Lieutenant H. E. Jones was part of the army that surrendered to the Turks at Kut, and was sent as prisoner to Yozgad , a bleak spot way out in the Anatolian desert. What he did there is the basis of his astonishing memoir, The Road to En-Dor (1919), which I came across last week in the excellent Chaucer Head bookshop at Stratford-upon Avon.
Prisons are very tedious places, and a postcard from home inspired Jones to make things more lively by having a go at spiritualism, with a home-made ouija board. The dead refused to communicate, so he thought he’d experiment by pushing the glass. His efforts were not rumbled, and the messages he spelt out were received with awe by most of his fellow-prisoners, but doubters suggested increasingly complex tests to discover whether the results were genuine. Jones relished the challenge, and found, not only that he could pass the tests, but that he had created so firm a faith in his miracles that nothing would undeceive the credulous.
He than moved on to experiments in thought-reading (an appendix to the book clearly explains how the trick can be done). His partner in this was an Lieutenant Hills, an Australian with a knowledge of conjuring. Together they cooked up a wild and absurd escape plan.
Physical escape from Yozgad was impossible – the desert provided a barrier more impossible than any walls or barbed wire – so they decided to interest some of the Turks in their spiritualist practices, to lure them with promises of rich treasures whose location was known only to those who had passed over into another world. The trickery involved was elaborate and ingenious, but finally one of their victims, the prison Commandant, became nervous, and the plot failed.
At which Jones and Hill put their reserve plan into action. They simulated madness. Jones pretended to have persecution mania, and a terror that the English wanted to kill him, while Hill simulated religious melancholy, sitting inert in front of his Bible all day. After simulating a suicide attempt (by hanging – very risky) they were transferred to a mental hospital, where they fooled the doctors (using some of the same methods that had won them converts to spiritualism – such as not telling the other person the things you want him to think, but letting him discover it for himself, which will make his belief all the stronger.) They were finally repatriated, but only just before the Armistice, when they would have been sent home anyway.
It’s a book in three parts, therefore – the experiments with fake spiritualism, the tricking of the Turks and the simulated madness. Of these, I found the first part the most absorbing, perhaps because I have an interest in conjuring. Jones had a keen sense of human psychology, and realised that the key to ‘psychic’ success is to make the victims do the work of piecing together clues and constructing the story. They then have an investment in the project – and want to believe. Wartime was, of course, the heyday of the spiritualist movement, when Oliver Lodge’s Raymond was a document that inspired many. When Lodge’s son was killed in the War, he wrote this loving memoir of the young man’s life, and of his apparent communications from the other side. It is a deeply-felt and sincere book, and Jones uses it as reference, frequently pointing out that the effects that so moved Sir Oliver could easily be replicated by means of a little dishonesty on the part of the medium and a little gullibility on the part of the seeker after consolation. This part of the book is an admirable handbook for sceptics, and remains relevant a century later, when ‘psychic’ performers can still fill large theatres with their nonsense.
The later parts of the book are less instructive, though gripping as an adventure story. The ingenuity of Jones and Hill as they use messages from beyond to control a trio of credulous Turks is amusing, and the tale of their incarceration in a mental institution is grim.
The book’s title, of course, comes from Kipling’s poem En-Dor, a warning against spiritualism first published in The Years Between, which appeared in 1919, while Jones was writing his book:
Oh the road to En-dor is the oldest road
And the craziest road of all!
Straight it runs to the Witch’s abode,
As it did in the days of Saul,
And nothing has changed of the sorrow in store
For such as go down on the road to En-dor!
This book was a best-seller in the twenties. The copy I bought in Stratford is a Weekend Library edition of 1930. It lists sixteen reprintings in the decade since the book appeared at the end of 1919. The book remained in print until the 1950s, when there was a Pan paperback.