Friday, April 1, 2016

Arkansas History's Mysteries - The Mystery of the Mena Poltergeist

In 1960, in the sleepy town of Mena in western Arkansas, a strange set of events were occurring.    Ed Shinn, a 72 year old farmer, his wife Birdie, and their grandson, Charles Elbert Shaeffer, lived in a small farmhouse three miles east of town.  One evening, just after midnight, Ed and Birdie were snuggled in bed when suddenly windows began rattling.  Puzzled, Mr. Shinn went to investigate but could find no reason for it.  He dismissed the event and went back to bed.  Then strange noises started assaulting the couple.  They explained the noises as "knocking on the wall like someone coming in."  Sometimes the noises were even stranger, sounding like someone was running a handsaw in the attic above their bed.  One night the noises were so intense that they were keeping the couple awake.  Mrs. Shinn politely asked the noises to be quiet and go to sleep.  "I don’t sleep," the entity replied.  "Will you let me sleep?" Mrs. Shinn asked.  "You don’t need to sleep either," the ghost responded.  The mysterious noises frightened the Shinns, but they decided not to tell anyone of the strange occurrences.

In late November, the activity intensified.  Now, instead of strange knockings, objects began to fly through the living room.  Ed found his grandson’s marbles scattered around the room.  He put them back in their place only to find them on the floor moments later.  Light bulbs were unscrewed.  Various pieces of furniture flew as if thrown by some strange force.  Matches fell off the fireplace mantle and ignited.  Two figurines flew into the back of Ed’s head.  Birdie reported being hit in the face with one of the marbles.  The couple’s grandson also told of strange happenings.  He claimed that his covers had been pulled off him in the middle of the night.

While the Shinns decided to keep the mystery to themselves, it soon became public knowledge.  Bridie was visiting her local butcher and accidentally told him of the bizarre occurrences (although it is hard to see how such a secret would come up in ordinary conversation).  Soon the story spread and the Shinns could no longer keep it a secret.  "I guess I must have started it all," the butcher admitted, "I got worried and sent a neighbor out to check on it."  Neighbors around Mena began to gossip about the house.  As the stories got around town, they began to grow more and more fanciful.  One story went that neighbors saw the Shinn’s mailbox revolving.  Others claimed to have seen a coal bucket floating through the air.  Another swore he saw a can of dog food levitate and hang in the air.  The stories soon made the house the focal point for the town’s tourism industry.  Through that first week of December, as many as 300 spectators a night came to the house with the hopes of seeing something supernatural.  This obviously annoyed Ed, who remarked, "Ten people came in and went all through our house the other day and didn’t say a word."  Eventually, the police came to the house to stem the constant trespassing. 

National experts began to weigh in on the occurrences.  The Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, told the Associated Press that the events in Mena sounded like events that they had studied around the world.  Their opinion, without having studied the specific case in detail, was that it seemed to resemble a "poltergeist."  Poltergeist in German means "noisy ghost" or "mischievous ghost."  This type of entity, J.G. Pratt, assistant director of the Duke lab remarked, "challenges investigation in our field."

As the activity continued, Shinn decided that enough was enough and he loaded up his family into his truck and decided to leave the house and stay with relatives.  While the Shinn family was away, Polk County Sheriff Bruce Scoggin and three deputies along with four reporters from the local press decided to spend the night in the house to see if they could figure out what was going on.  One of the deputies, John Egger, told the Associated Press, "There’s no doubt queer things have been going on around here.  I can’t explain it.  Of course, no one believes in ghosts.  I’ve just got to where nothing surprises me anymore."  All through the night, the sheriff and his deputies stayed up, waiting for a chair to fly or to be pelted with marbles.  As morning dawned the next day, the law men exited the home – their only experience a lack of sleep.

Shinn decided that no ghost was going to run him out of his home and he moved the family back in.  He told reporters, "We just don’t believe in ghosts.  When something is done, humans have to do it."  Instead of a supernatural reason, Shinn searched for the mundane to explain the events.  At least, mundane for someone living in 1960.  Shinn blamed the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union -- it just had to have something to do with nuclear weapons testing.  Maybe radiation fallout was the reason why objects were floating across his living room.  "I believe it has something to do with those rockets and space ships and bomb tests.  Didn’t the papers say Arkansas got more fallout than any other state in the Union?" he asked.  One neighbor, J.L. Ply, told the press, "I talked to a smart fellow about this thing once and he told me it might be caused by uranium brought in through their well."  Sheriff Scoggin brought a Geiger counter to the house, but was unable to detect any radioactivity. 

After the night’s stay had revealed no strange activity, the sheriff decided that the strange happenings had to have some more pedestrian source.  The sheriff and a deputy decided to make a visit at the local high school where young Charles Shaeffer was attending classes.  The sheriff interrogated Charles and eventually the young man admitted that he was the source of the strange occurrences.  Charles sobbed that he had started the pranks several years earlier because he felt that his grandfather had been "picking on" him.  He told the lawmen that it all began with small pranks:  he would bring a pair of pliers to bed with him and then tap the steel bed frame to make noises to disturb his grandparents.  He would rattle the window blinds when no one was looking.  Another favorite prank of his was to rearrange the furniture in the living room when his grandparents were away.  He would throw chairs from the kitchen into the living room causing Ed and Birdie to think that the furniture was flying on its own.  He even created a scary voice to make them believe that they were talking to a ghost.  His grandmother actually caught him once, he recalled.  She saw him throwing pillows out of the kitchen, but he denied it.  He said he never intended anyone to get hurt.  "I didn’t mean to hurt no one," he cried.  In fact, he said that when the press got involved, he could not figure out a way to stop.

The townspeople were shocked to find that they had been fooled by a teenage boy.  Most described him as a nice boy who they would not have suspected of such a scheme.  The press tried to salvage what was an embarrassing story.  While admitting that they had been fooled, the editor of the Arkansas Democrat wrote in an editorial that many smart people believe in such things as poltergeists.  "There’s always the chance that a prankster is responsible for weird happenings as in this case," the editor wrote, "On the other hand, reputable scientists -- neurologists, psychologists and physicists -- have investigated cases in Europe, and they are of the opinion that psychic energy may be responsible."  After all, poltergeists are supposed to be practical jokers.  They tend to be more mischievous than anything… maybe even acting like a fifteen year old teenager.  But, the moral to this story is this:  If you are planning on a fun practical joke on a loved one, make sure that the press does not get involved.  Happy April Fool’s Day!