Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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Forensic Séance


In a peculiar British case in 1961, David Cohen, Branch Secretary for the Society for Psychical Research, approached Detective Chief Inspector Tony Fletcher, who worked at the Manchester Police Fingerprint Bureau, with an unusual request. Cohen wanted to know if it was possible to fingerprint a "nonphysical entity," and if so, would the police assist him in doing so? 

Seal: Society for Psychical Research
Seal: Society for Psychical Research

Fletcher, who later recorded the tale in his memoir, thought it was an interesting question, so he sent Sergeant Rowland Mason to see what could be done.  What they were told was that the ghost of a musician, an elderly man named Nicholas, had been playing a spectral violin in the room of a young boy in a south Manchester home.  He was not threatening, but the parents were concerned. Under Cohen's guidance, séances had been held at the house and he reported that at times he'd seen a pair of spirit hands materialize.  That's what had given him the idea of taking a fingerprint.  He believed that if the hands were a trick perpetrated by the family, fingerprints would reveal the perpetrator's identity.  They could take impressions of the family members to make a comparison. 

On the other hand, if it was a genuine apparition, then fingerprints taken in such a circumstance would make news around the world. It seemed to Cohen a no-lose situation.  It's not as if the police had to say they believed in ghosts.  They were just assisting in a potential fraud investigation.

Sergeant Mason went to the home and attended one of the séances.  He apparently saw the hands for himself and described them as pale and slim, with lace cuffs where the wrists ended.  A tambourine had flown around the room, so he'd dutifully polished it as a way to get prints.  After the séance, complete with the flying instrument, Mason had tested it with mercury powder.  But there were no prints.

With Cohen, he devised another approach.  The next experiment involved putting the powder on the tambourine before the séance.  They did this, the instrument moved about, and yet still nothing showed up.  They were stymied.


The group, Mason included, addressed the entity, asking for and receiving permission to take its fingerprints on chemically treated paper.  By all reports, it agreed.  Mason said later that he even felt the hand in his own as he pressed the fingers against the paper, but still no fingerprints materialized.  Only three scratches showed up where the fingers had been placed.  In a final attempt, the investigators tried infrared photography, which yielded a faint image but nothing definitive. 

When no other methods were proposed, the experiment was abandoned. 

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