The Mediumship of Stella Cranshaw
One of the descriptions of Stella Cranshaw, better known as ‘Stella C.’, was that she was ‘a simple, well-educated girl whose main interest in life was not in psychical science at all, but to whom “odd” things occurred’.
After being ‘discovered’ by Harry Price in 1923, Stella undertook thirteen sittings with him early in the same year: after a break, possibly through becoming engaged, she resumed sittings from February 1926. Stella had a degree of interest in the phenomena that surrounded her, but she had no wish to actually probe them for a meaning. As Tabori notes: ‘She thought them strange but felt little concern about them. She was perfectly happy in her chosen career – a hospital nurse and dispenser’; her amiable disposition led Price and his colleagues to refer to Stella as the ‘gentle maiden’. When Price met Stella, she ‘knew nothing whatever about psychical research, and had never sat with a circle of investigators’
In the years leading up to her chance encounter with Price, she had often been the focus of different phenomena, e.g. strong breezes, object movement, rappings and lights, but had done nothing to investigate them. The breezes were of particular interest due to their highly unusual character. It was noted that when Stella was motionless, a breeze would ‘sweep across the room, taking in its path the flowers, which bend under the strain’. Such occurrences even took place on occasions when she was in a room where the windows and doors were firmly closed, or a ‘hot, still night, when not the slightest ripple in the atmosphere has been noticeable in the open air’. Of those who witnessed the lights which would sometimes appear, they compared these to the sparks generated by an electrical discharge.
Tabori mentions that Stella had only attended one séance in her life before meeting Price: this was ‘at the age of eleven – and then had to be removed from it because of a fit of unconscious giggling’.
Price presumably believed that in Stella, he had found someone with considerable mediumistic abilities; he therefore asked her to co- operate in his work, and was surely delighted when she agreed.
In the case of the first series of séances with her, a thermometer was placed within the room and invariably a reduction in temperature, sometimes quite dramatic, was noted during the proceedings. It was interesting to note that the temperature reduction coincided with the more powerful phenomena. Careful records were made of the séances and these documented the types of phenomena manifested. In the séance room, a sixty-watt lamp was available, controlled by a rheostat. Furthermore, despite the criticisms made of doing it, incense was burned; it was not through any belief that it would, or could directly assist the phenomena, but simply because Stella enjoyed this. A musical box was also used.
The regular sitters included a number of people from varied backgrounds, e.g. Mercy Phillimore, the General Secretary of the LSA, Lt.-Col. W. W. Hardwick, the Managing Editor of ‘Light’, H. W. Pugh, an SPR member, David Thomas, a retired barrister, and Harry Price. Those who were not regular sitters, but attended a number of the séances, included Everard Feilding who had carried out successful research with Eusapia Palladino, and Dr Dingwall, the Research Officer of the SPR. When the séances took place, one of the regular sitters sat on the right of Stella and controlled her right hand and foot, and Price sat on her left controlling Stella’s hand and foot on that side. In the midst of this, it was noted: ‘Never was a medium easier to control than Stella. She did exactly as she was requested, and made no comments – in fact, she hardly spoke at all’.
The records that were made provide a truly remarkable insight into what the sitters were fortunate enough to witness. In the first séance on 22 March, 1923, after twenty minutes from the commencement, the table began to move and rose up on two legs and quickly moved across the room. After this, ‘the table then oscillated, and was apparently controlled by an intelligent entity’. The red light was then switched off although a little light still entered the room through the window: at this, the table moved even more dramatically. During the séance, one of the sitters noticed a ‘column of pale phosphorescent light just behind the medium’. On checking the temperature of the room when the séance concluded, it was discovered that it had fallen by eleven degrees.
In the second séance on 29 March, 1923, the table moved almost constantly throughout the period and it was noted that one of the sitter’s hands had become obscured by ‘some substance (teleplasm?)’. During the latter period, the table movement was accompanied by raps given in response to questions asked, and breezes were also felt by all the sitters present. Once again the temperature fell dramatically. It was also reported that Stella’s position in the room made it ‘physically impossible for her normally to control the table in any way’.
In the third séance on 5 April, 1923, the table levitated and was followed by communication achieved by rapping. It was then decided to use a table again whereupon it levitated several times; in one case it rose above the heads of the sitters who had to rise up to keep some contact with it. However, one unfortunate sitter who decided to remain in his seat was struck by it and then had it descending to rest upon his chest. After the sitters had resumed contact with the table, two of the legs broke away. This activity took place with either a full red light or a degree of daylight.
In the fourth séance on 12 April, 1923, after yet further table movement, the sitters ascertained that Stella’s control was called ‘Palma’, apparently a young child, presumably explaining the gusto displayed in the table communication/movement. Tabori refers to her as ‘an intelligent entity which followed requests and moved a heavy oak table in accordance with the directions given’.
Later in the séance, Stella fell into a light trance state and said that she was seeing a copy of the ‘Daily Mail’, relating to thirty-seven days ahead (i.e., 19 May, 1923). She also reported that she could see a reference to an ‘Andrew Salt’ in large characters and felt this was connected with a boy falling and a man, who seemed to be of the medical profession, stooping over the boy and giving him white powder from a container. As none of the sitters could understand any of this, little attention was given to what had been said. However, on 19 May 1923, it was noticed that the ‘Daily Mail’ had a full page advertisement on its cover page. This was for ‘Andrews Liver Salt’ in large characters, together with a boy pouring, or allowing the falling of white powder from a container. The number of correct features of Stella’s description when compared with the advertisement was totalled as being ten, possibly eleven. The only item missing from all the features that Stella had mentioned was a man with a medical connection, although it was noted that the product itself was of a medicinal type. Enquiries were made into the background of the advertisement and it was ascertained that the advertisement had not been in any poster display; moreover, the ‘Daily Mail’ confirmed that it was only three weeks before the publication date (i.e., at the end of April) that it had been requested to publish this particular advertisement; in fact another had been planned for this issue, but the arrangement had been changed, and furthermore, changed after the time of Stella’s vision. Price observed of this: ‘I have no explanation or hypothesis to offer for the above amazing case of prevision’.
In the fifth séance on 19 April, 1923, there was, in full red light, the usual table movement, and when ‘Palma’ was asked to communicate by rapping, the sitters were confronted by four different types which occurred in different areas at the same time. Further progress was made when an experiment was carried out with the table; in this instance the medium and sitters moved well away from the table and had no contact with it and yet it was seen to move, accompanied by raps being made. After this, the table moved towards Hardwick, injuring his knee; when it rose up on two legs, all the sitters present tried to push it down but were unsuccessful. One only has to consider the power that must have been made present by the communicator(s) to gain some idea about the energy of the phenomena manifested through Stella’s mediumship.
Another such occasion was during the sixth séance, on 3 May 1923, when the table ‘started to wander around the room, compelling the sitters to relinquish their seats’. In the same sitting, two other events took place; firstly a large piece of lilac fell down on to the table. Although a vase of lilacs had been in the séance room earlier on, this had been removed to another room on a different floor, and Price agrees that there was ‘no explanation…as to how it apparently fell from the ceiling on to the table top’. Secondly, those present were fortunate to witness how a ‘bright blue…flash appeared over the head of medium. These flashes were repeated six times’. Indicating an intelligence behind this particular phenomenon, while the lights were appearing, the name of one of the sitters was rapped out, together with other words.
The seventh séance on 10 May, 1923, manifested yet further phenomena; in addition to the table movement and rapping, a handbell under the table was moved (during this time, the hands of all the sitters were linked and visible, and the feet of each sitter were touching the person on either side). This was followed by notes being played on the mouth-organ, also under the table; this was accompanied by a bright flash of light above one of the sitters. Further notes were then played on the instruments. One of the sitters stated that she observed a formation of ectoplasm above the medium, while another saw what was believed to be ‘Palma’. The séance also experienced breezes and the movements of different objects. For the first time, Stella became fully entranced and it was noted that when this occurred, there was a greater assortment of phenomena. The events which took place in each séance as the series continued, clearly indicated the progress being achieved.
The reality of this was made apparent by the eighth séance on 17 May, 1923. As soon as the séance began, breezes were felt and different musical instruments placed within a cage area under the table, were played. There were also several occasions of lights being seen above Stella’s head. In the case of the instruments, Dr Fodor refers to how they were encased by wood from an outer table and the gauze mesh of the inner table, but ‘nevertheless, the operators of Stella C. found no difficulty in getting within and playing upon the instruments’.
In the ninth séance on 24 May, 1923, the sitters spoke to ‘Palma’ who responded by clear raps to indicate that she was responsible for the phenomena; these included the musical instruments again being played, accompanied by lights appearing in the séance room and obvious movement of different objects. The remaining séances on 7 June, 21 June, 27 September, 14 October, were no less spectacular. Shortly before the last séances, there had been some discussion about Stella going to America, but for various reasons this did not occur.
There was a break until 1926 with Stella having taken up employment in Clerkenwell with a business of silversmiths. The next séances took place between February and July 1926 (numbering eighteen), then in 1927 (the only report that exists is for the one on 28 April), and were followed by further ones between March and July 1928. In these, the phenomena continued. The 1928 series included sitters who had a noted scientific background, e.g. Professor Julian Huxley, Dr E. B. Strauss, and Lord Charles Hope; the observation of the latter in respect of the 1928 series is enlightening. Writing in the SPR Journal, he recorded: ‘At three out of the last four sittings considerable phenomena were obtained, clearly denoting a supernormal origin…These phenomena, although not appearing to indicate the direction of any profound intelligence, yet did not give the impression of an uncontrolled force at work’. This series included object movement, rapping (in one case, it kept time with the music being played), breezes, and sitters becoming aware of sensations on their own bodies.
After Stella married Leslie Deacon in 1928, she had no further involvement in the subject of psychical research, although she kept in contact with Price after this date. Tabori notes that Stella ‘was one of the very few mediums in whose genuineness all the people who sat with her believed without reservation. She was never “temperamental”, she did not demand any special ritual and made no stipulations’. In the very short time during which Stella was prepared to undergo tests, she revealed something of the potential of undeveloped physical mediumship. It is natural to wonder what she would have been able to achieve under different circumstances. Undoubtedly, the phenomena produced by her were far less than in the case of many other physical mediums, but the noteworthy factor is the amount produced in such a short period of time and under such stringent conditions. It is surely because of this, one name that will always be remembered in the list of powerful physical mediums of twentieth century Britain is that of Stella Cranshaw, ‘the gentle maiden’.
Note:- (1)Harry Price was involved with a number of well-known physical mediums, e.g. Stella C., Helen Duncan, and Rudi Scheneider. He was a complex and highly controversial figure who sought publicity and frequently irritated Spiritualists. What was his personal view of the subject?
Mrs Clarice Richards, a close friend, admitted that Price did believe in an afterlife. In “The Future of Faith”, ed. Percy Colson, Price replied to the question of whether communication with the dead had been established:
‘Scientifically, no: occasionally and spontaneously, yes’. His belief was presumably overshadowed by his Christian convictions (he was a devout Christian and warden of the church at Pulborough): Tabori sums up the position as: ‘he rejected Spiritualism as a religion just because it was contrary to the tenets of the Church of England’ (Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, pp.13,22).
(2)Stella’s surname is found in different material, and bewilderingly sometimes in the same material, spelt with and without an ‘e’. However, in her letters to Price, she signed herself as ‘Cranshaw’.