- THE ENIGMA OF AMERICAN POLTERGEISTS -
THE ALABAMA FIRE POLTERGEIST
In August 1958, Fire Captain S.H. Joiner of Talladega, Alabama realized that he had a serious problem on his hands. His concerns revolved around a four-room log tenant house that was located about eight miles west of the city. By August 28, there had been 22 fires in this small home and 17 of them had occurred on the 27th alone! “It’s really a mystery,” Joiner told reporters. “ If it’s not a chemical reaction or spontaneous combustion, then I don’t what it could be.”
The house in question was occupied by Calvin Tuck, his wife, Willie Bell, and their six small children, aged from three months to nine years. The African-American family had been experiencing a series of fires that had literally gutted the structure. All four of the rooms had been ruined by smoke, along with most of their personal belongings. They had remained in the house as long as possible but during the eruption of fires on August 27, had finally moved out. Homeless and now destitute, the Tuck’s had no insurance on the house.
Strangely, nearly every 0ne of the fires had started near the ceiling, except for a mattress that had mysterious burst into flames. None of the fires had started on the floor. The flames were all reddish blue in color and “looked like sulphur burning”, according to witnesses. The source of the fires were completely bewildering as the house had a metal roof and had no electrical wiring inside. Talladega County Road Commissioner Leslie Hutto and a local contractor named Ortis Horton visited the house on August 27 and saw a fire start literally in front of their eyes! Hutto later said that he started scraping the wall with a knife and a flame flared up right in his face. He said that he also made a circle on the wall with the knife blade and that exact spot later began to burn. He and Horton reported that a fire started about every 15 minutes while they were at the house - and that they had no explanation for how they had begun!
The fires began a few days before this, around 8:30 am on the morning of August 25. The house caught fire three times and the next morning, it caught fire again two more times. It was not until a dozen fires had broken out that the Talladega Fire Department was summoned to the property. The call was answered by fireman Glover Williams, who said that the Tuck’s story about how the fires were starting was so fantastic that he summoned Captain Joiner to the scene.
News of the mysterious fires made the local newspapers and spread through the community. Within hours, over 200 people had gathered to watch the excitement but many of them stayed on through the night with buckets of water on hand in case a new blaze broke out.
With the first tenant house ruined, the Tuck’s moved into another one that was located nearby. Four new fires broke out in rapid succession and Calvin Tuck, exasperated, frightened and bewildered, did an almost inexplicable thing. He took all of his family’s remaining possessions (except for their furniture, which had been repossessed by the furniture company for lack of payment) and tossed them in a pile about 100 yards from the house. He lit a match to the pile and burned their belongings to ashes - then sat down on the ground and wept. This was the 27th fire and the only one that was ever explained.
The Tuck’s then moved into the house of their brother-in-law, Darnell Suttle, who must have been a brave and loyal relative. As the Tuck’s prepared to leave the second tenant house on their way to the Suttle home, the house immediately burst into flames. Witnesses stated that there had been no one around at the time and when the fire appeared it “all at once was burning all over.”
Calvin Tuck may have believed that by burning the family’s possessions, their troubles had ended, but he was wrong. The fires moved right along with them to the Suttle house. Five fires occurred the first day and were just as mysterious as those that had destroyed the Tuck’s other two houses.
On Labor Day morning, the Suttle house was visited by two police officers, Lieutenant Ben Cooley and Patrolman John Childers. They found the house in an uproar with clothes and furniture scattered all over the yard and the brood of children playing amongst it. Cooley noted that a quilt was hanging on a tree and before his eyes, it suddenly started burning. The whole quilt burst into flames, except for one small end. Within moments, the fire had gone out, leaving the cloth blackened and smoking. Curious, Cooley dragged the quilt onto the ground and attempted to set the unburned end on fire. It smoldered, but it would not burn by normal means. “I saw it, but I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen it,” he said.
It is worth noting that at the time of the incident, Calvin Tuck was not at the house. He had been gone about 16 hours, but his wife was there. She and the Suttle’s showed the officers a newspaper and a window frame that had caught fire just minutes before they had arrived. Tubs and buckets of water had been left standing in every room as a precaution, although there was no running water in the house. According to a later report, two more fires broke out after the police left. A curtain caught fire around 9:15 and a loaf of bread burst into flames on the kitchen table around 10:00.
As the strangeness continued, things got tougher for the Tuck family. Darrell Sutton finally conceded that he had to protect his home and family, so he asked the Tuck’s to move out. Calvin did not own an automobile and so his father came over to move the family and offered to let them stay at his house. They moved into their fourth home in eight days on September 2. The family settled in and once again, buckets of water were placed in each room and even the family washing machine was left filled, just in case.
The source of the fires remained as bewildering as ever but Calvin Tuck decided to try a remedy of his own. Burning their belongings and running from the “fire disease” had not worked, so he decided to consult an “herb doctor” (voodoo practitioner). He was promptly informed that a voodoo hex had been placed on he and his family and for a price, he could provide Tuck with a spell that would remove the hex. Calvin quickly paid.
The spell consisted of a package of seeds and instructions for making three day’s supply of medicine, which was to be poured into a bottle and buried upside down. The “medicine” was made up of a half pint of vinegar, two gourd seeds, two six penny nails, three straight pins and a mule biscuit. The “doctor” also gave Tuck some herbs that he and his family were to chew on for three days. Then, they were to take another gourd seed, cut it in half and then Calvin and Willie Bell were each to swallow one of the halves.
The best that can be said about the “medicine” is that it didn’t work. A few days later, firemen returned to the Tuck home about 3:00 pm and learned that there had already been seven previous fires that day alone. After the officers left, one fireman and a reporter stayed behind to see another fire erupt in the kitchen and burn three boy’s jackets. Again, it should be noted that Calvin was not at home. He returned after 7:00 pm that night with no knowledge of what had occurred that day. His brother, Albert, came home a few minutes later from work, planning to watch his favorite television program - only to find that the set had been destroyed during one of the fires.
The investigation into the fires continued and Chief of Police Leon Curlee and Lieutenant Cooley came to the house to interview the Tuck’s about the eight fires reported the day before. They stayed about 40 minutes but no new outbreaks occurred. They returned later on Saturday afternoon with State Fire Marshall Frank Craven. They had only been there about 20 minutes when another fire broke out among some rags on a kitchen shelf. After the fire was put out, Curlee noted that a “greenish substance” was visible on the rags. He began to believe that an arsonist was responsible for the fires.
That night, there were five more fires. Early on Sunday morning, Calvin and Willie Bell went out looking for a new place to live, feeling as though he had endangered and inconvenienced his family enough. Two hours after they left, two additional fires broke out. More fires occurred around 5:30 pm and more than 40 people were present when the fires were discovered. It is estimated that at least 2000 people visited the Tuck home that weekend alone!
Meanwhile, Calvin and Willie Bell had gone to Anniston, a town about 20 miles from Talladega, and found a friend named Troy Caldwell who agreed to let them stay with him. Soon, all eight members of the family were in Anniston - four homes and 52 fires later!
And unfortunately, they were unable to escape the fires. The fires soon began to break out in the Caldwell house but the police in Anniston wasted no time with investigating, they simply arrested Calvin Tuck on a vagrancy charge and put him in jail “for his own protection.” Police Chief Lawrence Peek stated that his officers were “going to run this thing down and get to the origin of it if we possibly can.”
The attempts made to solve the mystery of the fires were met with frustration. Authorities were sure that an arsonist must be responsible but reporters, witnesses and firemen couldn’t see how this was possible. But officials were adamant. Talladega Fire Chief W.C. Holmes said: “There’s no such thing as magic fires... those fires are being caused by something or somebody. There’s nothing to it except that somebody is setting those fires. I don’t know who, but I know someone is. They’re putting something on the articles and then applying enough heat to ignite it.”
Holmes examined the wallpaper and other places in the various houses where fires had broken out and scoffed at the idea that these spots had ignited by themselves. He found a flysprayer at one house that he thought contained gasoline but this was never confirmed. In addition, none of the experienced officers who responded to the fire calls smelled fumes or found any traces of gasoline at any of the houses.
Despite the lack of evidence, State Fire Marshall Craven agreed with Holmes and stated that he also felt the fires were being deliberately set. Sheriff John Robinson also agreed and said that he thought a chemical of some kind had been used to start the fires. Police Chief Leon Curlee wasn’t so sure - but he did summon W.L. Sowell of the Alabama State Toxicology lab to analyze some of the remnants of burned articles and wallpaper from the Tuck’s home. The findings from the lab’s reports turned out to be “indeterminate” though. It was reported that traces of phosphorous were found on some of the items - but whether these “traces” were organic in nature or artificial was never stated.
The fact is, it would have been have been difficult to spread phosphorous around the house and then ignite it. It is extremely active chemically and very poisonous. It burns hot and quick and gives off white fumes. It also had to be kept under water to prevent spontaneous combustion and is not sold on the open market. It’s possible that the phosphorous could have been emulsified and then sprayed with some device that caused it to burn when it was dry - but who in the family would have had the knowledge to do this? And where would they have obtained the chemical? And with what - the Tuck’s were impoverished before the fires started, let alone afterwards.
Since chemicals were apparently out of the question, the authorities began to search for the arsonist instead. It no long mattered how this person may have started the fires, it only mattered that he did. On September 22, Anniston police announced that nine year-old Calvin Tuck, Jr had confessed to starting the fires. The officers who questioned him said that he admitted to playing with matches and two of the smaller children in the family said that he had started the fires.
While “playing with matches” is a far cry from starting 52 fires, some of which sprang up in front of reliable witnesses when the boy was not even around, the police said that the case was closed as far as they were concerned. Sheriff Robinson said that the boy had been “talking freely” about starting the “voodoo fires”. He allegedly confessed to igniting rags and fixing them so that they would smolder before bursting into flames. Pretty clever for a nine year-old, wasn’t it? He claimed to have doe this so that his family would get scared and move back to Birmingham, where they had come from.
So, if we believe this confession (if a confession took place at all!), then the mystery of the fires was solved almost as soon as they occurred.
But how can we actually believe this? Even local officials doubted the boy’s story and some even suggested that the police made up the fact that the boy confessed at all. Remember, this was a poor black family in Alabama in 1958 - there were much worse injustices occurring during this time period in the south than just false confessions about starting fires. According to reports, the police officers used some questionable methods to withdraw the boy’s confession. They apparently told him that a voodoo man was after his daddy and was going to get him if the boy did not “tell the truth”. After the boy was taken into custody though, Judge Henry O. Hurst immediately had him returned to the custody of his parents, stating that the police had insufficient evidence with which to hold him.
Others who doubted the “confession” included other police officers, firemen, reporters and witnesses who saw the fires appear spontaneously in places where no rags “had been left to smolder”. Lieutenant Cooley was outraged by the new developments. “How could smoldering rags be concealed in the quilt that I saw suddenly burst into flames in the yard?” he demanded.
In addition, while he considered the possibility of arson being involved in the case, Fire Marshal Frank Craven stated that he did not believe the boy’s confession and he did not consider the mystery of the fires to be solved. The case would remain open, he said, until a reasonable explanation could be found. As far as I know, the case remains open today.
There are many contradictions in this case and even if we accept the idea that the boy’s confession could be authentic, there are still many unanswered questions - beyond the near impossibility that anyone in the family could have gotten their hands on phosphorous.
How did fires appear on walls, an extremely difficult thing to accomplish under the best of circumstances? And how did Calvin Jr. cause the wallpaper to burn in front of dozens of witnesses? How did he burn items in the house when police officers saw him outside? How did he cause a loaf of bread to ignite? And perhaps most important, if a small boy started the fires, why was it noted by everyone involved that the fires never started down low (where smoldering rags could be hidden) but always started up high on the ceiling?
Even though there were many intelligent and cool-headed police and fire officials involved in the case, along with scientists and toxicologists, no definite answers were ever found as to how or why the fires appeared. In more recent times, researcher have theorized that a human agent poltergeist may have been responsible for the events and while some have pointed finger at Calvin Tuck, I wanted to be sure and note that he was often absent when the fires appeared. The real (albeit unknowing) suspect in the case would have to be his wife, Willie Bell, who was the one person almost always present when the blazes appeared. But even then, she was apparently away on the final Sunday of the events and yet the fires still broke out - creating yet another contradiction and making the mystery even more unsolvable.
But could Calvin Jr. have been the source behind the fires after all? Could energy from this boy have been responsible for igniting the various objects and structures in the case? It’s impossible to say at this late date, but I think we can rule out the idea that he set the fires using the infamous “smoldering rags”.
A “voodoo hex” is easier to believe than that one!
(C) Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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