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Thirteen-thousand Reasons by Nigel Roth

There’s a self-governing bit of land, right in the middle of Ireland and Great Britain, run by a lieutenant governor who reports, now and again, to the Lord of Mann, who, at this particular point in time, is Queen Elizabeth II.

Queen Elizabeth II, when she’s not sitting by the fire crocheting her lips, plays with her gang of Pembroke Welsh Corgis in the royal grass, even though the last of them died last year.

The Isle of Mann, however, is more famous for another spectral animal, though most Manxmen and Manxwomen would probably like to forget the association, and would be eager to chase me off the island with their three-legged horror and bunches of ragwort.

In 1935, a paranormal investigator called Harry Price arrived on the Isle of Man to investigate Gef, a talking phantom mongoose.

Ironically, Harry Price was actually the real enigma, and a far more substantial one than Gef.

Price began life with a foot in two distinct camps. On the one rapping ghostly hand he believed in a whole slew of paranormal events and experiences, and was often described as perplexed by things he witnessed. On the other spectral limb he was a debunker of the fraudulent and fake.

But his real genius was knowing when to do which, in order to elevate his own stratospheric status, by writing furiously about every event in order to meet the needs of his insatiable ego.

Though he claimed to have been born in the idylls of Shropshire, in which county he placed his early dramatic work about a poltergeist experience, he was actually born in Holborn in London, and went to school there.

He soon began to pioneer paranormal investigation when no-one else was, and started creating an aura of academic expertise that he curated ferociously, from his earliest space-telegraphy experiments to the exploration of the bizarre mongoose, Gef.

In-between, he joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and, as an accomplished amateur magician, garnered a reputation for debunking mediums who were less than authentic, like Rudi Schneider

Schneider was originally a favorite of Price, and who he first celebrated as a supreme medium who could levitate objects and commune with the dead freely.

Then, a photograph appeared as if by magic, in which Price showed that Schneider was using an arm to dislodge an object that was supposedly moved by psychokinetic energy.

It abruptly ended Schneider’s career but raised Price’s gravitas a little more. This angered the SPR greatly, and a rift began between Price, who many accused of deliberately manipulating the photograph to discredit all involved, and the organization where the experiment had taken place. It was a debacle that Price may or may not have enjoyed.

And he wrote an account of the whole affair.

But the case of Gef must’ve seemed like sweet music to Price’s Barnum-like ears.

Gef had apparently appeared to the Irvings one evening, in their remote farmhouse, and promptly began to talk, and in many languages, in which the small carnivorous mammal seemed fluent. A wonderful note was written by a skeptic of the Gef phenomenon stating that it was quite ridiculous that a mongoose could learn that many languages.

Anyway, Price and his mortal pal Richard Lambert were greeted with a piece of amazing evidence when they entered the Dalby home where Gef ‘lived’. A piece of Gef’s hair.

It was sent to the Natural History Museum to be analysed.

Other moments of Price’s career were confusing, because he was more mercurial in judgement than the spirits of his studies, and it was difficult to know if he would lean in favor or against an experience or person, as was the case with the celebrated medium Eileen Garrett.

Garrett, it was claimed, made spiritual contact with Herbert Carmichael, who’d just managed to crash the R101 airship in France killing himself and forty-eight others, including the Air Minister, many of government officials, and nearly every one of the airship’s designers, and ending instantly the British infatuation with the craft and its development program, forever.

Price was not exactly dismissive of Garrett’s channeled knowledge of the incident, which many said had to have been unknown to anyone but the pilot, stating that it was not his intention to “discuss if the medium [was] really controlled by the discarnate entity”, and called it a “remarkably interesting and thought-provoking experiment.

Others, though, like the American magician John Nicholls Booth and the researcher Melvin Harris, were far more straightforward. The first was convinced she was an obvious fraud, and the other that Garrett just regurgitated “easily absorbed bits and pieces, [and] plain gobbledegook."

And, Price wrote about this too, of course.

Meanwhile, Gef was being fervently defended by the family who lived with him.

He’d made his presence known by scratching inside the walls of the house, and then by hissing and spitting and crying like a baby. At some point, the entity began speaking, mainly to the teenage female of the house, Voirrey, and described himself as “a freak. I have hands and feet, and if you saw me you’d faint, you’d be petrified, mummified, turned into stone or a pillar of salt!”

On top of that, also claimed to come from Delhi, in India.

Unlike Gef, Victoria Helen McCrae Duncan, had been born in Scotland, and was the last person to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, thanks in the main to Price.

Duncan performed a number of seances for Price, where the famous ectoplasm, a substance produced and vomited-up by physical mediums, was prevalent. Unfortunately for her, Price was able to detect fraud by proving that the substance, which he cut with scissors from the long train of it emanating from her mouth, was actually made by regurgitating “paper, soaked in white of egg, and folded into a flattened tube”.

Price noted eloquently that nothing could “be more infantile than a group of grown-up men wasting time, money, and energy on the antics of a fat female crook.”

Eventually, Duncan was sentenced to nine months in prison for her fraudulent behavior.

And he wrote about it.

Gef, though, was said to be far more than just some wet paper.

He told the Irvings he was an “extra clever mongoose” and a “ghost in the form of a weasel”. The Irvings had imprints of his claws and teeth, although how exactly they obtained them is not recorded, and they too were sent for examination, this time to the Zoological Society.

Their hopes were high. Unlike that of the famous spirit photographer William Hope, whose career was also ruined by Price.

Hope had been happily photographing spirits for several years when Price decided to mark some of Hope’s photographic plates with the brand logo of the Imperial Dry Plate Company, so that the image would appear on the plates Hope produced as genuine spirit photos. They didn’t, of course, and so Price was able to prove that Hope had used pre-prepared materials containing fake spirit images instead.

The whole affair created enormous uproar and caused the resignation en masse of members of the SPR, who accused the society of being against spiritualism, and led by that bastion of afterworld belief and fairies, Arthur Conan Doyle. Price later wrote that "Conan Doyle and his friends abused me for years for exposing Hope."

A published account followed.

While the results of Gef’s evidence were being examined, Price was exploring some of Gef’s conversation with Irvings, which his family had carefully noted down as Gef's words of wisdom. They included such delights as, “I shall haunt you with weird noises and chains”, and “I am not evil. I could be if I wanted. You don’t know what damage or harm I could do if I were roused,”

None of that sounds at all pleasant. And neither does this.

Attending a seance in 1937, Price saw, spoke, and even touched a six-year-old girl called Rosalie. He’d controlled the room vigorously, and after the visit ended none of the powder he’d spread around to capture the footprints of a human child was disturbed in any way, nor were any of the seals on the windows or door broken. Price was absolutely convinced she was a spirit child. The experience apparently left him truly “shaken to the core.

But, of course, he managed to write about this too.

One of the experiences that didn’t have that effect, it appears, was his visit to Gef’s Isle of Mann home.

While there, Gef did not reveal himself in any form, and there was no mongoose bravado to record. Price did note that the panelled walls of the old farmhouse made it very easy for voices to travel through from one place in the house to another.

And then came word from the scientists about the hair and paw prints.

The hair was almost certainly from a dog, more than likely the Irving's sheepdog, Mona. And the paw prints were probably a dog too, although they couldn’t be absolutely matched, but certainly weren’t from a mongoose.

Price summed up the case on the boat back to Britain, saying that “only the most credulous of individuals would be impressed with the evidence for Gef”.

And, yes, he wrote an entire account of it, as you expected.

Price died in 1948, and his reputation was a mixed bag.

Some loved Price for debunking fraudulent mediums, while others have since honored him as the first person to bring scientific methods to investigate paranormal activity. The magician and skeptic James Randi described Price as "a strange mixture of fact and fraud,” and his biographer Richard Morris called him a "supreme bluffer, a hedonistic conman, a terrific raconteur, a great conjuror, a gifted writer and a wonderful eccentric."

Price certainly did much to form and promote the discipline of the study of the paranormal and unexplainable. But, he also did something else.

While he was exploring all these events, and publishing accounts of every one, he was also collecting books, and as a result, the library of Senate House, now part of the University of London, houses what is probably the world's most extensive collection of books of magic, the paranormal, and the unexplained, with over thirteen-thousand volumes

That’s thirteen-thousand reasons to admire Harry Price.

photo by Ryan Miguel Capili

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