1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Poltergeist
POLTERGEIST (Ger. for “racketing spirit”), the term applied to certain phenomena of an unexplained nature, such as movements of objects without any traceable cause, and noises equally untraced to their source; but in some cases exhibiting intelligence, as when raps answer a question by a code. In the word Poltergeist, the phenomena are attributed to the action of a Geist, or spirit: of old the popular explanation of all residuary phenomena. The hypothesis, in consequence of the diffusion of education, has been superseded by that of “electricity”; while sceptics in all ages and countries have accounted for all the phenomena by the theory of imposture. The last is at least a vera causa: imposture has often been detected; but it is not so certain that this theory accounts for all the circumstances. To the student of human nature the most interesting point in the character of poltergeist phenomena is their appearance in the earliest known stages of culture, their wide diffusion, and their astonishing uniformity. Almost all the beliefs usually styled “superstitious” are of early occurrence and of wide diffusion: the lowest savages believe in ghosts of the dead and in wraiths of the living. Such beliefs when found thriving in our own civilization might be explained as mere survivals from savagery, memories of all
|“The superstitions idle-headed eld|
|Received and did deliver to our age.”|
But we have not to deal only with a belief that certain apparently impossible things may occur and have occurred in the past. We are met by the evidence of sane and credible witnesses, often highly educated, who maintain that they themselves have heard and beheld the unexplained sounds and sights. It appears, therefore, that in considering the phenomena of the poltergeist we are engaged with facts of one sort or another; facts produced either by skilled imposture, or resting on hallucinations of the witnesses; or on a mixture of fraud and of hallucination caused by “suggestion.” There remains the chance that some agency of an unexplored nature is, at least in certain cases, actually at work.
A volume would be needed if we were to attempt to chronicle the phenomena of the poltergeist as believed in by savages and in ancient and medieval times. But among savages they are usually associated with the dead, or with the medicine-men of the tribes. These personages are professional “mediums,” and like the mediums of Europe and America, may be said to have domesticated the poltergeist. At their séances, savage or civilized, the phenomena are reported to occur—such as rappings and other noises, loud or low, and “movements of objects without physical contact.” (See, for a brief account, A. Lang, Cock Lane and Common Sense, “Savage Spiritualism”; and see the Jesuit Lettres édifiantes, North America, 1620-1770, and Kohl's Kitchi Gami.) But “induced phenomena,” where professional mediums and professional medical men are the agents, need not here be considered. The evidence, unless in the case of Sir William Crookes's experiments with Daniel Dunglas Home, is generally worthless, and the laborious investigations of the Society for Psychical Research resulted only in the detection of fraud as far as “physical” manifestations by paid mediums were concerned.
The spontaneous poltergeist, where, at least, no professional is present, and no séance is being held, is much more curious and interesting than the simple tricks played in the dark by impudent charlatans. The phenomena are identical, as reported, literally “from China to Peru.” The Cieza de Leon (1549) tells us that the cacique of Pirza, in Popyan, during his conversion to Christianity, was troubled by stones falling mysteriously through the air (the mysterious point was the question of whence they came, and what force urged them), while Christians saw at his table a glass of liquor raised in the air, by no visible hand, put down empty, and replenished! Mr Dennys (Folk Lore of China, 1876, p. 79) speaks of a Chinese householder who was driven to take refuge in a temple by the usual phenomena—throwing about of crockery and sounds of heavy footfalls—after the decease of an aggrieved monkey. This is only one of several Chinese cases of poltergeist; and the phenomena are described in Jesuit narratives of the 18th century, from Cochin China. In these papers no explanation is suggested. There is a famous example in a nunnery, recorded (1528) by a notable witness, Adrien de Montalembert, almoner to Francis I. The agent was supposed to be the spirit of a sister recently deceased. Among multitudes of old cases, that of the “Drummer of Tedworth” (1662-1663; see Glanvil, Sadducismus triumphatus, 1666); that at Rerrick, recorded by the Rev. Mr Telfer in 1695; that of the Wesley household (1716-1717) chronicled in contemporary letters and diaries of the Wesley family (Southey's Life of John Wesley); that of Cideville (1851), from the records of the court which tried the law-suit arising out of the affair (Proc. Soc. Psychical Research, xviii. 454-463); and the Alresford case, attested by the great admiral, Lord St Vincent, are among the most remarkable. At Tedworth we have the evidence of Glanvil himself, though it does not amount to much; at Rerrick, Telfer was a good chronicler and gives most respectable signed vouchers for all the marvels: Samuel Wesley and his wife were people of sense, they were neither alarmed nor superstitious, merely puzzled; while the court which tried the Cideville case, only decided that “the cause of the events remains unknown.” At Alresford, in Hampshire, the phenomena attested by Lord St Vincent and his sister Mrs Ricketts, who occupied the house, were peculiarly strange and emphatic: the house was therefore pulled down. At Willington Mill, near Morpeth (1831-1847), the phenomena are attested by the journal of Mr Procter, the occupant, a Quaker, a “tee-totaller,” and a man of great resolution. He and his family endured unspeakable things for sixteen years, and could find no explanation of the sights and sounds, among which were phantasms of animals, as at Epworth, in the Wesley case.
Of all these cases that of the Wesleys has attracted most critical attention. It was not, in itself, an extreme instance of poltergeist: at Alresford, at the close of the 18th century, and at Willington Mill in the middle of the 19th the disturbances were much more violent and persistent than at Epworth, while our evidence is, in all three examples, derived from the contemporary narratives, letters and journals of educated persons. The Wesleys, however, were people so celebrated and so active in religion that many efforts have been made to explain their “old Jeffrey,” as they called the disturbing agency. These attempts at explanation have been fruitless. The poet Coleridge, who said that he knew many cases, explained all by a theory of contagious epidemic hallucination of witnesses. Dr Salmon, of Trinity College, Dublin, set all down to imposture by Hetty Wesley, a vivacious girl (Fortnightly Review, 1866). The documents on which he relied, when closely studied, did not support his charges, for he made several important errors in dates, and on these his argument rested. F. Podmore, in several works (e.g. Studies in Psychical Research), adopted a 'theory of exaggerative memory in the narrators, as one element, with a dose of imposture and of hallucination begotten of excited expectation. The Wesley letters and journals, written from day to day, do not permit of exaggerative memory, and when the records of 1716-1717 are compared with the reminiscences collected from his family by John Wesley in 1726, the discrepancies are seen to be only such as occur in all human evidence about any sort of events, remote by nine or ten years. Thus, in 1726, Mrs Wesley mentioned a visionary badger seen by her. She did not write about it to her son Samuel in 1717, but her husband and her daughter did then describe it to Samuel, as an experience of his mother at that date. The whole family, in 1717, became familiar with the phenomena, and were tired of them and of Samuel's questions. (Mr Podmore's arguments are to be found in the Journal of the Studies of Psychical Research, ix. 40-45. Some dates are misprinted.) The theory of hallucination cannot account for the uniformity of statements, in many countries and at many dates, to the effect that the objects mysteriously set in motion moved in soft curves and swerves, or “wobbled.” Suppose that an adroit impostor is throwing them, suppose that the spectators are excited, why should their excitement everywhere produce a uniform hallucination as to the mode of motion? It is better to confess ignorance, and remain in doubt, than to invent such theories.
A modern instance may be analysed, as the evidence was given contemporaneously with the events (Podmore, Proc. Soc. Psychical Research, xii. 45-58: “Poltergeists”). On the 20th or 21st of February 1883 a Mrs White, in a cottage at Worksop, was “washing up the tea-things at the table,” with two of her children in the room, when “the table tilted up at a considerable angle,” to her amazement. On the 26th of February, Mr White being from home, Mrs White extended hospitality to a girl, Eliza Rose, “the child of an imbecile mother.” Eliza is later described as “half-witted,” but no proof of this is given. On the 1st of March, White being from home, at about 11.30 p.m. a number of things “which had been in the kitchen a few minutes before” came tumbling down the kitchen stairs. Only Mrs White and Eliza Rose were then in the kitchen. Later some hot coals made an invasion. On the following night, White being at home in the kitchen, with his wife and Eliza, a miscellaneous throng of objects came in, Mr White made vain research upstairs, where was his brother Tom. On his return to the kitchen “a little china woman left the mantelpiece and flew into the corner.” Being replaced, it repeated its flight, and was broken. White sent his brother to fetch a doctor; there also came a policeman, named Higgs; and the doctor and policeman saw, among other things, a basin and cream jug rise up automatically, fall on the floor and break. Next morning, a clock which had been silent for eighteen months struck; a crash was heard, and the clock was found to have leapt over a bed and fallen on the floor. All day many things kept flying about and breaking themselves, and Mr White sent Miss Rose about her business. Peace ensued.
Mr Podmore, who visited the scene on the 7th and 8th of April and collected depositions, says (writing in 1883): “It may be stated generally that there was no possibility, in most cases, of the objects having been thrown by hand . . . Moreover it is hard to conceive by what mechanical appliances, under the circumstances described, the movements could have been effected. . . . To suppose that these various objects were all moved by mechanical contrivances argues incredible stupidity, amounting almost to imbecility, on the part of all the persons present who were not in the plot,” whereas Higgs, Dr Lloyd and a miner named Curass, all “certainly not wanting in intelligence,” examined the objects and could find no explanation. White attested that fresh invasions of the kitchen by inanimate objects occurred as Eliza was picking up the earlier arrivals; and he saw a salt-cellar fly from the table while Eliza was in another part of the room. The amount of things broken was valued by White at £9. No one was in the room when the clock struck and fell. Higgs saw White shut the cupboard doors, they instantly burst open, and a large glass jar flew into the yard and broke. “The jar could not go in a straight line from the cupboard out of the door; but it certainly did go” (Higgs). The depositions were signed by the witnesses (April 1883).
In 1896, Mr Podmore, after thirteen years of experience in examining reports of the poltergeist, produced his explanations. (1) The witnesses, though “honest and fairly intelligent,” were “imperfectly educated, not skilled in accurate observation of any kind.” (They described, like many others, in many lands, the “wobbling” movement of objects in flight.) (2) Mr Podmore took the evidence five weeks after date; there was time for exaggerated memories. (Mr Podmore did not consult, it seems, the contemporary evidence of Higgs in the Retford and Gainsborough Times, 9th of March 1883. On examination it proves to tally as precisely, as possible with the testimonies which he gave to Mr Podmore, except that in March he mentioned one or two miracles which he omitted five weeks later! The evidence is published in Lang's The Making of Religion, 1898, p. 356.) (3) In the evidence given to Mr Podmore five weeks after date, there are discrepancies between Higgs and White as to the sequence of some events, and as to whether one Coulter was present when the clock fell: he asserts, Higgs and White deny it. (There is never evidence of several witnesses, five weeks after an event, without such discrepancies. If there were, the evidence would be suspected as “cooked.” Higgs in April gave the same version as in March.) (4) As there are discrepancies, the statements that Eliza was not always present at the abnormal occurrences may be erroneous. “It is perhaps not unreasonable to conjecture that Eliza Rose herself, as the instrument of mysterious agencies, or simply as a half-witted girl gifted with abnormal cunning and love of mischief, may have been directly responsible for all that took place.” (How, if, as we have seen, the theory of mechanical appliances is abandoned, “under the circumstances described”? We need to assume that all the circumstances are wrongly described. Yet events did occur, the breakages were lamentable, and we ask how could the most half-withed of girls damage so much property undetected, under the eyes of the owner, a policeman, a medical practitioner and others? How could she throw things from above into the room where she was picking up the things as they arrived? Or is that a misdescription? No evidence of Eliza's half-wittedness and abnormal cunning is adduced. If we call her “the instrument of mysterious agencies,” the name of these agencies is—poltergeist! No later attempt to find and examine the abnormal girl is recorded.)
The explanations are not ideally satisfactory, but they are the result, in Mr Podmore's mind, of examination of several later cases of poltergeist. In one a girl, carefully observed, was detected throwing things, and evidence that the phenomena occurred, in her absence, at another place and time, is discounted. In several other cases, exaggerations of memory, malobservation and trickery combined, are the explanations, and the conclusion is that there is “strong ground” for believing in trickery as the true explanation of all these, eleven cases, including the Worksop affair. Mr Podmore asserts that, at Worksop, “the witnesses did not give their testimony until some weeks after the event.” That is an erroneous statement as far as Higgs goes, the result apparently of malobservation of the local newspaper. More or less of the evidence was printed in the week when the events occurred. Something more than unconscious exaggeration, or malobservation, seems needed to explain the amazing statements made by Mr Newman, a gamekeeper of Lord Portman, on the 23rd of January 1895, at Durmeston in another case. Among other things, he said that on the 18th of December 1894, a boot flew out of a door. “I went and put my foot on the boot and said ‘I defy anything to move this boot.’ Just as I stepped off, it rose up behind me and knocked my hat off. There was nobody behind me.” Gamekeepers are acute observers, and if the narrative be untrue, malobservation or defect of memory does not explain the fact. In this case, at Durmeston, the rector, Mr Anderson, gave an account of some of the minor phenomena. He could not explain them, and gave the best character to the Nonconformist mother of the child with whom the events were associated. No trickery was discovered.
The phenomena are frequently connected with a person, often a child, suffering from nervous malady or recent nervous shock. No such person appears in the Alresford, Willington, Epworth and Tedworth cases, and it is not stated that Eliza Rose at Worksop was subjected to a medical examination. In a curious case, given by Mrs Crewe, in The Night Side of Nature, the young person was the daughter of a Captain Molesworth. Her own health was bad, and she had been depressed by the death of a sister. Captain Molesworth occupied a semi-detached villa at Trinity, near Edinburgh; his landlord lived next door. The phenomena set in: the captain bored holes in the wall to discover a cause in trickery, and his landlord brought a suit against him in the sheriff's court at Edinburgh.
The papers are preserved, but the writer found that to discover them would be a herculean labour. He saw, however, a number of documents in the office of a firm of solicitors employed in the case. They proved the fact of the lawsuit but threw no other light on the matter. We often find that the phenomena occur after a nervous shock to the person who may be called the medium. The shock is frequently consequent on a threat from a supposed witch or wizard. This was the case at Cideville in 1850-1851. (See an abstract of the documents of the trial, Proceedings S.P.R. xviii. 454-463. The entire report was sent to the writer.) In 1901 there was a case at Great Grimsby; the usual flying of stones and other objects occurred. The woman of the house had been threatened by a witch, after that the poltergeist developed. No explanation was forthcoming. In Proc. S.P.R. xvii. 320 the Rev. Mr Deanley gives a curious parallel case with detection of imposture. In Miss O'Neal's Devonshire Idylls is an excellent account of the phenomena which occurred after a Devonshire girl of the best character, well known to Miss O'Neal, had been threatened by a witch. In the famous instance of Christian Shaw of Bargarran (1697) the child had been thrice formally cursed by a woman, who prayed to God that her soul “might be hurled through hell.” Christian fell into a state which puzzled the medical faculty (especially when she floated in the air), and doubtless she herself caused, in an hysterical state, many phenomena which, however, were not precisely poltergeistish. A very marked set of phenomena, in the way of movements of objects, recently occurred in the Hudson Bay territory, after a half-breed girl had received a nervous shock from a flash of lightning that struck near her. Heavy weights automatically “tobogganed,” as Red Indian spectators said, and there were the usual rappings in tent and wigwam. If we accept trickery as the sufficient explanation, the uniformity of tricks played by hysterical patients is very singular. Still more singular is a long series, continued through several years, of the same occurrences where no hysterical patient is known to exist. In a very curious example, a carpenter's shop being the scene, there was concerned nobody of an hysterical temperament, no young boy or girl, and there was no explanation (Proc. S.P.R. vii. 383-394). The events went on during six weeks. An excellent case of hysterical fraud by a girl in France is given by Dr Grasset, professor of clinical medicine at Montpellier (Proc. S.P.R. xviii. 464-480). But in this instance, though things were found in unusual places, nobody over eight years old saw them flying about; yet all concerned were deeply superstitious.
On the whole, while fraud, especially hysterical fraud, is a vera causa in some cases of poltergeist, it is not certain that the explanation fits all cases, and it is certain that detection of fraud has often been falsely asserted, as at Tedworth and Willington. No good chronic case, as at Alresford, Epworth, Spraiton (Bovet's Pandaemonium), Willington, and in other classical instances, has been for months sedulously observed by sceptics. In short-lived cases, as at Worksop, science appears on the scene long enough after date to make the theory of exaggeration of memory plausible. If we ask science to explain how the more remarkable occurrences could be produced by a girl ex hypothese half-witted, the reply is that the occurrences never occurred, they were only “described as occurring” by untrained observers with “patent double magnifying” memories; and with a capacity for being hallucinated in a uniform way all the world over. Yet great quantities of crockery and furniture were broken, before the eyes of observers, in a house near Ballarmina, in North Ireland, in January 1907. The experiment of exhibiting a girl who can break all the crockery without being detected, in the presence of a doctor and a policeman, and who can, at the same time, induce the spectators to believe that the flying objects waver, swerve and “wobble,” has not been attempted.
An obvious difficulty in the search for authentic information is the circumstance that the poor and imperfectly educated are much more numerous than the well-to-do and well educated. It is therefore certain that most of the disturbances will occur in the houses of the poor and ill educated, and that their evidence will be rejected as insufficient. When an excellent case occurs in a palace, and is reported by the margravine of Bayreuth, sister of Frederick the Great, in her Memoirs, the objection is that her narrative was written long after the events. When we have contemporary journals and letters, or sworn evidence, as in the affairs of Sir Philip Francis, Cideville and Willington, criticism can probably find some other good reasons for setting these testimonies aside. It is certain that the royal, the rich and the well-educated observers tell, in many cases, precisely the same sort of stories about poltergeist phenomena as do the poor and the imperfectly instructed.
On the theory that there exist “mysterious agencies” which now and then produce the phenomena, we may ask what these agencies can possibly be? But no answer worthy of consideration has ever been given to this question. The usual reply is that some unknown but intelligent force is disengaged from the personality of the apparent medium. This apparent medium need not be present; he or she may be far away. The Highlanders attribute many poltergeist phenomena, inexplicable noises, sounds of viewless feet that pass, and so forth, to tàradh, an influence exerted unconsciously by unduly strong wishes on the part of a person at a distance. The phrase falbh air fàrsaing (“going uncontrolled”) is also used (Campbell, Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Scottish Highlands, 1902, pp. 144-147). The present writer is well acquainted with cases attributed to tàradh, in a house where he has often been a guest. They excite no alarm, their cause being well understood. We may call this kind of thing telethoryby, a racket produced from a distance. A very marked case in Illinois would have been attributed in the Highlands to the tàradh of the late owner of the house, a dipsomaniac in another state. On his death the disturbances ceased (first-hand evidence from the disturbed lady of the house, May 1907). It may be worth while to note that the phenomena are often regarded as death-warnings by popular belief. The early incidents at the Wesleys' house were thought to indicate the death of a kinsman; or to announce the approaching decease of Mr Wesley père, who at first saw and heard nothing unusual. At Worksop the doctor was called in, because the phenomena were guessed to be “warnings” of the death of a sick child of the house. The writer has first-hand evidence from a lady and her son (afterwards a priest) of very singular movements of untouched objects in their presence, which did coincide with the death of a relation at a distance.
Bibliography.—The literature of the subject is profuse, but scattered. For modern instances the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research may be consulted, especially an essay by F. W. H. Myers, vii. 146-198, also iv. 29-38; with the essay by Podmore, already quoted. Books like Dale Owen's Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, and Fresnoy's Recueil des dissertations sur les apparitions, are stronger in the quantity of anecdotes than in the quality of evidence. A. Lang's Book of Dreams and Ghosts, contains outlandish and Celtic examples, and Telfair's (Telfer's) A True Relation of an Apparition (1694-1696) shows unusual regard for securing signed evidence. Kiesewetter's Geschichte des neueren Occultismus and Graham Dalyell's Darker Superstitions of Scotland, with any collections of trials for witchcraft may be consulted, and Bovet’s Pandaemonium (1684) is very rich in cases. The literature of the famous drummer of Tedworth (March 1662–April 1663) begins with an abstract of the sworn deposition of Mr Mompesson, whose house was the scene of the disturbances. The abstract is in the Mercurius publicus of April 1663, the evidence was given in a court of justice on the 15th of April. There is also a ballad, a rhymed news-sheet of 1662 (Anthony Wood’s Collection 401 (193), Bodleian Library). Pepys mentions “books” about the affair in his Diary for June 1663. Glanvil’s first known version is in his Sadducismus triumphatus of 1666. The sworn evidence of Mompesson proves at least that he was disturbed in an intolerable manner, certainly beyond any means at the disposal of his two daughters, aged nine and eleven or thereabouts. The agent may have been the tàradh of the drummer whom Mompesson offended. Glanvil in 1666 confused the dates, and, save for his own experiences, merely repeats the statements current in 1662–1663. The ballad and Mompesson’s deposition are given in Proc. S.P.R. xvii. 304–336, in a discussion between the writer and Mr Podmore. The dated and contemporary narrative of Procter in the Willington Mill case (1835–1847), is printed in the Journ. S.P.R. (Dec. 1892), with some contemporary letters on the subject. Mr Procter endured the disturbances for sixteen years before he retreated from the place. There was no naughty little girl in the affair; no nervous or hysterical patient. The Celtic hypothesis of tàradh, exercised by “the spirit of the living,” includes visual apparitions, and many a so-called “ghost” of the dead may be merely the tàradh of a living person.
- (A. L.)
- The present writer criticized Mr Podmore's explanation in The Making of Religion. Mr Podmore replied (Proc. Soc. Psychical Research, xiv. 133, 136), pointing out an error in the critic's presentation of his meaning. He, in turn, said that the writer “champions the supernormal interpretation,” which is not exact, as the writer has no theory on the subject, though he is not satisfied that “a naughty little girl” is a uniformly successful solution of the poltergeist problem.