Price and a flying brick

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2004

When Harry Price's second book, 'The End of Borley Rectory' came out, he claimed it contained 'the first photograph ever taken of a Poltergeist projectile in flight'. This was the famous 'Flying Brick'.

Harry Price made his last visit to the rectory in April 1944 along with a researcher, Cynthia Ledsham, and a photographer, David Scherman in order to prepare an article for the then-popular 'Life' magazine, . The Rectory had been severely damaged by fire in 1939, and was, at the time of the visit, being completely demolished. Price and the others were unable to approach the building so there was little for Mr Scherman to photograph. Nothing daunted, they photographed the men at work demolishing the rectory. Amongst various pictures of the ruins was one showing a brick in flight, emerging from the kitchen-passage on the ground floor. In his second Borley book, 'The End of Borley Rectory', Price (1946) published this photograph (Plate XXIII) with the suggestion that this might be an example of a ghostly levitation 'If, indeed, this was a genuine paranormal phenomenon, then we have the first photograph ever taken of a Poltergeist projectile in flight'. He recalled the moment the photograph was taken:

As Mr Scherman pressed the trigger which operated the shutter mechanism of his camera lens a brick, or part of a brick, suddenly shot up about four feet into the air in front of what remained of the kitchen passage, just below the bathroom passage. The three of us saw it, and, as I said, we were at least a hundred feet away from it. We all laughed and called it ' the last phenomenon,' and said the Poltergeists were 'demonstrating' in honour of our visit. We walked over to the passage, where there were many bricks lying about. I picked up several, and all appeared normal. No string or wire was attached to any of them, and we saw no workmen at all on that side of the Rectory.

(Harry Price: The End of Borley Rectoy p.284).

Harry Price claims he was sent an enlargement of the photograph by Scherman, showing the 'levitated' brick, caught in mid-air. He then added some paranormal puff to make it seem that the brick was levitated by some poltergeist effect

It is worth noting that the place where the brick suddenly shot up was formerly part of the kitchen passage—focus of many phenomena, and on the walls of which appeared at least two 'messages.' One of them was 'Marianne-Light-Mass-Prayers.' And in the kitchen passage (see Plan II) was the door leading to the sewing-room, in which many manifestations occurred both before and after the fire. It is interesting that the brick should have been levitated at this precise spot. If, indeed, this was a genuine paranormal phenomenon, then we have the first photograph ever taken of a Poltergeist projectile in flight


When taken to task by Eric Dingwall over the absurdity over these claims, particularly as, in the original photograph, the workman can actually be seen throwing the brick, Price replied extravagantly in a letter

...As for the brick, I will give £1000 to any charity you care to name if you can prove it was faked. The other witnesses (whom I had met for the first time) had never been to Borley before; we were scores of yards away from the brick. The only possible explanation could be that the brick was flung from a long distance, which we did not see, an then it bounced, which we did see, or that Miss Ledsham and Dave Scherman and myself were in collusion. They are still available and would swear in any court of law that there was no trickery"

Price was going to be taken at his word with unfortunate repercussions for his posthumous reputation...

The Borley report, 'The Haunting of Borley Rectory', published a statement from Miss Ledsham (by then Mrs Thompson) to the effect that the brick was one of several thrown by a workman engaged in the demolition, who was concealed from the camera behind a wall, but who had been seen by all three of them, including Price, when they were walking around the Rectory.

'As I told you at our first meeting about a year ago, I had first hand experience of the most bare-faced hocus pocus on the part of the late Harry Price. In April 1944 Mr David Scherman and I were escorted down to Borley by Harry Price. Mr Price's version of what occurred appears on page 284 of 'The End of Borley Rectory'. He refers to a mysterious 'flying brick', photographed by Mr Scherman. As Mr Price pointed out, there were no strings, no wire attached, but what he failed to mention is that there was a brawny workman still at work behind the wall. All three of us saw him as we passed the house towards the spot where the photograph was taken. There is no doubt at all that the flying bricks, several of which came out at regular intervals, were propelled by this workman as part of his demolition work.'

The book added that Harry Price clearly understood that the idea to pass off the 'flying brick' as a genuine paranormal incident was a joke

Mrs Thompson remembers that as bricks were thrown up by workmen concealed behind a wall, she jokingly said 'Look, poltergeists'. H.P. apparently joined in the joke, walked up and picked up the brick and said with a large smile 'Yes, indeed; look ; no strings, no wires attached'. Mrs Thompson took this as so obviously a joke that she was subsequently astounded to see the form the story took on page 285 of 'The End of Borley Rectory'.

Amongst those who suspected that the authors of the SPR report may have been rather unfair was M H Coleman who made some criticisms (Coleman, 1956). These criticisms were taken up, without acknowledgement, by the later Hastings report and in Ivan Banks' book. Hastings, and, much later, Banks made some ingenious speculations that Price could have genuinely believed that he had witnessed, in this flying brick, the activity of a poltergeist : Hastings even courageously, but rashly, tried to cast doubt on Mrs Thompson's normal explanation. Ivan Banks boldly asserted there was only one workman on the site that day, and that he was in no position to have thrown the brick.

Unfortunately, Coleman had continued to ponder the problem of the 'Flying Brick', and had made a couple of surprising discoveries that led him to change his mind and decide that this new evidence had thrown 'a decidedly unfavourable light on both Harry Price's behaviour, and his reporting of events at Borley Rectory.' He tried to publish this material at the time but the editor of the SPR journal had decided that enough had been already said about the Borley Rectory affair. The new evidence was not published until 1997

Mr Coleman had written to David Scherman, the photographer, and was surprised to discover that he had given a written account of what actually happened, and he had kept the negatives of his photographs.

To be quite frank, I saw the workman throwing stones out of the window of the Rectory as it was being wrecked and myself decided it would be fun if we put the camera in such a way so as not to see him, but only the stones he threw. Let me hasten to say that in so doing no attempt was being made to hoodwink our readers— as I recall the caption was jokingly written to imply that this was the sort of thing poltergeists were supposed to do, if poltergeists existed.
When we later discovered that Mr Price, who was in on the joke, had the effrontery to pass off the episode as gospel proof of poltergeists we were delighted at his adventurous spirit.

letter of to Mr Coleman March 15th 1956

Of the three photographs which David Scherman sent to Mr Coleman...

"One was the flying brick photograph, which shows one of the workmen present, at the opposite side of the Rectory. The second shows this same workman loading rubble onto a lorry. The third shows a second workman, older, wearing a cap and smoking a pipe, who was the one responsible for throwing the flying brick. In this photograph he is bending down to pick up the bricks he had previously thrown out of the kitchen-passage, through the courtyard window. In the face of this evidence, there appears to be no justification for regarding the flying brick photograph as anything but the little joke to which David Scherman refers. "

Coleman Journal of the Society for Psychical Research [Vol. 61, No. 847]

Unknown to Mr Coleman, Peter Underwood had written to Mr Scherman in October 1954. The reply was even more revealing:

'It is my recollection that the picture was used in our magazine with the tongue-in-cheek and therefore I was just as astonished as Miss Ledsham that it had been reprinted as proof of supernatural behaviour. I recall at the time that we were amused at seeing the bricks come flying through the window and I think someone may have said "Let's get a picture of that poltergeist throwing stones", or some such. There was no question that there was a workman there. I believe that one of us even asked him to throw a brickbat on queue-or if not we just waited for several to come along.'

Letter from David Scherman to Peter Underwood October 26th 1954

A close reading of the offending section shows how careful Harry Price actually was. He takes pains to report that "We all laughed and called it 'the last phenomenon'". He adds the rider 'If indeed this was a genuine paranormal phenomenon'. He was quite correct in asserting that 'no string or wire was attached'; but he knew precisely how to muddy the waters by claiming incorrectly that the episode 'puzzled us for the rest of the day'. bringing in the association of the wall-writings and the 'many manifestations', and to refer to the incident later as the 'levitation of the half-brick'. This was Harry Price the journalist, not Harry Price the scientist, cautiously gingering up the story once again. It illustrates well the untrustworthiness of Harry Price as a scientific researcher, and neatly illustrates the difficulty that Harry Price's defenders, such as Ivan Banks (1996), and Hastings (1969) have encountered in squaring up to the evidence of his accusers

An Examination of the Borley Report Hastings, R.J. (1969) ProcSPR 55, 65.

Coleman,M.H. (1956) JSPR 38, 249.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory Dingwall, E.J., Goldney, K.M. and Hall, T.H. (1956).

Coleman,M.H. The Flying Bricks of Borley: Journal of the Society for Psychical Research [Vol. 61, No. 847 April 1997

The Enigma of Borley Rectory. Ivan Banks (1996) Foulsham

The End of Borley Rectory Harry Price (1947) Harrup