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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
The withdrawal of the medium once it was proposed to import a hand-
One more oddity, of which Peter may have been unaware: during the first sitting I
attended: Mrs Wehling supposedly automatically-