The Montague and Veronica Keen Foundation
Dedicated to love, truth and simplicity

Written in 2003

Peter Flew’s carefully documented account (Paranormal Review, October 2003) of his eight sittings with a Group in Ealing, West London, comes down rather tentatively in support of the belief that the medium could have faked the several physical apparitions, movements, voices and films he describes. His conclusions clearly conflict with those I reached after three sittings with the Group as an emissary of the SPR to explore the conditions under which suitable controlled séances could be conducted to standards likely to pass SPR muster. Since I have prepared a detailed account of my experiences for the SPR Journal, and amended it in consequence of peer-review and editorial suggestions, and because this was the subject of a controversial account I gave at the 2002 SPR conference, readers of the Paranormal Review may well be bewildered by the conflicting impressions, and evidence.

Whereas Peter has given pseudonymous initials to all concerned, I have publicly identified the Group as that organised by the late Margaret Wehling and her then partner, subsequently husband, Norbert Roth. There was never anything secret about it or them, and I have identified the other sitters who attended the three séances, including Peter Flew who was present with Mary Rose Barrington and my wife at the second sitting.

As one of the several reasons in support of the case for genuineness, I had argued that the evidence of the films showed clearly that they must have been created before rather than after the ejection of the film from a lens-sealed manual expulsion Polaroid camera. Following Richard Wiseman’s demonstration, others (myself included) have produced interesting fakes by post-expulsion manipulation. None, however, has the distinguishing characteristic of the defective film (created when Peter was present) which led me to conclude that this must have been a pre-expulsion phenomenon. Aware of the controversy surrounding the creation of these films, ostensibly by spirit enterprise, Peter is to be congratulated in having devised an ingenious system to show how fakes could have been created before the expulsion of each film from the cassette within the Polaroid camera. The implication is that, with some practice and ingenuity, the medium might have been responsible.

There are very good reasons to doubt this. It is acknowledged that Margaret Wehling and Norbert Roth could not have been responsible, partly because any movement from their seats would almost certainly have been noticed by those sitting immediately behind them; partly because they were talking, or arguing, throughout the proceedings, and finally because of the efforts Norbert made to capture all on infra-red video. It is certainly true that the medium appeared to have the run of the Wehling house and could have smuggled in apparatus for his tricks. However, he accompanied the Wehlings (they married in Australia) to Dortmund where séances were given. Margaret Wehling sent me a series of colour reproductions of the films produced. He is unlikely to have had the same opportunity to prepare his apparatus in a foreign venue. Likewise in Australia, to which he repaired in company with the Wehlings (contrary to Peter’s assertion). Moreover, for the third sitting he wore a short-sleeved shirt, making the concealment of equipment far from easy.

Let us see just what the medium would have had to accomplish had he been responsible for all the phenomena we recorded. Even without a restraining tether or a net barrier to surmount, it is difficult to imagine that the medium could have risen unnoticed from his cushioned chair in order to undertake a series of spectacular conjuring tricks in total darkness on a small floor encumbered by pots, troughs, a large architectural drawing board, a music box, various bowls and pad and pen, all without tripping over or knocking into some object. However, at the second séance when Mary Rose Barrington, sitting immediately behind the medium’s armchair, and without his prior knowledge, arranged to tether his wrist, he would not merely have had to escape from it unobserved while devising some foolproof method of maintaining the cord tension throughout, but get back into the tether again after returning to his seat a few inches from his normally vigilant and professionally suspicious guardian.

Peter was not present during the next sitting (June 18th, 2000), which provided an even more formidable challenge to the medium’s dexterity, since he would have been obliged to escape from and return to his chair, unnoticed by my wife, Professor Fontana, myself or Maurice Grosse, all seated behind the medium and the Wehlings. Had he managed it, he would then have been obliged to crawl under the plastic netting secured from wall to wall across the room and taped to the floor. Since I have kept a precise record of the events of this sitting, a draft of which was approved by all three Council members of the SPR along with my wife, it is instructive to examine just what the medium would have then been obliged to do within an area of about six feet by twelve comprising the netted off section:

Before tackling the net barrier, the medium seated on a heavily cushioned easy chair, would have to produce a series of sharp knocks to spell out a word which led us to conclude that there was too much light from the tape recorder held by Maurice Grosse. Then, wearing an open-necked short sleeve shirt, and operating within the couple of feet or so of space between the front row of seats and the netting, he would have to seize a pedestal table standing within inches of the Wehlings. This he would upend it so that it appeared to float over the heads of all those in the second row, nodding to each of us visitors in turn, as could be clearly seen from the changing relative positions of the luminous identification tabs fixed to the table top. The medium, not much above five feet in height, would have had to lift the base or pedestal of the table very near the ceiling to effect this, as well as moving steadily but noiselessly and unremarked across the room in front of us.

This accomplished, he must get under the net without setting off a number of small bells tied to the top of the net. These would normally tinkle an alarm were the netting vibrated by the unsealing, crawling under, returning and resealing processes. The medium must devise a way to overcome this obstacle, of which he had no prior notice.

Once safely under the net he would have to gain access to a tape recorder playing music and deliberately located by Norbert on a high shelf inaccessible to the medium without a stool, of which there was no sign. This access was needed in order to vary the volume, so that the table top, levitated above the sitters, could move rhythmically to the music, a task made somewhat difficult to perform by the fact that the table was on one side of the barrier while the medium must be presumed to be on the other.

Still behind the barrier, the medium must do or create all of the following:

Even so, Peter Flew’s description of how, under these conditions, the medium had time, opportunity, skill and bravado to create the pictures seriously underestimates the practical difficulties of producing them, and ignores a singularly odd feature which took place after the end of the séance at which he was present, when a control film I had extracted as a check on the numerical sequence of the “spirit” pictures and placed on the pedestal table began to develop an image, which then faded away after a minute or two, under the astonished gaze of at least three of those present. On both that occasion and during the more evidential third sitting on June 18th, two films were produced. There was a short interval, of perhaps a minute, between the production of each film, as judged by the distinctive sound of the manual ejection process. This means that the medium, moving round unerringly in total darkness to perform his other conjurations, would have to open the camera, remove the film cassette, cover the top film with the prepared transparency, somehow shroud the cassette from the light he has contrived to smuggle in or retrieve from its unnoticed hiding place, shine it for a few seconds to transfer the prepared image by contact, replace the cassette in the camera, close it, press the shutter and tug the yellow ring to expel the film; then repeat the entire process for the second film, in intervals of responding by knocks to Mrs Wehling’s questions.

It is all very well to look at each of the events in isolation, and be selective about which are mentioned, but when one considers all the circumstances, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Peter has created a scenario that is wildly improbable. Nevertheless it is instructive to note his reasons to be suspicious; and some are sound. He is certainly correct in his assessment of the quality of the oral communications, and in particular the poor diagnostic skills of the purported medical spirit, addressing us in a voice not dissimilar to that of the Indian medium. However, poor oral quality and unreliable diagnoses do not in themselves indicate fraud. Equally they do not predicate genuineness, but they have no relevance to the authenticity of physical phenomena.

The fleeting shadowy figure caught on infra-red camera linked to a video recorder is more likely to be evidence of genuineness than fraud. Peter recalls that the camera showed “a dark shape rushing across the room to cover and displace the camera.” But if there one thing the medium could not afford to do it was to rush around a pitch black room littered with obstacles. He was, of course, perfectly well aware of the existence of the camera - he owned a TV and video repair shop of some kind - and would know that his movements would be traced. Shadowy figures are just what spirits are supposed to look like!

The withdrawal of the medium once it was proposed to import a hand-held infra-red viewer is news to me, since the June 18th sitting was hurriedly arranged precisely because the Wehlings were just about to depart for Australia in company with the medium. I certainly never suggested using such a viewer, and am opposed to it, since it can focus only at the limited area which the viewer chooses to concentrate on, and leaves detection to subjective impression. The other suspicious circumstances were the traditional objection to light and infra-red photography. This has long been the norm for most séances, and an endless source of controversy and suspicion. But in this case one must hand it to the spirits for having allowed an infra-red film to be made before presumably deciding that it interfered with their operations for some reason. Certainly the inability or unwillingness of the spirits to move a trumpet placed behind Mrs Wehling is curious, but no more curious than the willingness of the trumpet or its manipulator to address in sequence those of us in the second row in circumstances when it would have to have been held by someone moving in front of the curtain but around the table and across the generously proportioned feet of Norbert, to say nothing of the large drawing board protruding from Mrs Wehling’s lap.

One more oddity, of which Peter may have been unaware: during the first sitting I attended: Mrs Wehling supposedly automatically-produced scribbled drawing was placed after the sitting in the adjoining sanctuary, and the doors closed while we all went off for refreshments. On my return to examine the picture I found it substantially altered, with the face of a nun clearly discernible when a few minutes earlier there was a mass of characterless scribbles. But it didn’t happen on subsequent visits.



The Ealing Sittings: Could they have been Faked? by Montague Keen
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