“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw
Hey, poltergeists. Would you stop throwing stuff, knocking about, and frightening folks and explain yourselves? I mean, we’re all about righting wrongs, punishing the guilty, apologizing for transgressions, and helping you into the light, but your tendency towards unspecific tantrums do not befit a respectable spirit, particularly if you died in adulthood. Plenty of ghostly apparitions have found ways to communicate productively. Get over your undead selves, stop the spectral shenanigans, and use your words.
Case in point, the 1806 Prussian poltergeist raising a ruckus for Privy Councilor Hahn and numerous other witnesses at the Castle of Slawensik in Upper Silesia. We still have no clear idea what the phantom was on about. Slawensik was the property of the Prussian aristocrat Frederick Louis, Prince of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen, who after the disastrous Prussian defeat and surrender to the French at the Battle of Prenzlau (October 28, 1806) was being held as a prisoner of war by Napoleon Bonaparte. The prince was well-treated, but expected to be held captive for quite some time (two years, as it turned out), and asked his trusted advisor Councilor Hahn to housesit his castle in the interim. Hahn accepted his mission, and enlisted his bosom buddy and recently paroled (swearing not to take up arms against the French again for the duration of the War) Prussian Hussar Charles Kern to accompany him and relax in the luxurious accommodations at Slawensik for the winter.
Neither Hahn, nor Kern were known as superstitious men. Kern was a grizzled veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. Hahn was a hard-nosed politico and Prussian patriot, who had studied philosophy under Johann Gottlieb Fichte, founding figure of German Idealism and an admirer of Kant, minus Kant’s emphasis on supra-sensible reality beyond the categories of human reason. Standards of philosophical education being somewhat higher then than they are today, Hahn was the sort of learned fellow who found some redeeming qualities in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, but thought it also contained a lot of crap. In short, a pretty solid materialist. Hahn and Kern had been friends since their youth, and not wanting to make too much of a mess in the Prince’s house, they settled into an apartment on the first floor of Castle Slawensik, attended to by Hahn’s servant and two of the Prince’s coachmen. Not a bad place to ride out the remainder of the War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-1807). Or so they thought.
While Prussian castles are usually good fodder for a haunting, Slawensik had a remarkably mundane history, and prior to 1806 had never been associated with preternatural goings on. Three days after Hahn and Kern took up residence, a poltergeist decided to get busy.
On the third evening after their arrival in the castle, the two friends were sitting reading at a table in the middle of the room. About nine o’clock their occupation was interrupted by the frequent falling of small bits of lime over the room. They examined the ceiling, but could perceive no signs of their having fallen thence. As they were conversing of this, still larger pieces of lime fell around them. This lime was cold to the touch, as if detached from an outside wall. They finally set it down to the account of the old walls of the castle, and went to bed and to sleep. The next morning they were astonished at the quantity of lime that covered the floor, the more so as they could not perceive on walls or ceiling the slightest appearance of injury. By evening, however, the incident was forgotten, until not only the same phenomenon recurred, but bits of lime were thrown about the room, several of which struck Hahn. At the same time loud knockings, like the reports of distant artillery, were heard, sometimes as if on the floor, sometimes as if on the ceiling. Again the friends went to bed; but the loudness of the knocks prevented their sleeping. Kern accused Hahn of causing the knockings by striking on the boards that formed the under portion of his bedstead, and was not convinced of the contrary till he had taken the light and examined for himself. Then Hahn conceived a similar suspicion of Kern. The dispute was settled by both rising and standing close together, during which time the knockings continued as before. Next evening, besides the throwing of lime and the knockings, they heard another sound, resembling the distant beating of a drum (Owen, 1860, p243-244).
Hahn and Kern were educated gentlemen of a practical bent, so they decided on a little investigation and experimentation, obtaining the keys to the rooms above and below from the caretaker of the castle, Madame Knittel. The room above was entirely empty and the cellar beneath held a kitchen. Try as they might, they could not reproduce the effects of the previous evening, jokingly concluding that “the place was haunted”, and resolving to let it trouble them no more. This cavalier attitude to supernatural feats seemed to irritate the poltergeist, as the next evening the disturbances escalated. Freaking poltergeists have a little Fatal Attraction thing going. If you ignore them they’ll up the ante and boil your bunny. “Knives, spoons, snuffers, and all manner of small objects were ﬂung about; occasionally objects were seen to rise from the table and fall on to the ground. The disturbances lasted for about two months, and the nuisance ﬁnally became so great that the young men had to move to other apartments” (Podmore, 1902, p28). Assuming a change of venue would finally assure them of a good night’s sleep turns out to have been wishful thinking, as things just got weirder when they moved into the apartment above (in addition to the continued sounds and levitating objects). Hahn awoke one night to Kern pale and trembling before a mirror, especially odd due to Kern’s reputation for immense courage.
Hahn, thinking that he had been suddenly taken ill from the cold, hastened to him and threw a cloak over his shoulders. Then Kern, naturally a fearless man, took courage, and related to his friend, though still with quivering lips, that he had seen in the mirror the appearance of a female figure, in white, looking at him, and apparently before him, for he could see the reflection of himself behind it. It was some time before he could persuade himself that he really saw this figure; and for that reason he remained so long before the glass. Willingly would he have believed that it was a mere trick of his imagination; but as the figure looked at him full in the face, and he could perceive its eyes move, a shudder passed over him, and he turned away. Hahn instantly went to the mirror and called upon the image to show itself to him; but, though he remained a quarter of an hour before it, and often repeated his invocation, he saw nothing (Williamson, 1867, p249).
Word spread that strange things were afoot at Castle Slawensik, and two Bavarian officers of dragoons in the neighborhood named Cornet and Magerle volunteered to investigate. After a night of being pelted with stones and ducking utensils thrown by an unseen force, as well as a saber battle with an invisible foe that damaged the furniture, they opted out. Other intrepid ghost hunters also took their turn, from a bookseller named Dorfel to a Ranger named Radezensky to local Police Inspector Knetch, and each experienced the same sort of phantasmagoric antics. And as suddenly as the poltergeist appeared, when Hahn and Kern had finally had enough and moved to yet another room to escape these spectral fits, the activity ceased (although for a few days after, Hahn admitted they still heard objects being hurled about in their previous quarters).
Noted German physician and poet Justinus Kerner (1786-1862) corresponded with Hahn, and indicated that a respectable investigator from Stuttgart went to Slawensik in 1830, contacting numerous other witnesses to the strange activity between 1806-1807 at Castle Slawensik, all of which confirmed Hahn’s description of events. Sadly, by that time Slawensik had been hit by lightning and burned to the ground. The locals, as they sifted through the ruins reported that they discovered a male skeleton walled into a secret room without a coffin. The skeleton’s skull had been split open, and a sword lay nearby.
The moral of this story, for those readers who happen to be poltergeists or poltergeist-curious, is that if you experienced some injustice that requires redress from the afterlife, it’s probably best to work on your communication skills, otherwise you are just making a nuisance of your spirit self without giving us the information we need to help you rest in peace. Just make sure you never say anything clearly when being recorded on Ghost Hunters. It ruins the mystery.
Desertis, V. C. Psychic Philosophy As the Foundation of a Religion of Natural Law. 2nd ed. London: Philip Wellby, 1901.
Howitt, William, 1792-1879. Throwing of Stones And Other Substances by Spirits. London: Printed by T. Scott, 1865.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. Footfalls On the Boundary of Another World. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1860.
Podmore, Frank, 1856-1910. Modern Spiritualism: a History And a Criticism. London: Methuen & co., 1902.
Wallace, Alfred R. “Correspondences”. Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). Journal of the Society for Psychical Research v9 (Feb). London: Society for Psychical Research, 1899.
Williamson, M. J. The Invisibles: an Explanation of Phenomena Commonly Called Spiritual. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1867.
Williamson, M. J., 19th cent. Modern Diabolism: Commonly Called Modern Spiritualism; With New Theories of Light, Heat, Electricity, And Sound. New York: J. Miller, 1873.