I've been thinking about poltergeists recently. Not the thing itself, whatever it may or may not be. But the way we relate to the reports.
Most reviewers of Randi's Prize have been very kind, however there was a criticism in a review by a sceptic recently that puzzled me. I'm accused of
a strange naiveté which extends well beyond the paranormal, such that at times you wonder what planet this guy is living on. He cannot believe that the Fox sisters fooled people including their parents for any length of time, or that children could cause the havoc in poltergeist cases and scare adults out of their wits, because he cannot imagine his own children doing that.
He seems to have no grasp of the world of problem children in problem families, where generation after generation after generation of children and adolescents have engaged in vandalism, anti-social behaviour, bullying and manipulation. No doubt it is difficult to imagine that the antics of local children and adolescents can drive adults to suicide, that young children can drop concrete blocks onto motorway traffic or murder toddlers, or that parents might stage the kidnapping of their own children, but these things happen.
Of course they do, but my point was to question how problem children can cause the effects that are described in these poltergeist episodes. Do their antics include making loud rapping or banging noises in such a way that they appear to come from the walls or furniture? Can they also make furniture and household objects appear to move by themselves? Because these are the specific kinds of activity that characterize so-called poltergeist cases, and they would seem to require, to a high degree, the conjuror's skills of deception, distraction and sleight-of-hand, qualities that we don't normally associate with problem children.
I went back to have another look at the statements made by Mrs Fox and various neighbours two weeks after the onset of the disturbances in 1848. As far as I know these documents aren't published online, and I'll fix that when I get round to it. In the meantime, here are some excerpts (quoted from EW Capron, Modern Spiritualism, 1855).
Let's hear first from Mrs Fox:
We first heard this noise about a fortnight ago. It sounded like some one knocking in the east bedroom, on the floor. Sometimes it sounded as if a chair moved on the floor; we could hardly tell where it was. This was in the evening, just after we had gone to bed. The whole family slept in the room together, and all heard the noise.
The first night we heard the rapping we all got up, lit a candle, and searched all over the house. The noise continued while we were hunting, and was heard near the same place all the time. It was not very loud, yet it produced a jar of the bedsteads and chairs, that could be felt by placing our hands on the chairs, or while we were in bed.
On Friday night... we went to bed early, because we had been broken so much of our rest that I was almost sick... My husband had gone to bed when we first heard the noise this evening... I knew it from all other noises I had ever heard in the house....
Mrs Fox here describes the episode of the girls clapping and clicking their fingers and finding that the raps respond. Then:
My husband went and called Mrs Redfield, our next door neighbour. She is a very candid woman. The girls were then sitting up in bed, somewhat terrified, and clinging to each other. Mrs Redfield came immediately. She came in thinking to joke and laugh at the children; but when she came she saw that we were all amazed like, and that there was something in it.
Many called him that night, who were out fishing in the creek, and they all heard the same noise. The same questions were frequently repeated as others came in, and the same answers were obtained. Some of them stayed here all night. I and my family all left the house but my husband. On the next day the house was filled to overflowing all day. Some said that there were 300 people present at this time. They appointed a committee and many questions were asked.
William Duesler, a neighbour, now appears on the scene:
Mrs Redfield came over to my house to get my wife to go over to Mr. Fox's. Mrs Redfield appeared to be very much agitated. My wife wanted I should go with them, and I accordingly went. When she told us what she wanted us to go over there for, I laughed at her, and ridiculed the idea that there was anything mysterious in it. I told her it was all nonsense, and it could easily be accounted for. This was about nine o'clock in the evening. There were some 12 or 14 persons there when I got there. Some were so frightened that they did not want to go into the room.
Duesler appears to take charge and directs the questioning. This leads to the revelation that the source of the raps was murdered and buried in the cellar, and they all go to investigate.
Charles Redfield then went down cellar with a candle. I told him to place himself in different parts of the cellar; and as he did so, I asked the question, if the person was over the place where it was buried, and I got no answer and he got over a certain place in the cellar, when it rapped. He then stepped one side, and when I asked the question, there was no noise. This was repeated several times; and we found that whenever he stood over this one place, the rapping was heard, and whenever he moved away from that place there was no answer to my questions.
On Saturday night I went over again, about seven o'clock. The house was full of people when I got there. They said it had been rapping some time. I went into the room. It was rapping in answer to questions when I went in. I went to asking questions, and asked over some of the same ones that I did the night before, and it answered me the same as it did then. I also asked different questions and it answered them... There were as many as 300 people in and around the house at this time I should think.
The singular noise which I and others have heard it is a mystery to me which I am wholly unable to solve. I'm willing to testify under oath that I did not make the noise of the rapping which I and others heard; that I do not know of any person who did or could have made them; but I spent considerable time, since then, in order to satisfy myself as to the cause of it, but cannot account it on any other ground than that it is supernatural.
The noise appeared, when we were in the cellar, to come from the ground. Some thought it was on one side, and some on the other. We could hardly tell what direction it came from. It did not sound like any noise that can be made by rapping or striking, either on the floor, or on the ground. I have since tried to make the same noise in various ways, but never succeeded in imitating it.
Some short statements by other neighbours. Elizabeth Jewel:
I never saw anything before which I could not account for in some way or other. This I am wholly at a loss to account for, unless it be a supernatural appearance. I have been acquainted with Mr. Fox and family some time, and cheerfully certify that I never saw anything in their conduct, or heard anything about them, that would lead me to suppose that they would be guilty of carrying on the trickery in order to deceive the public; on the contrary I've always looked upon them as honest, upright people, and good neighbours.
I have no doubt that what Mr. Fox and family are honest, and will tell the truth about this matter. It makes a great deal of trouble for Mr. Fox and his family. They are thronged with visitors, and broken their rest. The house has been searched from top to bottom, and nothing found that could make the noise. I did not go there believing that there was anything in it; but supposed that was some trickery or deception.
I cannot in any way imagine how these noises can be made by any human means. If it had been heard but on one or two occasions, I should not think such a mystery, but should be satisfied that someone was cutting up a caper, in order to alarm Mr. Fox's people. But now I think that is impossible.
Mrs Fox concludes:
I'm not a believer in haunted houses or supernatural appearances. I'm very sorry there's been so much excitement about it. It has been a great deal of trouble to us. It was our misfortune to live here at this time; but I am willing and anxious that the truth should be known, and that a true statement should be made. I cannot account for these noises; all I know is that they have been heard repeatedly, as I have stated.
Her husband adds:
I do not know in what way to account for these noises being caused by natural means. We have searched in every nook and corner in and about the house, at different times, to ascertain, if possible, whether anything or anybody was secreted there that could make the noise; and have never been able to find anything that explained the mystery. It has caused a great deal of trouble and anxiety. Hundreds have visited the house, so that it is impossible to attend to our daily occupations; and I hope, whether it be natural or supernatural, the means will soon be found out.
Too bad these people weren't around forty years later to hear how they had been fooled. According to Margaret Fox, making her famous 'confession':
At night, when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple to a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound. Mother listened to this for a time. She could not understand it and did not suspect us of being capable of a trick because we were so young.
As far as I can gather, that's pretty much it. Apples tied to string.
It's true that Margaret in her confessional statement also talks about making the raps with the knuckles, joints and toes, but this was only afterwards, when they were taken by their elder sister to the nearby town of Rochester. During the initial outbreak there could have been no time to switch to the more sophisticated method, which in any case Margaret says required quite a bit of practice.
I'm struck by the fact that the girls hardly appear in these witness statements at all. There's a mention of two girls (unidentified) in the cellar, where the action had shifted, so presumably there were in the thick of it. And I suppose the fact of their presence can be held to support the theory that they were also creating the noises. But try as I might, I can't see how all these people could be so seriously bothered and bewildered by two young girls bumping apples tied to string on the floor.
There's also the question of the girls' ages, which I discussed in Randi's Prize. In her confession, Margaret makes a big deal about the fact that they were such young children ('I was eight, and just a year and a half older than she'). By her account this had three consequences: one, their mother did not suspect them of playing a trick; two, they did not see how wrong it was play tricks; and three, they had the flexibility required to train themselves to make rapping noises with their feet. Yet their mother's statement, made shortly after the event, has them as fourteen and twelve. I think we can join up the dots.
In parenthesis, I recently came across this short 2008 article by a historian, which references contemporary census information, and which of course I would have cited if I'd been aware of it. From this it appears that over the years the two women had been revising their ages downwards, to the point where Margaret stated, two years before her confession:
When Spiritualism first originated at Hydesville, Wayne County, in 1848, we were little children, and have no recollection of the events said to have occurred at that early period."
No recollection at all...
There's an issue of trust here. The confession statement looks tricksy to me. On the other hand I'd still maintain that parents really do understand their children, their characters and what they are and aren't capable of. Certainly in a context like this.
And again, as I discussed in my book, these events correlate quite closely with a number of other similar episodes of unexplained noises that witnesses describe as 'raps', 'knocks', 'bangings' - often appearing to have an intelligent source. (See here for my description of a 1974 case bearing close similarities to the Fox episode.) Another reason, surely, for taking the witness testimony seriously.
Preposterous and unbelievable? Of course, but there's no reason why we shouldn't get to grips with this problem. There's a lot of documented material out there. I agree that it requires a high degree of tolerance of mystery, which by definition is problematic for sceptics. The review I mentioned at the beginning of this piece concludes as follows:
What paranormal advocates have to understand is not only do they have to provide repeatable experiments or observations and provide a theory which clearly explains (in mathematical terms if not everyday language) what exactly is going on in these anomalous events/experiences, but also that theory also has to explain, at least as well, and preferably better, all known, normal phenomena as well.
Sure, I'd love to see these things neatly explained, but I suspect it's not going to happen at all soon. This isn't a nice tidy world, it's the world we just happen to live in, and we have to try to make sense of it. However we can't do it all at once. Having the clarity to recognize anomalies when they occur, and the courage to grapple with them, is a necessary first step.