“There are only two types of people in the world, those who can extrapolate from incomplete data…” – GrouchyRabbit.com

Poltergeists don’t respect your work.

Aren’t you pleased science solved that pesky Yeti problem?  That one’s been bugging me abominably for years.  Sure they only genetically tested eight purported samples of Yeti detritus, and they turned out to be seven shiftless, poser bears and one dog with an identity crisis, but for god’s sakes have some faith in statistical power when it comes to small sample sizes.  After all, the fact that a large portion of academic psychological literature out there is based on a sample of college students forced to participate for Psych 101 credit, doesn’t discredit the results in other populations.  It doesn’t, does it?  Pack your bags, Bigfoot and Sasquatch.  They’re coming for you next, baby.

Anomalistics and the struggle to comprehend strange phenomena have always suffered from a kind of skeptical terrorism – the skeptics only have to get it right once, and things are deemed to have fallen apart in the face of overwhelming reality, whereas the anomalist must always be right in order to support their view of the phenomenal or noumenal.  An excellent example of this is the 1906 case of suburban Vienna’s Poltergeist of Lerchenfelderstrasse 158, an occurrence superficially investigated by the local police who concluded it was a pointless hoax, but rigorously examined by Society for Psychical Research member Mr. August Wärndorfer (1865-1940) who begged to differ.

First, a little about the esteemed August Wärndorfer.  Unless, I miss my mark, and information on him is very sparse, the “A. Wärndorfer” who looked into the Vienna poltergeist was the son of Samuel Wärndorfer and brother to Fritz Wärndorfer (a founding member of the Wiener Werkstätte, a popular production community of visual artists), all of whom were part of an industrialist family which owned one of the largest cotton processing enterprises of the Austrian monarchy.  In short, he probably wasn’t some dude off the street, although it seems between him and his brother, he might have been the slacker.  The Wärndorfers commissioned a frieze in their villa’s Vienna music salon based on the poetry of Maurice Maeterlinck, so I’m thinking we’ve got the right guy.  But as with many investigations of strange phenomena, often the investigator is remembered more than the folks who experienced the phenomena, and such is the case with the people at the center of the experience, in this instance, a humble 63-year-old blacksmith named Zimmerl and his two youthful apprentices (ages 15 and 18).

It was 1906, and blacksmith’s were still the go-to guys for metalwork.  Mr. Zimmerl, proprietor of the establishment at Lerchenfelderstrasse 158, had a life threatening poltergeist problem.  A blacksmith workshop is probably the worst place you can have a poltergeist given all the heavy and sharp objects idly laying about.  I suppose a nuclear power plant might not be ideal either.  Or a gun factory.  Okay, so there are a bunch of places where an angry spirit could do some serious damage, above and beyond sucking your daughter into the television set, but a blacksmith’s certainly provides ample dangerous projectiles should a phantom decide to start getting uppity.

Zimmerl employed only two apprentices and all were alarmed by the flying about of tools and pieces of iron which occasionally struck and hurt them. The smith was at first suspicious of the boys and watched them, but found that things still flew about in various directions even when they were outside the shop. On one occasion the smith’s pipe was taken from his mouth, and was seen to flutter to the lathe (Holms, 1927, p246-247).

Ghosts hurling heavy metal objects at your head can be a bit unsettling, but taking a man’s pipe is beyond the pale.  Who you going to call?  Ghostbusters wouldn’t be released for another 78 years.  You had to settle for the local representative of the Society for Psychical Research, who sadly never cottoned to the notion of bringing along a proton pack.  The poltergeist at Lerchenfelderstrasse 158 had already been publicized with much mirth in the Vienna newspapers and the local representative for the Society, August Wärndorfer, living nearby in Baden, was sent to investigate, filing an eye-witness report that appeared in the May 1907 S.P.R Journal.  At the time, Miss A. Johnson (Research Officer of the S.P.R.), commented on Wärndorfer’s qualifications.  “Mr. Wärndorfer, whom I know personally, is an unusually cool-headed and competent observer, and a very intelligent and open-minded man. He is genuinely interested in psychical research, and would, I feel sure, be prepared to give an impartial account of anything he witnessed. Mr. Wärndorfer is not convinced of the genuineness of this case, or of any telekinetic phenomena; what it amounts to is that he investigated this case carefully, and did not discover any fraud in it” (Barrett, 1911, p406-408).  The local police had already investigated the matter and had as of yet been unable to find any way to account for the strange disturbances.

Mr. Wärndorfer first arrived at Zimmerl’s smithy on July 16th, 1906, and began his inquiry, interviewing Zimmerl and the two apprentices, who by this time, in fear for their safety had put all the shop tools into crates and left them outside, pulling out only what they needed at any given time to deprive the poltergeist of ammunition.  This of course was not an optimal setup for running a blacksmith shop. Wärndorfer personally witnessed dozens of objects thrown about when he was “perfectly certain none of the persons present could have thrown them” and at least three times was personally hit in the head.  He gave detailed reports of at least five times when in perfect daylight he saw the inexplicable movement of various objects.

One of these cases was as follows: A small glazed picture which he had seen hanging on the wall a few minutes before came fluttering through the air to the middle of the shop, where it fell on the floor, but did not break; in fact, it moved like a sheet of paper. At the time he was standing about a yard and a half in front of the picture, nobody being near it, nor in that part of the shop through which it moved. He did not see it leave its place, but saw it when it was about a couple of yards from where it alighted. Mr. Wärndorfer adds that he thinks “it would be very difficult, though not impossible, to throw or drop such a picture without its breaking.” Another incident witnessed by Mr. Wärndorfer occurred when the smith was out of the shop and the two apprentices were drilling a hole in a piece of iron. He was watching their slow work and noticed that their four hands were all engaged at their work; of this he was “perfectly certain,” when suddenly one of the boys screamed with pain; a pair of big iron compasses, which had been lying on the work-bench a yard behind the boy, had flown across and hit the boy sharply on the temple, causing a swelling and a little blood. Mr. Wärndorfer saw the iron compasses ricocheting as it were off the boy’s head and falling to the ground (Barrett, 1911, p406-408).

Wärndorfer made repeated visits to Zimmerl’s shop, spending a total of 12 days there (usually for the whole day) over the next few weeks.  As the phenomena continued, Wärndorfer continued to file reports with the Society for Psychical Research, uncovering additional details from other sources.

P.S.—I forgot to mention that it was found out by one of the reporters that at the beginning of this year a man who lived in a small room just above the shop with his parents, complained about his furniture being moved about, an ink-bottle being spilt (the same happened in the shop, Z.’s hat and shirt being covered with ink), the door of his cupboard being thrown open suddenly, etc. His parents thought he had gone mad, and did not attach any importance to his words. He left the room about March (Wärndorfer, 1907, p66).

In the middle of August 1906, Wärndorfer left Vienna temporarily, but upon his return, he was told that the whole poltergeist matter had been cleared up as a swindle perpetrated by one of the apprentices (for no purpose whatsoever).  The apprentice was arrested and fined, and newspapers reported that he had confessed (which was entirely untrue).  The suspected apprentice approached Wärndorfer and earnestly begged his assistance in clearing his name, as he was entirely innocent of the whole affair, had never confessed to anything, and had only admitted to once unsuccessfully trying to reproduce the effects of the poltergeist when nobody was around (presumably to try and convince himself that it wasn’t a poltergeist). Wärndorfer was agreeable to appearing as a witness to the events, but the courts never called him.

The next day I went to the police court, where I was met with all the gentle affability which, I suppose, is considered due to a harmless lunatic not dressed in rags. I managed to see the inspector who had charge of the affair. He told me that a detective had for some time been at the shop, and on the day of the capture had noticed that one of the boys, the one who had always been considered the medium, put his right hand frequently into his coat pocket; and, watching him, saw that at the moment the boy took a handkerchief out of his pocket an iron ring flew against the wall. Thereon the boy was arrested. The inspector confirmed the statement that the boys had denied all guilt. I was not asked as witness when the case was heard. The judge, very rightly I think, would not have any discussion on occult matters in court, fined the boy 3 kronen (about 2s. 6d.), and dismissed the whole case in less than ten minutes. I have not heard anything of a recurrence of spooks at the shop, though Z. had promised to send me word if anything happened. The last time I saw him I asked him whether he had not told me of phenomena he had himself observed, of which the apprentices could not have been the cause. This he admitted unwillingly, but said that as everything was all right since the boys had left, they must have been the cause. This ending of the spook naturally did not prove anything to me, and I will give you the cases that seem to me important as evidence among the phenomena personally observed, including my observations of curious traces left by other phenomena, and some of the occurrences told to me by witnesses March (Wärndorfer, 1907, p72-73).

Most poltergeist cases seem to be centered on a particular individual, and it is commonly an adolescent, who is usually also suspected of engineering the events with the acumen of a skilled stage magician.  As Wärndorfer points out, the evidence upon which the young apprentice was eventually fined for causing a disturbance was dubious at best, and the two months of bizarre phenomena with multiple witnesses, were largely ignored.  Sadly, that’s the life of a psychical researcher, months of investigation followed by a disheartening denouement where skeptics dismiss the case in ten minutes on the basis of an “obvious” explanation, because after all, the “occult” does not exist.

Extrapolation from thin facts, a crime of which anomalists are often accused by skeptics, is actually a hallmark of skepticism and scientism.  Mark Twain probably said it best, remarking, “In the space of one hundred and seventy six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over a mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oölitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-pole. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo, Illinois and New Orleans will have joined their streets together and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact” (Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1884).

Barrett, W.F.  “The Vienna Poltergeist”. Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research v25. London: Trübner and Co., 1911.
Holms, A. Campbell. The Facts of Psychic Science and Philosophy. Jamaica, N.Y.: Occult Press, 1927.
Wärndorfer, A.  “Report of a Poltergeist Case”. Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research v13. London: Trübner and Co., 1907.