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.

'A Fit Subject of University Study and Research'

Founding of the 'University Council' | Early Attempts at Interesting Orthodoxy | What the Universities have Done | Growing American Interest | The Hodgson Fellowship at Harvard | The Clark University Symposium | 'Miracles' at Duke University
| The Third Reich Declares Psychical Research an Official Science | Why Britain Lags Behind

 - Harry Price -

           THE WORDS which head this chapter formed part of the historic letter(1) sent me by the late Sir Edwin Deller, Principal of the University of London, when he informed me that the Senate had agreed in principle to my offer, made in 1933, to found, equip, and endow a Department of Psychical Research in the University. The proposal was that I should hand over the equipment and library of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research (fully described in Appendix B), the directorship of which I was then relinquishing. Both the Senate and Court were of the opinion that psychical research is 'a fit subject' to be investigated, but at that time no accommodation could be found for the library or laboratory, and no one with the necessary qualifications or time was available to take charge of the proposed new Department. For more than twelve months the proposal had been discussed by the Boards of Studies (Psychology, Physiology, and Medicine) most concerned, and by the Academic Council. But the question of ways and means proved insuperable, and the whole matter was shelved. However, a great victory for psychical research was achieved in the extracting from the Senate that in their opinion 'psychical research is a fit subject of University study and research.' That pronouncement was a memorable one and was indeed worth striving for.

(1) Dated February 12, 1934.

I much sympathized with the Senate in their sustained attempt to arrange matters so that my offer could be accepted. At that time, it was quite obvious that room could not be found for my library and equipment. But more than five years have now passed and during this period the stately pile of the new University buildings at Bloomsbury has been steadily growing, and I hope that accommodation will shortly be found. Actually, both library and equipment are now housed by the University authorities.

Founding of the 'University Council' [top]

When it was found impracticable to establish the proposed new Department officially, it was suggested that those members of the University who were most interested in psychical research, or had been most concerned in examining my proposal, should form themselves into an unofficial body with the idea of keeping the question alive and remaining in contact with the authorities. Thus was formed the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation. At our first meeting on June 6, 1934, it was resolved 'That this Committee should carry on the work formerly conducted by the National Laboratory of Psychical Research until such time as it was thought desirable to approach again the University authorities as to the formation of a Department for Psychical Research.' And that is how the matter rests at present. Among the members of the Council were Professor F. A. P. Aveling, Dr. Guy B. Brown, Professor Cyril Burt, Professor J. C. Flugel, Dr. C. E. M. Joad (Chairman), Dr. C. A. Mace, the late Dr. E. D. Macnamara, Professor J. MacMurray, Professor C. A. Pannett, Mr. S. G. Soal, and the Rev. Professor E. S. Waterhouse. I was appointed Honorary Secretary.

Early Attempts at Interesting Orthodoxy [top]

The first systematic attempt in Great Britain to examine scientifically the phenomena which we now call psychic was made by a little group of Oxford graduates and undergraduates which went by the name of the Phasmatological Society. This was about 1874. It lasted but a few years and when the British SPR was founded in 1882, the little Oxford group joined their more serious Cambridge brethren. Among the members of the Phasmatological Society were young men destined to become prominent in various fields, and among these can be mentioned Sir Charles Oman, Dr. F. E. Brightman, and Professor F. C. S. Schiller, who gives some account of the Society in the Clark University symposium(2).

(2) See The Case For and Against Psychical Belief, Worcester, Mass., 1927.

Other attempts at bringing psychic phenomena to the notice of orthodoxy include the one made by Sir William Barrett when, in 1876, he was successful in persuading the British Association at its meeting in Glasgow to permit him to read a paper(3) on thought-transference, even though its publication in printed form was suppressed. Sir William Crookes also tried to interest official science in his experiments with D. D. Home and Florrie Cook, and invited one of the secretaries of the Royal Society to a séance: he refused.

(3) On Some Phenomena Associated with Abnormal Conditions of Mind.

What the Universities have Done [top]

In spite of the fact that orthodoxy has, in the past, regarded psychics with a certain amount of disapprobation, a few universities have made notable attempts to turn psychical research into a science. In 1933 a determined effort was made in the University of Belgrade to induce the authorities to sanction courses in psychical research. Though no official action was taken, the principals gave their benevolent sympathy to the Students' Society formed for the purpose of studying paranormal phenomena. The Society formed a Syllabus of Lectures(4) and meetings were held twice a week at the House of Russian Culture. Séances were arranged.

(4) Given in full in Bulletin VI of the Nat. Lab. of Psychical Research, London, 1933, pp. 45-7.

Amongst other Continental universities, Groningen, nearly twenty years ago, staged some experiments in telepathy. They were very ingenious and impressive, and are more fully referred to in Chapter X ('The Story of ESP'). We first heard of them through Dr. H. J. F. W. Brugmans, who read a paper(5) on the subject at the First International Congress of Psychical Research, held at Copenhagen in 1921. Since that period, both Leiden and Utrecht Universities have established official Departments of Parapsychology, and Drs. P. A. Dietz and W. H. C. Tenhaeff (the first investigator to be appointed officially by any university) respectively are doing good work there. Many of their reports are printed in the Dutch psychic journal Tijdschrift voor Parapsychologie, of which they are editors. Another European university where some attempt has been made at interesting official science is that of Riga. The most ambitious experiments were those made with Ilga Kirps(6) in 1934-7 by Professor Ferdinand von Neureiter, Dr. Hans Bender of Bonn, and others. Ilga is a little peasant girl who is stated to be able to read telepathically the thoughts of others, principally those of her mother. At the University of Athens, Professor Voreas is, with Dr. A. Tanagras, conducting certain experiments in psychical research.

(5) Le Compte Rendu Officiel du Premier Congres International des Recherches Psychiques... Copenhagen, 1922, pp. 396-408.
(6) See Wissen um fremdes Wissen: Auf unbekanntem Wege Erworben, by F. von Neureiter, Gotha, 1935.

Growing American Interest [top]

I have already mentioned(7) the abortive Seybert Commission of 1884, appointed by the University of Pennsylvania to inquire into the 'truths of modern spiritualism.' In the same year there died Leland, the only child of Leland Stanford (1824-93), aged sixteen years. As a memorial, Stanford founded the 'Leland Stanford junior University' in the beautiful Santa Clara valley, near Palo Alto, California. He and his wife endowed it with a sum estimated at thirty million dollars(8). Its doors were opened in 1891. In 1911, Thomas Welton Stanford, a Melbourne millionaire and brother of the American philanthropist, donated to Leland Stanford University the sum of $50,000, to be used in furthering psychical research(9). The money was received in 1912, and those interested in parapsychology thought that the time had at last arrived when official science would make a determined effort to investigate whatever truth there was in psychic matters. But, as with the Seybert endowment, little appears to have been accomplished(10), and, very curiously, it is those universities with the least money which have done the most work. In 1936 Stanford University published a monograph(11) useful alike to the magician and the psychologist.

(7) In the 'Introduction.'
(8) See Stanford University and Thereabouts, by O. H. Elliot and O. V. Eaton, San Francisco, 1896.
(9) Dr. John L. Kennedy has held the Fellowship in Psychical Research at Stanford since 1937.
(10) But see Experiments in Psychical Research at Leland Stanford, by J. E. Coover, Stanford University, 1917.
(11) The Psychology of Conjuring, by R. E. Bernhard, Jr., Stanford University, Stanford, Cal., 1936.

The Hodgson Fellowship at Harvard [top]

Another attempt to interest the universities in psychical research was made after the death of Dr. Richard Hodgson (1855-1905). Dr. Hodgson was secretary to the American SPR from 1887 until his death, and, as a memorial, a number of his friends established the 'Hodgson Fellowship in Psychical Research,' tenable at Harvard. A fund was raised, but was found insufficient to provide for such a fellowship adequately, and for the expenses likely to be incurred in experiments and investigations. Accordingly, the American SPR, by resolution of its Executive Committee, agreed to contribute the excess over the income from the Hodgson bequest. They guaranteed to augment the fund to $3,000 for the academic years 1922-3 on condition that if the report of the work done should not be published by Harvard University, it could be issued by the American SPR This arrangement was accepted by the University.

It was Dr. Gardner Murphy, a psychologist of Columbia University, who was appointed by Harvard University research fellow for the year 1922-3, under the Hodgson fund. He retained this post until 1925, and devoted about half of his time to the investigation of telepathy. Some account of Dr. Gardner Murphy's work at Harvard is to be found in his paper 'Telepathy as an Experimental Problem,' published in the Clark University symposium(12). Dr. Murphy's successor at Harvard was Dr. G. H. Estabrooks, who also devoted his time to experimental telepathy(13). Why students of psychical research in all countries choose telepathy as a subject is because few or no professional mediums are required; the apparatus used is usually simple; control is easy; results can be definite, and investigation costs little.

(12) The Case For and Against Psychical Belief, op. cit., pp. 265-78.
(13) See 'A Contribution to Experimental Telepathy,' by G. H. Estabrooks, Bulletin V, Boston SPR, 1927.

The Clark University Symposium [top]

One of the most interesting experiments connected with psychical research ever made by an academic body was the public symposium held at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, November 29 to December 11, 1926. It was arranged by Professor Dr. Carl Murchison that a number of persons interested in psychic matters should either speak at the symposium or send in papers to be read. Dr. Murchison is himself a psychologist, and it is natural that the majority of those invited to take part in the symposium were also psychologists or philosophers.

There were four classes of speakers: (I) Those 'convinced of the multiplicity of psychical phenomena' (Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir A. Conan Doyle, F. Bligh Bond, Dr. L. R. G. Crandon (husband of 'Margery'), Mary Austin and Margaret Deland); (II) those 'convinced of the rarity of genuine psychical phenomena' (Professor McDougall, Professor Hans Driesch, Dr. W. F. Prince, and Professor F. C. S. Schiller); (III) those 'unconvinced as yet' (Dr. John E. Coover and Dr. Gardner Murphy); (IV) and those 'antagonistic to the claims that such phenomena occur' (Professor Joseph Jastrow and Harry Houdini). All these papers were published in 1927 in one volume under the title The Case For and Against Psychical Belief, edited by Dr. Murchison, who warns the reader in his Preface that, in arranging the symposium, Clark University 'is by no means assuming the role of friend to psychical research.' Apparently his warning was necessary, as Sir Oliver Lodge begins his paper ('The University Aspect of Psychical Research') with the sentence: 'I can but heartily welcome the pioneer effort of Clark University to take the subject of psychical research under its wing and give it the prestige of academic recognition.'

The Case For and Against Psychical Belief is well worth reading, especially the papers by Sir Oliver Lodge, Hans Driesch ('Psychical Research and Philosophy'), W. F. Prince ('Is Psychical Research Worth While?') and Dr. Schiller ('Some Logical Aspects of Psychical Research'). I think the scientific standard of the book is lowered by the reprinting of chapters from Houdini's A Magician Among the Spirits(14), a collection of mediumistic tricks most of which no fake medium outside a lunatic asylum would dare to use.

(14) Harper & Brothers, New York, 1924.

'Miracles' at Duke University [top]

Very soon after the Clark symposium, Dr. J. B. Rhine and his wife, Dr. Louisa E. Rhine, both biologists of the University of Chicago, turned their attention to the alleged telepathic faculties of animals, and their experiments with 'Lady,' the 'mind-reading horse' are well known. In the summer of 1930, the Rhines turned their attention to human subjects and, having now discarded biology for the psychological field, began a series of tests in telepathy and clairvoyance at Duke University, North Carolina, in connection with the Department of Psychology, of which Professor McDougall was the head. With Dr. Karl Zener and Dr. Helge Lundholm, of the same Department, the Rhines embarked upon a long series of 'card calling' experiments with hundreds of students and others, using cards marked with the five symbols: circle, rectangle, plus sign, star, and wavy lines. Dr. Rhine suggested the term 'extra-sensory perception' as being more suitable than the older forms, telepathy, thought-transference, and clairvoyance.

Dr. Rhine and his colleagues at Duke discovered that certain of the students and others possessed the telepathic or clairvoyant faculty to an extraordinary degree. Some 100,000 tests were made in the first period and the good 'guesses' recorded exceeded any estimate based on chance. In fact, some of the results savour of the miraculous. Though psychical researchers have, for eighty years, been seeking a subject able to demonstrate at will, under controlled conditions, the faculty of telepathy and failed to find one, Dr. Rhine discovered scores of them in his own University - some even in his own class-room.

The results of the first period of Dr. Rhine's work were published in 1934 by the Boston SPR,(15) and in London the following year. Among those who took the results at their face value, the book created a sensation. Those more sceptical began to experiment for themselves. Among these was Mr. S. G. Soal, of London University, who, for the past four years, has been duplicating Rhine's experiments, but not his good results(16). Rhine's technique was 'tightened up.' Out of many thousands of 'guesses,' with many percipients, the good ones did not amount to more than chance would account for. There were no miracles in London. For these experiments, I asked a firm of playing-card manufacturers to print special cards, on the faces of which were the Zener symbols as used by Rhine. These cards were much better than the early home-made ones used at Duke, which slightly varied in size.

(15) Extra-Sensory Perception, Boston, Mass., 1934.
(16) Report not yet issued.

Dr. Rhine has also experimented with Mrs. Eileen Garrett, the British trance medium whom I introduced to American psychists in my article in the Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1931(17). He obtained some extraordinarily successful results(18). Later, in England, Mr. Soal. and a group also conducted a long series of experiments in telepathy and clairvoyance with Mrs. Garrett. The results were entirely negative(19).

(17) New York, January, 1931. An account of a séance at which the 'Conan Doyle' entity was alleged to control the medium.
(18) 'Telepathy and Clairvoyance in the Normal and Trance States of a "Medium",' Character and Personality, London, December, 1934.
(19) See Chapter X.

Mrs. Garrett has also been tested at Johns Hopkins University, but no official report has been issued. Other academic centres, too, became interested in the Duke successes and among those who experimented were Dr. J. G. Pratt (Columbia), J. L. Woodruff and Dr. R. W. George (Tarkio College, Missouri), and Dr. C. R. Carpenter and Professor H. R. Phalen (Columbia). Their work is recorded in the Journal of Parapsychology, issued by Duke University Press, a quarterly which sprang into being as a result of the Rhine tests. It was first published in March, 1937.

I cannot close my record of American universities without mentioning the important 'history of spiritualism'(1) by Dr. George Lawton. It was the thesis he submitted to Columbia University when he studied for his degree of doctor of philosophy, and is an impartial - and rather amusing - study of, especially, American spiritualism. His account of the American spiritualist 'camps' (Lily Dale, Chesterfield, etc.) is valuable.

(20) The Drama of Life after Death: A Study of the Spiritualist Religion, by George Lawton, London, 1933.

The Third Reich Declares Psychical Research an Official Science [top]

The outstanding event in psychical research during recent years is the declaration of the German Government that it would be prepared officially to give its blessing to a Department of Parapsychology at Bonn University, if I would found it. When Professor Dr. E. Rothacker, the Director of the Bonn Psychologisches Institut, and his colleague Dr. Hans Bender, heard that I was anxious for academic support for my scheme of introducing psychical research into the universities, I was invited to Bonn to talk the matter over. In the meantime, the whole question was referred to the German Home Office, Board of Education, the Foreign Office, and Ministry of Propaganda. In March, 1937, I was officially informed by letter that the German Government, having thoroughly examined the whole question, was favourable to the founding of the proposed new Department at Bonn. The letter(21) stated that the Government 'authorized the establishment of a Department for Abnormal Psychology and Parapsychology (Forschungsstelle fur psychologische Grenzwissenschaften) and think of special interest to this Department, besides the research work, questions of social hygiene in occult matters.' This letter, like the one I have quoted from Sir Edwin Deller, is of great historical interest, as the Third Reich is the first Government officially to place its cachet on psychical research. This is the more striking, as spiritualism has been suppressed in Germany. The letter I have cited proposed various academic honours for me in the event of my founding the proposed new Department.

(21) Dated March 20, 1937.

Why Britain Lags Behind [top]

Academically, Great Britain has shown little interest - officially - in psychical research. Although the Society for Psychical Research has been established for more than fifty years, little had been done in this country to attract organized science until I launched my 'campaign' to interest the University of London. If, in the past, the SPR had made a real attempt at founding a chair or fellowship at one of the principal universities, they would have succeeded - especially at Cambridge, the home of modern psychical research. But nothing was done. Unofficially, both Oxford and Cambridge have had for many years small societies, supported by a few undergraduates, for the study of psychic matters. This also applies to foreign universities. I personally have, more than once, lectured within the precincts of the following universities: Oxford, Cambridge, London, Nottingham (University College), the Sorbonne, Vienna, Copenhagen, Oslo, Gottingen, and Berlin. My visits were arranged by those professors and others interested in the subject, but, so far as 'orthodoxy' was concerned, they were not always official.

Why does official science take so little interest in psychical research? Quoting Professor Schiller, the reason is because there is no money in it: 'The occult can never become scientifically established until it becomes a commercial success ... At present there is no money wherewith to prosecute researches, nor any likelihood of raising an adequate supply until the suspicion has arisen that there is money in it; because it is necessary, in this case, to convert both the masses and the professors'(22). At least an attempt is being made to convert the masses. In New York, I am told, Rhine's experimental ESP cards are being sold on every newsstand at ten cents a packet: this is bringing psychics - literally - to the man-in-the-street!

(22) Occult Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, January, 1905.


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


More articles by Harry Price

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?

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

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