- ENIGMA OF AMERICAN POLTERGEISTS -
THE PORTSMOUTH POLTERGEIST
A Noisy Ghost Wreaked Havoc in a Virginia Home in 1962
Mrs. Charles Daughtery had never seen anything like it in her 100 years of life (“give or take a few years”, she said) when after just finishing making the bed, the covers and the mattress suddenly flew off in her direction! This was on Thursday afternoon, September 6, 1962 and it was on this day that her once peaceful Portsmouth, Virginia home would change in ways that would alter her perceptions of the world forever.
It was a quiet afternoon on Florida Avenue in Portsmouth, or at least it had been before the bed covers began to behave so erratically. Following the bizarre behavior of the mattress and comforter, a nearby bedroom dresser suddenly crashed over to the floor. A vase flew off the mantle in the parlor and smashed a window that was located seven feet away. A bottle of insecticide sailed from a shelf next to the washing machine and struck Mrs. Daughtery on the back of the head. Moments later, a kitchen cabinet popped open and salt and pepper shakers jumped out and landed on the counter. They vibrated for a moment and then danced down the counter top to music it seemed only they could hear.
Mrs. Daughtery’s 13 year-old great, great grandson, Cleveland Harmon, who lived with her and her husband, was dumped out of a chair and his school books literally flapped around the room like angry birds. A neighbor, attracted by the crashing sounds and the cries of alarm, came rushing over to the house to be confronted with the sight of a pipe that drifted out of a bedroom and then down a hallway to the kitchen.
Finally, as most people do when they are facing something beyond their understand, the Daughtery’s called the police. The first officers arrived on the scene a few hours after the first incident, around 7:00 PM, and were puzzled (and more than a little skeptical) about the events that were being described. Convinced that a prankster was preying on the elderly couple, the officers sent a police dog for an inspection of the premises. The dog found nothing, but his handler was struck hard on the leg by some sort of object. No one discovered what it was or where it came from. Mrs. Daughtery warned him, “You stay around here, you get hit by a lot of stuff.”
The strange happenings continued over the course of the next few evenings, totally disrupting the lives of Mrs. Daughtery, her grandson and her 90 year-old husband, Charles. Mrs. Daughtery believed that at her age (she had been born into slavery around 1862), she had seen everything, but her “housebreaking ghost” was just getting started.
On both Friday and Saturday evenings, the strange events began again. On both nights, it started around 4:00 PM and continued for several hours afterward. It began with the bang and clatter of objects being thrown around the house. Pipes, tobacco tins, books, vases, lamps and just about anything that was lying around loose was fair game. Items moved suddenly and with great speed and force. A stool jumped from the floor to shatter a ceiling light. A skillet hurtled from the stove to a chair by a window. Every window on one side of the house was shattered and the glass was broken out of the front door. On Saturday, things were not as lively as they had been, but objects were still moving about on their own and at one point, several picture frames began spinning in circles on the wall.
The police were again summoned to the house but they again left without filing ay reports on the strange events. In this time period, most departments would not have taken seriously the bizarre reports they were receiving, especially from an elderly African-American couple. Within a few days though, the officers would be wishing that they had listened to the store a little more closely!
On Sunday, the activity slowed down a little and the poltergeist contented itself with breaking two more windows and by throwing ripe tomatoes with excellent aim. Two pieces of the fruit struck Charles and Cleveland right in the center of their chests! No one had seen the tomatoes being thrown.
Talk of strange things happening in the Daughterly house began making the rounds of the neighborhood and soon the rumors reached the ears of the local newspaper. Joseph V. Phillips, a report for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, went over the house on Florida Avenue and left after dodging a number of flying household items. “I didn’t believe in ghosts - until today!” he said.
Phillips had heard reports of a carpet that rose eerily off the floor by itself, of vases and pictures that flew and smashed and other activities of normally inanimate objects. Not believing in such nonsense, he went to the house to see for himself and he took a photographer along with him. Neither man expected to see anything out of the ordinary and soon were in for quite a shock.
Phillips arrived at the same time as a nurse named Marion Bivens, who had come to check on Mr. Daughtery’s high blood pressure. She and Phillips were leaning against a buffet talking when she suddenly cried out and asked the reporter if he had felt the piece of furniture move. He had not and frankly, blamed the nurse’s outburst on an overactive imagination. She appeared to be quite scared though, but Phillips had felt nothing strange. He remained skeptical - but that was soon to change.
Just moments after Mrs. Bivens stated that the buffet had moved, Phillips saw a vase that he had recently handled suddenly jump of the mantle in the living room and hit the wall in the hallway at the front of the house. It had to round a corner to be able to land at that spot and while he knew that he had seen no one touch the vase, he realized that no one could have thrown it to make it shatter in such a manner. Regardless, the reporter ran into the living room, only to discover that no one was there. He started back into the dining room and as he crossed into the room, a cup that had been sitting on the buffet landed at his feet. The photographer had seen it land there as well, but Phillips couldn’t help but question where Mrs. Bivens had been as he had left her in the dining room. He looked to find the room empty though - after the vase had vaulted from the mantle, the nurse had fled the house!
Phillips was shocked to say the least. He later stated: “There had been seven people present and they were all in my full view when the cup crashed on the floor. I felt my hair stand on end. Then I saw an empty tobacco can fly toward me from the buffet. It was in the air when I saw it. It crashed and rolled to the floor at my feet.”
Phillips may have been unnerved by these events, but he reported that Mrs. Daughtery remained calm in the face of the unknown. “I’m not nervous,” she told him, “and I’m not afraid of ghosts.” And while she may not have been terrified by the idea of phantoms, she was scared of the crowds that began to appear outside of her home after Phillips’ story appeared in the local newspaper. The police were quickly summoned to keep the street open in front and they estimated that nearly 10,000 people visited the neighborhood, in groups of 600 to 700 at a time. They milled about and asked to be let inside of the house to see the ghost. Four of these would-be ghost hunter were arrested for being drunk and for disorderly conduct. The police finally cordoned off the area around the house to keep the spectators from walking on the porch and peering in the windows. It got so bad that 12 patrolmen and two police dogs were kept on duty outside the home for several days.
On September 9, the Daughtery’s, who had not been frightened away by the ghost, decided to move out of the house until order had been restored to the neighborhood. They hoped that if they left, the crowds outside would lose interest. “I’m not going around those people anymore,” Mrs. Daughtery said. “There’s nothing to see on the streets and I don’t want them in my house.”
Within a few days, a lone patrolman, still on duty in front of the house where excited thousands had come just days before, finally reported that it was “all quiet.” The streets were empty except for a few neighbors, a paddy wagon and a squad car. The roadblocks and cordon of ropes remained in place though. A crude, red-lettered sign had been tacked up on the front porch. “Keep Away”, it read.
But what caused the bizarre outbreaks in 1962? According to the Reverend Fred Jordan, who was then a retired Navy man and a practicing Spiritualist since the 1920’s, the events were caused by an “earthbound spirit who has been provoked into physical manifestations by recent events in the household.” He further explained that the spirit had picked the Daughtery house in which to wreak havoc because “Mrs. Daughtery has mediumistic powers that she is not aware of. The powers are physical - chemical - as well as spiritual. Without the presence of a medium, a spirit could not make his presence physically known.”
When he was asked if the phenomena would continue in the house, Jordan replied that it likely would not. “I think the lesson has been learned that the spirit is trying to impart.” Unfortunately, Jordan never made clear just what the recent events in the household had been that might have provoked the outbreak or what lesson he believed the spirit had been trying to pass on.
On September 11, a contingent of scientists arrived in Portsmouth from the Duke University Institute of Parapsychology in Durham, North Carolina. They announced to the newspapers that they hoped they were not too late to try and record the reported happenings. The group consisted of Dr. T.J. Pratt of Duke, Hugh Lynn Cayce of the Society for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach, and William G. Roll from the Psychical Research Foundation, also in Durham.
Dr. Roll would later lament that the researchers arrived too late to really ascertain what had been happening in the Daughtery house. When the group arrived in town, the family was still staying with relatives, although they did agree to come back to the house for interviews and for study. Roll stated that there were a few occurrences that took place that may have been caused normally, but there was no way to be sure. The experiments didn’t last for long though. When some of the curiosity-seekers learned that the Daughtery’s had come back to the house, they returned to the street outside and began again asking to come inside. Finally, the frenzy outside reached the point where several of the onlookers actually broke into the house and threw some of the household furniture out of the windows! Such severe damage was done that the Daughtery’s finally moved out of the house completely.
It was a sad ending to the case and this remains one of the many poltergeist cases in American history that has remained unsolved. No real clues remain as to what may have caused the outbreak, aside from Rev. Jordan’s opinion that it was caused by a restless ghost and some statements from Dr. Pratt after he, Dr. Roll and Hugh Lynn Cayce visited the house. Pratt felt that the reports in the case were fairly typical of the other poltergeist cases that he had studied. By “typical” he meant that objects had been reported to move about and that there had been a teenager’s presence in the house. In this case, like many others, it was noted that the boy was unhappy and disturbed and that this may have been the cause of the violent, seemingly supernatural, actions. However, no details were ever released about Cleveland Harmon and we can only guess at what sort of circumstances would have the young boy living with his quite elderly great, great grandparents.
The startling events that occurred in Portsmouth remain unsolved.
Sources & Bibliography:
Roll, William - The Poltergeist (1972)
(C) Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.