Harry Price was a notorious psychic investigator who had haunted the UK’s tabloid newspapers, and wreaked endless mischief on them, throughout the 1920s and 30s. Richard Morris’ biography Harry Price: The Psychic Detective (2006) is uproariously entertaining, from cradle to grave, and yet the delight that this book takes in Price’s story is only ever an earning that it accrues from the most scrupulous research. It has the format of an exposé, in that Morris tirelessly disentangles every scam and ruse that Price had ever weaved, to unpackage nothingness after nothingness on the display table of the investigator’s life’s works. He ultimately shows that Price’s lifetime of investigating had not gathered together a single reliable or consequential fact about the survival of human consciousness after death. Even so, this book never feels like it wants to move in to finish off Price for good. Morris clearly holds his subject in enormous affection, concluding that:
He should be thought of as a supreme bluffer, a hedonistic con man, a terrific raconteur, a great conjuror, a gifted writer and a wonderful eccentric. It is with these last four attributes, if one can call them that, that the ‘father of modern ghost hunting’ should be laid to rest.
Price’s “science” was a long, arduous pilgrimage to nowhere but a lot of people were happy enough to just enjoy the tales on the road, or this storytelling contest that Price had increasingly hogged. Morris certainly luxuriates in the details from Price’s casebook and it is hard for the reviewer of The Psychic Detective not to conform to doing this too. But should you wish to read about Price’s hunt for Gef the Talking Mongoose (yes, this really happened) or his desire to encourage telepathic contact with the government of Mars (this as well) or his experiment to transform a goat into a luscious youth by using German black magic (even this), then you are redirected to Morris’ book, to pursue these in your own time.
Where the reviewer might have some useful work still to pick up is in placing the ghost hunter in the history of modern thought. Today spiritualism and ghost hunting are even more clichéd than the rituals of familiar Christian worship, in proliferating across an empire of television franchises and YouTube channels. Because of this, we might suppose that it will be not particularly difficult for us to step back into the world of one such as Harry Price and to navigate our way around it. Yet such empathy actually requires us to make quite a forceful mental wrench. If you can refocus your historical gaze on spiritualism, so that you see it through Price’s own eyes, then this subject will become steeply more thrilling.
For a time, the spiritualists had regarded themselves as revolutionaries. In the very least they saw themselves as radically enhancing Christianity – in practice, they were often trying to jostle it into obsolescence. Unfortunately, none of their own Jesus Christs had ever seemed to stick and none of their miracles would acquire a Biblical credibility. The Fox sisters, the movement’s American prophets, had confessed to fraud in 1888 and within five years all of them had died in poverty. Undeterred, their followers began to model themselves upon the sort of revolutionaries that Fyodor Dostoyevsky had once written about. There were busy, ambitious international networks of agents and proselytisers, with the inevitable conferences and newspapers and splits and factions.
There were certainly links between socialism and spiritualism. The Fox sisters had first rustled up their spooks in 1848, the same year that reformers and revolutionaries had been defeated across Europe, and perhaps there was a wistful attempt to foster some of socialism’s now homeless idealism onto new spiritualist movements. Yet spiritualism had also found itself operating as a caricature of revolutionary socialism, rather as Mistress Quickly and her fairies had done with Queen Elizabeth I’s official court. In spiritualism, an errant part of the socialist struggle had drifted into decadence, irrelevance and fatuousness.
In socialism, equality is waiting in some perfect future society, whereas spiritualism caps this by idealising a future in which everybody will be equally dead. Additionally, both movements were soon afflicted with the acute embarrassment of their own class divisions. In any typical socialist movement, lawyers and journalists, the representatives of the middle class, will naturally assume the roles of decision-makers and analysts. Spiritualism was likewise led by a formidable technocratic elite that has no equivalence amongst today’s comparatively amateurish ghost hunters.
Arthur Conan Doyle, the bestselling novelist, Sir William Crookes, the pioneering physicist, and Sir Oliver Lodge, who had helped to invent the radio, had weighted down spiritualism’s top end. By contrast, many of its mediums were recruited from the aspirational working class. William Hope had originally worked on the docks; Stella Cranshaw and Helen Duncan had both been nurses; the Schneider brothers had grown up above their father’s workshop; whilst the poorest of them all was the possessed Romanian girl Eleanore Zugun, who had been disowned by her family.
A distinct stratum of mediums, such as Margery Crandon, were ladies of leisure. Still, Harry Price occupied a lonely position in spiritualism’s class hierarchy and his survival, over decades when many other similar humbugs came and went, can be attributed to a uniquely bitter struggle for social acceptance. The Prices had not been dirt poor – Harry’s father, Edward, was a travelling salesman – but the goofy Price lacked the brainpower to carry him up into the intellectual heights that he believed were his due. He had left school at fifteen and for all of his adult life he held down a job that had been procured for him in his father’s company, a paper-bag manufacturer. This plodding lowly career rather belied Price’s pretence of being always one stupendous discovery away from winning a Nobel Prize.
The trouble was that Price was never equipped from the beginning to join the august and high-minded scientists who wished to dispassionately investigate spiritualism. These scientists had flocked to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which had promised to conduct its investigations “without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems.” Price had despised the SPR’s snobbery but they do appear to have been initially open to him and inclined to give him a fair hearing. But it was not them so much as what they did. Science simply bored Price and he could barely even impersonate scientific gravitas for very long, let alone live by it.
Although Price often looks like a kind of cynical mercenary, who was adrift between the rival camps of science and spiritualism, and always calculating which one would be of greater benefit to him, such a reading of his character is probably too harsh. Morris shows that he did possess a core of faith in the afterlife, as far as this is accessible to us. What Price consistently prioritised, however, and what ultimately doomed his pretensions to scientific credibility, was a love of showmanship and the allure of the funfair. His instincts and reflexes were invariably those of a stage entertainer. He was happiest when engineering a wow.
It was an age of showmen. Rogues were bigger and flashier back then and they always got much further, whether it was Aleister Crowley or Benito Mussolini (both of whom Price bore a niggling resemblance to). Still, the defining characteristic of rogues is that they are innocent. For somebody who was so reliably immoral, Price appears to have inflicted surprisingly little actual harm upon anybody. It is likely that he treated his wife a bit shoddily and he could be obnoxiously quarrelsome with perceived rivals in his profession. Even this amounts mostly to evidence of carelessness, rather than being behaviours that one could solemnly condemn as evil.
Long after the industrialised slaughter of the First World War, Price and his friends were continuing to bask in the innocence and optimism of the Edwardian period. Making contact with the dead was a splendid technological breakthrough that they were on the very cusp of, as if they were a cast of visionary eccentrics from a Jules Verne novel. It is disconcerting to reflect that Price was a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, when he seemed to be living a hundred years behind these modernists, or truanting from their altogether more substantial and responsible world. Deaf to modernity, Price still spent a long time lingering in it, rather like one of those residual medieval nuns that featured in his investigations. He died in 1948.
Parodic of revolutionary socialism to the last, spiritualism had left Price increasingly resembling a jaded Bolshevik. Whereas any Bolsheviks who remained in existence had the Stalinist state to cite as dubious evidence of what they had achieved, Price had Borley Rectory. This Essex address was like a single random house that Price’s entire ideology had descended upon and turned into a fortress for itself. Today, most researchers agree that a lot of the phenomena at the rectory, which had included a spectral nun and a frolicsome poltergeist, had been fabricated by either Price or Marianne Foyster, a wife of one of the rectors. It was nonetheless Borley Rectory where spiritualism had made its last stand against the realism of the twentieth century.