Harry Price

Harry Price

Highly charismatic personality whose energy and enthusiasm for the paranormal made him the first celebrity ghost hunter. A skilled magician and an expert at detecting fraud. Because of his flamboyant manner and continuous self-promotion, Price made a number of enemies within the psychical research field, especially within the Society of Psychical Research. Founder of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, which later became the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation.

Broadcasting the Occult

American Experiments in Radio Telepathy | Early Objections to Radio Experiments | The Radio Test of 1927 | Radio Tests in the Home | First Medium to Broadcast | The Haunted House Broadcast | The Cellar Ghost | Spiritualists and the BBC | Archbishop of Canterbury's Inquiry

 - Harry Price -

           THE RADIO is an ideal medium by which to conduct experiments in extra-sensory perception, if the right technique can be found. Unfortunately, the perfect method has not yet been evolved. On the other hand, perfect tests could be arranged by means of television.

The first broadcast of 'psychic' matter was, according to my own personal knowledge, in November, 1921. I happened to be in Berlin and on my friend's set we listened to a description of some experiments in hypnosis. I do not know where the broadcast came from, but probably from a German station. I made some inquiries and could not discover that any previous psychic broadcasts had been made.

American Experiments in Radio Telepathy [top]

The first experiment in radio telepathy was conducted by Professor Gardner Murphy of Columbia University, in collaboration with Professors Gault and English. The test was broadcast by the Zenith Foundation(1) in Chicago on March 2, 1924.

(1) The Zenith Foundation has also more recently staged radio competitions in connection with Dr. Rhine's ESP cards.

The 'agents' (senders) numbered about forty and the tests included a number, a wild animal with a letter written over his head, two intersected coloured lines, a taste, a pain at some point on the hands or arm, the emotional experiences of a drowning man, and finally what a fireman feels like when he is rescuing a girl. All the stimuli were chosen automatically by means of a machine. Listeners were informed of the general nature of the stimulus, whether it was an animal, a number, and so on.

Rather more than 2,500 persons sent in replies, and the results were actually worse than chance would lead one to expect. But two persons scored successes which were outstanding, if inconclusive. In test five, one of the senders in the studio had tied a string round the little finger of his left hand in order to convey to listeners the sensation of a dull, throbbing pain. A listener reported a similar pain in the left little finger. A young woman also sensed a pain at the base of the little finger, plus the emotions of a drowning man. These results are good, but Dr. Murphy was unable to follow them up with further tests. But however good they were, these two isolated cases out of more than 2,500 did not prove that anything but chance was responsible(2).

(2) For a further account, see 'Telepathy as an Experimental Problem,' by Gardner Murphy in The Case for and against Psychical Belief, Worcester, Mass., 1927, pp. 273-4.

Early Objections to Radio Experiments [top]

The idea of broadcasting experiments in telepathy was (so far as Europe is concerned) originated, elaborated, and submitted to the old British Broadcasting Company by me as long ago as 1924. In the spring of that year, I went to considerable trouble in devising experiments in thought-transference, with listeners as 'percipients,' which would have produced a mass of interesting data. Colours, perfumes, geometrical figures, playing-cards, numbers, scenas, etc. were included in my broadcasting scheme, which was finally rejected by the BBC for some very curious reasons. On June 12, 1924, Mr. Arthur R. Burrows, then Director of Programmes, wrote me that they were considering my proposal but that they had 'to avoid doing anything which will justifiably expose us to an attack by the medical profession and other students of the mental and nervous systems.' By June 19 the Control Board had discussed my proposal, but 'it was decided that a test of this character, with an unknown number of persons listening, would carry little weight and could not in any case be convincing.' Finally, I was told that 'in view of the fact, too, that the Company would be exposed to a deal of criticism, some of which might be quite justifiable,' the experiment could not take place.

It is strange to read in 1939 these old BBC letters of 1924. Since that date many psychic plays have been broadcast, and mediums, fortune-tellers, dowsers, fire-walkers and other 'psychics' have been on the air repeatedly.

But the old BBC were strangely 'psychic' themselves when they prophesied that an experiment in radio mass telepathy would 'not in any case be convincing.' One was staged in 1927, and the results were, to put it mildly, inconclusive.

The Radio Test of 1927 [top]

Three years after my suggestions to the British Broadcasting Company (which, on January 1, 1927, was incorporated by Royal Charter), a similar proposal for broadcasting an experiment in telepathy was made by the SPR. This test was arranged to take place on February 16, 1927, between 11.15 and 11.35 pm

The experiment was carried out by Dr. V. J. Woolley, then a member of the SPR. He, Mr. S. G. Soal. and six other 'agents,' while sitting in an office in Tavistock Square, thought hard for three minutes each of five objects which Dr. Woolley successively produced at five-minute intervals. These objects were:

1. Two of clubs playing-card, printed in green on a black background.
2. A Japanese print of a skull (in a garden), on which a bird is perched.
3. Three sprays of white lilac in bloom.
4. Nine of hearts, printed in red on a black background.
5. Dr. Woolley himself in a bowler hat and grotesque mask.

While the 'agents' were in Tavistock Square, Sir Oliver Lodge was at the broadcasting studio at Savoy Hill, telling listeners when to 'think.' It is not quite clear why Sir Oliver was needed, as the announcing could have been done by Dr. Woolley himself, or the experiment could have been held at Savoy Hill.

All Sir Oliver knew about the objects was that numbers one and four were 'playing cards of unusual design,' and that number two was a picture. This information he passed on to the listeners, who were asked not only to 'guess' what the various objects were, but also to record any emotions which their mental pictures of the objects might engender. Listeners were asked to send their recorded impressions to the SPR immediately after the broadcast. The 'agents' themselves remained locked up in their office all night, in order that information concerning the nature of the objects could not leak out.

'Impressions' were received from 24,659 listeners, and the results were analysed by Mr. S. G. Soal and Dr. Woolley. Taking the cards first, 190 persons correctly guessed the two of clubs; but the nine of hearts, which was neither seen nor chosen until fifteen minutes later, was recorded at the first test by 491 listeners. But when the nine of hearts was chosen and thought of, only 150 persons recorded it, although 145 other persons chose the two of clubs, the card which was drawn fifteen minutes earlier. It is obvious that there was no evidence of anything but pure chance.

Test No. 2 was announced as a 'picture,' and many listeners jumped to the conclusion that it was a well-known portrait or famous painting from a gallery. Only five persons recorded a skull, though one of these said it was 'a skull in a garden,' which was correct. A sixth guess was 'human head,' though any portrait recorded would answer this description. But, as Dr. Woolley points out(3), three of the successful 'skull' guessers, also correctly guessed 'flowers' (the lilac) for No. 3 test. But in the 'lilac test,' only three persons guessed correctly.

(3) 'The Broadcasting Experiment in Mass-Telepathy,' by V. J. Woolley; Proc., SPR, Vol. XXXVIII, pp. 1-9.

Test No. 5 was that of Dr. Woolley 'dressed up' and five only out of the nearly 25,000 listeners recorded impressions of him. But 146 thought it was one of the 'agents'; 236 guessed 'masquerading'; 73 said 'masks or faces'; and 202 'hats.'

As was to have been expected, and as Dr. Woolley emphasizes in his report(4), preferential mental associations must be taken into account. In the playing-card tests, more people called odd numbers than even, and the picture cards were hot favourites. But aces were most popular, these being called 10,766 times, the winning ace (ace of spades) being recorded 3,891 times.

(4) op. cit.

After a most careful analysis, Dr. Woolley and his colleagues came to the conclusion that no indication of paranormality was evident from the broadcasting experiment. And statistical methods were difficult because, except in the case of the playing-cards, the mean chance expectation of good guesses could not be determined. This could be remedied by using a different technique(5).

(5) A sequel to the BBC experiment was the inviting of 150 of the more promising listeners to be tested in their own homes, while the 'agents' met in London. Mr. S. G. Seal, in a long and detailed report ('Experiments in Supernormal Perception at a Distance,' Proc., SPR, Vol. XL, pp. 165-362) concluded that the results were entirely negative.

Radio Tests in the Home [top]

Any two or more persons can conduct their own radio tests for ESP in their own homes with little trouble or expense. All that is needed is a pack of playing cards (the special 'Telepatha' or 'Zener' cards are better) and a wireless set. Tests can be carried out in experiments between friends in different houses, streets, towns, or even countries. By previous agreement between agents (senders) and percipients (receivers), competitions can be arranged as follows: On the last striking note of Big Ben, or the last of the six dot seconds of the Greenwich time signal, the sender looks at a card (plain or coloured) for one minute. The receiver, in another house or town, during the same period, tries to visualize what card (suit, value, or colour) the sender is looking at. At the end of one minute, the sender looks at another card for a minute, and so on for a number of cards. Both sender and receiver keep a careful (duplicate) record of what they respectively look at and visualize and these records are exchanged by both sender and receiver at once posting them in the nearest pillar-box. Upon receipt of the exchanged records, both sender and receiver will see what successes have been achieved. Competitions among groups of friends, or between clubs, towns, or villages can easily be arranged by means of the radio, one suggestion being that a person acts as sender to a number of his friends, who become the receivers. These can be in a group or scattered all over the country. Prizes can be awarded for the best results, and both clairvoyant and telepathic experiments can be carried out in the way I have suggested.

First Medium to Broadcast [top]

The first professional medium to broadcast in this country was Miss Gene Dennis, the American clairvoyante(6), who appeared in the 'In Town To-night' series on April 21, 1934. Another American, Miss Nella Webb, the 'astrologer to Hollywood,' broadcast on May 11, 1935. Since then, a number of astrologers, fortune-tellers, diviners, 'magicians,' witch-doctors,' and gypsies have been on the air.

(6) For tests with her, see Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, op. cit., pp. 260-6.

Experiments in fire-walking(7) and dowsing have been both broadcast and televised, and we have had talks on modern witchcraft, ghosts, the Indian Rope Trick, treatment by hypnotism and suggestion, magic in New Guinea, pagan ritual in Renaissance art, superstitions, how to mesmerize apes, and the 'supernatural' generally. In addition, the following are amongst the 'psychic' plays which have been broadcast: Ghostly Fingers, The Magician, Witchcraft, Money! Money! Money! An Exercise in Sheer Horror, Words Upon the Window-pane (by W. B. Yeats)(8), New rear's Eve, and Sutton Vane's Outward Bound. A series of talks on astrology ('Birthday Party') announced for January 1939, aroused a storm of protest from, among others, the Astronomer Royal, Dr. H. Spencer Jones(9). On November 1, 1938, the 'Under Twenty Club' debated 'ghosts' which was broadcast. I was the guest speaker.

(7) See Chap. XIV.
(8) Died January 28, 1939.
(9) See the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post for January 10, 1939; and leading article in The Times, January 24, 1939: ('Hullo, Gemini!').

What was a golden opportunity for presenting to the public a lucid and informative account of psychical research was quite missed when the 'Inquiry into the Unknown' series was broadcast in 1934. It was a symposium by various people, some of whom knew very little of the subject about which they were supposed to talk. During this series the records of Rudi Schneider's trance breathing (afterwards found to be quite normal) were broadcast. A more amusing series were the 'Things I Cannot Explain' talks in 1937. Among the speakers were Sir Ernest Bennett, M.P., and Shane Leslie. The talks were printed in the Listener(10), and make interesting reading. On April 15, 1939, Captain W. H. Gregson broadcast an account of his strange experiences at Borley Rectory, 'the most haunted house in England.'

(10) From October 13, 1937 to January 5, 1938. In an article 'Things I Can Explain' (Listener, January 12, 1938), I summed up and answered the various speakers.

The Haunted House Broadcast [top]

Plate XI. Stage set for broadcasting from the 'haunted manor', Meopham, March 10, 1936. In front of Harry Price are, in addition to microphone, electrical instruments which automatically indicated any abnormal happening, variations in temperature, etc., in various parts of the house. This was the first broadcast ever to be made from a 'haunted house'.

Probably the most successful, and certainly the most interesting, broadcast of a psychic nature was the relay from the old haunted house near Meopham, Kent, which I organized for the BBC on March 10, 1936. The house belonged to a friend of mine and parts of it are hundreds of years old. There was no reason to hope that we should broadcast any actual phenomena, which, as is always the case in haunted houses, are so very spontaneous, rare, and sporadic. But what we attempted to do, and what we achieved, was to give listeners a perfect picture of the technique employed in investigating an alleged haunted house. (See Plate XL) Actually, one phenomenon did occur. Our sensitive transmitting thermograph had been in the 'haunted cellar' all day, and the temperature was quite constant, as shown by the straight line of the graph across the chart. But about 9.45 pm, during the broadcast, the temperature suddenly rose slightly, and then fell sharply below what had been measured during the day. This kick in the graph could not be accounted for in terms of normality.

A previous tenant of the house, Mr. G. Varley, upon hearing of our proposed broadcast, sent me the following letter, dated March 8, 1936:

The Cellar Ghost [top]

'I am most interested as I lived in the house for six months, between September, 1931, and March, 1932, having rented the house from the present owner, and I saw the ghost on several occasions. Once, I, terrified, threw a poker at him, and he did not move - so you can believe him a hardy, if disembodied spirit!

'The house, however, was, I believe, haunted by more than one ghost, and I could tell you something about their habits and how I managed to lay, or rather, to a certain extent, curb their activities during my stay.

'Of course almost the most persevering of the ghosts is the one that opens the cellar door. I was always shutting that damned door! Usually, several times a day, as I had a particular dislike of being "spied on" by the cellar ghost. But it was always open again when I noticed it, though only once was I actually present in the lounge when the ghost opened it. What happened on that occasion is more of a tribute to the ghost than to my courage!

'I believe undoubtingly that the ghost has a sinister influence on the people who stay in the house.

'I have really no doubt at all of the success of your broadcast, as we used to hear footsteps and mutterings every night - the ghosts, however, may object to your modern gadgets.'

(Signed) 'G. VARLEY.'

If we heard nothing unusual during the broadcast, it certainly was not the fault of Mr. S. J. de Lotbiniere, BBC Director of Outside Broadcasts, who was in charge of the transmission; or of myself, who set a number of 'traps' for the 'ghost.' But certain of those present at the broadcast slept in the house that night and one at least heard footsteps in the early hours which could not be accounted for. The only thrill I received that evening was the finding of a human thigh-bone, much the worse for post-mortem wear, which some humorist had placed in my car during the broadcast.

Spiritualists and the BBC [top]

It is a common complaint among spiritualists that they do not get a square deal from the BBC They complain that other religions have a certain amount of time allotted them on the air, but that the broadcasting of spiritualist services is forbidden. The reply of the BBC is that spiritualism is not one of the conventional religions, and it is a perfectly correct answer. Comparatively speaking, there are only a handful of spiritualists, and it would be an insult to the millions of other listeners who might have to listen to the rubbish which is uttered at some spiritualist churches, or be compelled to switch off their receivers. In the United States spiritualist services are broadcast but the time has to be bought. I imagine that, short of obscenities, anything can be put on the air in the States, if the time is paid for. Any spiritualist service broadcast in this country would most likely be for propaganda purposes. I sympathize with those sincere believers who are deprived of listening to broadcast spiritualist services, but they are suffering because a few societies choose to introduce into their church services extravagances which are deplored by many of their members. Should the BBC ever permit spiritualist services to be broadcast, details would first have to be submitted to the Corporation for approval.

As regards the philosophy of spiritualism, a number of speakers have been allowed on the air. The very first speaker on 'psychics' was Sir A. Conan Doyle, whose talk (on May 20, 1924) on 'Psychic Development' was largely connected with spiritualism. And Sir Oliver Lodge's talk, in the 'Inquiry into the Unknown' series (March 9, 1934), was of a decidedly spiritualistic flavour. Finally, Mr. Ernest W. Oaten, the editor of the Two Worlds, a Manchester spiritualist weekly, was permitted to broadcast a talk on spiritualism a few years ago. But these talks were in no sense services. As I write these lines, I have before me a cutting from a recent issue of a spiritualist weekly(11) containing an advertisement announcing that the Rev. Dick Sheppard and the Rev. Vale Owen, both of whom are dead, 'will speak on spirit life and on the spirit of Christmas.' Tickets of admission (is. and is. 6d.), if not sold at the 'usual agencies,' had to be obtained in advance-just like booking a scat for a theatre or cinema. There is no mention of any medium or trance address-just the plain statement that these two distinguished and deceased divines 'will speak' on a certain date and at a certain hour selected by those responsible for the show. That such a stunt should be staged, or that such an advertisement should appear is so unbelievable that I will reproduce it photographically. Here it is, and the use of the cross should be noted:

(11) The Spiritualist News, December 3, 1938. The advertisement appeared at least three times.

Apparently these exhibitions are run by a concern called the 'Dick Sheppard Spirit Mission,' from a house named, of course, 'St. Martin's,' and from another issue(12) of the same journal we learn what 'Dick Sheppard' said at a previous meeting. Here is his soul-stirring message from the grave: 'To all people who on earth do dwell - I send greetings. May you all learn, and realize, the Truth. I have been appointed to a position of authority, and trust. I am responsible to God and to His beloved Son Jesus Christ, whom I hope to serve all the days of my life. I could not seek any greater honour. For the peoples of the earth I have a wonderful message... There is no death ...' There is a whole column of this ridiculous twaddle, and my only point in bringing it to the reader's notice is to emphasize how utterly impossible it would be for the BBC to run the risk of insulting millions of listeners by broadcasting such stuff. As it is, it would be interesting to learn what the surviving relatives of Canon Sheppard and Vale Owen think about it all.

(12) December 10, 1938.

Archbishop of Canterbury's Inquiry [top]

I understand that the question of broadcasting spiritualist services was one of the subjects discussed by the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Spiritualism, which began its labours in March, 1937. Dr. Francis Underhill, Bishop of Bath and Wells, chairman of the Commission, stated in a Press interview(13) that its sole aim is to 'arrive at the truth' concerning psychic phenomena. No report has yet been issued. Mr. Oaten, in his address(14) to the Commission, declared that 'the Church ... has used its influence in Parliament, in the courts, in society, and through the BBC, to ignore, humiliate, and boycott us.'

(13) News-Chronicle, March 11, 1938.
(14) Spiritualism and the Church. An Address Given before the Archbishop of Canterbury's Committee, by E. W. Oaten, Manchester, 1937, p. 21.

In this chapter I have been able to deal only with the broadcasting in this country and in the United States, as I could not obtain reliable data concerning Europe and nations farther afield. But I must mention that my friend M. Rene Sudre, the distinguished French psychist and Scientific Editor of Le Journal, has broadcast from the Eiffel Tower regularly at least once each week for nearly twelve years, often on psychic subjects. This, I think, is a longer run than can be boasted by any British broadcaster. And Dr. W. H. C. Tenhaeff, of Utrecht University, has frequently spoken on scientific psychical research from the Dutch radio stations, and his talks have proved immensely popular(15).

(15) I am indebted to the BBC for kindly supplying some of the data incorporated in this chapter.


The article above was taken from Harry Price's "Fifty Years of Psychical Research" (1939, Longmans, Green & Co.)


More articles by Harry Price

'A Fit Subject of University Study and Research'
The First Psychic Laboratory
The Law and the Medium
Psychic Practitioners (Regulation) Bill
The Story of ESP
The Mechanics of Spiritualism
Poltergeist Mediums
Can we Explain the Poltergeist?

Margery' - The Psychic Riddle of the Twentieth Century
Stella C
The Materialisation of 'Rosalie'

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