There is as much that's a mystery about Harry Price, perhaps England's most famous—or infamous—ghost hunter, as there is quantifiable fact. Some of this confusion is due to Price’s own dissembling. For instance, though Price claimed that he was born in Shropshire in 1881, he was actually born in London of that year.
Whatever the truth of his origins, Price left behind a legacy that will be familiar even to many who have never heard his name. Fans of films of the paranormal or readers of Mike Mignola's Hellboy have likely encountered fictionalized accounts of several of Price's cases.
An amateur magician and psychic researcher, Price dedicated most of his life to studying paranormal phenomena and debunking Spiritualists. The latter practice made him none-too-popular with many of the believers of that movement, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After Price debunked “spirit photographer” William Hope, Doyle led a mass resignation of 84 members of the Society for Psychical Research and continued to hound Price for years.
Unlike many magicians, however, Price was actually open to the possibilities of the paranormal and believed that some spirit mediums were genuinely legitimate. This, among other things, put him at odds with some other members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which he joined in 1920. Price was also a member of the Magic Circle, an organization of stage magicians, The Ghost Club, arguably the oldest paranormal research organization in the world, and the founder of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, which he founded as a rival to the SPR.
Some of Price's most famous cases include his investigation of the medium Helen Duncan and a "black magic" experiment atop Mount Brocken in Germany in which an attempt was made to transform a goat into a young man. Price claimed that he participated in the experiment, known as the "Bloksberg Tryst," "only to prove the fallacy of transcendental magic."
Price also investigated Gef the Talking Mongoose in the 1930s. Gef supposedly inhabited the farmhouse of the Irving family on the Isle of Man, though Price's investigations alleged that the hair and paw prints of the mongoose were actually from a dog, and that the talking was produced by hollow walls in the house, which "makes the whole house one great speaking-tube, with walls like sounding boards."
In 1927, Price claimed that he had come into possession of a box left behind by self-styled religious prophetess Joanna Southcott, which she had left behind after her death in 1814. Along with the box, Southcott had left instructions that it should be opened "at a time of national crisis," and only in the presence of every bishop of the Church of England. Price opened the box—in the presence of only the reluctant Bishop of Grantham—and found that it contained only a few odds and ends, including a lottery ticket and a horse-pistol.
Followers of Southcott—known as Southcottians—maintain that the box Price opened was a fraud. As recently as the 1970s, a Southcottian group called the Panacea Society claimed to be in possession of the actual box and placed advertising campaigns that pushed to have the box opened under the conditions set forth by Joanna Southcott.
Price's most famous case was his study of Borley Rectory, which he called "the most haunted house in England." Price rented and resided in the rectory from May of 1937 until May of 1938, along with a rotating group of 48 "official observers," recruited through newspaper ads, tasked with reporting any unusual phenomena.
His study, which included a séance held by Helen Glanville, concluded that the rectory was indeed inhabited by several spirits, including the ghost of a French nun who had been murdered on the property. Another spirit was said to claim that he would set fire to the rectory, and that the fire would reveal the bones of a murdered individual.
In 1939, the rectory's new owner knocked over an oil lamp while unpacking boxes, resulting in a fire that gutted the building. The insurance company would later conclude that the fire was deliberately set. During the blaze, a woman who lived nearby said she saw the figure of a ghostly nun in an upstairs window (and charged Harry Price one guinea for her story). A dig in the cellars of the ruined house conducted by Price in 1943 turned up two bones, which he believed belonged to a young woman. The bones were eventually given proper burial, though not in the parish of Borley, where local opinion held that they were the bones of a pig.
After Price's death in 1948, the SPR conducted their own study investigating Price's claims about Borley Rectory. In what came to be called the "Borley Report," the SPR concluded that Price had faked many of the phenomena or that they were due to natural causes. Meanwhile, psychic researcher John L. Randall claimed that "dirty tricks" had been played on Price by members of the SPR during his residence at Borley.
Whatever the truth of Price's life and cases, perhaps the greatest legacy he left to the world of paranormal research was his extensive collection of writings on magic and psychic phenomena, which make up the Harry Price Archives at the University of London as well as the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, housed at the Senate House Library.
Featured photo: Alchetron