Whilst researching my sister-in-law Rachel Palmer's ancestry I came across the life and work of her Great Grandfather Ernest Clephan Palmer, a London based journalist and investigative author who set out to debunk fake spiritualists of the early 1900s. His mission brought him into the company of such notable personalities as Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and the legendary escapologist, Harry Houdini.
Ernest Palmer with the support of his friend Arthur Conan Doyle was involved in solving the Oscar Slater case. He was interested in psychical research and spiritualism, he was a friend of the psychical investigator Harry Price.
In his book The Riddle of Spiritualism (1927) Palmer carried out a serious investigation into the claims of spiritualism and came to the conclusion that most mediumship and phenomena observed in the séance is the result of fraud. However, he believed telepathy to explain some cases of mental mediumship. He wrote there is no scientific evidence for the spirit hypothesis in mediumship but there remained many unanswered questions and it would be precipitate to dismiss it entirely
One of the mediums who Ernest Palmer investigated was George Valiantine who claimed that spirits of the dead would speak during séances through a trumpet which floated around in a darkened room. On examination of the trumpet after the séance, Palmer discovered ‘a great deal of moisture’ inside the mouthpiece of the trumpet. Following Palmer’s investigation, Valiantine was proved to be a fraud by the Scientific American who tested his claims that the trumpet floated independently by secretly rigging his chair to an electric light in another room which lit up every time he stood up. During the test, the light signal was activated every time there was trumpet activity, showing that Valiantine was leaving his chair under the cover of darkness to speak into the trumpet.
On another occasion Ernest Palmer’s friend and co-researcher, Harry Price, also caught out George Valiantine by showing that Italian words attributed to the spirit of the late composer Luigi Arditi during a séance were actually word-for-word matches lifted from an Italian phrase book.
It would be interesting to know more about the relationship between Ernest Palmer and Arthur Conan Doyle. The famous author of Sherlock Holmes was a longstanding believer in spiritualism, even falling out with the American magician Harry Houdini who performed illusions for Doyle in his home, explaining his own trickery to make the point that most magical phenomena was pure illusion. But Doyle refused to believe that Houdini’s illusions were tricks and not due to supernatural powers, even when the trickery was explained to him by the famous magician.
Even Houdini’s death was the source of speculation and conspiracy theory connected to his pursuit of debunking mediums and psychics. The magician was killed after an incident at Houdini's dressing room in the Princess Theatre in Montreal when a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, delivered a surprise attack of multiple blows to Houdini's abdomen whilst the magician was reclining on a couch having broken his ankle in a stage act. Witnesses said that the onslaught from Whitehead was meant to test Houdini who allowed the first few punches before objecting. Houdini did not seek medical help for some days and eventually died from acute appendicitis on 31 October 1926.
As recently as 2007 Houdini's grand-nephew (the grandson of his brother Theo), George Hardeen, announced that the American courts would be asked to allow exhumation of Houdini's body, to investigate the possibility of Houdini being murdered by spiritualists. Worthy of a Sherlock Holmes case in itself, the mystery continues to this day.
In 1922 Conan Doyle also fell out with Harry Price, a skeptic and friend of both Harry Houdini and Ernest C Palmer, after Price accused the spirit photographer William Hope of fraud. Hope was well-known for his photographic plates which featured images of spirits, usually imposed behind or next to other subjects who had posed in Hope’s studio. Conan Doyle accused Price of writing “sewage” about spiritualism and led a personal attack on him which Price claimed went on for years.
We can therefore surmise that Ernest Palmer may also have been a friend of Harry Houdini as well as Harry Price, as the three men are cited together as ’debunkers of fraudulent mediums’. In his role as a ghost buster, Houdini often attended séances in disguise accompanied by a reporter, I wonder if this was ever Ernest C Palmer?
Ernest Palmer’s three published books were:
The Solitary Blackbird (1954)
The Young Blackbird (1953)The Riddle of Spiritualism (1927)