Real - or Imagination?

In 1960, the Des Moines Register newspaper called the valleys of Millville, Iowa “an ideal haunt for a noisy ghost”. But were the lurid stories that appeared in the pages of the newspaper simply fodder for the ghost that never existed? Some people thought so, but would a wild imagination have been enough to convince an old man to abandon the house that he had lived in for most of his life? Or were there are other forces at work besides paranormal ones?

It was on Thanksgiving Day of 1959 that the strange events began in the house that the newspaper stated was located at “the dead end of a branch off Split Level Road, where black crows abound in a creek valley and outcroppings of rock jut forth like specters.” The house belonged to an 83-year old man named William Meyer, an alert but bed-ridden gentleman who had recently broken his hip. As the holiday season began, Meyer was confined to the corner of his living room, which had been converted into a bedroom for the duration of his convalescence. On that evening, his wife, Anna, was resting on an easy chair across the room and his grandson, Gene Meyer, was sitting on the edge of the bed.

Before this night, nothing strange had ever occurred in the house and Meyer had always felt secure there. He had been born in a log cabin that once stood just a few feet away from the house he now lived in. This house, which stood along a small creek and between two rocky bluffs, had been built by Meyer’s own hands when he had married Anna Marie Kickbush in 1903. The house was remote, yet comfortable, nestled about three miles away from Highway 52 as it winds along the Mississippi River and runs through the foothills north of Dubuque. Meyer had farmed the 80 acres near the house for most of his life and he found that the land provided for their few needs.

He had lived a good life - but on Thanksgiving night 1959, all of that changed.

The first sign that something was amiss came when the Meyer’s were startled by a loud noise and by a shower of fine, powdery dust. As the lights were turned up, it was discovered that Gene’s face was covered with the black dust. And the mysterious stuff had settled over most of the room. “It came from nowhere,” Mr. Meyer later said. “It spread a thin film over everything in the room.”

Elmer Meyer, the elderly couple’s son who lived on the next farm, was summoned to the house to see the substance that he described as “wet and gray like soot.” His mother was in the process of sweeping up the substance when he arrived and she was able to fill two dustpans with it. Like the others, Elmer was baffled by the appearance of the dust. The stove had not exploded or coughed it out. The walls and ceiling were solid and airtight and the stovepipe had no cracks or holes.

For the next several days, the Meyers joked and laughed about the dust and about the “black face” that Gene had received. They discussed the mystery good-naturedly with their friends and neighbors but within a few days, the incident stopped being a laughing matter.

More events began to occur and they were not so easy to explain away. Late one evening, the elder Meyer’s and their grandson were again alone in the house and in the dimly lit room were startled to hear a resounding thud. When they turned on the lights, they discovered that wooden flower stand had toppled over and a plate filled with Christmas cards, which had been on top of the pedestal, had slid across the room to end up beneath William Meyer’s bed.

Over the course of the next few days, more strange happenings were added to the unnerving mix. Mrs. Meyer was doused with a glass of water that had been sitting on the counter. A fresh egg flew across the room and splattered near the foot of Meyer’s sick bed. Pills from a medicine bottle, which had been securely closed away in a kitchen cabinet, showered the living room. Mud was mysteriously smeared all over the downstairs windows of the house, even though the ground outside was frozen at the time.

As the three Meyer’s puzzled over these disturbances, Elmer Meyer, (Gene’s father) was called to investigate. As a practical minded farmer, he concluded that the house must be undergoing seismic vibrations from some natural source. To test his theory, he placed an egg on top of a glass lamp chimney and instructed everyone to keep an eye on it to fall. Elmer maintained his vigil over the egg for two hours before finally giving up and going home. Gene was convinced that the strange things in the house only happened in the dark, so he decided to continue his father’s theory - but with all of the lights off. He didn’t believe that “seismic vibrations” were at work, but that ghosts were, and that they would only cause problems when the lights were turned out.

The switches were turned and all three of the Meyer’s waited in the darkness. They did not sit still for long before they heard a series of loud sounds. When they turned on the lights, the egg was found splattered on the floor and several chunks of mud had appeared on the interior wall above Mr. Meyer’s bed.

Now both frightened and unnerved, the Meyer’s cleaned up the mess and left all of the lights in the house burning until daybreak. They were now convinced that the supernatural had reared its head in their home! By the following day, the disturbances had become to much for them to bear. Just after nightfall, they were alarmed by what sounded like “nine or ten men upstairs knocking boards against the roof.” The noises continued for 20 minutes, sending the elderly couple into a state of near panic. Eventually, Mrs. Meyer worked up enough courage to begin the evening meal when they all heard a loud crashing sound in the milk pantry. Cautiously peering around the corner, she found that an old refrigerator, which had been used to store empty jars and bottles, had fallen to the floor. As it tipped over, it had knocked over a small table that had been stacked with dishes. On this occasion, their teenaged grandson (who some might feel was unknowingly responsible for the bizarre events) was not present in the house. Just before his grandmother started dinner, he had walked down the road to pick up the day’s mail. Elmer Meyer, the boy’s father, later substantiated his son’s whereabouts at the time of the incident with the roof and when the destruction in the pantry occurred.

This last event was the final straw for the old couple. They had had enough of the “spook business” as they called it and they telephoned an ambulance to take them to the nearby village of Guttenberg, where they stayed with relatives. William Meyer later said that he felt that he was forced to leave the house. “I don’t know what would have happened next,” he said a few weeks later. “If I stayed, I would probably be dead by now.”

Mrs. Fred Meyer, a relative of the couple, also spoke up: “We don’t want them to go back until we know what’s happening down there. The whole house might be swallowed up - that’s limestone country, you know, and there’s springs - water might have opened up a hole under the house.” She was obviously well-versed on the rest of the family’s theory (namely Elmer) that the house was undergoing natural “vibrations”. He was sure that the spring on one side of the house and the creek on the other could be causing the weird happenings. Regardless though, these assurances were not enough to get his parents to return to the old homestead!

But their departure from the place did not end the goings-on. Elmer locked up the house when they left, but the doors refused to stay locked. He also claimed that once when he was inside, a piece of wood for the stove shot past him without aid and shattered a nearby window.

On several occasions, groups of neighbors who were determined to disprove the ghost story tried to spend the night in the house - but none of them had the courage to stick it out. One group placed a water glass on the already mentioned flower stand and lad a pencil across it. As they watched, the glass suddenly shattered, spilling water on the floor. The pencil was inexplicably snapped in half.

On New Year’s Day, Elmer Meyer asked Clayton County Sheriff Forrest Fischer to accompany him on an investigation of the empty house. He told the sheriff that shortly after his parents had moved, he had shown a photographer through the house. As they entered the basement, a large rock had allegedly dislodged from the wall and had smashed a ten-gallon crock. Fischer replied that he felt the whole affair was nothing more than “hocus pocus” but he agreed to begin a more thorough investigation of the disturbances.

As Meyer, Sheriff Fischer and three reporters walked through the house on January 1, a newsman saw a bottle jump out of a packing case and smash itself on the floor. The reporters spent the next few minutes accusing one another of dropping the bottle until they realized that none of them had been responsible.

On January 6, a group of Elmer Meyer’s friends decided to spend the night in the house and to try and get to the bottom of the disturbances. Among the farmer’s friends was a burly Great Lakes ship pilot named Pat Livingston, who experienced first hand the strange events. He had gone to be that night while his companions continued to sit up in the kitchen. At around ten o’clock the pilot stated that he saw the chair next to his borrowed bed begin to move. “I am a first rate pilot,” Livingston later said. “I’m no crackpot. I don’t believe it but it happened.” He reported that the chair bumped across the floor, hobbling on its legs, about eight feet and than it fell over.

And that wasn’t all. Livingston eased back onto the bed, just in time for it to start shaking and tipping. The mattress tilted forward and dumped the big man over onto the floor! “The next thing I knew,” he said, “I was on the floor and the mattress was on top of me. The bed never moved - the mattress just flopped over and threw me with it!”

Livingston and his friend left the house after that but returned a couple of hours later. They remained there until the early morning hours, but nothing else occurred. The pilot was still shaken about the events later on. “I saw it happen, and I felt it - but I still don’t believe it!”

Sheriff Fischer was again summoned to the house and while reserved comment as to whether or not he believed in ghosts, he did assign two special deputies to watch the unoccupied house for evidence that the “ghosts” were receiving human assistance. The guards saw nothing to indicate that anyone was in or around the house except those authorized to be there by the sheriff or by the Meyer family. By this time, the story of the strange happenings at the house had attracted national attention and Sheriff Fischer was besieged with telephone calls from newspapers, radio and television stations and from scientific investigators of the supernatural. He eventually granted permission to a team of students from the Upper Iowa University, but many others came too, all hoping for a glimpse of the “haunted house”.

The students from the Upper Iowa University consisted of two groups, students from the psychology department and from the physics department. They set up geiger counters, an oscilloscope, an electrometer and an ionization chamber in the house. They measured atomic radiation, atmospheric electricity, earth vibrations and other natural conditions. Readings in any of these fields could have provided an explanation for the Meyer “ghost” and frankly, could have confirmed the theories of Elmer Meyer as well.

The students were interested in the possibility of a paranormal cause for the case too and this aspect of the case appealed to the newsmen who gathered to watch the investigations be conducted. As it turned out, at least 25 people crowded into the small farmhouse. Until nightfall, the work proceeded smoothly and the instruments took readings while the students interviewed members of the Meyer family and neighbors.

Unfortunately though, word of the experiments quickly traveled through Millville and the surrounding countryside. A crowd of spectators and curiosity-seekers gathered, shooting off firecrackers and making ghostly noises that echoed through the rocky valley. They shouted rude comments about the students and make obscene offers to the female news reporters in the house. Thanks to some sheriff’s deputies, the crowd was finally dispersed about 3:00 AM.

Through the last hours of the morning, the students shut down all of the lights and attempted to salvage something from their experiments. By daybreak though, nothing unexplainable had occurred and the equipment showed no strange fluctuations. Jack Lorenz, an Assistant Professor from the Physics Department, told the reporters that they were baffled as to the source of the strange reports from the house. “There’s no unusual psychical phenomena and no psychic phenomena either.”

The group had failed to find an explanation and a ghost - but they had learned a valuable lesson in mob psychology!

The following weekend, Sheriff Fischer estimated that about 2,000 people drove back into the hilly woodlands to see the “haunted house”. A roadblock was set up about a half mile from the place but most of the tourists, many of whom had driven hundreds of miles to get there, simply left their cars and walked the rest of the way to the old farmhouse. The mob mentality of the previous weekend took hold again, this time with Elmer Meyer bearing the brunt of the calls from outside. He and some of his friends had holed up in the ramshackle house to keep the intruders from breaking in.

Late in the evening, some of the braver souls began pounding on the door, demanding to be let inside. They screamed and called at him. “Let us in. we never wrecked nothing!“ they cried. “We just came to look! Let us take a look! That’s what we pay taxes for!“

Meyer later commented that he feared the door would break down. At this moment, he and some of his friends opened the door a little bit and fired flashguns into the eyes of those outside, temporarily blinding them. However, another group smashed in the basement door and began to pour into the house through the lower level. They too were driven back with the blinding flashguns. Finally, warnings from outside that sheriff’s deputies were on the way sent the rowdy elements in the crowd racing back towards town.

But the scientific investigations of the place had not yet concluded. A professor from Northwestern sent a researcher named Stanley Krippner to the house so that he could look things over and speak with those involved. The two later published a paper on the case after conducting hours of interviews and taking readings from a variety of equipment. Krippner scoffed at the idea that the house was infested with ghosts, but suggested that it was “haunted” by the energy from living persons. He stated that the “unconscious force of living people” could have caused the furniture to shift and small objects to move about.

While Krippner did not speculate as to who in the house might have possessed this “unconscious force”, it’s possible that it was a combination of all three of the Meyer’s who were present - as well as others who came to the house. All of them, including the Meyer’s, Pat Livingston and even the group who accompanied Sheriff Fischer, came to the house in an agitated and unsettled state. The Meyer’s were likely under an amount of stress as well with William Meyer being confined to his bed by an injury and his wife worried about his condition. All of these agitations and this energy could have interacted with a presence in the house to create the activity.

A “presence” does not necessarily mean a ghostly one either. It’s possible that the poltergeist effects were created by the unconscious energy of the living people and by the natural effects of the house. As Elmer Meyer reported, the house was located directly between a spring and a creek. It has been noted that locations that are on or near an underground water source are susceptible to bizarre happenings. Could this be what occurred in the Meyer house?

Realistically and scientifically speaking, this is the most likely scenario, although some of the locals in Millville had other ideas as to the cause of the “haunting”.

In the homes and businesses of Millville, which scattered for a half-mile along the side of Iowa Highway 52 and huddled between the high bluffs and the low lands along the Mississippi River, there were two different schools of thought about the Meyer “ghost”. Some feared that the spirit was a supernatural being that had perhaps wandered out of Spook Cave, a mysterious underground river located a few miles to the north. Many locals were sure that the haunting was genuine and wondered if their home might be the next to be infested.

Other local residents weren’t so sure about the validity of the so-called “haunted house”. They were bewildered by the national interest in what must be, at best, a case of overactive imaginations. At worst, they believed, the case was a cruel and rather malicious hoax. And those who favored the idea that the “haunting” was man-made ever had particular culprits in mind.

Some advanced the theory that Elmer Meyer’s wife, who had been immersed in a long-standing feud with her husband’s mother, might have had a hand in driving the old couple out of their home. It was surmised that she might have done it out of revenge for past misdeeds, or perhaps so that she could move into their home herself. The Elmer Meyer family lived in a tumble-down, rickety house about a half-mile from the William Meyer home in the same valley. The older couple’s house was certainly no mansion, but compared to the other home, it certainly seemed to be. Elmer’s house boasted no modern conveniences, except for electricity, and did not even have indoor plumbing.

Another theory advanced locally was that young Gene Meyer was playing games with his grandparents and the pranks got more than a little out of hand when they gained the attention of the newspapers and the sheriff’s office.

However, both Gene and his mother staunchly denied taking part in any “ghost scheme” and we must remember that during the most violent outbreak, Gene was not even in the house. Could the two have been working together to cause the activity? It’s possible, but it seems unlikely.

Eventually, the case was forgotten. As winter weather closed in on the Millville area, the temperatures dropped and the rough country roads drifted with snow. The students did not return, the newspapers returned to more pressing business and the tales of the Meyer’s “haunted house” became nothing more than conversation in the local taverns and strange tales to be told on cold, dark nights. And soon, it was forgotten under these conditions as well....

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