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Poltergeists and daemons by Alan Gauld and A. D. Cornell

In this chapter I have adopted the archaic spelling ‘daemon’ instead of the more conventional ‘demon’. I have done so because in popular thought ‘demons’ are quintessentially evil, whereas according to older traditions the term ‘daemon’ may be used of any discarnate non-human intelligence or agency. The latter usage is preferable for our purposes, for in this age the primary question is as to the existence of discarnate non-human intelligences of whatever kind; the question of whether or not some among these putative beings are sufficiently wicked to fulfil the specifications laid down by Christian demonologists is obviously secondary. Though indeed, it might be observed that whilst Christians of many denominations have believed that we live surrounded by invisible hordes of sly demons continually prompting us to evil Christian, dost thou feel them, How they work within? Not a few Christians have thought it probable that there are differing degrees of turpitude even among demons. The thirteenth-century satirist Waiter Map (quoted in Lea’s Materials towards a History of Witchcraft, vol. I, pp. 104-5) represents a fallen angel as speaking thus: Far from us are robberies of property, the overthrowings of cities, the thirst of blood, and the greed for souls, and to desire more than we are able to perform. We are quite satisfied to indulge our lawlessness without occasioning death. We are (I confess) suited for jests and mockery; we arrange illusions, manufacture imagings, create phantasms, so that the truth having been hidden, a vain and ridiculous quarrel may spring up. We can do everything which tends towards laughter, and nothing which tends towards tears. For I am among those exiles from heaven, who without coadjutor or agreement to the sin of Lucifer drifted foolishly after the supporters of the crime.

If poltergeist phenomena are the work of discarnate nonhuman spirits, those spirits must surely be ones thus lukewarm in wickedness. In fact a recent Catholic writer, Sir Shane Leslie, offers the following explanation of why exorcisms so often fail to subdue poltergeists: ‘Exorcism is aimed at Satan and a poltergeist is on a lower or say less sinister level’. Christian views with regard to discarnate non-human intelligences have thus been fairly accommodating, and some writers (of whom Defoe is perhaps the most famous) have combined Christian belief with the opinion that apparitions, poltergeists, premonitory dreams, etc., are the work of spirits neither angelic nor demonic, but as it were morally neutral. At least one talking poltergeist (the famous but implausible ‘Bell witch’, Adams, 1817-21) has given such an account of its own status; which brings me back to my original point - that the term ‘daemon’, being of wider scope, is preferable for most purposes to the term ‘demon’.

It might reasonably be asked at this point why I am bothering with these absurd issues. For it is widely agreed by rational persons today that daemons, good, bad, or morally indifferent, do not exist. It is true, of course, that the last few decades have seen the revival of various superstitions, and that certain clergymen have managed to obtain publicity, and to convince themselves that there remains a job for them to do, by becoming almost professional exorcists (I use this term loosely) of mentally disturbed persons who believe themselves possessed or obsessed, or of houses which the nervous occupants suppose haunted by discarnate entities of malicious bent. But when one investigates the evidence which these clergymen advance in support of the view that daemons indeed exist, one finds not a clear statement of what would constitute such evidence, and why, followed by quantities of evidence of this kind, but simply interpretations of, or ways of looking at, phenomena which could be interpreted or looked at in many other kinds of ways, including ways that have the advantage of according with the general drift of modem science. The same criticisms could, of course, be levelled at psychoanalysis; but that is of itself sufficient to put the exorcists out of court - or so the argument might run.

My reply here is that there are at least two good reasons for looking at the supposed connection between daemons and certain poltergeist cases. The first is that there have undoubtedly been some poltergeist cases in which the phenomena have presented what may be called the facade or outward form of daemonic agency, and that since our concern is with all aspects of the ostensible phenomena that have been labelled ‘poltergeists’, and not with some subset of them selected for reasons of easier credibility or of theoretical convenience, these cases must be looked at and their possible significance considered. The second is one that I have already mentioned, namely that some authorities have attached significance to the fact or supposed fact that since the beginning of the Spiritualist movement in the middle of the last century, poltergeists which have ‘communicated’ by raps and so forth, have mostly done so in the guise of deceased human beings, whereas in earlier centuries, when the religious climate was different, the communications have more often purported to come from daemons. I shall take up each of these matters in turn.

First of all, then, let us examine some sample poltergeist cases in which the phenomena present the outward appearance of being daemonically inspired. Now a preliminary problem here is obviously that of deciding when we shall and shall not say that a case presents this sort of ‘outward form’. It is, at a certain level, not too difficult (as we saw in the last chapter) to lay down criteria of when a case might reasonably be said to have the appearance of originating from a particular deceased person.

But these criteria do not, for the most part, have analogues which could be applied to cases in which a daemon is supposedly at work. We might, perhaps, with Christian notions about devils in mind, look for indications of superhuman wickedness; but it is difficult to imagine any degree of wickedness which could truly be rated beyond human capacity, and it is certain that no poltergeist, daemonic or otherwise, has ever attained it. All in all, I can think of no better criteria than the following decidedly inadequate ones. We may say that in any poltergeist case the phenomena present the ‘outward form’ of daemonic origin if (a) ‘communication’ is established with the phenomena, and the communicating intelligence claims to be that of a daemon, and (b) the phenomena seem to be at least to some extent independent of any particular living person. Such independence could be manifested either through the phenomena taking place without regard to the presence or absence of particular individuals; or through their exhibiting in some direction or another (e.g. ESP, knowledge of foreign languages) powers greatly transcending those of any person on the scene; or, best of all, both.

There is no doubt that in a few poltergeist cases - not as many, however, as has been sometimes supposed- these criteria have been fulfilled. I have selected one case for detailed description. It might, perhaps, be more nearly correct to say that it has selected itself, since in no other case have I found anything even approximating to the contemporary diaries and court records upon which I have been endeavouring to concentrate in this survey. And ‘approximating’ is perhaps the operative word. By a fortunate chance, however, this case is very little known, and is, in addition, one of the most bizarre and the most violent in the literature. Even persons richly endowed with credulity concerning such matters may find that it taxes their resources. It is perhaps the most implausible of the many implausible stories with which we have to deal.

The case in question took place in a Neapolitan monastery, that of the Hieronymites (an ascetic order of hermits), between 4 May 1696 and 30 March 1697. The phenomena centred around a young novice named Carlo Maria Vulcano. He was, we learn from surviving records, of good family, and had entered the monastery aged sixteen, on 22 December 1693. The case was recorded by one of the brothers (we do not know which) who seems to have kept notes of the occurrences, and his account survives (or survived) in two identical contemporary manuscripts, entitled Caso successo in Napoli, nell’anno r696 a 4 maggio nella casa dei P .P. Gerolomini (Case which happened in Naples, in the year 1696 on the 4th of May in the house of the Hieronymite Fathers). One of these manuscripts was obtained by a well-known Italian writer on psychic subjects, Francesco Zingaropoli, and was published by him with introduction and notes in a small and extremely rare book Gesta di uno ‘spirito’ nel monastero dei P.P. Gerolomini in Napoli (Naples, 1904).

The first stirrings of trouble in this case were heard on the night of 4 May 1696 when some stones were thrown in a corridor from which opened the sleeping chambers of Carlo Maria and other novices. The next night Carlo had no sooner retired than there came from the corridor a great commotion of falling stones. Carlo, his fellow novices, and maestro Squillante, the master of the novices, left their rooms, and searched the corridor. They found nothing but the stones on the ground.

However, as soon as they returned to their rooms they heard stones rain down once more. A little later Carlo, by that time in bed, heard movements in his room, and then a plaintive voice that said ‘Give me a Pater Noster for the love of God’. Terrified, he rushed out, screaming ‘Jesus, Jesus, help me, help me’. The other novices, with maestro Squillante, came to his rescue.

Eventually the maestro told him not to be frightened, and went to bless the room. Carlo lay down again in his clothes, with the door open and with a light. However although he wished to go to sleep he saw enter through the door a [figure wearing the] habit of a Benedictine monk, which went through the room with a dreadful voice crying ‘Help, help’, and approaching the bed said ‘Carluccio, Carluccio, give me a de profundis, give me a de profundis’. The young man, terrified but taking courage, came out shouting, and going into the room of the maestro, told him all; with the others they said the de profundis and then all the Rosary for that soul, and at this moment everyone heard [so] great a disturbance that the corridor seemed to have collapsed. After a little nothing more was heard.

Next day, 6 May, stones fell during the morning, ‘now in one room, now in another’, but nothing more was heard until the evening, when the brethren were again trying to go to sleep.

Once again Carlo Maria heard a voice calling ‘Carluccio, Carluccio’. He thought his nerves, disturbed by the previous night’s events, were playing him a trick; but then he heard it say ‘you do not want to reply?’ As it spoke his bedclothes flew into the air and his bed fell; and he saw at the foot of the bed a figure dressed in white with a face the colour of fire, that said ‘you do not know me, nor even will you know me’. Carlo ran to leave the room, and in leaving heard the words ‘listen, listen’. The furniture of his room began to fall over with a great noise, the window flew open, a basin and ewer full of water were broken, without a drop of water falling to the ground.

During the next few days, stones were thrown continually, and the demonio considerably extended the range of his activities.

He beat on doors with great cries; threw around mattresses, sheets and pillows, and flung them down the well; he interfered with divers sacred objects, putting, for example, chamber pots full of excrement before the image of S. Anastasio; he locked doors, and was only by the strongest invocations of God and the Virgin Mary prevailed upon to return the keys; he spattered the unfortunate Carlo with stinking excrement; he took pieces of paving stone and threw them outside at persons taking water from the well, breaking the jugs which they carried; he wrote on walls or pieces of paper whimsical or minatory messages in dubious Latin (which the master of the novices took it upon himself to correct).

On 11 May, in the evening, the master of the novices retired, as the manuscript puts it, ‘to perform his necessity in the communal places’. The demon,
there began to shout loudly. Taking heart [the master] asked who it might be. A smothered voice replied
‘It is 1’.
‘Who are you?’ answered the master, and received the reply
‘I am the devil of the inferno’.
Said [the master]: ‘You are he? You are he?
Filthy beast’. The demon replied, ‘It is not I who .am the beast, it is you’’ which gave the master courage to discourse longer, and among other things he asked him

Master. What do you want of this place?
Demon. I want nothing but to do what God has ordained for me.
Master. And what has God ordained for you?
Demon. To ceaselessly torment that novice.
There followed a long and tedious exchange of theologically toned insults, recorded in detail by the anonymous scribe, who must, one can only suppose, have chanced to be himself in the ‘communal places’ at the time, with writing materials to hand.

On I3 May, after a particularly unpleasant day, Carlo retired for the night to his room and there appeared at the door two brothers, and there placed the relic of the bindings of the cross and of the thorns. That night he saw in the seat near the bed a figure dressed in black with a fiery face, who shouted ‘Now I will make you know who I am.’ Unafraid the novice answered him ‘You can be the Devil himself, but with the help of God I will have no fear of you.’ Carrying the image of Christ, and saying ‘see this Christ, filthy beast’ he threw it in his face. [The demon] gave a frightful burst of activity, which not only made the two brethren flee, but made the other novices and fathers emerge from their rooms. The young man wishing to come out, the demon pulled him back by the cassock. When the names of Jesus and of Mary were called upon, he released him, but left in the cassock the print of a hand. Although great efforts were made to remove this mark, up to the point of cutting the cloth, it proved impossible .... In the morning there was found impressed in that room a dreadful figure in one part and another in another part. They could not be erased; it was necessary to remove the plaster.

The Fathers could stand no more, and sent the lad with his uncle, Padre Pietro Galisio, to Capri, to the house of another uncle, D. Domenico Galisio, where they remained eight days without incident. On 22 May they went to Sorrento to visit the remains of S. Antonio, and while they were there, trouble broke out again. To avoid embarrassing the monks who were their hosts they returned to Naples, and the phenomena at once resumed with even greater violence and malice. Rooms were shaken as if by an earthquake, and structural damage was done.

On one occasion the ceiling of a room in which were Carlo, his uncle, and many Fathers, crashed down amongst them, without, however, hurting anyone. The master of the novices made a command that he should replace the ceiling that he had caused to fall. Then was seen by all (a stupendous thing) the stones and wood of the ceiling to unite themselves and go up in the air like something carried, and to unite with the remainder that had not fallen, leaving, however, a sign of the junction.

Neither an exorcism performed by the most excellent Cardinal Ursini, nor the approach of a rib of S. Felippe succeeded in quieting this intransigent demon. He went into the refectory and broke the dishes. He removed the soft part of the bread and replaced it with horse dung, which some unobservant Fathers attempted to put in their mouths. He tormented Carlo in church, and sometimes when the populace crowded in to see the spectacle, he bound their legs to the balusters, so that when they wished to leave they fell on their faces.

Not knowing what to do the Fathers sent the lad back to Capri on 11· July. All was quiet until2 August, when the boy and his uncle paid a visit to the monastery. Phenomena broke out again, and followed them on their return to Capri the next day. Stones were thrown, doors closed fast, furniture set fire to. They returned to Naples on 4 September, and Carlo was sent there to another house of D. Domenico Galisio’s, in which were living his mother and his brother D. Domenico Vulcano. However, the phenomena continued unabated. Like maestro Squillante, Don Domenico Galisio engaged in a long verbal battle with the demon, which is transcribed word for word in the manuscript.

Between September and December, Carlo was shunted from one refuge to another around the Bay of Naples, without enjoying freedom from the disturbances for more than a week or two at a time. For the most part the phenomena- stone throwing, loud noises, the speaking of articulate sentences, the writing of inscriptions, the throwing of objects, the breaking of crockery, the locking of doors, damage to clothing, furniture and bedding - were of kinds which had already taken place, though assault in the shape of blows (directed mainly at visitors and bystanders) and the production of filth became commoner. I shall confine myself, therefore, to describing some of the more extraordinary and unusual incidents that are said to have taken place.

On 3 October, Carlo and his uncle attended mass in the church of the monastery in which they were staying. Various untoward incidents took place,

but the most prodigious thing was that when Mass was finished, in making the genuflection with his nephew, the evil spirit stitched both of them to the cloth of the altar-step - he sewed the part of the lad’s cassock below the knee, and the part of the uncle’s surplice beneath both knees. In rising they carried away the said altar cloth to the amusement of all those monks and others in the church.
The clothes were so well sewn together that they were difficult to separate. At some unspecified date after this, a visitor to Capri, Father D. Felippo Pisani, found that some pouches in the clothes which he had left in his room had been torn open and money removed from them. He could not find the money anywhere. However,

Towards evening they all went for a walk outside. They saw outside a certain beautiful peach-tree. Father Felippo pulled down four peaches. Cutting one open he found inside one of those [missing] dubloons. He opened another and found another, but he did not find the silver. Afterwards in the house, cutting a watermelon, he found [the silver coins] there, but less five.

A few days afterwards Father Pietro, wishing to perform an exorcism, found that he had left his book in Naples, which greatly vexed him; he commenced to pray, and while he was so doing, [the demon] flung the book at his feet, saying: ‘to my great confusion, I am obliged by that accursed name of that lad to bring you this book’.

On 18 October, when the boy was staying at the house of his uncle, D. Domenico Galisio, in Naples.

There was then heard a great noise in a room where there was a janitor who did not see very well. Summoning up courage, they went to investigate, and found a black robe with a sheet over the shoulder, which moved. It was nothing other than a man, made up of pieces of cloth - this was what presented itself. By means of exorcism they made it disintegrate. But after some time it re-assembled, and turned over the table with its hands. A prayer on behalf of God brought it on its knees in the middle of the room . . . . It was a miraculous and frightful thing to see that man of cloth, having travelled a considerable distance, then fall upon its knees in the middle of the room, as though it had been ordained, and finally disintegrate. Inside the room they found only those pieces of cloth and the sheet of which it was composed.

The nearest parallel which I can recall to this extraordinary and implausible story, comes from the case at Orton (1849), in which hanging coats and cloaks are said to have ‘come alive’

Fifteen apparitions have I seen;
The worst a coat upon a coat-hanger.

From 19 November until 10 December, all remained quiet, and on 17 December they ventured to return to the house of the Hieronymites in Naples. Again, all remained quiet until 2 January 1697, when phenomena of the usual kinds broke out again, and also one or two less usual ones. For instance, the demon is said to have thrown a book which broke as though made of glass. On 12 January the boy was sent back to his home, but the troublesome happenings continued. Fumigations were tried; and the demon countered with a chamber pot full of stinking excrement, above which was the inscription ‘For such a deity, such a perfume’. The demon also several times showed himself in the house in the shape of the lad, who was at mass. In that guise he beat Carlo’s brother and vexed his mother.

There ensued a period of quiet from 18 January to 29 March, at which point Carlo returned to the monastery. At once the phenomena broke out again with all their old force. On 30 March a decision was taken that Carlo should give up all thought of the monastic life. The demon disappeared forever.

It is extremely difficult to know what to say of this singular tale.

The first reaction of many even among those parapsychologists who accept the genuineness of certain poltergeist cases will be to reject it in toto. The narrative has many shortcomings- we do not know who the author was, or what were his immediate sources, and he quite commonly fails to give details which we should dearly like to have. Again some of the phenomena - the reuniting of fragmented objects, the moving cloth figure, the breaking of a book ‘like glass’, the manifestation of the agent’s double - have, so far as I am aware, no parallels from other cases, and this is bound to lessen the credibility of the whole tale. On the other hand, Mr George Zorab, the only writer I know of who has described the case in English (Journal of the American SPR, vol. 67, 1973, pp. 404-5), thinks that one can plausibly assimilate it to other cases in which a poltergeist agent’s inner conflicts work themselves out in the form of physical phenomena external to his body. He supposes, of course, that Carlo’s problems arose over his projected future as a monk. Again, it might reasonably be remarked that while certain phenomena in this case are without parallel, most of them have many analogues. In fact it is not at all difficult to find cases which have nearly all the features of the Naples one, even though in the latter the phenomena seem to have been usually well developed.

To illustrate this point, let us briefly consider the leading features of a much better known Scottish case, the Rerrick case of 1695. Though this case is nearly contemporary with the one I have just described, it contrasts interestingly with it in cultural and religious setting, and is evidentially much stronger. It is described in a pamphlet by one of the principal witnesses, Alexander Telfair, the minister of Rerrick (a parish abutting on the sea, immediately to the east of the town of Kirkcudbright on the northern shore of the Solway Firth). This pamphlet was published at Edinburgh in 1696 and is entitled A True Relation of an Apparition, Expressions and Actings of a Spirit, which Infested the House of Andrew Mackie in Ring-Croft of Stocking, In the Paroch of Rerrick .... It is, of course, extremely scarce, but has been several times reprinted - as an appendix to Robert Law’s Memorialls (Edinburgh, 1818), in the appendix to C. K. Sharpe’s A Historical Account of the Belief in Witchcraft in Scotland (London, 1884), and, perhaps most conveniently, in the supplement to G. Sinclar’s Satan’s Invisible World Discovered (Edinburgh, 1871). A summary and extracts are given in the third volume of Robert Chamber’s The Domestic Annals of Scotland (London, 1861). An anglicized version of the pamphlet appeared in London in 1696, and is utilized by Harry Price for the account of the case in his popular Poltergeist over England (London, 1945).

Mr Telfair, the author, presents his account in the form of a diary or chronological record of events, and we can safely assume, though it is not explicitly stated, that it is based upon contemporary notes. The report of each leading incident is accompanied by the names of the witnesses who ‘attest’ it, and at the end comes a statement by fourteen of these witnesses (they include five ministers and several local landowners), who ‘attest’ the relation ‘as to what they particularly saw, heard, and felt’.

The occupant of the troubled house, a small farm-house named Ringcroft, on the estate of Collin, in Rerrick, was Andrew Mackie, a married man with children, and a mason by trade. He is spoken of as a man ‘honest, civil, and harmless beyond many of his neighbours’; and yet from mid-February 1695 to I May of the same year his house was the scene of terrifying and even dangerous poltergeist phenomena.

“Poltergeists and daemons” is an extract from Poltergeists by Alan Gauld and A. D. Cornell, published by White Crow Books.


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