Local History

The intelligent poltergeist | Looking Back

On January 11, 1895, the Western Gazette published a story about strange goings-on in a Dorset village. The paper described ‘considerable excitement’ at Durweston ‘in consequence of the supposition that one of
its cottages is haunted’.

The cottage was one of a semi- detached, white-walled pair that stand high on the hill above Durweston.
They have been a familiar landmark for 170 years and can be seen to this day from the A350 and the trailway between Blandford and Stourpaine. The events that caused the stir began on December 13, 1894, when widow Mrs Best heard knocking and scratching sounds in various parts of her cottage. The strange noises recurred several times over the next few days, gradually increasing in volume until next-door neighbour Mr Newman could also hear
them.

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Bizarre occurrence

The village blacksmith said the sounds were ‘as heavy as sledgehammer blows’. Mrs Best, aged about 60, had
recently taken in two orphaned sisters from the workhouse, Annie, aged 12 or 13, and Gertie Cleave, who was four. Annie was in poor health. A doctor described her as ‘of a markedly consumptive tendency’ and ‘hysterical’. As December wore on, even more bizarre occurrences took place. Small stones flew through the windows, breaking the glass, then returned of their own volition through the clean, round holes they had made. On December 18, Annie saw an old boot fly from the garden and strike the back door, leaving a muddy mark. Gamekeeper Mr Newman saw beads strike the window while a ‘quantity of little shells’ and two thimbles travelled horizontally 5ft
off the ground. ‘They came very slowly and when they hit me I could hardly feel them,’ said Mr Newman. ‘The
thimbles struck my hat.’ Other moving objects included a slate-pencil and a hasp. After the old boot returned, Mrs Best threw it outside and Mr Newman put his foot on it and commanded: ‘I defy anything to move this boot.’ ‘Just as I stepped off, it rose up behind me and knocked my hat off; there was no-one behind me,’ said the incredulous gamekeeper. Other witnesses included Durweston’s rector, the Rev W M Anderson, and schoolmaster, Mr Sheppard.

Following the two men’s arrival, Mrs Best put the girls to bed in Mr Newman’s house and lay down beside them. Loud rappings were heard on the walls in different parts of the room, along with occasional scratching sounds. Despite checks to ensure no-one was playing tricks, the ‘loud and continuous’ sounds continued for much of the night. By using a specified number of raps for ‘yes’, Mr Sheppard asked the ‘agency’ if it would communicate by writing on a slate. This was not just any old poltergeist but one with intelligence. It was clever enough to answer a series of questions as to where the slate should be placed, declining every location
apart from the windowsill. The presence’s first attempt on the slate resulted in a few meaningless scratches but
after Anderson and Sheppard asked it to try again, it produced curves that were ‘beautifully drawn’ with firm, bold lines ‘such as no child could produce’. When the exercise was repeated twice more, the words ‘MONY’ and ‘GARDEN’ appeared on the slate. When Annie and Gertie stayed with the Cross family elsewhere in Durweston, the poltergeist went with them. Scratching and tapping sounds were heard even when the girls were asleep and plaster fell on their heads. Before many witnesses, the presence again rapped out answers to questions. Then came perhaps the most intriguing event of the whole saga – it tapped out a well-known tune. Fred Cross requested several more ‘comic, School and sacred songs, which were all answered by raps on the head of the bedstead for each single note’. ‘The only tune we asked for which was not rapped out was The British Grenadiers,’ he said.
The sisters were split up soon after and the story has a tragic ending. Annie, who was thought to be the conduit for the poltergeist, went initially to Iwerne Minster and then to London, where she died of tuberculosis. What happened to Gertie is unknown.

Roger Guttridge’s books Paranormal Dorset and Dorset: Curious and Surprising both include chapters on the
Durweston Poltergeist.

Investigating destructive haunting

Book review by Roger Guttridge

Books on ghosts abound but there are very few on poltergeists, a rarer and more specific phenomenon which usually involves furniture and other objects moving around, sometimes with considerable violence.

Poltergeists also tend to be associated with a particular person and rarely last more than a few weeks or months.
Ghosts, on the other hand, occur at a specific location, are often seen by many people and can go on for years or even centuries. In a new book, paranormal investigator John Fraser contends that while ghostly sightings are almost impossible to prove, poltergeist phenomena can be empirically verified. Fraser – former vice-chair of the Ghost Club and a leading member of the Society for Psychical Research – invites his readers to join his quest to discover the truth behind this complex and contentious subject. His journey embraces poltergeist cases ancient and modern, famous and little known, and includes his own investigation of The Cage, a medieval jail at St Osyth, Essex, where 13 witches were imprisoned while awaiting their trial in 1582. Fraser personally interviewed two dozen witnesses, including owner Vanessa Mitchell, who was driven out of her home by the poltergeist activity.

Poltergeist: A New Investigation into Destructive Haunting, by John Fraser (6th Books).

By: Roger Guttridge

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