POPPER THE POLTERGEIST
AMERICA'S FIRST PARANORMAL REALITY SHOW
In February 1958, strange things were happening on Long Island. A house belonging to a family named Herrmann was being beset by strange and inexplicable incidents that were attributed to a ghost who was dubbed “Popper” (for reasons that will soon become obvious). But what was really happening in the house? Was it an unseen force from beyond -- or was it something else? On this date, February 26, Popper even got the attention of researchers from J.B. Rhine’s famous parapsychology lab at Duke University, but they came no closer to solving the mystery than anyone else.
The “Popper” case remains unique in the annals of the supernatural for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this became the first haunting that was actually shown on television. Wide-eyed audiences all across the country stared at their television screens in amazement as Popper literally performed for the cameras. These films became the ghost’s claim to fame, but were only a small part of the weird happenings!
Popper first made himself known at around 3:30 in the afternoon of February 3, 1958. The James Herrmann family lived in Seaford, New York, a suburb on Long Island, about 30 miles from New York City. Their white and green ranch-style home at 1648 Redwood Path had been built in 1953 and contained three bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, a small dining room, a living room and a basement that was divided between a utility room and a playroom. In other words, it was a typical 1950s-era home in a quiet, conservative neighborhood with public parks and tree-lined streets. It was the last place that you would expect anything out of the ordinary to occur.
That February 3 was a day like most any other. It was clear and cold outside and Lucille Herrmann, a registered nurse, was there to welcome her children home from school and to prepare dinner. The children were Lucille, 13, and James, 12, two ordinary kids with ordinary interests. Their ordinary world, however, was about to change.
Soon after the children entered the kitchen, chaos erupted in the house. In a matter of moments, various bottles containing liquid in different rooms of the house suddenly began to pop their caps and dance around. No one saw the bottles move or explode, but all of them heard the caps as they popped loose and the bottles’ contents went spewing into the air.
They would later discover an opened bottle of bleach in the basement utility room, a bottle of liquid starch in the kitchen, bottles of shampoo and medicine in the bathroom and a bottle of holy water that had opened in the master bedroom and was lying on its side with the contents spilled. Each of the bottles had been sealed with twist-off metal or plastic caps. There were no corks or crimped caps that might have somehow come loose.
Puzzled, Mrs. Herrmann called her husband, who worked for Air France in New York City, and reported the strange “popping” sounds they had heard. Herrmann was just as confused by the incident as his wife was, but since no one had been hurt, he decided there was no need for him to go home early.
Following his usual schedule, Herrmann took the train to Long Island and arrived home just before 7:00 p.m. During his commute, he pondered his wife’s call and was sure that he had a solution for the mystery. He believed that some sort of chemical reaction in the products had caused the bottle lids to blow and the fact that they did so at the same time was merely a coincidence. Perhaps it had been caused by some sort of excessive humidity in the house? He quickly investigated the bottles when he arrived home and confessed to being baffled when he found that they were screw-top lids. How could they have simply popped off?
The excitement over the event having passed, and since nothing more had happened, the family decided to write the experience off as “just one of those funny things.” Two uneventful days passed and the popping bottles were almost forgotten.
Then, on Thursday, once again at about the same time that the Herrmann children came home from school, another half dozen bottles popped their lids. A bottle of nail polish burst open, as did a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a bottle of bleach, detergent, starch and the bottle that contained holy water on Mrs. Herrmann’s dresser. It was an almost exact repeat performance of February 3.
On Friday night, it happened again. Only this time, when the bottles began to pop open, James Herrmann began to suspect that he knew the culprit responsible for the multiple containers’ strange behavior. He surmised that his science-loving son had somehow rigged the bottles to pop in order to scare his family. He thought that perhaps his son had planted some carbonated capsules inside the bottles and timed it so that he could get home from school in time to see the startled expression on his mother’s face.
As he developed this theory, Herrmann spent the entire weekend secretly observing Jimmy. He was determined to catch him in the act of tampering with a bottle. It’s no wonder that he was surprised on Sunday morning, February 9, when several caps popped off bottles of starch, turpentine and holy water, leaving the containers rocking back and forth on the shelves. Herrmann had kept a close eye on Jimmy, so how could the boy have managed to put something inside the bottles without his father seeing him do it? Feeling baffled and a bit angry, Herrmann burst into the bathroom, where Jimmy was brushing his teeth, and accused him of rigging the bottles to pop. The boy vigorously protested his innocence and as if to prove the point, Herrmann was startled to see a bottle of medicine suddenly move across the top of the sink and fall into the basin. A moment later, a bottle of shampoo also slid across the sink and fell with a thud to the floor.
Still skeptical, Herrmann immediately examined the bathroom, searching for hidden wires or strings. He found nothing and finally realized that there were things going on in the house that he could not explain. Unsure of what else to do, he called the Nassau County Police Department and spent the next several minutes on the phone trying to get Lieutenant E. Richardson, the desk officer who answered the call, to take him seriously. When he heard the story, Richardson accused Herrmann of either playing a practical joke or drinking too much, but he was soon swayed by the earnest tone of the man’s voice. It helped that Herrmann had a good reputation in the community. Richardson promised to send someone to investigate.
Officer James Hughes went to the house feeling skeptical and perhaps wondering how he managed to wind up with the nutcase calls. Within a few minutes, though, he had changed his mind about the nature of the case when several bottles in the bathroom popped their lids and fired them in his direction. He quickly concluded that the Herrmanns did indeed need help.
Detective Joseph Tozzi was assigned to look into the case. He read Hughes’ report of the incident in the bathroom with interest. While not willing to pass judgment without actually visiting the scene, he was relatively sure the Herrmanns were experiencing some natural phenomenon or were simply imagining things. Or, he noted with the cynicism of a veteran police officer, the popping bottles could be getting some help a human source.
On February 11, Detective Tozzi began his vigil at the Herrmann house. That same evening, a perfume atomizer overturned and spilled perfume in the daughter’s bedroom. There was no one in the room at the time, according to reports. Over the next few days, the disturbances seemed to center around the bottle of holy water in the parents’ bedroom. On several occasions, the lid of the bottle popped off and once, after hearing the distinctive sound, Mr. Herrmann dashed into the room and found the bottle on the floor. He picked it up and found it strangely warm to the touch.
Later that same day, on February 15, the activity took another turn. As the Herrmann children were watching television in the living room with Marie Murtha, their middle-aged second cousin, a porcelain figurine on an end table next to the couch began to wiggle and then shot two feet through the air, making a loud crashing sound as it landed on the floor. To the amazement of Miss Murtha and the children, the figurine was unbroken.
After this last demonstration, the Herrmanns decided to turn to another source for comfort and to aid the stumped Detective Tozzi in his investigations. They contacted Father William McLeod of the Church of St. William the Abbott for help. As devout Catholics, the Herrmanns believed that the church could help them where ordinary methods had failed. Father McLeod came to the house and sprinkled holy water in each of the rooms. Unfortunately, “Popper,” as the poltergeist came to be called, had decided that he didn’t want to leave.
During the two weeks since Popper had made his first appearance in the Herrmann house, news of the strange happenings had leaked to newspapers, radio and television reports. The story received a great deal of publicity, even meriting articles in Time and Life magazines. If the beleaguered family thought that mopping up spilled liquids and having their possessions broken by an unseen force was bad, then the onslaught of public attention was worse. During the day, the Herrmann home was surrounded by reporters, photographers, curiosity-seekers and an astounding array of television equipment. While the Herrmanns managed to get used to these intrusions into their lives, they weren’t quite prepared for some of the strangeness that came with it.
Letters and telephone calls came every day. Many of them proposed logical solutions, while others assured the Herrmanns that Martians had landed nearby or that the problem in the house was the spirit of a long-dead Indian chief or that the Russians were tunneling under Long Island to invade New York. The Herrmanns managed to stay patient with everyone, though. They never turned anyone away and they listened attentively to all the calls and suggestions that came in, even those who shouted “Repent!” into the telephone at midnight or proclaimed that “the Sputniks are here!”
Many of the letters and visitors were less easy to tolerate, however. Letters arrived in barely intelligible scrawl, condemning the Herrmanns for their sins and suggesting that they had invited these “tricks of Satan.” Ministers from all sorts of dubious faiths conducted rituals on the front lawn of the house. One man in a blue serge suit, who claimed to be a “holy man from Center Moriches,” (a nearby town on Long Island) knelt in the yard and prayed for 10 minutes. Then he stood and announced: “Everything is all right. You have been forgiven.” With that, he left -- but “Popper” remained.
But not all of the suggestions and attempts to help were so bizarre. One man who came to the house, Robert Zider, was a physicist from Long Island’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. He brought a set of dowsing rods with him and went over the property with them. When he was finished, he stated that he believed there were underground streams below the house. He thought that the water might be creating a “freak magnetic field.” Detective Tozzi examined this idea at length, but a geological survey suggested that the information was inaccurate.
Tozzi’s case file grew thicker and thicker with added notes, observations, research and facts that he collected. At one point, he had been walking down the basement stairs with Jimmy Herrmann when a bronze statue of a horse weighing nearly 100 pounds flew across the basement and hit the detective in the legs. Jimmy had been nowhere near the statue and no one else was down there. How had it happened? Tozzi had absolutely no idea.
He had checked with the Air Force and after studying their flight plans, they had told him that sonic booms from passing jets could not have caused the disturbances. He also ruled out radio waves by contacting the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). The Long Island Lighting Company had set up a delicate oscilloscope in the basement, but they had detected no underground vibrations. Building inspectors from the town of Hempstead pronounced the house structurally sound. The Seaford Fire Department even inspected a well on the property to see if changes in the water level could be causing the disturbances. However, they found that the water level had been stable for at least five years. Although puzzled, Tozzi remained determined and he tried valiantly to discover a source for the happenings.
He finally found hope in a letter from a woman named Helen Connolly of Revere, Massachusetts. She wrote that she had experienced odd events in her living room, where chairs and furniture moved about. She didn’t have a ghost in her house, but rather a heavy downdraft through her fireplace. When capped with a rotary metal turbine, the flying tables and chairs ceased to fly. Mr. Herrmann immediately had one installed on his own chimney, convinced that the strangeness was finally coming to an end.
But that wasn’t meant to be.... No sooner had the workmen completed the installation than a porcelain figurine launched itself from a table and smashed against a desk. The figurine had managed to travel a distance of more than 12 feet. It left a dent on the wood that was broadcast to television audiences all over the New York metropolitan area.
On February 20, events became even more violent. Another figurine was smashed against the desk, a bottle of ink popped its screw cap, then sailed into the air and splashed its contents on the wall and a sugar bowl flew off the table under the watch of Detective Tozzi. It had been close to Jimmy but not within his reach. Needing a break, the Herrmann family spent the night with a relative. Tozzi stayed in the house, but the rest of the night passed without incident. When the family returned the next evening, though, the sugar bowl again flew from the table and this time, it shattered into pieces.
On February 24, Tozzi was startled to his feet by the sound of a loud noise from Jimmy’s room. No one had been in the room or near it, yet a large bookcase had managed to fall facedown onto the floor. The next night, while Jimmy was in the room doing his homework, his record player lifted and moved 15 feet across the room. A small statue of the Virgin Mary flew more than 12 feet and struck a mirror frame in the master bedroom. A bookcase filled with encyclopedias was upended. A heavy glass centerpiece from the dining room table flew up and stuck a cupboard, chipping away a piece of molding before falling to the floor. A world globe shot down the hallway from Jimmy’s room and just missed Detective Tozzi. A newspaper photographer named John Gold from the London Evening News witnessed his flashbulbs lift off a table and fly through the air to strike a wall. In addition, Popper had begun knocking on the walls to get attention, although no attempts to “communicate” with the ghost (if indeed it was a ghost) were ever made.
Tozzi had become concerned about the new violence in the disruptions. Until that point, the activity had been limited to popping bottle tops. He had explored every possible explanation that he could come up with and while he was not prepared to say the house was haunted, he was all out of fresh ideas. About this same time, the staff of scientists at the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, North Carolina, became interested in the events reported in the Herrmann home. This group of researchers, under the leadership of Dr. J.B. Rhine, had already compiled a mass of evidence that supported the idea that certain people, under the right circumstances, could influence the behavior of objects without touching them. They called it psychokinesis, or PK.
As the disturbances at the home continued (and in fact, increased) Dr. Rhine’s assistant, Dr. J. Gaither Pratt, traveled to New York and arrived at the Herrmann house on February 26. Pratt believed that someone in the house was unknowingly causing the strange incidents to occur. Meanwhile, other researchers came to believe that the incidents in the house were being caused by an actual ghost, a poltergeist, or “noisy spirit.” These prankster ghosts traditionally targeted religious items, as the disturbances had done with the holy water and the Virgin Mary statue in the Herrmann house.
On the other hand, strong evidence remained for the idea that there was a human component behind the haunting. It had been noted by the Duke researchers that an adolescent child, usually a girl, was almost always among the members of the household being plagued by poltergeist phenomena. They believed it was possible that this young person might be capable of psychokinesis during the height of puberty. In every case, though, the young person might be unaware that she or he was unconsciously causing the events to happen, making them as bewildered as the adults around them. In the case of the Herrmann house, Jimmy (according to Detective Tozzi’s notes) was at or near the scene of the poltergeist disturbances more than 75 percent of the time. For many incidents, he was the sole witness. However, the detective had cleared the boy of deliberately causing any of the disturbances.
Like the others who came before him, Dr. Pratt was welcomed into the Herrmann residence and greeted warmly. He explained that he had come as an observer and he spent most of the time there chatting with Jimmy, playing cards with him, helping him with his homework and generally just being around the young man. There was no sign of strangeness during the visit. Popper was absolutely quiet.
Pratt then summoned another colleague from North Carolina, William G. Roll. Together, they interviewed the family members and were convinced that none of them were perpetrating a hoax. “The family was much too shaken for it to be a colossal hoax,” Pratt told a United Press reporter.
Things were quiet for the next several days, as though the poltergeist did not want to perform for the scientists. Then, on March 2, one month after Popper first arrived, he decided to make himself known again. All of the Herrmanns were in the house to witness what took place. First, a dish vaulted from a kitchen cabinet and shattered on the floor. Then, a night table flipped over in Jimmy’s room. Popper was back and yet there was still no explanation as to who, or what, he was. Two days later, a bowl of flowers slid down the dining room table and jumped into the air. A bookcase turned end over end in the cellar.
But this would not be Popper’s farewell performance. That event would occur on March 10 while Mrs. Herrmann, Jimmy, and Lucille were getting ready for bed (James Herrmann was away on business). Pratt and Roll suddenly heard a loud popping sound in the cellar and they hurried downstairs to see what it was. They found that a bleach bottle, sitting in a cardboard box, had somehow lost its plastic lid.
For reasons unknown, this became the last act of the Herrmann family poltergeist. There had been a record of 67 recorded disturbances between February 3 and March 10. The Herrmanns had been visited by detectives, building inspectors, electricians, plumbers, firemen, parapsychologists and half of the “nutcases” on the East Coast and yet none of them had been able to present a satisfactory explanation for what had occurred in their home.
Weeks after the household returned to normal, “experts” still came to investigate and to theorize about what had taken place. As late as August 1958, the scientists at Duke still had no clue as to what had happened and why. By this time, the Herrmanns had had enough of investigations and just wanted their lives to get back to normal. James Herrmann no longer cared why the disturbances had taken place, he was just happy they were over. Mrs. Herrmann told an Associated Press reporter: “I don’t think there is a definite solution. It was just one of those things with no rhyme or reason to it. But there was a definite physical force behind it.”
What did happen at the Herrmann house on Long Island? No one really knows. “Popper” the Poltergeist, and the strange incidents that followed in his wake, is just as puzzling today as “he” was in 1958.