Several years ago, a reader asked me about poltergeists and if these entities had the ability to use audible communication. There were a few modern reports, but I wasn't sure if these were exaggerations produced by the witnesses. So I decided to look over some of the prominent historical cases and post a few that exhibit authenticity even though the commentary may be a bit folksy. I offer my opinion at the end of the post:
John Arnason, in his Icelandic Legends gives an account of "The Devil at Hjalta-stad" as written by the Sheriff Hans Wium in a letter to Bishop Haldorr Brynjolfsson in the autumn of 1750.
"The sheriff writes: “The Devil at Hjalta-stad was outspoken enough this past winter, although no one saw him. I, along with others, had the dishonour to hear him talking for nearly two days, during which he addressed myself and the minister, Sir Grim, with words the like of which ‘eye hath not seen nor ear heard.’ As soon as we reached the front of the house there was heard in the door an iron voice saying: ‘So Hans from Eyrar is come now, and wishes to talk with me, the ------ idiot.’ Compared with other names that he gave me this might be considered as flattering. When I inquired who it was that addressed me with such words, he answered in a fierce voice, ‘I was called Lucifer at first, but now I am called Devil and Enemy.’ He threw at us both stones and pieces of wood, as well as other things, and broke two windows in the minister’s room. He spoke so close to us that he seemed to be just at our side. There was an old woman there of the name of Opia, whom he called his wife, and a ‘heavenly blessed soul,’ and asked Sir Grim to marry them, with various remarks of this kind, which I will not recount."
“I have little liking to write about his ongoings, which were all disgraceful and shameful, in accordance with the nature of the actor. He repeated the ‘Pater Noster’ three times, answered questions from the Catechism and the Bible, said that the devils held service in hell, and told what texts and psalms they had for various occasions. He asked us to give him some of the food we had, and a drink of tea, etc. I asked the fellow whether God was good. He said, ‘Yes.’ Whether he was truthful. He answered, ‘Not one of his words can be doubted.’ Sir Grim asked him whether the devil was good-looking. He answered: ‘He is far better-looking than you, you ------ ugly snout!’ I asked him whether the devils agreed well with each other. He answered in a kind of sobbing voice: ‘It is painful to know that they never have peace.’ I bade him say something to me in German, and said to him Lass uns Teusc redre (sic), but he answered as if he had misunderstood me."
“When we went to bed in the evening he shouted fiercely in the middle of the floor, ‘On this night I shall snatch you off to hell, and you shall not rise up out of bed as you lay down.’ During the evening he wished the minister’s wife good-night. The minister and I continued to talk with him during the night; among other things we asked him what kind of weather it was outside. He answered: ‘It is cold, with a north wind.’ We asked if he was cold. He answered: ‘I think I am both hot and cold.’ I asked him loud he could shout. He said, ‘So loud that the roof would go off the house, and you all would fall into a dead faint.’ I told him to try it. He answered: ‘Do you think I am come to amuse you, you ------ idiot?’ I asked him to show us a little specimen. He said he would do so, and gave three shouts, the last of which was so fearful that I have never heard anything worse, and doubt whether I ever shall. Towards daybreak, after he had parted from us with the usual compliments, we fell asleep."
“Next morning he came in again, and began to waken up people; he named each one by name, not forgetting to add some nickname, and asking whether so-and-so was awake. When he saw they were all awake, he said he was going to play with the door now, and with that he threw the door off its hinges with a sudden jerk, and sent it far in upon the floor. The strangest thing was that when he threw anything it went down at once, and then went back to its place again, so it was evident that he either went inside it or moved about with it."
“The previous evening he challenged me twice to come out into the darkness to him, and this is an angry voice, saying that he would tear me limb from limb. I went out and told him to come on, but nothing happened. When I went back to my place and asked him why he had not fulfilled his promise, he said, ‘I had no orders for it from my master.’ He asked us whether we had ever heard the like before, and when we said ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘That is not true: the like has never been heard at any time.’ He had sung ‘The memory of Jesus’ after I arrived there, and talked frequently while the word of God was being read. He said that he did not mind this, but that he did not like the ‘Cross-school Psalms,’ and said it must have been a great idiot who composed them. This enemy came like a devil, departed as such, and behaved himself as such while he was present, nor would it befit any one but the devil to declare all that he said. At the same time it must be added that I am not quite convinced that it was a spirit, but my opinions on this I cannot give here for lack of time.”
In another literary work where the sheriff's letter is given with some variations and additions, an attempt is made to explain the story. The phenomena were said to have been caused by a young man who had learned ventriloquism abroad. Even if this art could have been practiced so successfully as to puzzle the sheriff and others, it could hardly have taken the door off its hinges and thrown it into the room.
Donald Ban and the Bocan - Scotland: An 18th Century ‘Talking Poltergeist’ Case
A similar account titled "Donald Ban and the Bocan” by W. A. Craigie, M.A. was added to "Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution & Custom Being The Transactions of the Folk-Lore Society and Incorporating The Archaeological Review and The Folk-Lore Journal" in 1895 and later published in The Book of Dreams and Ghosts:
"It is fully a hundred years since there died in Lochaber a man named Donald Ban, sometimes called “the son of Angus,” but more frequently known as Donald Ban of the Bocan. This surname was derived from the troubles caused to him by a bocan—a goblin—many of whose doings are preserved in tradition."
"Donald drew his origin from the honourable house of Keppoch, and was the last of the hunters of Macvic-Ronald. His home was at Mounessee, and later at Inverlaire in Glenspean, and his wife belonged to the MacGregors of Rannoch. He went out with the Prince, and was present at the battle of Culloden. He fled from the field, and took refuge in a mountain shieling, having two guns with him, but only one of them was loaded. A company of soldiers came upon him there, and although Donald escaped by a back window, taking the empty gun with him by mistake, he was wounded in the leg by a shot from his pursuers. The soldiers took him then, and conveyed him to Inverness, where he was thrown into prison to await his trial. While he was in prison he had a dream; he saw himself sitting and drinking with Alastair MacCholla, and Donald MacRonald Vor. The latter was the man of whom it was said that he had two hearts; he was taken prisoner at Falkirk and executed at Carlisle. Donald was more fortunate than his friend, and was finally set free."
"It was after this that the bocan began to trouble him; and although Donald never revealed to any man the secret of who the bocan was (if indeed he knew it himself), yet there were some who professed to know that it was a “gillie” of Donald’s who was killed at Culloden. Their reason for believing this was that on one occasion the man in question had given away more to a poor neighbour than Donald was pleased to spare. Donald found fault with him, and in the quarrel that followed the man said, “I will be avenged for this, alive or dead.”
"It was on the hill that Donald first met with the bocan, but he soon came to closer quarters, and haunted the house in a most annoying fashion. He injured the members of the household, and destroyed all the food, being especially given to dirtying the butter (a thing quite superfluous, according to Captain Burt’s description of Highland butter). On one occasion a certain Ronald of Aberardair was a guest in Donald’s house, and Donald’s wife said, “Though I put butter on the table for you to-night, it will just be dirtied.” “I will go with you to the butter-keg,” said Ronald, “with my dirk in my hand, and hold my bonnet over the keg, and he will not dirty it this night.” So the two went together to fetch the butter, but it was dirtied just as usual."
"Things were worse during the night and they could get no sleep for the stones and clods that came flying about the house. “The bocan was throwing things out of the walls, and they would hear them rattling at the head of Donald’s bed.” The minister came (Mr. John Mor MacDougall was his name) and slept a night or two in the house, but the bocan kept away so long as he was there. Another visitor, Angus MacAlister Ban, whose grandson told the tale, had more experience of the bocan’s reality. “Something seized his two big toes, and he could not get free any more than if he had been caught by the smith’s tongs. It was the bocan, but he did nothing more to him.” Some of the clergy, too, as well as laymen of every rank, were witnesses to the pranks which the spirit carried on, but not even Donald himself ever saw him in any shape whatever. So famous did the affair become that Donald was nearly ruined by entertaining all the curious strangers who came to see the facts for themselves."
"In the end Donald resolved to change his abode, to see whether he could in that way escape from the visitations. He took all his possessions with him except a harrow, which was left beside the wall of the house, but before the party had gone far on the road the harrow was seen coming after them. “Stop, stop,” said Donald; “if the harrow is coming after us, we may just as well go back again.” The mystery of the harrow is not explained, but Donald did return to his home, and made no further attempt to escape from his troubles in this way."
"If the bocan had a spite at Donald, he was still worse disposed towards his wife, the MacGregor woman. On the night on which he last made his presence felt, he went on the roof of the house and cried, “Are you asleep, Donald Ban?” “Not just now,” said Donald. “Put out that long grey tether, the MacGregor wife,” said he. “I don’t think I’ll do that to-night,” said Donald. “Come out yourself, then,” said the bocan, “and leave your bonnet.” The good-wife, thinking that the bocan was outside and would not hear her, whispered in Donald’s ear as he was rising, “Won’t you ask him when the Prince will come?” The words, however, were hardly out of her mouth when the bocan answered her with, “Didn’t you get enough of him before, you grey tether?”
"Another account says that at this last visit of the bocan, he was saying that various other spirits were along with him. Donald’s wife said to her husband: “I should think that if they were along with him they would speak to us”; but the bocan answered, “They are no more able to speak than the sole of your foot.” He then summoned Donald outside as above. “I will come,” said Donald, “and thanks be to the Good Being that you have asked me.” Donald was taking his dirk with him as he went out, but the bocan said, “leave your dirk inside, Donald, and your knife as well.”
"Donald then went outside, and the bocan led him on through rivers and a birch-wood for about three miles, till they came to the river Fert. There the bocan pointed out to Donald a hole in which he had hidden some plough-irons while he was alive. Donald proceeded to take them out, and while doing so the two eyes of the bocan were causing him greater fear than anything else he ever heard or saw. When he had got the irons out of the hole, they went back to Mounessie together, and parted that night at the house of Donald Ban."
"The bocan was not the only inhabitant of the spirit-world that Donald Ban encountered during his lifetime. A cousin of his mother was said to have been carried off by the fairies, and one night Donald saw him among them, dancing away with all his might. Donald was also out hunting in the year of the great snow, and at nightfall he saw a man mounted on the back of a deer ascending a great rock. He heard the man saying, “Home, Donald Ban,” and fortunately he took the advice, for that night there fell eleven feet of snow in the very spot where he had intended to stay."
The Bell Witch: An American Haunting
Tennessee is home to one of the most disturbing ghost stories of all time: The Bell Witch: An American Haunting which was one of the earliest American versions of a talking poltergeist. As with all traditional American folk stories there is modification and exploitation in the media. There are several books about the witch, but many Americans heard the story for the first time in the film An American Haunting, which was released several years ago and based on actual events. After reading the some of the original accounts of the haunting, I was surprised on how accurate and detailed the production was.
The Bell Witch is a story about John and Elizabeth Bell and their children, who lived in Adams in Robertson County in the early 1800s. Some of the original commentary from one of the children follows:
"Kate Bates was a member of our small community. One day, she and my father argued over a business deal. Over time, she became more and more displeased with my father, and legend has it that she cast a spell over my family, cursing us to be haunted for life.
"From then on, our family was visited by an apparition or ghost. She wasn't a friendly ghost, so we referred to her as a witch. She became known as the Bell Witch.
"At first, the Bell Witch couldn't speak, and she communicated in soft, whistlelike sounds. Gradually, her voice developed, and she felt free to communicate with us verbally. In the meantime, she was torturing our family. At night, my sister and I would lay in bed gripping our covers tightly because she would be pulling them off from the end of our bed.
"Occasionally, she would hit us or scratch us, and she wouldn't stop even when we cried. She teased and tormented everyone in my family except for my younger brother, John Bell Jr. She liked John and would protect him from harm and would harm those who were cruel to him.
"Eventually, the Bell Witch killed my father by poisoning him. She put black, poisonous liquid in his food. The curse of the Bell Witch continued for years, so my brothers, sisters and I were forced to leave home. Our friends and neighbors would often come and stay in our home to experience the haunting for themselves. We even had visitors from other cities who traveled to Adams just to see or hear the Bell Witch. My parents would feed and house our visitors, hoping that the visitors would experience the haunting, too.
"The people living in Adams were so tired of the Bell Witch and her trickery that they excommunicated her from the town and ordered her to live in a cave on the outside of the city, where she still lives today.
"If you are brave enough, you can go to Adams, Tenn., and visit the cave where the Bell Witch was sent to live. However, I want you to be very careful!
The Missing Headstone
The latest chapter of Middle Tennessee's famed Bell Witch story could be titled "The Tale of the Homesick Headstone."
It begins in 1860, when the 22-year-old great-granddaughter of John Bell died and was buried in the family cemetery, her rest undisturbed until the headstone disappeared about a century later.
It ends earlier this month, when the missing marker turned up in Nashville, upside down and broken in two.
"The stone was found in Madison," said Tim Henson, a local historian and curator of the Adams Museum in the Robertson County town. "It was used as a stepping stone in someone's yard for at least 41 years."
Now the marker is in its rightful place. Getting it there had its spooky moments, which seems fitting for a member of the family at the center of one of the South's most celebrated ghost stories.
In 1817, an angry spirit took up residence on the Bell farm in Adams, about an hour's drive northwest of Nashville. Some people identified her as Kate Batts, an eccentric woman who believed John Bell had cheated her in a land deal.
She tormented the family, slapping, pinching and pulling the children's hair. She sang hymns, preached and plagued their father, who fell into recurring bouts of illness until he died in December 1820, a terrible smell on his lips and a mysterious bottle of black liquid nearby.
The tale has been the subject of books and movies, including An American Haunting (2006). And townspeople and tourists say Kate still haunts today, throwing salad spoons and blue balls in the air.
The supernatural Bell mystique may extend to the headstone of Mary Allen Bell Coke, if the story its finder tells is any indication.
The marker had made its way to a trash bin in Madison, where a homeowner found it years ago and added it to the lawn.
"A contractor from Springfield, working on that house, brought it home," Henson said. The contractor, Janie Hudgens, was intrigued and went online to research the dead woman. That led to funeral director and Bell descendant Bob Bell in Springfield, who called Henson.
Hudgens said that after she and husband Sparky found the stone, she made it her mission to find out where it came from.
"I'm from Alabama, and we respect the dead there," Hudgens said.
"When we found the headstone, that bothered me. For three nights straight, I was on the computer till 3 or 4 in the morning looking for where the tombstone belonged."
The night before they were to give Henson the marker, they were in bed with the room dark when the screen came to life, static crossing its screen. Not long after she turned it off, "it came on again, and it was on the page about the Bell family."
Then there was the wind, which she said "blew the deadbolt-locked door open."
As she told Henson, "I think this stone wants to get home."
Henson recently took it to the cemetery and placed it on the grave, but that was just for a brief visit. It'll remain in storage until it can be safely and securely displayed.
"We just want to place it back in the Bell cemetery that it belongs in," he said. "We know within a foot or two where it's supposed to go. We want to put it back so that it can't be taken away again." - tennessean.com
The Book of Dreams and Ghosts
Craigie, W.A. - "Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution, & Custom Being The Transactions of the Folk-Lore Society and Incorporating The Archaeological Review and The Folk-Lore Journal," Vol. VI.—1895
The Bell Witch: An American Haunting
NOTE: These cases, in particular 'The Bell Witch' incident, were manifestations of self-created entities. The vast majority of poltergeist hauntings are actually an unconscious genesis by a living human. These entities do not 'talk'...though communication through writing and physical will have been well documented. For example, the movie Poltergeist depicted, for the most part, a severe haunting. The entity was not created by anyone in the family...but gained energy through the family's fear and anxiety. It was a very entertaining film, but most of it was simply conjecture. The San Pedro Poltergeist - Jackie Hernandez and the 'The Entity' Investigation - Culver City, CA - 1974 are good modern examples of poltergeist hauntings. The infamous Enfield Poltergeist case was most likely a possession where the victim somehow channeled an actual spiritual entity. Unfortunately, many Georgian and Victorian writers used 'poltergeist' as an incorrect descriptor for most hauntings...Lon