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Friday, July 29, 2005

A Poltergeist in Pownal?

There was a time, less than two centuries ago, when if you claimed that a stone fell from the sky, you could expect that at some point someone would say you were deluded, or a liar, or worse. Certainly, any well-educated, rational person would scoff at you. Why? Well, because, there are no stones in the sky, silly. Therefore stones cannot fall from the sky.

Today, of course, in our infinitely more knowledgeable times, they’d just call that meteor activity. Now if you were to say that you saw many stones fall, for a prolonged period of time (like weeks, or months), from several different directions at once- up and sideways as well as down- well, then you might once again be in line for some ridicule. At the very minimum, a condescendingly patient explanation about how what it seemed like you saw wasn’t actually what you saw, because, silly, stones don’t just up and act like that. When they move at all, it is in chartable, predictable ways, dictated by known physical processes. Of course, at some point, someone might drop the word ‘poltergeist’ into the conversation- a tricky word, which in German means something along the lines of “noisy or mischievous spirit,” and in English tends to mean something roughly equivalent to “I don’t know, leave me alone.”

It was in the fall of 1874 that a farmer from North Pownal found himself in a predicament along these lines. Sometime in October, Thomas Paddock- described as “a respectable farmer, of excellent character” by the Burlington Free Press and Times- found his house and barns under a brutal bombardment from reoccurring showers of stones. Fearing precisely the kind of derision referred to above, Paddock and his family tried to keep the occurrences a secret. Word got out, however, as always it does in such bizarre matters. Witnesses described rocky showers that ensued intermittently, apparently out of the clear sky. They were said to fall randomly at all hours of the day and night, and varied in size from tiny pebbles to five inches in diameter. At one point, one fell that weighed more than twenty pounds, and left a three-inch crater in solidly frozen ground. A number of people tried to duplicate this incident by hurling similar boulders, but made scarcely any impression at all.

Nor was this the strangest aspect of it all. The stones did not behave at all as falling stones ought. When they hit the ground, they did not bounce or skip; instead, they just rolled calmly along the ground. They also tended to be warm to the touch. Worst of all, witnesses reported that on occasion they would make contact on the roof near the eaves, then, as if possessed, roll slowly up the roof and back down the other side.

Can this possibly true? Stones that fall from the sky? Stones that roll up? Admittedly, there are probably gaping holes in my meteorological knowledge, but this does not seem at all like any meteorites I have ever heard of. Certainly not meteorites with any sense of propriety.

Still, these happenings are not without precedent. Dedicated Advocate readers will recall a similar case from Sheffield that I wrote about in October, and there are a number of others in New England history. The earliest of these seems to be from New Hampshire, where the home of George Walton was barraged for months by similarly cantankerous stones. The occurrences were witnessed by the Secretary of the Colony, Richard Chamberlain, who coined the term “Lithobolia” to describe it, intertwining the Greek word “Lithos” with the Latin “diabolis,” or devil- a “stone-throwing devil.”

According to the late D. Scott Rogo, noted parapsychologist, stone-throwing is one of the most commonly reported kinds of poltergeist phenomenon. “Sometimes rocks will bombard the outside of a house,” he writes, “or sometimes…the inside… the rocks themselves are sometimes found to be warm to the touch… and will often follow odd trajectories.” These kind of poltergeists also seem to have a long history worldwide. The Annales Fuldenses chronicles a case of apparently supernatural stone-throwing in 858 A.D. in the small town of Bingen on the Rhine, where Roman forces were fighting the gauls. Other historical records expose a case even farther back, in 530 A.D., that afflicted the home of the chief physician to the Ostrogoth King Theodoric.

In the case of the stonings in Pownal, a variety of potential explanations were offered. One medium from Hoosac Falls claimed that the spirit of a local woman was responsible, and would not stop until the stones were removed from the coffin in which her body lay. Perhaps the most outlandish theory was presented by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (a paper with a reputation for whimsical and sardonic editorializing) who speculated that a man with “a new style of catapult with which fortifications can be stormed at a distance, has been practicing with it on a mountain nearby.”

Reporters who covered the story claimed that his house was situated that no human prankster could have possibly thrown the stones without being seen. Nevertheless, this was the suspicion of a group of “investigators” from North Adams (who, curiously, are not referred to by name in any of the newspaper accounts) who ventured up to Pownal that December. According to their account of the inquiries they made, their suspicion from the outset was that a hired boy by the name of Jerry was the culprit. They told reporters later that one of them remarked to Jerry how interested he was in Spiritualism, and wished that he could witness the extraordinary phenomenon himself. Later, while Jerry was off doing his chores, a stone came tumbling over the roof of the house. At this point, according to the Hoosac Valley News, “Not wishing to wound the feelings of Mr. Paddock, who firmly believes the imposition so long practiced upon him to be the work of spirits; and not caring to have any trouble with Jerry, the visitors departed, convinced that they had solved the mystery.”

There are problems with the account given by the North Adams skeptics, however. According to their report, “No one but Jerry had ever seen the stones fall.” Yet this does not agree at all with earlier reports published in the Troy Press, the Rutland Herald, and the Burlington Free Press, who state unequivocally that the bombardments had been witnessed by many dozens of people, several of whom are quoted by name. Furthermore, Jerry himself was present and accounted for among the crowd of onlookers during most of these incidents. Their assertion that Paddock believed the stones to be the work of spirits was also patently false, as he had stated repeatedly in earlier interviews that he did not believe spirits were to blame. Finally, their explanation failed to account for the extreme behavior of many of the flying stones.

The pattern of this case has more than a passing resemblance to many of the other New England “lithobolia” incidents I have looked at. In most of these cases, and adolescent is present at the time of most of the stone hurling, and at some point or another someone suggests a connection between the two. Usually though, the child is in plain view when the stones come flying, apparently out of nowhere. Perhaps more importantly, common sense suggests to most that while young boys (or girls) are certainly capable of a wide variety of mischief, the idea of one having the attention span for such ongoing, elaborately systematic pranks, stretching out over weeks or months in most cases, is harder to take seriously than a stone-throwing demon. An alternative interpretation is offered by parapsychologist William Roll, who has spent decades studying alleged poltergeist cases. He calls this phenomenon Recurrent Spontaneous Psycho-Kinesis, the idea that that a high level of emotional tension, if repressed, can produce outward physical effects which are consistent with poltergeist reports. This, he predicts, would no doubt be particularly seen in young persons, who do not usually have the power to redress their grievances by conventional and socially acceptable means.

Of course, this should not be taken to suggest that you should refrain from grounding your preteen son or daughter when circumstances merit- just don’t be too terribly surprised if you should hear a pebble or two come rolling across the roof of your home.

Selected Sources:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Dec. 9, 1874

Troy Press, Oct.-Dec., 1874

Hoosac Valley News, Dec. 10, Dec. 17, 1874

Citro, Joseph A. Green Mountain, Dark Tales, 1999

Friday, July 22, 2005

October Mountain Forest Death

On Sunday evening I emailed this week’s installment of my new column for The Advocate Weekly, a print companion to this blog, a piece on odd encounters in October Mountain State Forest. The following morning news broke that a body had been found in the forest, which was later identified as that of 20-year-old Anthony Colucci, missing since July 4. The cause of death has not been determined. The piece itself appeared in print yesterday. I want to take this opportunity to make it known that this is a morbid coincidence, and totally unintentional on my part. Had I found out about the discovery of the body one day earlier, I would have supplied a different column piece for this week. I have no desire to exploit or sensationalize this tragic event, and my heart goes out to Mr. Colucci’s family.

More information on this tragedy:


Capital News 9

North Adams Transcript

Berkshire Eagle

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Disappearing Drunkard

The roads which criss-cross southern Vermont and eastern New York are replete with stories of strange encounters. Tunic Road has its accounts of phantom soldiers; UFOs have been sighted by drivers along Route 7 and also White Creek Road; Route 7 has also been the sight of alleged Bigfoot sightings, as has Prospect Mountain.

One day in the 1970’s, author David J. Pitkin reports, he had a strange roadside encounter of his own while driving to and from Bennington. On his way there from his home in Troy, New York, he happened to spot a man hitchhiking in the distance. As he grew closer, the man’s ragged attire and unkempt hair became apparent, and his weaving back and forth made it quite apparent that the man was blind drunk. Finding in favor of prudence, Pitkin sped by without stopping.

On his return trip, he saw that the man had changed lanes and was now hitchhiking in the opposite direction, toward Troy. Pitkin had intended to keep driving and pass the dubious looking man once more, but just then it began to pour rain. Taking pity, he pulled over and let the man in. The reeking, obviously intoxicated man got into the car. He was nearly incomprehensible, and it was not clear where he was going. They drove in silence, until they reached the outskirts of Troy and stopped at a red light, the man mumbled “This is good enough.” They pulled over and the man stumbled out of the car without closing the door. Pitkin leaned over to close it, and when he looked up, the man was gone. “I scanned the full 360 degrees around my car, for at least a hundred yards in every direction, for at least a hundred yards in every direction. He was nowhere to be seen. Where could he have gone? There were no nearby doorways where he could hide. He had just vanished into thin air.”

Stories of this sort are not rare. Folklorists recognize this as a variant of the “Vanishing Hitchhiker,” a class of urban legend, though the term contemporary legend is gaining ground as the preferred classifier. Modern folklore expert Jan Brunvand calls the Vanishing Hitchhiker narrative “the classic automobile legend.”

“This returning ghost tale,” Brunvand states, “was known by the turn of the century both in the United States and abroad. It acquired the newer automobile motif by the period of the Great Depression, and thereafter spawned a number of subtypes with greatly varied and oddly interlocking details, some of which themselves stemmed from earlier folk legends.”

In one of the most common types, the story centers on a young girl asking for a ride home. Before the driver and passenger reach her house, however, the girl has vanished into thin air. The driver proceeds on to the house anyway, typically because she has left something behind in the car. When he knocks on the door, the person who answers (usually her father) tells the driver that his daughter died on this very day, X amount of years ago. In other versions, the hitchhiker may be a man or an elderly woman dressed in black, who deliver some sort of prophetic message.

In most cases, these stories, like others classed as contemporary legend, are FOAF (friend-of-a-friend) tales, passed on from person to person as a morphing, undocumented narrative, typically introduced with a statement like “this happened to someone my sister’s friend knows,” or “someone who went to my co-worker’s college said…” Therefore, folklorists tend to treat these stories as fictional- socially meaningful, perhaps, but without root in an event taking place in real space time. This becomes problematic, however, when one is confronting a first hand account. It is certainly more awkward to declare something a legend when the something is a specific person coming forward with what they maintain is a personal experience they had in a real place and time. Pitkin’s experience is not a unique occurrence, either; a number of other first hand accounts of vanishing hitchhikers exist. The most well known of these is probably that of a man named Anton Lagrange, from Durban, South Africa, which was documented in an article in FATE by Cynthia Hind.

What are we to make then, of these stories? Are they all lies concocted by a few individuals, inspired by FOAF tales, or do certain concepts taken for granted in the study of folklore beg reexamination? Perhaps the quandary is best stated by University of Pennsylvania folklorist Bill Ellis when he says, “…The major limitation of the folklorist’s perspective is that it presumes that if a story is found in variant form attached to many places and times, then that is proof presumptive that it never happened at any place or time… granted, the vanishing hitchhiker circulates widely and usually in anonymous of friend-of-a-friend form. But does that in itself impugn every firsthand account?”

It does not, I would venture. Too many examples exist to negate the idea that all, or even most, types of FOAF tales arise out of the ether of human imagination without some analogue or antecedent in actual incidents and experiences. Ellis cites the work of Gary Alan Fine, who in researching urban legends of mice in Coca-Cola bottles, found numerous documented cases in which various rodents had been found in different kind of soda containers. Similarly, the immensely popular “alligators in the sewer” tales seem to be rooted in verifiable incidents. Documentation of an apparently quite real problem with alligators in the Manhattan sewer system in the 1930’s has been found in the NY Times and in records of the office of the New York City Commissioner of Sewers.

Folklore is a kind of running social narrative that explores the boundaries of what we know or believe to be real. Perhaps the survival and popularity of many of FOAF tales and contemporary legends, and the reason that they are often believed, is based on an instinctive sense on the part of the population at large that the world really is stranger than we ever give it full credit for, and sometimes, just sometimes, the weirdest things anyone can think up really do happen.

Sources:

Pitkin, David J. Ghosts of the Northeast, 2002

Brunvand, J.H. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & their Meanings, 1981

Ellis, Bill. Aliens, Ghosts & Cults: Legends We Live, 2003

Hind, Cynthia. “Girl Ghost Hitches Ride.” FATE July 1979