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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.

'Margery' - The Psychic Riddle of the Twentieth Century

 - Harry Price -

           DURING THE last seventy years, two physical mediums of outstanding versatility share the honour of providing for psychical researchers puzzles apparently quite incapable of solution. They are D. D. Home, the enigma of the nineteenth century, and Mrs. Le Roy Goddard Crandon, known to psychists under her pseudonym of 'Margery.' The mediumship of Home is not within the scope of the present work, but Margery is still with us, even if she is not before the public to the same extent as formerly.

Mina Crandon is the wife of Dr. L. R. G. Crandon, a distinguished surgeon and Harvard lecturer of Boston, Mass. She was born near Toronto, where she was educated. She had a brother, Walter Stinson, who was killed in a railway accident in 1911. It was he who subsequently became Margery's 'control' or 'spirit guide.'

It is not quite clear when Margery's mediumship became apparent, but, rather curiously, the public first heard of her indirectly through my exposure[1] of William Hope, the fraudulent 'spirit photographer.' Following this exposure, the Scientific American offered[2] a prize of $2,500 to the first person who could produce a spirit photograph under laboratory conditions, with especial reference to Hope. The same journal also announced that it would give a similar prize to any medium who could produce 'a visible psychic manifestation' under test conditions. Later,[3] the Scientific American invited Hope to undergo the test, promising to pay all his expenses to New York and back. He refused. A similar invitation was also extended to other psychics, the editor remarking that 'it applies specifically to an American lady of very large mediumistic repute who sincerely seeks anonymity.' This lady was 'Margery' Crandon.

[1] Journal, SPR, London, May, 1922.
[2] December, 1922.
[3] April, 1924.


Margery decided to enter the contest and a Committee was formed to test her and any other mediums who were bold enough to come forward for this purpose. The Committee consisted of Professor William McDougall (who had already experimented with Margery in 1923); Dr. Daniel Frost Comstock; 'Harry Houdin' (Ehrich Weiss), the conjurer; Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, of the American SPR; and Hereward Carrington. J. Malcolm Bird (an Associate Editor of the Scientific American) was secretary to the Committee.

The 'Scientific American' Inquiry

What phenomena were the Scientific American Committee going to test? According to Dr. Crandon himself,[4] Margery was at this time producing the following manifestations: Raps, which answered questions through an arranged code; 'pale, non-radiant, non-illuminating psychic lights'; scents, of many odours; the music of chimes, bugles, clock-bells, and other instruments, though none was present; 'trance-writing in nine languages,' though Margery was not a linguist; telekinetic movements of light and heavy objects, such as furniture; the passage of matter through matter, demonstrating the 'fourth dimension' of space; the apport of roses and a live pigeon; the direct independent voice of 'Walter,' Margery's 'control;' the production of teleplasm (which could be touched), materializations and 'pseudo-pods,' which handled objects in a red light. Dr. Crandon tells us that 'the identity of several discarnate relatives of the people about the table was made out.'

[4] The "Margery" Mediumship,' article in the Journal of the Am. SPR, March, 1925, pp. 114-5.

The above were some of the phenomena which Margery was producing in her home when the Scientific American inquiry began, so the hopes of the Committee ran high that the anonymous medium would win the $2,500. Many séances were held but none of the Committee appears to have been impressed by what was witnessed, except perhaps Bird and Carrington. The usual dissensions between the investigators occurred, and McDougall, Bird and Carrington withdrew from the Committee. Houdini, Prince and Comstock attempted to reach a decision concerning the mediumship and they, too, failed. What finally smashed the investigation was the finding during a séance of a carpenter's folding rule in a special strong wooden cabinet made by Houdini in order to test the medium. Margery was immobilized in the cabinet when 'Walter' suddenly shrieked out that Houdini had placed a two-foot rule under the cushion on which her feet were resting. The rule was found, but it was never proved whether Houdini put it there in order to incriminate the medium, or if Margery secreted it so that she could accuse Houdini of trying to ruin her. That was the rather exciting - and unsatisfactory - end, of the Scientific American inquiry,[5] and Margery did not receive the $2,500. Neither did Josie K. Stewart, Mrs. Thompson, Valiantine, or Nino Pecoraro, four other mediums who entered the contest.

[5] For Houdini's account of the affair, see Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium 'Margery', New York, 1924.

The British Inquiry

The Scientific American fiasco was the means of bringing Margery to the notice of psychical researchers all over the world. Previous to the investigation, Dr. and Mrs. Crandon had visited Paris and London (Christmas, 1923) and had given sittings there. A few people, including Conan Doyle, were impressed by what they saw and heard; others remained sceptical. After the Houdini squabble, the London SPR, through its Research Officer, Dr. E. J. Dingwall, arranged with Dr. Crandon that his wife should be tested in Boston. An impressive document was drawn up and it was agreed[6] that the 'name "Walter," as applied to the personality which manifests in the séance-room, purports to be the deceased brother of the medium, and operates as the "spirit control."' Dingwall agreed that neither he nor his agents would switch on any light, except with the consent of 'Walter'; that Crandon could not be excluded from any séance without his (Crandon's) consent; and that no sitter could be introduced to the séances without Crandon's approval.

[6] For full text, see Journal, Am. SPR, New York, 1925, Vol. XIX, pp. 116-17.

Ectoplasmic hand exuding from Margery's navel.

Plate IV. Crude 'teleplasmic hand' exuding from navel, photographed at séance with 'Margery', in Boston, Mass., 1925.

Dingwall held many sittings with Margery during January and February, 1925, Professor William McDougall and Dr. Ellwood Worcester being among the observers. The phenomena witnessed were the usual 'Walter' voice, telekinetic movements of objects, hand-shaped materializations which appeared to exude from the various orifices of the medium's body, and so on. (Plate IV.) As regards the crude 'hands,' Professor McDougall's opinion[7] was that they were made from animal tissue, artificially manipulated to give them a crude resemblance to human hands. I have a large collection of lantern slides of these alleged teleplasmic extrusions and Professor McDougall (who held a medical degree) and I went through them on one occasion and the Professor pointed out to me the arteries, the annular bands corresponding to the cartilaginous rings of the trachea, the openings of small lateral arteries, lung, the omentum of a sheep, etc. Dingwall's investigation ended in dissension[8] among the investigators, as so often happens.

[7] Boston Transcript, February 18, 1925.
[8] See Journal, Am. SPR, Vols. XIX, XX, 1925-6.

The London SPR published Dr. Dingwall's report[9] in due course and it is a most interesting document. He states that Margery's mediumship is 'the most remarkable hitherto recorded,' and of great importance. Whether genuine or a vast hoax, it is still the most important. During the whole of this long report, Dingwall cannot say whether the mediumship is genuine or not. He says: 'I did not succeed in achieving my primary purpose, of coming to a definite conclusion as to the genuineness or otherwise of the phenomena. During the course of the [twenty-nine] sittings the evidence seemed to me at one time for, and at another time against, their supernormal nature, but never to incline decisively either way.' And so ended the British investigation, which was as inconclusive and unsatisfactory as that organized by the Scientific American.

[9] Proceedings, SPR, London, June, 1926, Vol. XXXVI, Part 98.

'Walter' Leaves his Thumb-Prints

Margery is nothing if not versatile and the reader will have seen that she produced almost the entire gamut of phenomena, mental and physical, during the few years of her mediumship. One phase I have not mentioned, and that I will call 'plastic phenomena.' As far back as May 17,1924, Margery produced 'psychic' gloves or moulds à la Kluski. They were not very successful and rather crude, and no one was particularly impressed. But in July, 1926, a determined effort was made to obtain prints of the extrusions or 'fingers' which, as we have seen, belonged to the crude materialized hands which were being seen - and felt - at Margery's séances. '"Walter" objected strongly to getting printer's ink or lampblack on his teleplasmic terminal,'[10] so - at 'Walter's' suggestion - a bucket of hot wax and a sheet of plate glass were tried. 'Walter' dipped his terminal in the wax and then pressed it on the glass. Skin markings could be seen, but they were not very good. Then 'Walter' suggested that the glass be covered with soft wax, and that he should press his finger upon it. Again, the markings were not very good. 'The procedure ultimately adopted flowed out of a suggestion by Margery's dentist, who is interested in the phenomena'[11] and the suggestion was that 'Kerr,' a proprietary brand of dental wax, which becomes plastic when warmed, should be used. This technique was successful - and a phenomenon, new to psychical research, was born. For the first time in the history of the occult, a spirit obligingly and permanently recorded his three-dimensional thumb-prints, at request.

[10] Journal, Am. SPR, Vol. XXII, 1928, p. 11I.
[11] Ibid., p. 11.


The technique of securing the prints is as follows: Into a bowl of hot water is placed a slab of 'Kerr' which rests on the end of a napkin. This cloth trails over the side of the bowl into another bowl containing cold water. 'Walter's' terminal, in complete darkness, pulls the soft 'Kerr' out of the hot water by tugging at the end of the cloth, presses his thumb 'terminal' on to the wax, continues the pulling of the cloth, which results in the 'Kerr' being deposited in the cold water, where it quickly hardens. Why the napkin is used is because it saves 'Walter' scalding his fingers in the hot water. It also prevents his getting his 'hands' wet. Photographs showing 'Walter's' hand (which appears to be extruded from the medium's vagina) making the print have been published.[12] By the time the thumb-print technique had been perfected, 'Walter' had improved the shape of his terminals considerably. The new fingers were much better to look at than the previous crude 'pseudopods' which, Professor McDougall maintained, were exactly like lumps of animal tissue carved into the resemblance of hands.

[12] See Leaves from a Psychist's Case-Book, by Harry Price, London, 1933, Plate XXII.

The Great Thumb-Print Sensation

With the perfecting of the plastic 'Kerr' technique, 'Walter' began to deposit his thumb-prints (left and right) at Margery's séances on both sides of the Atlantic. At a sitting I attended in London on December 7, 1929, 'Walter' kindly made one specially for me. These 'thumb-print' séances are always held in Stygian darkness, and I must admit that I was not impressed at what occurred at the séance I attended. Every alleged abnormal happening could have been produced normally by the medium, including 'Walter's' thumb-print, if Margery had secreted a small thumb-print dye on her person. As a matter of fact, after one of these London séances, a piece of wax was found, bearing an imprint of the thumb of Margery, who was supposed to be so controlled as to be incapable of reaching the wax.[13]

[13] See Proceedings, SPR, Vol. XXXlX, pp. 358-68.

Often at Margery's séances the sitters' finger-prints were taken in order to demonstrate that they were quite unlike the prints left by 'Walter.' One day it occurred to Mr. E. E. Dudley, a former officer of the American SPR, to ask every person who had ever sat with Margery to supply him with inked prints of his or her right and left thumbs. Carefully collating this mass of material with the 'Walter' prints, he was astounded to discover that the 'spirit's' thumb-prints, left and right, were identical in every respect with those of Margery's friend and dentist, 'Dr. Kerwin,' who is still living! In this report,[14] Mr. Dudley says: 'The identification of these patterns has been checked by five competent and unprejudiced experts, as well as by several laymen, who had not the slightest difficulty in satisfying themselves as to the identity... In the right thumb-print the reader should be able to find approximately ninety identical minutiae, while nearly seventy can be counted in the left thumb-print ... This means that there is not one chance in billions of billions that Kerwin's prints and the wax [Walter's'] prints did not belong to the same person.' Many a murderer has been hanged because of fewer than ten correspondences between his own finger-prints and those found at the scene of his crime.

[14] Reprinted as Bulletin III ('The Identification of the "Walter" Prints') of the Nat. Lab. of Psychical Research, London, 1932. All the relevant photographs are reproduced.

It can well be imagined that Dudley's discovery caused a major sensation. Margery's dentist was held to be entirely innocent in the affair, if, indeed, anyone was guilty. The question as to how 'Walter' palmed off the thumb-prints of a living man as the impressions of his own dead ones has not yet been solved, though volumes on the subject have been written by both Margery's supporters and detractors. A finger-print expert, Professor Harold Cummins, stated:[15] 'There seems just ground for suspecting the use of artificial dyes.'

[15] Proceedings, SPR, London, April, 1935, Vol. XLIII, Part 139.

Finger-Prints Can be Forged

The amazing thumb-print discovery prompted various people to experiment with a view to ascertaining whether three-dimensional finger-prints, in the form of moulds or dies, could be produced from two-dimensional inked prints on paper. Theoretically, I argued that this could be done by depositing (electro-plating) a film of copper or silver on the graphite print, gradually building up the image until it became three-dimensional, capable of being made into a thumb-stall dye or something similar. But Professor Dr. Harold Cummins, of Tulane University, who took a great interest in the 'Walter' prints, has actually produced three-dimensional dyes in hard wax and other substances from ordinary thumb-prints on paper. He has also reversed and 'mirrored' the prints which, when made into dyes, impress the original finger-prints on to any substance, like a rubber stamp. Thus it has been proved that finger-prints can be forged and copied, and transferred (complete with sweat-gland markings) to any object which the original fingers never touched. Dr. Cummins kindly sent me a complete set of these hard wax ('Kerr') dies, produced from two-dimensional inked prints. His paper[16] on the subject should be studied.

[16] Police Science: Counterfeit Finger-Prints, New York, 1934.

The thumb-print controversy almost killed the Margery mediumship, but we still occasionally hear of 'Walter' effecting a marvellous cure,[17] becoming cognizant of articles hidden in a plaster of Paris cake,[18] taking part in some cross-correspondence tests,[19] or scoring some incredible card-calling guesses.[20] But the public - always fickle - is now concerned with the latest card-guessing miracle at Duke University and 'Walter' is decidedly a back number, though the controversy continues.

[17] Journal, Am. SPR, July, 1936.
[18] Ibid., February, 1936.
[19] Ibid., November, 1935.
[20 Ibid., January x 938.


There is a vast literature concerning Margery, and the student who wishes to study the case more fully should consult it. The most recent Proceedings and Journal (1925 and onwards) of the American SPR (which has consistently supported Margery, in spite of resignations among members and officials) contain a complete record of the case, from the positive angle. For negative reports and 'attacks,' the catalogues of the 'Harry Price Library of Magical Literature,' in the University of London, should be studied. This collection contains all the important works, pro and con, dealing with 'Margery.'

In spite of scientific investigations, committees of inquiry, and the work of individual researchers, not one of the vast and varied phenomena, alleged to be the work of 'Walter,' has been proved genuine scientifically. If the phenomena are genuine, Mrs. Crandon has been singularly unfortunate in not being able to demonstrate their genuineness before orthodoxy. If they are genuine, then 'survival' has been proved, and the 'independent' spirit voice demonstrated. If they are fraudulent, then the 'Walter' entity marks the greatest hoax in the annals of psychical research. Whether it be a hoax or not, I cannot say, as I was never given an opportunity of testing the medium. Crandon consistently refused to permit me to investigate though, as I have stated, I was fortunate enough to be present at one London séance. I had instruments in my laboratory at Kensington which, in an hour, would have settled the validity or otherwise of some of the 'Walter' phenomena. It is to be regretted that Crandon would not permit me to test his wife's mediumship, which, whether genuine or fraudulent, is the most remarkable ever recorded.

Note: 

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

 

More articles by Harry Price

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

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