Helen Duncan


















Review of Harry Price's Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship by Dr. V.J. Woolley   Reproduced from the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 27, January 1932, pp.187-90.

HARRY PRICE, Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship. 8vo, pp. 116, 41 ill. Bulletin of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research : London 1931. Price 5s. net.

In March 1931 Mr and Mrs Duncan came to London to fulfill a contract with the London Spiritualist Alliance.  Their contract was to give to the Alliance a number of sittings for a fixed remuneration and to hold no other sittings elsewhere.

Mr Price tells us that in April they approached him with an offer of one specimen sitting to be followed by others if desired.  This offer he gladly accepted and in the end he appears to have made it worth while for them to allow at his Laboratory conditions which were far more rigid than any that had been allowed at the L.S.A.  In particular he was allowed to take flashlight photographs of the so-called teleplasm in all sorts of manifestations, and it is these devastating photographs which constitute the main interest of his book.  No unbiased reader who examines them will have the slightest doubt that what the Duncans claimed to be supernormal substances were in fact materials of the most ordinary kinds.  The supposed teleplasm was cheesecloth.  The same holes and crease-marks appeared in the pictures evening after evening.  The materialised hand was a housemaid's rubber glove.  (It is much "too clumsy for a surgeon", as Mr Price suggests.)  In the original photographs, which Mr Price kindly showed me some months ago, there appear too an obvious safety pin and some kind of stiff structure supporting the glove and cheesecloth, but these are practically indistinguishable in the published prints.  This is the more to be regretted since the photographs are by far the most important pieces of evidence here presented.  The only non-photographic material secured was a portion of alleged teleplasm removed from the medium's mouth at the last sitting.  This proved on analysis to consist of several layers of cheap paper stuck together with white of egg.

The nature of the "teleplasm", however, was only one half of the problem.  The other half was to determine how Mrs Duncan brought it into the room, exhibited it, and got it out again.  Here, unfortunately, the results obtained are far less satisfactory.  Mr Price is now quite sure that it is done by the materials being swallowed beforehand, brought up during the sitting, and re-swallowed at its close.  On the evidence at our disposal it is the most probable theory, and so long as we remember that Mrs Duncan was never seen to swallow or regurgitate anything, nor was any foreign substance found in her pharynx, we shall do no harm by believing it until a better explanation can be found.  It depends entirely on the fact that Mr Price believes that he excluded every other possible method of concealment, and such a line of argument is a very unsafe one in discussing the modus operandi of any conjuring trick, as I think Mr Price would be the first to agree.  It would however, be unfair not to mention that among the photographs are included two control pictures showing the extraordinarily small bulk occupied by an enormous sheet of cheesecloth when closely rolled up, and that the account given of the physical examination of the medium, in the search for concealed substances, is extremely complete and convincing.

Five sittings in all were held.  After the fifth the photographs were shown to Mr Duncan with the suggestion that Mrs Duncan should allow a film to be made of the whole performance in return for a fee of £100.  The offer was not accepted and the Duncans soon afterwards left for Scotland.

In conclusion Mr Price asks the reader a number of question regarding the Duncans' motives, and concludes "it is all very puzzling".  I do not think the puzzle is very difficult.  They went to Mr Price because they wanted to make some more money in addition to their payment from the L.S.A. and because they thought that from their point of view Mr Price was on the side of the angels.  Unfortunately for them they left out certain factors from their calculation, possibly not knowing of their existence, and never knew of their mistake until Mr Price produced the photographs after the fifth sitting.

In support of the regurgitation theory Mr Price has quoted a number of interesting cases, some illustrated, of professional entertainers who have earned a living by swallowing and returning a varied assortment of objects, including living animals.  He might have said rather more of the people who do the same with their food in private for their own enjoyment.  Numbers of cases can be found referred to in works of medicine under the heading of rumination or merycism.  All these cases are of interest in this connection as showing the comparative ease with which voluntary control over the gastric and oesophageal muscles can be developed, and that it is quite unnecessary to suppose the existence of a double stomach or an oesophageal diverticulum.

On p. 27 Mr Price has made an unfortunate mistake in relating at second or third hand an incident at an L.S.A. sitting, where the "teleplasm" caught on the edge of Mrs Duncan's platform and she believed it was being held or trodden on by a sitter.  This rough edge was later planed smooth.  The only other matter which seems open to criticism is the rather contradictory wording both of the notes taken at the sitting and of the notes made afterwards.  With a disarming frankness Mr Price says, "In the protocol it is stated that the teleplasm was 'issuing from her mouth', 'coming from her nostrils,' etc.  This is a little misleading.  Actually we did not see it coming in a stream from the medium's facial orifices as the protocol suggests".  Then one can only say that the protocol should not suggest it.  The only use of a contemporary note is to state precisely what occurs and what the sitters do see.

On the same page Mr Price in his own note (not the protocol) says, "The teleplasm . . . coiled itself and squirmed upon the floor; it entangled itself round the chair ... it shortened itself and lengthened itself; it twisted itself up into a short, thick rope slightly damp and with an odour.  Of course, all these transformations were caused by the medium who was manipulating it."  But in that case it did not coil itself or entangle itself.  The medium coiled it, and so on, and it seems only misleading to describe the process in any other way. In the present instance this method of description is not important because the misleading description is corrected later by a qualifying clause.  But supposing that the narrator is describing phenomena which he comes to believe later to be genuine, and uses the same picturesque inaccuracy, he will then not put in any qualifying clause and we shall get a most startling description which may be quite inconsistent with fact.

To sum up, however, the photographs speak for themselves and they teach us at least two things.  First that the taking of flashlight photographs of alleged mediumistic phenomena may be of the greatest value in detecting fraud and so, by corollary, of establishing what is genuine, and second that the physical examination of a medium cannot be considered complete unless we are able to know that nothing is concealed in the stomach or oesophagus.  Mr Price has not so far suggested any practicable technique for such a control and neither can I.



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