Trevor H. Hall

The Strange Story of Ada Goodrich Freer

Duckworth, 1980

Introduction by Eliot Slater

It is sad that such a colourful personality as Ada Goodrich Freer could disappear so nearly irretrievably down the sink of time. This cannot have been her own wish. She must have had immortal longings, and even, with so many books and articles to her credit, a wish for fame. Yet she did everything she could to destroy the record of her life. She first appears fully grown, like Aphrodite from the waves, without a background or a past. She is thirty‑one when she steps into the light of day; and even then she remains anonymous or a pseudonymous 'Miss X'. That she did not succeed in obliterating her origins and her true self we owe to the determined and successful researches of the indomitable Dr Trevor Hall. It is he who has dragged her back from oblivion to confront us with all her perversity, her charm and her deceits. In this short and rather speculative introduction to Dr Hall's far more solid work, I shall try to throw some light where Miss Freer threw the darkest of shadows.

When she was a child of only five and a half, in December 1862, Ada Freer suffered the terrible blow of losing her mother. A little more than three years later, in January 1866, her father also died. She was then left with her four brothers to the care of a widowed step‑mother with a child of her own, and no family income to support them. Ada says she was brought up by 'an elderly relative with early Victorian standards'. Who was she? It was the reward of a remarkable voyage of discovery, with the aid of intuitive detective genius, that Dr Hall found out. Beyond reasonable doubt the elderly relative (very likely a great­aunt) is identified as a certain Miss Ann Adcock. This lady had private boarding school for young ladies in Ilkley in Yorkshire, which is recorded in history from 1861 to 1875. The clues Dr Hall relied on were tenuous; and jux how thorough his researches had to be are disclosed in an unobtrusive footnote. One might have known more about Miss Adcock's school, he remarks, but for the fact that it is not mentioned, either by advertisement or in any other way, in any issue of the Ilkley Gazette during those years. The results that Dr Hall achieves are not to be reached except at the expense of enormous labours, nearly always but not quite always spent in vain.


    We see, then, this little girl of eight, orphaned of her father and mother, and now separated from her brothers and her home to be carried away to the north. We may feel sure that she was loved by her mother whom she lost when she was five; and it is probable that she was loved by her father who was taken from her three years later. One can suppose that as the only girl of the family, and a pretty little girl, she was loved and cosseted rather particularly. She also had a brother, just a year younger than her, on whom she in her turn would lavish love and attention. From this warm nest she was taken away. In the nature of things it must have been a desperately unhappy little girl who travelled to Ilkley with her elderly relative. To Ada she must have been an awesome figure, so old to a child's eyes, so much a headmistress, so unloved, so barely even known.

    We must look at the situation also from Miss Adcock's point of view. She was a busy professional woman who had had her own school for the past five years. Somehow or other she had let family obligations and feelings of compassion run away with her. And now she was saddled with this child, her niece Mary's girl; and such a wretched unhappy child who, like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, did not seem to realize and be grateful for all the immense benefits that were being éonferred upon her.

    One wonders how Ada settled down in Miss Adcock's school. In one sense her education was a great success. For when she re‑emerged into the light of written record in 1888 she was a young woman of high intelligence, with many attainments (including some command of several languages), and the will and the capacity for very hard work. She had moreover the necessary social graces, poise and self‑possession, agreeable manners and insinuating ways. We see her, seemingly much younger than her thirty‑one years, with great physical attractions including beautiful grey eyes, and a captivating personality. She charmed and fascinated men of high social, academic and intellectual distinction. She used her abundant energy and her capacity for hard work for long periods at a stretch to produce papers on her chosen subjects which were highly regarded by the experts. The great Janet, the foremost psychologist of Europe before the days of Freud, was impressed by the exactitude and the importance of her observations on crystal‑gazing.

     The education she received in Miss Adcock's school was first‑class, presumably imposed in a strictly disciplined way on a highly im­pressionable child. But, one would think, not a happy child. So much learning must have been at the expense of other joys and other free­doms. She said herself that she had supernormal experiences all through her childhood from the age of three. Such experiences, of any degree of vividness from day‑dreaming to hallucination, depend on the capacity of the human mind for dissociation, a capacity which lessens with age and maturity. The fantasy life of the child may seem hardly less real than reality; and Ada Freer, who in her adult life was younger than her years in many ways, retained throughout her life the tendency to invent for herself a past more romantic and more glamorous than the truth. But a child that clings to fantasy is one for whom the real world is dreary or threatening; and the fact that Ada Freer depended so much upon fantasy suggests loneliness and unhappiness in her daily round.

     In her time she must have been by far the cleverest girl in Miss Adcock's school. This could not have led to popularity with other girls, and as she was a diligent learner she would be despised as a swot. Being the relative of the proprietress and headmistress would also exclude her from friendships as a suspected favourite and potential or actual tale­bearer and sneak. It would be known that she came from a poor family and was getting her keep and her education free. The other girls no doubt came from prosperous homes. Class‑conscious and money­conscious, they could not be expected to admit the charity girl to equality. One imagines that Ada would hardly have had a friend.

     It would be no wonder if a friendless life at school encouraged those tendencies to secretiveness, subterfuge, fantasies, fabrications and a willingness to lie which she evinced in later life. On the credit side, she would have learned from her fellow pupils all the habitual ways of feeling, thinking and acting of county families. The vocabulary, the idiom and the pronunciation of the British upper middle class would come naturally. Later on she had no difficulty in acting the part of a girl with the right social background. This would not have helped her in her schooldays when everyone knew her origins. It might indeed have counted against her as much as all her other disadvantages. She could hardly have had a friend? Her record suggests that at school she never did have a friend, but remained as lonely when she left as when she arrived, since she carried no friendship with her into later years.

     One of Ada Freer's most remarkable achievements was totally to prevent any knowledge by others of her birthplace, her family, her education and her life before she was introduced by Frederic Myers to the spiritualist scene. She covered over the facts by vague hints of socially elevated connections. Why? This course of deception involved her in considerable dangers. At any time a girl who had known her at school might meet her or see her and recognize her, and give the game away. There were dangers in every publication; and for years she remained a mere name and address on the books of the Society for Psychical Research, while her contributions to the Society's Journal were safely covered by anonymity. Ada Freer certainly had the degree of respect for aristocratic connections which were typical of her time. But it seems unlikely that her past, by no means an uncreditable one, was so systematically concealed merely out of snobbery. The psy­chiatrist would suspect deeper motives. It looks as if she was trying to hide the past even from herself. One suspects she was trying to annihi­late the girl she had been through childhood and adolescence, and if possible to forget long years of misery and guilt as if they had never been. After her period of anonymity she never could return to her born name. She was for every changing and embellishing it. She became successively Ada Goodrich‑Freer, Adela Goodrich‑Freer, Adela M. Goodrich‑Freer, Adela Monica and finally A. Monica née Goodrich­Freer. It is at a cost that one denies one's country or one's kinship or one's childhood years, that one pulls oneself up by the roots, as it were, and amputates one great part of one's being. During the later years of her association with spiritualism and with Frederic Myers Ada Freer became a liar, a cheat and a thief of other men's work. She could hardly have sunk so far if she had not tried to destroy her own identity, and with it her self‑image and her self‑respect.

     Miss Adcock's school apparently ceased to exist after 1875, when Ada was eighteen. We are left with no information at all about what happened to her during the next thirteen years. A reasonable guess would be that she continued to live with her Aunt Adcock as a com­panion until her death, and that she then left the north to come to London. There is a suggestion that for a few years she may have had a little money of her own, before it became absolutely necessary to earn her living. If so, it might have come as a bequest from her aunt. When she did seek a new life in the south the first of her contacts we know of (apart from her friend Constance Moore) was Frederic Myers. For him she would have many attractions. He was by temperament a Don Juan and Ada was an extremely fetching young woman. She had also another and more important claim to his attention in her capacity for dissociation, enabling her to see things in crystal balls and hear messages in sea‑shells. And she had the intelligence and imagination to organize her experiences into plausible narrations. Myers may have trained her into capabilities which won her the high regard of spiritual­ists; or he may have merely encouraged her when she was trying these things out on her own. Certainly he was the influential member of the Society for Psychical Research who got her her entrée and started her on a way of life which provided her with a livelihood for a number of years. He may also have been her lover in the fullest or in some less than the full sense of the word.

     Whatever his feelings for her, the relationship on her side was an intensely emotional one. This is shown by her fury at his entanglement with Iris Chaston and by the violence of her reaction when he finally threw her over. Myers was a wretched choice for a lover for any woman. He was a sensual but heartless egoist, a liar and a coward. Women and men, lovers and friends, he abandoned them all in any day of trouble. Frederic Myers is the only man we know of with whom Ada Freer may have had any kind of sex relationship until her marriage at the age of forty‑eight. And yet she was an extremely attractive woman, and charmed and fascinated all the men with whom she came in contact With women she was not such a success and in one or two provoked feelings of distrust and dislike.

     All her life she looked about ten years younger than her real age. The photograph taken when she was thirty‑seven shows a woman who looks much younger. She was a 'little lady'; and with her round softly modelled face and tiny plump hands there is something childish, even babyish about her. The small stature goes well with her astonishing energy. There is no denying the magnitude of her labours, her per­sistence and her courage. The pyknic body‑build, with round face and body and small hands and feet, is a natural biological foundation for an outgoing extraverted approach to life. In Ada's case it went also with winning ways and powers of sympathy that, we are told, seemed 'supernormal'.

     Her childish looks may have been the reflection of a psychosexual immaturity. Her attractions for the male sex do not seem to have awakened in her any equal reciprocity. She was an unattached woman who could have had as many love affairs as she wished; but she seems to have felt no need of them. However she had a very long‑lasting and intimate friendship with another woman, living for years with her and her family, or with her in an establishment of their own. Her relation­ship with Constance Moore lasted for twenty‑one years from the time she was twenty‑three until the critical years at the end of the century when things began to go wrong for her. The relationship must have been one of deep affection and, one would guess, most probably a love relationship with its sexual side. Despite the appeal she made to men, Ada Freer's sexual orientation was clearly not a fully normal hetero­sexual one. If we assume that it had an overtly homosexual aspect, much that is ambiguous and problematic about her would fall into place.

     A sidelight of much interest is thrown by the letter passing between two ladies which is quoted on page 116. What is meant by Ada's invi­tation to one of them to go and 'stroke' her sometimes? It can hardly be doubted that a sexually toned contact is intended. 'Stroking' might mean no more than a caress, and culminate no further than in masturbation. But the context informs us that what is 'immense' enjoyment for the stroker might be hard to bear for the stroked; and Dr Dingwall has suggested that Miss Freer might have been seeking the pains and pleasures of flagellation. If so, it would be entirely in character. Those to whom normal love relationships do not come easily, commonly find an outlet in substitute sexuality.

     During the latter half of the nineteenth century in Britain the corporal punishment of children was very common, more so in schools than at home, and above all in boarding schools. The site of chastisement was either the hand or the buttocks, perhaps the former more for girls and the latter for boys, but in the main indifferently for either sex. The cutaneous nerve supply of the buttocks is part of that of a wider region including the genitals; and stimulation in that area, even if sharp and painful, could irradiate the wider network and give rise to strongly pleasurable sexual sensations. The habituation of children and young persons to such conditioning, in the unfortunates who were susceptible, could sometimes lead to a sexual perversion‑so commonly in fact that in other countries the many forms of flagellation came to be known as the English vice. If Ada Freer at the age of forty‑three was asking a friend to give her sexual relief in this way (at about the time when she was parting from Constance Moore), it suggests that such experiences had been part of her life for many years. One would think that the tendency had in fact been instilled during early years of sexual matu­ration at Miss Adcock's boarding school for young ladies. Ada Freer's letters show her to have been rather prim, very aware of Mrs Grundy and the convenances. Such secret sexual urges as we are led to suspect would have been a cause of ever‑recurring guilt, an obstacle between her and any normal love relationship with a man, something more easily and less shamefully satisfied in a lesbian than a heterosexual relationship. Whatever the enjoyment of her friend, it seems unlikely that what Ada Freer was asking for was a merely erotic experience. 'She couldn't stand it, if it didn't do her some good' we read; and this suggests a severity in handling which reminds one of the rigours demanded by such eminent masochists as Algernon Charles Swinburne and T. E. Lawrence. This unhappy woman must have felt a strong need for self‑punishment. She may have hoped that, as with the saints, it would be good for the soul; and her soul was in need of healing.

    It was indeed about this time, starting towards the end of 1900 and extending through till at least August of the next year that Ada Freer had her one and only nervous illness. It took, typically, the form of a depression. The psychological causes, if they exbded, are not obvious. It was three years since her quarrel with Myers; and she had survived the discredit of the Ballechin fiasco without weakening. She had lost the support of a generous friend, it is true, by the death of Lord Bute in October 1900. In a person of Ada Freer's pyknic build and syntonic personality, however, one is inclined to think that biological rather than psychological factors would have been the main cause. And forty‑three is about the age of the change of life. In due course she found her way through the depression, and as far as we know never suffered a relapse.

     It was perhaps because Miss Freer was still depressed, still felt tired, and was lacking in resource and inventiveness, in that fateful year of 1901, that she chanced her hand with a technique which was beyond her skill. Perhaps, also, she had lost heart for trickery and she could not go through with it with confidence and conviction. Perhaps, even, so strange is the human heart, there was an unconscious wish to be caught out, to accept her punishment, and to be quit of the career of a pro­fessional spiritualist for ever. It was inspired work on the part of Dr Hall to trace the tenuous connections which link a reference in a letter, a footnote in a heavy tome, the destruction of certain files of the S.P.R. and the identification of one of its members as a clergyman in Swanley, and so to offer us a satisfying explanation of the catastrophe which at last exposed Ada Freer as a cheat. It led to her abandoning all her past labours, her interests, her friendships and her circle of acquaintances, to leave Britain for ever.

      One can hope that after these storms she enjoyed some sunshine in her later years. We have no reason for thinking that her husband did not truly love her or that the marriage was not a happy one. To the end she persuaded her husband, and may have half‑believed herself, that she was many years younger than her true age, perhaps even that those years which she preferred to forget had in some sense never really existed. In these latter years she was as energetic as ever, travelled much and wrote a number of books. She died at the age of seventy­three of heart failure following on hypertensive heart disease. This is a stress disease, and can be related to the anxieties and tensions, the hard work, the frustrations, the sadness and the disappointments of her life. But for them, with her gift for enduring youth, she should have been able to live on into her eighties or even nineties, failing some killing disease like cancer. Her last noteworthy act was to arrange that an important document, annotated by her, actually reached a library where it would be available in perpetuity. A sign of grace and recognition of responsibility, one may think.

     It is difficult to know how much of the truth there was in her. Early on, as a child and young woman, she must have been convinced of the 'reality' of some of her supernormal experiences. The months of work she put in at the library of the British Museum in 1887 to write her long and scholarly work on the history of crystal‑gazing must have been sustained by a firm belief in the authenticity of the experiences gained in this way by herself and by countless others before her. It was Frederic Myers who put the crystal into her hands, and it may be that he was her evil genius throughout. One is tempted to believe that bit by bit she came to discard her faith in this and perhaps in all other avenues to occult knowledge. For a time she was willing cynically to exploit the self‑deceptions of others. The attempted fraud on Lady Burton can hardly have been other than clear‑sightedly wicked. It looks as if sincerity came to her in the end and she was left disgusted by herself. Her attack on mediums cost her all her friends with the exception of Lord Bute's family. It was made regardlessly of her interests (in a prudential sense), and can only have been carried out at the urge of deep and powerful emotions. It coincided with the giving away of her psychic library. These acts constitute a denial of the whole meaning of her life until that time. In effect they were a recantation and a spectacular act of self‑punishment. Such behaviour can hardly be understood except as the manifest sign of a change of heart.

      This introduction to Dr Hall's book has been, of course, a piece of self‑indulgence on the part of the writer, intrigued beyond measure by the enigma of a personality. Poor justice has been done to the absorbing interest of Dr Hall's complex and beautiful detective story, and none to the picture he gives us of a world so close to us in historical time, so distant in standards and beliefs and all the complexities that go to make a society. Ada Freer is only one, if the strangest, of the many odd and quirky personalities who lived in that world. In Dr Hall's story, as it cannot be in a work of fiction, not one but all of them move and breathe and are individuals in their own right. Let the reader then turn to the pages that follow. He may, if he wishes, check the psy­chiatrist's interpretations against conclusions of his own, or forget them entirely.