A Little Known Case from the Paranormal Annals of Arkansas

For a short time in December 1961, it looked as though the country had another authentic poltergeist case on its hands. It had all of the signs of a true mystery until a local farm boy confessed that he had engineered the “haunting” himself! But had he? Many of his friends, neighbors and the local authorities didn’t think so. Yes, he could have created some of the activity - but could a 15 year-old boy really make books, cans and biscuits float through the air in front of scores of startled witnesses?

The Shinn Farmhouse Outside of Mena, where the strange activity took place

The strange events were first reported on December 2, 1961 on the C.E. (Ed) Shinn farm near Mena, Arkansas but they had actually begun almost a year before. The Shinn’s didn’t report the strange activity for quite some time because, as Ed Shinn stated it, they were “afraid that people would think we were crazy.”

At the time of the alleged outbreak, Shinn was a sturdy 72 year-old farmer who still worked his own land about three miles east of Mena on Ransom Road. He and his wife, Birdie (70), and their grandson, Charles Elbert Shaeffer, lived in a five-room farmhouse on the property. The Shinn’s had been living in the house for 15 years and had lived in the area for more than four decades before that. The older couple was well-known and will-liked by almost everyone in the community and for this reason, the events that were later reported became even more disturbing to the local folks.

Alvin Dilbeck, the local butcher, told reporters: “I guess I must have started it all. When Ed told me about those things floating around, I got worried and sent a neighbor out to check on them.”

The result was that word began to spread throughout the community about the strange things going on at the Shinn farm. People came from all over the area and after a year of dealing with what they believed was the paranormal, the Shinn’s now had to deal with curiosity-seekers and trespassers as well. Hundreds of people began milling about on the farm, entering the outbuildings and the house without invitation. “The other night, 10 people barged into our house and went through it without saying a word,” Mr. Shinn told newspapers in December. “You can see why we would be upset.”

As word began to spread, the Shinn’s began to explain what they had been dealing with for so long. The unusual activities had started with a rattling of the windows and knocking on the door and on the walls as if someone wanted inside. Sometimes the rapping on the glass was so hard that it seemed as of the glass would fall out of the frames. The knocking was sometimes accompanied by another sound as well -like a man working a hand saw. This noise usually came from between the walls, above the head of the Shinn’s bed.

Also according to their reports, furniture, kitchen utensils, books and other objects floated about in the air; heating wood, dining room chairs, marbles and kitchen utensils were thrown about; light bulbs were shattered in their sockets; pillows were pulled out from under the heads of the Shinn’s while they slept and bedcovers were pulled from the beds by force; the coffee table in the living room turned upside down; stuffed chairs were overturned; venetian blinds were pulled off the windows; lamps were broken; and dining table chairs scooted across the floor and danced as though they were alive.

Following Mr. Shinn’s report to the butcher and the subsequent visit by a neighbor, Sheriff Bruce Scoggin of Polk County and two of his deputies, a State trooper and four reporters spent the night in the house. Nothing out of the ordinary took place, but it should be noted that the Shinn’s spent that night with relatives. Whether the case was legitimate, or a clever hoax, this point is especially telling.

And while nothing occurred when the police officers and the reporters were present, there were plenty of other outside witnesses to the weird events. Mrs. W.E. Shinn, a daughter-in-law, said that she saw a coal bucket and some ears of corn come sailing toward her one afternoon. Gene Whittenberg, a brother of Mrs. Shinn, reported a can of dog food and a pencil hovering in mid air.

And not all of the reports came from family members. A neighbor named J.L. Ply was at the house on one occasion and saw a box of matches literally float into the air and dart across the room. He claimed to speak to a university professor about what he saw and the man suggested that things like this might be caused by “uranium brought in through their well.”

The activity continued even after the outbreak was made public. The Shinn’s reported that biscuits in the kitchen left the table and went hurtling into the living room and a figurine that flew from a shelf smacked Mr. Shinn in the head. After a bag of marbles were found scattered all over the floor, Mr. Shinn gathered them up and took them out to the barn, where they were placed between two bales of hay. They didn’t bother them any longer after that.

Soon, the case took another, far stranger, turn. Not long after the newspapers began to tell of the events on the farm (and the place was deluged with unwanted visitors), grandson Charles Elbert Shaeffer confessed to creating the “haunting”. He told authorities that it had been he who had overturned the chairs, knocked over the lamps and books and had made mysterious noises.

“I didn’t mean to hurt no one,” he sobbed to Sheriff Bruce Scoggin. “I’m sorry for all the trouble I caused.” According to the police, he started the noises a prank because his grandfather was picking on him. “I didn’t mean for it to get out of hand,” he added, “but I didn’t know how to stop.”

The boy apparently gave a detailed report of how he had manipulated the pranks, by tapping on his bed frame with steel pliers and tossing things from one room to the next in the dark. He also said that he pulled the bed covers off his grandparents as night as well - although he somehow managed to do all of this without being seen and completely outside the detection of Mr. and Mrs. Shinn, friends, neighbors and dozens of onlookers.

With his confession, the Mena Poltergeist case was solved - or was it? It certainly should have been, but the fact remained that no one believed Elbert’s story! Neighbors and local residents stated that the confession could not explain the daytime happenings or the reports from friends and relatives. Even if Elbert had managed to do all of the things that he said he did under the cover of darkness, how did he manage to move objects about that were in plain sight?

Charles Albright, a columnist for the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, was just one of the journalists who was openly skeptical of Elbert’s confession. “Anyone who takes comfort in the ‘confession’ of the grandson, that he was the one who whipped up all of the weird doings in the farmhouse near Mena,” he wrote, “either didn’t read far enough or can’t face the facts.... Personally, we are having no part of the confession. Elbert can’t make biscuits float through the air any more than we can!

“Our theory is that he took the rap so that everybody could get some peace,” Albright added. “If not, what about all the eyewitnesses to the ghostly goings-on - people who didn’t even live in the house. Where does this leave them?”

Elbert Shaeffer and his Grandfather in 1962

And Albright’s theory was certainly a compelling one. Could Mr. Shinn have convinced his grandson to take the blame for the events so that the reporters, gawkers and trespassers would leave them alone? Possibly - for the “confession” did bring and end to both the local and the national coverage of the case. Perhaps the old farmer figured that if he gave the crowd something (even something as implausible as Elbert’s confession), they would go away.

On the other hand, perhaps the whole thing was a hoax? In all honestly, this seems unlikely for a hoax would have had to involved not only the grandson, but the grandparents, neighbors and other family members too. There is no way that Elbert could have manipulated everything that was reported to happen in the house and so this means that many of the reports would have had to have been outright lies on the part of the witnesses. But if this is the case, why would the Shinn’s lie? They obviously didn’t want the attention and would have had to involved people in their conspiracy who would have had no reason to want to go along with it.

This seems to leave only a paranormal solution to the mystery. If it wasn’t a hoax, then could ghosts have been involved? Could the farm have been haunted? Perhaps, but again, this seems unlikely in that the Shinn’s had been living on the property for 15 years prior to the events. They did not begin until after Elbert came to live them. He had moved to his grandparent’s farm at age 11 and the activity started a few years later.

And this fact may be especially important if we consider the idea that Elbert was the culprit in the case after all - albeit an unknowing one! It’s possible that the strange events began at about the time that Elbert entered puberty. This is a common age for poltergeist events to occur around human agents. In a number of similar cases, the young people at the center of the case are experiencing turmoil and emotional upheaval, such as occurs during puberty. Newspaper writers described Elbert as a “superior student” but photos from the time show an awkward, overweight young man with thick glasses and a backward demeanor. It isn’t hard to imagine that he might have been shy and nervous around people and emotionally immature.

Would his awkwardness have been enough to create the aggressive suppression of energy that is needed to cause events to erupt in a poltergeist case though? After all of this time, that’s impossible to say but there seems to be no question that “something” took place on the Shinn farm in 1962. Whether it was a real poltergeist outbreak or an incredible hoax will never be known.

(C) Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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