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Friday, 4 March 2016

A Poltergeist on a Goods Train?

     I see Dr Beachcombing has quoted parapsychologist Harry Price (1881-1948) on the preferred environment of poltergeists. I recognized the quote from one of my favourite books from my youth, Poltergeist Over England, and could add a bit more. Price said that he had never heard of a poltergeist infesting a ship (and neither have I). I dare say he never heard of one infesting a goods train either, but it happened just two years after his death.
     As an aside, I might mention that certain phenomena repeat the same features again and again - which is one reason for believing they are genuine. Thus, if you want to learn about flying saucers you are going to read, till your eyes glaze over, about discs like two plates, one upside down and on top of the other, or with a cupola, and with multi-coloured lights moving rapidly around the rim. Likewise, an investigator into poltergeists is going to read over and over again about stones being thrown. It is one of the most common features of the phenomenon. (It is also, of course, one of the easiest to fake. Making objects turn in flight, or appear out of thin air, would be more difficult to manage.)
     The old Wide World Magazine, of which I try to collect as many issues as I can lay my hands on, frequently reported stone throwing poletergeists from all over the world. So eventually, one of its readers sent in a clipping from the Sunday Times of Johannesburg, South Africa. As seems to have been the practice at the time, no-one appears to have recorded its date. However, since the magazine printed it on page 356 of its issue of March 1950 - which would be April 1950 in the Australian edition - and since the magazine was a monthly, one presumes it took place a few months beforehand. So here it goes.

"Unseen Hand" Attacks Midnight Goods Train
Standerton, Saturday

     Eight shaken railwaymen, one of them injured, climbed down from the engine-cab of a midnight goods train at Standerton last week-end with a weird tale to tell - a story of violent and persistent supernatural interference on the 45-mile journey from Sandspruit, scene of a triple murder in 1937.
     The events, with later developments, are being investigated by the police, and have been the main topic of conversation from Standerton to Volksrust this week.
     The manifestations, according to the railwaymen, began on Friday night last week shortly before a Standerton-bound goods train left Sandspruit, the little station where, in 1937, a storekeeper named Berman, his assistant, Liebowitz, and Liebowitz's wife were murdered. Andries de Plessis, aged 20, was hanged for the crime. He was also found guilty of murdering two Greek café-proprietors at Brakpan.
     While the train was standing at Sandspruit station, stones suddenly showered onto the engine.
     One struck the fireman, named Vrey, so violently on the neck that he was felled. He was assisted to the platform by the engine-driver, who got him a cup of water.
     When the water was offered to Vrey, however, the cup was struck violently from the driver's hand by an invisible force. Two other railwaymen were standing by and saw the incident.
     According to one account, Vrey, while being assisted to the platform by the driver, said in Afrikaaans: "All right, Du Plessis, I know it's you."
    The train was due to leave Sandspruit, and as Vrey was still upset, the guard of the train offered to do the stoking until the fireman had recovered. Vrey went to the guard's van with two railway porters who were travelling to Standerton, and the guard joined the driver in the engine cab.
     In the van the two porters offered Vrey a cup of coffee. For a second time, while a hail of stones rattled on the van, the cup was struck away by an invisible hand before Vrey could take it.
     At Beechwick station another attempt was made to give Vrey some coffee, and again the cup was knocked from the hand of the porter offering it.
     At this stage the men in the van decided to join the others in the cab. The three-man crew of another train travelled in the cab from Beechwick to Standerton. At Standerton Vrey was treated by the district surgeon for shock and contusions to the neck. He was in hospital for two days.
     Other occurrences at Sandspruit station this week, which are being investigated by the police are almost as remarkable.
     At 9.30 on Monday night, it is reported, a railway pumpman named Van der Westhuizen was standing beside a stationary train when he was hurled to the ground by some invisible force. He was momentarily dazed, and when he recovered there were black marks on his body.
     On the next night a hail of stones fell on a train entering the station. No damage was done and no one was injured.
     The railwaymen themselves are reluctant to talk much about their experiences.
Comment: There is not much to add here. The witnesses were all white men, if that is significant. The stone throwing appears to have been limited to a single station. If this were the only phenomenon, and bearing in mind that nothing is said about their trajectory, size, or number, one would regard it as the work of a malicious prankster. However, the "invisible force" which repeatedly attacked the cup, later the pumpman, suggests something more complicated. The phenomena does not appear to have been repeated and, of course, there is no real evidence connecting it to a murder thirteen years before. I might add that poltergeists are normally very strict in not hurting people. Dangerous objects will miss people by inches, or halt abruptly in mid-air short of their target. But there are exceptions.

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