Harry Price: Forefather to Modern Ghost Hunting

A portrait of Harry Price. It suits his interest in the paranormal, he looks kind of like Dracula in this picture.

A portrait of Harry Price. It suits his interest in the paranormal, he looks kind of like Dracula in this picture.

Harry Price (1881-1948 ) was an English “psychical investigator”, an early term which is akin to a paranormal investigator. Psychical research institutes devote themselves to studying supposed psychic phenomenon and all things paranormal (I apologize now for any deviations into terminology, it’s one of my things). Harry Price himself eventually founded the National Laboratory of Psychical Research of London when he was no longer welcome at the Society for Psychical Research.

It is entirely possible that I call him the “forefather of modern ghost hunting” with some liberty. However, there are some key reasons for feeling that way. First, Price achieved the great dream of all investigators when he married Constance Mary Knight, a wealthy heiress, allowing him to stop any work (he had been an engineer) and devote himself entirely to his paranormal research.

His early career was spent trying to expose fraudulent claims of psychical feats. One of his most famous exposures is of the photographer William Hope who was famous for photographing people and having their dead relatives reveal themselves in the photograph. Price was able to prove him fraudulent when he found out that Hope was able to put trick slides of the “spirits” into his camera, thereby having them appear as apparitions in the photographs. This is a second reason I call him a forefather. A modern paranormal researcher should be skeptical and be just okay exposing fraudulent claims, or at the very least, accepting when there is no evidence to support paranormal claims.

Price himself was a bit of a trickster, being an amateur magician which helped him to understand how to expose frauds.

He was also an inventor. Using his engineering skills Price was able to create machines that would aid him in his investigations. One such machine-the telekinetoscope-was used to help test psychic abilities.

The telekinetoscope set up

The telekinetoscope set up

This apparatus had a red light connected to a telegraph key and was encased under glass so that only psychic powers could touch it. Beyond this Price was one of the first investigators to attempt to use scientific instruments to study paranormal phenomenon. He would use devices for measuring air pressure, temperature and a number of other devices, the nature of which I don’t quite understand. However, these were used to great effect with one of Price’s first psychics, Stella Cranshaw.

Stella Cranshaw, Harry Price's first psychic

Stella Cranshaw, Harry Price's first psychic

Price met Cranshaw on a train and eventually convinced her to work with him to test her abilities. Price and Cranshaw did several series of séances that lasted several years. The telekinetoscope was used and occasionally would turn on during these séances. Supposedly Cranshaw had a spirit guide named “Palma” who would make her presence known during these sittings and occurrences such as the heavy oak table being tossed and turned would happen. At one point a table was levitated off the ground and then three of its legs were broken away and the table then collapsed (source: prairieghosts.com). Price’s careful investigations with Cranshaw earned them both credit within the community.

Eleanor Zugun, the girl who experience poltergeist activity. Notice the scratches on her face.

Eleanor Zugun, the girl who experience poltergeist activity. Notice the scratches on her face.

Apparently this success and Price’s change from investigating frauds to investigating what he considered authentic phenomenon caused rifts between Price and the Society for Psychical Research. He would later work with Eleonore Zugun, a young Romanian woman. Zugun experienced poltergeist activity including scratches that would appear on her body. In Price’s own words:

The stigmatic marks and abrasions which spontaneously appeared on various portions of Eleonore’s body were, as I have remarked, the most interesting of the phenomena said to occur with this medium. I saw several of them during the periods I kept the girl under observation. The marks were of several varieties, including teeth-marks, long scratches, oval, annular, elliptical, and other marks of varying shapes. The teeth-marks, it must be admitted, were similar to those made by Eleonore’s own teeth; arid tests carried out proved that if Eleonore bit her own arm, identical impressions to those alleged to be abnormal were found, except that the number of teeth indentations varied. But no one saw Eleonore play tricks of this description, although she was kept under observation for days by different investigators. Teeth-marks were never found on any part of her body not accessible to the medium’s mouth; they invariably appeared on her arms or hands. This applied also to the scratches and other markings which appeared on her chest, arms, wrists and hands. But she was never caught making these marks, some of which must have been exceedingly painful. The marks were always sore afterwards. And pins and needles in her proximity would suddenly appear in her flesh. (source: text from Harry Price’s Poltergeists over England, Poltergeists that Bite chapter)

There are varying accounts of where Eleonore comes from. The official Harry Price website gives no account of where she came from but prairieghosts.com says she was found at an insane asylum by a fellow investigator. This would give credence to the idea that her scratches were self inflicted, especially if she came from an asylum. It is difficult to discern from Price’s records whether or not this could be a possibility. Continuing Price’s description:

Eleonore would perhaps be playing with a ball when suddenly she would give a sharp cry of pain and immediately come over to us and allow us to roll up her sleeve or uncover her chest, when the progress of the phenomenon could be witnessed. The teeth-marks were at first visible as red indentations on a white ground – the white surround gradually becoming red at the same time as the indentations became white, rising in a thick ridge above the level of the flesh. The ridge became quite white in the course of a few minutes, and rapidly disappeared. Indentations and teeth-marks made in the fleshy part of Eleonore’s hand in a normal manner acted in exactly the same way. Scratches and other marks of alleged abnormal origin produced thick white weals in the course of a few minutes, afterwards rapidly disappearing (source: text from Harry Price’s Poltergeists over England, Poltergeists that Bite chapter)

Price does note on several occasions that he witnessed the creation of these welts spontaneously without the aid of Eleonore or her guardian the Countess Wassilko-Serecki, whom Price had brought with the girl from Vienna in 1926.

Another interesting case handled by Price was Joanna Southcott’s Box. Joanna Southcott was the daughter of a farmer who was a self-proclaimed prophetess. She became convinced that she was the woman spoken of in Revelations 12:1-6

  1. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
  2. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
  3. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
  4. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
  5. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
  6. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

She said in 1792 that she was visited by the Lord and began to write the documents contained in the “Great Box”. According to Harry Price’s understanding of her history, she believed at one point she was “Jesus Christ in a woman’s body” but after a corrective vision of Jesus Christ himself, she was told he was his “chosen bride”. There was a big media circus over her including a supposed new virgin birth, though her appearance of being pregnant was later found to be dropsy, a condition in which soft tissue swells due to retention of water.

When the box was acquired by Price it had been sealed for 113 years. He decided to invite mediums to try and divine the history of the box which had not been recorded in any way. As of 1929 there is an “Authentic History of the Great Box of Sealed Writings Left by Joanna Southcott” written by a Mary Robertson, who was a follower of Joanna’s. Price invited Mrs. Florence Kingstone, Mrs G.M. Laws, Mrs. Cannock, Mrs. Stahl Wright, Mrs. Eileen Garrett, Mrs. Stella C. (I assume to be Price’s first medium, Stella Cranshaw), Mrs Cantlon and Mr. Vout Peters. The following are Price’s recordings of what the medium’s divined:

Mrs. Kingstone clairvoyantly “saw” on old lady, a small stone cross, a “roll of parchment with writing which slopes to the left,” piles of papers, a long sermon, the name Gerald, prophecies to do with religion and war, etc.

Mrs. Laws clasped the box, and said: ” I get a tremendous warmth; also a curious feeling of deadness.”

Mrs. Cannock held the box between her hands concentrated her mind on it for a few moments, and said: “There is a prophecy inside. A woman in a great white cap – a key – drawings or chart – a hard object – another box – something that is crumpled or rotted (dating to Biblical times) – writings – something made of bone – valuables, whether in money or effects – apparel.

Mrs. Stahl Wright sensed “a little box ” – a jewel – and the names “Edith,” “Yates.”

Mrs. Eileen Garrett said: “Documents very badly written” – loose sheets of papers – manuscript containing prophecies and dates, strongly marked – something metal – bound book – portrait -a seal – scrolls, etc.

The control (“Palma”) of Miss Stella C. informed us (by means of calling out the letters of the alphabet) that the box contained coins, jewel, purse, ring, books, sheet of paper, beads, bag, seal, and the words  “icey “and “loses.”

Mrs. Cantlon got “a piece of jagged marble ” – small roll of paper tied with pink tape, and perhaps sealed – list of names and a short prayer – small white box – beads – quotations from the Bible – old-fasioned watch or compass, perhaps silver and rather dainty – “I am certain there are beads or stones” – “something long and dark” – “I get Jeremiah rather strongly; and Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”

Mr. Vout Peters went into a trance, and informed us that in the box were “three documents, one bound as a book” – scripts – curious drawings – something that is opaque – something long – lining of box is velvet – the name Jehovah – the year 18I2 – something to do with fabric.

Dr. Arthur Lynch held the box for a few minutes, and said: “In my opinion, the box contains symbols and vestments, one manuscript of doctrine, and some directions to the faithful. Probably there is another box inside it which contains the most secret, sacred directions of all.” (source: Harry Price’s Leaves from a Psychist’s Case Book, chapter Exploding the Southcott Myth)

Dr. Lynch is not a medium but a psychologist present who was interested in trying his hand at analyzing the box.

Price then decided to x-ray the box as Joanna had left instructions that it should not be opened unless it was a moment of national distress, as the contents were said to be able to save the nation, and in the presence of 24 bishops. This is the list of items Price found upon x-raying:

An old horse pistol (not cocked), date about 1814.

Dice-box.

Double-ended fob purse made of steel beads.

Coins in the purse.

A bone puzzle with rings.

Books – one with metal clasps.

A framed painting or miniature.

Pair of gold inlaid, ear-rings.

A cameo or worked pebble.

And here is the list of items Price found upon actually opening the box on 11 July 1927:

The Surprises of Love, Exemplified in the Romance of a Day, or An Adventure in Greenwich Park Last Easter j the Romance of an Evening or Who Would Have Thought It? (London, 1765) with annotations by Joanna; Rider’s British Merlin (London, 17 I 5); Calendier de la Cour (Paris, 1773); Ovid’s Metamorphoses (London, 1794), etc. Rather a worldly collection for a religious ecstatic!

There was a lottery ticket for 1796, and a piece of paper “printed on the River Thames, Feb. 3rd. 1814.”

In the, green silk double-ended fob purse, covered with cut steel beads, were a great number of silver and copper coins and tokens, ranging from a William and Mary 2d. Maundy piece to a ½d. mail-coach token. Some of these coins are rare.

Among the miscellaneous objects were the horse pistol (rusty and quite innocuous!), a miniature case, turned ivory dice-cup, a bone puzzle, a woman’s embroidered night-cap, pair of tortoise-shell and inlaid gold drop ear-rings, and a set of brass money weights.

(source: Harry Price’s Leaves from a Psychist’s Case Book, chapter Exploding the Southcott Myth)

To this day there is still debate about whether Price really opened Joanna’s box or not. There are still people who follow Southcott’s teachings and will defend her to the end. Indeed, the picture and x-ray of the box Price published and the picture of the box shown by the “Joanna Southcott Web Site” at the beginning of the box’s history are vastly different. Perhaps Price was pranked and given a box full of random objects. Perhaps the group who wrote the box’s history are concealing the fact that what is in their possession is not her box but a desperate attempt to hold on to the sanctity of their prophet. Perhaps neither of them are the real box. Unfortunately, without Joanna here to tell us herself, we may never know.

Price would later go on to work on the Borley Rectory case (to be detailed in a later post) which would make him highly famous and would give him material for several best selling books. This case is another reason why I call him the “Forefather of Modern Ghost Hunting”. His use of scientific instruments to try and gather evidence for the hauntings at Borley laid the ground work for modern techniques.

Was he a charlatan as many skeptics claim? Was he genuine? Many in the paranormal field will certainly say he was a sensationalist, but I believe he was someone with a genuine desire to bring science and the supernatural together. He seemed neither to believe the paranormal good nor bad, simply there and he wanted to study it. In the end he was a skeptical believer, which hopefully should be said of all of us who delve into the area of paranormal research and investigation. If you don’t believe, what are you doing there? If you’re not a skeptic, why are you trying to prove anything? Price was both.

Sources and links with more information:

The official Harry Price Web Site with a lot of this information and even more, including exerpts from the books mentioned

Prairieghost.com article on Harry Price

Youtube Video: Interview with Harry Price

A timeline of Harry Price’s life

Joanna Southcott Web Site, including the “Authentic History of the Great Box”

A short essay on Joanna Southcott and her prophetic viewpoint

A Timeline of Joanna Southcott’s life

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