THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
SECRETS OF THE CREWE CIRCLE SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHS
William Hope was one of the premiere spirit photographers of the early Twentieth Century and was considered by believers and supporters to be a true master of the art of producing spirits on ordinary photographic plates. To others, he was a clever trickster and while he had more than his share of detractors, he was often accused of fraud but was never caught at it -- thanks to the controversy that surrounded the main attempt to expose him.
Hope was born in Crewe, England in 1863 and as a young man, went to work as a carpenter. His talent for capturing the spirits in photographs allegedly came about around 1905 when he and a friend were taking turns photographing one another. In a photo that was taken by Hope, there was an "extra" -- the image of a person who was not physically present when the photo was taken. As it turned out, the extra in question was the deceased sister of the photograph's subject.
Not long after this incident, a group of six people organized a Spiritualist hall in Crewe for the purpose of creating spirit photographs. The group became renowned as the "Crewe Circle" with William Hope as its leader. During their early efforts, the circle destroyed all of the negatives of the photos they took for fear of being suspected of witchcraft. However, when Archbishop Thomas Colley, a lifelong enthusiast of both the supernatural and Spiritualism, joined the circle, they began to make their work public.
Ironically, Hope's first brush with exposure as a fraud came when Archbishop Colley arranged his first sitting. According to the story, Hope doctored the photograph with the wrong spirit extra, substituting another elderly woman for Colley's mother.
When Hope tried to confess his fraud to Colley, the other man dismissed his confession as "nonsense"-- he would recognize his mother when he saw her and the extra in the photo was certainly his mother, he stated. To prove his case, he even put a notice in the local newspaper and asked that all of those who remembered his mother should call at the rectory. No fewer than 18 people selected Hope's mistake from among several others and said that it definitely showed the ghost of the late Mrs. Colley.
In February 1922, Hope was almost exposed again but this time, the attempt almost backfired on the accuser and there remains some questions about the incident to this day. By this time, Hope had moved to London and had established himself as a professional medium. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) decided to investigate Hope's claims and sent a new member, Harry Price, to look into it. The young Price had a good working knowledge of conjuring and would later make a name for himself as one of Britain's leading ghost hunters. During the investigation, Price claimed to detect evidence of trickery by Hope but questions immediately arose as to whether it was Price, and not Hope, who had tampered with the photographic plates.
Price told a different story of the incident and blamed his problems with the Spiritualist community on the controversy. Even though he had recently joined the SPR, Price had already exposed a number of fraudulent mediums, earning him the dislike of much of the community. During the sitting, which was organized with hymn singing and prayers like a standard séance, Hope and Price went into the adjoining dark room. Price examined the photographic slide that Hope planned to use and he secretly impressed 12 small punctures into it with a needle. He then was asked to open a packet of plates that he had brought with them. These plates had come from the Imperial Dry Plate Co. and had been imprinted (at Prices' suggestion) with their trademark in the corner. The trademark would then appear on the negative of whatever picture was developed. Price loaded two plates into the slide and then Hope asked for the slide.
As he took it from Price's hand, Harry watched his movements very carefully, which was hard to do on the dull, red darkness of the room. Very quickly, in one smooth movement, Hope placed the dark slide into the left breast pocket of his coat and then, apparently, pulled it back out again. Price knew that the slide had been changed but sat down for the photograph to be taken anyway. When it was over, he refused to sign the plates, as Hope wanted him to, and as he examined the slide, he discovered that his 12 needle marks had "mysteriously" vanished. It was clearly not the same slide that he had given to Hope to use! He did not accuse Hope of a swindle on the spot, fearing that his evidence of deception would be destroyed, but took away two photographs that had been taken of Price, one of which contained a beautiful female "extra" --- but on neither plate was the Imperial Dry Plate trademark! Hope had managed to switch the plates as well. He was able to show that they were not the same type of plates that he had given to Hope to use, as they were a different thickness, weight and color and were "fast" plates, while the ones that Hope gave back to him were "slow" ones.
In the May issue of the Journal of the London SPR, Price published a report under the title "Cold Light on Spiritualistic Phenomena" and it was later reprinted as a separate booklet. Immediately, he was attacked from the Spiritualist camp. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a supporter of the Crewe Circle, denounced Price and his methods. He and the Spiritualist newspapers accused Price of trickery and of switching the plates himself in a plan to discredit the medium. Although Sir Oliver Lodge, who was a proponent of Spiritualism, believed that Hope was fraud and wrote to Harry Price saying: "I don't see how your proofs of Hope's duplicity could be more complete."
More than 11 years after this incident, the widow of a man who worked for Hope admitted in an article that after Price's séance, her husband went through Hope's luggage and "found in a suitcase a flash lamp with a bulb attachment, some cut-out photographic heads and some hairs." Unfortunately, these devastating facts were suppressed in 1922 and Price would later comment that if not for this suppression, his entire relationship with Conan Doyle could have been preserved. "This vital information would have ended my controversy with Sir Arthur," he said. "Incidentally, it would have ended Hope too!"
Although Hope certainly had his detractors, he had his supporters too, including Conan Doyle, who wrote his book The Case for Spirit Photography in response to the Price incident. He was also supported by Sir William Crookes (of Florence Cook / Katie King fame) and Sir William Barrett. Many have suspected that trickery was involved in Crookes' sitting though. The physicist was in his 80's in 1916, when he had his sitting, and had just recently lost his wife. His assistant at the time, J.H. Gardiner, told Crookes' biographer that the negative from which Hope's photograph of Lady Crookes was reproduced showed clear signs of double exposure but that Crookes preferred to ignore this.
To make matters more perplexing, not all of the sittings ended with questionable results. Throughout his career, Hope gained support from many quarters and figured prominently into a book about survival after death by Reverend Charles Tweedale, who owned a haunted house in the town of Otley in Yorkshire. In his writings, Tweedale, gives many accounts of Hope's prowess as a spirit photographer, Stating that there was no fraud evident in the majority of Hope's cases in which people called upon him unannounced, even with secret identities, and obtained clearly recognizable spirit images. One case was that of Mrs. Hortense Leverson, who came to Hope and was given and psychic photograph of her recently deceased husband, Major Leverson, who had been on the staff of the War Office. She was absolutely convinced that the photograph was legitimate. She, along with dozens (perhaps hundreds) of others, believed that Hope was absolutely genuine.
William Hope died on March 7, 1933, leaving a number of mysteries behind. Was he real -- was he merely a fraud? No one can say for sure and like so many of the other enigmas connected to Spiritualism, this one also remained unsolved.