Putting Together The Poltergeist Puzzle
Written By: Mark Russell Bell
Note from Mark Russell Bell whose previous books can be read free online at http://testament.org:
The following is from the second chapter of my upcoming book HOLLYWEIRD. Most of the autobiographic details from Chapter 2 have been deleted for this article, such as attending an advance screening of STAR WARS as a student in the USC cinema department in 1977. The title of the book is a reflection on events in my life where Hollywood and the paranormal converged. Before writing about the ’supernatural,’ I was a publicity writer who contributed materials to such films as GHOST, FORREST GUMP, several STAR TREK films, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, FATAL ATTRACTION, FIRE IN THE SKY, SCROOGED, BRAVEHEART and THE GODFATHER, PART III."
My investigation into unexplained events from past centuries let me discover tantalizing accounts that transcended the familiar scope of experience and proved that any popular consensus in relation to what constitutes reality may well be illusory. It was impossible to know for certain that these various anecdotes had happened precisely as described yet the more research that I did, the more I was able to distinguish a range of tantalizing parallels. It seemed I was collecting pieces of a puzzle without any idea of how they might all fit together.
Perhaps, the best known account of a talking poltergeist case is known as ’the Bell Witch.’
The first book presenting the case was the 1894 AUTHENTICATED HISTORY OF THE FAMOUS BELL WITCH AND OTHER STORIES OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST UNEXPLAINED PHENOMENON by M. V. Ingram, whose preface attested:
The author only assumes to compile the data, formally presenting the history of the greatest of all mysteries, just as the matter is furnished to hand, written by Williams Bell, a member of the family, some fifty-six years ago, together with other corroborative testimony by men and women of irreproachable character and unquestionable veracity.
A profusion of supernatural phenomena was witnessed to center on the Bells, whose double log house, weather-boarded on the outside, was located on the south bank of Red River in Robertson County, Tennessee during the first three decades of the 19th Century. Richard Williams Bell called his memoirs of the Bell Witch OUR FAMILY TROUBLE and described numerous auditory manifestations among the myriad of "the phenomena and the afflictions endured by our family."
Reading about the Bell Witch, what perhaps startled me the most was finding that the Bell family members came to think that the presence of the Spirit was related to physical ailments experienced by the father, John Bell, and his youngest daughter, Elizabeth, who was known as ’Betsy.’ Betsy’s symptoms especially caught my attention as they were described by Richard Williams Bell.
Sister was now subjected to fainting spells, followed by prostration, characterized by shortness of breath and smothering sensations, panting as it were for life, and becoming entirely exhausted and lifeless, losing her breath for nearly a minute between gasps, and was rendered unconscious. She would revive and then relapse, and it appeared that her suffering was prolonged by the greater exertions used for her restoration. These spells lasted from thirty to forty minutes, and passed off suddenly, leaving her perfectly restored after a few minutes in which she recovered from the exhaustion. There is no positive evidence that these spells were produced by the witch. However, that was the conclusion, from the fact that there was no other apparent cause.
So I had something in common with Betsy; however, unlike her, my fainting lasted only for brief moments and no longer than a minute at most. Here is an early account from Richard Williams Bell of the initial vocal manifestations.
The witch continued to develop the power of articulation, talking freely, and those who engaged in conversation with the invisible persevered in plying questions to draw out an explanation of the mystery, and again the question was pressed, inquiring, "Who are you and what do you want?" and the witch replied, stating the second time, "I am a spirit who was once very happy, but have been disturbed and made unhappy." Then followed the question, "How were you disturbed, and what makes you unhappy?" The reply to this question was, "I am the spirit of a person who was buried in the woods nearby, and the grave has been disturbed, my bones disinterred and scattered, and one of my teeth was lost under this house, and I am here looking for that tooth."
This reminded the family of an incident that occurred several years previously where Drew Bell and a friend, Corban Hall, searched for Indian relics in a small mound of graves that had been found when a plot of land was being cleared. Finding only bones, Hall brought a jawbone to the house and threw it against a wall, knocking out a tooth that dropped through a crack in the floor. Mr. Bell reprimanded the boys and made one of the slaves replace the bones and fill in the grave. After Mr. Bell took up a portion of the floor to look unsuccessfully for the tooth, ’the witch’ then laughed at him and declared that "It was all a joke to fool ’Old Jack.’"
The next information offered by the voice was:
"I am the spirit of an early emigrant, who brought a large sum of money and buried my treasure for safe keeping until needed. In the meantime I died without divulging the secret, and I have returned in the spirit for the purpose of making known the hiding place, and I want Betsy Bell to have the money."
The spirit told them where the treasure was to be found; however, after a hard day’s labor by Drew Bell and Bennett Porter with Mr. Johnson supervising them without the desired results, the spirit laughed and ridiculed them for being so easily duped. The disembodied voice was also said to comment on religious subjects with the family and other curious visitors. Nancy Ayres told Ingram:
The witch talked almost incessantly, gabbing and spouting about everything that was going on in the country, seemed familiar with everybody’s business, telling things that no one present knew anything about, called strangers by name and telling where they were from before they could introduce themselves. It would also quote scripture, discuss doctrinal questions, sing songs, and pray eloquent prayers, and never failed to answer any question concerning any passage, verse or text in the Bible correctly, giving full references as to where it might be found. Then on the other hand it cold be very wicked and out curse a sailor.
Richard Williams Bell described how the voice was first heard at night, then also heard in lighted rooms, and finally at any hour of the day. He reported that "the first exhibition of a religious nature was the assimilation of Mr. James Johnson’s character and worship, repeating the song and prayer, uttering precisely the same petition made by the old gentleman the night himself and wife came for the purpose of investigation, and the personation of Mr. Johnson was so perfect that it appeared like himself present." One incident was shared where the discussion concerned the commandment ’Thou shalt not steal.’
A man, whose name I will call John, put in remarking that he did not believe there was any sin in stealing something to eat when one was reduced to hunger, and could not obtain food for his labor. Instantly, the witch perniciously inquired of John "if he eat that sheepskin." This settled John. He was dumb as an oyster, and as soon as the subject was changed he left the company, and was conspicuously absent after that. The result was the revival of an old scandal, so long past that it has been forgotten, in which John was accused of stealing a sheepskin.
Repeatedly, the haunting presence seemed to have an intimate relationship with everyone who visited the Bells.
It was not uncommon for Kate to recognize strangers the moment they entered the house, speaking to them on familiar terms. Here is one instance I will note. Four strangers who had traveled a long distance (whose names I cannot now remember, there were so many unknown callers), arrived late on a dark night, and knocking at the door, and were admitted. They were unknown to any one in the house or on the place, but the moment they entered the door, and before they could speak to introduce themselves, Kate announced one by name, exclaiming, "He is the grand rascal who stole his wife. He pulled her out of her father’s house through a window, and hurt her arm, making her cry; then he whispered to her, ’Hush honey don’t cry, it will soon get well.’" The strangers were greatly confused. They stood dumbfounded, pausing some time before they could speak. The gentleman was asked before leaving if the witch had stated the facts in regard to his matrimonial escapade. He said yes, the circumstances occurred just as stated.
M. V. Ingram’s research and interviews led him to observe the following in his famous book.
Kate the witch never slept, was never idle or confined to any place, but was here and there and everywhere, like the mist of night or the morning sunbeams, was everything and nothing, invisible yet present, spreading all over the neighborhood, prying into everybody’s business and domestic affairs; caught on to every ludicrous thing that happened, and all of the sordid, avaricious meanness that transpired; diving the inmost secrets of the human heart, and withal, was a great blabbermouth; getting neighbors by the ears, taunting people with their sins and shortcomings, and laughing at their folly in trying to discover the identity of the mystery…People now concluded that a good spirit had been sent to the community to work wonders and prepare the good at heart for the second advent.
Witnesses continued attempting to understand the identity of the spirit communicating with them. Calvin Johnson was told the spirit was that of a child buried in North Carolina. John Johnson was told that the spirit was his stepmother’s witch. And then, as related by Richard Williams Bell:
At last Rev. James Gunn manifested a very inquisitive desire to penetrate the greatest of all secrets, and put the question very earnestly. The witch replied, saying that Brother Gunn had put the question in a way that it could no longer be evaded, and it would not do to tell the preacher a flat lie, and if the plain truth must be known, it was nobody else and nothing but "Old Kate Batts’s witch," determined to torment "Old Jack Bell" out of his life.
Much later in the saga, the death of John Bell under perplexing circumstances on December 20, 1820 was attributed to the visiting spirit so one can only speculate how this perspective could have influenced some of the anecdotes that were recorded. It was said that not only had the spirit repeatedly told family members of the intention to kill John Bell but, after his death under perplexing circumstances, the spirit was said to brazenly announce responsibility for the event. Earlier in the sequence of events, as word spread about the bizarre occureences at the Bell residence, the family began calling the haunting entity by the nickname ’Kate."
This was a startling announcement and most unfortunate under the circumstances, because too many were willing to believe it, and it created a profound sensation. Mrs. Kate Batts was the wife of Frederick Batts, who was terribly afflicted, and she had become the head of the family, taking charge of her husband’s affairs. She was very eccentric and sensitive. Some people were disposed to shun her, which was still more irritating to her sensitive nature. No harm could be said of Mrs. Batts. She was kind hearted, and a good neighbor toward those she liked. Mr. Gunn, of course, did not believe the witch’s statement, but many did, or professed to, and the matter made Mrs. Batts very mad, causing a lively sensation in the community.
Little of the anecdotes provided by Ingram can be verified today. For example, one researcher, Philip orfleet, hasn’t been able to find any verification for Frederick Batts’s wife being named Kate. There is reported evidence of contention between Benjamin Batts yet he was not a member of Kate Batts’ immediate family as described by Ingram nor an individual who was apparently known to the author and John Bell in entries from the church minutes of the Red River Baptist Church. (See "Official Records Concerning the Bell Family" at http://bellwitch02.tripod.com.) On January 13, 1818, John Bell was excommunicated after being found guilty of the charge of covetousness: "On motion the case of Bro. Bell was taken up (which is as follows) whereas, the jury of the Circuit Court for Robertson County found Bro. Bell guilty of violating the law of usury…That Bro. Bell coveted and because he had it in his power, took $20 or thereabouts more than he let Batts have as stated by Bro. Bell in July 1816…"
The previous church record of July 19, 1816 stated:
Bro. Bell informed the church that there was a report in circulation that he had taken unlawful interest for money lent Benjamin Batts which report Bro. Bell says is false, in as much as he never lent Mr. Batts a cent of money nor received a cent of interest from him at all. Bro. Bell was then called on to inform this church what he supposed gave rise to said report. He said some time about the first of June past, he purchased a Negro girl from said Batts for which he gave said Batts $100, but did not get possession of said Negro for several days afterwards. Batts insisted the Negro was worth more and insisted to have liberty to sell her again. At last Bell told him if he then sold the Negro, he must pay him (Bell) $150. Bell then had the Negro in possession and bill of sale for her. Some days afterwards, Mr. Batts and Mr. Boggan went to Bell’s house and gave him, they said $150. Bell counted out $120 and observed that he was satisfied with that. He then gave up the Negro and burnt the bill of sale. After some talk on the matter it was postponed for consideration ’till tomorrow.
The following day’s entry stated only:
After prayer by the moderator, the reference of yesterday was then taken up. The church with the Brethren who were present unanimously justified Bro. Bell in what he did.
Regardless of how and why the name ’Kate’ became the Spirit’s nickname, Richard Williams Bell provided numerous examples of the communication offered by the unseen ’Kate.’ Once, the voice of a family slave named Harry was recreated when two Shakers on horseback were approaching the house: "Here Caesar, here Tige, here Bulger…Sic, sic, take ’em."
Richard Williams Bell reported that the Bell spirit could produce an astonishing array of physical phenomena, at one point covering a family slave named Anky with "foam like white spittle"; and here is the description of the occasion when he witnessed his brother Joel "severely whipped."
It happened that Joel and myself were left to occupy a room alone one night, and were troubled less than usual in the early part of the night, but Kate put in good time just before day. It was quite a cold morning, and rather too early to get up, but Kate continued pulling the cover off and jerking my hair, and I got out of bed and dressed myself. Joel, however, was much vexed, and said some ugly things about "Old Kate," and gathering up the cover from the floor, he rolled himself up in it for another nap. Directly the witch snatched it from him again. Joel became enraged, pulling at the cover while Kate seemed to be hawking and spitting in his face, and he had to turn loose the cover. This made Joel raving mad, and he laid flat on his back, kicking with all his might, calling old Kate the meanest kind of names. "Go away from here, you nasty old thing," he exclaimed. Kate became furious also, exclaiming, "You little rascal, I’ll let you know who you are talking to." That moment Joel felt the blows falling fast and heavy, and no boy ever received such a spanking as he got that morning, and he never forgot it.
Among the many startling developments, Our Family Trouble chronicled the introduction of four characters assuming the names Blackdog, Mathematics, Cypocryphy, and Jerusalem.
Up to this time the strange visitor had spoken in the same soft delicate voice, except when personating some individual. Now there were four distinct voices. Blackdog assumed to be the head of the family, and spoke in a harsh feminine tone. The voices of Mathematics and Cypocryphy were different, but both of a more delicate feminine tone. Jerusalem spoke like a boy. These exhibitions were opened like a drunken carousal, and became perfect pandemoniums, frightful to the extreme, from which there was no escape…On one occasion all four appeared almost beastly drunk, talking in a maudlin sentimental strain, fuming the house with the scent of whiskey. Blackdog said they got the whiskey at John Gardner’s still house, which was some four miles distant. At other times the unity appeared more civil, and would treat our company to some delightful singing, a regular concert of rich feminine voices, modulated to the sweetest cadence and intonation, singing any hymn called for with solemnity and wonderful effect. The carousals did not continue long, much to the gratification of the family and friends, and our serious apprehensions were relieved. These concerts were agreeable closing exercises of this series of meetings, and after they were suspended the four demons or unity never, apparently met again. It was plain old Kate from that on who assumed all characters, good or bad, sometimes very pious and then extremely wicked.
The testimonials about this haunting presence encompassed not only diverse accounts of vocal manifestations among other unattributed sounds but also apparitions and a gamut of physical demonstrations including the movement and materialization of physical objects. Among the Bell family visitors curious to witness the mystery was a future United States President, General Andrew Jackson. M. V. Ingram’s book included a description of Jackson’s visit provided by Col. Thomas L. Yancey, who’d heard about it from his grandfather, Whitmel Fort.
General Jackson came to the Bells house from Nashville with an entourage of men on horseback and a wagon loaded with a tent and other provisions. The group had almost reached the house when the wagon "halted and stuck fast." Many attempts to get the wagon moving were tried but were all unsuccessful until Jackson acknowledged the witch.
Among Jackson’s entourage was a man purported to be a professional "witch layer" who claimed to have the ability of dispatching evil spirits. What transpired instead was the hasty departure of the witch layer after a physical assault by the unseen Kate, who was also said to declare, "I will come tomorrow night and show you another rascal in the crowd." Yancey related that since no one among Jackson’s group knew whose turn would come next, nothing could induce them to lengthen their sojourn. As in many of the alleged events, the unseen entity exhibited an understanding of human psychology with the variation of interaction as diverse as the emotions and intellects of those who were the experiencers of the phenomena. The anecdotes attributed to the Bell family’s slaves show an interaction on a socialization level reflecting their own disadvantaged circumstances and superstitions. Among the events described by one of the family’s slaves named Dean was a conversation with "a great big ole rabbit" and a possum after he attempted to catch the latter for dinner. At another time, Dean was convinced that the witch had briefly turned him into a mule. There seemed no limitation to what might happen next. Among the most astonishing of the vocal manifestations was chronicled by Richard Williams Bell in his memoirs.
The company was treated one night to a repetition of one of Rev. James Gunn’s best sermons, preached in the vicinity, the witch personating Mr. Gunn, lining the hymn, quoting his text and prayer, and preaching so much like Mr. Gunn that it appeared the minister himself was present. A number of persons were present who attended the meeting that day, and recognized the declamation as the same sermon. Shortly after this, Rev. James Gunn preached on Sunday at Bethel Methodist Church, six miles southeast, and Rev. Sugg Fort filled his appointment at Drake’s Pond Baptist Church, seven miles northwest, thirteen miles apart, both preaching at the same hour, eleven o’clock. It so happened that both ministers came to visit our family that evening, finding quite a crowd of people gathered in, as was the case every day during the excitement. Directly after supper the witch commenced talking as usual, directing the conversation to Brother Gunn, discussing some points in his sermon that day. Mr. Gunn asked the witch how it knew what he had preached about? The answer was, "I was present and heard you." This statement being questioned, the vociferator begun, quoted the text and repeated the sermon verbatim, and the closing prayer, all of which the preacher said was correct. Some one suggested that Brother Fort had the advantage of the witch this time, that having attended Brother Gunn’s service, it could tell nothing about Brother Fort’s discourse at Drake’s Pond. "Yes I can," was the prompt reply. How do you know? was the inquiry. "I was there and heard him." Then assimilating Rev. Fort’s style, it proceeded to quote his text and repeated his sermon, greatly delighting the company. There was no one present who had heard either sermon, but both ministers admitted that their sermons had been accurately reproduced, and no one could doubt the fact, or were more greatly surprised than themselves.
The final portion of M. V. Ingram’s book features relatives’ statements of their ancestors’ recollections. One interview participant was Mrs. Mahala Darden, eighty-five years old at the time of her meeting with Ingram. She related accounts she’d heard during her childhood, concluding, "It was simply a phenomena no one could explain." Here is one of the anecdotes she shared.
On one occasion a little unknown black dog came to the house, cutting some antics. Mr. Bell said he would shoot that dog, and started to get his gun. Mrs. Bell interfered, telling him he must not. The dog lay down on the floor and rolled over and over toward the door, and the minute the dog disappeared from the house the witch exclaimed, "Look out, Old Jack, here comes Jerusalem."
M. V. Ingram received a written report from Reverend James G. Byrns, the son of the man who was district magistrate during the occurrences that centered on the Bell farm. Byrns’s objective was "to state faithfully some of the facts impressed upon me, as I have so often heard them" from his father and other witnesses to the events.
The witch talked more freely to some parties than to others. It seemed to prefer talking with John Johnson and Bennett Porter more than any other persons, perhaps because they were more disposed to humor and gas with it than were others. Bennett Porter was Mr. Bell’s son-in-law - married (to) Esther Bell. The witch promised him one night to go home with him that the family might have some rest. Then it said, "Bennett, you will try to kill me if I visit your house."
"No, I won’t," replied Porter.
"Oh, but I know you," replied the witch, "but I have been to your house. Do You remember that bird you thought sung so sweet the other morning?"
"Yes," replied Porter.
"Well that was me." Then continued the witch, "Bennett, didn’t you see the biggest and poorest old rabbit that you ever saw in your life, as you came on here this evening?"
"Yes," replied Mr. Porter.
"Well that was me," said the witch, and then bursted into laughter. This was the kind of gossip it carried on constantly, and would tell what different people in the neighborhood had been doing during the day, or what was then transpiring…
It was very common for large crowds to gather at Mr. Bell’s to hear the witch talk. One night when the house was full, there came an old gentleman by the name of Grizzard. The witch entered with the exclamation, "Here is old Grizzard; you all just ought to hear old Grizzard call his hogs. He begins, ’Pig, pig, pig.’ The hogs come in a run, and Griz counts them and then begins hollering, ’Here, here, sic, sic, sowey, sowey.’ That’s the way old Grizzard feeds his hogs." And Mr. Grizzard said the witch was correct. Next came the exclamation or inquiry, "Where is Jerusalem?" (Jerusalem was a member of the witch family.) No one replying, the same voice answered, "There he is on the wall." All eyes were at once turned to discover a large black bug crawling on the wall. Mr. Bell remarked, "Well, if that is Jerusalem, I will kill him," and he did kill the bug. The witch laughed heartily, exclaiming, "Lord Jesus, what a fool I did make of old Jack Bell."
Another one of the many people interviewed by Ingram was Mrs. Nancy Ayers, who was born in 1819.
Mrs. Ayers was asked if she was willing to tell all she knew about the Bell Witch? "Oh no, I could not tell the half I have heard in a week; strictly speaking, I know nothing. I was born in the Middle of the most exciting events, and they say that the witch was the first to carry the news of my birth to the Bell family. All I know is hearsay from father, mother, Grandfather James Johnson, Uncle Calvin Johnson, Joel Bell, and everybody who lived in the neighborhood at that time, and, of course, I believe their statements as firmly as if I had witnessed the demonstrations."
Ayers told Ingram that her father, John Johnson, had once been told by the presence known as ’the Bell Witch,’ "May I not be a spirit or something else?"
John Johnson replied:
"No, Kate, you are no spirit. A spirit can’t pull the cover from beds, slap people, pull hair, stick pins, scratch, and do such things like you…Tell me where you live, and who and what you are, anyhow?" "I live in the woods, in the air, in the water, in houses with people; I live in heaven and in hell: I am all things and anything I want to be; now don’t you know what I am?"
…On another occasion Father said he was postulating with Kate, begging the witch to tell something about itself. Kate replied, "Well Jack, if you will agree to keep it a secret, and not tell old ’Sugar Mouth,’ (that was Grandfather) I will tell you." Of course Father agreed to that. "Now," says Kate, "I am your step-mother." Father replied, "Kate, you know you are lying; my stepmother is a good woman, and the best friend I have. She would not do so many mean things as you are guilty of." "Now," replied Kate, "I can prove it to you." Grandmother Johnson had an unruly servant who would go wrong, irritating her very much, and the old lady was constantly after Rachel, raising a sharp storm about her ears. Father said the witch at once assumed the voice and tone of his stepmother, and got after Rachel. "Tut, tut, Rachel, what makes you do so," imitating grandmother exactly."
In 1934 Bell descendant Charles Bailey Bell, M.D. brought forth additional recollections that he claimed were handed down by his grandfather, John Bell Jr., a brother of Richard Williams Bell. THE BELL WITCH: A MYSTERIOUS SPIRIT offered some of the same material offered by Ingram’s book, including Richard Williams Bell’s remembrances, along with more than fifty pages describing recollected conversations between the Spirit and John Bell Jr. A reader of this work is left to ponder how much of what was attributed to the Spirit had been filtered through the beliefs of those trying to recreate their experience on paper. The subjects of the conversations said to have taken place between the spirit and John Bell, Jr. suggest that there may have been a compelling basis for these recollections because the perspectives were in no way consoling or aggrandizing where the state of human society was concerned so there was no blatant attempt for commerciality. Consider the environmental concerns attributed to the Spirit in this 1934 book:v
There will come a time when the food growing conditions of the world will change
…If men before that time will heed the warnings of nature and no longer destroy the natural growths; they may continue to reap harvests, but that they will not do. At that time men will heed nothing but science and finances, and the misery following will be fearful for you to contemplate. I have seen it happen before when the most fertile areas of the world became barren. The misery following was most appalling…"
Some new events offered by THE BELL WITCH: A MYSTERIOUS SPIRIT revolved around "a gentleman from England" who stayed with the Bell family for several months "with the expressed determination (made known only to John Jr.) of solving this mystery."
It was expressly understood that this visitor’s name and residence were not to be made known by the family, which was readily agreed to. Strange to say, the Spirit made no announcement to outsiders giving the identity of this gentleman, but did some extra performances apparently for his enlightenment, telling him he would have some real tales to write up on his return to England, and "Be sure to get it all straight."
The gentleman was highly entertained and experienced such performances as would satisfy the most skeptical of the absolute supernatural powers displayed.
…the Spirit told him of his thoughts and that he was a sensible man to have remained, making no fuss and not saying the foolish things others had. It told him he was puzzled over the things he had seen and heard, and it would now give him another to think about. It told him within two or three hours he would hear from home, as usual (the Spirit had kept him informed as to what was going on at his home in England all this time, which the Englishman always learned was true when he received letters from his home) and asked him what he should tell the home folks; that it would convey any message to them he wished; this it had never done before.
The Englishman said, "Tell them that in my opinion, never since the world was created have men seen and heard the marvelous things I have witnessed during the past three months."
Within three hours a voice began repeating astonishment at what was being told them, and another voice exclaimed incredulously, "Why, that is brother’s voice; where are you, brother?"
The Englishman told John Bell and John, Jr., who were the only other persons present, that the voices were his mother’s and brother’s. (The Spirit had given a perfect imitation of their voices.)
The Spirit then gave their return message in the voice of the mother, "Tell him not to stay any longer; he has heard and seen enough, and we do not want any more visits like that here."
The Englishman knew his mother’s voice, yet, to prove conclusively that it was she, he wrote John Jr., as soon as he arrived home that all that had been said was correct and that all who believe it were amazed, but few people believed it could actually have happened…
Charles Bailey Bell reported that in 1828 the Spirit, in bidding a last farewell to John Bell, Jr. and Frank Miles, told them, "I will be here in another seven years, to which one hundred will be added." The Spirit was also said to assure that it would make itself known to a Bell descendent of his, as it did to him. Charles Bailey Bell wrote, "The author is of the opinion, as was John Bell, Jr., that this return will be made in a different way." A series of miraculous events had occurred in the Bell household, based on substantial testimony if true, but for what reason? And what did the range of phenomena signify?
Trying to make sense of the anecdotal evidence concerning the entity encountered by the Bells in 19th Century Tennessee, the demonstrations suggest a being that was both a singular entity and also a channel for other spirits. A consciousness was manifesting for whom time and distance seemed matters of little consequence; and who could manifest as individual human spirits, similar to ’The Force’ in "Star Wars." The mystery could perhaps become better understood by studying other cases, I decided, with no one testimonial accepted at face value yet each considered as possibly offering some manner of insight. Richard Williams Bell shared one seemingly trivial bit of information that would later provide me with another clue. This concerned the wife of a brother, Jesse, who was living away from the Bell household.
Jesse’s wife, whom the witch called "Pots," observed mother’s policy in humoring the warlock, incurring favor or kindly relations, and she too was treated with such consideration as to relieve her fears of any immediate harm.
When I would travel to rural Oklahoma in the summer of 1995, my research had left me with the impression that there was no need for fear upon confronting the phenomena myself; however, as I was investigating the talking poltergeist reports in the early ’90s, the possibility that there would be a chance to experience such an encounter myself had never occurred to me. My screenplay based on the various accounts and reminisces of the Bell Witch case presented a progression of anecdotes without ever introducing any kind of variation to the source material that would help to make it more satisfying to moviegoers accustomed to a more formulaic narrative structure. Perhaps, movies like Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Fassbinder’s "Effie Briest" had been among my inspirations yet these films one considered mainstream and the other for the arthouse theaters were brought to the screen by artists renowned for past efforts while none of my work had ever made it past the amateur stage.
I remember on one occasion when it seemed that my hope for selling a screenplay might finally be realized. I contemplated all the various actors and filmmakers who combined their talents in the production of a film and asked myself, what is so special about my work that it should sustain the efforts of so many others? The answer from my perspective seemed to be because my scripts are so much better than the garbage that’s getting made! If it takes genius to recognize genius, than the further realization was obvious that, like so many other talented artists unwilling to whore their vision by compromise, I was screwed.
Another well-documented case relegated to the category of the ’paranormal’ was found in a book written in 1935 and published the following year, THE HAUNTING OF CASHEN’S GAP: A MODERN MIRACLE Investigated by Harry Price and R. S. Lambert. Although I had written a screenplay based on the Bell Witch case, the Cashen’s Gap premise would’ve been more suited to a narrative plotline and possibly even be deemed commercial because of the unique central figure in the haunting who accepted the name of ’Gef.’ The authors explained their intentions in the book’s introduction.
Whether looked at from the point of view of psychology, of psychical research, of anthropology, or of sociology, this true story of Gef is very odd. We have been moved to set it down in as full a form as possible in order that every one interested including, we hope, posterity may be in a position to form their own judgement about it. To believers it will represent proof of a miracle; to skeptics a lesson in the laws of evidence. Some will call it nonsense from first to last; others will admit it to be at least as good as most ghost stories. Throughout we have tried to avoid mere credulity on the one hand and prejudiced skepticism on the other. There may be readers who will be disappointed that we have at the end no cut-and-dried solution of the mystery to offer; but this only suggests the facts, as we have honestly tried to set them forth, are susceptible of various explanations.
Events reported in the book centered on a small farmstead on the Isle of Man, where a remote house built of slate, concrete and cement with interior walls and ceiling paneled with match-boarding was the setting for a family of three reporting a most unusual cohabitant. The owner of the house was James T. Irving, a man around sixty whose main stock was a herd of thirty sheep. Mr. Irving described these initial events in a letter to Harry Price, a well-known ghost hunter at the time.
Its first sounds were those of an animal nature, and it used to keep us awake at night for a long time as sleep was not possible. It occurred to me that if it could make these weird noises, why not others, and I proceeded to give imitations of the various calls, domestic and other creatures make in the country, and I named these creatures after every individual call. In a few days’ time one had only to name the particular animal or bird, and instantly, always without error, it gave the correct call. My daughter then tried it with nursery rhymes, and no trouble was experienced in having them repeated. The voice is quite two octaves above any human voice, clear and distinct, but lately it can and does come down to the range of the human voice
In October 1931 and early ’32, newspaper readers in London and then northern England were alerted that Mr. Irving, around sixty; his wife, four years younger; and their teenage daughter, Voirrey, described experiences with a talking mongoose that had taken up residence in their home. They had sighted the creature or at least the animal’s tail on several occasions and the reporter from the Manchester Daily Dispatch was perplexed by what he witnessed:
Had I heard a weasel speak? I do not know, but I do know that I have heard today a voice which I should never have imagined could issue from a human throat; that the people who claim it was the voice of the strange weasel seem sane, honest, and responsible folk and not likely to indulge in a difficult, long-drawn-out, and unprofitable practical joke to make themselves the talk of the world; and that others had had the same experience as myself.
Harry Price and his co-author R. S. Lambert, editor of British Broadcasting Company publication The Listener, presented a compendium of anecdotes and comments about Gef in their book while noticing some parallels to poltergeist cases.
Many of the events related by Irving can be classified by those experienced in psychical research as belonging to the class of ’poltergeist’ phenomena. Amongst these are Gef’s habit of throwing sand and small stones, also metal, wooden, and bone objects, at persons in or near Doarlish Cashen; the thumping, scratching, rapping, and banging noises which he makes behind the panelling and in the rafters of the house; and the movement of furniture… Gef indeed will hardly bear classification as a poltergeist at all, for in the whole history of such phenomena there is no known case of a poltergeist assuming the form of a talking animal, and conversing with human beings intelligently and at length.
It seems that the authors didn’t know about the Bell Witch case or deemed that the events in Tennessee during the previous century didn’t meet their criteria for poltergeist hauntings despite there being a talking element reported in descriptions of cases usually associated with poltergeists from even older centuries. These include the England, 1661 John Mumpesson case known as ’The Drummer of Tedworth’; and the Newbury, Massachusetts 1679 William Morse case described by Increase Mather in AN ESSAY FOR THE RECORDING OF ILLUSTRIOUS PROVIDENCES. Among other talking poltergeist accounts is an Italian case mentioned in DEMONIALITY by Lodovico Maria Sinistrari, who died in 1701 and whose manuscript in Latin was first published in 1875. Andrew Lang’s THE BOOK OF DREAMS AND GHOSTS, 1897, reprinted in a paperback edition by a Hollywood, California publishing company in 1972, featured 18th Century anecdotes from Scotland and Iceland. A more recent case was offered by Guy Lyon Playfair’s THIS HOUSE IS HAUNTED: AN INVESTIGATION OF THE ENFIELD POLTERGEIST, 1980, yet I hadn’t read this book in 1995, the year when I would set out on my own investigation concerning a contemporary talking poltergeist haunting.
Reading THE HAUNTING OF CASHEN’S GAP, one sympathizes with the Irvings as each new facet of Gef that they discover makes their encroacher’s existence harder to comprehend, such as events during the last three months of 1932.
But on October 22nd 1932 he made his presence known by throwing stones at Mrs. Irving as she was returning from Peel. She shouted, "Is that you, Gef?" He answered: "Yes, Maggie the witch woman, the Zulu Woman, the Honolulu woman!" This was rather rude of him, but they excused him because he was so excited at the return of his hostess. A few days later he made amends be finding a lamb that Irving had lost. It was found exactly at the spot that Gef had indicated.
By Christmas 1932 Mr. Irving had discovered that the forefeet of Gef were much larger than the hind feet. Not only were they larger, but they had the appearance of human hands, with extensile fingers. He gathered these facts from impressions in the dust which the animal made during his nocturnal rambles about the house. Gef admitted that he had three long fingers and a thumb, and said they were "as large as a big doll’s hands." The fact that he frequently picks up such small and flat objects as coins, pins, etc., rather points to his having some sort of fingers on his forefeet. A set of paw prints in plasticene and dough which the present writers received after their visit confirms Gef’s statements. Not only does he claim to have hands rather like human beings, but he uses them in the same way.
To provide some idea of Gef’s personality, here is an excerpt from Price and Lambert’s book from July, 1934.
There was some sort of ’tiff’ between Mrs. Irving and the animal, who, as a peace-offering, went hunting for a rabbit to give to his hostess. He was determined to be friendly again and said: "If Mam will speak to me, I will sing two songs for her," and that he had a little present for her. The gift was two biscuits, taken out of a packet in a locked cupboard, which he threw at Mrs. Irving as she lay in bed that same night. Mrs. Irving was not appeased, and the animal remained in her bad books. A few days later, when the farmer was again in bed, and his wife had not yet joined him, Gef shouted out something. Mrs. Irving heard him, and called up the staircase: "Don’t answer him." Gef then said in a faint whisper: "Hey, Jim, what about some grubbo? I’m hungry!" This touching appeal to the farmer was too much for him, so he called out to his wife to bring the animal a couple of biscuits. She did so and threw them on top of Gef’s ’sanctum,’ the top of the boxed-in staircase which is in Voirrey’s room. Voirrey was in bed, and the room was in darkness. For some minutes they could hear Gef groping for the biscuits with his bony fingers. In a plaintive voice the animal said he could not find them (although at other times he can, apparently, see in stygian darkness). Mrs. Irving said: "Shall I give you a match? He said, "Yes, pass them to me." To do this she had to stand on Voirrey’s bed. She did so, and Gef took the box out of her hand. He opened it, extracted a match, lit it, said he had found the biscuits, blew the match out, and threw the box into the room. Then he burst out laughing. A few moments later he could be heard munching the biscuits.
Although the Irvings had had Gef literally under their roof for nearly three years, they had by no means sounded the depths of his capabilities. He was always springing surprises on them. Though they knew he could do a little in the way of foreign languages, they were not prepared for the linguistic treat that was in store for them on the evening of July 26th 1934. In succession, Gef sang three verses of "Ellan Vannin," the Manx National Anthem, "in a clear and high-pitched voice"; then two verses in Spanish, followed by one verse in Welsh; then a prayer in pure Hebrew (not Yiddish); finishing up with a long peroration in Flemish.
Here are some further memorable comments from Gef as chronicled in The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap:
"Vanished." (Gef usually said this at the end of conversation to signify leaving them.)
"It was me you saw, Jim!" (After Mr. Irving saw a large stray Manx cat, striped like a tiger, outside the house.)
"I did it for devilment." (After sighing and moaning without ceasing for thirty minutes.)
"I am a ghost in the form of a weasel, and I’ll haunt you."
"What did you tell Miss Creer about us?" (On Mr. Irving and Voirrey’s way home from the schoolhouse where Mr. Irving had spoken with Voirrey’s teacher about Gef.)
"Tell Arthur not to come. He doesn’t believe. I won’t speak if he does come, I’ll blow his brains out with a 3d. cartridge." (After being told that Mr. Northwood’s son, Arthur, was on the way for a visit.)
"A mongoose can speak if he is taught."
"I am an earthbound spirit."
"I did not intend you to see me. Out of friends for seeing me!"
"I see a name that makes me quake, that makes me shake." (Gef then tells Mr. Irving to look in the obituary column where he finds an announcement of a death featuring the name ’Jef’ in brackets.)
"My rectophone wasn’t working!" (After Mr. Irving commented that Gef was a long time calculating the question "How many pence in seventeen and sixpence?" Gef had taken a few seconds to reply, "Two hundred and ten pence.")
"Of course I know what I am, and you are not going to get to know, and you are only grigged because I won’t tell you. I might let you see me some time, but thou wilt never get to know what I am."
"You don’t know what mischief I could do if I was roused. I could kill you too if I wished, but I won’t."
"I’ll split the atom." (After a conversation wherein Gef refers to the Gresford Colliery Disaster, Einstein, and Sir Isaac Newton.)
"I am a freak. I have hands and I have feet, and if you saw me you’d faint, you’d be petrified, mummified, turned into stone or a pillar of salt."
"I have a pain in my side from laughing." (After laughing for several minutes in response to being asked what he will do for Captain Macdonald upon visiting.)
"If you knew what I know, you’d know a hell of a lot."
"I am not a spirit. I am a little extra, extra clever mongoose."
"I am the Holy Ghost." (After Mrs. Irving responded to Gef singing a parody of the song "Home on the Range," "You know, Gef, you are no animal!")
"Jim the infidel." (After asking Mr. Irving who God is and receiving the reply, "I do not know"; prior to singing six verses of "The King of Love My Shepherd Is.")
"I have three attractions. I follow Voirrey, Mam gives me food, and Jim answers my questions."
"I have three spirits, and their names are Foe, Faith and Truth."
"He’s damned well not going to get to know my inferior complex." (After Mrs. Irving tells Gef she wishes he would talk when Captain Macdonald comes.)
"Never mind how I know, I know." (After being asked how he knew Captain Macdonald’s ring was a sapphire.)
"I mean to throw a brick at you tonight when you are asleep. I’ll throw pebbles now at the windows." (After being told by Captain Macdonald to go and vanish; almost at once after the second comment, there was a rattle against them just as if gravel, sand and small stones were hurled.)
One can easily understand the Irvings’ confusion about Gef’s pedigree. In addition to occasionally seeing Gef, there were even a few awkward snapshots permitted. In a chapter of their book entitled "Weighing Up The Evidence," Price and Lambert appraise:
Besides the visual and the aural evidence for Gef, there remains certain indirect pieces of evidence of a material kind. Gef is said to take food from the Irvings, though his diet is certainly more luxurious than nourishing. He urinates (Captain Macdonald and others have been shown signs of this on the wall of the house), but does not excrete. He has been touched and felt by the members of the Irving family though not by anyone else. His teeth have once drawn blood Mrs. Irving’s finger in spite of which, however, she has persisted in feeling his teeth again on several occasions since then. Gef has displayed animosity against visitors with whom he was displeased , by spitting upon them; he has also, more playfully, thrown stones, sand, pins, and other objects at the backs of members of the Irving family and at visitors.
Gef cooperated with the Irving family in some ways, such as killing rabbits for them, an important supplement to the impoverished family’s sustenance. Another aspect of the mystery concerned the objects delivered to the family by Gef as these included a bell and a halfpenny, the latter said by Gef to have been carried home in his mouth. When asked for a sample of fur, Gef left some hairs for them in an ornament on the mantelshelf but an expert’s opinion was that they had "probably been taken from a longish haired dog or dogs." Convinced that the fur originated on the Irvings’ sheepdog Mona, Price and Lambert decided:
The reader is faced with alternative solutions to the mystery: (a) That some person robbed Mona of portions of her fur, with the idea of providing ’evidence’ for the mongoose story; or (b) that Gef clipped bits of fur off Mona and foisted them on the Irvings as specimens of his own hirsute covering.
Prior to Price and Lambert’s visit to Cashen’s Gap, Price sent a representative from the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, Captain MacDonald, who would receive reports about Gef from Mr. Irving in the following years. The authors describe Gef’s reaction to the name of Harry Price in their book:
The question was raised whether Mr. Price should accompany Captain Macdonald on his next visit. Immediately when Gef heard their names he screamed out: "The two spook men!" and began to make fun of the name ’Price.’ Of course, this was not difficult even for an educated mongoose. Then he called out: "Ask Harry Price whose was the invisible hand that scattered the violets about the room at night." He continued: "You know, Olga and Rudi Schneider." Irving declares that although he had seen in the press an account of Mr. Price’s investigation of Rudi Schneider, the incident of the violets and the alleged spirit hand was quite unknown to him. But an account of this particular seance had appeared in The Times and other papers, and apparently Gef had read all about it. Although the mongoose had never been introduced to Mr. Price, and did not know him except by repute, Gef appeared a little afraid of him. When it was suggested that both Mr. Price and Captain Macdonald should visit Doarlish Cashen, Gef said that the captain was welcome, "but not Price. He’s got his doubting cap on!" In October 1934 another reference was made to Mr. Price: "I like Captain MacDonald, but not Harry Price. He’s the man who puts the kybosh on the spirits!" He also said that he had seen Price’s photograph in the papers "and did not like him."
Upon Mr. Irving receiving a letter from Price and Lambert that they intended to visit Cashen’s Gap in July of 1935, Gef began a period of silence. Gef wouldn’t talk in the presence of "doubters" and while the authors were able to learn more about the case during their sojourn, Gef remained "missing" and they left disappointed.
Gef had had a month’s notice of our visit; he had been appealed to by the Irvings and by ourselves, but had persisted in absenting himself to his own very great disadvantage. For if we could have told the world what we had seen or even heard the animal, he would have gone down to posterity as the most wonderful mongoose that had ever been known. Also he would have made the Irvings’ fortune. He lost a literally golden opportunity. Of course our hosts were very sorry that we had to leave the island without that evidence for which we had travelled so far. They said they had done their best, and could not possibly understand why Gef had hidden himself for nearly five weeks.
Gef also became a subject for Dr. Nandor Fodor, a psychoanalyst and researcher into the occult who wrote about the Isle of Man case in chapters of his books HAUNTED PEOPLE, written with Hereward Carrington and published in 1951, and BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, published in 1964. When he visited the Irvings, Gef was again silent yet Fodor provided some new insights. His discussions with Mr. Irving suggested that some of Price and Lambert’s quotations of Gef may have been abbreviated. Gef’s declaration of being a ghost in the form of a weasel was supplemented with, "and I shall haunt you with weird noises and clanking chains." The comment about being able to split the atom was expanded to include "I am the fifth dimension" and "I am the eighth wonder of the world." In Price and Lambert’s own book, an appendix concerning a chronological record of Gef’s activities also showed that on the occasion he called Maggie a witch, Zulu and Honolulu woman, he’d also included "Algerian woman." Fodor also presented some entirely new anecdotes.
Irving wanted to know how far his intellectual processes carried Gef. He asked where he would go when he died. Gef answered: "I’ll never die." Irving persisted: "But supposing you did, where would you go?" Gef answered: "To Hell, to the Land of Mist."
Once Gef had asked Irving if he had any enemies; if so, Gef offered to kill their lambs. Mr. Irving told Gef that he could not do such a thing yet during Fodor’s visit Mr. Irving shared his doubts about the matter.
"In 1932, a relative of mine visited me with his wife and daughter. Gef talked to them for an hour and five minutes. Sometimes afterwards he came home and reported that he heard this man, four miles away, telling a neighbor that ’Voirrey was helping’ (with the talking). He screamed in saying this and added: ’I’ll kill his turkeys.’
"Six months afterwards I accidentally met the daughter of this man. In the course of conversation I casually remarked that I was going to a neighboring farm to get some eggs for hatching. She then told me that they gave up poultry farming. ’We had bad luck. Our turkeys and ducklings disappeared. We don’t know where they went.’
"I asked Gef if he killed them. He said: ’I killed the turkeys and I killed four ducklings.’"
Unsupported by evidence as this story is, two hundred years ago it would have sent the whole Irving family to the pyre.
In "The Truth About The Talking Mongoose" that appeared in Haunted People, Fodor made some surprising contentions.
Gef’s sapience can be explained without postulating supernormal knowledge. I admit but one puzzling exception: his occasional ability to describe to Mrs. Irving and Voirrey at home Irving’s movements when the latter is faraway and out of sight, and repeat, word for word, the florid language which he uses in talking to the sheep and the dog. Gef was often asked how he did it. His only answer was:
"I cannot tell how I know. I know."
Concerning the "sad trouble" over the fur sample that had been sent to Harry Price, Fodor related that Mr. Irving had told Gef about it.
"The expert thought it was that of the dog," Irving informed Gef. He answered: "He should not think, he should know. He damn well does not know what I am."
Fodor also divulged new details about the rabbits Gef left for the family. These numbered 244 at the time of Fodor’s visit. Although Price and Lambert had established that the rabbits were strangled, Fodor noted, "One eye of the rabbit is always poked out and there is a clot of blood on its nose, sometimes behind the ears." Fodor would bring up the rabbits again in the epilogue to his description of the case in Haunted People. Despite his belief that the mystery of the talking mongoose would be solved, Fodor regretted that at the time of his trip to Cashen’s Gap he "was not yet equipped with adequate psychoanalytic knowledge to conduct an exploration of Irving’s unconscious."
The only meat they knew was rabbit, when Gef provided them, or When they caught them with snares. Often, only the head of the family feasted on the rabbit stew. Most of the rabbits had to be sold because they fetched seven-pence apiece and this was, at times, the only cash income with which to buy other household necessities. Voirrey had no shoes, and used to walk barefooted four miles to Peel, and lug back whatever supply she brought, as the bus was too expensive.
The problem of mental starvation, for a man of Irving’s intelligence, must have been even more serious. There was no way to relieve it by conscious means. So his unconscious took care of the job and produced the strange hybrid of Gef, fitting no category of humans, animals or ghosts, yet having common features with all of them. Had Irving been a student of psychical research, the development of Gef would have proceeded, I believe, on more occult lines.
It is worthwhile to consider the meaning of this "unconscious" that Fodor finds to be an important aspect of the case. He addresses the matter in the chapter of HAUNTED PEOPLE entitled "The Psychoanalytic Approach To The Problems Of Occultism."
Psychical researchers admit that all mediumistic phenomena arise from, or manifest themselves through, the unconscious mind of the medium. However, they do not quite realize that the unconscious mind is not interested in science, in standards of evidence, in genuine or fraudulent manifestations, but only in its own dynamic problems.
There are many levels of irony in this statement. First, one might consider that "the unconscious mind" has only been addressed in hypothetical terms. Discussing the subconscious is even more difficult than explaining consciousness, something that we each experience and thus know something about. Secondly, these sentences from Fodor and all human creative expressions for that matter may be attributed to "the unconscious mind." Perhaps an interchangeable word would be "subconscious mind," a term that might be accepted by some as being responsible for the physical life process of our bodies as we don’t consciously control ourselves the beating of our heart, the breathing of our lungs, or the blinking of our eyelids. At this point, bringing up such a word as "superconscious mind" would be disconcerting for some because this word will not likely be found in a dictionary.
Be it a sign of changing attitudes and social preoccupations, the latter book by Fodor taking a look back at "The Talking Mongoose" case, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, shows that the author no longer showed any preoccupation with Mr. Irving’s unconscious. Key witnesses are revealed by their real names: Captain Macdonald is identified as Captain James Denis and Mr. Northwood’s real name is reported as Charles Morrison. Where Denis is concerned, Fodor relates that he "as yet had come to no conclusion beyond the fact that so far there was no conclusion." This seems to be representative of everyone concerned with Gef. Fodor himself deduces:
As I said in the beginning, a fantastic story presupposes a fantastic solution. And the best I can do is to say that by process of elimination I think Gef was a mongoose or a similar animal that learned to talk. There have been other remarkable creatures. The Elberfeld horses could draw cube roots and communicate thoughts by tapping with their hoofs. Dogs have been taught to read and spell. Birds can speak.
In lieu of any more positive information, and because I have not been in all honesty able to deny Gef, I am forced to, if not accept, at least not negative his own quaint definition of himself: "I am just an extra, extra clever little mongoose."
A 1970 article about ’the talking mongoose’ appeared in FATE magazine that provided an epilogue to the previous books. The writer, Walter McGraw, stated that he was an acquaintance of Nandor Fodor who had interviewed Voirrey Irving just prior to the appearance of his article. The question McGraw most wanted answered was what happened to Gef?
Voirrey says she does not know. The last she remembers his being around the farm was in 1938 or 1939. He seemed to go away for longer and longer periods of time, and then he just never showed up again. He had made no statements about leaving; there had been no good-byes; he simply was gone. No, Gef did not leave the island with the Irvings, at any rate…According to Voirrey, Gef cost them dearly. They had to sell the farm at a low price because Manxmen called it "haunted."
"Gef was very detrimental to my life. We were snubbed. The other children used to call me ’the spook.’ We had to leave the Isle of Man, and I hope that no one where I work now ever knows the story. Gef has even kept me from getting married. How could I ever tell a man’s family about what happened?"
…Fodor regretted that the mystery of the talking mongoose probably never would be solved. He felt that "the power which he (Gef) displayed must have had a human origin." He believed that clues obtained from studying that "power" might have given us leads about many strange and still mysterious aspects of the human personality and possibly explain poltergeist phenomena (though he did not believe Gef was pure poltergeist).
Fodor’s BETWEEN TWO WORLDS is a retrospective of the experiences and research of Fodor throughout his life and the book’s Introduction is a summation.
No matter how many of the famous and the great have shared similar super-normal adventures and kept them a secret from the outside world; no matter how much testimony bears out the existence of strange byways of the mind, or appears to indicate interaction with terrifying states of existence (perhaps the abode of ghosts, nonhuman shades) we are apt to shy away from the thought of how little we know about the world.
We should, instead, express concern or wonder over the blind spots that orthodox science still contains regarding phenomena that have been with us throughout the ages of man phenomena that should, perhaps, have transformed our life in this universe. For, it appears, that the age-old claims of religion, metaphysics, certain Eastern teachings and modern parapsychology cannot be ignored with impunity…Almost daily new horizons open up before science; gradually the conclusion is being forced on us that mind, life, logos, spirit, or God is the only reality of this mysterious universe. Ignorance is the only limitation that reins us back. The battle against the unknown is gradually being lost or rather won by the new generation of scientists who are finding themselves more and more in Alice’s Wonderland where nothing is impossible… every journey begins with the first step, and the outlines of a new ultra-science are perhaps already discernable along the path, I do not know what it will be like. All I know is that human destiny will be profoundly affected by it and that eventually, and hopefully, we shall understand the meaning of human life.
Then, perhaps, all dissensions will cease; the golden age of dreams will be at hand.
Unlike Price and Lambert, Fodor did study the Bell Witch case the chapter preceding "The Truth About The Talking Poltergeist" in HAUNTED PEOPLE is "The Case of the Bell Witch." However, he seems to have overlooked one of the key pieces of the puzzle to "The March of the Poltergeist," as was called Hereward Carrington’s documented catalog of the phenomenon through the centuries appearing in HAUNTED PEOPLE.
One of the things that caught my attention reading about Gef was something that I probably wouldn’t have noticed if not for my work on the Bell Witch screenplay and scrutinizing each situation, every word of dialogue, and the various names and nicknames offered by the assorted testimonials. On Page 29 of THE HAUNTING OF CASHEN’S GAP I saw:
The mongoose usually called Mr. Irving ’Jim’ or ’Pots’…
"But why won’t he prove himself to us?" was among R. S. Lambert’s questions in a cross-examination of Mr. Northwood included in THE HAUNTING OF CASHEN’S GAP. Questions arise as to what would constitute proof and what would this proof signify at this particular occasion, based upon the witnesses’ perceptions as they themselves distinguished the boundaries of human experience. Lambert’s co-author Harry Price would reveal that their book on Gef had been limited by their choice of anecdotal evidence. The substantiation for such an appraisal can be found in Harry Price’s book CONFESSIONS OF A GHOST HUNTER published in 1936, the same year as THE HAUNTING OF CASHEN’S GAP. This is how Price described the beginning of his second day on the Isle of Man and this paragraph is not included in the book about Gef.
I awoke just before eight o’clock. I say ’awoke,’ but actually I was in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking, when a thin, shrill voice (which appeared to come from the end of the bed) said: "Hullo! Hullo! come along! come along!’ and some chattering which I could not interpret. With thoughts of Gef still uppermost in my mind, the ’voice’ startled me into complete consciousness. But, alas! it was only mine host’s parrot whose matutinal mutterings had floated in through my open window from the kitchen across the road.
This paragraph shows the limitations of Price’s deductive reasoning. Gef had claimed to be not only a mongoose but also a Manx cat, while the specimens of fur provided by Gef had been demonstrated to have come from Mona, the Irvings’ collie sheep dog. Another possible deduction would be that Gef were each of these animals and also the parrot. Similarly, the spirit that had been known as ’the Bell Witch’ or by the nickname ’Kate’ had made similar claims concerning animals while also manifesting in a gamut of different individual human voices.
There would be one more ’talking poltergeist’ case for me to ponder before the opportunity would arise for me to witness firsthand a contemporary case here in the United States. Researching unexplained phenomena where disembodied speech was a factor, I learned about the Mary Jobson case chronicled by a medical doctor. The setting was Sunderland, a city on the north east coast of England that in 1840 was said to be the biggest shipbuilding port in the world. The author, W. Reid , M.D. was "physician in ordinary to H. R. H. the Duke of Sussex and senior physician to the Sunderland Infirmary" in 1841 when the second expanded edition of his A FAITHFUL RECORD OF THE MIRACULOUS CASE OF MARY JOBSON was published. The NATIONAL UNION CATALOG revealed that a copy of the book was available at Harvard University Library and I sent a letter inquiring about obtaining a photocopy on March 16, 1995, receiving the copy about a month later after paying the modest service charge of $24.60.
As I began reading Clanny’s brief preface, it was apparent that this case study would have a devout, religious tone as details were provided concerning supernatural manifestations accompanying the apparently divine cure of 12-year-old Mary Jobson. Clanny’s response for people unable to understand the object accomplished by supernatural manifestations in a relatively secluded setting was, "Are you enabled to comprehend the end to be accomplished is it given to you to understand the intention of the Almighty by such manifestations, or are you so bigotted as not to comprehend that objects of the greatest moment may be accomplished by such events, though, at the present time you may not be enabled to fathom them?"
As I began reading Clanny’s description of his experience, supplemented by oral and written evidence provided to him by others, his first report seemed unclear if the voice that was heard in Mary Jobson’s room could be emanating from her. Even more surprising is that the ’poltergeist’ seemed possibly to be addressing me from page five as Clanny recounted how he "endeavoured to write down what was spoken to me, which was as follows."
I am the Lord thy God, that brought thee out of the land of Egypt; out of the House of bondage. I am the Physician of the Soul. I send Physicians, and Medical Surgeons to attend to the internal parts of the body. There have been nine Physicians, and Surgeons seeing Mary Jobson. I am making use of her body as a trumpet. She should have been in her grave a fortnight and three days since. I have only one Medical Surgeon to speak to, his name is Robert Blakiston Embleton. On the 13th, three came, but were of no use. Mark I am thy God, sounding out of the Heavens. The Surgeon that knew the complaint of Mary Jobson, had been only a year in practice: he hath greater privilege than all of the nine. Her brain is like a scalded cloth. I am making use of her body as a bugle…
The continuing discourse threatened the sending of judgements and angels appearing with drawn swords in their mouths should surgeons attempt opening the child’s head to see her brain. Clanny admitted that several sentences were completely lost in consequence of the voice speaking so rapidly. Throughout the book, it would be hard to accept quotations as literal with the understanding that there were no tape recorders back then. As with similar historical accounts of unexplained phenomena, the haunting entity’s character could’ve been effected by the personal beliefs of witnesses recording their experiences. Clanny noted the accompanying manifestations to this discourse.
After the voice had done speaking, several loud knocks were heard, as if proceeding from the bed; then a scratching, like a person, or rather several persons scraping their nails along a table. I have now only to say, that the voice was certainly entirely different from her own natural one: and although I am incapable of describing it, I shall mention some differences which were most striking. Previous to this time, throughout the disease, the voice was soft and feeble, and when it spoke, it was in a whining and childish tone, until this peculiar change took place; it was now on the contrary, loud and strong, and spoke as in a tone of authority: but this was not all, for although it might more strictly said to be allied to the voice of a male, rather than a female, yet it had such a delightful sweet sound, as to render it almost an impossibility for any male to imitate it: it certainly came more up to my ideas of the "Angelic," than any thing I had ever before heard…
Mary’s mother, Elizabeth Jobson, also shared sentiments with Clanny that she had heard expressed by "the voice."
I am He whom thou knowest not; be not deceived, for you know not who I am: I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending. I told you child that she was going to have a long illness, and that I was going to work a miracle with her. She is like young Samuel who kept his Father’s laws, for when you desired her to say her prayers and go to sleep, she obeyed; and when the remainder of the family was in sleep, she would arise, and on her knees, pray without ceasing, to her Father in heaven. There will be many that will come here, who will not believe in this; some will believe, because they know that all things are possible with God; but, blessed are they who may not hear nor see, and yet believe. There are numbers of angels in the room, I will call them by their names, but in names that you cannot understand; but as I order them to do signs, you will hear them distinctly in all parts of the room from one to three knocks, first low, up to very loud ones some like clashing of arms some like fluttering of wings some like small, and others like to immense quantities of water rushing about the room.
Clanny’s book consists of testimonials from the family members and their friends as well as doctors, among the various witnesses to the uncanny happenings. Each account is presented as either a letter or as evidence collected from viva voce communications to Clanny. While some of the accounts are unclear as to whether or not the strange voices heard were possibly channeling through Mary Jobson, several accounts make it clear that disembodied voices were heard and that they were not limited to the Jobson’s residence. Margaret Watson was another witness who recited a similar speech by "a voice" and also recounted other phenomena accompanying the voice.
At these words I heard loud sounds rolling round the room, which was like thunder; and the patient was greatly agitated, moving the bed-clothes most remarkably. My knees trembled, at which the voice said, "Be thou not afraid, believe in God, for thou believest the Scriptures." The voice called upon certain angels by their names, (which I do not remember,) to sprinkle water, and which to my astonishment, took place, for water was sprinkled upon the door, and soon afterwards the water was called to fall upon the floor, and accordingly, no sooner was the word said, then water was seen at the side of the bed, and the quilt of the bed was wetted to the extent of a small plate. I wrung the water out of the quilt soon after wards. At other times, I heard different signs, some of which were loud, and others were not so loud. There were also different sounds of voices, which we were informed were distinctive of the different Apostles. We were informed by the voice, that "There were and should be five hundred signs that our Saviour’s voice was as the sound of many waters." I often heard heavenly music, which delighted me exceedingly. Sometimes I heard sounds, as of bells ringing at some distance, during public rejoicings. Two earthenware mugs were at different times taken away; one of them was away for a week, and was returned.
As in the Bell and Irving family case studies, the Jobson Spirit demonstrated familiarity with the lives of witnesses and, similar to testimonials about ’the Bell Witch,’ a variety of different voices would be described. Here is the full letter from Catherine Storie to Dr. Clanny presented in A RECORD OF THE MIRACULOUS CASE OF MARY JOBSON as the parallels with the other cases are intriguing.
On or about the 13th of May, the voice sent for me, by my aunt Ann Ragg, in the following words. "Ann Ragg, you have a niece whose name is Catherine Storie, she must be at the house of John Jobson tomorrow, at half-past two o’clock in the afternoon." The next day, I proceeded to the house, accompanied by another female, viz. Sarah Kirkwood, (whose name previous to her marriage was Sarah Smith,) and we arrived at the appointed hour, leaving Sarah Kirkwood upon the stairs. The voice immediately said, "There is an intruder upon the stairs: Ann Ragg inform the intruder to depart." To which Ann Ragg applied, "She is not an intruder, but a stranger, who has come a long way." The voice then said, "Ann Ragg, will you call the Saviour a liar? I know what she is, she may look well enough, but I know the secrets of her heart." Upon which Ann Ragg proceeded to the stairs, and told Sarah Kirkwood to go away. When Ann Ragg returned into the room, the voice immediately said, "She is not gone, she is still on the stairs." Ann Ragg again went out to the female, and desired her to leave the stairs, and immediately afterwards returned into the room, and said, "She is gone;" to which the voice replied, "She is not gone away, she is in the Court-yard." The child was in bed as usual, and during this time, appeared to be much agitated. The voice now said, "Catherine Storie art thou pious?" to which I replied, I am not so pious as I ought to be. The voice then said, "I know that, but I am only asking, in order to observe whether you adhere to truth. Thou canst read. Elizabeth Jobson, hand Catherine Storie the Bible, who will read the fifteenth chapter of Revelations." The Bible was accordingly handed to me, and I read the chapter. After I had ceased to read, the voice explained the meaning, and said these words, "-------- was here yesterday, who did not agree in respect to some part of that chapter but when he went home, he took up his Bible and found that he was wrong, for which, on his bended knees, he prayed to the Lord to forgive him. This man had four deficiencies, but since he was at the house, he got two more. Catherine Storie, do you wish to hear the music?" I did not know what to say, and as I hesitated, the voice said, "Thou must answer." I then said, "yes." Immediately afterwards, I heard the most beautiful music, something like that of an organ, but more pleasing. The music continued for about five minutes, and when it ceased, the voice said, "Catherine Storey, have you ever heard such music?" to which I replied, "No, I have not." The voice then said, "No, thou hast not." The voice now said to us, "Elizabeth Jobson, Ann Ragg, and Catherine Storie, you must go into the next room," which we immediately did. In that room we then heard the following words in a sweet and weak voice: "I am the Virgin Mary, the voice which you have just heard is that of my Son." Soon afterwards, we heard another voice uttering the following words: I am the child’s uncle," and it proceeded to explain the way in which he lost his life, and which was, that when at sea, he fell into the ship’s hold, and a piece of iron penetrated into his brain; at this information, Elizabeth Jobson remarked, "Dear me, that is just the manner in which my brother spoke." We next heard the voice of the sick child’s grandfather, but I do not remember the words which were then said. The voice now told us to return into the room in which the child was laying, and when we were in the room, the voice said to me, "Catherine Storie, thy husband has lost his father, but his mother is still living; you have two sisters and a brother, your brother has lost an arm. Thy sister Jane is very wicked at present. Thy sister Elizabeth is with child, but she does not know that she is so; she has a bad temper, and she must come with thee to-morrow at half past two o’clock, and if this be not done, you shall hear a knock at your door." All the above were facts. The voice now said to us in the room, "Look up and you will see the sun and moon upon the ceiling." We did so, and observed beautiful representations of the sun and moon upon the ceiling, in lively colours, viz. green, yellow, and orange. In conclusion, the voice said, "Catherine Storie, you must depart," which I did immediately.
Next day, according to order, Elizabeth Wood (my sister) and I proceeded to John Jobson’s house, although it rained at the time very heavily. When we arrived, and were seated, loud knocks and grinding as it were of teeth were heard, which continued for about ten minutes, during which time, my sister trembled from fear, and appeared likely to faint. The voice commenced in the following words: "Think ye not that the way is long, for the Lord will strengthen you." "Elizabeth Wood, who do you think I am?" she replied, "I believe that I hear the Son of God." The voice then said, "Elizabeth, thou art pregnant, and I can tell what it will be when it comes to life." The voice made several other remarks, and then mentioned the names of her children, and related several anecdotes of her daughter Mary Ann; mentioned her husband’s name, and the place at which he was at that moment, which was the port of Leith; and which was valuable information to her, as she did not know till then where her husband was. The voice also informed her that she would undergo much affliction during her accouchment; and would be in danger, which actually took place. The voice then said, "The child Mary Jobson is as dead, and she does not know where her body is. Her spirit was taken out of her, and a new spirit was put within her, and her body is made as a speaking trumpet. When I was upon the earth formerly, I was reckoned as a beggar upon a dunghill, but a beggar, if he be pious, is as much to me as a king upon a throne. It will not be long till the Queen of England is shot at, but I will not let them take her life, for I will let her reign as long as I think fit." The voice then said, "Depart;" which I did immediately. The tone of the voice was most beautiful, harmonious, clear and loud; and quite different from any voice that I ever heard before, or since that time.
I am, Sir,
Your’s with respect,
3rd March, 1841.
Mary Jobson’s mother, Elizabeth, provided an account of the conclusion of the supernatural events - a climactic tableau with apparent Christian metaphorical resonance.
The signs continued, and the voice spoke at different periods, till the 22nd day of June, 1840. On the morning of that day, the child was exceedingly ill, and it was thought she could not exist long: she continued so, up to five o’clock, when the voice ordered her clothes that she usually wore, to be laid out, and you shall judge what we experienced. There were present at the time, Joseph Ragg, Ann Ragg, his wife, Margaret Watson and myself: the voice ordered all these persons to leave the room, which we did. We were accordingly out of the room a quarter of an hour, when a loud voice, called, "Come in," and on entering the room, we found the child sitting on a chair, with her youngest sister, an infant two and a half years old, sitting on her knee. She was completely dressed in all her clothes that were ordered to be laid out, she appeared as though she had not had one day’s illness, and has so continued up to this 30th day of January, 1841, when this brief evidence was presented.
In early 1995 as I was working on my non-fiction ’history book of the talking poltergeist’ and confronted with the assembled testimonials comprising A FAITHFUL RECORD OF THE MIRACULOUS CASE OF MARY JOBSON, the question became how to present such bizarre material. Even the Jobson case’s Christian theological references showed odd parallels with reported incidents from the ’Kate’ and ’Gef’ chronicles. My solution at the time was to edit out repetitive portions by taking the various testimonials collected by Clanny and excerpting them in chronological order, in a manner similar to EDIE: AN AMERICAN BIOGRAPHY by Jean Stein and edited by George Plimpton. However, in the period when I was waiting to read Clanny’s book, there was another development.
I was at Crown Books and saw a magazine entitled FORTEAN TIMES, a magazine subtitled The Journal of Strange Phenomena. The current issue, number 79, offered three cover blurbs about articles inside, the last being "Getting Stoned - America’s Talking Poltergeist." I was astonished. My first reaction was that this could be an opportunity to witness and research this phenomena firsthand yet for some reason this momentous article hadn’t been selected for the cover art, which instead featured a photo of the Sphinx with the headline "Sphinx Shock: Who Built It — and When?" The third blurb on the cover was "Mavericks & Magick — An Interview with Robert Anton Wilson." To give you a further idea about the magazine, a strip along the bottom of the cover listed other articles: "1995 Strangeness Index," Einstein’s Eyesballs," Illinois Enema Bandit," "Doppelgangers," "Drug Mugging in Colombia."
Immediately, I began reading the article in the store and found the report wasn’t just a retread about the Bell Witch or some lone incident being exaggerated. A complex sequence of events was being recounted by a rural Oklahoma family by the name Mc Wethy. The heading on page 29 was followed by a brief description.
THE STONE-THROWING SPOOK OF LITTLE DIXIE
In deepest Oklahoma, an ordinary family living in a
sleepy hamlet has had its life turned upside down by
a talking poltergeist with a fondness for chucking stones.
KYM B. CHAFFIN travelled down Highway 3
to see what all the fuss was about
The first manifestations described were stones striking the house from an unknown source, starting in mid-June 1990. Chaffin related that the stones continued into July when town residents began considering a supernatural basis for the stone-throwing.
All doubt about it being a non-human agency was removed one night when close on 50 people were gathered at the McWethy’s house trying to catch the culprit. It didn’t deter the rascal, who started up just after sundown. The group of citizens moved onto the porch and conferred. Someone had a good idea. They marked some of the stones with nail polish and tossed them into the dark in different directions. Within minutes they came sailing back. Someone else had an even better idea. They threw the marked stones into a nearby pond. Within moments they came flying back…wet.
In mid-August, a sheriff’s deputy was called to investigate and witnessed a "barrage of stones" but could find no "miscreant." Coins also began to be flung, then "bottles, eggs and whatever odds and ends happened to be lying around," while sheets and blankets would be removed from beds and placed upon two or more chairs to form makeshift tents. The family remained indoors in the winter and began hearing "a high-pitched ’pssst’ sound around the house. Then the sound resolved itself into a voice."
Chaffin described his visit in July 1994, finding a group of expectant witnesses gathered in the house. Among them was Shirley Padley, who told him she had tape-recorded "a high-pitched metallic sound, not human, that indeed seem to be saying, ’This is Michael.’" Chaffin attested:
My writer friend Peggy was in the kitchen. Soon she called out: "Come in here, I hear him!" I went and sat at the kitchen table. The ghost had apparently arrived a few minutes in advance of Twyla. I could hear a high-pitched mewling sound, like a cat only different. It was roaming around the house, from room to room, one minutes seemingly next to us, the next minute far away in one of the bedrooms.
When Maxine’s 22-year-old daughter, Twyla, arrived, she answered Chaffin’s query, "What is this thing?"
"I think it’s an alien," she replied. "I really do. Once he took me to a field and showed me a place where all the grass had been pressed down, like something had landed there."
"A spaceship?" I asked.
"He says he’s from Saturn," she said. "And that he got left behind."
Unfortunately, after "an electromagnetic breeze" brushed by his shins, the writer soon departed the Mc Wethys’ house; however, I had read enough to eventually decide to contact the family and arrange a visit. As the family didn’t have a telephone at the time due to their limited budget, I ended up writing to them. My letter was dated July 21, 1995 and addressed to Mr. And Mrs. Bill McWethy c/o Centrahoma Post Office. My name, address and telephone number appeared at the top of the letter, while the Mc Wethy surname was misspelled as this was the way it had appeared in the magazine article.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. McWethey,
With great interest I read about your family’s uncanny experiences in a Fortean Times magazine article. I am a writer who recently completed a book about historical ’talking poltergeist’ cases. After extensive research, I was astonished to find a contemporary case encompassing so many of the witnessed phenomena recorded in previous centuries.
I spoke briefly with Helen Langdon and would like to speak to you, although I understand you have no telephone. Could you please call me collect at the above number when you have the chance?
Mark Gordon Russell
I remember thinking how lucky it was for me to have found out about this new case and it became a new priority. Perhaps, in addition to gathering some firsthand information about talking poltergeists for my otherwise recently completed historical book, this contemporary case could also be a compelling basis for a screenplay that couldn’t be ignored by studio executives and producers as all my previous projects had been. Even more importantly, what if this Entity was that which we humans interpreted as God? Could this be God? I decided to schedule a visit with the family at their earliest convenience.