This post was written by Tansy Barton, the Research Librarian for Manuscript and Print Studies at Senate House Library. It forms part of a series of blog posts on the theme of Halloween in libraries and archives.
Senate House Library is home to a number of collections on the paranormal, the occult and psychic investigation, including archive of anthropologist and psychical investigator Eric J. Dingwall (MS912), which includes extensive scrapbooks of cuttings, letters, photographs, notes and articles on the paranormal, magic and psychic phenomena and the library and archive of Harry Price. Price was involved in a number of high profile investigations of in the 1920s and 1930s, including the exposure of William Hope, the mediumship of Helen Duncan, and the supposed haunting of Borley Rectory. He was adept at bring his activities to the attention to the press and public, as an adventure in the Harz Mountains demonstrates.
In 1932 Price, accompanied by philosopher C.E.M. Joad, attended celebrations of Goethe’s centenary to recreate the Bloksberg, or Brocken, Tryst, a ‘black magic’ transformation ritual. Price had an early 19th century manuscript copy of the ritual with murky provenance: he claimed it had been copied from the 15th century ‘High German Black Book’ (he doesn’t give any more detail of the original manuscript beyond that is ‘is preserved in one of the German museums’) and that it had been left at Price’s National Laboratory of Psychical Research by an anonymous donor. The purpose of the ritual was to transform a goat into ‘a fare youth of surpassing beauty’. It could only be performed at the granite alter on the Brocken, a peak in the Harz Mountains, and involved the expected trappings of such rituals: magic circles, a maiden pure of heart and a virgin he-goat, incense, Latin incantations and an unguent made of bats blood and the scrapings of church bells mixed with soot and honey.
Price claimed the experiment was an opportunity to counter persistent beliefs in the power of magic ritual through a rigorously scientific recreation. In this, it failed: writing to French journalist and psychical researcher Rene Sudre soon after the experiment, Price lamented that ‘[I] have been attacked ever since by people who allege (a), that I made the experiment because I believed in it and (b), because I do not believe in Black Magic and wanted to expose it.’ (Ref: HPC/4A/118). Many of Price’s critics accused him (not unjustly) of staging a publicity stunt, and this was where the success of the experiment lay. According to Price, 42 photographers, 73 pressmen and a ‘talkie’ set up were present at the rehearsal and the resulting world-wide press coverage is documented in hundreds of press-cuttings in scrapbooks in the Harry Price Archive. The collection also includes is silent film footage of the ritual (HPH/2/5), photographs of the rehearsal (HPG/1/12/1) and Price’s manuscript copy of the Tryst (HPF/5C/52). Although the experiment involved little in the way of actual magic or science, it is an interesting example of the popular fascination with magic and the occult.