The Jesuit and the Poltergeist

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Recently, my grandmother passed. She was a devout Catholic and left behind piles of rosaries, saint amulets, and containers of holy water. When looking through her books, I found Herbert Thurston’s Ghosts and Poltergeists.  I wasn’t surprised to find the text, because she passed on to me her interest in ghosts. We would sit for hours recounting ghost stories we had heard during our lengthy times apart. I distinctly remember the lecture she gave me on the risks of using the Ouija board.

She had once told me that she wanted to see a ghost before she died. This never happened, but my aunts have reported visits following her death. Reading this text reminded me of our old talks, and was a visit from her of some sort.

And on to Ghosts and Poltergeists


Herbert Thurston, S.J. (15 November 1856 – 3 November 1939) was a English priest of the Roman Catholic Church, and also a member of the Jesuit order. Thurston was highly prolific, writing nearly 800 articles (over a span of 61 years). He also produced 150 entries for the Catholic Encyclopedia on more sensitive topics including “Witchcraft,” “Mary Tudor,” and “Shakespeare.” Thurston’s bold approach to controversial topics in the church earned him quite the reputation.

Thurston’s writings were marked by painstaking research and a refusal to allow pious sentiment, tact, or his own pride in the English Catholic tradition to cloud his scholarly judgements. His reputation for exposing popular legends of the saints and pious myths led to the apocryphal story that he had been begged by a dying Jesuit to ‘spare the blessed Trinity’ (Crehan, 66). His equally impartial scrutiny of the claims of spiritualists and psychics led some orthodox Catholics to fear that his treatment of the paranormal was too sympathetic to be compatible with his priesthood. But this same quality made him, as was tacitly recognized by many of his Catholic contemporaries, a strong apologist for Catholicism, and has given his work enduring value. (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Ghosts and Poltergeists (1953) is a collection of documented poltergeist activity, which he discusses with some skeptical distance. The following notes are copied from my notebook (with some edits). I generally wrote down stories and quotes that stood out to me. I have bolded text for you skimmers.

Chapter 1: A General View of Poltergeist Phenomena

He tells the story of Rev. Dr. Phelps and his family’s experiences with a peculiar poltergeist in Stratford, Connecticut in 1850.

Written communication appeared in unexpected places (sometimes letters signed with the names of local clergy, huh). Once in his study, Dr. Phelps found (in fresh ink) a message on a sheet of paper: “Very nice paper and very nice ink for the devil” (12).

Once after breakfast, multiple “images” (maybe 11 or 12 total) appeared in the middle room: “They were formed of articles of clothing, found around the house, stuffed to resemble the human figure […] These all but one represented females in the attitude of devotion, some having Bibles or prayer books placed to complete the figure” (13).

Chapter 2: Ghosts That Tease

Thurston repeats often that there has never been a case of a poltergeist killing anyone. He writes, “‘Death by Poltergeist’ is not a formula sanctioned by coroners, but it would make a good newspaper head-line, and if any suspicion of this sort were aroused the world could hardly fail to hear of it” (27).

Chapter 15: A Rare Type of Poltergeist

In this chapter, Thurston talks about the Dagg family’s poltergeist troubles during December 1889 in the Province of Quebec . What I found most interesting was the disembodied voice heard by the family members, specifically the eldest daughter, Dinah. This story was shared widely by a Mr. Woodcock, an international artist.

On the Saturday morning of Mr. Woodcock’s visit, he tried to have a private talk with Dinah. She declared see had see something and said into the emptiness: “Are you there mister?” In a deep gruff voice, sounding four or five feet away from Mr. Woodcock, was a reply in “a language that cannot be repeated here” (164). Mr. Woodcock said to the voice, “Who are you?” In response the poltergeist said, “I am the devil. I’ll have you in my clutches. Get out of this or I’ll break your neck” (164).

This went back and forth for a few hours, then Mr. Woodcock demanded proof of the written communication the family had claimed:

Putting a sheet of paper and a pencil on a bench in the shed he saw the pencil stand up and move along the surface. As soon as the pencil dropped, he stepped over and examining the paper said: “I asked you to write something decent.” To this the voice replied in an angry tone: “I’ll steal your pencil,” and immediately the pencil rose from the bench and was thrown violently across the shed. (164)

News of this poltergeist reached the public and the family began to receive curious visitors. On one occasion a visitor asked the spirit why it stopped using filthy language (a key characteristic of earlier communications). The voice responded: “I am not the person who used the filthy language. I am an angel from Heaven sent by God to drive away that fellow” (165).

Mr. Woodcock believed this was a lie, of course.

Appendix: The Exorcism of Haunted Houses

Thurston laments on the fact that many guidebooks used for exorcisms acknowledge people possessed by evil spirits and not places possessed by evil spirits. While exorcisms already presented in guidebooks are similar in nature, Thurston assures of some differences:

But in all these exorcisms it is the activities of Satan and his myrmidons which are the direct object of attack. There seems to be no recognition of ghosts or of spirits of the dead as such, and there is no suggestion that the souls of men are likely to return to haunt the scenes amidst they formerly dwelt the earth. (205)

Luckily, in the appendix of Rituale Romanum (published with full authorization of the Council of Inquisition 1631), there appears a document titled Exorcismus domus a demonio vexatae (The exorcisms of a house troubled with an evil spirit). 

Overall, the book is an interesting text produced by a member of the Roman Catholic church. While it (unfortunately) doesn’t give first hand accounts of exorcisms themselves, it’s an excellent collection for those interested in stories of poltergeists. I can see my grandmother now, clutching her rosary, and enjoying these tales of the supernatural.


 

I look forward to posting more on this blog, both about what I research and the spooky places I visit. For more information on my blog, please read the About page. I plan on posting Sunday mornings, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. You can also follow this blog on various social medias. Thanks for stopping by!

2 thoughts on “The Jesuit and the Poltergeist

  1. […] Now that I have my own room for my reading and writing, I have the space to build a substantial supernatural library. And, nothing could make me happier. I have always taken notes when reading, because I don’t want to forget what I’ve read. I also like something to reference when I return to a topic. This is why I’ve always kept a commonplace book. In fact, the first post of this blog was book notes from Herbert Thurston’s Ghost and Poltergeists.   […]

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