On the evening of Wednesday 15th December 1937, in a house somewhere in London, that may or may not have been in Brockley or equally may or may not have been in Kensington, the then famous psychical researcher Harry Price had an experience for which the word “amazing” is far too trite. Price claimed he had been invited to attend one of a series of séances held in the house of someone in business, where the materialised spirit of a six year old child regularly appeared to her/its mother.
Price attended that night, checked the place out to his own satisfaction that there was no way a confederate could get into the room, and took part in the séance, in which a child appeared, was illuminated by two phosphorescent tablets and was checked over by Price, who confirmed that it was a real physical child complete with breath, pulse and heartbeat. Present apart from Price, were the owners of the house, their teenage daughter and a young man who seemed to be the daughter’s boyfriend. Of six year old children there was not a trace.
|HARRY PRICE (1881-1948)|
A number of people noted that in the days following Price seemed very shaken, as if his core beliefs had been challenged. He was later to write up the story in his book Fifty Years of Psychical Research in which he expressed his puzzlement but came to no definite conclusion. This naturally led to a great deal of controversy.
Price, to put in mildly was a sort of Marmite person, people either thought he was the best thing that had happened to psychical research in a long time, or they loathed him with a vengeance, sometimes the same people fell into both categories. Price was a man with a large ego and considerable chip on his shoulder, who desperately wanted to be considered respectable and serious. There can be little doubt that he felt slighted by the often insufferably snobbish members Society for Psychical Research, who, one suspects, treated him as the tradesman he actually was, and that made him often very quarrelsome.
This Marmite nature led to a partisan war after his death between his critics and defenders. Among the former was his one-time friend Eric Dingwall, who been the research officer in the SPR from 1922 to 1927. Dingwall, supported by a colleague Trevor Hall, was to produce a highly critical report on Price’s involvement with the notorious Borley Rectory. In their book Four Modern Ghosts Dingwall and Hall suggested that Price had just made up the Rosalie story to spice up an otherwise rather dull book.
Critics pointed out that Price did seem genuinely distressed after the alleged séance so defenders of Price set out to find more information.
The first was semi-spiritualist David Cohen, a garment-maker from Manchester who acted as Research Officer for the Manchester Psychical Research Society which met at the Milton Hall in Deansgate. Cohen’s book Harry Price and his Spirit Child Rosalie was published by the vanity publisher, Regency Press and according to Adams was at times overwrought, being rather the printed version of the sort of screaming rants that people used to deface library books with in green or red ink. Cohen was clearly an interesting character who conducted a number of investigations, which were only reported on as lectures to the society. Most his material was binned by his family after his death, which seems to be all too common in this field.
The second study was by two leading members of the Society of Psychical Research, Richard George Medhurst and Mary Rose Barrington. The former’s untimely death rather put an end to that. These enquiries which involved searching through telephone and post office directories never came to a final conclusion.
However in April 1966 Cohen received a letter which purported to be from the person who had played the role of Rosalie, claiming that the affair was a complex hoax to keep sweet a woman, from whom the man of the house had extracted funds that he was having difficulty in repaying. The reaction to this was mixed, many psychical researchers thinking that the letter was itself a hoax. Cohen however thought it was genuine as he realised that the spirit world would never allow anything as scandalous as a nude materialisation.
Paul Adams sums up all the developments from the original story onward in meticulous detail, perhaps occasionally too much so, before undertaking his own investigation, in which he was aided by the many historical documents now available online, the most important of these being the 1939 register compiled at the outbreak of the Record World War. From these he is able to track down a family called Mortimer living in Kensington, which seems to fit the bill of the family involved. In a sense it is obvious that the Rosalie story was a hoax and that the only three explanations were
1. Price made the whole thing up
2. The whole thing was a set up to trap Price into making a rash statement in support of materialisation
3. The affair was more or less as Price described it, and, as the ‘Rosalie letter’ suggested it was a very unpleasant, to put it mildly, manipulation of someone’s profound grief.
In case you think that conclusion is “closed minded”, one only as to contemplate the logistics of materialising a working replica of a six year old child; the gathering in of atoms and molecules, the need to replicate the genome, the building of the body not in months of gestation and years of growth but in seconds, requiring unimaginable sources of energy, making sure that it had a functioning heart, brain and nervous system and finally dissipating the whole thing in such a controlled fashion as not to create an explosion as to render the earth uninhabitable for millennia.
Adams thought for a time that the second option was the most probable explanation, but eventually comes down on three and concludes that the ‘Rosalie letter’ was from a genuine participant, though giving many false details. The picture that emerges is an even more unpleasant one, involving the exploitation of a maid with disabilities. I actually suspect that even more people might have been involved. Adams suggests that the grieving mother reported by Price was actually a grieving father, and suggests how a child or someone masquerading as one could have been hidden in the room.
Perhaps the final mystery is why Price did not see through the tricks. Adams suggests that he was put off his guard by the fact that this séance did not resemble those of the fake mediums he had been dealing with. I would also add that in 1939 the sight of a man, as opposed to a woman, breaking down in tears would have been both very affecting and very embarrassing for a man of Price’s background.
There added psychological factors I suspect, Price was man who yearned for respectability, he wanted to be a respected proper academic and was a pillar of his local church. The family at the centre of this story, the Mortimers were the epitome of the respectability that Price yearned for. While Price was happy to accept that the likes of Helen Duncan or foreigners or members of the lower orders could fake things, the idea that “nice respectable” people could be so wicked as to reduce a grown man to a blubbering wreck and exploit his terrible grief was morally unthinkable. Price was deep down too conventional and unimaginative to grasp the dimensions of human evil and that was how he allowed himself to be almost ensnared by the Nazis, who were capable of things infinitely worse than séance room tricks. - Peter Rogerson