The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Bunk and Debunk

One of our four 'home' parishes is Borley, and so we have long taken an interest in the
history of the so-called 'Haunting' of Borley Rectory. You will find, on the site, the draft of a book on the history of the affair, called 'The Bones of Borley', which hopefully will come out as a printed book in the spring, published by the society

I had to pop into London to do an interview for a television program on Harry Price, the journalist who wrote the two famous books on Borley Rectory. The interview was conducted in a darkened church in the City of London, presumably to get a spooky atmosphere. Unfortunately, the laughing, and clattering of dishes as some dinner-ladies cleared up a charity lunch in the old vestry dispelled any ghostly silence there may have been, and the thread of the interview was often broken by the klaxon of a passing police-car.

Like all historians faced with someone pretending to take an interest in their specialised subject, I drivelled on at boring length, hypnotised by the task of getting facts correct. Fortunately, nowadays, one can cut an interview so cleverly that one can be made to say or do almost anything the producer wants.

Harry Price was one of those fascinating people who will be remembered for the immense good they did, but will be tainted by their transgressions from the truth. Price was in the vanguard of debunking, and denouncing, the many spiritualist mediums who exploited the fascination in necromancy which followed the dreadful bloodshed of the First World War. He was an expert conjuror and engineer, and was able to show how the mediums did their tricks. As well as this, he was able to collect an immense library of books on magic and the occult which he eventually gave to the nation. This library, now expanded with Eric Dingwall's collection, is a wonderful resource.

If Harry had stopped there, he would now be revered critically. He didn't, unfortunately. He began to believe some of the bunk, and set about manipulating the evidence to bring it in line with his conclusions. His two books on Borley Rectory were master-works on spin-doctoring. He would never tell an untruth, but merely leave out facts. He would, for example, say that his chauffeur told him he'd seen a grisly black hand appear over the top of the kitchen door, without adding that the chap was joking at the time: he would report the effect of a thrown stone on the rest of the party in the darkened rectory without adding that he'd thrown the stone.
The result of this technique was a belief amongst the general public that Borley
Rectory was really haunted. 

Harry Price's shortcomings make him, for me, a rather more sympathetic character. Like Darth
Vader, he had talents that could be used for good or bad. He eventually found
his talents were more profitably used for misleading rather than leading: as one critic said, 'The public preferred bunk to debunk, so that is what he gave them'.


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