Poltergeist

by Nick

A Halloween ghost story, from a pamphlet I came across on EEBO a while ago.

The year is 1645. Our protagonist is Paul Fox, a silk-weaver, who lived in Plaistow in the parish of West Ham, about four miles from London. He’s a man of “honest life and conversation”, with a wife, children and servants.

His troubles started when a sword hung in one of his rooms:

came flourishing about the roome, flying up and downe, no hand touching of it, nor any thing but the Sword possibly appearing.

Fox grabbed hold of it and, struggling to keep it in his hand, ran with it into the next room and put it down on a bench. Then he went back into the original room and locked the door, only for the sword to reappear there with no obvious sign of how it had got through the door.

This incident proved the start of a great deal of poltergeist activity. A walking stick hopped from the kitchen up the stairs, and danced around a table on which the sword lay for nearly ten minutes. Another evening, Fox was disturbed by a loud knocking on the door. Asking who it was, a soft hollow voice announced that it was a spirit, who wanted to live in the house. Fox bravely replied that:

He thought it to be an evill Spirit nd that he had nothing to doe there, wishing it to returne to Hell Gates, where hee thought he might have entrance without knocking.

Another day, when Fox, his sons and his servants were hard at work, objects like tiles, brickbats, oyster shells and pieces of bread started whirling round the room breaking all the glass in the windows. A great stone, “of about halfe a hundred weight”, lifted itself up from the yard and tumbled up the stairs. Fox’s wife was disturbed while making porridge: the porridge suddenly forced itself out of the pot and sprayed itself around the room.

Hundreds of people came to watch the strange events in Fox’s house. Some gentry even gave Fox money in return for seeing the strange sights. Fox put the money in a handkerchief, only for the money to fly out into the middle of the room. Only Fox’s collection of godly books escaped unscathed. When the spirit tried to scatter Fox’s book collection, other papers and books fell victim to the poltergeist, but the Bible and Fox’s other religious tracts were left untouched.

Many “Ministers, Gentlemen & great Scholers” were called to try to account for the wondrous events in Fox’s house, but none was able to. As the writer relating Fox’s tale concluded:

That which is manifest appertaineth to us, and our children, but hidden things belong unto God.

But the author also notes in closing other events in Essex: the Assizes which had reslted in many witches being condemned and executed. Were Fox’s misfortunes the result of “wicked persons”, in “confederacy with the Devill”, setting out to “make spoyle and havock of their neighbours goods”? Or is it as the author concludes:

There cannot any solid reason be given from where [these events] exceed.

My illustration is of a child levitating and is a woodcut from the frontispiece of Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus (1681).

1. Anonymous, Strange and fearfull newes from Plaisto (London, 1645).