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.

The Law and the Medium

Transportation for Fortune-Telling | Ancient Laws for Modern-Mediums | Laws Prohibiting Spirit Intercourse | Modern Attempts at Reform | Houdini and the Fortune-Tellers | Mediums Who Aid the Police | Some 'Causes Celebres' | Rape and Rhabdomancy | 'The £1,000 Ghost' | Police Raid the Spiritualists | A Medium Strikes Back | A Tragic Medium

 - Harry Price -

           IT IS fortunate for modern mediums, genuine and otherwise, that they ply their trade in the reign of George VI, and not for example, in the days of Henry VIII. In this reign a law(1), An Acte conc'nyng Egypsyans (i.e. gypsies), was passed which provided the severest punishments for 'fortune telling' and similar offences. Anyone using 'greate subtyll and crafty meanes to deceyve the people, beryng them in hande, that they by Palmestre coulde telle menne and women's fortunes, and so many tymes by crafte and subtyltie have deceyved the people of theyr money' was to leave the country within sixteen days of the proclamation. The next Act(2) also penalized, to the extent of £40, any person conveying into England such 'Egiptians,' who, after a sojourn of one month, automatically became felons. During the reign of Elizabeth an Act(3) was directed 'agaynst fonde and phantasticall Prophesys' - especially when these concerned the death of the monarch.

(1) 22 Hy. VIII, c.10 and 11 (1530-1).
(2) 1 and 2 Ph. and M., C. 4.
(3) 5 Eliz. c. 15.

In 1597, another Elizabethan Act:(4) An Acte for Punishment of Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdie Beggers, increased the punishments for what we should now call 'mediumship.' For instance, it applied to 'All idle persons going about in any countrey either begging or using any subtile craft, of fayning themselves to have knowledge in Physiognomie, Palmestry, or other like crafty science, or pretending that they can tell destinies, fortunes, or such other like fantasticall imaginations... And all such persons not being felons, wandering and pretending themselves to be Egyptians, or wandering in the habite, forme, or attire of counterfeite Egyptians, shall be taken, adjudged and deemed Rogues, Vagabonds, and sturdy beggers, and shall susteine such paine and punishments, as by this Acte is in that behalfe appointed.'

(4) Of the two known copies of the original, one is in the 'Harry Price Library of Magical Literature,' University of London.

Transportation for Fortune-Telling [top]

Any person convicted under the above Act shall 'bee striped naked from the middle upwards, and shall be openly whipped until his or her body be bloudy: and shall be forthwith sent from Parish to Parish, by the Officers of every the same, the next straight way to the Parish where hee was borne... After which whipping the said person shall have a testimonial subscribed with the hand, and Sealed ... mentioning the day and place of his or her punishment, and the place whereunto such person is limitted to goe, and by what time the said person is limited to passe thither at his perill. And if the said person through his or her default do not accomplish the order appointed by the said testimoniall, then to be eftsoones taken and whipped, and so as often as any default shall be found in him or her, contrary to the forme of this Statute, in every place to be whipped till such person be repayred to the place limited.'

Should the fortune-teller or 'Egyptian' 'appeare to bee dangerous to the inferior sort of people where they shall be taken, or otherwise be such as will not be reformed of their rogish kind of life,' they shall 'be banished out of this Realme ... and conveyed into such parts beyond the seas ... or otherwise be judged perpetually to the Galleis of this Realme... And if any such Rogue so banished as aforesaid shall returne againe into any part of this Realme or dominion of Wales, without lawfull licence, such offence shall be felony, and the partie offending therein suffer death as in the case of felony.'

Very curiously, the above Act specifically states that nothing therein shall apply to 'the poore people in S. Thomas Hospitall, in the Borough of Southwarke' and 'shall not in any wise extend to dishenherite, prejudice or hinder John Dutton of Dutton, in the County of Chester Esquier, his heires or assignes'; or to children under the age of seven years.

Cromwell's Parliament of 1656 found that the Elizabethan fortune-telling Act was rarely administered. Also, such crimes were 'much increased, by reason of some Defects in the Laws and Statutes heretofore made.' To remedy this state of affairs, a further Act(1) was introduced by the Lord Protector to strengthen the Statute made in the thirty-ninth year of Elizabeth.

(5) An Act Against Vagrants, and Wandring, idle, dissolute persons. At the Parliament begun at Westminster the I7th day of September, An. Dom. 1656.

Ancient Laws for Modern-Mediums [top]

The laws against fortune-telling and prophesying became gradually less severe. On June 21, 1824, a new Act(6) was published, which is in force to-day, and under which fortune-tellers and the like, and some mediums, are now prosecuted. Section IV reads: 'Every Person pretending or professing to tell Fortunes, or using any subtle Crafts, Means or Device, by Palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of His Majesty's subjects ... shall be deemed a Rogue and Vagabond, within the true Intent and Meaning of this Act; and it shall be lawful for any justice of the Peace to commit such offender (being thereof convicted before him by the Confession of such Offender, or by the Evidence on Oath of one or more credible Witness or Witnesses) to the House of Correction, there to be kept to hard Labour for any Time not exceeding Three Calendar Months.'

(6) 5 Geo. IV, c. 83, Section IV.

Under the above Act (which, I reiterate, is still in force) a fortune-teller, palmist, or 'medium' can be arrested on sight 'by any Person whatsoever' who can 'deliver him or her to any Constable or other Peace Officer.' In this Act mediums find themselves in the dubious company of prostitutes, picklocks, reputed thieves, wife-beaters and 'everyone obscenely exposing his Person in any Street.'

Laws Prohibiting Spirit Intercourse [top]

Parallel with the fortune-telling or vagrancy Acts went another set of laws directed against those having intercourse with spirits. That the authorities fully believed that such intercourse was possible is obvious from the wording of the Acts, and the severity of the punishments for these crimes. The first(7) was introduced in 1541 and was intended to suppress black magic, witchcraft, calling up spirits, invocations, enchantments, and what we now know as 'seances,' 'to the great Offence of Godes lawe, hurt and damage of the Kinges Subjectes, and losse of the Sowles of such Offenders'(8). The penalty was forfeiture of all belongings, and death without privilege of clergy or sanctuary. The Act was repealed in 1547(9), but was revived by Elizabeth(10). 'Deathe as a Felon' was the punishment for a second offence. James I repealed the Elizabethan Act, but substituted one(11) just as severe. James himself tells us what he knows about spirits, and his book(12) makes remarkable reading. In 1735 George II repealed(13) the Acts of both Elizabeth and James, and in 1863 the Statute Law Revision Act had the effect of finally abolishing the official belief in the possibility of spirits and demons. The 1735 Act made 'pretending' to be a medium an offence punishable with one year's imprisonment 'without Bail or Mainprize,' and one hour in the pillory every quarter-day!

(7) 33 Henry VII, c. 8.
(8) The complete text, and a full historical account of British legislation against supernatural practices is given in Psychic Science in Parliament by 'Angus MacArthur,' London, 1916.
(9) 1 Ed. VI.
(10) 5 Eliz., c. 16.
(11) 1 Jac. I, c. 12, An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits. For text, see Psychic Science in Parliament.
(12) Demonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue, Edin., 1597. (London, 1603.)
(13) An Act to Repeal the Statute, etc.

Modern Attempts at Reform [top]

The above brief historical sketch of the British laws directed against 'psychic' activities is necessary to enable the reader to appreciate why and how fortune-tellers are now prosecuted. They are usually proceeded against under the 1824 Act of George IV. Those fortune-tellers calling themselves 'mental mediums' are also convicted under the same Act. But fraudulent physical mediums, on the rare occasions when they are prosecuted, are usually charged with obtaining money under false pretences, under the common law. But it is quite clear that any person 'pretending or professing' to practise mediumship of any sort, genuine or not, and whether or not for money or other valuable consideration, can be proceeded against under existing laws, and the genuineness of the phenomena would be no defence. The astrological 'predictions' published in our popular Press must also be illegal, according to the 1824 and 1735 Acts. A year or so ago, Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief justice, in commenting upon certain 'forecasts' published in a Sunday paper, called them a 'collection of imbecile and repulsive twaddle'(14).

(14) How the 'astrological' racket is worked in Paris was revealed in the London Times (June 16, 1938), when a number of fortune-tellers were fined sums varying from £170 to £30 On a charge of obtaining money under false pretences: 'Evidence given during the proceedings revealed an astonishingly systematic arrangement by which standard horoscopes were drawn up for each age, sex, and condition for every month of the year, and automatically doled out to the credulous in return for their money. The "fakirs" appear to have shown an expensive lack of interest in their own destinies.'

Attempts at reforming the present state of the law have been few and sporadic. Parliament is apathetic concerning such matters. On July 1, 1930, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, just before his death, headed a deputation to the Home Secretary in an attempt to make it easier for mediums. Nothing came of it. On November 26, 1930, Alderman W. T. Kelly, M.P. for Rochdale, introduced a Bill into Parliament which would have had the effect of making mediumship legal, when the medium was licensed by a registered spiritualist or psychical society, or someone approved by the Home Office. It was eventually 'talked out.' In Germany, 'official' spiritualism has been completely suppressed, though, as we have seen in Chapter III, scientific psychical research is accepted by the authorities. A few private mediums are still 'working'. In France, the general public cares little about psychical research or spiritualism, though a few fortune-tellers (for example, Madame Deux-Thebes(15), who died in December, 1937) have become notorious. In Italy, as in all totalitarian states, fortune-telling and mediumship are frowned upon.

(15) For life and work, see Evening News, December 10, 1937.

The Scandinavian countries are generally hostile to spiritualism and fortune-telling, and apathetic concerning all psychic matters. On March 14, 1931, Mauritz Hellberg presented to the Swedish Parliament a Bill(16) relating to psychic matters. It was intended to regularize mediumship and put psychical research on a scientific footing. Nothing came of it, and spiritualism has now been suppressed in Sweden; also in Rumania.

(16) Riksdagens Protokoll. Forsta Kammaren, No. 19, Stockholm, March 14, 1931, pp. 21-44.

An amusing account of fortune-telling in Japan was published in the Observer(17) where it was stated that popular occultism is under the close supervision of the police, who state that there are few complaints about the fees charged 'because the prophecies are couched in such ambiguous terms that some parts of them are almost certain to come true(18). Apparently, fortune-telling in Japan is based on the same principles as in other parts of the world.

(17) London, July 3, 1938.
(18) Observer, loc. cit.

If fortune-telling is on the increase in Japan, the Poles are appealing to the police to suppress these superstitions. Early in 1938 the various religious bodies started a campaign urging the Government to make such practices illegal(19).

(19) Observer, London, January 30, 1938.

Houdini and the Fortune-Tellers [top]

The United States of America are, of course, the happy hunting-ground of the fake medium, fortune-teller and every type of charlatan who preys on credulity. In an attempt to remedy this state of affairs 'Harry Houdin' (i.e. Ehrich Weiss),(20) noted showman and conjurer and foe of all mediums, good and bad, gave evidence before the District of Columbia House of Representatives, February 26 and May 18, 20 and 21, 1926. The occasion was a Bill (H.R. 8989) introduced by Sol Bloom, representative in Congress from the State of New York, to make fortune-telling illegal. The text of the Bill, which is reminiscent of our own vagrancy laws, is as follows:

(20) Died October 31, 1926.

'Any person pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation where lost or stolen goods may be found; any person who, by game or device, sleight of hand, pretending, fortune-telling, or by any trick or other means, by the use of cards or other implements or instruments, fraudulently obtains from another person money or property or reward, property of any description; any person pretending to remove spells, or to sell charms for protection, or to unite the separated, shall be considered a disorderly person ... and shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $250 or by imprisonment not to exceed six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.'

The chief interest of this Bill is the evidence of the many witnesses called by proponents and opponents. Harry Houdini was the principal witness called to support the Bill, and he took the opportunity of relieving himself of certain obiter dicta which were highly typical of the man: 'There are only two kinds of mediums, those who are mental degenerates and who ought to be under observation; and those who are deliberate cheats and frauds.' Again, 'I would not believe a fraudulent medium under oath; perjury means nothing to them; I say that no human being possesses mediumistic powers.' And again: 'I have examined 300 mediums... if there are any genuine, I have never met one.' These, and many similar statements can be read in the extremely interesting Government report(21) issued after the inquiry, at which Houdini's detectives gave evidence. Those who testified against the Bill included mediums, clairvoyants, astrologers, 'believers,' etc., and a great part of the early history of spiritualism was discussed by one side or the other. The final decision arrived at appeared to be that there was already in existence an Act of Congress(22), approved July 1, 1902, which could be used against fraudulent fortune-tellers.

(21) Fortune-Telling. Hearings before the Sub-Committee on Judiciary of the Committee on the District of Columbia House of Representatives ... H.R. 8989, Washington, D.C., 1926 (169 pp.). Houdini sent me a copy on publication.
(22) 32 Stat. 622.

It emerged from the inquiry that clairvoyants, mediums, etc., are licensed to practise in the District of Columbia on payment of $25 per annum. The difference between a fortune-teller and a medium was also given: 'The fortune-teller is one who pretends to tell you of coming events without any basis of present observed condition for forming that opinion. The medium may receive a communication from the spirit world which foretells coming events, but it is merely an incident to the communication, because a spirit is able to form opinion based upon the condition he observed in the spirit side of life that the human cannot observe from this side of life.'(23) The inquiry was enlivened by Houdini doing a number of slate tricks and trumpet 'phenomena,' and during the hearing of one witness the magician dramatically threw on to the Chairman's table a roll containing $10,000 in notes which he offered to give to any medium present who could produce a phenomenon that he (Houdini) could not duplicate by conjuring under the same conditions.

(23) Fortune-Telling, op. cit., p. 41.

Mediums Who Aid the Police [top]

It has often been suggested that, on account of their varied claims to clairvoyance, prevision, etc., mediums should assist the police in elucidating crimes and detecting criminals. As a matter of fact, this has often been done. Frau Lotte Plaat, the German psychometrist, frequently helped the police. I invited her to London in 1930, and was impressed with her psychometric powers and general clairvoyance. Frau Plaat was regularly employed by the German police in tracing malefactors and in 1930 she was in France for the same purpose. During her visit to London, someone from Scotland Yard rang me up and asked me whether I should be willing, if invited, to lend Frau Platt to help them - unofficially, of course - in a case on which they were engaged. I said I would, and next morning spent an hour at the 'Yard' discussing the matter. The case was that of a woman thought to have been murdered in Cheshire, and it was decided that I should approach the Chief Constable of that county. I at once telegraphed to that gentleman, who replied that the local police had the matter in hand and could not be interfered with. Frau Plaat has been under the observation of many distinguished scientists, including Dr. Paul Sunner, Dr. Gustave Pagenstecher, Dr. Harms, Professor Ludwig Jahn, Professor Kasnacich and others, who have recorded(24) brilliant results with her.

(24) See Die psychometrische Begabung der Frau Lotte Plaat. Ed. by Paul Sunner, Leipzig, 1929.

Another psychic who frequently aided the police was 'Erik Jan Hanussen' (Hermann Steinschneider), the German clairvoyant, medium and vaudeville occultist. But in 1930, when 'practising' at Leitmeritz, Czechoslovakia, he was arrested and charged under a local fortune-telling by-law with obtaining money under false pretences. He demanded that his powers should be examined. A test in court was decided upon and the room in which the séance was held was guarded by gendarmes with fixed bayonets. The clairvoyance experiments satisfied the court, and he was acquitted. In one test he described a motor accident and in another the scene at a birth. But he fell into disfavour in Germany, and a year or so after the Czechoslovakian incident, was found murdered in a Berlin suburb(25).

(25) See his Meine Lebenslinie, Berlin, 1930.

A famous case of a medium being tested in court was that of Frau Elsa Gunther-Geffers, a clairvoyant and wife of the head of an agricultural school, who was tried at Insterburg, East Prussia, in May, 1928, for obtaining money under false pretences. The case was an appeal by the Public Prosecutor from a verdict of acquittal given by a lower court. She demanded that her powers should be tried in court and this was granted. A police sergeant was brought from a remote village, to whom, alone of those present in court, were known the details of a theft committed in the district a few months before the trial. The thief had not yet been discovered and even his name was unknown to the police. The problem given to the medium was to reconstruct the crime and to name the criminal.

The court was cleared for the experiment and Frau Gunther-Geffers rapidly fell into a trance. In answer to questions as to when the theft occurred she answered 'February.' She also said she saw 'silver objects which glittered'; a fur; a large building with dark furniture; the thief eating a sausage; and many other details, including the names of the person who had lost the property and that of the alleged thief

Almost without exception, every statement made by the medium was proved to be true. Twelve silver marks and a fur had been lost by a Herr von Reibnitz, who was aged eighty-nine (the medium said 'nearly seventy'), and the thief had entered his Schloss through an open window. Frau Gunther-Geffers gave all these facts correctly, and also the name (Dumke) of the alleged thief, which was not verified. The clairvoyant concluded her amazing display by giving a correct description of the complicated wanderings of a watch which had been lost on the parade ground by a Reichswehr Colonel. The President of the court, in acquitting her, said he was 'simply dumbfounded.' The case caused such a sensation that the Governor of Konigsberg, within whose jurisdiction the town of Insterburg lies, was compelled to issue an order forbidding the police in future to employ mediums and clairvoyants in connection with detective work(26).

(26) For full details of this case see: 1st Hellsehen moglich? Der Insterburger 'Hexen' Prozess gegen das kriminal-telepathische Medium Frau Gunther-Geffers, by Reinhold Zenz, Konigsberg, 1928. Brief reports of the trial were given in the London Press in issues, May 4 to 14, 1928.

Another 'psychic,' or rather hyperæsthete, who claims to have assisted the police is 'Marion' (Josef Kraus). In the London Forum(27) can be found an interesting account of the way in which his powers led to the conviction of a man who was suspected by the police in the town of Ulm (Wurttemburg) of the murder of his brother. Marion visualized all the circumstances of the crime, and finally described how the victim was attacked from behind with an axe which was afterwards thrown into a pond. The police found the weapon in the spot indicated, and the alleged murderer then made a full confession. A number of British dowsers have also claimed to have found the bodies of missing persons in ponds and rivers, and to have helped the police with their divining-rods in various ways.

(27) June, 1934, PP. 387-94.

Some 'Causes Celebres' [top]

The most famous legal case connected with psychical research was that in which a widow, Mrs. Jane Lyon, aged seventy-five, adopted the medium D. D. Home as her son on condition that he changed his name to Home-Lyon. The spirit of her deceased husband, working through Home, commanded her to do this. The same spirit also induced her to give him a fortune of £30,000 in cash and to settle upon him a similar amount. This silly old woman finally came to her senses and demanded that Home should disgorge the money. He refused, and Mrs. Lyon brought an action alleging 'undue influence.' Vice-Chancellor Gifford decided that the gifts could not be retained, though at the same time he stated that the plaintiff had persistently lied during her evidence, and he refused her costs. This was in 1868(28).

(28) See The Times, April 22-30; May 1, 2, 23; July 15, 18; Aug. 1, 1868.

In 1903 a similar case came up for trial and caused a major sensation. It was known as the 'Great Planchette Case.' A young man of fortune named Henry Sheppard Hart Cavendish, aged twenty-six, brought an action against a Major Charles Henry Strutt, his wife Madeline, and a solicitor named Alfred Washington Guest Ranger, to set aside a voluntary settlement whereby he gave Major Strutt and his wife almost absolute control of his estate. Cavendish-like Mrs. Lyon-pleaded 'undue influence,' as Mrs. Strutt, who dabbled in the occult, had persuaded him by spirit messages purporting to come from his deceased mother and the archangels Gabriel, Michael, and Uriel. These 'messages' arrived via table-tipping, Mrs. Strutt's automatic writing, and especially the planchette(20). Mrs. Strutt herself interpreted these messages. After several days' hearing(31) Mr. justice Byrne said he would reserve judgment. This was delivered two months later(32) (May 13, 1903), and he ordered the settlement to be set aside - with costs.

(29) A heart-shaped piece of wood, with two pentagraph wheels at the base, and a pencil at the apex.
(30) See The Times, February 28; March 3-18, 1903. For pictures of the case, see Illustrated London News, March 7, 1903.
(31) The Times, May 14, December 11, 1903.

Rape and Rhabdomancy [top]

In 1901 an American medium named Ann O'Delia Diss Debar was sentenced in London for 'aiding and abetting' her paramour to rape a young girl at their 'Theocratic Unity' temple in Park Road, Regent's Park. She received seven years' penal servitude. The man, Frank D. Jackson, got fifteen years. When in this country they called themselves the Swami Laura Horos and Theodore Horos, and told fortunes, divined for lost property, read the cards, held seances and - ran a 'Purity League.' They were not without humour.

The case(32) was tried before Mr. Justice Bigham (afterwards Viscount Mersey, 1840-1929) and was a major sensation on account of the horrible disclosures. The police had obtained the medium's criminal dossier from America and the full story is told by John Mulholland in Beware Familiar Spirits(33). It makes astonishing reading. Born in Kentucky in 1849, Diss Debar was in and out of prison over a number of years, under many aliases, and her convictions were usually concerned with 'psychic' frauds.

(32) See The Times, December 21, 1901.
(33) New York and London, 1938, pp. 251-61.

'The £1,000 Ghost' [top]

A year or so later another famous case, known as the 'Thousand Pound Ghost,' provided this country with a good deal of amusement. In 1877, when Archdeacon Thomas Colley (d. 1912), Rector of Stockton, Rugby, was having a séance with the infamous medium and ex-Baptist minister, the Rev. 'Dr.' Monck, a vapour-like substance appeared to exude from the left side of Monck and formed itself into various apparitions: a child, a beautiful woman, Mahdi, an Oriental, Samuel, etc. They were then reabsorbed by the medium. An account of these séances was published(34) at the time.

(34) Medium and Daybreak, November 2, 1877.

In 1906, the Archdeacon wrote of these things in a pamphlet(35), a copy of which he sent to John Nevil Maskelyne, the conjurer, who had taken part in a controversy on spiritualism in the Daily Telegraph(36). With the pamphlet was a letter from Colley, who offered to give Maskelyne £1,000 if he could reproduce Monck's phenomena, 'with all the machinery he may need,' at Stockton Rectory. He finally amended the terms of the challenge in order that Maskelyne could reproduce Monck's tricks 'any way, anywhere, at any time, as a conjurer.' In a letter to the Daily Express, dated June 11, 1906, Maskelyne accepted.

(35) Spiritualism not Satanic, London, 1906.
(36) April 16. 1906.

Maskelyne duly staged at St. George's Hall the illusion known as 'The Side Issue' and claimed the £1,000 Colley refused to pay, as he said that the conjurer's version of Monck's 'miracle' was a travesty. Maskelyne sued Colley for the money. Colley counter-claimed for damages for an alleged libel published in Maskelyne's pamphlet(37), in which it was stated that 'he is not an Archdeacon and never was one.' Maskelyne lost on the claim and counter-claim, and had to pay £75 damages and costs for libelling the Archdeacon. Alfred Russel Wallace gave evidence for Colley. Looking at the case in retrospect, it appears remarkable that Maskelyne failed to secure the £1,000, as it was stated in evidence that in 1876 (the year before Colley sat with him) Monck was exposed at Huddersfield by an amateur conjurer named H. B. Lodge, who insisted upon searching the medium's luggage. In it were found the usual 'spirit hand,' 'spirit lamps,' a 'spirit bird,' cheese cloth, hold-outs for floating tambourines, reaching-rods, etc., and a number of obscene letters from women. The police prosecuted Monck, who was sentenced to three months' imprisonment.

(37) The History of a Thousand Pound Challenge, London, 1906.

Apropos of Maskelyne, it has been often stated that this doyen of British conjurers ridiculed all psychic phenomena. This is incorrect, as I have pointed out elsewhere(38). In the Pall Mall Gazette(39) he publicly stated that he believed in table-turning, and in the Strand Magazine for January, 1910, gave a graphic account of an accident which befell him as a boy. He was bathing one day and was carried out of his depth. just before he became unconscious, he plainly saw his mother's anxiety. He was rescued and on his returning home his mother admitted that at the precise moment of the accident she knew he was in great danger.

(38) 'John Nevil Maskelyne as a Believer in the Occult,' Light, October 11, 1924.
(39) April 25, 1885.

Police Raid the Spiritualists [top]

Consternation was caused in the camp of the spiritualists when the police raided one of their strongholds, the London Spiritualist Alliance. In June, 1928, three summonses each were issued against Mrs. Claire Cantlon, a medium employed by the Alliance, and Miss Mercy Phillimore, the secretary of the LSA. It was stated in evidence that, on the instructions of the Commissioner of Police, Detective-Inspector Walter Burnaby of Scotland Yard sent, at different times, three women to the L.S.A. to book séances with a medium. These 'sitters' were Miss Lilian Wyles, Inspector of Women Police; Miss Violet Ritchie, a woman police patrol, and a Mrs. Dorothy Harrison. Miss Wyles paid 17s. 6d. for her sitting, of which Mrs. Cantlon, the medium in question, received 12s. 6d. The séance was held on April 18, 1928.

In due course, the summonses were served on Mrs. Cantlon who was accused of having 'professed to tell fortunes' and on Miss Phillimore for 'aiding and abetting.' Proceedings were instituted under the Vagrancy [fortune-telling] Act of 1824.

The case was heard at Westminster Police Court on July 11, 18, and 24, 1928, the magistrate being Mr. W. H. S. Oulton. Sir Patrick Hastings, K.C., and Mr. Eustace Fulton appeared for Miss Phillimore, Mr. P. W. Bullock represented Mrs. Cantlon, and Mr. H. D. Roome, K.C., was the prosecuting counsel.

The defence was that the medium was not telling fortunes, and that in any case, as she was in a trance, she knew nothing of what transpired. She later pleaded guilty to a technical offence. The charge against Miss Phillimore was purely technical and she pleaded 'not guilty.'

In evidence, Miss Wyles stated that Mrs. Cantlon informed her that her (the medium's) control was a North American Indian called White Chief who died 400 years ago. In trance, the medium described the spirit of a little boy named Alec or Eric 'who had his white rabbit with him.' The witness knew of no such boy. Next was described 'an old man of noble appearance,' named William; also an aunt Ellen or Eleanor. Miss Wyles had no aunt, alive or dead, answering to the name or description given, and did not recognize the old man. A 'sister' of the witness was then described. But she had no sister. Miss Wyles's 'husband' was described as 'a tall, dark man, with blue or hazel eyes,' temperamental, and Irish; that they had parted, but they would be reconciled to each other. Miss Wyles was unmarried. Near the end of the séance the medium asked the time and told the witness that she could give her ten minutes more.

The other police witnesses gave similar evidence. Miss Ritchie said the medium gave her the names of Charles, George, Mary, Leonard and Bobby. 'Bobby' was her own nickname, and she had a brother Leonard. Her 'husband' was described, but she was unmarried. The medium told Mrs. Harrison that she had two children, aged eight and twelve. The boy 'had a delicate chest.' Mrs. Harrison's children were aged fourteen and eighteen, and both were quite strong.

Among the witnesses for the defence were Sir A. Conan Doyle, President of the L.S.A., and Sir Oliver Lodge. Sir Ernest Bennett, M.P., sat with the magistrate during part of the proceedings.

In delivering judgment, Mr. Oulton said: 'I do not suppose that my views on spiritualism are of much moment to anybody except myself... I have a perfectly open mind on the subject. There is no dispute by either defendant as to the substantial accuracy of the police evidence. Three witnesses have testified to the telling of the future by Mrs. Cantlon by occult means. Mrs. Cantlon has pleaded guilty; Miss Phillimore has pleaded not guilty. I may say at once that I am of opinion that both defendants are guilty. On her own admission Mrs. Cantlon has surrendered herself to an occult power; if this is so, she is responsible and must face the consequences should the law be broken. The law makes no provision for the appearance of a spirit either in the dock or in the witness-box.' The magistrate gave Mrs. Cantlon the benefit of the doubt that she did believe she was 'under the control of this defunct Indian chief, but I should strongly advise Mrs. Cantlon to get rid of a disembodied spirit who wants to know the time when the hour of lunch or tea approaches.'

Mr. Oulton said that he was 'willing to believe that the existence of this Alliance is due to an honest attempt to further knowledge and to benefit mankind, but the earnest searcher after truth must be amenable to the law, and must not break it. If he deems the law out of date and thinks it frustrates his efforts, his remedy is to alter and modernize the law. For the reasons I have given, and because I think that fortune-telling is an unusual incident and not an object of this Alliance, I will deal with this case as leniently as I can. The summonses in both cases will be dismissed under the Probation of Offenders Act, and the costs (£30) will be apportioned: £20 for Miss Phillimore, £10 for Mrs. Cantlon.'

This case(40) is of great importance and has become historical. It was the first time that the police had invaded a recognized spiritualist society, and it was also the last. The prosecution was so unusual that on August 1, 1928, Mr. Harry Day, M.P., in Parliament, asked the Home Secretary whether his attention had been drawn to it, and whether he would consider the appointment of a committee for the purpose of investigating the claims of spiritualism, apart from those of fortune-telling, with the object of legalizing investigation in psychical research and allied subjects. Sir William Joynson-Hicks, the Home Secretary, replied that he had noticed the case, but did not propose to inquire into the matter. He added, in reply to a further question, that he did not consider the Cantlon case would hinder the class of investigation referred to.

(40) For a very fair account of the proceedings, see Light, June 30 to August 18, 1928, inclusive.

The Press comments on the case mostly favoured the defendants. The Spectator(41) remarked 'we cannot help feeling that the policewomen who were instructed to gather evidence for this prosecution could have spent their time very much better... Surely the Home Office has better ways of spending time and money.' The Saturday Review(42) said: 'That the police, with so many graver issues, should waste time in luring fortune-tellers into an offence is preposterous.' The Morning Post(43) in a leading article, 'Is it a Test Case?' stated: 'The Alliance may preach false doctrine; but since the fires of Smithfield were extinguished that has ceased to be a crime.' Even the Law Journal(44) was able to say: 'Of all forms of prosecution which obsolete laws compel the police to institute, prosecutions for fortune-telling are perhaps the most absurd.... And as for fortune-telling itself, the days when the public required protection against witchcraft and other forms of occult science are gone.'

(41) July 28, 1928.
(42) July 28, 1928.
(43) July 25, 1928.
(44) July 28, 1928.

Spiritualists, of course, rushed into print protesting against their mediums being prosecuted. In a letter to The Times(45) Sir A. Conan Doyle said: 'That the police should be employed upon such a matter is deplorable, especially as their activities take the hateful shape of agents provocateurs... The Home Secretary has informed me officially that there is no hope of a change in the law. This is not a wise resolution. We are a solid body numbering some hundreds of thousands of voters.'

(45) July 26, 1928.

A Medium Strikes Back [top]

Another cause célèbre which made history was the action of Mrs. Louisa Anne Meurig Morris, a trance medium, who sued the Daily Mail for alleged libel. In January, 1931, Mrs. Morris began a series of Sunday evening services at the Fortune Theatre, London. Her trance addresses, purporting to be delivered through 'Power,' her 'spirit control,' attracted considerable attention. In reporting these addresses the Daily Mail had issued a contents bill bearing the words: 'Trance Medium Found Out.' The alleged libel was in the wording of this bill, and in an article recording the proceedings at the Fortune Theatre.

The Daily Mail pleaded justification and fair comment on a matter of public interest. Mr. Norman Birkett, K.C., appeared for the Daily Mail, and Sergeant Sullivan, K.C., represented Mrs. Morris. The case(46) was heard before the late Mr. Justice McCardie and lasted eleven days, from April 5 to April 19, 1932. Among the witnesses for the plaintiff were Sir Oliver Lodge and Lady Conan Doyle.

(46) See The Times, April 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, 1932.

The Meurig Morris case was remarkable for three things: Mr. Justice McCardie's summing up; the medium's dramatic outburst on the last day of the trial; and the wording of the jury's verdict. The judge ruled that the matters in question were of public importance on which a defence of fair comment could be based. He asked the jury to consider whether Mrs. Morris could in fact convey messages from the dead; whether she was a genuine medium; and whether she honestly believed that she could do what she claimed. If she were honest, she ought to be vindicated; if she were dishonest, she ought to be exposed.

During the judge's summing-up, he happened to point to Mrs. Morris with outstretched hand, whereupon she slowly rose and, apparently in trance, said in the deep voice of 'Power': 'Hearken to my voice, Brother Judge.' Obviously astonished, Mr. Justice McCardie ordered her to be removed from the court. When she was approached the same deep voice said: 'Do not touch her till I have left the body.' Mrs. Morris was carried to an anteroom where she remained unconscious for two hours. The case was adjourned for fifteen minutes, when the judge resumed. He said: 'I hope I have not upset the feelings of anyone unnecessarily, but as a judge I care not for all the incarnate or discarnate spirits in the world ... though there may be ten thousand million discarnate spirits around us.'

The jury's verdict was: 'We find for the defendants on the plea of fair comment on a matter of public interest, but we do not consider that any allegations of fraud or dishonesty have been proved.' Whereupon the judge ruled that there must be judgment for the Daily Mail. Mrs. Morris appealed and, after a hearing of four days, the judges (Scrutton, Lawrence and Greer) dismissed the appeal. The case was taken to the House of Lords, where the appeal was again dismissed.

The lay Press and legal journals gave great prominence to the case. The Law Journal(47) regarded it as 'a notable event, and, quite irrespective of the verdict, marked a tremendous advance, not only in spiritualism, but in toleration.... Another curious fact appearing from the trial and in the course of it is that the jury might be expected to find that a "discarnate spirit" might transmit messages through a medium.' In the following issue of the Law Journal(48), in an article 'Evidence and Psychic Phenomena,' it is stated that the jury's findings in the Morris case were being hotly discussed in legal circles as to whether the verdict was legally sound. The article, which is entirely sympathetic to Mrs. Morris, emphasizes 'the astonishing interruption of the summing-up.' The journal continues: 'We find it frankly incredible that any litigant, if conscious, would have the effrontery to attempt a "stunt" of that sort at such a moment. Apart from the gross contempt of court which would be involved, it would be such singularly bad tactics. As it was, who can say what influence it had in persuading the jury to a verdict, which, whether technically correct or not, most people will probably think achieved substantial justice?'

(47) April 23,1932.
(48) April 30,1932.

A Tragic Medium [top]

By far the strangest and most tragic adventures of a medium were those of Ingeborg Kober, the married daughter of Judge Ludvig Dahl. I am peculiarly interested in this case as I was the judge's guest in 1927 at his beautiful home in Fredrikstad, a busy seaport fifty-eight miles from Oslo, during my second Scandinavian lecture tour.

Ludvig Dahl was not only the local judge, but was also the mayor of the neighbouring island of Hanko, the most fashionable Norwegian seaside resort. My visit to Fredrikstad was the result of an invitation to sit with the judge's daughter Ingeborg who, I was told, had developed mediumship since the death of her two brothers, Ludvig and Ragnar.

After the longest and most sumptuous dinner (which lasted nearly four hours) I have ever sat through, we adjourned to the drawing-room for the séance. In full light, we sat round a largish table and Ingeborg rapidly became entranced. The two brothers then 'came through' and I took copious notes of all that was said. The séance was not particularly convincing, but I was struck by the way Judge Dahl and his wife 'conversed' with their two sons, who spoke through the lips of the entranced Ingeborg. The judge was particularly affected. I left judge Dahl's hospitable roof with the feeling that I had spent a most interesting day in the bosom of a very charming, affectionate and united family. Later, judge Dahl wrote an account of his daughter's mediumship, a book(49) for which I was instrumental in finding a London publisher, and for which Sir Oliver Lodge wrote a Foreword.

(49) We are Here. Psychic Experiences, by Ludvig Dahl, London, 1931.

Judge Dahl died on August 8, 1934. He and Ingeborg were spending a day on the seashore. As the daughter was sun-bathing on the beach, her father, who was swimming close by, suddenly called out that he had cramp, Ingeborg plunged in the water, rescued her father, who was by then unconscious, and applied artificial respiration. She was unsuccessful and the judge died - on the exact spot where his son Ludvig had met with a fatal bathing accident fifteen years previously.

Ingeborg ran for assistance and met a friend, another medium named Mrs. Stolt-Nielsen, who telephoned to Mrs. Dahl. The usual inquiry was held and it was then found that the finances of Hanko were in a chaotic condition, and that a large sum of money was missing from the town treasury. It was also discovered that the Judge's life insurance policy expired on the very day he was drowned.

During the inquiry it transpired that Mrs. Stolt-Nielsen was in possession of an envelope containing a 'message,' obtained at a séance during which her dead daughter spoke. The 'message,' apparently, was given to the daughter by the spirit of Dahl's son, Ragnar. This 'message' was to the effect that 'Judge Dahl will die through an accident in August, 1934.' The judge was present at this séance, and of course knew of the prognostication.

After this revelation, all the parties concerned were once more interrogated by the authorities. Mrs. Dahl committed suicide. The Government then instituted a full investigation into all the facts and Ingeborg was haled before judge Trampe Broch at Oslo. The questions before the court were: Was Judge Dahl murdered? Did he commit suicide on the last day that his life insurance was valid, knowing his financial position was desperate? Did anyone 'will' him to commit suicide, by suggestion? Did his knowledge of the fatal message have an auto-hypnotic effect upon him, causing him to kill himself? Was the death really an accident, the 'message' being merely a coincidence?

After an investigation which lasted, on and off, for more than three years, it was finally decided officially (December, 1937) that Judge Dahl's death was an accident. The jury could return no other verdict on the facts. And my contact with the Dahl family convinces me that the whole inquiry was preposterous, though the 'spirits' did a great disservice to Ingeborg on this occasion. But there was a 'happy ending,' as I understand that she married her chief counsel, Axel Segelcke, after the trial. Norwegian spiritualists are still discussing whether the spirits really predicted Judge Dahl's death, or whether the whole affair was one extraordinary coincidence after another.

Apropos of foretelling the future, Sir Oliver Lodge once pointed out in The Times(50) that the extent to which forecasting of the future can be achieved is a matter for scientific inquiry. All sorts of people 'predict': the time-table maker predicts the trains for months ahead; an astronomer can predict eclipses several centuries in advance, and so on. 'So some power of prediction is known to exist.' Sir Oliver concludes: 'How far foretelling of the future is possible is not a legal but a scientific question.'

(50) October 27, 1925.

Whether one agrees with Sir Oliver or not, it is obvious from the Acts which I have cited in this chapter that the law governing mediumship is anomalous and ridiculous, and the sooner it is altered the better. It is an anachronism that the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and the Vagrancy Act of 1824 should remain on the Statute Book. The late Mr. E. P. Hewitt, K.C., a distinguished lawyer and spiritualist, made several attempts at rousing public opinion in favour of regularizing mediumship, but failed to enlist the support of either Parliament or Press. He wrote extensively on the subject(51).

(51) See his 'Spiritualists and the Law,' in the National Review for September, 1923; and 'Fortune-Tellers and the Law,' in the Daily Mail, October 17, 1925. See also the following papers by Blewett Lee: 'The Conjuror' [re Witchcraft], Virginia Law Review, Charlottewille, February, 1921, pp. 370-7; 'The Fortune Teller,' Virginia Law Review, Charlottewille, February, 1923, PP. 249-266; 'Psychic Phenomena and the Law,' Harvard Law Review, Cambridge, Mass. 192 1, pp. 625-38; 'Spiritualism and Crime,' Columbia Law Review, Cooperstown, May, 1922, pp. 439-49; 'A Trance in Court' [re Meurig Morris], American Bar Association Journal, Vol. XVIII, 1932, pp. 452-3.


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
Broadcasting the Occult
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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