The Fraudulent Mediumship of WILLIAM FOY
by Tim Haigh, Editor of Psychic News 1992-95
When I became 'Editor of Psychic News', it was drummed into me by my predecessor that fraudulent mediumship was a curse that bedevilled all those who edited the world's leading Spiritualist newspaper and that if I knew what was good for me, I would not report anything positive about physical mediumship unless phenomena were seen to be genuine in good, red light and under test conditions. Good sound advice, but decidedly hard to put into practice with a deadline fast approaching and vast tracts of column inches needing to be filled.
Nevertheless I was well aware that Psychic News had suffered a severe knock to its reputation in the early 1980's by the exposure of a physical medium, Paul McElhoney, as a fraud by the News of the World after Psychic News had named him its Medium of the Year.
The scandal meant that, sadly, physical mediumship was never given any kind of prominence in the paper over the following decade, except in very occasional retrospectives. I was determined to change that, and so, during the following three years under my editorship, Psychic News ran more stories about physical mediums and their work than at any other time in its history.
But I was ever mindful about the possibility of fraud and researched the subject thoroughly. I found, not surprisingly, that the 'McElhoney Incident' was not without precedent. Indeed, it paled into relative insignificance when compared to the furore which surrounded the activities of the most shameless, fraudulent, materialisation medium of them all - William Roy.
William George Holroyd, who later changed his name to Plowright, William Roy and then to Bill Silver, was born in 1911. He worked in a telephone exchange in Slough and it was there that he gained the technical knowledge which enabled him to use devices capable of fooling the hundreds who came to him.
At 17 years of age, he married Mary Castle who owned a night club in the sleazy Soho area of London's West End. Mary was the first of many women who were deceived by Roy's charm and tall tales but, in truth, he was an habitual criminal who was imprisoned five times on charges of burglary, receiving and
falsification of accounts.
When war broke out in 1939, he was 29, physically fit and on his second marriage. Somehow, however, he managed to avoid conscription and it was then that he decided to set himself up as a direct voice medium with the sole intention of conning as many people as possible out of what little wartime cash they had to spare. And very successful he was at it too. His activities were often featured in Psychic News
In 1947, the paper reported that 'Some of the finest evidence ever heard at a public meeting was witnessed at the Kingsway Hall when William Roy gave a demonstration of direct voice'. A year later he was given the enthusiastic headline 'Spirit voices spoke even when medium's mouth was filled with dyed
water'. The water had been put in Roy's mouth by an investigator who knew the tricks of the trade; and it was still there after a seance during which all kinds of spirit beings had apparently spoken.
Roy could do no wrong. Doctors tested the medium, bound and gagged him and still 'discarnate' voices were heard. People who had sat with him testified to seeing his spirit guides materialise, to hearing messages in Swedish, Spanish, Yiddish, French, and even in Malay. Most significantly, though, they said they heard voices of their departed friends and relatives, speaking of intimate and private things no stranger could have known. Even Canada's late Prime Minister, MacKenzie King, said he heard Queen Victoria's and Mr Gladstone's voices at a private seance given by William Roy.
But in 1952 an event occurred that sent shock waves through the Spiritualist community. A man carrying a large suitcase called to see the editor of Psychic News at the paper's offices in London. He opened the
case to reveal an amplifier, a microphone, a miniature loudspeaker, a pair of shoes with copper plates on their soles and a telescopic rod.
The man claimed to be the assistant of William Roy. He said the equipment was a complete set of electrical apparatus made for installation in Roy's new house. It was to be used for communication between the 'medium' in the seance room and himself in an adjoining one.
As a result of that visit, a number of well-known Spiritualists asked Roy and his assistant to attend a closed meeting where the matter would be discussed. The two men duly turned up, seemingly the best of friends. The assistant claimed that he had tried to revenge himself on Roy after a quarrel by accusing him of fraudulence, hence the visit to the Psychic News offices. Now that they had made up, he was withdrawing the accusation and wanted the matter to stop there. But what of the equipment? Both men explained implausibly that it had been built 'for the sake of a bet'.
Roy pleaded with the panel of Spiritualists, which included Maurice Barbanell, then editor of the Spiritualist newspaper Two Worlds, not to publish the story. The panel were in two minds whether it had sufficient evidence to go public, and more to the point, whether the evidence would convince a jury should a case come before a court. In the end, Roy helped the panel decide not to expose him by giving an undertaking to go to South Africa where he would endeavour to earn an honest living.
And so Roy set sail for the southern hemisphere, his tail tucked firmly between his legs. Three years later, however, news reached Barbanell that William Roy was once again arranging seances, not in South Africa but in London. Furious that the fraudster had broken his word, the redoubtable editor published an article in August 1955, in which he named Roy as one of four mediums who 'had been exposed in fraud, yet still continues to give sittings'.
As a result, Barbanell was thrashed repeatedly with a riding crop outside his offices by Roy's wife. Although she was convicted of assault and fined three pounds, it indicated her husband still had support in the Spiritualist Movement.
Roy instituted libel proceedings, but withdrew the action in 1958, undertaking to pay costs. Now free of the threat of legal action, Barbanell decided to act. In February that year, he published all he knew of Roy's activities. A Pandora's Box had been opened. But many people who rushed to defend Roy after the story damning him was printed were silenced when the now defunct London Sunday Pictorial, sensing an interesting follow-up story, sent a reporter to William Roy to see what the 'medium' had to say about Barbanell's allegations. What he found rocked Spiritualism to its foundations.
'I am not worried', Roy told the reporter. 'Of course I am a phoney. So are other mediums. It is true I have tricked women at seances, but I did no harm.'
Over the next five weeks the 'Pictorial' printed Roy's confession under the headline 'A shocking confession of how William Roy cheated his way to fame as a Spiritualist medium'.
He claimed to have led a life of luxury and to have banked '50,000 aftera decade of fraudulent mediumship, but added with astonishing front that, despite relieving the bereaved of their hard-earned cash, his victims were 'happy as well as poorer'. He got what he wanted: fame and fortune. They got what they wanted: 'proof' of their loved one's survival.
So how did he manage to fool so many for so long? The vast majority of his seances were given at his home in northwest London, which he named the Hampstead Psychic Centre. Long before the sitters arrived, Roy was busy making preparations. Only people who had given him plenty of notice could attend - for very good reason. Roy spent weeks collecting as much information about them as possible which was meticulously detailed on index cards.
On arrival visitors had to leave their coats, handbags, briefcases and other belongings in the cloakroom, and then sign a form saying they understood that 'no message phenomena' or other specific results could be guaranteed.
The visitors were then shown through to a waiting room. As soon as they were seated, Roy's assistant would search their various bags and coats searching for personal information, while listening to their conversations relayed by hidden microphones, which again would often reveal clues as to what the sitters wanted to hear during the seance.
When the seance began, the participants there were usually 12 - would listen to a record of 'Ave Maria', then Roy began to breathe heavily and speak in the voice of one of his guides: sometimes 'Dr Wilson', 'Marie' or 'Joey' but more often in the hoarse voice of 'Tinka, the Red Indian'.
'Tinka' was often preferred, especially when sitters began asking questions. If a particular query was beyond the 'medium', he would simply answer, 'No can answer me just simple Indian'.
After his so-called guides introduced themselves, he would announce that 'departed friends and relatives' were now present who would try to speak.
Then Roy would pick up his 'speaking trumpet' - which was covered with luminous paint - with the telescopic rod. Next, he would put a small earphone in his ear, clipping the wire lead to the terminal of a private telephone line which connected him with the adjoining room where his assistant was already waiting, microphone in hand, to pass on the information he had gathered from pockets and handbags.
The 'medium' then had a steady stream of names and addresses, dates of birthdays, deaths, meetings, etc.; information about past and coming events, illnesses, problems and plans.
He would make the 'communicators' speak by means of a miniature loudspeaker at the end of a telescopic rod. Sometimes he used his own voice, sometimes that of his assistant or sometimes pre-recorded taped messages. The connection between the loudspeaker and the assistant's microphone was established by means of copper plates on his soles, which he pressed on carpet tacks wired to the adjoining room.
But Roy's piece de resistance was 'materialisation'. If he was feeling particularly adventurous, in dim light, butter muslin, doubling as ectoplasm, would issue from his mouth, a ghostly mask appear over his face, or a white- robed accomplice appear from a secret door. In this manner, 'Tinka, the Red Indian', manifested on several occasions and was found to be seven feet tall!
Roy did not rely solely on ransacking handbags and pockets for his information. Before admitting an unsuspecting victim to his seance room he researched their backgrounds methodically by looking up voters' lists, consulting 'Who's Who', reading last wills and by making frequent trips to the General Register at Somerset House for death and birth certificates, which also gave the names of parents and grandparents.
One of his most shameless con tricks was the exploitation of a widow. Through an accomplice, Roy obtained detailed information about the woman's dead husband which he duly relayed to her as coming from loved ones in the spirit world. At the same time he seduced her and claimed he wanted to marry her as soon as possible. But Roy was in fact already married - to his second wife Dorothy.
However, during a seance, the widow, who by this time was completely besotted with the fraudster, was told to pay Dorothy - 15,000 in return for an arranged divorce. In due course Roy produced a letter, apparently from his wife through a firm of solicitors, giving consent for this arrangement. The letter and the firm of solicitors were both bogus, but the widow paid Roy - 15,000 which went into his own pocket and the pair went on 'honeymoon'.
Dorothy committed suicide soon after. Three weeks later Roy did not marry the widow but 17-year-old Mary Rose Halligan, whom he deserted in 1956, and eleven years later married bigamously Ann Clements, from whom he eventually parted.
William Roy died in 1977 at Hastings, Sussex, suffering from cancer, leaving three children, three widows and a bigamous bride.
Today his apparatus for fake mediumship is in the care of Scotland Yard and can be viewed at the Metropolitan Police Detective Training School.
Although he was a self-confessed and notorious con-man, he resurfaced briefly in the late 60s, again masquerading as a physical medium, and using the name Bill Silver. The Beatles visited him and were supposed to have been put in touch with their ex-manager, Brian Epstein, but left unconvinced and
Remarkably, they were among the few exceptions.
In William Roy's own words: 'Let no man or woman say smugly: 'Roy would never have taken ME in with that stuff', because I deceived the highest in the land, as well as the humblest. When I think of the Big Ones I completely bamboozled, I feel like a big-game hunter does when he looks at his trophies ... I know that even after this confession I could fill seance rooms again with people who find it a comfort to believe I am genuine.'
May we never see his like again.
First printed in The Noah's Ark Society magazine, The Arc Review, in May 1996, and reproduced here by their kind permission.