- HISTORY & HAUNTINGS OF AMERICA -
POPPER THE POLTERGEIST
Strange Happenings on New York's Long Island
In 1958, a series of ghostly events that were occurring on Long Island, New York transfixed television viewers and readers all over the country. A house belonging to a family named Herrmann was being beset by strange and inexplicable incidents that were attributed to a ghost who was dubbed “Popper” (for reasons that will soon become obvious). But what was really happening in the house? An unseen force from beyond, or something else?
The “Popper” case remains unique in the annals of the supernatural today for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this became the first haunting that was actually shown on television. Wide-eyed audiences all across the country stared at their television screens in amazement as Popper literally performed for the cameras. These films became the ghost’s claim to fame, but were not the first incidents to take place in the Herrmann house.
Popper first made himself known at around 3:30 in the afternoon of February 3, 1958. The James Herrmann family lived in Seaford, New York, a suburb on Long Island, about 30 miles from New York City. Their white and green ranch-style home had been built in 1953 and contained three bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, a small dining room, a living room and a basement that was divided between a utility room and a playroom. In other words, it was a typical 1950’s-era home in a quiet, conservative neighborhood with public parks and tree-lined streets. It was the last place that you would expect anything out of the ordinary to occur.
That February 3 was a day like most any other. It was clear and cold outside and Mrs. Lucille Herrmann, a registered nurse, was there to welcome her children home from school and to prepare dinner. The children were Lucille, 13, and James, 12, two ordinary kids with ordinary interests. Their ordinary world, however, was about to change!
Soon after the two Herrmann children entered the kitchen, chaos erupted in the house! In moments, various bottles containing liquid (in different rooms of the house) suddenly began to pop their caps and dance around. No one saw the bottles move or explode, but all of them heard the caps as they popped loose and the bottle’s contents went spewing into the air.
They would later discover a opened bottle of bleach in the basement utility room, a bottle of liquid starch in the kitchen, bottles of shampoo and medicine in the bathroom and a bottle of holy water that has opened in the master bedroom. Each of the bottles had been sealed with twist-off type metal or plastic caps and there were no corks or crimped caps that might have somehow come loose.
Puzzled, Mrs. Herrmann called her husband, who worked for Air France in New York City, and reported the strange “popping” sounds they had heard and the opened bottles. Herrmann was just as confused by the incident as his wife was, but as no one had been hurt by the “explosions”, he decided that he would not leave work early and come home.
Following his usual schedule, Herrmann took the train to Long Island and arrived home just before 7:00 PM. During his commute, he pondered his wife’s call and was sure that he had a solution for the mystery. He believed that some sort of chemical reaction in the products had caused the bottle lids to blow and the fact that they did so at the same time was merely a coincidence. Perhaps it had been caused by some sort of excessive humidity in the house? He quickly investigated the bottles when he arrived home and confessed to being baffled when he found that they were screw-top lids. How could they have simply popped off?
Thankfully though, the excitement over the event had calmed down and the Herrmann’s gave no indication of being upset. With that in mind, they decided to just write the whole experience off as “just one of those funny things.” Two uneventful days passed after that and the popping bottles were almost forgotten.
Then, on Thursday, and once again at about the same time that the Herrmann children came home from school, another half dozen bottles popped their lids. A bottle of nail polish burst open, as did a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a bottle of bleach, detergent, starch and even the holy water. It was an almost exact repeat performance of February 3!
On Friday night, it happened again! Only this time, when the bottles began to pop open, James Herrmann began to suspect that he knew the culprit responsible for the multiple containers’ strange behavior. He surmised that his science-loving son had somehow rigged the bottles to pop to scare his family. He thought that perhaps some carbonated capsules might have been planted by his clever son and timed so that he could get home from school in time to see the startled expression on his mother’s face.
As he developed this theory, Herrmann spent the entire weekend secretly observing his son. He was determined to catch him in some action that might give away his plans. So it’s no wonder that he was so surprised on Sunday morning, February 9, when several caps popped off bottles of starch, turpentine and holy water and left their containers rocking back and forth on the shelves! Herrmann had kept a close eye on James Jr., so how could the boy have managed to put something inside of the bottles? Even so, Herrmann burst into the bathroom, where James Jr. was brushing his teeth, and he accused the boy of rigging the bottles to pop. Needless to say, his son vigorously protested his innocence and as if to prove the point, Herrmann was startled to see a bottle of medicine suddenly move across the top of the sink and fall into the basin! A moment later, a bottle of shampoo also moved across the sink and fell with a thud to the floor!
Still skeptical, Herrmann immediately examined the bathroom, searching for hidden wires or strings. He found nothing and finally realized that there were things going on in the house that he could not explain. Unsure of what else to do, he called the police and spent the next several minutes on the phone trying to get the officer who answered the call to take him seriously. When he heard the story, the officer first accused Herrmann of either playing a practical joke or drinking too much, but he was soon swayed by the tone of the man’s voice. Herrmann did, in fact, have a very good reputation in the community and because of this, the officer promised to send a patrolman to investigate.
The patrolman who answered the call, James Hughes, went to the house very skeptical and perhaps wondering how he managed to wind up with the nutcase calls. Within a few minutes though, he had changed his mind about the nature of the case... when several bottles in the bathroom popped their lids and fired them in his direction! He quickly concluded that the Herrmann’s did indeed need help.
Detective Joseph Tozzi was assigned to look into the case. He read Hughes’ report of the incidents in the bathroom with interest and while not willing to pass judgment on the case without actually visiting the scene, he was relatively sure the Herrmann’s were experiencing some natural phenomenon or were simply hallucinating. Or, he noted with the cynicism of a veteran police officer, the popping bottles were getting some help a human source.
On February 11, Detective Tozzi began his vigil at the Herrmann house. That same evening, a perfume atomizer overturned and spilled perfume in the daughter’s bedroom. There was no one in the room at the time, according to reports. Over the next few days, the disturbances seemed to center around the bottle of holy water in the bedroom. On several occasions, the lid of the bottle popped off and once, after hearing the distinctive sound, Mr. Herrmann dashed into the bedroom and found the bottle on the floor. He picked it up and found it strangely warm to the touch.
Later that same day, on February 15, the poltergeist activity took another turn. As the Herrmann children were watching television in the living room with Marie Murtha, a middle-aged cousin of James Herrmann, a porcelain figure actually rose up off the coffee table and hovered in the air. It moved several inches and then fell to the rug.
After this last demonstration, the Herrmann’s decided to turn to another source of comfort to aid the stumped Detective Tozzi in his investigations. They contacted Father William McLeod of the Church of St. William the Abbott for help. As devout Catholics, the Herrmann’s believed that the church could possibly help them where ordinary methods had failed. Father McLeod came to the house and sprinkled holy water in each of the rooms, blessing the building. Unfortunately though, “Popper” as the poltergeist came to be called had decided that he didn’t want to leave!
During the two weeks since Popper had made his first appearance in the Herrmann house, news of the strange happenings had leaked to newspapers, radio and television reports. The story received a great deal of publicity and the onslaught of media and public attention became worse than any antics that the ghost could dream up. During the day, the Herrmann home was surrounded by reporters, photographers, curiosity-seekers and an astounding array of television equipment (especially for these days of early TV). While the Herrmann’s managed to get used to these intrusions into their lives, they weren’t quite prepared for some of the strangeness that came with it.
Letters and telephone calls came every day. Many of them proposed logical solutions, while others assured the Herrmann’s that Martians had landed nearby or that the problem in the house was the spirit of a long-dead Indian chief or that the Russians were tunneling under Long Island to invade New York. The Herrmann’s managed to stay patient with everyone though. They never turned anyone away and they listened attentively to the calls and suggestions that came in, even those who shouted “Repent!” into the telephone at midnight or proclaimed that “the Sputniks are here!”
Many of the letters and visitors were not easy to remain patient with though. Letters arrived in barely intelligible scrawl, condemning the Herrmann’s for their sins and suggesting that they had invited these “tricks of Satan”. Ministers from all sorts of “faiths” conducted rituals on the front lawn of the house. One man in a blue serge suit, who claimed to be a “holy man from Center Moriches”, knelt in the yard and prayed for ten minutes. The he stood and announced: “Everything is all right. You have been forgiven”. With that, he left... but “Popper” remained.
But not all of the suggestions and helps were so bizarre. One man who came to the house, Robert Zider, was a physicist from Brookhaven National Laboratory. He brought a set of dowsing rods with him and went over the property with them. When he was finished, he stated that he believed there were underground streams below the property, which might be affecting the house. He thought that the water might be creating a “freak magnetic field”. Detective Tozzi examined this idea at length, but a geological survey suggested that the information was inaccurate.
Tozzi considered it anyway though, as he did any other information that came along. His case files became thicker and thicker with added notes, observations, research and facts that he collected. He had checked with the Air Force and after studying their flight plans, they had told him that sonic booms from passing jets could not have caused the disturbances. He also ruled out radio waves by contacting the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). The Long Island Lighting Company had set up a delicate oscilloscope in the basement, but they had detected no underground vibrations. Inspectors from the Town of Hempstead Building Department pronounced the house structurally sound. The Seaford Fire Department even inspected a well on the property to see if the changes in water level could be causing the disturbances. However, they found that the water level had been stable for at least five years. Although puzzled, Tozzi remained determined and he tried valiantly to discover a source for the happenings.
He finally found hope in a letter from a woman named Helen Connolly of Revere, Massachusetts. She wrote that she had experienced a living room in her home where chairs and furniture moved about. She didn’t have a ghost in her house, but rather a heavy downdraft through her fireplace. When capped with a rotary metal turbine, the flying tables and chairs ceased to fly. Mr. Herrmann immediately had one installed on his own chimney, convinced that the strangeness was finally coming to an end.
But that wasn’t meant to be.... No sooner had the workmen completed the installation than a porcelain figure launched itself from a table and smashed against a desk! The figurine had managed to travel a distance of more than 12 feet! It left a dent on the wood that was broadcast to television audiences all over New York.
On February 20, events became even more violent. Another figure was smashed against the desk; a bottle of ink popped its screw cap, then sailed into the air and splashed its contents on the wall; and a sugar bowl flew off the table under the watch of Detective Tozzi. It had been close to James Jr. but not within his reach. Needing a break, the Herrmann family spent the night with a relative. Tozzi stayed in the house, but the rest of the night passed without incident. When the family returned the next evening though, the sugar bowl again flew from the table and this time it shattered into pieces.
On February 24, Tozzi was startled to his feet by the sound of a loud noise in James Jr.’s room. No one had been in the room or near it, yet a large bookcase had managed to fall facedown onto the floor. The next night, while James was in the room doing his homework, his record player lifted and moved 15 feet across the room. A small statue of the Virgin Mary flew more than 12 feet and struck a mirror frame in the master bedroom. A bookcase filled with encyclopedias was upended. A heavy glass centerpiece from the fining room table flew up and stuck a cupboard, chipping away a piece of molding before falling to the floor. A world globe shot down a hallway and just missed Detective Tozzi. A newspaper photographer named John Gold from the London Evening News witnessed his flashbulbs lift off a table and fly through the air to strike a wall. In addition, Popper had begun knocking on the walls to get attention, although no attempts to “communicate” with the ghost (if there was one) were ever made.
Tozzi had become concerned about the new violence in the disruptions. Until that point, the activity had been limited to popping bottle tops. He had attempted every possible explanation that he could come up with and while he was not prepared to say the house was “haunted”, he was all out of fresh ideas. About this same time though, the staff of scientists at the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, North Carolina, became interested in the events reported in the Herrmann home. This group of men, under the leadership of Dr. J.B. Rhine had already compiled a mass of evidence that supported the idea that certain people, under the right circumstances, could influence the behavior of objects without touching them. They called it psychokinesis, or PK.
As the disturbances on Long Island continued (and in fact, increased) Dr. Rhine’s assistant, Dr. J. Gaither Pratt, traveled to New York and arrived at the Herrmann house on February 26. Pratt believed that someone in the house was unknowingly causing the strange incidents to occur. Meanwhile, other researchers came to believe that the incidents in the house were being caused by an actual ghost, a poltergeist, or “noisy spirit”. These prankster ghosts traditionally targeted religious items, as the disturbances had done with the holy water and the Virgin Mary figure in the Herrmann house.
On the other hand though, strong evidence remained for the idea that there was a human component behind the haunting. It had been noted by the Rhine researchers (and remember this was new and groundbreaking material at the time) that an adolescent child, usually a girl, was almost always among the members of the household being plagued by poltergeist phenomena. They believed it possible that this young person might be capable of psychokinesis during the height of puberty. In every case though, this person might manifest this without knowing, making them as bewildered as the adults around them. In the case of the Herrmann house, James Jr. (according to Detective Tozzi’s notes) was at or near the scene of the poltergeist disturbance more than 75 percent of the time. For many incidents, he was the sole witness. However, the detective had completely cleared the boy of faking or causing any of the disturbances.
Like the others who came before him, Dr. Pratt was welcomed into the Herrmann residence and greeted warmly. He explained that he had come as an observer and he spent most of the time there chatting with James Jr., playing cards with him, helping him with his homework and generally just being around the young man. There was no sign of strangeness during the visit.... Popper was absolutely quiet.
Pratt then summoned another colleague from North Carolina, William G. Roll. Together, they interviewed the family members and were convinced that none of them were perpetrating a hoax. “The family was much too shaken for it to be a colossal hoax,” Pratt told a United Press reporter.
Things were quite for the next several days, as though the poltergeist did not want to perform for the scientists. Then, on March 2, one month after Popper first arrived, he decided to make himself known again. All of the Herrmann’s were in the house to witness what took place. First, a dish vaulted from the kitchen cabinet and shattered on the floor. Then, a night table flipped over in James’ room. Popper was back and yet there was still no explanation as to who, or what, he was. Two days later, a bowl of flowers slid down the dining room table and jumped into the air. A bookcase turned end over end in the cellar.
But this would not be Popper’s “farewell performance”. That event would occur on March 10 while Mrs. Herrmann, James Jr. and Lucille were getting ready for bed (James Herrmann was away on business). Pratt and Roll suddenly heard a loud popping sound in the cellar and they hurried downstairs to see what it was. The found that a bleach bottle, sitting in a cardboard box, had somehow lost its plastic lid.
For reasons unknown, this became the last act of the Herrmann family poltergeist. There had been a record of 67 recorded disturbances between February 3 and March 10. Unbelievably, the Herrmann’s had been visited by detectives, building inspectors, electricians, plumbers, firemen, parapsychologists and half of the “nutcases” on the east coast and yet none of them had been able to present a satisfactory explanation for what had occurred in their home.
Weeks after the household returned to normal, “experts” still came to investigate and to theorize about what had taken place. As last at August 1985, the scientists at Duke still had no clue as to what had happened and why. By this time though, the Herrmann’s had had enough of investigations and just wanted their lives to get back to normal. James Herrmann no longer cared why the disturbances had taken place, he was just happy they were over.
Mrs. Herrmann told an Associated Press reporter: “I don’t think there is a definite solution. It was just one of those things with no rhyme or reason to it. But there was a definite physical force behind it.”
And what did happen at the Herrmann house on Long Island? No one really knows, as these events remain as puzzling today as they were in 1958!
Sources and Bibliography:
Hauck, Dennis William - Haunted Places: The National Directory (1996)
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen - Encyclopedia of Ghosts & Spirits (2000)
Norman, Michael & Beth Scott - Haunted America (1994)
Steiger, Brad - Strange Guests (1966)
Singer, Kurt - The Unearthly (1965)
Roll, William G. - The Poltergeist (1972)
(C) Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.