressed us. Our arrangements with the London Spiritualist Alliance came
1. Fifty Years of Psychical Research, by Harry Price (Longmans), London, 1939, pp.317-326. This book is a history of psychical research and spiritualism all over the world for the past half century.
to an end at Christmas, 1930, and, although I felt that I needed a rest, I decided to take larger premises. I found exactly what I wanted at 13 Roland Gardens, South Kensington, and in February, 1931, the Laboratory was transferred to this address. I decided at this time that I would offer the Laboratory, goodwill, and equipment, to the University of London.
Our new rooms were ideal. They comprised the entire basement flat, which was secluded, quiet, and convenient. We had more accommodation, and a roomy apartment large enough for a lecture hall, in which we were able to give cinematograph demonstrations and lectures. The rent of the flat was £120 a year. I retained these premises until March, 1937.
Upon taking over our new premises, I decided upon a bold policy. I did away with all subscriptions, thus making the members honorary ones. Actually, the guinea subscription did not pay us, and we found that, although the members received excellent value for their money, there were certain persons who wanted still more facilities. The abolishing of the monetary consideration freed our hands. We were also able to devote more attention to the scientific - and less to the social - side of psychical research.
The taking over of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research by a London University group in 1934 is related in the next chapter. These gentlemen have the satisfaction of knowing that they blazed the way in this country for university psychical research both at Oxford and Cambridge.
In later chapters, I hope to give some account of our various experiments with mediums, both good and bad. But I will mention here that the following 'sensitives' - real or alleged - among others,were investigated by me between the years 1923 and 1937, when my tenancy of the Roland Gardens flat expired and, as Honorary Secretary of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation, I opened an office at 19 Berkeley Street, Mayfair, for the furtherance of scientific psychical research.
The 'physical' mediums included not only Miss Stella C., but also Jean Guzik of Warsaw. He was the man who produced 'roaring wild animals' in his séance-room. I exposed him. Then there were the two Schneider boys, Willi and Rudi, the most convincing mediums of whom we have any proper record. I tested them at Vienna, Braunau-am-Inn (Hitler's birthplace), Munich and London. Then there was Stanislawa P., the Warsaw medium who was automatically photographed 'helping' the spirits. Maria Silbert of Graz impressed me with her raps, though she, too, cheated at times. Anna Rasmussen was a wonderful 'daylight' medium. With the sun
shining on her, I have seen the 'power ' - whatever it is - that she exteriorised swing light pendulums enclosed in glass cases, under perfect conditions of control. Another medium was Eleonore Zugun, the 'Poltergeist girl.' I tested her both in Vienna and London, with striking positive results. Mrs. Crandon (the American 'Margery') too, I tested in London. I was not impressed. Mrs. Helen Duncan cost us £50, and all we saw for our money were lengths of cheap cheese-cloth and some regurgitated toilet paper. There were many others whose names will emerge in the course of these memoirs. And I must not omit the fire-walkers, Kuda Bux and Ahmed Hussain.
The 'mental' mediums whom we tested included the tragic Ingeborg Dahl (or Köber), who stood her trial on a charge of killing her father, judge Dahl, whose guest I was at Fredriksstad, Norway. She was acquitted, and rightly so. Then there was Mrs. St. John James, the 'Mars medium.' When in trance, she 'contacted ' with the Martians, whose love songs she sang. If the 'melodies' did not originate in Mars, at least they sounded unearthly. Jeanne Laplace was a brilliant Parisian psychometrist, and foretold exactly how Dr. R. J. Tillyard would be killed. Frau Liebermann, the Hamburg clairvoyante, told me the history of a penknife I handed to her. She had never seen me or the penknife before. And Marion and Maloïtz, the clever hyperæsthetes, worked near-miracles of a mental order. Altogether, more than a hundred persons claiming supranormal powers passed through our hands during the functioning of the National Laboratory.
Some of the above-named mediums were exposed, but a few of them well repaid the time, labour, and money we expended on them. It is these very few grains of genuine phenomena that we so patiently extract from mountains of fraudulent psychic chaff that make the life of a Research Officer worth living. I, for one, would have lost interest in psychical research and spiritualism many years ago if I had found nothing but fraud. It is the few real phenomena that have kept me going, so to speak, and have made it impossible for me ever to give up the quest of how these things happen, and why. It is truly impossible ever to lose interest in psychical research - the youngest, but by far the most important of all the sciences. And decidedly the most fascinating.
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