Tables have long been important objects in séances. While sitting around these pieces of furniture, séance participants (often guided by mediums) attempt to communicate with spirits and receive messages.
Sometimes, if the séance goers are lucky, tables can become entranced, jolting around the séance room or even levitating into the air.
Caption: ‘A Séance’, Photograph by the Psychic Photographer William Hope, c. early 1920s
During the 1920s the famed psychical researcher Harry Price invented a pair of experimental tables as a way to test whether mediums manipulated these pieces of furniture during séances.
These tables were introduced into Price’s investigations to ensure more rigorous controls were in place.
How did Price’s experimental tables come about? Well, to answer this question, we need to explore his experimental sessions with the medium Stella Cranshaw (or Stella C, as she came to be known in his writings).
Caption: Harry Price in his Laboratory, Surrounded by His Experimental Equipment
In 1923 the then up-and-coming psychical researcher Price happened upon a golden opportunity: to investigate an alleged psychic who had never before been tested.
For a long while Price had wanted to examine the development of a medium’s psychic powers before they had fully matured. Now he had chanced upon the perfect situation.
The psychic’s name was Stella C, a London hospital nurse. Price met Stella C while sharing a compartment on a train. Through a casual conversation during the journey, Stella C informed Price that she possessed some psychic gifts.
Caption: Portrait of Stella C. from the Journal of the British Society for Psychical Research, 1926
In the months that followed, Price organised a series of thirteen sittings with Stella C to investigate her powers. His initial findings were published as an article in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1924.
Caption: Table of Contents to the Issue Featuring Price's Investigation of Stella C. from the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1924
Several types of physical manifestations were produced during Price’s sittings with Stella C, including knocks and raps. However, it was her supposed table levitations that inspired him to produce some of his more innovative equipment.
While all of these kinds of psychic phenomena, including table levitations, were fairly common at séances since the middle of the nineteenth century, Price’s investigation of Stella C is notable because of the formalised mode of observation that he developed during the proceedings, which were conducted under more stringent controls.
Price’s experiments with Stella C are significant therefore because they embody the presentation style that came to epitomise his reporting.
In the years ahead, Price would start his account of any investigation with overviews of the protocols and procedures used during the tests, descriptions of the spaces where the tests occurred, and explanations of the sorts of precautions installed to inhibit trickery from happening.
In addition, Price would provide technical information on the kinds of equipment that he used, so that other researchers could try and replicate his results.
However, Price’s experimental tables were some of the most interesting innovations to develop from his investigation of Stella C’s mediumship.
It had long been known that mediums used their legs to lift tables during séances to fake levitations or table tilts. Often these manifestations were done in darkened spaces, making it easier to fool sitters. The magician William Marriott famously demonstrated this trick in his renowned six-part serial titled ‘On the Edge of the Unknown’ from Pearson’s Magazine in 1910.
Caption: Magician William Marriott Demonstrating How to Fake a Table Levitation in his Article from Pearson's Magazine in 1910
Price’s specially designed experimental tables were made to catch this kind of cheating.
Photographs of these ingenious contraptions were included in Price’s article on his early sittings with Stella C in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.
One of these tables had a special cage to inhibit sitters from getting their legs under the frame to lift it.
Caption: Price's Specially-Designed Experimental Table with Cage from the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1924
The other experimental table had a specially-enclosed shelf surrounded by a mesh where items could be stored but still remain in view.
These items (like a bell, for example) could be manipulated by supposed spirits. However, a physical hand would be unable to break through the barrier without detection.
Caption: Price's Specially-Designed Experimental Table with Mesh Casing and Shelf from the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1924
So, there you have. Through Price’s investigation of the medium Stella C, he came develop a set of experimental tables that would enhance the rigour of his investigatory practice.
Specially designed tables for testing mediums are still used by psychical researchers today. While Price’s versions from the 1920s are probably some of the most famous examples to be produced during the twentieth century, there were earlier types of experimental tables developed during the nineteenth century.
However, that is a story for another time...
Trevor H., Hall, Search for Harry Price, (London: Duckworth, 1978).
William Marriott, ‘Physical Phenomena,’ Pearson’s Magazine, 29: 174, 1910, pp. 607-618
William Marriott, ‘Realities of the Séance,’ Pearson’s Magazine, 29: 171, 1910, pp. 236-246.
Richard Morris, Harry Price: The Pyschic Detective, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2006).
Harry Price, ‘Stella C. A Record of Thirteen Sittings for Thermo-Psychic and Other Experiments,’ Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 28 (1924), pp. 305-361.
Paul Tabori, Harry Price: The Biography of a Ghost-Hunter, (London: Athenaeum Press, 1950).