Thursday, 1 January 2015

EVERYDAY STRANGE - The Hornsey Coal Poltergeist

Ferrestone Road in 2012 [source]
THE STORY GOES LIKE THIS:
Ivan Frost of No. 8 Ferrestone Road in Hornsey, London, bought a nineteen hundredweight of coal on New Year's Day in 1921. When he took it home, the coal exploded when burned, with one piece smashing through a window. The coal was also seen to jump from the grate, dance on the floor and disappear through walls without leaving a mark, only to reappear in a shower of sparks in another room.

"Other lumps smashed pictures and damaged the furniture in the dining-room," Mr. Frost told the Daily Mail in a story published January 31, 1921, "we cleared all the coal out into the garden. Last night some of it reappeared in the house, and we heard it dropping at the top of the stairs. It seemed to be moving up from below …"

A reporter for the Aberdeen Journal noted that
As anyone who visits the house can see, the manifestations, whether spiritualistic or not, have done material damage. Windows and pictures and crockery are broken, and the walls are scarred where pieces of coal have struck the wall paper. A woman neighbour who called to express sympathy states that a piece of coal, thrown from apparently nowhere, struck her on the leg.

A police inspector came by the house and picked up a piece of the rogue coal. It broke into three parts, then disappeared from his hand.

Before long, the activity spread to other objects. Unexplained rappings could be heard in the walls of the house.  A flat iron flew through the air, before landing unscathed, other objects would go missing and turn up in odd places. Ornaments would crash violently to the ground but land unbroken. Later, a knife and loaf of bread flew across the kitchen and a clock disappeared from the wall in the presence of Rev. A.L. Gardiner, Vicar of St. Gabriel's, Wood Green.

The story only gets more bizarre. Heavy furniture was thrown at the children by unseen hands, beds levitated, plants danced in their clay pots. At this point, the phenomena may be a little too far out to be believed. If nothing else, mundane explanation begin to break down so that what remains is the suspicion that one or all members of the family was lying about all or most of it. If the family was simply having a laugh with the newspapers by staging a spooky hoax, then the joke was in extremely poor taste, because the story doesn't end there.

In late March, Mr. Frost's five year old niece, Muriel Parker, died following a brief illness, which may or may not have been meningitis. Mr. Frost spoke with newspaper following the girl's death, declaring "Muriel took all the phenomena with calmness until a week or so ago. But since a bedstead rose, knocking over a chair and causing her to fall and bite her tongue, she has been much scared. Just before her death the house became a mass of rappings. Early this week she was taken suddenly ill, and died on Thursday morning. We are all convinced that she has been worried into this illness."

THE INVESTIGATION:
Charles Fort [source]
Despite the bizarre nature of this incident, it was only one of a rash of similar incidents involving coal at that time. The incidents took place across Europe (specifically in France, Belgium and Switzerland) and in the U.S. with all sharing the common feature that the coal would not explode during shipment but only in the fireplace. In every instance, the exploding/dancing coal came from British mines. In one case during that year, a Guildford woman died when coal exploded in her fireplace (London Daily News, September 16, 1921). Police and firemen investigating the disturbances with the coal could offer no explanation. The going theory at the time was that the coal had somehow, either accidentally or purposefully been mixed with dynamite.

Charles Fort himself weighed in on the matter in his book Wild Talents:
In this period there was much dissatisfaction among British coal miners. There was a suspicion that miners were mixing dynamite into coal. But, whether we think that the miners had anything to do with these explosions, or not, suspicions against them, in England, were checked by the circumstances that no case of the finding of dynamite in coal was reported, and that there were no explosions of coal in the rough processes of shipments.
Two years to the day after Mr. Frost bought his load of coal, several coal explosions occurred in Paris and in three towns in England.

I couldn't find any sources describing any kind of scientific investigation into the coal.

CONCLUSIONS:
So, it turns out, coal may be evil [artwork source].
Most of the activity at No. 8 Ferrestone Road occurred in the presence of and was reported by Mr. Frost's two young nephews, Gordon and Bertie Parker, with the bulk of the phenomena centering around Gordon, but not all of it. In the February 18 edition of the Aberdeen Journal it was reported that "A pin cushion and other articles were flung from the chest of drawers to the floor. An orange lifted itself off a chair and dropped on the children's bed. A gown was overturned on a chair," when Gordon was out of the house. However, this evidence is attested by Mr. Frost and not actually witnessed by the article's author.

Poltergeist activity reportedly centering around a young child in the household is quite common. The Believer wants to find an explanation based on psychic powers being unleashed by the onset of puberty, while the skeptic wants to dismiss all such claims as innocent or malicious pranks.

In this case, Gordon (either with or without the help of Bertie) makes a convenient scapegoat to be sure. But the waters get muddied when you read that the boy was sent to Lewisham Hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown just months after Muriel had died. Whether Gordon was the culprit of the phenomena and the supposed poltergeist had started out as a gag, it was no longer a laughing matter. The family moved from the house not long after.

An alternative explanation for the disturbance is hard to swallow but intriguing as pure coincidence. It seems Ferrestone Road had been built less than twenty years before the coal poltergeist began on ground that had once been property of the parish of Hornsey. Burials had only ceased on the property of the future No. 8 Ferrestone Road in 1894, with graves being excavated from the backyard as late as 1999. Take that for what it's worth.

SOURCES:
I relied particularly heavily on Della Farrant's excellent Hidden Highgate article for information on this case.

Other sources of information include:
Poltergeist Over England: Three Centuries of Mischievous Ghosts By Harry Price
The Londonist
Wild Talents by Charles Fort (Warning! PDF file)
StrangeCo Blog

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