Index to This Site

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

When the Floor Gaped Open

     One of the interesting aspects of anomalies is that sometimes the really unusual, rare phenomena - so rare that they are usually overlooked - can be well documented. Thus, the case of the talking stovepipe was meticulously investigated by the police and other city officials, not to mention the crowds which gathered round. Similarly, the room that forced people to walk on their hands was investigated on the orders of the local magistrate. And the terrifying experience of a couple in Bristol in 1873 had its day in court.
     It was established in court that Thomas B. Cumpston, 26 and his wife, Anne Martha Cumpston, of Virginia Road, Leeds  "occupied good positions in Leeds" and were of irreproachable character. They had arrived in Bristol on 8 December, and booked into the Victoria Hotel. Yet in the small hours of that night (now 9 December), they were arrested for disorderly behaviour at the railway station. Both were in their nightclothes, and Mr Cumpston had fired a pistol. (Up until 1920 there was virtually no restriction on owning a hand gun the UK.)
     Mr Cumpston was extremely agitated, and they told a story which made no sense at all, so it was off to the lockup with them, and the next day they were brought before the magistrates' court. Even then, the the young man was still so agitated he had difficulty expressing himself.
     Anne Cumpston gave evidence that, early in the evening, they had been assailed by loud noises, but that the landlady, Mrs Tongue had reassured them. That same landlady gave evidence that she had also heard the sounds, but could not properly describe them. When, about 3 or 4 in the morning the noises began again, they leaped out of bed onto the floor, which appeared to give way. They heard either voices repeating their own exclamations, or else their own voices were echoing strangely. Suddenly, the floor gaped open, and Mr Cumpston started to fall in, only to be dragged out by his wife. That was too much; they both jumped out of the window and fled to the railway station, looking for a policeman.
    Her evidence was essentially the same as husband had originally given to the arresting police officer. The police, naturally, investigated their room and found nothing amiss. In their opinion, the couple had suffered a "collective hallucination".
    This, of course, is what we used to call a "Claytons explanation": the explanation you give when you are not giving an explanation. Under normal circumstances, the fact that two people see the same thing is taken as evidence that they are not hallucinating. But is there really such a thing as a "collective hallucination"?
    Well, yes and no. I previously described situations where groups of people, under intense emotional stimuli, can be induced to see simple things which aren't there. But this is obviously not such a case. Likewise, there happens to be a rare psychiatric condition called folie á deux, in which two people share the same delusion. The requisite circumstances are that one is emotionally dominant over the other, and that they are socially isolated ie they don't get feedback from the real world. But a delusion is not an hallucination; it's a false belief. In a few cases, where schizophrenia is involved, hallucinations may be shared, but these are auditory, not visual hallucinations. Genuinely psychotic people normally "hear things" rather than "see things". The dramatic "hallucination" described here is more likely to result from sleep deprivation or psychedelic drugs. And, of course, such hallucinations aren't shared.
     No! Let us accept that what happened to the Cumpstons remains unexplained, and go on to a couple of other cases. In the 1940s, the Rev. Dr. A. T. P. Byles, vicar of Yealmpton, Devon, together with his wife, happened to find a hole about a yard wide in the path in the churchyard. When he threw a stone down it, it appeared to hit stonework. The fact that they needed to throw a stone implies it was too deep to see the bottom. They hurried back to fetch planks to cover it, but when they returned, it had gone!
    Very strange, indeed, but fairly benign. But more recently a student nurse had a similar experience to the Cumpstons'. She was having a cup of tea in her room about 8 a.m. when a hole suddenly appeared in the floor of her room. It took up most of the floor, and the edges looked like rock. She couldn't see the bottom. To add to her amazement, a voice told her to jump in, but she decided against it, and the hole vanished.

    What does it all mean? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his alter ego of Sherlock Holmes, said that it was a bad idea to speculate until you have all the facts. In the present cases, this doesn't leave us very far to go. One could argue, of course, that since the events are impossible, the witnesses must have been making them up for no apparent reason, despite the fact that they are separated by decades and miles, and at least one couple must have been very good actors.
     If we assume they did happen, then the most comfortable speculation is that they really were hallucinations - some sort of psychic delusion imposed by some sort of external agency - and that the floor or ground did not really open up.
     The most frightening suggestion - and fantasy novelists would have a field day with it - is that holes to another reality really did open up. Where did they lead to? And have other people, unrecorded, disappeared into them? People go missing permanently all the time. I know that Conan Doyle himself was puzzled by a case of a man who set out with his family for a short stroll, then returned to the house to fetch something he had forgotten, and was never seen again.

References: The account of the Cumpstons is taken from chapter 18 of Lo! (1931) by Charles Fort who, with his usual precision, cited the London Times of 11 Dec 1873 for the arrest, and the Bristol Daily Post of 10 December for the report of the court hearing. As I was writing this, I noticed that "Undine" has provided the full text of the Times article, while another blogger has provided the text from both papers.
I have not been able to fully access the British Newspaper Archive site, but I notice that the story was also published in several other newspapers, notably the York Herald  of 13 December, the Manchester Evening News of 10 December, the Birmingham Daily Post of 11 December, and the Southern Reporter (Selkirkshire, Scotland) of 18 December.
     The other two cases were related by Janet Bord in Fairies, real encounters with little people (1997), and she gave references.


  1. Loved it! Have a look at a recent case in Australia (2017) when an entire family had a paranoia based episode.

  2. I delved into this little known fortean anomaly - that of the sudden holes - there are a few other cases - and the Cumpstons as well. There is a Cumpston family researcher online which I contacted - but as the researcher was swallowed up by the earth - I never got a reply.