INTERMISSION - Paranormality - Richard Wiseman

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There - Richard Wiseman (2011)


In which we take a break from our journey,
meet the remarkable Mr Harry Price, travel to the
Isle of Man to investigate a talking mongoose
and end up in the High Court.

So far we have discovered how psychic readings yield important insights into who you think you are, how out-of-body experiences reveal the way in which your brain decides where you are, how displays of alleged psychokinesis show that you are not seeing what is right in front of your eyes, and how attempts to talk with the dead demonstrate the power of your unconscious mind. It is time to catch our breath and take a short intermission before we continue our journey.

When I give public talks about the paranormal I am often asked to describe the oddest piece of research that I have ever come across. It is an easy decision. My chosen piece of work didn’t result in any major discoveries about human behaviour or the innermost workings of the brain. It did, however, make the front page of newspapers around the world, led to the most bizarre High Court trial in the history of the British legal system, and provide a fascinating insight into the extremes of human gullibility.

So, sit back, relax and enjoy the strangest investigation in the history of supernatural science. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you … Gef, the talking mongoose.

‘I Am the Eighth Wonder of the World’

There are many places in the world that have a considerable reputation for paranormal activity. The Isle of Man is not one of them. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the most the island can offer is a malevolent spirit who once blew the roof off a church, a ghostly black dog that wanders aimlessly around a local castle, and a couple of fairies. But, as is so often the case with supernatural science, there is much more to the Isle of Man than meets the eye.1

In 1916 James Irving made a strange decision. Finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living as a piano salesman in Liverpool, Irving thought it best if he and his wife Margaret made a fresh start as farmers, and promptly bought a smallholding in one of the most isolated and soulless places on earth. ‘Cashen’s Gap’ was a small farm situated on a windswept mountainside on the west coast of the Isle of Man. Five miles from the nearest village, the farm had no electricity or running water, and could only be reached after an hour’s climb up a slippery and undeveloped track. Living a life that made Jean de Florette’s existence look positively luxurious, James and Margaret Irving found the going tough, often surviving solely on rabbits provided by the family sheepdog. After two years at Cashen’s Gap, Margaret gave birth to her first and only child, Voirrey (Gaelic for ‘bitter’).

In the winter of 1928, James added wooden panels to the inside of his farmhouse in an attempt to stave off the intense cold weather, leaving a three inch gap between the panels and walls to help with the insulation. On 12 October 1931 he heard some strange animal-like sounds emanating from behind the panels. Thinking that a small animal had become trapped, James set several traps, laid down some poison, and went to bed. The strange noises continued over the next few days, and in desperation, James attempted to flush out the intruder by making dog-like growls. To his surprise and dismay, the mysterious beast growled right back.

James kept a diary of events and described his next move:

It occurred to me that if it could make these weird noises, why not others, and I proceeded to give imitations of the calls of other creatures, naming these creatures after every call. In a few days’ time one had only to name a particular animal or bird, and it instantly gave the correct call. My daughter then tried it with nursery rhymes, and it had no trouble repeating them. The voice is two octaves above any human voice … and its hearing powers are phenomenal. It detects the whisper 15-20 feet away, tells you that you are whispering, and repeats exactly what one has said.

The family started to chat to their new housemate and eventually the mysterious creature spilled the beans. He was Gef, a talking mongoose. Perhaps rather gratuitously, Gef explained that he was quite unlike a normal mongoose. Claiming to have been born in New Delhi in 1852, he also boasted that he was ‘extra extra clever’ and ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.

Gef proved an entertaining companion. He would recite nursery rhymes, tell jokes, and converse in several languages. He was also full of surprises. On one July evening in 1934, for example, James made a note in his diary describing how Gef had sung three verses of the Manx National Anthem, ‘in a clear and high-pitched voice; then two verses in Spanish, followed by one verse in Welsh; then a prayer in pure Hebrew (not Yiddish); finishing with a long peroration in Flemish’. The Irvings fed Gef bacon, sausages and bananas. In return Gef caught and killed rabbits, leaving their carcases on a nearby rock for collection.

Although talking to Gef was easy, catching sight of him proved surprisingly difficult. Voirrey was the only person to see him properly, later describing him as ‘the size of a small rat with yellowish fur and a large bushy tail’. Margaret also claimed to have stroked Gef through a crack in the wall, but was reluctant to repeat the exercise because he had bitten her finger and drawn blood.

News of Gef eventually spread across the island and soon a stream of visitors came knocking, eager to chat with the Irvings’ new-found friend. Within a year, word of the wondrous goings-on at Cashen’s Gap crossed the Irish channel to mainland Britain, and journalists from across the land made a pilgrimage to the Irvings’ remote farmhouse in the hope of catching a glimpse of Gef. In 1932 a reporter from the Manchester Daily Sketch was one of the very few who was fortunate enough to interview Gef:

The mysterious man-weasel has spoken to me today. I have heard a voice which I should never have imagined could issue from a human throat. The people who claim it was the voice of the strange weasel seem sane, honest and responsible folk and not likely to indulge in a difficult, long-drawn-out and unprofitable practical joke … The weasel even gave me a tip for a winner in the Grand National Horse race!

When news of Gef reached America, one theatrical agent instantly offered the Irvings $50,000 for the film rights. The family refused. Regardless, Gef the talking mongoose was conquering the world.

Harry Price: Ghost-hunter Extraordinaire

I am very fond of Harry Price. In fact, he is something of a hero to me. Working mainly in the 1930s, Price devoted his life to the scientific study of weird stuff, and under the auspices of his ‘National Laboratory of Psychical Research’, conducted a series of investigations that both delighted the world’s media and infuriated believers and sceptics alike. He exposed famous spirit photographers as frauds (mainly double exposures), tested the alleged ‘ectoplasm’ materialized by mediums (largely egg white), re-staged an ancient ceremony to transform a goat into a young man (the goat remained a goat), and filmed the great ‘Karachi’ as he attempted to perform the legendary Indian Rope Trick (actually Arthur Derby from Plymouth manhandling a stiff rope in Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire). However, in my opinion, his finest moment was the testing of Gef.

In 1932, a friend of the Irvings’ wrote to Price, describing the queer happenings at Cashen’s Gap, and asking him if he ‘would like to interview the little beast’. Price wrote to James Irving, and the two of them struck up a friendly correspondence. Irving repeatedly invited Price to the island, but Price was reluctant to make the long trek and instead sent his friend, a military man called Captain James McDonald.

McDonald arrived at Cashen’s Gap on 12 February 1932. On his first day at the farmhouse, Gef remained uncharacteristically quiet, and it wasn’t until midnight, when McDonald was leaving for his hotel, that he heard that most traditional of Manx greetings, with the mongoose screaming, ‘Who is that bloody man?’

The following day Irving explained that Gef had been quite chatty throughout the night, but had, unfortunately, taken an instant dislike to McDonald. Indeed, the mongoose had requested that McDonald would have to shout ‘I do believe in you, Gef!’ if their relationship was to continue. McDonald complied, and was greeted by what must have been a stony and somewhat embarrassing silence.

Later that day McDonald overheard Voirrey and Margaret talking to Gef upstairs and shouted, ‘Won’t you come down? I believe in you!’

‘No,’ shrieked Gef. ‘I don’t like you!’

Ever the persistent investigator, McDonald started to creep quietly up the stairs but, in a moment of unfortunate clumsiness, slipped on a loose tread and fell noisily back down. Gef promptly vanished and failed to return during the rest of McDonald’s time at the farmhouse. McDonald returned to London and filed a full report for Price.

In March 1935, James Irving sent Price a sample of fur that Gef had allegedly plucked from himself. Price excitedly forwarded it to naturalist F. Martin Duncan for analysis, but was disappointed to receive a report stating:

I can very definitely state that the specimen hairs never grew upon a mongoose, nor are they those of a rat, rabbit, hare, squirrel, or other rodent. I am inclined to think that these hairs have probably been taken from a longish-haired dog.

Price’s suspicion fell on the Irvings’ sheepdog, Mona. However, sufficiently intrigued by McDonald’s report, he decided to team up with colleague Richard Lambert and conduct his own on-site investigation. On 30 July 1935 the two intrepid investigators arrived on the Isle of Man and made the arduous climb to Cashen’s Gap. Arriving late at night, James and Margaret introduced them to Voirrey (‘now a good-looking girl of seventeen’) and everyone sat around a small table in the dark-panelled dining room waiting for Gef. James explained that Gef had not been seen for a few days and was being especially elusive.

Unperturbed, Price and Lambert addressed all four walls of the room, explaining that they had travelled a great distance to be there and were therefore entitled to ‘a few words, a little laugh, a scream, a squeak, or just some simple scratch’. Nothing. The next morning Price and Lambert again returned to the farmhouse and were given an extensive tour of the panelling that apparently allowed Gef to skip unseen from one room to another. Once again, they pleaded with the self-proclaimed eighth wonder of the world to make an appearance. Once again, nothing. Eventually, the intrepid pair of investigators left, unable to determine whether ‘they had taken part in a farce or a tragedy’. Later James Irving wrote to Price and described how Gef had reappeared on the evening of their departure and explained that he had taken ‘a few days’ holiday’.

In 1936, Price and Lambert described their investigation of Gef in a now rare volume, The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap: A Modern ‘Miracle’ Investigated. While not explicitly accusing the Irvings of hoaxing the entire affair, Price and Lambert were less than enthusiastic about the case, concluding that only the most credulous of individuals would be impressed with the evidence for Gef.

Many believed that The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap would put an end to the entire affair. In fact, it gave Gef the talking mongoose an entirely new lease of life in the most unlikely of places - the British High Court.

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

Richard Lambert, Price’s colleague and co-conspirator in the Gef affair, was an influential figure. As well as being founding editor of The Listener, he held a key position on the board of the British Film Institute that, at the time, was under the auspices of the BBC. In early 1936, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Cecil Bingham Levita, a prominent member of the London County Council, was at lunch with the assistant controller of BBC programmes and suggested that Lambert was unfit to be associated with the BFI because he believed in a talking mongoose. When the remarks reached Lambert he issued a writ for defamation of character.

The case went to the High Court on 4 November 1936 before Justice Swift and a specially convened jury. Each member of the jury was issued with a copy of The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap. Levita denied slandering Lambert, noting that he hadn’t uttered the words, and even if he had, they were fully justified. Lambert countered, claiming that the book accurately represented his views and in no way endorsed the reality of Gef or, for that matter, any other talking mongoose. In keeping with his name, Justice Swift quickly found for Lambert, and awarded him substantial damages of £7,500 (equivalent to roughly £350,000 today). At the end of the trial, Lambert triumphantly autographed the jury’s copies of his book.

The trial also had two unintended, but important, consequences. During the case it emerged that the head of Public Relations at the BBC had tried to persuade Lambert to drop the action against Levita for the good ‘of his position with the corporation’. Questions were subsequently raised in Parliament, with politicians seeing the affair as yet another example of poor management within the BBC. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin launched an inquiry, which resulted in the organization moving away from being an ‘old boys’ network’ and introduced formal job interviews and more transparent selection processes. Second, the massive media coverage of the case ensured that mongooses became popular pets throughout Britain.

Eventually, Gef simply vanished. In 1970, writer Walter McGraw tracked down Voirrey and interviewed her about the entire affair. Though eager to keep her current location secret, Voirrey insisted that Gef had indeed existed and had chatted to her on a regular basis. She recounted how the clever mongoose had gone away for progressively longer periods of time, and then one day just never showed up again. Gef was not a positive influence on her life, said Voirrey, wistfully adding, ‘Gef has even kept me from getting married. How could I ever tell a man’s family about what happened?’ Voirrey died in 2005.

In 1937, Cashen’s Gap was sold to a Mr Graham and the Irvings returned to mainland Britain. Graham never saw or heard Gef. In 1947, the new owner of Cashen’s Gap claimed to have killed a strange animal that was neither ferret nor stoat. His claims remained unverified and the pelt was never analysed. Cashen’s Gap was demolished in the 1950s, but the mystery of Gef lives on. Gef has his own Facebook page, and one website dedicated to matters paranormal recently suggested that he may have been ‘a supernatural entity from either an alternate dimension or an entity comprised of forces we do not quite understand’.

Perhaps the final word in the whole surreal story should go to Gef. James Irving once described how he reprimanded Gef for taking too long to calculate how many pence there were in seventeen and sixpence. The self-proclaimed eighth wonder of the world responded with a suitably enigmatic reply which, for me, sums up the entire affair beautifully:

‘My rectophone wasn’t working.’