Mr Polty and the magic clock

In Scientific Paranormal Investigation,
by Benjamin Radford, Corrales, NM, Rhombus. pp 92-3

Way back in 1981 I was asked to help a family terrified by a poltergeist in their Bristol home. My investigation of “Mr Polty” (as they called him) shows the importance of first believing what people say they have experienced. They may be lying; they may be cheating; but in my experience most are not. Most are genuinely trying to make sense of strange experiences and have – understandably – jumped to the wrong conclusions. It is the investigators job to take their accounts seriously and then work out what is really going on.

I arrived at the house to be greeted with tales of scary noises in the bathroom, keys rattling in locks when there was no one there, and steps sounding in empty rooms. More intriguing were two events that everyone in the family claimed to have seen. The TV changed channels when no one was near it, and a clock on the mantelpiece jumped and moved along.

I made notes of all they told me and settled down to watch. From then on I stayed a whole day once a week for many weeks.

First I asked everyone to keep a diary of Polty events. I could not prevent them making things up, but from their diaries I could check whether one person was always there when weird things happened. They were not.

I then introduced a “Polty box”. This was modelled on boxes used at the McDonnell lab in St Louis, Missouri. It was basically an upside down fish tank containing pencil and paper (in case Mr Polty wanted to leave messages), a paper mobile (to be blown by a spirit breath), a spoon (for spoon-bending), and various small objects with their positions marked. I told the family that this was for Mr Polty to show what he could do. I did not tell them that between the base and the lid I had inserted black velvet and a strip of unexposed film so that I could tell if anyone opened the box.

I don’t know what I expected – back in those days I was still hovering between total scepticism, and a touch of hope that I might discover something truly momentous. The box meant I could learn something either way – the spoon might be bent when no one had opened it or I might catch a culprit. Nothing happened.

Meanwhile I solved the TV mystery. Few people then had remote controls but this TV, unbeknown to its owners, had an ultra-sound detector. Their large dog used to flop in front of the set, and it was his rattling chain that changed the channels.

That left the clock, and one day, as I sat there, I saw it jump, just as they had described. Hope again!

I began by swapping it for another clock – to determine whether it was the clock or mantle piece that was haunted. This clock did not budge. So I took the original one to a technician at Bristol University who was a clock enthusiast. He was extremely reluctant. As a Catholic he feared messing with devil’s work. Sigh. But I persuaded him that good might prevail and so he provided the key to the whole mystery. The clock, it turned out, was very light but had a heavy old-fashioned spring that was clogged with years of dirt. As it unwound the coils stuck together and then suddenly released, giving enough energy to scoot the clock along the shiny tiled mantelpiece.

I took the clock back and explained, very gently, to the family, what I had found out.

There was disappointment, anger, and relief, but in the end relief prevailed. And Mr Polty, they told me, quietly slipped away.