Ghosthunters and Autodictats: Harry Price, the Faked and the Dead

Harry Price at work, 1930s

There’s not a lot left of the reputation of Harry Price, ghosthunter. Nor should they be: tolerance of exaggeration and fakery in someone who has set out their stall against those very things is a bit much to ask of a world that had just suffered the losses of the Great War. But Price is nonetheless a fascinating cultural icon, the kind of man who shows in himself plenty about the real part ghosts and the supernatural have to play in our society. These have changed little in the 65 years since Price’s death. Watch this fascinating Movietone interview:

 

This being Britain, the moment a man dressed as a retired major in his library opens his mouth and sounds like that, we know we’re in social climbing territory. It’s hard for someone with so much of the Bela Lugosi about him. Price has given in to the same tug that I felt as an unnoticed schoolboy: people who are themselves unnoticed quickly gain attention when they surround themselves with the unusual.

But we’re in autodidact territory too. Self-improvement and self-education are great British traditions, but have their disadvantages:

..autodidacts are always in pain. The fear of ignorance is a violent fear; it is atavistic; fear of the unknown is the same as fear of the dark… Autodidact – that’s a tough call. You’re always playing catch-up, and it’s never wholly that you love learning. It’s always for yourself.” (Martin Amis “The Information” 1995)

Unsurprisingly, then, this was not Price’s first venture onto the fresh twentieth century territories as yet uncolonised by science. As a schoolboy, living the background he’d later considerably class-embroider, he claimed to have become involved in space telegraphy. At his age, I chose UFOs, telepathy and the occult.

So here are all the trappings, anyway, that the self-educated expect the educated to possess: the library of old books (recommended in every pre-War paperback guide for “new readers”,  the glass doors on the bookshelves are a giveaway), the lab full of clever devices. And between the clobber from the frauds Price has so triumphantly dished, and his range of ingenious mousetraps with which he’ll snare still more, comes the expected overspill of the provincial and sinister, in the form of Joanna Southcott’s box.

Or is it Southcott’s box? The Panagea Society – the Bedford-based inheritors of provincial Regency prophetess Joanna Southcott’s legacy and remains – were pressing hard and famously for the box to be opened at the same time that Price was pushing his way to prominence. They couldn’t do it themselves: 24 bishops had to call for it, and then only at a time of national crisis. The bandwaggoning Price certainly had a box, and inveigled one reluctant bishop to turn up to see the lid lifted. But the Society will point you to an ancient chest in their Albany Road sanctuary, the Ark of the Covenant, bound up still with pre-Victorian string…

Somehow, it’s never enough just to answer the question of life after death. Out on the margins, the urge is to get the attention of the centre, and then to discredit it, and you start to fill your nest with all the appurtenances of alternative knowledge and eccentricity. You build your theodicies, your theories of everything; you take them around with you in manuscript form..

A woman grieving for her lost husband, a man grieving his wife, a child grieving a parent, wants what they’ve always wanted, the lost one’s safety and contentment, and this a medium will rightly or wrongly give them: assurances that mum or dad or better-half are well and protected somewhere out there, and haven’t forgotten them..

But go any further in than the one-off session or stage show, and you’re into stranger, darker company, and it is wicked with appetite, wholly intent upon you.

When the footpaths reopened after the foot and mouth disaster, my wife and I chose a hot day to walk across the Surrey Hills from the station at Westhumble to the National Trust property at Polesden Lacey. Early on, the route takes you past a ruined chapel and through a group of farm buildings before climbing a hill. We stopped at the top and looked back where we’d come. And plumb in the middle of the buildings we’d just walked through stood a squat redbrick kiln, about two stories high and half-covered in ivy. It hadn’t been there a moment before, had it? We must have been at the wrong angle, or just not noticed it.. but coming back that way later after our tour of Polesden Lacey, there was no brick kiln to be seen.

There was nothing frightening or sinister about the “ghost” structure we’d both seen. But the experience got me reading around the whole subject of the supernatural, and as you may know, real-life ghost stories and phenomena are threatening in a way that they would not be if all they involved were the shades of your kindly dead relatives who would not want to frighten. Even from an atheist perspective, there is something unhealthy, something to be warned off by around the supernatural, something that goes further than the eager sweating presences of frauds and eccentrics looking for followers and converts. We are meant to live life, to sweeten it with the contemplation of death, but what lies beyond – leave well alone. I attended Anglican communion again for a few months until it had cleaned the reacquired Pricean fog out of my soul.

Price himself has earned the immortality of celebrity of course, above all for his famous year-long “investigation” of Borley Rectory. Here’s Borley, remembered by old men who were paranormal investigators once, and young:

Spelling error – autodictat for autodidact – corrected in text. I’ve left the title alone to save having to alter the url. Apologies!

2 Replies to “Ghosthunters and Autodictats: Harry Price, the Faked and the Dead”

  1. Interesting on several counts. A back road locally has presented some odd things over the years. A horse that turned out not to be there when two people in a car thought there was one; another ‘horse’ that would have had to be ten feet high at the shoulder if it was there; a man fantastically waving and dancing across a field where no man was just seconds later and much, much worse, a pub that simply wasn’t there on one journey, which had always been there before and has safely been back in its place now and ever since. All but the dancing man were seen by two people, but the waving, dancing man was seen only by someone herself once mistaken for a ghost.

    Many years ago now I cycled across the Mendips. Somewhere up near the TV transmitter I cycled past an old farmhouse on the road that seemed to go through the farmyard itself. I’ve never, ever been able to find it since. I have no idea what to make of these things except I have the certain knowledge that they happen.

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