The Woman Who Solved the Angels of Mons

Helen Salter (née Verrall), a ‘True Daughter’ of the Society for Psychical Research

At the outbreak of the First World War, the Society for Psychical Research’s Assistant Research Officer was Helen Woollgar de Gaudrion Verrall. Born in 1883, Helen was the daughter of the noted Cambridge classicists Arthur and Margaret Verrall, both of whom were also high-profile members of the SPR, leading the philosopher C. D. Broad to call her ‘a true daughter of the regiment’, the regiment being the Society for Psychical Research, of course.

It was no exaggeration. She had grown up surrounded by the great names of the SPR. She had fond memories of childhood games with Frederic Myers and was familiar enough with Richard Hodgson to call him ‘Hodge Podge’, although she never knew Edmund Gurney and recalled Henry Sidgwick as a ‘remote Olympian figure’ (it was different with Eleanor Sidgwick).

Psychical Experiments at Home

Even before she joined the SPR, her mother had involved her in psychical experiments – telepathy, table-turning and automatic writing (producing some of the famed ‘cross-correspondences’). In Spring 1903, she began to practice ‘automatic writing’ and conducted a ‘book-test’ experiment with Rev. Bayfield, then rector of Hertingfordbury.

Newnham and Things that Matter

Helen entered Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1902 – just round the corner from the Verralls’ home. Here, she joined a group called ‘Things that Matter’, which debated social, moral and political theory. She graduated in 1906.

She married William Salter in 1915 (pictured left) in a ceremony officiated by fellow SPR member Revd Bayfield. Through his wife’s interest, William Salter would also join the SPR and play an important role in later years.

A Career in the Supernatural

She started working for the Society in 1908 and in 1910 was appointed Assistant Research Officer. In 1916 she became Research Officer and Editor of the Journal, and from 1921 of the Proceedings as well. From 1913 to 1916, she also worked as a Demonstrator in Psychology at King’s College, London, and in 1915 taught the first ever course in psychical research (what we would now call parapsychology).

At the start of the First World War, she was busy working on a number of papers that were published in the SPR’s periodicals. Three papers were published in the Proceedings (vol. XXVII, 1914/1915): ‘A Further Study of the Mac Scripts’; ‘History of Marthe Beraud, “Eva C”’; and ‘Some Recent Experiments in Thought Transference’. In March 1915, she read a paper on ‘An Icelandic Seer’ to the SPR, which was printed in the Journal for April-June 1915.

Other research during the war included an investigation of the famous medium Gladys Osborne Leonard. She first sat with Mrs Leonard in January 1917. From january to April 1918 she had 73 sittings with the medium, writing them up as ‘A Further Report on Sittings with Mrs Leonard’, Proc. SPR, vol. XXXII (1921).

She was elected to the Council of the Society for Psychical Research in 1922 and in 1953 was made a Vice-President.

In her life outside the Society, she would hold a number of important public appointments. Broad remembered her for her ‘intellectual integrity’ and G. W. Lambert commended her ‘sound reasoning and good judgement’. She died in 1959.

The Authenticity of Angels

Her greatest wartime case was the investigation of the Angels of Mons. To find out how she solved it, you will have to read Angels in the Trenches.

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