The Ghost of Rosalie, as Investigated by Harry Price

Photograph of Harry Price
From the Senate House Library, University of London

Famed paranormal investigator Harry Price was invited to a London séance on the night of December 15 1937 with a bold promise: the guaranteed materialisation of a ghost child named Rosalie.

Price accepted the invitation and, after putting various controls in place, attended the séance. Despite precautionary measures against potential fraud, Rosalie did appear. Price left the séance that night perplexed. Had he really come face to face with the spirit of a child, or was he the victim of a very clever hoax?

Price quickly jotted down notes on his experience which were published two years later in his book 50 Years Of Psychical Research. So, according to Price, what actually happened that night?

The Proposition

Price first heard of Rosalie on 8 December 1937 when Mrs X (names and locations censored by Price) reached out with an invitation to her weekly Wednesday night séance. The séances were held at the X residence, located in ‘one of the better-class London suburbs’ and attended by friends of Mrs X. This included Madame Z, mother of the deceased Rosalie. Mrs X assured Price that if he attended her séance she would produce a genuine ghost.

Before he agreed, Mrs X asked Price to acknowledge the following conditions:

  1. No scientific investigation was to take place, as the mother of Rosalie was afraid her daughter would be frightened away.
  2. No light (via torch) was to be brought into the séance room.
  3. Rosalie was not to be spoken to or touched without permission.
  4. Nothing was to be done during the séance without the host’s prior consent, including any experimentation.

If he agreed to her conditions, Mrs X told Price that he could do the following prior to the séance:

  1. Search the entirety of the house, including the drawing room where the séance would take place.
  2. Seal all the windows and doors.
  3. Remove any furniture or ornaments from the séance room.
  4. Sprinkle powdered starch (or other powdered substances) around doors and windows, or place electrical contacts in these spots.
  5. Any attendees could be searched before and after the séance.

But once the séance began, Price was required to sit quietly and ask permission before either engaging with Rosalie or further altering the séance setting.

On Monday 13 December Price accepted Mrs X’s invitation and enquired about bringing his own witness to the event, Mr R. S. Lambert of The Listener. After receiving no reply, Price attended the séance alone on Wednesday 15 December.

The house was a large detached, mid-Victorian residence in a nice, unnamed London suburb. When he arrived he had dinner with Mrs X, her husband, and their teenage daughter. At the dinner, he was told the story of Rosalie.

History of Rosalie

Rosalie was the daughter of Mrs X’s friend, Madame Z, a former French nurse who had married an English officer. Her husband was killed in the war in 1916 shortly after Rosalie was born. In 1921, when Rosalie was only six years old, she died after a brief battle with diphtheria. Four years after the death of her daughter, Madame Z woke in the night to the sound of Rosalie crying out for her mother. This became a reoccurring occurrence. According to Madame Z, she would see an outline of her daughter in the dark and hear her footsteps on her bedroom floor. She claimed that one night she even felt the deceased Rosalie grab onto her hand.

Mr and Mrs X, with their limited but enthusiastic knowledge of spiritualism, offered to host séances for Madame Z to contact her daughter. The first séance was held near the end of 1928. Despite continuing to materialise in her mother’s bedroom, Rosalie did not appear during a séance at the X Residence until spring of 1929. During her first appearance, Rosalie surprised Madame Z by grabbing onto her hand. During these early materialisations, the séances were said to be conducted in total darkness.

Rosalie continued to appear at the séances, eventually answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions asked by her mother. Guests present at the seances had little to no affect on whether or not Rosalie chose to show herself. After a while, light was slowly brought into the seances with the use of hand-mirrors covered with luminous paint.

Price Prepares for the Séance

Following their dinner, Price joined Mr and Mrs X, their daughter Miss X, and two new arrivals, Madame Z and ‘Jim’, a 22-year old bank clerk. After introductions, Price prepared for the séance by doing the following throughout the house:

  1. Exploring every room, including the attic.
  2. Closing and fastening windows and placing strips of tape, which he initialled in ink, across the joints.
  3. Sealing the three external doors.

Price then gave the séance room (which was the X’s drawing-room) an in-depth inspection and made the following changes:

  1. Ornaments, the clock, and photos were removed and put in the dining room.
  2. Starch powder was sprinkled outside of the drawing-room.
  3. Adhesive tape was put across the door, lintel, and windows, which he initialled.
  4. A sheet of newspaper (which Price had on him) was placed under the chimney and sprinkled with starch powder. He then “drew [his] monogram in the starch, the printed matter beneath showing through.”
  5. Every remaining piece of furniture was thoroughly examined, moved, opened, and emptied.
  6. The floorboards were examined, including underneath the rugs.
  7. The wireless cabinet was inspected from the back.

When everyone was inside the drawing-room, the door was locked and Price put the key in his pocket. The parlour maid and the cook were the only people in the house who were not inside the drawing-room during the séance.

The final preparation required an examination of Mr X, Mrs X, Miss X, Madame Z, and Jim, who would be present during the séance. Mr X and Jim were given a pat down and had their pockets searched. But while Price was given permission, he was uncomfortable searching the three women. Miss X, however, allowed a brief visual search and Mrs X and Madame Z agreed to allow Price to sit between them in leu of a body search. The X’s dog, an Airedale Terrier, was in the room for the duration of the séance. The seating arrangement can be seen in Price’s diagram below:

Diagram showing the layout of the drawing-room during the séance at the X Residence on Wednesday 15 December 1937. From page 138 of Price’s ‘Fifty Years of Psychical Research’ (1939).

Before the séance began at 9:10PM and after the guests had taken their seats, Price sprinkled more starch powder in front of both the door and fireplace. Four luminous plaques were placed face down in the middle of the circle of chairs by one of the hosts. When they were ready to begin, Price took his seat between Mrs X and Madame Z and let the show commence.

The Materialisation of Rosalie

The guests talked quietly for 20 minutes before Mr X asked for silence and turned on the wireless radio to find “suitable music”. The radio, as seen in the diagram, was located to the right of Price’s seat. The light from the radio illuminated the room just enough for Price to make out faces. He noted that Madame Z was crying. After 5 minutes of music, Mr X turned the radio off, removing any light from the room, and sat back down in the circle. For the next 20 minutes, Madame Z and Mrs X cried while calling out for Rosalie.

Shortly after 10:00PM, the room still in darkness, Rosalie entered the scene:

[I] realized that there was something quite close to me. I neither heard nor saw anything, but the sensation was an olfactory one — I seemed to smell something that was not there previously. It was a strange, not unpleasant smell.

Fifty Years of Psychical Research, Chapter VII ‘Rosalie’, page 141.

Price was reminded not to speak now that Rosalie was present. The only sound in the otherwise silent room was Madame Z’s cries and whispers to her daughter. Price then experienced his first physical contact with ‘Rosalie’:

The next sound I heard was a sort of shuffling of feet on my left at the same moment as something slightly touched the back of my left hand, which was resting on my knee… It felt soft and a little warm.

Fifty Years of Psychical Research, Chapter VII ‘Rosalie’, page 141.

A few minutes later Mrs X asked Madame Z if Price could touch Rosalie, which Madame Z agreed to. After physical examination, Price concluded that the nude figure standing between himself and Madame Z was young girl. He wrote that her skin felt like warm but ‘not so warm as one would expect to find normal human flesh’. He also noted that he could hear Rosalie breathing and when he placed his hand on her chest he could feel ‘respiratory movements’. Despite the darkness, he concluded that the figure beside him was most certainly a child.

There are no words to express how I felt at the appearance of the form before me — or rather to the left of me. A supreme scientific interest, with a feeling of absolute incredulity, would best describe my reactions. I had not bargained for anything so wonderful (or so clever!) as this. But if I had been tricked, so had the mother, and that was unthinkable. She, at least, was not acting a part.

Fifty Years of Psychical Research, Chapter VII ‘Rosalie’, page 141.

Price was then allowed to move his chair closer and examine Rosalie with both hands. This time, he lifted her arms and felt her pulse which ‘appeared to be too quick’. He put his ear to her chest and could hear her heart beating. Since the room was still dark, Price asked Mr X, Miss X, and Jim, who were sitting on the other side of the circle, to prove they were still in their original seats.

Permission was then granted to shine one of the luminous plaques on Rosalie, starting from her feet and gradually moving up the rest of the her body. Price concluded that she looked like a normal human child:

I could see the soft texture of the flesh, which appeared to be without blemish. As our plaques travelled upwards the face of the form was revealed and we beheld a beautiful child who would have graced any nursery in the land. Her features were classical and she looked older than her alleged years.

Fifty Years of Psychical Research, Chapter VII ‘Rosalie’, page 142.

Price then asked permission to speak directly to Rosalie, and was granted one minute to ask the following questions.

  1. ‘Where do you live, Rosalie?’
  2. ‘What do you do there?’
  3. ‘Do you play with other children?’
  4. ‘Have you any toys there?’
  5. ‘Are there any animal pets?’

Each question went unanswered by Rosalie, who continued to stare forward as if she didn’t understand what Price was saying. However, she did respond to Price’s final question, asking Rosalie ‘do you love your mummy?’:

I saw the expression on her face change and her eyes light up. ‘Yes,’ she lisped. ‘Rosalie’ had barely uttered this single word when Madame Z gave one cry and clasped her ‘daughter’ to her breast. Mrs X places our plaques on the floor again and asked for complete silence – rather difficult as all the women in the circle were crying. I must admit that I was rather affected myself — it was a touching and pathetic scene.

Fifty Years of Psychical Research, Chapter VII ‘Rosalie’, page 143.

The room was reduced to darkness one final time and Rosalie departed as mysteriously as she arrived. At 11:00PM, Mrs X closed the séance. Apparently unaffected by the supernatural events, the Airedale dog continued to sleep. Once the drawing-room door was unlocked, Price checked the seals and powders he’d previously left around the house, followed by another thorough search. As far as he could tell, nothing was out of order.

In his book Fifty Years of Psychical Research (1939), Price admits:

“…though I am satisfied that I took every precaution against deception which my long experience in these matters suggested, it is still possible that I was deceived.” (130)

Fifty Years of Psychical Research, Chapter VII ‘Rosalie’, page 141.

What Really Happened that Night?

Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

A few takeaways and questions that will never receive answers (but are fun to ask anyways), assuming the séance was somehow staged:

  1. Why wasn’t Price allowed to bring an acquaintance to the séance?
    Jim’s presence was noted that evening, despite not having a direct connection to the persons involved. But when Price requested Mr Lambert joins them, his request went ignored. We then find out that it was Madame Z who disallowed his presence ‘in case it frightened Rosalie’. Was giving Price a second set of eyes a potential risk to a hoax being discovered?
  2. Were the parlour maid and cook somehow involved?
    As the only two people present in the home outside of the séance room, is it possible that any trick played on Price that night somehow involved them?
  3. Was the radio used to cover up footsteps or floor creaks while ‘Rosalie’ entered the room?
    It’s suspicious that the dark and quiet parlour room required sound from the radio for the five minutes leading up to Rosalie’s materialisation. But this doesn’t explain her silent disappearance at the end of the séance as well as the undisturbed starch powder in front of the door. Or were the women’s cries throughout the séance a strategic way to cover up any suspicious sounds?
  4. Price placed the key to the drawing room in his pocket, but was this the only key to the room?
    Old doors are relatively noisy when being unlocked and pushed open. But with the assistance of the radio and the crying women, it’s possible the parlour maid or cook escorted ‘Rosalie’ into the room during the séance.
  5. Why did Rosalie appear to be more alive than dead?
    Rosalie’s skin felt warm, she had a pulse, and when Price put his head to her chest he could hear her breathing. Three clear signs that someone is alive. Price wrote “If it is a spirit — I argued to myself — then there is no difference between a spirit and a human being.” For the sake of a hoax, was it logistically too difficult to make Rosalie feel ‘dead’? Why did the hosts allow Price to touch Rosalie if it was obvious she was alive?
  6. The séance took place in a location unfamiliar to Price, but familiar to the hosts.
    At the end of his notes, Price states “if I had witnessed the materialization of ‘Rosalie’ in my own laboratory, I should not hesitate to proclaim to an incredulous world that survival was proved. It is possible — though very doubtful — that last night’s historic (as far as I am concerned) séance may be repeated under better conditions in a laboratory. But Madame Z is convinced that ‘Rosalie would be frightened away.” The downfall of the séance, as Price recognises, is that it took place away from an environment that he could fully control, despite his best efforts.
  7. Did Mr and Mrs X know more about spiritualism than Price gave them credit for?
    Mrs X contacted Price after she read a published version of a talk he gave on haunted houses in The Listener. When he arrived at their home the night of the séance, Mr and Mrs X spoke of their interest in psychical research but Price said that they “[had] read little of the standard literature“. If the séance was staged, it is likely the X’s were far more educated on the topic than they were letting on. If they were aware of Price outside of his talk on haunted houses, they might have known or made an educated guess on the types of controls he would set. A good hoax requires necessary knowledge. If this is true, the X’s would have been incredibly bold to allow Price (an expert in this field) to examine their house and touch their ‘ghost’.
  8. Why stage a fake séance?
    People create hoaxes all the time, especially when it comes to the paranormal. Price was known for debunking them, so the X’s and Madame Z could have been making a game of attempting to trick a famous paranormal investigator.
  9. Would Price lie about his findings?
    Perhaps. It was said that Price loved publicity, and what’s more newsworthy — debunking a ghost or claiming the existence of one? It wouldn’t be the first time Price was called out on his findings. Accusations of fraud on Price’s part were made posthumously by three members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in their 1956 book The Haunting of Borley Rectory, criticising Price’s famous investigation of Borley Rectory. However, the SPR didn’t see eye-to-eye with Price during his lifetime, which may or may not have influenced this criticism.
  10. How much of Rosalie’s story was… just a story?
    Did Rosalie actually exist? Did Madame Z really have a daughter who had passed away? Or was it all created as a sympathetic backstory for the ‘séance’? Had the séances to contact Rosalie taken place for as long as the group claimed? Or was it all fabricated for the sake of Price’s investigation?

There’s no doubt that the case of Rosalie is a peculiar one. Price’s account has baffled paranormal researchers for decades and will continue to do so well into the future. And since everyone involved is long deceased it’s impossible to know what actually happened on that winter night over 80 years ago. It’s a fun puzzle, in which everyone involved could be lying, or (curiously) telling the truth.

To read Price’s full account of the séance, see his 1939 book Fifty Years of Psychical Research, which was used for the basis of this article.

Ashley

Ashley is a history and ghost story enthusiast with a BA and MA in Art History. Originally from Canada, Ashley has lived in Buckinghamshire for the past four years and enjoys writing about curious histories and locations around the British Isles.