The Psi-Seeding of Academe
Arthur C. Clarke

The Andover Poltergeist

Here's a familiar story. Two young girls are in bed one night when they hear a curious tapping noise coming from somewhere in the room. This happens on several consecutive nights. It seems to emanate from the wall, and they think at first it must be coming from the house next door. But then, weirdly, they realize that the noise is responding to them, even when they are whispering so quietly that no one outside the room could possibly hear. They find they can communicate with it, by asking questions and getting it to knock once for yes, two for no, and three for don't know. For more complex queries it will rap out the letter of the alphabet (five knocks for E, 13 for M, etc). The whole family soon gets involved, and gather nightly to ask the unseen entity about itself and get it to answer questions about themselves, which it often does correctly.  The house is soon filled with neighbours, local clergy, police, mediums and investigators, all coming to wonder at the phenomenon and try to figure out what's causing it.

The strange story of the Fox sisters is usually the first thing that you read about in any general book about spiritualism and the paranormal. You may go on to hear that that having established they could communicate through raps the spirits later came through  at séances, launching the cult of spiritualism that quickly swept the developed world. If it's a debunking book the mystery will then be revealed: towards the end of their lives the girls admitted it was a prank played on their parents, first by bumping apples tied to string on the floor, and then by manipulating their toes and joints to create the rapping noises. This segues naturally into reflections about the gullibility of the superstitious masses, and their reprehensible failure to accept it was all a trick.

Either way, the impression most of these books leave you with is that the Fox incident was a one-off. But of course this tale of raps and codes and spooky communications is widely reported. It's not exactly common, but it's so distinctive, and often reported in such detail, as to create the appearance of a phenomenon in its own right. When Tony Cornell and Alan Gauld tabulated 500 documented poltergeist-type cases back in the late 1970s they found that around half involved exactly this kind of rapping noises, often described as knocks, thumps, thuds, bangings and suchlike, for which no cause can be found. They say 16% involve communication, of which presumably the majority involve this method. [Poltergeists, pp. 224-40]

The case I mentioned earlier is actually not the Fox sisters, but concerns the Andrews family in Andover, Hampshire, in 1974. It was investigated by Barrie G. Colvin, who says he was prevented by the family from publishing more than an outline at the time. Ten years later they were still unwilling to have it publicised but now that more than 30 years have elapsed, and the family has moved from the area, there is no longer an issue about this, and he has written it up in the latest SPR Journal, using pseudonyms.

Colvin seems to have been quite through, paying a total of nine visits over a ten-week period. As well as interviewing the family about the origins of the case he had plenty of opportunity to hear the raps himself and establish that they were not the result of trickery or other visible cause.  The focus seems to have been Theresa, the younger of the two girls aged 12. Colvin also established to his own satisfaction that the source had intelligence of a sort, calling itself Eric Waters, although it does not seem to have provided any coherent information beyond that. At one point a medium claimed the noises were being made by a young boy whose body was buried under the floorboards; nothing more is mentioned about this, and subsequent investigations failed to turn up anyone of that name who had lived in the area. 

Colvin did attempt a small experiment, persuading 'Eric' to transfer the noises from the wall of the room to the headboard of Theresa's bed. As follows:

[Mrs Andrews] then said: "Eric, please try to knock on the headboard." This was followed by a very soft tap which was heard by us all. I was at that moment standing very close indeed to the headboard, with my ear about 15 cm from it. As Mrs Andrews repeated the request, I put my hand on the headboard to see whether I could feel any sensation. Eric rapped progressively louder on the headboard and I could clearly feel the vibration.

It's interesting how often vibrations in the bed headboard feature in poltergeist literature. This is just one example, from the 1960 case in Sauchi in Scotland:

On entering at the front door he heard loud knockings in progress. Going upstairs he found Virginia awake, but not greatly excited, in the double bed... The loud knocking noise continued and appeared to emanate from the bed-head. Mr. Lund moved Virginia down in to the bed so that she could not strike or push the bed-head with her head, and he also verified that her feet were well tucked in under the bed-clothes, and held in by them. The knocking continued. During the knocking Mr. Lund held the bed-head. He felt it vibrating in unison with the noises. [A.R.G. Owen (1964) Can We Explain The Poltergeist?, pp. 148-9.]

The responsiveness is less common, but is still widely reported. Perhaps the best known case of the kind is reported by William Barrett, investigating a case in a farmhouse in Derrygonnelly in 1877:

To avoid any error or delusion on my part, I put my hands in the side pockets of my overcoat and asked it to knock the number of fingers I had open. It correctly did so. Then with a different number of fingers open each time, the experiment was repeated four times in succession, and four times I obtained absolutely the correct number of raps ['Poltergeists Old and New', SPR Proceedings 25, 1911, pp. 377-412]

The Andrews family seem to have been rather ambivalent about the case, enjoying the novelty of communicating with an unseen entity, but becoming frightened when the taps and raps turned into loud bangings, especially when they went on for hours and deprived them of sleep. By Colvin's last visit it seemed to have faded out, however. While the family treated Eric has a deceased spirit, Colvin's view is that no discarnate entity was involved, and that the case fits the pattern of repressed emotion in the living, although there was no outward sign of this, the family being apparently happy and stable. 

Of course none of this would convince a sceptic: it's hard to share an investigator's conviction of the paranormality of an event without copious reassurances, diagrams, descriptions, signed statements by witnesses with impeccable rationalist credentials, and so on, and probably not even then. But my understanding is that sceptics actually never get that close to the phenomenon, in real life or even in books.  If you look at the debunking literature you will quickly find that there are two main sources: James Randi's article on the Columbus, Ohio case of 1984 and a clutch of cases mentioned by another debunking magician Milbourne Christopher in his book Seers, Psychics and ESP (1970). Neither of the magicians witnessed anything (the families concerned would not let them into the house) and in any case they do not really involve this rapping phenomenon.

I'd be interested to know if debunkers like Joe Nickell who rely on these two sources to such an extent have any sensible ideas about this, beyond insisting that the teenagers are playing tricks, and that everyone else is too dim-witted to notice. Considering how insistent they are that the Fox sisters case was a hoax, and the mileage they get from it, it's a contribution they should be encouraged to make.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The thing that interests me about the Fox sisters is their confession. Why would two of the sisters confess after so long? And didn't at least one of them later recant that? They're an interesting case, and I'm not sure what to make of them.

The story of the Andover poltergeist - and 'spirit rappings' in general - is an equally interesting one. Like with the Fox sisters, I don't know what to make of it.

I only remember that one of the sisters (Maggie) actually "confessed". She had fallen on hard times and was paid to confess. I really am not expert here -- just casual reading -- so don't take my memories too seriously, but it seems to me that she went on a traveling lecture/demonstration tour and that one of her sisters (I think her name was Kate) helped but never actually, publically stated that the methods demonstrated (stock demonstrations, for the most part, by this time) had been used by the sisters during their heyday.

Another factor was a fight that the two younger sisters (Maggie and Kate) had with their older sister, Leah, who was still working very successfully as a medium.

Skeptics view the fact that the confession was paid for when Maggie was in desperate need of money as completely irrelevant to its honesty and completeness. However, the similar confession by one of Houdini's assistants that he had helped Houdini plant evidence on a medium he was debunking (Margery I think) is dismissed by Skeptics as completely meaningless because of the money he received.

Another problem with the Fox confessions is that they never managed to produce anything like the full range of sounds produced at their pre-confession seances.

I agree with you Topher,there does seem to have been pressure in one way or another to "confess",also, the "joint cracking"explanation for "loud bangings and raps around the room" doesn,t hold water in my opinion.

Thanks for the extra info, Topher. I'm not too familiar with the Fox case, but what you summed up seems to be in accordance with what I remember reading. It's funny how the standards are different for the two cases you mentioned.

From what I also remember reading, Maggie was the one who confessed, saying she was cracking her toes. Just a thought, but wouldn't it have to have been a rather loud noise for it to be heard audibly? I can't see joint cracking producing raps of such noise.

But, like this post pointed out, the case of the Fox sisters is rather confusing given the many differing accounts.

Pat: I can make a popping sound with my jaw that carries about 25 feet.

Having said that, it's incredibly clear where the sound is coming from, and I'd imagine toe cracking would go no more than thirty minutes without the source being discovered.

My view exactly. I live in a family of involuntary joint-crackers and the noises aren't at all consistent with poltergeist reports - they just tell me when someone's coming up the stairs. It's always puzzled me how easily people convince themselves that you can artifically create loud thumps, knockings, bangings etc, with your toes.

I used to hear raps on the walls, the floor, and the closet when I was a young girl, and it was NOT my toes or joints making the noises! I'm not buying that theory at all. In fact, I think it's ridiculous.

In fairness to the critics, Maggie (and her sister I think) apparently demonstrated during her "we cheated" lectures an ability to produce astonishingly loud cracks with her toes. Part of the demonstration was to show how she could push her toes up against a wall or table to act as a sounding board to make it even louder, change the quality, and make it appear to be coming from some point distant from her.

Of course, she might have worked to develop this ability after early critics proposed just this as the means by which the sounds were produced. A constant theme in investigating high-profile exceptional subjects is that even if their abilities started out as fully real they are under intense emotional and financial pressure to produce the phenomena more spectacularly and more reliably than nature might provide. A constant assumption from Skeptics is that if someone has ever cheated than they must always have cheated (by that reasoning, if Barry Bonds used steroids to improve his performance then he obviously was never able to hit the ball at all without steroids).

And of course ... even if the Fox sisters were wholly and completely frauds that doesn't mean that the phenomenon doesn't occur for real.

I am a true believer of this phenomenon because it has happened to me on a daily basis since my 18 year old son died tragically almost 5 years ago.

It took me a while to catch on because at first I was in complete denial, but it has gone on so long and it has such "intent" there is no way I can deny it. I think it really sunk in the night I was trying to sleep and something started tapping on the insides of all my teeth.

This happened after several months of tapping (that seems to follow me around the house). It taps mainly on the windows, but also on the walls, ceiling and my headboard. For example, I'll be standing in the kitchen counter drinking my morning coffee and it will bang on the window behind me (regularily). Then I'll walk to the front of the house and sit down at my computer and it will bang loudy on the window next to my desk (right in my ear). Then I'll go to the bathroom and it will tap on the ceiling over my head and the wall next to me.

My husband and son deny it happens, although on a couple of occasions my husband has admitted that he hears it. He of course, always has a logical explanation (bird or bug hitting the window or the house settling). I can tell you I have been standing in front of the window looking directly at the glass when the tapping and banging is going on and I've never once seen a bird or bug. Also, my house is only 10 years old and sits on a concrete foundation and I don't believe it's been through much "settling".

I do, however, acknowledge that windows do make noise from time to time (when the temperature changes they make cracking noises). And bugs and birds do indeed hit the windows from time to time... I'm not oblivious to that.

Not nearly as often as I hear the noises however, I can vouch for that! My husband has been in the room with me when the tapping is going on and he'll stop what he's doing and look toward the window (scratching his head). My son (who's also in denial) has come out of his room on several occasions and asked me "Mom, what's tapping in my room?"

It sounds bizarre, I know, because it is really beyond bizarre, especially for someone like me (who used to be a complete skeptic about anything paranormal). I didn't believe in life after death, I didn't believe in anything. I do now! At the same time, I can't help but believe that if all this had happened before my son died, I would have surely noticed it because it's completely unlike anything I've ever been through before. It's way beyond normal "house" noises and we live on a quiet, suburban, dead-end, residential street.

What (or who) it is, I don't know. I do wonder if it might be my son, but I don't know? I've read a lot about the djinn and now believe anything is possible. I can't say normally that it scares me, however, there have been some days that the taps turn to loud bangs and it does get quite scary. That's when I pray to God.

There have been a few days when the banging is loud and insistent and seems to go on all day, however, it's never been what I would consider "demonic" banging (but that's not saying it couldn't be a demon). Who knows?

We've also had some loud unexplainable crashing noises that none of us can figure out where they came from, although not many (perhaps half a dozen in 5 years).

I have noticed when I am mad or upset, the tapping does seem to get louder. For example, every now and then I'll get upset with my husband or son and go to bed early (feeling bad) and that's when the taps become multiple, insistent bangs. It's almost like whoever it is wants me to "get over it" and get back up.. Like it's mad I'm laying down and pouting (and that I'm mad at the rest of the family).

I have also noticed that whatever it is, seems to be able to read my mind. So eerie.. For instance, I can't tell you how many countless times (thousands) I've thought of my son only to have a quick tap or knock at the same exact moment the thought of my son enters my head. The exact moment. Then I'll daydream about him for awhile and as soon as my mind wanders to something else, a couple of quick knocks follow. Almost like whatever it is wants me to be thinking about it or dwelling on it?

Whatever it is also taps and knocks multiple raps. The other night I was sitting at the kitchen table and I honestly thought someone was knocking on the door. It banged three times on the door. Only problem is, it was our back door (which faces out to our completely fenced back yard). No one comes in through that door but us, when we're coming in from the backyard.

Another night we were waiting for some of our dead sons' friends to come over for a visit and something banged twice sharply on the bay window in the kitchen nook. I honestly thought one of the friends was being cute and trying to surprise us by coming around to the back of the house to knock, but a minute later the kids showed up at the front door.

What else can I say? I don't know whether to feel comforted (over the possibility my son is still here) or be scared it's a demon? In the beginning I actually communicated with it (asking for two knocks and getting it back, and then asking for three knocks, etc.)

But I stopped that because it really did scare me, however, I have had "talks" with it when it gets rather exuberant and said "Look, if you keep banging when I'm trying to sleep I'm going to really think you're a demon because only demons do stuff like that". Then it shuts up.

Another interesting tidbit is do some reading up on Carl Jung. He had some strange knockings in his life, one experience with Freud is especially poignant.

The comments to this entry are closed.