One of the fullest descriptions of poltergeist activity is a nineteenth century case that took place in Stans, Switzerland. I first came across it in Gauld and Cornell's Poltergeists, and from their summary and extracts found it to be one of the most dramatic cases I'd ever come across. Pure Hollywood. The source is a pamphlet written in the mid 1860s by Melchior Joller, the lawyer whose household had been torn apart, and who was anxious to give the true story of the events, based on the diary he kept at the time.
However it's in German, so is not as well known as it deserves to be. So I've been amusing myself in my spare time by doing an English translation. It's quite long, about 40 pages in the original. You can read the full version here if you're interested, and I plan to make it available on Kindle in due course (for free). In the meantime, here's a summary.
We're talking about a large ramshackle old house on the outskirts of Stans, a small town in the central part of German-speaking Switzerland, near Lake Lucerne (see picture - it was torn down quite recently). It was occupied by Joller, a 42-year-old lawyer and member of parliament who had lived in it all his life, and his wife and seven children. The events started slowly in late 1860, when various members of the household - although not Joller himself - started hearing odd knockings from bedsteads and walls. They were especially alarmed when, as happened in some cases, the knockings appeared to respond to their spoken commands. However whenever they told Joller about it, he told them it was superstitious fancy, and to forget about it.
One day when the children were alone in the house, things started to get more serious.
During the course of the morning 14-year-old Melanie was alone with the housemaid when she mentioned that her younger sister Henriette often heard a peculiar knocking on the wall of the bathroom, so the two of them went there to look. Henriette came by at that moment and confirmed what she had said. But Melanie couldn't hear anything and wouldn't believe it, calling out loudly 'in God's name, if something is there, then come out and knock!' And immediately there was a knocking, like someone rapping with his knuckles. Then Oscar turned up, and hearing what had happened made the same demand, and again it immediately answered with the same knocking. When their older brother Edward heard what was going on he too rushed up and made the same request and for the third time it gave the same answer.
Terrified, they flew headlong out of the house and sat on the bottom of the front steps. At this point an oval stone, roughly the size of a fist, flew between Melanie and the youngest boy Alfred, who was standing quite near to her, however without hurting either of them. After a while they plucked up enough courage to go back in and get their lunch, finding all the cupboard doors in the downstairs living room and chamber, big and small, wide open. They closed them and went into the kitchen, from where they saw that the door of my study was also standing open. They closed it and took out the key, but soon it was standing wide open again. Thinking it might be because of an air current, they closed the windows and shut the doors firmly, and then stood by the front door, to see whether it would open again. Nothing happened, but the moment they turned to go the door stood wide open. Again they closed it. Now they clearly heard the muffled steps of someone coming down the stairs. Then the bedroom door opened again; they closed it and bolted it but the moment their backs were turned it opened again. As things were getting ever more peculiar, they again left the house.
It was time for lunch so the maid went back into the kitchen. Looking towards the corridor, she thought she saw someone hanging a sheet from one corner down the stairs from the upstairs banister. Observing more closely, it seemed to be rounded off at the top and with two long black marks at the bottom, like the tips of two feet. Shocked she called out, "who's there?" With a sound like "Wuh", the form suddenly vanished, at which the girl went white and stumbled outside screaming.
The children spent the day outside in the barn, venturing near to the house every so often. But things became so extremely weird - groans, strange shapes flitting around, doors constantly springing open, and other bizarre events - that when their mother came back in the evening she found them outside weeping with terror.
Joller seems to have been typical of many educated men of his time, conventionally religious, but at the same time holding a modern, progressive outlook and an interest in science. So far he had no direct experience of the phenomenon, and was exasperated at repeated mention of it. If they bothered him any more about it, he warned his children, he'd take a stick to their backsides.
Soon afterwards his wife heard the familiar knockings in the corridor and made him come and listen. He agreed it was odd, but since it was getting late he said he'd get to the bottom of it the following day. In the meantime he read aloud from an improving book on the evils on superstition, in the hope that it would persuade his family to stop being so stupid. Right on cue, the noises started up again, and he spent the rest of the evening in a fruitless search for the cause.
The next day the disturbances started in earnest.
The din began again at six o'clock in the morning and spread all over the house. It started underneath the living room door, two or three quick blows as if made by a heavy wooden mallet; this was followed by a heavy knocking on the doors ... and in various places upstairs, with short pauses between. The knocking on the doors sometimes ended with strong blows...
All the time the racket was going on all over the house - now here, now there; now upstairs, now downstairs - with increasing strength. I narrowed my investigation down to the phenomenon itself, which seemed to occur at short intervals mainly on the doors and floors of the living room and lower bedroom. I placed my hand on the door, variously on the inside and outside, and on the upper half around which the blows were perceptible, yet without feeling anything on my hand, not even a draught or disturbance of air. I also held the door half-open, so as to observe it from both sides; the rapping occurred again without my perceiving any cause.
I went and stood outside while my family observed from inside - for a long time in vain. Eventually there were such mighty thumps on the door between the bedroom and the kitchen that each time, being made of soft pinewood, it visibly bent. At around ten o'clock I went and stood by the bedroom door and gently pulled back the bolt so that the door was only just held on the latch. My wife stood with one of the boys some twenty-two paces behind me, placed so that when the door opened she could see the kitchen window in the background, whilst I could only see the dark kitchen wall.
After a little while the door was so powerfully struck that it flew open and hit the wall. In that moment I saw - I was certain of it - something dark, although I couldn't make out its shape precisely against the dim background. It shot like lightning from the door to the side of the chimney. Rushing after it, and before I could say a word, my wife and son called out that they had just clearly seen a dark-brown half arm bone dart back from the door, and their assertions were so quick and simultaneous there could be no doubt this apparition had passed in front of them... I made a stringent search of the chimney, but found it empty, with no mark on the fallen soot, nor any other clue.
The next day Joller got back from work to find the whole family outside, shaking with terror. He went inside and found that the disturbances repeated every few minutes, including blows on the floor "so violent, it was as though a wooden mallet was being swung with all the strength of a powerful arm, causing the living room table to spring in the air and displacing the objects sitting on it." The heavy living room door burst open and slammed shut again "with the greatest force", and there were blows on the bedroom door that were so strong he feared it break into pieces at any moment.
Joller was becoming seriously alarmed, especially as crowds were starting to gather in the street outside. He got various local worthies to come and help, who although they could plainly see and hear what was going on, could only offer vague speculations that led nowhere. He then told the police, who also observed the phenomena, and by the middle of the next week the town council had authorised an official investigation.
Joller seems to have hoped this would take over the burden, but to his bitter disappointment it petered out without achieving anything. This seems at least partly because the family had temporarily moved out while the investigation was in progress, and in their absence the phenomena largely disappeared. Yet as soon as the investigation terminated and the family returned, it all started again in force.
From early September to the third week in October the Jollers were effectively left to cope on their own,. By this time they dared not sleep in the house, and instead lodged nearby, but the phenomena raged during the day while they were there. The backdrop was the bangings and door slammings, which occurred at more or less short intervals, although not necessarily continuously. They also found themselves being bombarded with objects - stones, mainly, but also things like apples and pears (which presumably were lying under the trees or were being stored somewhere). There were sounds - brooms sweeping, spinning wheels, water running, etc - that sounded entirely realistic but had no visible source, as in this example:
As we were sitting at the table after lunch, two of my children saw a transparent fuzzy silhouette tripping towards them from the front door, and through the corridor to the open living room door, where there were several loud knocks; the door then slammed shut in the usual way. Around one o'clock in the afternoon the sweeping was again to be heard in the dark corridor, and it carried on in front of the opened door; there, heavy muffled steps were heard, as if someone was walking away. Soon afterwards I heard a sound in my study as if someone in the little closet next door was working a spinning wheel, with the thread being turned in long pulls. The whirring of the spindle was so clear and lifelike that I was sure it was just what it sounded like. Yet I found no trace of such a thing, and it seemed that wherever I went it was always in the next room - nor did my investigations seem to disturb it. The maid claimed she had already heard this spinning several times of late; it sometimes sounded to her like the grinding of cogs, like an old Black Forest clock being wound up.
Objects were also displaced, in an apparently mischievous manner.
While the family were sitting down to coffee, the maid, sweeping by the open living room door, drew our attention to a noise upstairs. We hurried up, together with three students who had dropped in out of curiosity. In the upstairs living room a strange sight of disorder met our eyes. On the left wall a big tableau (of Amazons fighting) had been taken down and was lying upside down on the floor, as were both mirrors from the further wall. A glass sugar bowl, which normally stood on the right on the high chiffonier, lay likewise tipped over on the floor in front of it, the cover at its side. A fruit basket that had been standing on the chest-of-drawers at the backwall lay in the same condition, and the oil lamp at the far wall had moved. Next to an ornamental lamp a little sun-blind that had previously stood in a corner of the room now hung from its handle, stretched wide open. Under it a red cloth that normally hung by the window had been laid on the floor and nearby a uphostered chair lay upside down. Many of these items were fragile, yet none were broken... Meanwhile a neighbour who had just come into the house was gazing in astonishment at the weird arrangement in the living room, where all the chairs lay upside down around the table.
And in another example:
When I got to the house I discovered that shortly after my departure in the morning there had been three quick and very violent blows from under the living room floor. My wife, who was in the bedroom, went with Emaline and stood by the door; in this moment both saw a stool in the living room move slowly from its place and then in a flash turn over with its legs in the air, hitting the floor so violently that the dust from the grooves in the floorboards blew up. Then the living room doors slammed so violently that the noise could be heard far over the neighbourhood.
As a busy professional, Joller was under immense pressure to keep up with clients and court cases, while simultaneously dealing with the constant havoc in his household. Being an MP he had a reputation to think of, and to be the centre of unexplained disturbances that made him an object of gossip, speculation and innuendo, must have been intolerable. For the next six or seven weeks the Jollers had crowds gawping outside, many of them on a day-trip from nearby Lucerne. There were numerous curiosity-seekers in the house itself - probably admitted by Joller in order to back up his own claims about the inexplicability of what was happening - and at one point the crowds outside managed to break in.
In our age we're used to the phenomenon of ordinary people being suddenly engulfed in a media firestorm, often through no fault of their own. We have a lively sense of the ghastly destructive havoc it causes in their lives. In Joller's time, I guess, it wasn't so common, but this is effectively what happened to him. He calls it a "public stoning", and says: "Woe betide anyone unlucky enough to get mixed up in such a thing. He will be shown no mercy, thrown as prey to the raging monster."
By mid-October Joller was beginning to lose heart, and around the 23rd he and his family moved out of the house for the last time. As far as I'm aware, little is known about their movements after this, except that they fetched up in Rome, where Joller died some three years later.
What are we to make of it? Is any of it true?
If we think such things don't happen, and must always be attributed to hoaxing or misunderstandings, then I suppose we have to dismiss it as a confabulation, however convincing it sounds. On the other hand the case is well-known in Germany and Switzerland, and I imagine there must be documentary evidence of it, in newspaper reports, town records, personal reminiscences, and so on. In which case it could not be completely made up.
But then could it be a hoax played by one member of the family, a line that was vigorously promoted by sceptics and scoffers at the time? I think that's hard to sustain, if you accept at face value what Joller described. There was far too much going on for one person to have achieved it on his/her own, and the sheer variety of the phenomena would have required not one bit of trickery but a whole range of different devices. Nor is plausible that that a household of ten people would not have quickly discovered the tricks. It's slightly more plausible that Joller was the victim of a hoax by the rest of his family, or by a group of his children. But if you read Joller's account, you will quickly see that he was careful and methodical in his observations, and it's hard to believe that he would not quickly have figured out what was really going on.
What especially weighs with me is the rich literature around these sorts of unexplained knockings. Some of the other phenomena - stone throwing, realistic sounds, misplacement of furniture and objects - have been reported in several hundred other cases as well. So it's by no means an isolated example. If we accept that such things can occur in nature, then this would seem to be an authentic example.
But then we may go on to ask whether it has to do with psychokinesis of the living or spirits of the dead. The narrative describes a strong sense of presences in the house, and many visual sightings - in the early stages, of fuzzy or transparent shapes, but then towards the end of faces at the window glimpsed from the outside. There are also frequent sounds - of unseen people groaning, and occasionally also of speech. In this context an incident that occurs early on may have some relevance. The children are sheltering from the disturbances outside when an old crone hobbles past and engages them in conversation: it appears she knew four young girls who used to live there, and who were drowned in the nearby river in a tragic accident. So there's something there to support the idea of a haunting, although Joller does no more than hint at it and clearly does not want to go into detail.
What strikes me most about this narrative is its immense pathos. Always the most interesting thing about the paranormal for me - by far the most interesting - is that vortex of interaction between the normal and the utterly, absurdly abnormal. Many people in modern secular society are exactly like Joller. Their ideas are informed by science, and it's natural for them to abhor superstition. Tales of ghosts and things-that-go-bump are for inferior types, the weakminded. Yet very rarely, such a person is badly bitten by the real thing. Suddenly he becomes an outcast, a denizen of the world he once complacently despised, of the supernatural believer, desperately semaphoring his discovery to the world - which merely jeers, as he himself would surely have done, and takes no notice.
Throughout the narrative you sense a man clinging to the hope that if he only observed everything that was going on, and faithfully noted it down - in such a way that he could get the rest of the world to accept it - then he would remain sane and untouched. Alas for him, this did not happen. The fact that he died so soon afterwards, and in exile - ruined and perplexed - makes his story all the more poignant.