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POLTERGEISTS – 3 CLASSIC CASES

Posted on: July 8, 2011

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The author Colin Wilson once commented that poltergeist cases often varied so little in their descriptions that a book on the history of poltergeist activity would be nigh-on unreadable. I can’t help feeling he was right. I often find myself skimming over descriptions of poltergeist activity because of the tedium level involved, and yet occasionally a case crops up which is both baffling and interesting because of the sheer complexity of it. They are often well-documented, and the characters of the people involved well studied. The following are 3 classic poltergeist cases which illustrate this bizarre, and at times terrifying, phenomenon.

1. AMHERST, NOVA SCOTIA

I first came across the story of Esther Cox in a novel I read many years ago called “Mine To Kill” by David St Clair, it’s fascinated me ever since. Esther lived with her brother-in-law Daniel Teed, a shoe-maker by trade, and a Methodist by religion. Also packed into the small house were Daniel’s wife, Olive, their two sons, Esther’s other siblings, Jennie and William, and Daniel’s brother, John (confused, you will be!). Overcrowding is often a staple of poltergeist activity, and the Teed household would be no exception.

In 1878 Esther was a rather dumpy, plain girl of 18 years of age. She had a boyfriend, Bob MacNeal, but he was a nasty piece of work. One August day Bob took Esther to some nearby woods, and ordered her at gunpoint to have sex with him. Somebody approached before the horrible deed could be carried out. Poor Esther was depressed for some time after this, and cried herself to sleep at night, although she seems to have been more concerned at the thought of losing a boyfriend than that he had tried to rape her. She was prone to nervous fits, and had very Freudian nightmares about black bulls trying to break into the house.

On 4 September, about a week after the hair-raising incident with Bob MacNeal, Esther heard scratching noises in her bedroom and screamed that a mouse was in bed with her. Her sister Jennie rushed to her aid, and said she saw a cardboard box move by itself. The following night Esther’s body swelled to twice its normal size, her face was bright red, and Esther screamed that she was dying. A loud booming noise, like thunder, was heard outside, but there was nothing that could account for it.

A couple of days later Esther’s bedclothes were torn off her bed and thrown at John Teed, who indignantly left the house, vowing that he was never going to return. Jennie meanwhile had fainted at the spectacle, and the rest of the family had sat on the bedclothes to try and keep them in place. The local physician, Dr Carritte, was summoned to examine Esther, and during his visit plaster fell off the bedroom wall, exposing the words “ESTHER COX, YOU ARE MINE TO KILL”. The doctor was hit on the head with a bolster, and raps and bangings broke out which lasted for two hours.

The following day Esther complained of an “electric feeling” running through her body. Dr Carritte was summoned again. This time he prescribed morphine for Esther, and was hit with a bombardment of potatoes, which grew so violent that he was knocked across the room. For several weeks loud bangings shook the house, which were sometimes so violent that the family said it sounded like somebody on the roof with a sledgehammer, and passers-by in the street heard them.

Esther fell into a trance and the whole story about Bob MacNeal came out. Jennie said that the incident with Bob had caused the strange happenings, and there were knocks on the wall, as though the poltergeist was in agreement. In fact, the entity took to signing its messages “Bob”. By now the local press had picked up on Esther’s story, and the house became a magnet for sightseers, so many in fact that the police had to be drafted in to sort out the crowds.

One of the visitors was a the Rev. Dr Edwin Clay, who said that when he visited he saw a bucket of water, which was standing on the kitchen table, begin to bubble as though boiling. The Rev. staunchly defended Esther against the charges of fraud which were being levelled at her, and said that the poor girl’s body had suffered a kind of electric shock, and had been turned into a living battery. His theory became so popular that he was called to give lectures on it.

In December Esther fell ill with diptheria, and curiously the haunting subsided, as though it needed Esther’s normal healthy energy to feed upon. Unfortunately it started up again when Esther recovered, recommencing with a barrel of wood shavings in the cellar mysteriously catching fire. A neighbour, John White, gave Esther a job at his restaurant, but the poltergeist would continue to torment her there. She was hit on the head with a scrubbing brush, and oven doors would clang open in her presence. She became a kind of human magnet and had to be given special shoes to wear, but they made her head ache and her nose bleed. Voices in her head threatened her with stabbing, and that the family home would be burnt down.

As if to illustrate this threat lighted matches began to fall from her bedroom ceiling, and one of her dresses, hanging in a closet, caught fire. One of her sister Olive’s dresses also caught fire, whilst it was in full view of them both. John White asked Esther to leave his restaurant, and the poor girl seemed to have become a pariah in her own town. As if she didn’t have enough problems already, a local resident, Dr Nathan Tupper, came up with the dubious suggestion that Esther should be flogged, so that the evil could be beaten out of her! His suggestion becomes even more dubious with his colourful description of how the whip should be laid across Esther’s shoulders “by a powerful arm” (his no doubt!).

In June 1879 a stage magician, Walter Hubbell, arrived in town with the express wish of turning Esther into some kind of lucrative vaudeville turn. The poltergeist resented this idea though, and when Hubbell arrived at the house it threw carving knives, an umbrella and a chair at him. Also during his visit Esther had pins rammed into her hand, and fires broke out again. Things were just as eventful when the Rev. R A Temple arrived to do an exorcism, and trumpet music was heard all over the house (which does sound as though the entity was taunting the good Rev.).

Esther wasn’t the only one to be the focus of the entity’s spite. Her brother George found himself in the embarrassing situation of being publicly undressed by it on three occasions, and the family cat was levitated 5 feet into the air!

Eventually Esther gave into Walter Hubbell’s persistent demands and agreed to appear on stage. It was a disaster. The poltergeist refused to perform, and both Esther and Hubbell had to flee an irate audience demanding their money back. Hubbell left town, and (ever resourceful it would seem) turned Esther’s story into a bestselling book. Esther didn’t have such luck. The Teed’s landlord, a Mr Bliss, became increasingly concerned about what the effect of all this was having on his property, and he asked Esther to leave.

Esther went to work on a local farm, owned by a Mr Van Amburgh, but when objects went missing, and the barn caught fire, she was arrested, and slammed into jail for four months … and that did the trick. The poltergeist activity ceased, never to return. It was thought that the shock of going to prison had finally cured Esther of her torment. Except not really. Although she was never to suffer from the poltergeist’s antics again, Esther didn’t seem to have known much happiness in her life. She became a dowdy woman with a drink problem. She married twice, producing a son from each marriage, and died in Massachusetts in November 1912.

2. PONTEFRACT, YORKSHIRE

Council houses have been the focus of many a poltergeist outbreak. Cynics may argue that this could be a convenient way of getting the council to re-house you, other factors may be that traditionally they were overcrowded, and that people living there suffered a great deal of stress. I grew up in a council house in the 1970s, and have many happy memories of it, but I also know the adults at the time endured a lot of serious money troubles. Overcrowding was common. As well as large families living there, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to take in lodgers as well! Such factors have to be taken into account.

On 1 September 1966 the Pritchard family at East Drive, Pontefract, became the unwilling hosts to a poltergeist entity whom they nicknamed “Fred” and “Mr Nobody”. (Silly distraction: when I was a kid, if anything mysterious happened, we used to blame it on “Mrs Harris”, why Mrs Harris I never knew!). The haunting began with the usual poltergeist-y occurrences of loud drumming and banging, as well as disembodied breathing. On one terrifying occasion Mr and Mrs Pritchard’s teenage daughter, Diane, was dragged upstairs, with marks left on her throat as a result.

Footprints were found inside the house. House keys flew down the chimney, and (incredibly) a white mohair coat was found hidden in a pile of coal, but when retrieved the coat was completely clean. Inverted crosses were drawn on a wall, and jam was smeared on the doors and stairs. A relative, Aunt Maude, voiced her scepticism about the haunting, and the entity retaliated by pouring a jug of milk over her head! It also grabbed Aunt Maude’s fur gloves, and caused them to jig when Aunty sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’! When the family attempted to record the ghostly noises the entity removed the plug from the tape-recorder.

On top of all that, a grandmother clock was thrown down the stiars, bedclothes were torn off hapless sleepers, and the smell of heavy perfume was detected. Especially disturbing was the occasion when a photograph of the Pritchards was found slashed. The house, inevitably, became something of a tourist attraction in the area, and people sitting outside it on ghost-vigils claimed to see a strange glow around it. A hooded figure was seen around the house, and it was thought to be that of a monk, who was hanged for rape during Tudor times. During the reign of King Henry VIII a gallows was reckoned to stand near where the house now stood. The activity finally ended in 1969 when the desperate family hung cloves of garlic around the house.

Colin Wilson investigated the haunting, eventually producing a book about the case, ‘Poltergeist!’. He concluded that Philip Pritchard, the 15-year-old son, was the catalyst of the haunting. Poltergeist cases tend to have a central figure, around whom the haunting seems to revolve, and it’s far from unusual for that catalyst to be a teenage child.

3. ENFIELD

Arguably one of the most famous poltergeist cases of all time, certainly here in the UK at any rate, largely due to the cult status of ‘Ghostwatch’, a controversial drama which aired at Halloween 1992, centring round the haunting of a semi-detached council house, and which seemed to draw heavily on the Enfield case for its inspiration. Curiously, like both the Amherst and Pontefract cases, the Enfield haunting broke out at the end of August/beginning September.

The modest council house in Green Street was inhabited by Peggy Hodgson, a single mum with 4 children: Margaret (12), Janet (11), Johnny (10) and Billy (7). In the autumn of 1977 it was thrown into chaos as stones were thrown, bedclothes were twisted violently, furniture was moved, cemented pipework was pulled out of a wall, and the children living there lifted into the air by an invisible force. Toilets were flushed, electronic equipment failed, books flew off shelves, and footsteps were heard. The apparitions of a grey-haired old lady, an old man and a child were seen.

The epi-centre of the haunting in this case seemed to be 12-year-old Margaret Hodgson. Margaret was experiencing menstruation for the first time, and it has often been thought that children going through the stresses of puberty may be unwittingly causing poltergeist outbreaks. Margaret was often moved whilst she was asleep, and on one occasion was found sleeping on top of a large radio! She said she often felt as though she was being choked, and foul language was heard coming from her mouth in a deep gutteral voice. This deeply unpleasent voice once swore at psychic investigator, Maurice Grosse, calling him a “fucking old sod”.

The press were called in, and two ‘Daily Mirror’ reporters kept vigil and noted that a chair had been thrown across an empty room, whilst they were standing outside the door. On another occasion a policewoman witnessed a chair moving by itself.

Margaret was often spun round by an unseen force, and yet she stayed smiling throughout the ordeal. This attitude of course ignited the sceptics, who were dubious about her involvement, and put it all down to teenage attention-seeking. Things got confused even further when the late Maurice Grosse, psychic investigator, got closely involved with the case. Seeing Grosse interviewed (just before his death) in the Channel 4 documentary, ‘Interview With A Poltergeist’, I couldn’t help feeling what a lovely old gent he was. He wasn’t stupid. He admitted that he knew the children played pranks on him, but he was well aware of it. He was very emotionally involved though. He believed that the poltergeist was his deceased daughter trying to attract his attention. Even so, Grosse investigated the haunting extensively over a 13-month period, alongside Guy Lyon Playfair, who wrote it up in a book entitled ‘This House Is Haunted’.

When Society For Psychical Research investigators Anita Gregory and John Beloff visited the house, they both stated that they had seen nothing but trickery. Many times, Gregory reported, Margaret would produce loud noises from her room and would be found sitting on the floor. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that Janet now banned anyone from coming into her room. A video camera secreted upstairs caught Margaret trying to bend spoons and metal bars, and bouncing up and down on her bed.

All that is pretty damning, and yet it must be borne in mind that over 1500 paranormal events were recorded, and there were aspects to the case which are not so easy to dismiss as childish high-jinks. Margaret was asked to reproduce the deep, gutteral “ghost’s voice” under laboratory conditions, and couldn’t (it would have been medically impossible). It has been suggested that the voice may be that of a previous resident of the house, an old man called Bill, who had died of a brain-haemorrhage whilst sitting in a chair downstairs, confirmed by Bill’s son who contacted Grosse.

And then there is the curious matter of Margaret’s levitation. She was photographed seemingly flying out of bed, the camera catching her in mid-flight in the air, and a neighbour walking along the street one day claimed to see Margaret actually float past her bedroom window. If this was trickery, it was pretty sophisticated stuff!!

The haunting petered out (as poltergeist cases often do) in September 1978, just over a year after it had started. Peggy Hogson continued to live in the house until her death in 2003. Seeing Margaret again in ‘Interview With A Poltergeist’, she struck me as (dare I say it) a rather haunted lady, and one still somewhat baffled by the bizarre events of her youth.

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