In the mid-1990s, during my former life as a conservator, I visited the Senate House Library to consult the conservator there, Roy Moxham, about the preservation of the archives of the esoteric publication, the Fortean Times.
Roy, who is now a writer, is a true gentleman and a great raconteur. He gave me lots of useful information on the problems of preserving large mixed collections, and was generous enough to show me some of the world-famous Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, one of Senate House’s special collections.
One of the most exciting objects he showed me was a glass phial with a cork stopper containing some fluffy whitish matter which had been collected (presumably by Price) from a medium during a trance. It was – allegedly – ectoplasm!
Obviously my next question was “Did you analyse it?” and of course, he had done; it turned out to be pure cellulose.
This came as no surprise. Even during Price’s day, psychical investigators who were able to get a sample of the so-called ectoplasm emanating from the noses, mouths and even vaginas of mediums found that what they had collected was muslin soaked in egg whites or potato starch, or chewed up paper (hence the cellulose).
The analysis of ectoplasm later enabled Harry Price to expose the medium Helen Duncan as a fraud. In 1944, Duncan was famously the last person in Britain to be charged under section 4 of the 1735 Witchcraft Act, not for being a witch, as is often claimed, but for practicing “fraudulent spiritual activity”. On that occasion, the ectoplasm was revealed to be cheesecloth, which she had swallowed and regurgitated.