The End of Borley Rectory?
BY ANTHONY FLEW*
Now, don't stir! Don't expose met Just this once!
This was the first and only time, I'll swear, Look at me—see, 1 kneel—the only time, 1 swear, I ever cheated.
-BROWNING, Sludge, the Medium.
THERE are some cases in the field of psychical research which almost everyone seems to have heard about. One is J. W. Dunne's Experiment with Time (Faber, 1927, etc.). Another is the Adventure (Faber, 1911, etc.) of Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain in the gardens of Versailles. A third is that recorded by Harry Price in The Most Haunted House in England (Longmans, 1940) and The End of Borley Rectory (Harrap, 1946). Psychical research is so often nick- named 'ghost-hunting' that it is disappointing to find compara- tively little in the annals of the subject about haunted houses. But, as Harry Price himself once wryly complained, 'When after much trouble and correspondence, one is at last fortunate enough to get permission to investigate an alleged haunt, usually nothing happens, or one is told that one has arrived at an inopportune moment for the ghostly tenant. Newspaper reports especially are not to be relied upon' (Fifty Years of Psychical Research, Longmans, 1939. p. 296). However, the vast Victorian rectory at Borley in Essex constitutes the splendid exception. Apparently it had everything which the public could ask. Visions were seen, a nun, a man in grey, a girl in white, even a coach and a headless coachman. Sounds were heard, whisperings, galloping horses, clicks, cracks, foot- steps, knockings, wailings, crashings, scrabblings. Appeals for help were found scribbled on walls : on behalf of their author prayers were offered and a requiem mass was held. Human bones were dug up in the cellar; and ceremoniously reburied in Consecrated ground. Doors locked and unlocked apparently of their own accord. Bells rang spontaneously. Vases precipitated themselves down stairs. Objects appeared unaccountably. Pebbles and even bricks were propelled mysteriously through the air. And so on through the whole gamut. Then at one period It almost seemed as if the visionary nun could be identified as the romantic victim of a tragedy of elopement. But this legend Was in part upset in 1938 when it was discovered that the rectory did not after all stand on the site of a monastery, a discovery leaving no room for the nun's monkish lover.
The evidence for all this was collected, written up and pub- licised, and the whole case personally vouched for, by the redoubtable Harry Price : 'As a scientist, I can guarantee you a ghost' (Listener, 1937, p. 1014). Harry Price was the best-
* Professor of Philosophy in the University College of North Staffordshire.
known and most prolific psychic journalist of his time. He founded and directed a National Laboratory of Psychical Re- search. His word on the authenticity of the Borley haunting carried the more weight because so many of his other investiga- tions had resulted in the exposure of psychic quackery. From the day in 1929 when the incumbent, the Rev. G. Eric Smith, took the irretrievable step of writing for advice to the Editor of his paper, the Daily Mirror, and the latter brought Harry Price on to the scene, every year has brought another sheaf of sensa- tional newspaper stories about Borley. More serious journals have also treated the case with respect. The sober Church Quarterly Review printed an article by Dr. W. J. Phythian- Adams. Canon of Carlisle, in which he asked : 'Am I seriously contending that a French girl (the "Nun") was haunting Borley all those years and that she collected English words out of a dictionary in the 80's for an appeal [the wall writings] which had to wait another half-century? I am contending nothing. I simply ask whether any other explanation will fit the facts' (January-March, 1946, p. 214). In Time and Tide (Octo- ber 5. 1940) Mr. Martin Tindal hailed the publication of Price's first book on Borley as 'one of the events of 1940' : a year which some consider important for quite different reasons. In his second book Price was able to quote assessments of his evi- dence made by eminent jurists. Sir Ernest Jelf, then Senior Master of the Supreme Court, confessed himself at a 'loss to understand what cross-examination could possibly shake it' (The End of Borley Rectory, p. 323). While Sir Albion Richard- son, KC, CBE, considered that it was 'as conclusive as human testimony can ever be, and is admirably marshalled. I have not met anyone who has read the book [The Most Haunted House in England]—and it is mainly with legal friends of long experience in the weighing and sifting of evidence that I have discussed it (many of them, like myself, previously sceptical)— who has not been satisfied that the manifestations therein dis- closed are proved by the evidence, to the point of moral certainty' (The End of Borley Rectory, p. 325).
Yet in spite of all the brouhaha reviewers in the privately circulated Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, point- ing out weaknesses and inconsistencies, remained unconvinced. After Price's death the Council of the Society asked three members, Dr. E. J. Dingwall, Mrs. K. M. Goldney and Mr. T. H. Hall, to examine and reappraise all the evidence in the case. Their report has now appeared.t This is a shattering and fascinating document : offering satisfaction at last to all who have been curious to know what really was the truth about Borley; gripping the reader as a true story of detection; and suggesting some wider morals, disturbing perhaps to some of those inclined to build large conclusions on evidence for the miraculous.
The three investigators, working after Price's death, have been able to examine all his private files. This examination has established inexorably that he 'presented a deliberately dis- torted account of the Borley affair in his books' (p. 167). Again and again quotations given in the books have been doctored to generate bogus mysteries; whereas evidence indicating that apparently paranormal happenings might have dully pedestrian explanations has as regularly been omitted. Thus two witnesses originally wrote 'Heard faint "scrabbling" sounds outside which we attributed to mice.' But Price simply reports (The Most Haunted House in England, p. 199) `. . . they heard faint "scrabbling" sounds outside'; suppressing the suggestion of mice and omitting to mention that several other witnesses had testified to seeing mice and finding gnawed paper. Thus, again. Price (The Most Haunted House in England, p. 4) prints, with .t. THE HAUNTING OF BORLEY RECTORY. (Duckworth, 16s.) the clear implication that he is giving the whole, the part of a journalist's story about 'a terrible shock' when he and his colleague 'distinctly saw a white figure flitting about in the gloom'; omitting the denouement and the giveaway headline.
'MIDNIGHT APPARITION WHICH TURNED OUT TO BE A MAID.'
But, worse still, the evidence, to put it mildly, most strongly suggests that Price actually manufactured many of the pheno- mena himself. Several people who were in the house on the occasions of some of the more spectacular occurrences from the first suspected that Price was responsible. Some of these, in- cluding two very reputable witnesses, have flatly accused him of fraud. That truth lies with his accusers rather than with Price is indicated : both by the inescapable proof that he most certainly was dishonestly misrepresenting in his various publi- cations the materials privately available to him; and by an impressive accumulation of circumstantial evidence. For in- stance, it is undisputed that the first outbreak of violent objec- tive phenomena—vases being smashed, and so on—coincided with Price's first visit to Borley, and it is curious that he seemed to lose interest in the case for several years after the first private suspicions and accusations of fraud came to his notice.
`The case for the haunting of Borley Rectory, however,' as the authors of the report point out, `does not depend entirely on the testimony and dealings of Harry Price. Had it been so we should hardly have undertaken the task of the critical appraisal of the evidence' ('p. 168). So, dividing the history of the place into periods, they proceed to examine the evidence for paranormal occurrences in each in turn. This is an intricate business in which the conclusions depend on masses of detail impossible adequately to summarise. Yet the reader step by step comes to agree that 'when analysed, the evidence for haunting and poltergeist activity for each and every period appears to diminish in force and finally to vanish away' (p. 168). Take, for example, the most exciting period, between 1930 and 1935. Price wrote : 'It can be said without fear of contra- diction that the Foyster occupation coincided with the noisiest.
most violent, and most dangerous period in the whole recorded history of the Borley manifestations' (The End of. Borley Rec- tory, p. 64); and made much of the claim that 'a cultured and educated observer, the Rev. L. A. Foyster, meticulously re- corded every paranormal incident that came under his notice' (The End of Borley Rectory, p. 46). We discover first that throughout this period Price was privately expressing his reasoned conviction that Mrs. Marianne Foyster had been responsible for all the phenomena witnessed during the only visit he then bothered to pay to Borley : in a letter written the day after this visit he says : 'We think that the Rector's wife is responsible for the trouble. . . . [And] although, psycho- logically, the case is of great value, psychically speaking there is nothing in it' (p. 76); and in another letter four years later he writes that 'we were convinced that the Rector's wife (a young woman of about twenty-five) was just fooling us' (p. 76). Proceeding to analyse the best written testimony of Mr.
Foyster, his so-called 'Diary of Occurrences'—which mani- festly is not a diary and which' also bears all the marks of a most unfortunate failure to appreciate the very high standards of care, rigour, and precision essential in matters of this sort— we discover that of 103 phenomena recorded, ninety-nine de- pend entirely on the assumption of Mrs. Foyster's integrity, while the remaining four which do not can without any diffi- culty be attributed to normal causes. Finally we come to the cgt egious Mrs. Foyster herself. Though the authors hint at the istence of still more material in reserve, stating that 'Only a small portion of the results of our investigation of the Foyster incumbency is included in this report . . (p. 168), they reveal enough about her to make it clear why they have become convinced `that a paranormal explanation need not be sought for the extraordinary events which took place whilst that curious household was at Borley' (pp. 168-9). For instance, though Price suggested of the wall writing 'that this pheno- menon is unique in the annals of psychical research' (The Most Haunted House in England, p. 144), in fact this and very many other features of the Borley story are also to be found in the Amherst case : and this case occurred in a place five miles from Sackville, Nova Scotia. where the Fqysters had lived for two years immediately before coming to Borley. Mrs. Foyster did not share her husband's popularity in the parish, and parishioners more than once expressed to her face the general belief that she was faking phenomena. She was fully twenty gears younger than he; and 'There are indications that . . . she did not undertake with any consistent enthusiasm the prosaic duties of a country rector's wife' (p. 90). She certainly wanted to leave the rectory, which, haunting apart, was a grim, com- fortless, impossible house. enough to break any woman's heart: while he firmly insisted that they had a duty to stay. She seems to have been in the habit of spending a good deal of time away from Borley and her husband. Indeed for a long period between 1932 and 1934, after the phenomena had dramatically subsided, she was helping a Mr. Francois d'Arles to run a flower shop in London and only returning home for weekends. Not long after the close of this episode the Foysters left Borley for good. When Mr. Foyster died in 1945 he and his wife were living in Suffolk, where she was known as Mrs. Fisher and was generally believed to be his daughter. Giving a bogus address, she re- married four months later in Ipswich.
Another less exciting period is that constituted by the Price tenancy. This began in May, 1937, and Price forthwith adver- tised in The Times for helpers, 'responsible persons of leisure and intelligence, intrepid, critical, and unbiassed'; and if these persons 'knew nothing about psychical research, so much the better' (The Most Haunted House in England, p. 106). These volunteers were provided with a portentous 'Blue Book' whose contents were calculated to bring into play all the mechanisms of suggestion. Borley Rectory provided the ideal background and occasion for the operation of these. It was a great warren of a house, with extraordinary acoustics, cold, draughty.
littered with rubbish, the walls covered with scrawls and squiggles. Price took few steps to get things organised. No systematic record was kept : so each batch of observers started virtually afresh in ignorance of what their predecessors had done. In view of the prominence of wall markings in the case, one might have hoped that Price would have had at least some walls re-whitewashed : yet he neglected to do anything of the sort. The general confusion was such that once one set of observers made a series of pencil marks on the walls while they were measuring and making a plan of the building, to be followed by another group who solemnly noted, ringed, and dated the same marks as possible paranormal wall pencillings. Again and again in the records the operation of suggestion can be seen : thus a witness writes, 'While in the scullery Mrs. Lloyd Williams said she heard in the passage outside "six quick young footsteps." No one of the rest of the party heard these. It is our opinion that these steps were imagined' (p. 126). No wonder that the authors of the present report sum up emphatically their examination of the investigations during the Price tenancy : 'The evidence for any paranormal activity is so slender as to be scientifically worthless. It is clear that Price had no intention of making any investigation of the rectory that would be of solid and permanent value' (p. 140). Yet the reviewer of The Most Haunted House in England in Notes and Queries (October 5, 1940) declared that it was `41 model of what such a record should be.' There are perhaps some more general morals to be drawn from all 'this. First and most obviously, it shows once again how dependent one is in such a case on the absolute integrity of the investigator. Then, rather more interestingly, it, brings out once more the enormous possibilities of suggestion. But besides these useful reminders, there are rather less trite lessons to be drawn. The reception of Price's books shows that neither ordinary good sense nor legal training offers any guarantee against deception in the field of psychical research : the best but not infallible bulwark is provided by acquaintance with the standards, traditions, and accuniulated experience of the Society for Psychical Research. The whole story also shows the seductiveness of the Ten Leaky Buckets Fallacy, the unsound principle that though one leaky bucket will not hold water, maybe a row of ten will. Almost everyone connected with the Borley case seems to have been tempted to think that, even if the evidence was insufficient to prove paranormal agency in some particular part of the whole story to which they have had occasion to give close attention, nevertheless, if only you bring into the reckoning a lot more material not known to be superior the sum will add up to a genuine, sealed and certified haunt. Thus even the quite critical leader of the Cambridge Commis- sion sums up its findings : 'It is clear that any argument for . . . some paranormal factor would, if based on this work alone, have to proceed mainly from the auditory phenomena —that is precisely those events most likely to result from normal causes. Nevertheless . . . it must be remembered that the investigations described here form only a part of a much wider survey which has brought to light very many mysterious phenomena' (The End of Borley Rectory, p. 174). It was because so many people neglected these various morals that Harry Price was able to erect and maintain for years the house of cards which he built out of little more than a pack of lies.