Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) is best known for her book with the snappy title Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye. Interblended with Personal Narrative (E. W. Allen, 1882), and the plates from it, featuring sitters with sprit extras, have been frequently reproduced. The year before, Trübner had published a more general book by Houghton on her involvement in the Spiritualist movement, Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance, and E. W. Allen reissued it alongside Chronicles. Evening at Homes has now been republished by Victorian Secrets, and they have added some of the context necessary to understand how, despite Houghton’s rather sad and straightened circumstances, she could remain positive about her own life and the life to come. The volume has been edited by Sara Williams, who is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of English, University of Hull. She has provided an introduction, a chronology, basic bibliography, and a useful selection of articles by and about Houghton and her work from the contemporary press (including a review by H. P. Blavatsky of Chronicles that appeared in The Theosophist), as well as annotating the text.
Houghton was a spinster who lived in genteel poverty, with her mother until the latter’s death in 1869. That was a terrible year which also saw the deaths of Georgiana’s brother George and of her nephew Charlie, the son of her beloved sister Zillah who had died in 1851. What stands out in the chronology is the extent to which death touched her: of the ten Houghton siblings, seven predeceased Georgiana, and her interest in Spiritualism was sparked in 1859 by the possibility of mediumistic communication with Zillah. Her Spiritualism was always consonant with her strong Christian beliefs, and Biblical references are scattered throughout Evenings at Home. As Houghton, quoting herself in conversation, says, “…we both look to the Bible as the original evidence of Spiritualism and as still to be our landmark.” Mediumistic and scriptural communications were for her mutually reinforcing.
Evenings at Home is a record of Houghton’s activities covering the years 1870–1881. It is a valuable source for understanding the Spiritualist movement during this period, though Houghton’s complete absence of critical insight into her experiences as a sitter in the séance room means that her accounts need to be treated with extreme caution. Spiritualism was a gregarious pursuit, and Houghton clearly enjoyed the status she had obtained within the movement. As well as the social aspect of séances, which included stopping for supper and a chat, she was ‘at home’ one afternoon each week, when she would receive like-minded visitors with whom she could discuss her brand of theology. She describes séances with friends such as Mrs Guppy of “aerial transit” fame, and by employing an autobiographical approach she was able to demonstrate how strongly her ardent Spiritualist beliefs provided a framework for her life. She felt that “the heavenly” was for all of the week, not just Sundays.
Her two books complement each other, because while Evenings at Home refers to spirit photography (and in particular her close association from 1872 with spirit photographer Frederick Hudson, the focus of Chronicles), it emphasises her earlier water colours painted under spiritual influence. Their production was automatic, and Houghton disclaimed any conscious involvement in the content, which shifted from stylised fruits and flowers to pure abstraction, “sacred symbolism” as she calls it. A lengthy section of the book is devoted to the exhibition of 155 of her paintings which she organised in 1871, at considerable financial cost. The exhibition, entitled Spirit Drawings in Water Colours, went on for four months at the New British Gallery in Old Bond Street in London. It was a mammoth undertaking, not only arranging the venue and catalogue, but framing the pictures for display, and removing them afterwards, a task she insisted on doing personally. She attended the gallery daily in order to discuss the pictures’ meanings and her method of production, to promote the doctrines of Spiritualism, and probably to have more company than would normally be the case in her domestic solitude. She describes some of these visitors, including the foolhardy Darwinist who attempted to convert her to evolution but whose “specious arguments … bothered me not for one moment.” Sadly, while many of her paintings were for sale, she only sold one, and her friends had to have a whip-round to help her out (her precarious financial position is a recurring theme of the book).
The drawings would now be characterised as outsider art, or even abstract expressionism before its time, and the marked contrast of their style to prevailing notions of realism in Western art perhaps accounts for their lack of success during her lifetime. Yet as Rachel Oberter notes in her 2005 article on Houghton (‘Esoteric Art Confronting the Public Eye: the Abstract Spirit Drawings of Georgiana Houghton’ in the journal Victorian Studies, which reproduces some of the pictures, though unfortunately in black and white), Houghton’s watercolours in a sense were representational; she gave them specific titles, and for her the apparent randomness of line and colour represented a higher reality, interpreted through automatic writing by the spirit guides which had communicated the pictures to her.
Sara Williams quotes the ever-optimistic Houghton as she muses in Evenings at Home on the future:
“There have been three great epochs in my annals, divided into decades. In 1861, came the drawing mediumship, to open into all the rest.—In 1871, the exhibition of those ten years of work.—And now, in 1881, this most comprehensive labour of all! [i.e. Evenings at Home] — I cannot but speculate — what will the next decade evolve? what shall I do in 1891 ?”
Sadly this tireless worker for Spirit did not live to see 1891, but she has left, in the drawings, the photographs and the books, a window into the world as she saw it. Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance is a valuable document for anyone interested in the Spiritualist movement of the period, and, and it is good to see it back in print with the addition of supplementary material. Renewed interest created by Victorian Secrets’ initiative may even translate into further research into Houghton’s watercolours, and there is certainly scope for a full-colour book collecting together her surviving artworks and the automatic writing which accompanies them.
Someone concerned with whether paranormal phenomena have any basis in reality might assume that a book devoted to hallucinations will have nothing to teach; after all, hallucinations are not what a psychical researcher wants to investigate. But if you can’t tell one from another, you have a problem. Oliver Sacks, the “Poet Laureate of Medicine” according to the New York Times, provides an accessible, if at times sketchy, overview of a complicated subject, and the implications for paranormal investigators are a cause for concern. If you think you see a ghost, how do you decide whether it is veridical or subjective? Hallucinations can affect all sense modalities, and while they run the gamut from realistic to outlandish, they can be remarkably convincing. They may have their origin in neurological damage, often of the temporal or parietal lobes, but others affect neurologically healthy individuals. Some types are extremely common. Sacks gives an example of hypnopompic imagery recounted to him by a Mr. Fish:
“The most typical one would involve me sitting up in bed and seeing a person – often an old lady – staring at me at some distance from the foot of my bed. (I imagine that such hallucinations are thought to be ghosts by some people - but not by me.) Other examples are seeing a foot-wide spider crawling up my wall; seeing fireworks; and seeing a little devil at the foot of my bed riding a bicycle in place.” (p.212)
Yes, seeing an old lady at the foot of the bed would be interpreted as a ghost by some, and it could be argued that Mr. Fish may have seen a ghost as well, but being of a sceptical bent chose to interpret the figure as a hallucination. The spider though gives one pause as it would be an unlikely resident of his bedroom (though Mr. Fish is an Australian so a foot-wide spider sounds plausible). The cycling devilette is doubtful too, and the fireworks definitely had no external reality, or he would have detected the residue afterwards. If the fireworks weren’t real, why should the old lady be?
‘Lynn O.’ had hallucinations as part of a narcoleptic syndrome. She told Sacks that she wished that she had received the narcolepsy diagnosis earlier, because previously she had interpreted her experiences as paranormal rather than as elements of a sleep disorder. Her assumption that they were paranormal, that is external to her, had delayed her in seeking “more constructive” (i.e. medical) help, but that help had allowed her to come to terms with her condition. As she wrote to Sacks, she had to reexamine those ‘paranormal’ experiences and readjust her view of the world: “It is like letting go of childhood or, rather, letting go of a mystical, almost magical view of the world. I must say, perhaps I am experiencing a touch of mourning.” (p.223) In other words, her earlier interpretation fulfilled a psychological need to make sense of her situation, albeit a maladaptive one. Alternatively, did a form of liquid cosh block her psychic receptivity? That remains a possibility.
Hallucinations are not restricted to ‘the external being experienced in here’; they can also involve the sense of ‘the internal being experienced out there’. It might be a reasonable assumption that an out-of-body experience linked to taking LSD or accompanying migraine or an epileptic seizure is subjective, but in some situations the default interpretation could be a paranormal one. OBEs can accompany narcolepsy and sleep paralysis, for example, and as the example of Lynn O. indicates, an experient might not be aware of their condition’s underlying pathology. ‘Jeanette B’, with a history of narcolepsy and sleep paralysis, experienced OBEs and admitted that she “found it very difficult to believe it was a hallucination.” (p.255) Moreover, the experiences became addictive to the point of her attempting to optimise the conditions required for them to occur, and refusing medication that she knew would have prevented them.
OBEs are also associated with near-death experiences, and Sacks deals with the latter as well in terms of hallucination caused by neurophysiological changes combined with stress arising from the extreme situation, though he passes over the subject in a couple of pages and does not engage with the extensive literature that has built up on it in recent years. But then he does not feel he has to, because it is straightforward to interpret. He notes a case where a surgeon was struck by lightning and had an NDE even though his heart had stopped for “little more than thirty or forty seconds.” (p.259) In an interview in Skeptical Inquirer (‘Oliver Sacks on Hallucinations’, May/June 2013), Sacks again refers to this case (though in the interview the cardiac arrest victim’s experience now occupies only “twenty or thirty seconds”). There he draws the conclusion that the surgeon’s “whole cosmic journey only occupied a matter of seconds”, which he uses to comment on the now-famous case documented by Eben Alexander in his recent book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife that the claim of the reality of such a paranormal experience based on its complexity cannot be sustained because “a few seconds of altered consciousness as one emerges from coma would be enough to give him such a state.” (SI, Vol. 37, Issue 3, p.52). We already know that hallucinations can feel intensely real. This would mean that any talk of a flat EEG, such as in the even more famous Pam Reynolds case, is irrelevant because the NDE occurs in a very brief period on emergence from the period when the brain is inactive, but can seem convincing to the point of changing the experient’s life.
Sacks briefly touches on the phenomenon of the bereaved experiencing the return of loved ones, though he sceptically examines these cases as aspects of “The Haunted Mind” rather than the haunted person, the ‘reappearance’ for him representing a compulsive return to the past during a time of emotionally-charged turmoil. These appearances can be so vivid that it is hard to believe that the deceased has not returned, and they are mostly, though not always, comforting. Unfortunately Sacks skims over this important phenomenon, and does not offer an adequate analysis of what might be happening. That they do not always occur in a context of intense grief is indicated by the account supplied by ‘Malonnie K’ who ‘saw’ her seventeen-year-old cat the day after it died while she was getting ready for work. The routine may have induced a mild altered state of consciousness which was a carrier for the longing she felt to have her pet back, but there is no suggestion that she was experiencing the sort of acute emotion that would be caused when a spouse dies. It is a puzzle why she hallucinated her cat, assuming it was a hallucination of course, while many people who have been married for a long time do not experience the return of their spouse after death (though it is possible that such incidents are under-reported, and some spouses doubtless are more relieved than devastated by their loss). The closest Sacks comes to an explanation is when he muses that “bereavement causes a sudden hole in one’s life, a hole which – somehow – must be filled. This presents a cognitive problem and a perceptual one as well as an emotional one, and a painful longing for reality to be otherwise.” (p.231) He seems to be saying that the brain is ‘filling in’ for the missing person in much the same way that it would fill in for an amputated limb which the amputee can still feel.
Unfortunately, experiences are not always benign. Sleep paralysis accompanied by hallucinations is surprisingly common, affecting perhaps a third to a half of the general population, and can be “vivid, elaborate, multimodal and terrifying” (p.226). The ‘Old Hag’ phenomenon is well known to psychical researchers, but for those suffering “the sense of terror and doom” it brings with it, it is easy to believe that they are being persecuted by a supernatural being against which they are literally powerless to act. That class of hallucination shows how difficult it can be to tell, while it is occurring, whether an experience is hallucinatory or has an objective reality when it seems so real. You might dismiss an event as a hypnagogic (ie when falling asleep) because it occurred with closed eyes, in the dark, but Sacks notes that hypnopompic hallucinations can be seen in bright illumination with open eyes, and seem solid. They can have a strong emotional impact, much as one might have if confronted with a ghost. Sacks considers this very point:
“Indeed, one must wonder to what degree the very idea of monsters, ghostly spirits, or phantoms originated with such hallucinations. One can easily imagine that, coupled with a personal or cultural disposition to believe in a disembodied spiritual realm, these hallucinations, though they have a real physiological basis, might reinforce a belief in the supernatural.” (p.215)
He briefly discusses Frederic Myers, one of the founders of the SPR, who coined the term ‘hypnopompic’. Sacks dismisses both Phantasms of the Living (of which Myers was a co-author) and Myers’ own Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death on the grounds that “one feels” the majority of the psychical experiences recounted in them are actually hallucinations arising from “states of bereavement, social isolation, or sensory deprivation, and above all in drowsy or trancelike states.” (p.216) One might want to discount Sacks’ verdict on the grounds that having a feeling is not providing evidence, but one feels in turn that he may have a point (even while somewhat sceptical that he has read both those lengthy works from end to end).
Given all the complications, think how hard it is for an investigator, interviewing a witness who claims to have had an anomalous experience, to get at the truth. The witness may well be supplying an honest account, not realising how easy it is for our brains to fool us into thinking that something is there when it isn’t. Sacks would argue that the lesson of Hallucinations is that you may think it is difficult to discriminate between an objective and subjective experience, but actually the experience is always subjective, the ghost never has an external reality. The standard answers in the psychical research literature revolve around reliance on shared experiences, or the transfer of veridical information, but this is a field beset with uncertainty. The witness may well have seen a ghost, but the investigator recording their story cannot rule out possible counter-explanations in terms of hallucination.
This then is a book that should be read by psychical researchers because they need to be aware of the many ways in which we can be tricked by our cognitive apparatus. It should not though be read uncritically. Sacks makes the somewhat sweeping statement that “Any consuming passion or threat may lead to hallucinations in which an idea and an intense emotion are embedded.” (p.231), but it cannot be that simple. His book is crammed with examples of hallucinations that could be construed as having a paranormal component, but this he refuses to countenance on the grounds that we are all susceptible to suggestion. He considers that if we believe a house can be haunted, even though naturally the proposition is “scoffed at by the rational mind” (p.250), and the belief is combined with emotional arousal in a setting of ambiguous stimuli, then hallucinations may result. That’s hauntings disposed of in under a page. Children’s imaginary friends? Hallucinations. One feels that he is not giving the matter much attention as he assumes that hallucination obviously has to be the correct conclusion. Towards the end he cites the hypothesis that the ‘feeling of presence’ is part of our biological inheritance, an evolutionary adaptation relating to threat that is controlled within the temporal lobe (p.291). It may well be, and one can see the advantages in such a mechanism. What might trigger this in someone who is sitting around, so not experiencing a sense of threat, when a ghost appears Sacks does not address, and one feels that there is likely to be more involved than the activation of a circuit in the temporal lobe. Whether a complete explanation should invoke the paranormal is another matter.
A separate review of Hallucinations by Robert A. Charman will appear in the SPR’s Journal.
Parapsychology has a relatively small community devoted to it, and for anyone keen enough to pick up Rosemarie Pilkington’s collection of autobiographical accounts by some of its significant figures, many of the names will probably be familiar. But it is one thing to read a book or article by someone; it is another to read a first-person account of how they became interested, and what motivates and excites them, in something which, as more than one contributor notes, generates little income and less recognition.
It was therefore an excellent idea of Pilkington’s to gather reminiscences, focusing on older workers, while there was still time. Volume l was originally published in 1987, and reprinted by Anomalist Books in 2010. The criterion for inclusion was that those invited be over 65, consequently of the twelve figures in it only one is alive at this writing, showing how important it is to collect these memories before they disappear. The reprint brought the book to the attention of a new generation that had not been around in the 1980s, and indicated that there was scope for a sequel.
The increased size of Volume 2 is to be welcomed. It boasts an international roster, with twenty-one contributions, the bulk as before drawn from the United States, but the UK, Germany and Iceland represented as well. Only three women are included, which does reflect the gender split in times past, though it seems fair to say that the situation is gradually improving (despite which, until the loss of Professor Fontana in late 2010 there was a period when the SPR’s Council contained the same number of men called David as it did women, so there is some way to go).
Pilkington’s aim as before is to gather reminiscences and reflections from the older members of the parapsychological community. The oldest is Lawrence LeShan, born in 1920, the youngest, a chronological outlier, is Serena Roney-Dougal, born in 1951. The figures in the book have a wide range of backgrounds and interests, with a good balance between field and lab research. Sadly two (Williams Broad and Roll) died while the book was in production. Bill Roll was very frail and had trouble communicating, so although Pilkington interviewed him, she filled out his entry from other sources. LeShan was also interviewed.
The other nineteen were free to write what they wanted but were given a set of questions, to which they more or less adhered, in order to structure their responses. These were: what had prompted them to choose this pursuit?; what did they consider to be their most significant contribution?; what might they have done differently, and what changes occurred to their outlooks as a result of their work?; had they had any experiences that exceeded their boggle threshold?; and what would be their advice to young researchers contemplating such a career? Pilkington prefaces each entry with biographical details to introduce the author and Nancy L. Zingrone supplies a warm foreword in which she rightly says that “Autobiography makes the past immediate.”
The responses are wide-ranging. Some are short and anecdotal, others discuss the implications of the work in greater depth. The result is an informal primer covering many of the developments in the subject over the past fifty years. Each entry contains plenty of references, selected bibliographies and website information to allow further investigation of the issues.
Some names crop up frequently, notably J. B. Rhine (it is nice to see his and Louisa Rhine’s daughter Sally Rhine Feather included here, carrying on the family business), and the accounts show how influential he was, though not always in a positive way it has to be said. LeShan comes up more than once. So does Bob Morris, who had an enormous effect on the growth of parapsychology through the Koestler Chair, one sadly dissipated since his untimely death. The SPR is cited a number of times as an organisation that helped to stimulate awareness, and the importance of the Parapsychological Association is stressed, as well as other organisations like the Rhine Research Center and the Parapsychology Foundation.
As one might expect from so eclectic a bunch, there is a wide diversity of views and approaches. If this were a church, it would be a broad one, though with an underpinning sense of the mysteries of consciousness and of the universe. The Americans stand out by their frequent references to Eastern spiritual thought, which is not surprising given the age profile, many reaching maturity in the liberal ‘60s, and one suspects more past drug taking (purely for academic purposes you understand) than is admitted to. There is much talk of ‘non locality’, and the influence of developments in physics is apparent. There is also a tendency to stress process- rather than proof-oriented research, acknowledging that further proof is not going to persuade anyone not convinced by what has already accumulated, and that the emphasis should be on how the thing works, whatever that thing happens to be, not whether it does.
The variety of experiences and topics raised will inspire anybody thinking of a career in this area, as well as making it a useful primer for those just wanting to learn more about the subject and the men and women who have shaped it (though always bearing in mind that there are no critical voices to contradict the claims, and that these are by definition the success stories, those who stayed the course). Even if you know some of the individuals and their publications, you can always learn something new that will surprise and entertain.
Pilkington asked what advice the contributors would give to aspiring entrants, but the warnings will doubtless be treated lightly. My guess is that confirmation bias will operate, warnings will be ignored, and only the desirable aspects absorbed. There is talk of lousy pay and prospects, but it becomes clear as one reads that with a bit of ingenuity, and yes, some luck, it is possible to make a living, and an enjoyable one, while pursuing your passion.
The enthusiasm shines through, and anyone considering embarking on a similar path will find these personal stories encouraging, though with a dose of realism injected into the aspirations. It’s a shame that such a project had not been considered earlier because so much history is lost as people die. There are others who will have reached the correct vintage in a few years’ time, and it is to be hoped that we will have the pleasure of a further instalment of Esprit which asks them the same questions, with perhaps fewer Americans and a larger proportion drawn from other parts of the world. Also, I can think of a few elder statespersons missing from Volume 2. I suspect some were asked, but declined, and I hope they reconsider for a third.
A similar enterprise, A History of Psychology in Autobiography, the first volume of which appeared as long ago as 1930, has been very successful (and doubtless inspirational), and it would be good to see Men and Women of Parapsychology achieve similar longevity as it tracks those who make a significant contribution to the subject, and who well deserve to have their achievements noted.
It seems odd that nobody had thought of the idea before, but surprisingly Geoff Holder is the first person to compile a history of Scottish poltergeists. The title is intended to echo Harry Price’s 1945 classic Poltergeist over England (though as Holder notes, Price does include a classic Scottish example, Pitmilly House).
The cases are numbered – there are 134 in total – and arranged chronologically, from the 1630s to early 2012. Each century is assigned a chapter, except the twentieth which, because of the number of cases it contains, has been covered in three. Each chapter is prefaced by a line drawing of Scotland, labelled with the case numbers, so it is easy to see the distribution during that period.
Holder follows a standard format: location; date and duration, where this can be established; a description of alleged phenomena; sources used; the context, which might be the religious, social or physical environment within which the event(s) occurred; and interpretation, both what the participants thought was happening, where this is available, and Holder’s own thoughts.
There is a short introduction on the nature of poltergeists, their relationship with hauntings, and some statistics extracted from his collection on where they manifest. As might be expected, since the Second World War there has been a decline in rural incidents and an increase in urban ones, and the rural ones stand out because of the amount of burning peat that often seems to be involved.
Holder has also broken them down by type of phenomenon into 37 categories, though this is not going to be precise considering the vagueness of some of the reports. Even so, it shows that objects and furniture moved in almost 72% of cases and there were noises in almost 66%, both a long way ahead of other types of phenomena. Clear hoaxing was found in only about 5%, though this is probably an underestimate. The book concludes with a lengthy bibliography and an index.
A lot of work has gone into assessing the reliability of witnesses and comparing versions, and casting quite often complicated accounts into a comprehensible narrative. Some cases are obscure, available only in specialist or antiquarian publications. Others are better known, for example Ballechin House, Pitmilly House, and Sauchie in 1960-1. The section on the Mackenzie poltergeist shows how the story as promoted is inextricably linked to commercial ghost tours and “supernatural branding”, denting its evidential value.
The Maxwell Park case, a kind of proto-Enfield which was investigated in part by the late Archie Roy, turns out not to have been in Maxwell Park in south Glasgow at all, but on the other side of the city at Balornock. Roy said in A Sense of Something Strange (1990) that he had changed the names of those involved (excluding the investigators) but he did not say that Maxwell Park was also a pseudonym. Fortunately Holder has corrected the record, and gives a succinct overview of a complicated case.
Not all of the entries are entirely about Scotland. The ordeal of Scot Carole Compton (“The nanny they called a witch”) is included even though it occurred in Italy. Alexander Seton’s supposedly cursed Egyptian sacrum is also included, and there is a picture of Lady Zeyla Seton holding the bone, though it looks more like a bath sponge than the digestive biscuit her husband described it as resembling. Holder has looked into the business and suggests an identification for the tomb from which it was removed. The Seton affair, and Ardachie Lodge as well, are covered in Paul Adams and Eddie Brazil’s recent Extreme Hauntings, also from The History Press.
Space constraints have limited what can be said, and one gets the impression that Holder has strained the extent of what his publisher would allow in order to cram as much in as possible. It is surprising that the publisher chose a small format for the book, as a larger size, with more illustrations, would have been warranted by the subject matter, even if that entailed increasing the cover price.
There are a few typos scattered through the text, an unfortunate one stating that the unpublished notes on Pitmilly House in the SPR archives at Cambridge were written by family lawyer Gilbert Hole, whereas they were written by SPR investigator Lord Charles Hope. These are minor issues, and overall this is an excellent package relevant to anybody interested in poltergeists, not only those which occurred in Scotland. Holder employs his trademark humour and takes an open-minded, sympathetic, but critical view of the phenomena he describes, making this a useful, and long overdue, collection.
It is interesting to chart the ins and out, the changes and continuities, of the poltergeist’s evolution across the centuries (and Holder’s dataset seems to be typical of reports more generally), to see how embedded it is in the mores of a particular era. Default explanations have ranged from external forces, such as demons and witches, to internal ones in the shape of recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, though to our current eclecticism, a mix of geophysical, RSPK and survival interpretations on one side, with sceptical explanations subsumed under the umbrella of anomalistic psychology on the other.
Yet despite the plethora of suggestions we seem to be no nearer an explanation for this mystery. In fact an explanation may be receding, given the relentless shift from sober investigation to media sensationalism over the last half-century. It is easy to smile at the supposed naivety of our forebears (demons! witches!), but looking at the more recent entries in Holder’s book, one realises that we should not patronise those who went before, because we might well wonder what those who come after will in turn make of us.
The definition of an extreme haunting guiding the selection for this compilation is “an intense or prolonged encounter with the paranormal, often involving apparitions, physical violence, and intense fear…”. It is appropriate then that Paul Adams and Eddie Brazil had noted horror writer Guy N. Smith write the foreword because some of the accounts here test the boggle threshold, given their dramatic nature. The authors have restricted themselves to Britain, but even with this limitation, they have found more than enough to fill a book.
Extreme Hauntings covers the period from the mid-eighteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first, and shows that no type of building or social class is immune. The authors note that the bulk of the cases date from the twentieth century, but this may be a reporting quirk, with odd occurrences more likely to be recorded than previously, given an expanded newspaper culture, and organisations such as the SPR to which those with stories to tell can go to seek help (a number included here draw on SPR publications).
A few will be well known to the reader with some knowledge of the subject, others less so. They make a useful compilation, and there are references for further investigation. Not all of the incidents recounted are violent, despite the suggestion in the title, and the sensationalist subtitle is somewhat misleading as not all of the cases can necessarily be attributed to ghostly activity, terrifying or otherwise. Some accounts are included more because of the longevity of the activity, and there are clear variations in the degrees of violence, either experienced or feared.
There are more than thirty cases divided into six chapters, though boundaries are not always easy to determine. Some are celebrated classics, such as those in the first chapter: 50, Berkeley Square, Willington Mill, the Morton Cheltenham ghost, and Borley (Adams and Brazil co-wrote, with Peter Underwood, the well-received The Borley Rectory Companion).
Other chapters are more miscellaneous and deal with lesser-known cases, including several that were collected by Brazil. There are examples involving objects too, such as the Hexham Heads, which have received publicity recently in Fortean Times, and a sacrum bone stolen from a mummy which apparently exerted a baleful influence on its new owners. The final chapter returns to the well-known: Hinton Ampner, the Pontefract poltergeist (basis of the film When the Lights Went Out and again covered recently in Fortean Times), Enfield and finally the South Shields Poltergeist. These outliers in the spectrum of ostensibly paranormal events emphasise how distressing encounters can be.
There are no neat conclusions to be drawn from this wide-ranging collection because such diversity cannot be neatly reduced to simple explanations. It is a difficult field of study, with all sorts of interpersonal currents and external influences, such as popular culture, that shape interpretations. The authors have pulled together a decent collection that helps to focus attention on these extreme, though mercifully uncommon, happenings. There is much work to be done in teasing out the factors in order to reach any kind of understanding that does justice to the complexity of the phenomena.
Parnormal Anglesey, by Bunty Austin
I previously reviewed Bunty Austin’s More Anglesey Ghosts, and as the title suggests, even that wasn’t the first of her books about the island. We’ve had Haunted Anglesey (2005) and Anglesey Ghosts (2009), as well as More Anglesey Ghosts (2011). So many ghosts stories from a relatively small place, 276 square miles. How does she do it?
Well, one way is to set the threshold for inclusion very low. Austin can more rightly be said to be a collector than a researcher. The results are not selected according to an evidential criterion, they are yarns she has been told, and she reports them as she heard them. Actually, that is not quite true, because she has acknowledged that she elaborates, happy to shape a tale to make a better story. There are great slabs of quoted dialogue with no suggestion of a tape recorder; anyway much of it occurs with Austin not present, so it has to be reconstructed.
It is impossible to check the accuracy of her accounts, rendering them unsuitable for psychical researchers whose aim, however often thwarted in practice, is to examine reliable data. She will report quite amazing phenomena, but then move on to the next marvel, even though her descriptions, if they could be verified, would confer the status of instant classics. That they aren’t cited in the literature, despite their dramatic quality, suggests that most readers take them with a large pinch of halen.
If I lived on Anglesey I would definitely want this book and its predecessors on my shelf because they are enjoyable local stories, well told. But they occupy, I would suggest, the fluid space between fact and fiction, and the reader has to decide how far towards one side of that space these tales are situated.
Paranormal Bath, by Malcolm Cadey
You might be forgiven on purchasing this book for thinking that the title is exceedingly misleading. Although you would expect a book called Paranormal Bath to be about paranormal Bath, in fact it is almost entirely about Bath’s Theatre Royal and a little about next door‘s Garrick‘s Head pub.. Other places in the city occupy a mere three pages, despite the back referring to a “heart-stopping ghost walk around the ancient city of Bath.”
Never mind, Richard Holland includes the Theatre Royal in his Top 50 ‘Most Haunted Places in Britain’ and calls it possibly the most haunted theatre in the country (Malcolm Cadey is sure it is the most haunted), so it is worth a book in its own right. Cadey is the right person to write it as well, having worked front of house there for some years and having had a spooky experience of his own (his professional involvement in the theatre makes it all the more surprising that he gets the title of the well-known play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell badly wrong). He also runs the Bath ghost tour.
Referring to the theatre as the “epicentre” of a “truly haunted city”, he says that he has made attempts to verify the stories he has heard, discarding those from single witnesses for which he could find no corroboration. Despite this, for some he does not always indicate what form the verification takes, and they are resolutely anecdotal.
After some preliminary remarks on the nature of consciousness and ghosts that you don’t normally find in this type of book, and a brief history of the theatre, he launches into a description of its ghosts and the events that have happened to staff and visitors. There are actually only three chapters, equating to a three-act play. Two are on the most famous paranormal phenomena associated with the building, the butterfly legend (dating from 1948, live butterflies foretelling success, dead ones portending disaster) and one on the even more famous Grey Lady, with a more general chapter of miscellaneous happenings sandwiched between.
Like Bunty Austin, Cadey is happy to invent dialogue to round out his stories and there are no references here either, so despite his concern to present stories for which he says there is independent evidence, their value as research is compromised. If you are a resident in or visitor to Bath, or a theatre buff, you will find these stories of interest, but they are perhaps a little specialised for the general reader who wants to sample a range of phenomena associated with a town or city.
Paranormal Eastbourne, by Janet Cameron
Janet Cameron is a retired creative writing lecturer, so her book is well written, but she is a true crime specialist, not an expert on the paranormal, as I noted in my review of her Paranormal Brighton and Hove. She has again relied mainly on secondary sources, supplemented by some interviews. As well as Eastbourne, the book covers Seaford, Pevensey (packed full of strange occurrences, it has a chapter of its own), East Dean, Alfriston, Polegate and Beachy Head (the last unsurprisingly has accumulated some ghost stories), and villages in the area.
Eastbourne has the reputation of being somewhat sedate, but on this evidence that reputation is most unwarranted. The contents are wide ranging, taking in the pier; the sewage treatment works; ecclesiastical buildings; The Royal Hippodrome; an art gallery; the Eastbourne Redoubt, a Napoleonic-era fortress said to be haunted by a headless horse, decapitated during the Charge of the Light Brigade; the usual pubs, bars and hotels; and miscellaneous stories of ghosts, poltergeists and unexplained goings-on, including a few involving animals, plus a couple of ‘Old hag’ experiences that Cameron suggests could have been caused by something more than mere sleep paralysis.
The latter portion of the book moves away from the standard ghostly fare. The so-called Devil’s Capri – though Capri Pants might be a more appropriate title – with the number plate ARK 666Y has a generous chapter, filled with ‘coincidences’, promotion of which is not of course in any way connected with financial considerations on the part of the car’s owner. Naturally, because of the 666 element, Aleister Crowley is dragged in, though as far as I know he never drove a Capri (Cameron consistently misspells Crowley’s first name). Apparently Lionel Fanthorpe exorcised the car, according to his own account, which seems to be, in a sense, adding fuel to the fire.
There is a chapter on UFOs and crop circles, though confusingly it is entitled ‘“We Are Not Alone” – Orbs and Spheres’, and orbs are generally associated with camera artefacts (though there is a school of thought that considers, without any evidence, photographic orbs to be evidence of the presence of spirits). The book concludes with some local witches and a quick overview of Sussex superstition and folklore.
The treatment feels somewhat uneven in tone, but nonetheless Janet Cameron has produced a good overview of some of the Eastbourne area’s odder aspects. There is a bibliography of books and articles dealing with ghosts and folklore which have local relevance, allowing the reader to learn more about this lovely part of the country and its definitely mysterious side. Though why she thinks that Oxford professor “Mr.“ Richard Dawkins hails from Dallas, Texas, is possibly the biggest mystery of all.
Paranormal Leicester, by Stephen Butt
Leicester is a city that has been neglected by previous paranormal writers. As Stephen Butt’s book is rather short, that may be for a reason. It begins with a chapter on general haunting, and one on folklore and superstitions. Then there is a chapter on the ‘Belgrave Triangle’ as it is known. This is somewhat smaller than its Bermuda counterpart, centring on the old village of Belgave, now absorbed as the city has expanded (things are supposed to disappear in spooky triangles, not the other way round). It is home to Belgrave Hall, probably reputed to be Leicester’s most haunted spot, the other two locations being the Talbot pub and the churchyard.
After one on ‘Black Annis’, a local witch, a long chapter recounts the life of James Robert Lees, the Leicester-born medium who has been spuriously linked to Jack the Ripper, though he actually spent very little of his life in Leicester. A heavily padded chapter describes in detail the old BBC local radio in Apex House. Its length may not be unconnected to the fact that the author was at one time a senior BBC broadcast journalist. Total phenomena appear to have been temperature drops reported twenty years apart by two unnamed witnesses, a producer and journalist respectively, and unexplained noises emanating from a cupboard reported by the producer.
One nice touch, actually not particularly common in this type of book, is a ghost walk. Unfortunately it shows up the paucity of Leicester’s paranormal heritage in that it is rather unghostly, though you do get to see some attractive buildings. It is also now out of date as it mentions the possibility that the body of Richard III might be buried beneath a certain car park…
The book is well written, has a good selection of photographs and useful references, but while Butt has tried his best, the paranormal content is thin, bulked out with general history. Perhaps the net could have been cast more widely across the whole county to put a bit more meat into it. I don’t see Leicester as a prime tourist spot, which means that this one will be mainly purchased by residents, so sales are likely to be lower than for other titles in the series.
Paranormal Surrey, by Marq English
Surrey is a county that long struggled to maintain its identity against encroachment as London expanded. In order to simplify matters, Marq English, a Carshalton resident, has employed the Surrey border pre-1965 to make his selection. That was the point at which large chunks of the county became outer boroughs of the capital (and Middlesex was lost entirely). Consequently he has been able to include a large number of stories of all types in locations ranging from rural to small town to suburban, which makes for a varied read.
English is well-connected in the world of paranormal research (Ciaran O’Keeffe contributes a foreword) and has a great deal of experience, so as you might expect, he writes as an investigator rather than a local historian looking for a new outlet. He has his own ghost investigation group, ‘Spiral Paranormal’, which is a welcome contrast to the Most Haunted approach in that while it films investigations and put them on its website, it is not afraid to show that nothing has occurred rather than editing for dramatic effect. They do use a medium, though, which can be controversial because of the difficulty in verifying the findings.
The layout is alphabetical so while there isn’t an index, places should be easy to find, but the ordering is a little idiosyncratic, using building names rather than locations. If you are in Sutton you would probably check ‘Sutton’ before looking at ‘Angel pub, Sutton’, or ‘Guildford’ rather than ‘Angel Hotel, Guildford’. You aren’t likely to check every pub you come across in the hope that it is here. Buildings which have the place in their names are fine: Reigate Priory and Richmond Palace, for example. Sydney Neville Levitt is found under ‘S’, between Swan Corner, Leatherhead and Thunderfield Castle, Horley, so don’t bother checking under ‘L’. Either way, including him in a Sutton section would have been much more helpful.
The contents cover a substantial proportion of fairly recent cases instead of a heavy reliance on folklore and old newspaper archives (there is some folklore, which is fine as it is part of the paranormal context), though sources are generally lacking. The best-known place has to be Hampton Court, and the famous 2003 incident, caught on CCTV, of a fire door opening on three consecutive days, with a figure shown in the doorway on the second, is noted in passing. The text is a little garbled, but English seems to agree that this was a hoax.
A couple of pages on being a ghost hunter, a couple on Spiral Paranormal, a fascinating profile of the author, websites and a bibliography conclude the book. The advice for would-be ghost hunters includes the suggestion that they could participate in an event organised by a commercial company, and the website list contains a number of paranormal event organisations. It would have been helpful to point out that they are there to make a profit, and may not be the most impartial of tutors for those beginners who wish to learn the techniques of sound investigation. That caveat aside, this is a worthwhile paranormal tour through an interesting county, though as is often sadly the case, the keen reader wishes that more detailed information had been provided on some of the cases.
Haunted Wiltshire, by Sonia Smith
Sonia Smith’s book is an unusual entrant in the Amberley paranormal range. While many volumes dedicated to an area will contain stories that feel dubious and not to be taken seriously, these actually read like fiction, with no sources, no corroboration, and nothing to tell you that they are anything other than fabrications.
It’s true that they may be based on historical events or folklore; apparently, for example Cherhill did boast naked highwaymen (who presumably rode their horses with care), and there were three graves containing plague victims at Urchfont, though the occupants were local, not Londoners, and they died in 1644, not 1665. But in every case where one is identifiable, the historical foundation appears to have been used as the pretext for a drama that could have come from the author’s head.
Accounts this dramatic would surely be better known. Charitably, it can be said that Smith has been extremely fortunate to have brought to light so many astonishing cases hitherto unknown to researchers. On the other hand, dialogue is certainly invented, and unless the author can provide details of real witness statements and documentation, I would consider the default verdict to be that the rest of it is, too. It is clearly not a coincidence that Algernon Blackwood is name-checked in the first line of the foreword, and the first story, featuring a kind of hybrid vampire/possession, draws on the Victorian horror short story tradition.
If you are wondering why the title is Haunted rather than Paranormal, the reason is because Amberley published Paranormal Wiltshire, by David Scanlan, in 2009, a text not referred to by Smith. What she has added to the literature is not clear. If another book on the county had been required, Paranormal Site Investigators, a highly experienced group based in Swindon, would have been more suitably qualified for the task of compiling it.
Smith’s fifteen short stories are fun to read, but the book feels awkwardly situated in Amberley’s non-fiction series. Anyone approaching it hoping to learn something about Wiltshire’s paranormal history may come away feeling a little short-changed.
James Clark has previously written books on haunted London, Wandsworth and Mitcham. Now he turns his attention to the borough of my birth, Lambeth, an area of huge variety. To assist the visitor there is an outline map of the borough at the front, all of the twenty-four locations of the cases numbered to allow cross-referencing with the accounts.
The text is divided into sections which follow the old village structure, covering sites around Brixton, Clapham, North Lambeth, Norwood, Stockwell and Streatham. Each section is prefaced by a larger-scale portion of the map, again with the sites numbered, to enable easy location. The book concludes with an extensive listing of sources for each case, allowing the interested reader to follow them up.
There is plenty here, of varying degrees of plausibility, to excite the paranormal enthusiast. We get off to a good start with the 1977 ‘Margate Road Horror’, likened by Clark to the better-known Amityville Horror, only this one was in Brixton, and while suicide and dabbling in black magic were suggested as causes for the phenomena, murder was not. There was though personality change and a rather exciting exorcism.
We run through the usual range of ghosts, unexplained noises, poltergeists, a black dog (name-checking the SPR), a lift possessing both a mind of its own and a propensity to malfunction, a phantom hansom cab, a time slip and Elliot O’Donnell’s story of a whistling stone on Clapham Common (clearly if it had had an agent it could have had quite a career).
Lambeth Palace has a long section, as do the site of the old Necropolis Railway Company terminus in Westminster Bridge Road, the Old Vic, a phantom nun near Streatham Common, the famous 1772 Stockwell poltergeist and a curious 1951 case in a council house in Norwood which showed poltergeist symptoms against a typical background of young people of both sexes crammed in an overcrowded house.
The old Locarno (the Cat’s Whiskers when I went to school in Streatham, Caesars in its final manifestation) is given extensive coverage, a lengthy digression charting the tragic life of Ruth Ellis, though as much of the ‘information’ about ghosts at the dance hall was gleaned during a Most Haunted ‘investigation‘, utilising the talents of Derek Acorah, the reader may decide to skip this one; Clark counsels caution when assessing the evidential value of the television programme, though as he points out, there had been reports of strange occurrences prior to the Most Haunted visit.
We hear how entertainer Roy Hudd had a peculiar recurring dream that eventually led him to a house Dan Leno had lived in, and subsequently to a passionate interest in Leno and music hall generally (on which he is an expert). A rare UK appearance of a demon in England was reported in Clapham by the South London Press in 1994, though how the determination that it was a demon was arrived at is not stated. Even stranger, the “demon” looked like Elvis Presley. Weird as that was, even weirder was the vision of a “five-month-old foetus hovering in the kitchen.” Blessings by clergymen calmed things down, whatever they really were.
Clark begins with the statement that Lambeth is an “odd place”, and he tells no lie. Some of his tales may be suspect to put it mildly, as he concedes, but he points out that at the very least they shine a light on Lambeth’s “mythological landscape.” They are also fun to read, and you never know, they may shine a light on something more.
This is a re-issue of the book first published in 2009. The text is identical, the only changes are to the size and the quality of the paper. It was originally published in a larger format, but it is now a standard 198mm x 124mm paperback. This makes it more portable, but at the cost of a smaller-sized font. The paper is also of not such high quality, and that noticeably affects the photographs, which look grainier than before. The good news though is that the RRP has been reduced from £14.99 to £10.99.
So how does it hold up in a market-place for paranormal ‘how-to’ books that has become noticeably busier in the last four years? Pretty well as it happens. Since 2009 the proportion of commercial ‘ghost night’ ventures has grown exponentially, making the small private group set-up described here feel decidedly old school, But the book is more welcome for it, encouraging serious investigations rather than ghost hunting as mass entertainment. While there may be new fads in technology – the K2 variety of EMF Meter springs to mind – the advice on how to conduct an investigation and what to take is still sound.
The section on basic safety could have included a reference to insurance issues, important in this litigious age and especially so for those new to the field. It would also have been nice to have taken the opportunity to add an index and a reading list (I suspect there is rather an assumption that the target audience is the young Most Haunted crowd, and it doesn’t read much), and I do feel that it was a mistake on the part of the cover’s designer to include the hackneyed Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, even though it is discussed in the text. It has nothing to do with modern paranormal investigation techniques and represents a type of photographic hoax that is increasingly rare.
Overall, I would still recommend Rosney et al for early career psychical researchers, in conjunction with SPR Council member John Fraser’s 2010 Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide, if ghosts are specifically your bag. If you are interested in anomalies more broadly defined, or are searching around for a specialism, then A Beginner’s Guide to Paranormal Investigation is a good place to start.
My original review can be found here.
Prolific author Darren Ritson (if the list at the front of Paranormal County Durham is complete, he has written or co-written eighteen books) has brought out another two volumes in his exploration of the North of England’s haunted heritage. Despite the hours he must put in at the word processor he is not an armchair researcher, having done a large number of on-the-ground investigations, some solo, some with long-time colleague Mike Hallowell, others with the ghost-hunting group he founded, the North East Ghost Research Team, or another group he co-founded, Ghosts and Hauntings Overnight Surveillance Team.
Paranormal County Durham
Veteran researcher Malcolm Robinson contributes a foreword to Paranormal County Durham. He stresses the need to rely on one’s own intelligence when investigating, being prepared to do hard work finding explanations rather than blindly trusting to instrumentation and assuming a paranormal explanation as the default, a welcome corrective to much current ghost hunting wisdom (or rather lack of).
Similarly Ritson in his introduction points out that this field is complex, something that needs to be remembered when television shows make it look easy, and that not having preconceived ideas (which applies to sceptics as much as to those who tend to a paranormal explanation) is an essential prerequisite if an investigation is going to be worthwhile.
The book is divided into nearly three dozen chapters of varying length, most on a separate location, with one devoted to miscellaneous ‘Phantom horses and ghost riders’. There is the usual selection to be found in this type of book, pubs, castles, mansions, but less usual are a former MOD depot, an old POW camp, a lead mine and that annoying song about the grandfather clock that stopped, never to go again, when the old man died, which surprisingly has its origins in a real clock (though not necessarily a real story) at the George Hotel, Piercebridge. It concludes with a series of stories culled from the website of local historian C. J. Linton, who has also researched the paranormal in the area.
County Durham is, as Ritson points out, an area of outstanding beauty, and his enthusiasm for it shines through this survey of its haunted landscape. It is one entry in a growing literature on the paranormal aspects of this area: in addition to coverage in general national gazetteers, there is Ritson’s own Haunted Durham (The History Press, 2010), while Rob Kirkup has produced Ghostly County Durham (The History Press, 2010).
Demonstrating his continuing ability to get interesting people to pen his forewords, on this occasion Ritson has snagged Paul Adams, well known as an authority on Harry Price, in particular as co-author of The Borley Rectory Companion. For this volume, Ritson has moved away from his usual stamping-ground of the North-East (he is a Newcastle-upon-Tyne native) to examine the historic city of Carlisle, steeped in history and character.
Unsurprisingly slimmer than the one devoted to County Durham, the book is divided into only two sections, one on ghosts in Carlisle itself, and one (much shorter) on the outskirts. This lack of detail wouldn’t be a problem if there were an index, but a lack of any listings makes the book difficult to use as a guide to the area
In addition to the usual mix of folkloric and older accounts (including black dogs) there are some recent cases which involved named individuals. An alleged poltergeist caused problems for a family in 2007, and made the pages of the Daily Mail. It exhibited similarities with the well-known South Shields case with which Ritson was associated. Chapters on the railway station (where I myself once experienced an odd coincidence, my young daughter bumping into her best friend from school, a long way from home) and on Laser Quest detail the author’s personal investigations.
A 2010 story about an apparent ghost caught on CCTV in an off-licence, was covered extensively by international media. At first sight it does appear to be an insect close to the lens, a common occurrence in these situations, but Ritson notes that there were reports of a variety of other phenomena occurring in the shop, so there may be more going on than the CCTV images alone suggest. And of course no book on paranormal Carlisle would be complete without a reference to its famous (or rather infamous) Cursing Stone!
There are overlaps with some other recent gazetteers, notably Geoff Holder’s Paranormal Cumbria (The History Press, 2010), H. C. Ivison’s Supernatural Cumbria (Amberley Publishing, 2010) and Kirkup’s Ghostly Cumbria (The History Press, 2011). Ritson’s Supernatural North (Amberley Publishing, 2009) has a few pages on both County Durham and Carlisle. However, while Carlisle has been included in a number of books covering a wider geographical area, some of which are mentioned in the bibliography, surprisingly this is the first devoted entirely to the city.
Both Paranormal County Durham and Haunted Carlisle are nicely illustrated. One thing did amuse me though. Each features a line drawing of a monk that is identical, though in one he is in company with a group of brothers, while in the other he is on his own. In County Durham we are told that it is an artist’s representation of the monks who are said to walk the grounds of Lumley Castle, in Carlisle it is an artist’s representation of the monk who haunts Carlisle Cathedral. Well, one monk looks much like another I suppose.
Robert King is a local historian in an area with a lot of history, and Amberley have already published his Neath Through Time, while a rival publisher produced King’s first effort in the paranormal field, Haunted Neath, in 2009. Here he presents a further collection of stories old and new originating in Neath and its environs. It is divided into sections on ‘houses and buildings’, both grand and humble; ‘streets and roads’, including a haunted bridge; pubs of course, including the Duke of Wellington, whose resident ghost was caught on video in 1993 and broadcast on Robert Kilroy-Silk’s BBC chat show; animal hauntings; graveyards; and miscellaneous. Locations are not listed separately. Like all the books in this series it is well illustrated, the author having included a selection of his snapshots.
Many of the accounts were collected as a result of talks the author gave to local groups which are, as he acknowledges, an invaluable source of information. The area’s industrial heritage emerges as a recurring theme. Mining, an industry, now vanished from the area, has a strong element of folklore associated with it, and a there is also a story from an ironworks. Neath Abbey has a ghostly connection to King Edward II. He took refuge there, but was betrayed after he left, it is said by one of the brothers, and died in murky circumstances at Berkeley Castle. The traitor is supposed still to wander the ruins, seeking absolution. The most unusual ghost described supplied a couple in straightened circumstances with cash, over £1,000 in total which, as the husband put it, “got us out of a lumber”. One wonders if they declared the ghost’s largesse on their income tax return, and if so how they described it. The cynic might consider it more likely to have been a money laundering scheme than paranormal philanthropy.
There are a couple of accounts of ghosts being seen with the lower portions of their limbs invisible, presumably as they travel at the level the ground would have been at during their lifetimes, which is lower than at present (the most famous example of this phenomenon being the Roman soldiers at York’s Treasurer’s House). This might answer the old question about why we never see the ghosts of dinosaurs: under out feet is an entire ecology of long-gone people and animals, walking around within the earth.
Cadoxton Lodge, courtesy of Amberley Publishing
One of the most interesting sections from the perspective of the SPR probably does not actually feature anything paranormal at all. Cadoxton Lodge was once home to Winifred Coombe Tennant who, among many other significant achievements, practised as a medium under the pseudonym Mrs Willett and was connected to the SPR’s ‘inner circle’ by marriage: her husband Charles’s sister Eveleen married Frederic Myers, one of the founders of the SPR. King’s information is slightly out of date here, because he considers a bizarre scheme to produce a ‘spirit child’ which would facilitate world peace to be merely an unproven rumour. In fact, as the late Archie Roy showed in his book The Eager Dead, the Plan, as it was called, really was put into effect. Gerald Balfour (SPR president 1906-7) fathered Winifred’s child Augustus Henry, born in 1913. Unfortunately Henry did not become a Messiah, though he did become a monk. King crept into the empty Cadoxton Lodge as a boy in 1960, not knowing its history, and was scared by the sound of a window slamming and breaking, though he had not seen one that was open. Another SPR figure with a connection to Neath, but not mentioned in the book, was H. H. Price (1899-1984, not to be confused with Harry Price), who was Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, and SPR president 1939–40 and 1960–1.
Robert King has put together an enjoyable book, and the inclusion of often quite long personal accounts given to him by witnesses makes it all the more interesting. These anecdotes may not be valid as evidence, but they are sincerely given, and reflect the tellers’ puzzlement at the strangeness that touched their lives and which left on them such an indelible impression.
Past life regression had a vogue in psychical research during the 1980s and ‘90s under the influence of such books as Jeffrey Iverson‘s More Lives Than One? and Peter Moss and Joe Keeton‘s Encounters with the Past (which came with two 33⅓ records containing examples of regression sessions). For a while in the ‘80s I was a member of a group in Catford, London, in which we took it in turns to be hypnotised and merrily recall our own previous existences, and in 1991, Dr Hugh Pincott gave a memorable talk to the SPR on ‘Cerdic the Saxon’, an elaborate past life he had uncovered in a subject through hypnosis. The use of the technique fell out favour in psychical research because of its unreliability and the problems of verification it presented, just as hypnotic regression in ufology to elicit details of abductions became discredited. However, in the New Age community, reincarnation is generally held to be part of the natural order, and the examination of an individual’s past lives a therapeutic tool to assist the analysis of present emotional difficulties.
In this vein, Georgina Cannon has produced an account of the general thinking that underpins the assumptions of such reincarnation therapy, of which she is a practitioner and teacher. She does not present any scientific support for the claim that we are subject to cycles of rebirth, so the sceptical reader requiring evidence will not be satisfied. For her, though, the validity of the recall of a past life is subsidiary to what is learned, so it is unimportant if the life cannot be verified, or even whether it occurred in the way it is remembered. Rather, the book deals with past lives (and ‘interlives’), as they can be used to assist us in the present, learning lessons from experiences of which we might not be conscious, but which have consequences for how we live our lives now. Cannon aims to help us understand the effects of karma across incarnations, to integrate past and present influences in order to improve our current lives, and carry that understanding into future ones.
The interlife (Bardo) is a concept less familiar in the West than that of rebirth. As the name suggests, it concerns the passage between two lives, and it is significant as a learning opportunity because it operates at the level of spirit. The individual does not progress alone at this time. Rather, it is a social activity, involving a soul circle of individuals who are associated through incarnations, and of course soul mates. These all contribute in order to help individuals assess their progress, and decide what they should do to maximise the personal value of these multiple existences. Cannon stresses the importance of meditation, as it allows us to see the interconnectedness of the universe and our place in it as we pursue our “soul journey”.
While she suggests that the regression process is enhanced by seeking the assistance of an experienced facilitator, she does say that worthwhile results can be obtained by undertaking a programme on an individual basis. Nor do you need to be of a spiritual nature to gain from the effort. Whatever your perspective, Cannon argues, you will deepen your self-knowledge through using the induction techniques she describes, and be able to think more clearly about your purpose in this life, and in those to come.
An interesting and exciting title – it is in those ill defined states of mind that many paranormal phenomena are to be sought. Perhaps the book will define that arena – define consciousness even; perhaps the latest research in consciousness, trance states, Ganzfeld experiments and hard facts concerning (sub?) liminal perception will be presented. However, it is not possible to check quickly as there is no index, and on scanning the book it is quickly apparent that much of it is pervaded by New Ageism. Nothing wrong with that particularly, one might say. The aims of New Age thinkers are laudable – mother’s milk in fact. It would be churlish not to admit wanting to save the planet and expand one’s consciousness. Indeed, it turns out that the editors, Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan, are writers and spokesmen for what might be termed serious New Ageism, both being founders of the Reality Sandwich web magazine which in Pinchbeck’s words, “explores alternatives to mainstream system of thought and values.” The site, which has many contributors, covers not just spiritual topics but also psychology, parapsychology and technology and art.
The book itself contains 27 essays which were first published on Reality Sandwich, and is divided into seven Parts with exciting titles such as ‘Visions in Night and Darkness’ and ‘Adventures into the Psyche’. It begins with an introduction by Pinchbeck, and, as may be expected, this largely sets the tone. Pinchbeck states,
As essays in this collection explore, drastic thresholds such as near death experience or sleep paralysis or certain forms of blindness appear to have a similar effect to psychedelics: they open up the usually sealed container of consciousness to access other bandwidths or frequencies ... At such initiatory junctures, we find that our intention is like a magnet that creates a force field around us, pulling manifestations into being that are never what we envisioned, but are far more poetically accurate than we can expect.
Is that so? In his last paragraph, he opines:
More and more people in the postmodern world are recovering their psychic lives. ... This shift in attention is part of the paradigm shift; ancient prophecies fulfil themselves as we define a new level of consciousness that integrates science and spirituality, the physical and the psychic, the invisible and the known. I hope this book contributes to the opening of our collective awareness, the rediscovery of who we always have been.
Well, in so far as I can follow what he is saying, it is a worthy aim one supposes. Putting aside the apparent failure of the Mayan prophecy, and the contention that there is a paradigm shift – I would guess that most people that have ever lived have had a degree of existential anxiety, solved in different ways – does the book succeed, or will the drive to satisfy curiosity be held back by the childlike delight in wonderment and mystery, and the need not to have illusions shattered?
Franklin LaVoie , a “visionary artist”, who writes in the section on shamanism, states “The other world is entered through the imaginal realm.” Yes, true in a sense one suspects, and therein lies the conundrum on display here: imagination coupled with curiosity and a strong desire to fill in the gaps, all of which have tremendous survival value, does not necessarily lead to models which are useful in elucidating the objective truth (whatever that might be). Indeed many contributions seem unconcerned with objectivity, but on the contrary are highly subjective and imaginative, not to say poetical, interpretations of highly personal experiences that those writers no doubt are hoping will lead to some sort of personal revelation. The book is uncertain whether it is supposed to be an inspirational religious tract (nothing wrong with that of course), or a truly scientific exploration.
The mix leaves this reviewer feeling a trifle queasy, as when waking on Boxing Day, or when watching synchronized swimming. As may be apparent, the grumpy old man in me was rapidly and perhaps unfairly activated. Collections of contributions by different authors will naturally vary in interest and quality. With many of the essays, any hard facts and interesting ideas are diluted by a possibly editorially proscribed personal style seemingly designed to appeal to those that might be threatened by any excess, if not hint, of scientific objectivity (?elitism). Having said that, in the first section, ‘Of Minds and Molecules’, Michael Taussig, a medical doctor and academic anthropologist, starts the ball rolling with a rather convoluted essay, the conclusion of which seems in fact to warn against being too poetical in attempting to understand shamans, while being so literary as to obscure his message.
James Oroc, who writes on extreme sports, then asks the right questions provoked by his psychedelic drug experiences, such as “How can I exist as consciousness without ego or identity, and yet clearly still be me?”, but loses credibility for me by stating categorically that the universal acceptance of the ideas of Newton, Darwin and Descartes “although unproven” (!) “threatens the ecological balance of the planet itself.” His brief survey of quantum physics does not lead to coherent conclusions. Graham St John, a cultural anthropologist, contributes a rambling paean to the psychedelic drug DMT which concludes that solving mysteries is the conceit of the old scientific model, and that the “gift is that recognition [of the Mystery]”, which sounds like a cop-out to me. An architect, Timothy Wyllie, tries to analyse his near-death experience, saying “it is no more an hallucination than the moving images of a film.” He accepts that the bullet points of advice arising from his experiences may be dismissed as New Age clichés.
Some writers seem keen to use the language of science but do so in a way that does not frankly inspire confidence. The intermingling of valid scientific jargon (wormhole, gyrus) with flights of spiritual fancy in a spurious fashion, irritate. For example, Valoie’s “I saw paradise island on a shimmering sea. This image coincided with a proprioceptive survey of the ventricles in the brain, made possible by the white flame piercing my heart” etc. etc. I do not quite get it, to tell the truth. However, when the same author says “myths illuminate the unconscious world” I would not disagree, but it has been said before. Other irritations that assailed me as I ploughed diligently through the 350-odd pages were: plonking conversation stoppers, eg “Through an awareness of awareness, the truth can be found everywhere” (one is reminded of the Peter Sellars character in “Being There”). Pretentiousness: “The purpose of prayer is to remind us of the sacredness of speech”. Touches of grandiosity: “To integrate the extraordinary gifts of the soul, we can practice meditating, concentrating on awakening the heart mind ... This may help humanity find many practical solutions that are simply not available to the externalized, rational mind.” (or it may not of course, though one is all for recharging one’s batteries and a bit of creative thinking.) Another neologism! Another non sequitur! Streams of consciousness writing – all a bit excessively subjective and egocentric, telling us more about the states of mind and the personalities of those particular contributors than enlightening us on the state of play in the field of consciousness and parapsychological research.
On the other hand, there are indeed some excellent poetical forays. One is of course not against poetical interpretation, which can be creative and emotionally cathartic, and of course as in all artistic endeavour may also serve the purpose of setting up templates that could be generally useful in perceiving and interpreting the world. Given the title of the book, however, the descriptions of the various writers’ revelries remind one of those devious magicians who will not come clean as to whether the magic is due to honest trickery or is in fact paranormal, implying the latter and thereby engaging the attention of the needy incredulous. I am not sure of the point. I do not doubt the sincerity of these writers. Free association may or may not have a fruitful outcome, like improvising at the piano; it may be truly helpful in problem solving, sublimely creative, a mess, or simply hackneyed. Introspection as an arena for gathering data has its place, but analysis must surely include an understanding of the vagaries and complexity of the brain’s workings.
The tendency to interpret an experience in a concrete way at face value, with a minimum of discussion of alternative explanations, is manifested frequently. Tejeda describes being dissociated by marijuana. She admits being” fogged”, but interprets her experience through the information she ascribes to “My animal – spirits, who were not fogged –”. She talks at length about – yes – little green men, crystals being transmitters and plants that must contain crystals as they are transmitters. All this is revelatory, and further explained when she summoned, by using her higher self and “my Raven ally”, a representative of the little green men who “began to down load information into my third eye..” This is followed by bizarre theories presented as facts. Delusions, including fantastic elaborations, thought disorder, telepathy experiences, coincidences, perceptual disturbance, hallucinations, disturbances in attribution of meaning are all the stuff of brain disorder, such as confusional states and schizophrenia. Marijuana is well known to produce both. Tejeda ends by admitting the possibility that it might all have been a delusion, “but for the amount of detail and complexity of the world that I had no prior knowledge of. That is, things like the Asian setting, the story of the White Bear ..” etc. It won’t wash, I am afraid. The brain is a more remarkable organ than one might suppose. Excessive wishful, magical, egocentric, black and white, emotional thinking, while being very creative and albeit useful for immediate survival, I would submit is not particularly useful when it comes to establishing the facts of causation. Speculation is useful, and necessary, as a preliminary to hypothesis formation, but excessive leaping in the dark in the hope that it will be a short cut is more likely to lead down blind alleys.
Having got that off my chest, I can reveal that there are nuggets to be mined. Section 7 starts with Paul Hughes writing about “Super free will: metaprogramming and the quantum Observer”. Ah very interesting. What are his credentials? It turns out he is an internationally recognized speaker, empowerment teacher, and firewalking instructor, not, it seems, a quantum physicist, nor a neuropsychologist. However, he is entitled to his opinion, and in fact he writes thoughtfully and convincingly, being well read, and making his point succinctly. In fact I wished he had written a good deal more of the book. Russell Targ, the highly regarded doyen of remote viewing, while succumbing somewhat to the editorial imperative, restates the idea that the meaning of our lives is to become one with nonlocal consciousness. After describing some of his experiments from a personal point of view he makes the observation that “the hindrances to spiritual awakening are similar to those that interfere with remote viewing.” One wishes that he had gone into those effects in more detail. Jhana Buddhist meditation techniques and experiences are described in some detail by Jay Michaelson, who concludes with commendable honesty that the experience of mystical union is not enough. “The point lies elsewhere, and yet, ironically, right here.”
David Metcalf, an “independent researcher and artist”, begins the section on ‘Science and the Psyche” discussing “Paranthropology”, and says categorically that “The rejection of the ... techniques of stage magic as legitimate tools for revelation represents a failure of the dualistic, either/or mind set embedded in our culture.” I would have thought that it is more to do with a regard for honesty and seeing the phenomena as a subject for the study of the placebo effect and manipulation of others (albeit for the good). Incidentally, I heartily recommend Metcalf’s artistic productions on Reality Sandwich. David Luke, a psychologist and enthusiastic investigator into the effects of psychedelics, is tasked with the unlikely topic of ‘Psiverts and psychic piracy: The future of Parapsychology’, but on the way writes well, if generally, on some of the science of parapsychology, and cites the most original papers of any of the contributors, including Dean Radin. Radin writes a pertinent essay about the inability of the mainstream to “see the gorilla”. One had hoped for a bit more from him.
The following section, on ‘Visions in Night and Darkness’, features discussion on lucid dreams and sleep paralysis. Paul Devereux, not a neuroscientist, though begins with a description of the Charles Bonnet Syndrome, and asks “If … complex scenes can be rendered in intricate detail by the brain struggling to fill in gaps in sensory data, what then is reality?”He concludes correctly that we do not see with our eyes alone, but suggests therefore that materiality is a kind of hallucination, which to me is a non sequitur. The power of the brain both to model reality and to construct narratives that infer possible causations, unconsciously as well as consciously, should not be underestimated. Anthony Peake suggests that OBEs are a form of lucid dreaming. Ryan Hurd writes a patchy historical survey on sleep paralysis as a vehicle for unusual experiences, (failing to mention UFO abduction), and points out superficially the material correlates.
The sections on synchronicity and on shamanism are missed opportunities in my mind. Much useful science is left out in favour of New Ageism, and the same applies largely to the last section on “Thought at the Periphery.” Chris Carter discusses at last the big question, ‘Does consciousness depend on the brain’, with a well written but brief historical survey of thoughts on the topic which stops at Bergson, ignoring all subsequent work. He finishes with a discussion of the theory of the brain as receiver. Following a description of William James’ views, he avers that “even though it has been more than a century since James delivered his lecture, in all that time neither psychology nor physiology has been able to produce any intelligible model of how biochemical processes could possibly be transformed into conscious experience.” This is surely out of date. Data concerning states of consciousness are accumulating rapidly, from which a coherent generally acceptable model will undoubtedly emerge in the usual way, slowly perhaps but surely. How long in human history did it take for the structure of the atom to be half way understood? You could of course make a similar statement about the alternative nonmaterialistic theories. A model of what spirit matter is and how this is transformed into consciousness is not discussed in this book.
I conclude, therefore, that , though many of the essays try to be balanced and considered, the useful ones are too brief to be really useful, and the others – well, to each his own. Beliefs are either useful or otherwise for the task of surviving. Twaddle in general may be twaddle to you and me, but a vital strategy for personal survival to many others, and who are we to argue? Subjective experience is of course a subject worthy of philosophical and scientific investigation, but drug induced altered states of mind, while no doubt fun, I am not convinced on the evidence of these essays will lead to the kind of enlightenment that might satisfy me personally. The useful contributors are generally appropriately cautious in their interpretations, but whether or not one would wish to read through the more fanciful contributions on the way to the nuggets of rational discussion is a moot point. This book will probably appeal more, therefore, to a general readership with a tendency to follow New Age philosophy who are perhaps a little intimidated by hard science, the readers of Reality Sandwich in fact. They may be seeking validation for their experiences in this survey (and they may or may not find it), but the serious student of the unconscious and parapsychology may be disappointed by the patchy somewhat superficial nature of the contributions. Nevertheless, there are nuggets of thought-provoking ideas to be mined, and those wanting a survey of the field, or their thoughts to be provoked, may find it enjoyable.
Graham Kidd 16th January 2013
Place-based ghost books are usually gazetteers, with perhaps a description of the odd investigation thrown in. Ghosts of York is unusual in consisting solely of descriptions of investigations, with no attempt to include a wider range of stories set in the city. Rob Kirkup and a few friends, all based in Newcastle, visited York ten times during 2010-11 to conduct brief overnight investigations, and the book is a record of their activities there, down to where they stayed and ate. It is a relaxed autobiographical account rather than a rigorous analysis.
The venues they visited were: The National Railway Museum; the Best Western Dean Court Hotel; Gray's Court; York Tyburn; Siward's Howe; York Dungeon; ‘Haunted’ (35 Stonegate); Middlethorpe Hall Hotel; York Guildhall; and The Golden Fleece. Most of these visits were made by the group alone, though one was done in conjunction with another group, and one was as part of a commercially organised tour. Originally five in number, one person dropped out after the first trip, and there were sometimes only three participants. This was rather a small number for the sizes of some of the sites, necessitating a lot of moving around to cover likely spots. They had a variety of experiences, though mostly open to interpretation, and the words of one member before the final visit, “I have a feeling we‘re going to SEE something“, says a lot about the danger of expectancy effects in such situations.
It is often said that it is difficult for small closed-membership paranormal groups to find suitable establishments nowadays, given the involvement of companies turning a profit and venues wanting to maximise revenue. The penultimate visit, to the Guildhall, was arranged by such a company. There were almost twenty people in the party, and at one point they met another group who had been at ‘Haunted’ but had finished early and had decided to pay an impromptu visit. As Kirkup says, the problem with large groups is lack of control over the environment. Given the presence of these sorts of numbers, most of whom had never been on an investigation before but may well have harboured unrealistic expectations from watching TV shows, it is hard to see how any meaningful results could have been obtained. These organised events are not cheap, and while they may provide a frisson of excitement, it should not be assumed that they are providing anything other than immersive entertainment. Kirkup and his friends show that it is still possible for a small group to spend time on premises the owners have generously given free access to, though to be fair having a book contract probably opens a few doors.
The strength of Ghosts of York is that it is a warts-and-all account, down to an obsession with a particular sandwich shop and the extremely bulky coat one participant habitually wore. This is the stuff that usually gets left out, including reports of feeling completely knackered but extremely wired after late nights. The drawback is that they don’t do any deep research into the cases. A chapter is devoted to each location, there is a bit of background, the team describe what they did and anything odd that happened, then we move on to the next one. If the reader is looking for a survey of York ghosts, perhaps as a tourist guide, this is going to be a disappointment. However, there are plenty of those on the market. As a portrayal of what it is like to conduct a vigil this is a useful, if at times over-detailed, document that will hopefully encourage people to give it a go for themselves, rather than line the pockets of companies whose motive is profit, not the pursuit of psychical research, and who cannot be relied on for accurate information.
It is unclear why Kirkup’s band decided only to investigate ten sites, though one suspects it had something to do with that book contract, which gets mentioned a few times. This was not a formal ghost-hunting group – in fact they never even managed to come up with a name for themselves – but the dynamics seem to have worked well, and they clearly enjoyed what they did. That they found the experience satisfying is suggested by the hint of a sequel, set in a city even further north than York. It is doubtful whether descriptions of such vigils will ever provide evidence that would satisfy anybody who had not themselves been present, but while there’s a chance, why not?
Andrew Homer, co-author of one book about haunted pubs, Beer and Spirits: A Guide to Haunted Pubs in the Black Country and Surrounding Area, has produced another linking ghosts and alcohol, this time focusing on Shropshire. He is well known as an investigator for the Association for the Scientific Study of Claims of the Paranormal, (ASSAP’s President and First Lady Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe contribute a foreword), and he has given talks at Fortean UnConvention and to the Ghost Club.
The introduction gives some general information about the folklore of the county, and the origins of inns, and Homer also makes the point that you are as likely to experience something paranormal as a customer as you are by participating in a commercial ghost hunt. It’s an excellent point: why not combine investigation with a good meal or drink, rather than pay a third party handsomely for the privilege of sitting in the dark waiting for something to happen?
Homer notes that ‘The Acton Arms’ at Moreville was called “England’s most frequently haunted pub” by Marc Alexander in his well-known Haunted Inns, though how you quantify these things I don’t know. The entries are the usual mix of folklore and anecdote, beyond confirmation but fun to read. In the one on the ‘Railwaymans Arms’ (sic) at Bridgnorth on the Severn Valley Railway preserved line, Homer suggests that ghosts could possibly be confused with people wearing period dress at themed events. The SVR boasts a ghost train, apparently less corporeal than the phoney one in Arnold Ridley’s classic play. Homer wonders if the witnesses were misled by a night-time train running during the SVR’s Autumn Steam Gala, but adds that the fact the apparition was silent undermines this theory.
The best-known case in the book is surely that of Wem town hall, and the famous ghost photograph taken by Tony O’Rahilly during the conflagration there in 1995. Homer, who knew and clearly liked him, nevertheless covers the discovery of the postcard in 2010 featuring an identical figure to that in the photograph of the fire, showing O’Rahilly’s photograph to be a hoax.
Haunted Hostelries of Shropshire is nicely produced, and well illustrated. It is divided into towns, with establishments listed under each, and an outline county map shows the locations of the towns, so the book is easy for the visitor to use. Shropshire is an attractive county full of attractive hostelries and those featured in Andrew Homer’s book would be worth dropping into even without the added value of a haunting, but having his book in hand will make a visit still more enjoyable. It complements Allan Scott-Davies’ 2010 History Press publication Haunted Shropshire.
Fortune Telling: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Judiciary of the Committee on the District of Columbia House of Representatives Sixty-Ninth Congress First Session on H.R. 8989, February 26, May 18, 20, and 21, 1926, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1926 (The “Houdini Hearings”).
On the face of it, the transcript of a subcommittee meeting stretched over several days in 1926 does not sound particularly interesting, but if Houdini is involved you can be sure it will be. The purpose of the Washington, D.C., subcommittee was to consider a bill to amend the law “relating to offenses against public policy” in the District of Columbia. This would outlaw the pretending of fortune telling for reward, the selling of charms, pretending to remove spells, obtaining property, and stating where lost or stolen good might be found. Anybody engaging in such acts would be considered a “disorderly person“. This would also include those who, in its quaint language, pretended to “unite the separated” (which might be construed to include mediumship). Fines could be swingeing – up to $250, up to six months in prison, or both.
New York Congressman Sol Bloom, presenting the bill, naively claimed that its wording was clear, and that there could be no debate on the meaning, a statement belied by the subsequent wrangles. Bloom, who had worked with Houdini to frame the bill, said that it was not aimed at Spiritualists; but fortune telling, the bill’s title, was broadly, and rather vaguely, linked in a New York precedent in the Criminal Code to “the ability to answer confidential questions from spiritual aid”, which meant that the hearings were effectively a trial of mediumship, and that is how the Spiritualists, and Houdini, construed them.
Houdini was present throughout the proceedings, having, as he reminded the gathering several times, come down from Chicago to support the bill at great financial cost. Used to taking centre stage, he acted at times like a member of the committee, much to the chagrin of the bill‘s opponents. Like Bloom, he stated that the bill was not an attack on Spiritualism as a religion – as long as it did not conflict with the law (in essence, as long as it was not a money-making scheme). What he objected to was mediumship, which was fraudulent in his opinion: “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.” You were either mad or bad, with no middle ground. Those who believed them were “neurotics.” It was, he claimed, a fraud raking in millions of dollars a year, but ignored because it was considered a religion. Asked about the relevance to the bill, which related to fortune telling, Houdini argued that mediums were just clairvoyants (fortune tellers) using the label of mediumship to circumvent the law, none of whom was genuine.
Given this sort of provocative language, it was no surprise that sessions became heated. Much of the cross-examination revolved around forms of fortune telling, with Houdini attempting to hitch it to mediumship at every opportunity, while the Spiritualists countered by attempting to make the bill appear to be an attack on religion in general (the debate about the legitimacy of selling charms ended by discussing Roman Catholic medals, for example). Houdini came under fire himself for charging for entertainment, which, it was argued, was no different to a fortune teller charging for the same thing, and he was asked why having one‘s fortune told for a bit of fun should be criminalised. The National Spiritualists’ Association of America denied that there were any fortune tellers in its ranks anyway, and protested, with some justice, that the problem with the bill was that it did not distinguish clearly between fortune telling and mediumship. Spiritualists giving evidence insisted that the provisions of the bill were adequately covered by existing legislation, so that a new bill was unnecessary.
The issue of fraudulent mediumship was a central topic. The Spiritualists claimed to be as keen to root out fraud as Houdini was, but were unable to give a satisfactory answer to the question of how one could tell a genuine from a bogus medium, despite which they did concede that there were charlatans, as in any sphere of life. Ranging beyond the committee’s terms of reference, Houdini seemed to be as keen to settle scores with individual mediums as he did to pilot the bill, and in return he and his associates, notably Rose Mackenberg, who went undercover to investigate mediums, were the targets of a great deal of Spiritualistic animus. Mackenberg created an enormous stir when she alleged that she had been informed that a number of prominent Senators were interested in mediumship, as was President Coolidge, and that séances had been held at the White House itself (a charge denied by “friends of the Coolidges“).
Given a remarkable amount of latitude, Houdini, to show how frauds were conducted, demonstrated slate writing, the use of a trumpet, and a book test, and supplied a mediumistic message which the Spiritualists took as evidence that he was one of their number, despite his explanation of how he did it (he repeatedly had to deny that he possessed any mediumistic gifts). The sessions, sometimes entertaining, sometimes tedious, often somewhat obscure, were a bruising encounter between the Houdini camp and the Spiritualists, who proved that they could be less than spiritual when their livelihoods were threatened.
The transcript gives hints that the sessions were more than lively, with numerous appeals for order, the numbers of people speaking at once preventing a proper record from being made. At one point the chairman complains that he cannot see the witness because people are standing in the way. But it does not really give a flavour of the chaos on the second day captured in a New York Times article (19 May 1926):
“Scores of mediums and clairvoyants were in attendance to combat Houdini’s contention that all such persons were “fakes,” that there was no sound basis for spiritualism, and that the so-called messages from the dead were spurious and designed as a money-making scheme to defraud the credulous.
“Today’s session was unusually disorderly and came near winding up in a free-for-all fist fight. Cries of “liar!” “Fake!” and “Traducer!” were exchanged by Houdini and his assailants, and the din reached such a point that members of the committee demanded that the police be called ....
“The committee tried to restore order, but failed, and an adjournment was taken. The shouting continued as the witnesses and audience filed into the corridors of the House office building.”
Considering the circumstances, it would seem that the stenographer did a decent job recording proceedings. But given the suggestion that mediumship was carried out in high places in Washington, it is not surprising that the bill was unsuccessful, and Houdini‘s investment in time and money in vain.
It is a pity that the scanning is not quite as crisp as it could be, but this is an important historical document, and the Miracle Factory have done a valuable job in making it available. While not exactly a rattling yarn, it should be read by anyone with a serious interest in Houdini or in the debates around Spiritualism during that period. An introduction setting the context would have been useful, but in its absence, William Kalush and Larry Sloman devote part of a chapter to the hearings in their 2006 The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero (pp.481-88) which helps to fill in the background to this peculiar episode in Houdini‘s career.
Handcuff Secrets, by Harry Houdini
Also from the Miracle Factory, this slim 1910 volume by Harry Houdini does pretty much what it says on the cover. It reveals the tricks used by, as Houdini derisively calls them, “Manacle Monarchs, Handcuff Kings, and Jail Breakers” (though not, he alleges, the “very deep intricacies” practised by himself). Houdini’s opinion of the competition is not high, and as is his wont, he takes the opportunity to settle a few scores with rivals along the way while exposing their methods.
His survey covers various types of handcuff, beginning with the British, the limited range of which presents the fewest challenges to the expert: all you have to do is secrete a duplicate key, et voilà, with a bound you are free. Anyone expecting subtlety might at this stage be feeling disappointed, but more elaborate tips on using prepared cuffs are given, and those typical of different countries displayed, including the startlingly-named “French Letter Cuff” (actually a combination lock using letters rather than numbers). As there is clearly only a limited amount to be said about handcuff-escape techniques, at least while avoiding the “very deep intricacies” of the subject, he strays off into an account of safe crackers and straightjacket escapes in a rambling narrative.
If the book were solely devoted to showing how clever Houdini was, it would restrict the readership, so he indicates that it is of service as a manual in order to allow readers to put on their own handcuff performances without too much preparation. The lengthy categorisation of types is of historical interest only, unless one is planning an escapology exhibition using antique ironmongery, but seeing him laying into the competition is always fun. Houdini was a lively writer, if an idiosyncratic stylist, and Handcuff Secrets gives an insight into his painstaking attention to detail, even if you are never quite convinced he is giving you the whole story.