Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/28

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POLTERGEIST

church visited by Peter the Great after the battle of Poltava. There are a military school for cadets, a theological seminary and two girls' colleges; also flour-mills, tobacco works and a tannery.

Poltava is mentioned in Russian annals in 1174, under the name of Ltava, but does not again appear in history until 1430, when, together with Glinsk, it was given by Gedimin, prince of Lithuania, to the Tatar prince Leksada. Under the Cossack chief, Bogdan Chmielnicki, it was the chief town of the Poltava “ regiment.” Peter the Great of Russia defeated Charles XII. of Sweden in the immediate neighbourhood on the 27th of June 1709, and the victory is commemorated by a column over 50 ft. in height.


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 The hypothesis, in consequence of the diffusion of education, has been superseded by that of “ electricity ”; while sceptics in all ages and countries have accounted for all the phenomena by the theory of imposture.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, savageor 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 édijiantes, 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 Tesuit 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 iriumjzhatus, 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 Lnfe 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'arnong 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 a.nd 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 17.16-1717 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