Sleights of Voice: Ventriloquism, Magic and The Harry Price Collection

Sleights of Voice: Ventriloquism, Magic and The Harry Price Collection

Steve Connor

A talk given to the Friends of the University of London Library, 28 November 2002

The Harry Price Collection is one of the great and unsung glories of the University of London Library. I say unsung because although a familiar friend and resource to those in the know – and what kind of ‘know’ this might be I will come to later – the collection is not nearly as famous and visited as it ought to be. I even wonder sometimes whether the Harry Price collection is not something of an embarrassment to the ULL. A few years ago, Richard Coles, presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves, came to me with the idea of doing a feature on the collection. I think he had seen a publicity flyer advertising a small display about the collection on show in the library. Some of you may have heard the interview that Richard Coles conducted for Nightwaves, purportedly amid the books and artefacts of the Harry Price Collection. The point of this story is that, by the time the piece went out, the exhibition had, like the unfortunate Baker in The Hunting of the Snark, ‘softly and suddenly vanished away’, thus depriving the BBC of the opportunity of its ‘back-announcement’ telling listeners where they could go to see the exhibition. I do not suggest any mischief here – the display had no doubt come to the advertised end. But it is not every university library that gets its collections advertised to an audience of, if not millions, then shall we say, select dozens on national radio, and one wonders, or this one at any rate, quite why nobody thought it worth while to extend its run just a little.

Harry Price himself could never be accused of shrinking from publicity. He was a lifelong investigator of psychic phenomena; ghosts, poltergeists, séances, possessions, the whole lot. He achieved fame in particular for his investigations of Borley Rectory, allegedly, at least according to the title of the book that he wrote about the subject, ‘the most haunted house in England’. Price was an astute stager of events (some might prefer the expression ‘stunts’) – and was an ‘early adopter’ of radio and TV, recognising the close relationship that would come to grow up between these apparently most modern technologies and the immemorial dreams and fantasies of ghosts, magic and the occult.

Harry Price was a believer in psychic and occult phenomena, and was determined to prove their existence. But he also belonged to a generation of psychic investigators put on their mettle by the scandals and exposures of fraudulent mediums of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Despite his occult convictions, he was well aware of the lengths that people would go to both to delude others and to delude themselves in these areas. Indeed, the fragment of autobiography he provides by way of introduction to the Short-Title Catalogue of his collection, then known as the Library of the National Laboratory for Psychical Research, indicates that it was the arts of magic rather than, as some New Age practitioners like to spell it, ‘Magick’, that first captivated him when, as a Shrewsbury schoolboy, he was taken to a travelling quack advertising himself as ‘the Great Sequah’ and offering cures and treatments for all ailments, to have a tooth removed. Strapped into a chair for the extraction, the wailing boy was distracted by an elaborate spectacle of conjuring provided by one of the Great Sequah’s Mohawk retinue, watching in fascination as a sequence of objects were first produced from an apparently empty hat and then tossed into the crowd – a pair of doves, flags, bags of sweets, toys, etc. Quicker than thought, the offending molar was out and had itself, bizarrely, been tossed into the crowd. After purchasing a volume entitled Modern Magic by one ‘Professor Hoffmann’, the eight-year-old Harry Price embarked on an apprenticeship in conjuring, and spent all his pocket money on books about the subject.

So, when his interests began to turn to the effects of real rather than simulated magic, Harry Price was well-prepared. He warns those consulting his collection that

To those cast-iron bigots who believe that every medium is white and every “phenomenon” genuine, this Catalogue will make little appeal. But those students of the occult with a mind of a more elastic fibre who wear their convictions lightly will finding the National Laboratory Collection a vast number of interesting works on impostors of all ages including many modern charlatans who lay claim to psychic gifts.

But the real reason for making this material available is not to discredit the occult, but to assist in putting it on to a rational and foolproof basis. His is a kind of precautionary scepticism. As he writes in the preface to the Supplement of his STC ‘There are so many facets of the alleged miraculous, that the student is compelled to explore a great number of queer by-paths of literature in order that he may acquire knowledge with which to combat fraud in its various disguises.’ At the core of Harry Price’s enterprise is the desire to clear away deceit and imposture in order to isolate ‘records of phenomena that will stand scientific scrutiny and are inexplicable in our present state of ignorance’. The fact that he was so convinced that there was something there to be investigated and proved made him more determined than others might have been to understand the processes of trickery, deceit, illusion and charlatanry. It is for this reason that the collection contains, holding its own amid all the hexes, hoaxes and hocus-pocus, so many technical works on fingerprints, radioactivity, ambidexterity, graphology, chemistry and – gulp – regurgitation.

So there is something schizophrenic about this collection, which offers different kinds of inducement, arousal and consolation to its different users, whether these be hook-line-and-sinker believers, unbudgeable sceptics, or inveterately shifty agnostics. But it is this odd undecidability of purpose and nature which gives the collection its unique character and value, and makes it indispensable for so many different kinds of scholar, many of whom Harry Price could not have predicted. Te special nature of its audience also made it for a while vulnerable in a certain way. Alan Wesencraft, the great presiding genius of the Harry Price Collection, once confided to me that a large number of the books ‘walked’, by entirely non-supernatural means of locomotion, in the years after the War when the collection was on open access. This was no doubt a built-in danger with a collection that attracts readers with more than usually developed skills of legerdemain. But the real problem, Alan once confided to me, was that ‘we used to get a lot of lunatics in’. (No change there, then.)

Among the potential users of the collection I would now include not just historians of mystical, magical and religious belief, though this is currently a very prosperous area of enquiry, but also historians of popular arts and entertainment; as well as scholars and students working in those two vast and closely conjoined areas of current obsession, the history of technology and the history of understandings of the body. Those like me, who are particularly interested in the history of the senses, have much to learn from the ways in which allegedly extra-sensory phenomena are imagined, represented and lived out.

Another remarkable feature of the Harry Price Collection is the abundance of odd objects and ephemera that it contains, alongside the printed material. There are gramophone records, lantern slides, what Harry Price’s STC describes quaintly but suggestively as ‘talking films’, and scrapbooks of playbills and press cuttings. One of these includes an admission ticket to a Harry Houdini ‘experiment of attempting to remain submerged one hour in an airtight metal coffin’. There are also medals and coins, most notably, for my purpose, a series of medals struck to commemorate Mr Askins, who achieved celebrity in the late eighteenth-century as a one-legged ventriloquist. Somewhere there is also, I believe a pack of marked cards as employed by professional cardsharpers.

And then of course, there is the séance equipment. Hidden away in the drawers of the collection are sheets of muslin which served mediums as billowing ectoplasm. When I was allowed the treat of a visit to the collection a couple of weeks ago, I opened a shoebox to find in it a ‘rapping hand’, a false hand made of china, not unlike a Victorian doll’s hand, which could be manipulated by elbows, knees or other unsecured portions of the body to produce ghostly knocks and raps upon the séance table.

But the most famous item on which I was able to lay my own, corporeal hands, was Joanna Southcott’s box. Harry Price had a particular interest in this Devonian visionary and prophetic preacher, whose speeches and writings gathered a huge following of ‘Southcottians’ in the first decade of the nineteenth century. In her 64th year Joanna Southcott prophesied that she would bear a child. She did undergo an episode of probably dropsical distension, but there was unfortunately no happy issue. In fact, she died shortly afterwards and, according to her followers, left a box full of prophetic writings which were only to be opened at a time of national crisis and in the presence of twenty-four bishops of the Church of England. Somehow, Harry Price acquired what purported to be her box and in 1927, after a precautionary X-ray inspection, staged a public opening. It contained the following items: a horse pistol, a dice box, a purse, several books, a lottery ticket and, most cryptically of all, somehow, a night cap. None of these items were in it when I lifted the lid; all that remained was a faint, sad fragrance, as of lavender, or perhaps cedar. Joanna Southcott’s followers, who operate under the name of the Panacea Society, deny that the box on the radiator on the eighth floor is the prophetess’s, claiming that the real box, weighing some 150 lbs, is still in their possession, awaiting a propitious moment and a quorum of bishops for its opening.

I first heard of the Harry Price Collection when reading a popular history of the art of ventriloquism by a performer called Valentine Vox, with the rather cumbrous title of I Can See Your Lips Moving. Reading this book for an entirely other purpose in around 1993, I first conceived the idea that there might be room for a book to be written, that not only tracked the development of the popular art of ventriloquism, but also tried to account for the stages of its development and considered its wider cultural and historical significance. I was to discover that it is hard to come up with a title for a book on this subject that is not as corny as Valentine Vox’s: when I eventually finished my book I was surprised to find that, even the seasoned greybeards of the Oxford University Press could not forbear attempting to press on me titles like Gottle o’ Geer, Watch My Lips, and, worst of all, but I suppose inevitably, Ventriloquism for Dummies.

Valentine Vox’s book included some illustrated playbills from the Harry Price Collection and I wondered if there was more there to be unearthed. Before very long, I found myself in the Palaeography room riffling through the wonderfully suggestive card-catalogue of books in the collection. Harry Price promised visitors to the original library of his National Laboratory of Psychical Research, which was at that time housed in his own premises in Queensberry Place, that his detailed card index meant that ‘It is a matter of a few seconds only to locate any of the six thousand titles catalogued’. By the time I began work with the collection things had become much more taxing for the library staff whom I despatched upstairs in search of books and manuscripts, and they often emerged, dusty and defeated, several hours later. Noticing the extensive use I was making of the books in the collection, a friendly, or perhaps just rationally self-interested librarian suggested that it might be helpful for me to visit the collection in situ. At that time, it was possible for readers to ascend to the chilly eighth floor and work in the room in which the collection is housed, under the genial eye of Alan Wesencraft, the keeper of the collection’s secrets. When I began to work there, this privilege was accorded every Wednesday afternoon; within a year or so, this had become every other Wednesday, before it was withdrawn entirely. The great advantage of working with Alan Wesencraft was that he was the only person who not only knew what was in the collection, but also knew where it was.

Before long I had discovered several things. The first was that the author of I Can See Your Lips Moving was only the most recent in a long line of Valentine Voxes. The first one was the hero of a long, rambling and frankly rather tedious novel written by Harry Cockton and first published in serial form in Dickens’s journal Household Words. The novel has some odd resonances with Harry Price’s early life. In its opening chapters, the young country boy Valentine Vox is entranced by the skill of a travelling magician and ventriloquist. Rather than a life dedicated to lifting, or at least probing the veils of deceit and mystification, Valentine Vox devotes himself to perplexing and terrifying his friends and neighbours. A story about the evils of private asylums is rather awkwardly grafted together in the book with a long series of voice-throwing japes and practical jokes, in which Valentine sows dissension in the House of Commons, causes panic in the British Museum by conjuring voices from an Egyptian sarcophagus, torments an orang-utan in Regent’s Park Zoo by making his voice sing in its ears, causes a friend to dig up his garden in search of the source of an underground voice calling hollowly for assistance, and reduces a phrenology lecture to chaos by making the demonstration skull suddenly protest loudly at the indignity of its position. Cockton’s book was a roaring success and was reprinted at regular intervals throughout the century. The fact that it is one of the commonest popular novels in secondhand bookshops suggests that copies were to be found in many homes. Certainly there came a time when I had to send out a general notice to my friends and relatives that I required no further copies of this text. This popularity led to the adoption of Valentine Vox as a stage name by many nineteenth-century ventriloquists. Next to Cockton’s Adventures of Valentine Vox in the shelves of the Harry Price Collection was his rather less successful follow-up, Sylvester Sound, Somnambulist.

The second thing I discovered was that Valentine Vox was not the only practising ventriloquist to take an interest in the history of his art. Many of those who wrote instruction manuals on how to become a ventriloquist, like Robert Ganthony, Fred Russell, ‘Signor Blitz’ and Arthur Prince (the last of whom is buried with his dummy in Highgate Cemetery), turned out also to be knowledgeable about the history of their art. In fact, for a while, I thought of constructing a sort of secret inner drawer in my book, which would be a history of the history of ventriloquism.

But the third thing I discovered in the Harry Price Collection was much more important and takes me to the heart of what I want to say today. For, when I moved beyond, or to the side, of the books, essays, pamphlets and playbills that dealt specifically with the art of giving voices to dummies, I realised that ventriloquism, conceived in the broadest sense as the production of dissociated voices separate from their sources, passed through a large number of different discursive jurisdictions. I began to see that the interest of ventriloquism and disembodied voices lay not just in its stubborn longevity, but also in the diverse company it had kept over that time. Ventriloquism had been the concern of Biblical scholars and theologians interested in the puzzling story in 1 Samuel 28 of the Witch of Endor, physiologists investigating the workings of the voice, nineteenth-century medical writers elaborating the pseudo-sciences of phreno-mesmerism, or the pseudo-illness of hysteria, linguists interested in glossolalia, anthropologists describing trance and possession states, and inventors and technicians developing and improving acoustic apparatus. A collection such as this, which is so full of strange and suggestive adjacencies, proximities and conjugations, is the ideal way to follow these promiscuous migrations of the ventriloquial voice. Of course, I was not able to follow up every trail in the Harry Price Collection itself, and, once having seen a connection or possibility, would often then resort to specialist collections like those of the Warburg Institute, the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine or the British Library. Though it is full of rare and valuable material, there is not a great deal in the Harry Price Collection which is absolutely unique to it. But the point of collections (from the Latin col-legere, to read together, which also gives us our word ‘college) is that they are collegiate or collegible, they allow things to be read together. Very often, it was the Harry Price Collection that first caused the spark to jump across the points. It is a resource that truly, to borrow King Lear’s words, lets copulation thrive

Of course, these possibilities of colligation and collocation only exist when one has the privilege, if only in the tantalising fortnightly peeps we were once permitted, of meeting and treating it as a collection. Feeona Hamilton is currently doing a marvellous, necessary and long-overdue job in cataloguing the whole collection and digesting it into the electronic catalogue of the university library – work that, given the context, one must perforce call prestidigitising. But the problem with the kind of access which we commonly get through electronic catalogues and databases is that the keyword search can easily shrink into a kind of keyhole surgery, in which what you get out is too narrowly prescribed by what you put in. The fact that databases are now so comprehensive that you are almost certain to get positive results from almost any search can actually mask the problem that what you are getting out is in fact a compliant echo of what you are putting in. (No doubt the same has been true of most séances.) There are ways of protecting oneself against this autism. I advise students to keep a thesaurus to hand when catalogue searching, just so that they don’t get locked into their own lexis, or miss the possibility of the alternative words that will open out their topic. You need to know not only the kinds of words that others have used to designate your topic, but the lexical and intellectual company those words have kept. I was lucky in working on a topic that is called ‘ventriloquism’, or some variant of that word, in most European languages – indeed, I have not yet found a non-European language which has a word precisely equivalent to it in terms of its semantic range and associations. But this is not the only thing it is called. In early periods, ventriloquism was also known as engastrimism; gastromancy; sternomancy; biloquism; alioloquy; polyphonism; and pithiatism.

Sometimes you can trick even as vast and inaccessible a collection as the British Library into giving you a sort of virtual equivalent of standing in front of a shelf of semi-sorted materials. I think it is still true to say that the little ruse I am about to tell you about does not feature in any of the documentation for using the somewhat eccentric inhouse catalogue of the BL. Even a national collection like that of the British Library is often based on a core of materials that have derived from existing subject collections, put together by scholars or enthusiasts of various kinds, and often these are shelved together. I became aware that all the books on witchcraft and sorcery which I was reading through for references to ghostly and demonic voices had a shelfmark beginning with the same sequence of numbers. All I needed to generate a list of all the books shelved under, shall we say, ‘915 b etc’, was a way of doing a truncated shelfmark search. As it happens you can enter such a truncated search using a dollar sign. As I looked at the results unrolling across the screen, I suddenly had a sense of a subject showing me its own contours, rather than having to be gropingly plotted portion by portion. It is this kind of three-dimensional view that a collection such as the Harry Price can afford.

Another thing that is lost when one is forced to access a collection such as this item by item is a different sense of collegiality or collegibility, in the company one may be keeping in consulting it. There was never much room for many to work up on the eighth floor on those alternate Wednesday afternoons, but this meant that there was never much room to hide either. It was striking to note the variety of visitors even in this railway compartment sized space. In one corner there might be somebody like my colleague, Stephen Clucas, pursuing his researches on the life and work of the Elizabethan magus Doctor John Dee. In another, there might be somebody reading, say, Jack Merlin’sCherished Secrets of a Master Manipulator - a title that must be read out with the greatest of care – and perhaps surreptitiously putting in some card-palming practice in the meantime. In another, I wouold be, leafing through scrapbooks of playbills and music-hall advertisements. In another nook, there might be that bemused student of mine, working on a cultural history of fantasies of flight, looking for material relating to human cannonballs. In another corner, a cyberenthusiast, investigating the early history of automata and machine intelligence. In another corner still (how many corners is that – five? – it is a very odd room) there could be one of the more etherial and hollow-eyed visitors to the collection, poring over a Kabbalistic text, lips working in what seems to be some kind of incantation.

Sometimes, the company into which you are drawn in doing research into the psychic, the occult and the paranormal is a little more uncomfortable even than this. Hearing of Harry Price’s idea of setting up a psychic research unit in the University of London, Heinrich Goebbels wrote to congratulate Price on the venture and to wish it well. The story goes that Senate House, the tallest building in London during the War, was never bombed because Hitler planned to use it as his headquarters after the invasion. Perhaps he thought that the good vibrations emanating from the HPC needed also to be preserved.

I make no claim to have done anything more than taken a deep, intoxicating, but preliminary pull at the Harry Price Collection. Whenever I have had the opportunity of poking around the eighth-floor room, I have spent much of my time noting down the titles of volumes to which I intended one day to return. Indeed, the value of a collection such as this is often to suggest new uses and excuses for it. While I was working on my ventriloquism book my attention was drawn to a series of pamphlets about the phenomenon of stigmata that enjoyed a revival during the late nineteenth century – works with thrilling titles like Blood Phenomena and Blood Prodigies. My thoughts turned back to the HPC last year when I was writing the chapter on stigmatics in the book I am just finishing on the history of the skin. (As you can tell, I am engaged like Gunther Van Hagen in constructing my own kind of Body World, working my way round the various organs in a sort of magical anatomy. I have my eye on the organs of respiration next, or possibly, as a sort of sport, the spleen, that once important but now mysteriously absconded organ.) Among the other items that I have bookmarked for later consultation are George Melville’s ‘Bones and I': or, The Skeleton at Home; as well as books on Snake Taming; The Physiology of Evening Parties; Memory in Animals; and the Explanation of the Human Gasometer.