Undoubtedly the materialisation of spirit child Rosalie at a séance in December 1937 was one of the strangest episodes of Harry Price’s career. Ever since he recorded his experience that night in Fifty Years of Psychical Research (1939), and conceded he was unable to reach a definite conclusion on what had happened, it has been a source of controversy. Paul Adams has re-examined the case with fresh eyes, drawing on sources hitherto unavailable to researchers, and presents a wealth of material which, if it does not solve the mystery, makes a persuasive case. His stance is sympathetic but not credulous, open to the possibility that Price did have an encounter with a real spirit but determined to subject the evidence to the closest scrutiny rather than accept only what suits a prior hypothesis. A strength is his extensive knowledge of Price’s career, expertise he has put to good use.
So what happened that night? Out of the blue Price received a telephone call from a lady who told him she was a member of a group holding regular séances at home at which the spirit of a child, Rosalie, regularly appeared. She was the daughter of one of the sitters, a French lady Price refers to as ‘Madame Z’, who had died aged 6. Would he like to be present at a session? Naturally Price agreed. The preconditions were that he should attend alone and under no circumstances was either the location or the identities of the participants to be revealed. He could take whatever security precautions he wished before commencement of the séance, but once it had begun he had to sit in his chair and not carry out any ‘experimentation’ without prior permission. He was to understand his presence was strictly a one-off.
Agreeing to these terms, he duly attended. He was able to inspect the house and the séance room, afterwards sealing it. The servants were instructed not to answer the door, and to ask telephone callers to ring back later. Sitting with Price were the French lady, ‘Madame Z’, ‘Mr X’, ‘Mrs X’ (who had telephoned him), their 17-year old daughter, and her boyfriend, referred to as Jim. Proceedings were conducted in complete darkness, though luminous paddles, casting a dim localised light, were permitted. Price was rewarded for his efforts with the presence of Rosalie, whom he was able to see and touch. She did indeed seem to be a warm young naked breathing girl possessing a pulse (she might have been less ambiguous as a spirit if she had not been breathing, had been cold and lacked a pulse but this seems to be the norm for materialisations). Price was allowed to question her but she was non-committal until asked if she loved her mother, when she responded lispingly with ‘yes’ (rather than the ‘oui’ one might have expected with a French mother). There proceedings more or less terminated.
Price was sure he had examined and sealed the room thoroughly and could not work out how he could have been a victim of fraud – and as he said afterwards, for what purpose would a fraud have been committed? Despite his extensive experience of mediumship and séance room phenomena, the event was unprecedented for him, and witnesses the following day could see it had left him baffled and disturbed. Requests for a further sitting were in vain because, so Price was told, Madame Z was worried that his presence might have the effect of ‘frightening’ Rosalie away, so there the puzzle rested. Unfortunately for later researchers he fulfilled the conditions governing his participation scrupulously, leaving few clues for later investigators to work out who the people involved were, and what might actually have happened that night. Numerous attempts have been made since Price’s death in 1948 to throw light on what happened, who the participants were and where the séance took place, examining Price’s book, combing his archive for clues, checking public records, and wearing out a great deal of shoe leather pounding the streets in an attempt to match houses to his description. With the tantalising clues that the family’s name was Mortimer, and the séance possibly took place in Brockley, south London, countless hours have been spent trying to solve the problem.
Now Adams has picked up the challenge in tracing the convoluted story of Rosalie, drawing together the threads of previous investigations, going back over the records with a fresh eye, finding new information and making educated guesses that are supported by the evidence. His huge advantage over his predecessors is his access to online sources, allowing him, for example, to examine census and local government records and check floor plans and street views. The result is a highly detailed and scrupulously argued analysis which takes on the air of a whodunit as the reader proceeds. Price it seems was thorough in disguising the published narrative, making alterations to the description of the house and the participants, to the extent of combining aspects of his own house with the one where the séance occurred, adjustments which threw previous investigators off the scent. ‘Rosalie’ itself it turns out was in all probability a pseudonym.
This may seem a highly specialised topic even for Harry Price buffs, but in sketching the background to the Rosalie incident and its aftermath Adams sheds light on many aspects of Price’s career and on psychical research more generally, and the book is useful background for those who wish to learn about some of the colourful individuals who populated English psychical research in the mid-twentieth century. There are figures such as Eric Dingwall and Trevor Hall, who argued Price had made the whole thing up to sell Fifty Years of Psychical Research; Paul Tabori, Price’s literary executor; Peter Underwood, who briefly succeeded Tabori in that capacity and who revived the Ghost Club after Price’s death; Kathleen Goldney, Richard Medhust and Mary Rose Barrington of the SPR; and the sad figure of David Cohen of the Manchester Society for Psychical Research who wrote Price and His Spirit Child ‘Rosalie’ to defend Price.
Adams also examines the lengthy anonymous (albeit signed ‘Rosalie’) hand-written letter Cohen received after the publication of his book. The author claimed to have been one of the participants and explained the secrecy imposed on Price by saying that Price was used as a dupe in a financial deception being carried out on Madame Z by Mr X. He was invited solely to add legitimacy to the proceedings because of his reputation, after Madame Z had become suspicious. Many researchers thought the letter was a fake, the chapter in Price’s book utilised as a foundation, as it was littered with contradiction and implausibility. In particular, it was difficult to believe an 11-year old girl could masquerade as both the 17-year old daughter and as Rosalie during the séance. However, Adams takes the letter seriously as providing a motive for Price’s invitation – with crucial details changed to disguise the participants’ identities – to the extent of commissioning a handwriting expert to compare it to other writing by his prime suspect for the perpetrator.
Finally, Adams scrutinises candidates for the house where the séance took place and the identities of the Xs, before deciding on his preferred option: a Mortimer family in Knightsbridge rather than Brockley. In pursuing the trail he has been obliged to make assumptions, and concedes the case is not completely solved. In particular, he does not buy the notion of the individual masquerading as the spirit child to be the writer of the Rosalie letter, as claimed, because she would have been, to put it mildly, post-pubescent, a fact Price could hardly have failed to notice. Adams cannot identify an alternative, but propounds a possibility in a dwarf member of the household known as ‘Minnie’ (a pun on her height rather than her real name?) who, he suggests, hid in a space within the room that Price managed to overlook. A highly risky strategy if true, depending on Price’s lack of thoroughness, plus while a dwarf would have the necessary shortness, she would surely be bulkier than a six-year old. Nor do we know who Madame Z was, and while Adams puts forward a name, he acknowledges there are issues with it.
Yet even though he cannot present the definitive solution, and some of his deductions are tentative, it would be most surprising were later researchers to find he was completely off the mark. Hopefully Adams will continue his investigation, and others may be stimulated to assist in bringing to light further information. The book is recommended not merely for those specifically interested in the Rosalie mystery, but for anyone, and there are many of us, who are fascinated by Harry Price’s career.
A separate review will appear in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.