Harry Price at Borley
Our reviewer, in a fiery essay, accuses the authors of a controversial report of writing "a ghoulish book" that is "scandalous and scurrilous"
THE HAUNTING OF BORLEY RECTORY: A Critical Survey of the Evidence. By Eric ]. Dingwall, Kathleen M. Goldney and Trevor H. Hall. Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd., London, 1955. 16s.
In his first presidential address before the British Society for Psychical Research on July 17, 1882, Professor Henry Sidgwick, once described as "the most incorrigibly and exasperatingly critical and skeptical mind in England," expressed himself regarding psychic phenomena as follows:
"We are all agreed that the present state of things is a scandal to the enlightened age in which we live, that the dispute as to the reality of these marvelous phenomena of which it is quite impossible to exaggerate the scientific 'importance, if only a tenth part of what has been alleged by generally credible witnesses could beshown to be true - I say it is a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of these phenomena should still be going on, that so many competent witnesses should have declared their belief in them, that so many others should be profoundly interested in having the question determined, and yet the educated world as a body should still be simply in an attitude of incredulity. . . .
"We have done all that we can when the critic has nothing left to allege except that the investigator is in the trick. But when he has nothing else left he will allege that. . . . We must drive the objector into the position of being forced either to admit the phenomena as inexplicable, at least by him, or to accuse the investigators either of lying or cheating, or of a blindness or forgetfulness incompatible with any intellectual condition except absolute idiocy."
The prophetic words of the first president of the Society for Psychical Research have been given startling actuality by the new book on Borley Rectory. For this book, with an amazing tenacity and with a tremendous investment of labor, is devoted to the complete discrediting of investigator Harry Price's findings embodied in his The Most Haunted House in England (London, 1940), and The End of Borley Rectory (London 1946). The authors spare no effort to tear Harry Price's reputation and personal integrity to shreds. They depict him as an unmitigated scoundrel, a crook and a liar, a man who willfully ignored negative reports, distorted facts, manipulated the evidence and contradicted himself in his own reporting to an extent which is only compatible with the state of idiocy Prof. Henry Sidgwick had forecast as the last argument of the accusers.
"Scandalous and Scurrilous"
NEVER before in the history of psychical research has there appeared in print such a scandalous piece of writing by three people, two of whom were collaborators and friends of Harry Price, presumably up to his death on March 29, 1948. The book will do more discredit to psychical research than all the fraud laid atHarry Price's door will do to him. Up to the present only mediums ran the risk of being branded rogues and cheats, whether they were or because they fell into the hands of investigators who were psychologically incapable of admitting evidence for the paranormal. Now it will be the turn of psychical researchers to dread eventuality of succeeding in their quest and then face the same ruthless persecution to which their experimental subjects were exposed before them.
The writers themselves admit in their preface that the result of their investigation will do harm psychical research. They also regret the distress their criticism will cause the widow and friends Harry Price, but they claim they had no choice in the matter. No mention is made anywhere in the book of Dingwall or Mrs. Goldney ever having accused Harry Price face-to-face. Dingwall had been associated with Price for thirty years. Mrs. Goldney is described by Paul Tobory, the biographer of Harry Price, as his friend of twenty years standing.
The living Harry Price was a dangerous enemy. In a libel action, the authors would not have had a leg to stand on, but not even the benefit of doubt needs to be given a dead man. If this ghoulish book had been written by Harry Price's declared enemies, he could not havefailed to receive a more generous treatment than his friends afford him.
I am not trying to defend Harry Price on the basis of personal feelings. I have never been his friend, nor his enemy. I did not like him because he was a very difficult man to like, and easy to resent. I do not think he liked me or appreciated me in any way. As Director of Research of the International Institute for Psychical Research, I was, in a small way, his rival; and Harry Price resented rivalry to a point of obsession. Rivals were not invited to his laboratory, unless the pressure was exceedingly strong. He was far too selfish, intent on his own glory and intensely jealous. That was his character.
I accepted him for what he was, admiring his courage, his ability and his achievements. In fact, I openly acknowledged him, in a court case in London, in 1939, as the outstanding psychical researcher in England of that day. I still hold to this opinion. I consider his services to psychical research infinitely superior to those of his detractors. The war against him strikes me as a psychological phenomenon.
Harry Price was a man of strong hates. He never forgave those who hurt his excessive narcissism. There is evidence in the book that both Dingwall and Goldney ran againsthim. Harry Price, as I knew him, would drop them instantly and would never again invite them to his experiments. This weakness of his character does not affect his reputation as an honest investigator and a ruthless exposer of frauds. This was the shining feature of his life and it made him the most resented man by mediums and spiritualists alike. Any medium who would sit for Harry Price was considered bent on moral suicide and Price was actually reduced to importing mediums from abroad as a result of his exposures of home talent.
It is the greatest conceivable farce to see him now in the dock, accused of having played the part of the ghost at Borley Rectory and being presented as the unscrupulous prankster behind the usual run of poltergeist activities. The book is not only brazen, it is simply incredible. It will cause a scandal and crisis in psychical research. It will be a blot on the authors' escutcheon.
Portrait of the Authors
The flabbergasted reader will rightly want to get acquainted with the psychological portrait of the writers. If Price had been a fraud at Borley, it is hardly believable that he was honest in his other outstanding investigations. The authors may have reserved forthemselves the right of further detraction in later volumes, however doubtful the value of such an undertaking might appear.
Dingwall has been out to wreck psychical research in Great Britain for thirty years. He may well accomplish his ambition: wipe Harry Price off the map, and there will be precious little left for psychical research to show. It was Harry Price who introduced psychical research to the man in the street and also largely to science in England. Psychical research owes a greater debt to him alone than to all other researchers lumped together in the last quarter of a century.
Both Dingwall and Mrs. Goldney are my friends. (Trevor H. Hall I do not know.) Nevertheless, if their friendship for Price has failed to deter them from flinging mud at a man described, in the obituary of The Times, London, as of "transparent sincerity" and of "singularly honest mind," I feel compelled to ignore the considerations of friendship and advance opinions that otherwise I would not have published.
Dingwall is a singular man. He openly maintains that there is no justification for psychical research. Paranormal phenomena, he asserts, simply do not occur and could not exist in this age. Admirable, amusing and gentlemanly as he may impress his friends, Dingwall seems emotionally incapable of facing the paranormal. Mrs. Goldney has a penetrating mind, but God help her subjects. There is no limit to her imagination on the negative side, though her mental blind spots seem less chronic than Dingwall's.
The unfortunate thing about Mrs. Goldney as an investigator is that she possesses a steam-roller personality, capable of crushing any witness and any independent opinion around her. When it comes to testimonies stretching back over twenty years, the unhappy examinee would have to have a tremendous strength of mind to emerge from three or four hours of cross examination by her without being brain-washed.
Having seen Mrs. Goldney at work, at my own Institute, on a materialization medium, I am still haunted by the pitiful state in which she left her victim. She is eminently capable of convincing almost any witness that he did not see what he saw. When the authors complain that Harry Price's Blue Book had a positive influence by suggestion on the observers at Borley, I wonder how Mrs. Goldney can remain unaware of her own tremendous power of negative suggestions. For this reason, I would be wary to accept any retraction of previous testimonies obtained by Mrs. Goldney, without re-examination by a more gentle inquisitor.
As to hostile witnesses, there is no need to point out how littlevalue can be attached to their statements. The odd thing is that we hear so little of Mrs. Goldney's and Dingwall's personal impressions at Borley. Why are they both so impersonal? (Not that Dingwall's report would matter. I would reject any report that rests on his unsupported statement. He is not capable of reporting in good faith. He has none.) It should be noted that, much to the authors' consternation, some of their witnesses seem to have recovered from the grilling they had gone through and involved themselves in subsequent contradictions that make the authors bemoan the frailty of human nature.
Outside their personal psychology, we should know a lot more of the authors' relationship to Harry Price, if we are to understand their strange publication. Why did they hate him with such ferocious intensity? The phenomenon is pathological and worthy of investigation. It is to be regretted that the Society for Psychical Research, with which Harry Price was at odds during most of his career, has lent the columns of its Proceedings to this exposure prior to the publication in book form.
Pocket Full of Bricks . . .
TO deal adequately with the contents of this book in a short review is a manifest impossibility.I can do little more than restrict myself to the examination of the main charge against Harry Price. This dates from 1948 and refers to a visit by Charles Sutton, of the Daily Mail, to Borley Rectory in 1929, therefore nineteen years back. He was accompanied by Price and his secretary, Miss Lucie Kaye, now Mrs. Meeker by marriage. The delay is accounted for by Sutton's obvious fear of exposing himself to legal retaliation. The relevant passage, published in Inky Way Annual, Book 2, under the title "The Meditations of Charles Sutton," is as follows:
"After much noisy 'phenomena,' I seized Harry and found his pockets full of bricks and pebbles. This was one 'phenomenon' he could not explain, so I rushed to the nearest village to 'phone the Daily Mail with my story but after a conference with the lawyer my story was killed. The News Editor said: 'Bad luck, old man, but there were two of them and only one of you.' "
Mrs. Meeker, interviewed by Mrs. Goldney, had "no recollection of any such incident, though she remembered visiting Borley with Mr. Sutton." The book continues:
"We next asked her bluntly whether, in her long association with H.P., she had ever had cause to doubt his integrity or suspect him in any way. She replied mostemphatically in the negative. In her opinion he was absolutely and completely straight."
In a later signed testimony she repeated: "I have no memory whatever of a stone, brick or pebble episode that evening, and had there been anything drastic or sensational like an `exposure,' surely it would have made some impression."
This absolute denial is fairly well demolished by Lord Charles Hope's contemporary notes in the S.P.R. files, which speak of a large half brick crashing downstairs as Miss Kaye, Harry Price and Sutton were standing on top of the stairs. "Miss Kaye said H.P. gave a shudder as this happened, but that Sutton accused H.P. of having thrown it and he had to swear by everything that he had not done so. . . . Miss Kaye has a theory that H.P. attracts poltergeist disturbances as nothing has occurred at Borley of that kind in his absence."
From memory compiled at a considerably later date, Lord Charles Hope is further quoted as saying that about a fortnight later he was told by Miss Kaye that "Price had been ill with a heart attack, and led me to understand this had been brought on by an accusation made against him at Borley Rectory by Mr. Charles Sutton.". . . who "had accused H.P. of throwing a large stone and said he had seen him do it." Mr. Sutton himself, invited to Lord Charles Hope's flat, said "he had quite clearly seen Mr. Price throw a large stone. . . and that he had there and then accused him and made him turn out his pockets in which there were several similar stones."
It speaks well for the loyalty of Mrs. Meeker if, having an implicit faith and trust in her employer, she refused to remember any incident of which Harry Price's enemies were ready to forge a weapon against his reputation, particularly when, being dead, he no longer could defend himself. That she must have known more of the incident than claimed at first, we can take for granted on the basis of Lord Charles Hope's contemporary notes. The integrity of Lord Charles Hope, in my opinion, is beyond question.
ANXIOUS as the exposers were to examine minutely every story for the slightest contradiction or slip-up when it could be turned against Price, they have no comment to make on Sutton's palpably absurd statement that he found Price's pockets "full of bricks and pebbles." In his statement to Lord Charles Hope he is more modest and only speaks of "several similar stones," nobricks. Obviously, we are dealing here with journalistic sensationalism which is unharmed by any sense of responsibility. Not that this matters much for the essence of the accusation stands out well. But oddly enough, we only have a quote by Lord Charles Hope regarding the final and decisive testimony: Harry Price's answer to the accusation.
Mrs. Meeker said that he swore that he had not done it. Hence, there is and there was no confession, just as there is no evidence, beyond Sutton's unsupported statement, that Price threw the large stone. The damaging part of his evidence is the pebbles found in H.P.'s pockets. Regarding these, we have no statement from any quarter. We do not know whether Harry Price acknowledged their provenance, or was stunned by the discovery.
Anything can happen in a haunted house. Journalists may frame an investigator, just as much as an investigator could frame a journalist. As the book entirely omits to investigate this problem, let us do a little speculation of our own. Could not Price have easily answered that they were specimens of a previous pebble-throwing incident, or were gathered by him for the purpose of a check-up of some kind? Obviously, he did not have his pocket stuffed with bricks. The excuse would have been rejected as lame, but it would have been natural to expect it. Why wasn't it made?
At the worst, Price could have said that it was all for the purpose of a gag, that he wanted to test his visitor's power of observation and deflate his enthusiasm afterwards. Sutton's violence and hunger for exposure may have cut off every explanation. But we can go much further than that. What is to prevent us from assuming that Sutton himself threw the stone? He had far less to risk than Price. In fact, on Price's part, the act borders on a state of imbecility, whereas on Sutton's part it would have been the source of a journalistic scoop.
There is an even more remote possibility which the authors, if they had not been so delirious with the joys of debunking, would have been duty-bound to examine: did Sutton try to frame Harry Price? What was the previous relationship, if any, between them? Who was behind Sutton, if anyone?
Price was an expert conjurer. It is too naive to expect him to throw stones when he could do far more spectacular things. But to Sutton, the throwing of a stone would have been a great joke. Nor would it have been so difficult for him to slip a few pebbles in Harry Price's pocket when pretending to examine it. Remember his original wording: "I seized Harry andfound his pockets (plural) full of bricks and pebbles." The act of seizure would have given him a perfect opportunity for his own joke, or for the axe he wanted to grind. I think this speculation is much less outrageous than the clumsy attempt at fraud which is laid at Price's door.
In absence of any confession by Harry Price, Sutton's accusations are unacceptable, preposterous, and unworthy of consideration. If Lord Charles Hope's notes were available for all these years to the Society for Psychical Research, why is it that not one champion of truth had confronted Price with the story while he was alive? Obviously, not one of them would have dared to do so. It seems cowardly to claim devotion to truth as a motive of this exposure, after an interval of nineteen years.
THERE are other accusations in the book, much weaker and lamer than Sutton's, coming from obviously hostile witnesses whose minds were so closed to the paranormal that accusing Price was their only opportunity. Also, the book abounds in innuendos based on the flimsiest foundations. Some of them are almost infantile. For instance, the authors hold it against Price that, whenever a party was conducted through the Rectory, he stayed behind. Therefore, he could have thrown stones; and as stones were thrown, he did it.
They ignore an elementary answer: Harry Price, as a seasoned investigator, had every right to guard himself against pranks by visitors, and the only position from which he was able to observe them all was in the rear. The authors reprove Price for a "most striking example of exaggeration" in the case of the headless man. A pair of legs was seen passing through a locked gate. Price reported that they "belonged to a man who was headless." The authors consider the conclusion as absurd because there was no evidence of an unseen head, only a pair of legs that had no upward continuation.
The same ridiculous fault-finding appears with the earliest accusation. A Mrs. Mansbridge felt "the end of the belt of her coat lifted up and dropped again." Price stated, "by an unseen hand." Mrs. Mansbridge protested that she did not mention a hand. Again and again Price is reproved for ignoring the statements of witnesses who saw nothing and quoting only those statements that were positive. The authors themselves feel entitled to tear to pieces all positive testimonies and seem to imply that the negative is far more important than the positive. That is the precise way Dingwall conceives of psychical research.
When all is said and done, and the authors make some grudging admissions of "puzzling" observations made by reliable witnesses in the absence of Price, the cup of their generosity is filled with this final admission:
"The probability of positive trickery on Price's part in addition to his manipulation of the testimony is not, for obvious reasons, so readily capable of proof at this distance of time."
This sounds like a retraction, and was probably inserted by the least fanatic of the co-authors. It is out of line with the context ofthe whole book and does not, in any way, extenuate the motives and the form of presentation.
No doubt, Harry Price had his weaknesses, inconsistencies, confusions and mistakes. In an investigation that began in 1929, it would have been impossible to be free of them. Nor is the tendency to embellish easy to resist in books written for the general public. It is not the details that matter in the story of Borley Rectory. Even if Harry Price had thrown the stone of which he is accused, the grim story of the Most Haunted House in England would still stand.
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