“The case of William Hope and his Crewe Circle deserves to be remembered today because it shows that it is practically impossible (and futile) to try to convince someone who wants to believe even in the face of quite convincing contrary evidence.”
Massimo Polidoro. Photos of Ghosts: The burden of Beleiving the Unbeleivable. 2011.
These photographs of ‘spirits’ are taken from an album of photographs discovered by chance in a Lancashire second-hand and antiquarian bookshop by a curator from the UK’s National Science & Media Museum. They were taken by a controversial medium called William Hope (1863–1933).
William Hope was one of the pre-eminent spirit photographers of the early 20th century. Considered by his believers and supporters to be a true master in the art of producing spirits on ordinary photographic plates.
Hope, born in 1863 in Crewe began his career unremarkably, as a carpenter. In about 1905 he became interested in spirit photography after supposedly capturing the image of a ghost whilst photographing a friend. In that photo the “extra” – the image of a person who was not physically present when the photo was taken – appeared to be the deceased sister of his friend, the photograph’s subject.
This 1905 photo seems to have been the catalyst for Hope’s life’s work. He and six others booked a Spiritualist hall in Crewe and began organized regular group meetings. Their purpose; to create spirit photographs. He went on to found & lead this group of six, all spirit photographers, who called themselves The Crewe Circle.
The Crewe circle were somewhat cautious intitially. In fear of being suspected of witchcraft of occult practices, in its early stages the circle would destroy every negative they made. This changed when Archbishop Thomas Colley, a lifelong enthusiast of both the supernatural and Spiritualism, joined the circle, lending them a certain legitimacy. Then the Crewe Circle began to make their work public.
Hope had the luck of the devil. When the circle’s trophy member, Archbishop Colley had his first sitting, Hope fucked up. He doctored the photograph with the wrong spirit extra, adding a completely different elderly woman in place of Colley’s mother.
Hope actually tried to come clean with the Archbishop, but the clergyman dismissed his confession as “nonsense” saying he could recognize his own mother when he saw her and the ghostly “extra” in the photo was most definitely his mother. To prove his point, the Archbishop put a notice in the local newspaper asking anyone who knew and remembered his mother to call at the rectory. Luckily for Hope, 18 people selected Hope’s mistake from a line up of several old ladies. What’s more they were most insistent. The random old lady Hope had slipped slyly into frame with the Archbishop, that lady right there, was most definitely the ghost of the late Mrs. Colley.
Another man named Edward Bush exposed Hope too. Bush caught Hope out by setting him a trap. Bush sent Hope a letter along with a photograph of a living person which he said was his dead son. Bush signed the letter off with the fake name “Wood”. A sitting was arranged at which Hope came up trumps for “Wood” a.k.a Bush. He produced a photograph of Bush with a “spirit” extra beside him. This time there was no fuck up. The “extra” looked the spiiting image of the photograph Bush had sent Hope. Scrawled across the photograph were the words “Dear friend Wood”. After this total bust, the psychical researcher Whately Carington wrote, “any reasonable person will say that Mr Bush had proved his case.” After Bush’s exposure, a friend of the world famous magician Harry Houdini (an avid sceptic of the supernatural), named DeVaga, attended a sitting with Hope in 1921 and was deeply suspicious. He thought the dark conditions in the room were dubious and suspected Hope’s spirit producing magic was more likely of sleight of hand, a deft deception based on the switching or adding of photographic plates rather than anything supernatural.
Following World War I, support for the Crewe Circle grew as relatives of those lost to the war sought a soft landing for their abrupt loss. People who wanted more than anything to contact their loved ones. The dead. For spiritualists like Hope, this was a boom time. By 1922 Hope had moved to London where he became a professional medium.
There were sceptics however, and the secretive workings of the Crewe Circle were investigated on various occasions. What came to be the most famous of these inquiries took place in 1922, when the Society for Psychical Research sent in their A-Team – Harry Price, Eric Dingwall and William Marriott – to investigate the group. This group was led by Harry Price.
The Society for Psychical Research team sent to investigation William Hope were a diverse, interesting bunch:
Price knew a thing or two ablout trickery & deception. He was an expert amateur conjurer & an expert in sleight-of-hand magic tricks. This stood him in good stead for what would become his all consuming passion, the investigation of paranormal phenomena. Price, with his knowledge of conjuring had already been able to easily debunk several fraudulent mediums before the Society for Psychical Research sent him to investigate the Crewe Circle & Hope. Unusually & in direct contrast to other magicians, Price had actually endorsed some mediums that he believed were genuine. Two years after his investigation of these fraudsters in Crewe, he joined another “Circle”, the Magic Circle, an enigmatic inner chamber of magicians.
Nicknamed “Dirty Ding” due to his avid interest in erotica and sexual customs, Digwall was a British antropologist, Librarian and psychical researcher. Born in Ceylon to an extremely wealthy family and educated at Cambridge, those closest to him described Dingwall, with his strange posture and thick spectacles that magnified his eyes, as an eccentric. He wrote books on sexology (these were very popular), was obsessed with horology (the study of the measurement of time), antiquarian timepieces and erotic literature. In 1922 he was a research officer with the Society for Psychical Research. Dingwall became devoted to the investigation of paranormal activity, spending a whopping sixty years in the field. Between 1920 and 1930 he travelled extresively scouring Europe and the United States, investigating mediums and exposing them as frauds. In the late 1940s, “Dirty Ding” landed what must have been his dream job – working at the British Museum as Hon. Assistant Keeper in the Reference Division, cataloguing their private case material of erotica, magic and the paranormal.
In his final days Dingwall seems to have thought all that lifetime of investigation had been a collossal waste of time. In 1971 essay he said:
“Since I gave up nearly all active work in psychical research, I have often been asked why, after more than sixty years’ work in the field, I have finally lost most of my interest in it. There are two answers to the question. First, I have come to the conclusion that the present immense interest in occultism and in the grosser forms of superstition is due, to a certain extent at least, to the persistent and far-reaching propaganda put out by the parapsychologists. In this they have, I think, a very grave responsibility. With the gradual decline in the West of belief in Christianity has come not, as one might have hoped, a leaning toward the rational way of looking at the world but a decided tendency to adopt the magical way. Thus Christianity, unbelievable as it may be to the rational mind, has been supported by the occult superstitions of darker ages. One reason, therefore, for my ceasing work is that I do not wish to be associated with persons who actively support such superstitions as are today everywhere apparent. I cannot accept such responsibility… After sixty years’ experience and personal acquaintance with most of the leading parapsychologists of that period I do not think I could name half a dozen whom I could call objective students who honestly wished to discover the truth.”
In his will he left the British Museum a singing bird automaton and an automaton clock. The bulk of his remaining estate (a huge £678,246) was divided between the British Library and the horological section (the Clocks and Watches department) of the British Museum.
Marriott a.k.a. Dr. Wilmar was a British magician notorious for exposing fraudulent spiritualist mediums. He’d attend and study them at Séances, routinely busting many of them in the act. He stated that he could produce by natural means any of the effects produced by spiritualists and in 1910 he demonstrated thsi in a series of four articles in Pearson’s Magazine. For Pearson’s he created and supplied a series of fake spirit photographs, to show the public just how easily they could be made. For this exercise he duplicated the phenomena of the Bangs Sisters, a female spiritualist duo from Chicago who, in 1894, had conducted a wedding ceremony between a wealthy Massachusetts woman and her dead fiancé, were as prolific as they were ingenious and specialised in “spirit painting”.
Edward Clodd, the British rationalist author, said Marriott ws “the most experienced exposer of mediums in this country.”
The investigation took the form of a test, held in London under the auspices of the newly formed (April 1920) British College of Psychic Science, a quarterly journal. Purportedly, the college’s sole purpose was to collect evidence for genuine paranormal phenomena and to spread the knowledge by means of the college and they spared neither time nor expense in their efforts.
This would have felt to Hope like a kind of do or die moment. He’d had lucky escapes and been exposed two years before.
Before joining the SPR, Price had already exposed a number of fraudulent mediums, thus earning him distain & distrust in the spiritualist community. The British College of Psychic Science too, weren’t out to disprove anything, quite the opposite, they existed to find proof of the paranormal. So Price, Dingwall & Marriott had their work cut out. They had to be careful here, on their guard, it could be them that come out of this accused of tampering and bias. The sitting then commemced with all the standard séance hymn singing, chanting and prayers. Hope and Price went into an adjoining dark room where Price examined the photographic slide that Hope planned to use to expose the photographic plates. Ever the sleight of hand magician, Price used a needle to secretly make 12 tiny punctures into Hope’s slide. He then opened a packet of fresh plates that he’d brought with him specially for the occasion. The plates were from the Imperial Dry Plate Co. Price had the platemakers imprint their trademark in the corner of each plate. If all was above board & no switching took place, the trademark should appear on any negative that Hope produced. Price loaded two plates into the slide and then Hope asked for the slide.
The room was dark as Price handed the slide to the medium Hope. Now Harry Price did his best to watch Hope’s every move. In one smooth action, Hope tucked the dark slide into the left breast pocket of his coat. Then he pulled it out again. There was no need whatsoever for it. Price knew immediately that slide had been switched already and the game had begun. Price when through the motions of having his photograph taken photograph be taken regardless.
In the photograph that Hope took of him that day, Price looks dubious, resigned. He’s just playing Hope’s game. He knows he’s the mark. The one being played now. Played by a pro. His clasped hands say something too. Surely he’s thinking hard, wrestling the options for his next move.
When it was over, Price refused to sign the plates, as Hope wanted him to. He knew they weren’t the plates he’d given him, Hope had swapped them the second he’d taken them. Next he examined the slide itself. The 12 needle marks had vanished. There was no doubt. This wasn’t the slide he’d given Hope. Hope had used his own slide, one he’d secreted about his person. He didn’t confront Hope there and then. Price now had concrete evidence of deception and he didn’t want it destroyed or covered up. Hut took away the two photographs Hope took of him, one of which contained a beautiful female “extra”. The Imperial Dry Plate logo had disappeared. As well as switching the slide, Hope had pulled off switching the two plates.
Price now had all the evidence he needed and more. He knew the slide had been switched but only had his own word for his needle marks. The plates, well that was different. The plates were given would produce a negative reading Imperial Dry Plate Co. in the corner. Hope’s negatives had nothing. A child could see he’d used different plates. As well as this, the Imperial Dry Plate Co. test plates were a different thickness, weight and color to the plates Hope gave back. Plus they were “fast” plates, while the ones that Hope gave back to him were “slow” ones.
Later the same year Price published his findings, exposing Hope as a fraudster. However, many of Hope’s most ardent supporters spoke out on his behalf and Hope continued to practice, to thrive despite his exposure by Price. He died in London on 7 March 1933. Despite Price’s findings, Hope still retained a noted following amongst spiritualists. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle refused to accept Price’s evidence that Hope was a fraud, going as far as suggesting that Price, Dingwall and Marriott had conspired to frame Hope.
The Society for Psychical Research produced a monthly journal and in its May 1922 issue, Price published his report on the Hope test. The report, “Cold Light on Spiritualistic Phenomena” was later reprinted as a booklet and, as he’d feared he would be, Price was instantly attacked by the Spiritualists. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who (since the death of his son) was a staunch supporter of and believer in the Crewe Circle denounced Price and his methods. He and the Spiritualist newspapers accused Price of trickery and of switching the plates himself in a plan to discredit the medium. One major proponent of Spiritualism, Sir Oliver Lodge, however believed Price and wrote to him saying, “I don’t see how your proofs of Hope’s duplicity could be more complete.”
An angry Conan Doyle got to work.
In response to the Price’s evidence, his article, booklet and exposure of Hope, Doyle wrote a book, The Case for Spirit Photography in response to the Price incident.
Shortly after Doyle’s death in 1930, the widow of a man who had worked for Hope came forward. This man had worked for Hope at the time of Price’s expose and ws there at the séance and importantly afterwards. The widow said that the séance, her curious husband had through Hope’s luggage. He’d “found in a suitcase a flash lamp with a bulb attachment, some cut-out photographic heads and some hairs.” Price would later say that if this man (or his wife) had come out with this sooner his destroyed relationship with Conan Doyle could have been preserved.
“This vital information would have ended my controversy with Sir Arthur,” said Price, “Incidentally, it would have ended Hope too!”