Annekatrin Puhle, Dr.phil. / PhD

Philosophie, Gesundheitsberatung, Bücher / Philosophy, Health Consulting, Books

Annekatrin Puhle, Dr.phil.  /  PhD header image 3

Paper: Cultural History of Apparitions


Journal of the Society for Psychical Research Vol. 63, No. 857, 292-305




The report is intended to make a contribution to our historical understanding of ghost and poltergeist phenomena, concentrating on cases from the so-called ‘Age of Goethe’. Historical research into German RSPK phenomena and apparitions is a challenging but elusive area which has so far escaped the scholarly investigation it warrants. While the Anglo-American literature has produced a body of scholarly works on the ‘poltergeist’, a historical review of such phenomena, ranging from the rapping ‘Klopfgeist’ to the mysterious ‘Weisse Frau’ (white lady) cases, fills an important gap in German cultural history and suggests that these phenomena have a pervasive nature.

To date, the following collections along with some other selected libraries have been thoroughly researched for documents on 18th- and 19th-century ghost and poltergeist cases: the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, the Herzogin Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, the Bavarian National Library in Munich, and the Austrian National Library in Vienna.

From this research material an extensive selection has been made of cases concerning RSPK phenomena and apparitions, and an inventory made for future research purposes. This bibliography covers to date more than 1000 titles published in the German-speaking area between 1700 and 1900. A short-list of typical poltergeist reports, most often in the form of monographs, resulted in 50 cases, 15 of which took place before 1700, 15 in the 18th, and 20 in the 19th century. A general survey of the authors and their works, as well as the spectrum of parapsychological phenomena reported in these eras, is followed by the presentation of a ‘classic’ poltergeist case: the ‘Gerstmann’ case from the year 1713. This took place in the house of a well-known physician, the family being confronted with many different aspects of these phenomena. The documentation has a diary-like precision and was written by the son in the family and also includes a report by a clergyman who had become a daily eye-witness of the incidents in Gerstmann’s house.

Finally, the form and personification that these phenomena take are seen in the context of what can be learned from the tradition of Folklore.

Erzstein wrote in his work on ghosts in 1777: “Of one thousand little ghost stories only very few are true—but to assume from this that none of them was true would be ridiculous and unworthy of a true scholar” (Erzstein, 1777, pp. 15-16).

My bibliographical studies from Autumn 1996 to Spring 1998 at several mainly historically-oriented German and Austrian libraries found in fact one thousand monographs relating to ‘ghost apparitions and poltergeist incidents in Germany between 1700 and 1900′.


The aim of this project is to close the cultural and historical gap on the topic of ghosts, apparitions and poltergeists between the German literature of past centuries and that of the Anglo-American literature (Price, 1945; Roll, 1974; Gauld & Cornell, 1979). The project was designed as a detailed survey of “this not so bad material” as Erzstein expressed it (Erzstein, 1777, p. 8) — that is, to look through reports on poltergeist incidents and ghost apparitions in the period mentioned above with a view to evaluating them quantitatively and qualitatively. The result is a bibliography consisting of more than a thousand titles on the literature of ghosts, apparitions and poltergeists in the German-speaking area between the years 1700 and 1900. In the course of this a small selection of about 100 titles before 1700 has been gathered as a bonus byproduct.

Some exemplary cases are chosen, analysed, and evaluated in relation to contemporary cases (see Section V). By doing this we are revealing the ubiquitous character of poltergeist incidents, for as William Roll expresses it “the poltergeist is a citizen of the world” (Roll, 1974, p. 25).


The bibliographical searches began in the Herzog August Library of Wolfenbüttel. The library, at one time presided over by Leibniz and Lessing, was founded by Duke Julius in 1572. In the 17th century, during the reign of Duke August, it was said to hold the greatest collection of books in Europe. Today the library is estimated to contain some 800,000 books, including 120,000 manuscripts of the 18th century. I found in the old catalogue a section titled “magic and superstition”, containing almost 500 titles.

The next step led me to Weimar following the tracks of the Duchess Anna Amalia, a niece of Frederic the Great who was raised in Wolfenbüttel and became a key figure of the Classic Era of Weimar. During the 1860s she had the library in the Green Palace of Weimar (founded in 1691 by Duke Wilhelm Ernst) refurnished. Goethe was the director of this library, called the Anna Amalia Library, for 35 years up to his death in 1832. Consisting of 900,000 books, the Anna Amalia Library offers a splendid variety of literature of the Goethe Era (1750—1850) as well as considerable treasures relating to the topic of ghosts and apparitions.

The Bavarian National Library of Munich is the second-largest library in Germany, containing 7 million books, including 3000-4000 titles relating to the topics of superstition and ghostly apparitions.

It is expected that some further relevant manuscripts will be found in the German National Library in Berlin (Preussischer Kulturbesitz), which is the largest scientific library in Germany with about 9 million volumes. Relevant texts that are discovered there will be added to the bibliography.

The Austrian National Library in Vienna, the former library of the court, offers a collection of 6.7 million books and is said to belong to the great libraries of the world. Along with a wide selection of historical manuscripts on ghosts, the Vienna library offers the best source of material on the subject of Vampirism’ (a subdivision of the theme ‘ghosts’) since all Hungarian and Serbian documents on vampires have been collected there.

In compiling this historical bibliography, it was important not to neglect the several smaller collections on ghosts found in the following libraries: the library of the Episcopal seminar for priests at Speyer, the Leopold-Sophien Library of Überlingen, the library of the monastery of the Benedictines at Beuron, the municipal library as well as the library of the Episcopal seminar for priests in Trier and the library of the monastery of Melk (Austria). Particularly noteworthy is the classical historical collection on ghosts at the thousand-year-old monastery of Beuron and at the municipal library and Episcopal seminar in Trier. Special emphasis has been laid on the research on witchcraft in the town of the Jesuit priest Friedrich von Spee, whose discourse Cautio Criminates (1631) proved to have a crucial role in opposing the witch persecutions of that period. The libraries in Trier provide an excellent selection of literary material strongly connected with reports on ghostly apparitions. Amidst the smaller Austrian libraries special mention must be given to the collection of the priest Dr Andreas Resch in Innsbruck, which I believe to be one of the finest private collections of literature relating to the paranormal.


The authors of the works reviewed all have as their contemporary the author of Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who was born around the end of the witch persecutions and died around the beginning of Spiritualism in Germany. Goethe was born in the middle of a “delicate century”, as an author described his century once (Brügmann, 1714, p. 7). The 18th century, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, is mainly represented in Germany by Gotthelf Ephraim Lessing. It happened also to be Lessing who was confronted with an inexplicable case during his time in Wolfenbüttel, known as the ‘Kloppeding’ (the rapping thing), which took place in the nearby village of Dibbesdorf (in the years 1767/68 —Gorges & Spehr, 1892). Lessing commented on the famous poltergeist incident: “Hier bin ich mit meinem Latein am Ende (This is as far as my Latin gets me)”, by which he meant, “It is beyond my comprehension”. Thus Germany of the 18th century is confronted by not only Kant’s brilliant Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781) but also cases which can be seen as representing the seemingly irrational dark sides of Nature.

Indeed, in Goethe’s time a historic event took place which is often wrongly said to have happened in the Middle Ages: in 1775 Anna Schwegelin was beheaded and finally burnt in Kempten as the last witch burned on German soil. She was accused of ‘pactum cum daemone’—having a pact with the devil. This verdict was not actually so outstanding for its time, since there were many more witch trials in Germany in the 18th century, even though the most important ones were held towards the end of the 17th century. In Switzerland the last ‘witch’, Anna Maria Göldi, was beheaded as late as 1782.

The dark night-sides of Nature were nevertheless held in high esteem in the literary world of the 18th century, with discussions taking place concerning not only the mere genuineness of witches, spirits and ghosts but the nature of their existence and their abilities.

The 19th century also has much in the way of interesting literature to offer which falls, although not exclusively so, within the two periods classified by Eberhard Bauer (1992, p. 256) as “Mesmerism and Magnetism” (between 1820 and 1850) and as the “Experimental Spiritualism” (between 1870 and 1890).

The inventory being currently compiled corresponds to the publications of authors from the 18th and 19th century dealing with ghostly apparitions. Three groups can be established:- (Footnote: In the following text and the references, the original historical punctuation, which included a large number of slashes (/), has been modified in the interests of readability.)

1 Authors who have become famous through one or more outstanding publications of their work and may even still be quoted today. For example, Doctor Heinrich Jung-Stilling published in 1808 a Theory in the Science of Ghosts, which has become a classical work.

2 The next group of authors, mainly from the 18th century, wished to be anonymous. Instead of the author’s name, an attribute of the author is used, as for instance “by a friend of the truth” (Ein Freund der Warheit, 1747). Among these anonymous writings are to be found not only positive or apparently neutral presentations, but also critical and hopelessly ironical ones, as for example the booklet of 12 pages titled, My Poodle’s True Appearance After His Death and subtitled Wow, Wow. I’m Not a Machine (Berlin, 1805). Despite the absurdity of the title, this was actually meant to be a reply to the serious and at the time widely read book by Johann Karl Wötzel, My Wife’s True Appearance After Her Death.

3 Authors who did not remain anonymous, but were nevertheless relatively unknown, belong to the third group. It is this group of authors who provide excellent case reports. Next to the Gerstmann case (see Section V, below), three important cases draw our attention:—1

a) The True Report of the Strange and Wonderful Effects of a So-Called Goblin, Or, An Invisible Creature in the Parsonage of Gröben: An Attempt to Test How the Truth Can Be Discovered ? Testified by the Parson of the Place, Jeremias Heinisch, Bernau. March, Jena etc. This work was published in 1723 together with a supplementary report titled: Lessons on How to Test Ghosts and Ghost Stories: Guided by Interrogations on the True Report by Mr Jeremias Heinischen, Parson of Gröben, on the Effects of a So-Called Goblin in the Parsonage Itself, 1723. (Both reports are archived in Wolfenbüttel.)

b) Georg Wilhelm Wegner’s Parson of Germendorf and Nassenheide: Philosophical Tract on Spirits in which a Short Account is Given of the Goblin of Wustermark. Horatius: “Nos majus veriti, postquam nihil esse pericli, Sensimus, erigimur” (“We who have feared for worse gain courage in having noticed that there is no danger.”). Berlin, published by Haude & C. Spener, 1747 (archived in Wolfenbüttel).

c) M. Johann Michael Fleischer’s Reliable Report on a Ghost Which Manifested Itself in 1749 in the Parsonage of Schwartzbach and Outside of it, Through Throwing Things, Ringing, Rapping and Making Appearances. Leipzig, published by Friedrich Lankisch’s heirs, 1750 (archived in Wolfenbüttel, Weimar and Munich).


“Soon there is to be no castle in Bavaria without a poltergeist or ghost lodging within”, claims Andreas Mayer, a sceptic as to ghosts, in his Treatise on the Existence of Ghosts published in 1768 (Mayer, 1768, p. 142). This was true to the extent that during the 18th and 19th centuries a great number and variety of psychic phenomena were documented throughout the German-speaking area. In reviewing this documentation, ghostly apparitions can be distinguished from haunting incidents where there is no visible appearance of a ghost. The ghosts can then be roughly divided into two groups:—

1 Ghosts in human shape; i.e. individual ghosts such as friends or strangers, still living or deceased persons, doppelgangers, and also more typical ghosts such as white ghosts, the white lady (often personified), light ghosts, shadowy figures, etc.

2 Ghosts in mainly non-human form or occasionally taking a human-like shape; for instance, poltergeists, rapping ghosts, goblins, dwarfs, dragons, snakes, etc. Typically, these possess certain distinctive features, for example the ‘Red Popel’, a goblin-like form always wearing a red dress found in the castle of Steinhausen, the ‘Graumännlein’ (grey man) of the castle of Lisberg (Linhart, 1995, p. 62), the ‘Einfüssle’ (ghost of one foot) in a convent at Tubingen, and the ‘Blaserle’ (blowing ghost) of a parsonage at Eisingen near Pforzheim, who used to blow into people’s faces after sunset (Linhart, pp.44-45).

It appears at first glance difficult to find an adequate modern term which covers the diversity of phenomena that these older ‘spooky’ haunting incidents illustrate. Naturally, the currently used term, RSPK (recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis), comes closest. The following table of 50 cases is intended to provide an inventory of poltergeist incidents.

Table 1

Poltergeist Incidents in the German-Speaking Region up to 1900

Year Place Chronicler, *People Concerned

355 Germany Grimm, Rogo

752-1606 Schloss Winzenburg Kupffer, Horst, Linhart

760 Germany Jaffé, Rogo

858 Bingen-Kempten Grimm, Gauld & Cornell, Rogo

1581 Töttelstedt G. & C.

1620-2 Oppenheim G. & C.

1633 im Baselischen Gerstmann

1650 Zelle Gerstmann

1663 Limburg Gerstmann

1666 Kabsdorff Gerstmann

1684 Bautzen anonymous

1684 Gehof anonymous

1685 Gossek anonymous, Encken*

1691 Annaberg G. & C.

1695 Ober-Crossen Loeber

1703-8 Pfedelbach G. & C.

1713 Dortmund G. & C., Gerstmann*

1716 Zaisersweiher Kerner, Schmid*

1718 Gröben Thurston, G. & C., Heinisch*

1719 (publ.) Germany? A passenger travelling to England

1722 Sandfeld Haenell, G. & C., Dunckelmann*

between 1730 and 1740 Salfeld Semler*

before 1747 Wustermarck Wegner, (parsonage*)

1749 Schwartzbach Fleischer, G. & C., Schilling*

1750 Griesheim (Dortmund) Kerner

1757 Kirchheim Kerner, Hahn*

1760 Üblitz Horst, Reichard, Reicholdt

1767-8 Dibbesdorf Kerner, Sterne, Heckner, Kiesewetter, Blanck, Kettelhut*

1789 Germany G. &C.

1794-1815 Kloster N-g G. &C.

1811-41 (1834) Cleversulzbach G. & C., Mörike*

1814 Uffikon/Luzern Kerner, Moser, Schiffmann*

1815 Schloss Schmiedefeld/ Moser, Von Plessen*


1817-24 A. am Rhein Kerner, couple K.*

1818 Mönchhof / Grätz Kerner, Görres

1825 Pfingstweide / Frankfurt Kerner

1835-6 Weinsberg (prison) Kerner, Moser, Esslinger*

1844 Württemberg G. &C.

1845-6 prison tower/Württemberg Kerner

1853 Bergzabern Kerner, Wallace, Nees von Esenbeck,

Schneider, Blanck, Sanger*

1860-2 Stans Moser, G. & C., Joller*

1862 Zittau Berthelen, Moser, Steudner*

1864 Oberdorf / Seelisberg Furrer, Moser, (Kalcherli-Haus*)

1870 Orenburg G. &C.

1880 Siebenburg G. &C.

before 1884 Schöningen Zenker, Heckner

1888-9 Resau/Berlin Mannhart, Schrenck-Notzing, Thurston

1899 Cronheim G. &C.

1899 Bubendorf/ Basel Moser, Sch.*

1900 O., Schwaben Moser, Christaller*

In addition to these reports on poltergeist cases, the 18th and 19th centuries offer a great variety of psychic experiences and occurrences. Documentation ranges from monographs to short notes and reports. Examples of short reports concern the ghost of the Brocken (Brewster, 1833, pp. 158-159), the mayor of Üblitz and his three house dragons (which took place in 1760; see Horst, 1821— 1826, vol. 5, 1825, pp. 375-377) and the librarian Bartholomäus of Weimar, a ghost-seer (took place on 1 February 1778; see Graf***, 1839-1840, part 2, 1840, pp. 31-32).

An extremely heterogeneous range of psychical phenomena is typical for these accounts of the 18th and 19th century. It may be noted that even cases of possession can be found, which may be of interest to current research on the agency and focus of RSPK phenomena.


In 1713 a classical poltergeist incident which took place in the house of Barthold Florian Gerstmann, a physician, received meticulous documentation: Florian Bertram Gerstmann’s Exact and Truthful Presentation of the Ghost and Poltergeist Which Has Done Much Strange Damage in the Town of Dortmund, in the House of Dr Barthold Florian Gerstmann . . . (Footnotes and theological comments included. Printed in Leipzig and Osnabrück, edited by Michael Andreas Fuhrmann, 1714).

Between 5 May and 2 June in 1713, the Gerstmann family and house were terrorised by a poltergeist. The report, which was originally written in Latin by the son Florian Bertram with annotations by the father, Barthold Gerstmann, appears to be carefully documented and is surprisingly lengthy, totalling 159 pages. The members of the family who were primarily involved in the case were Barthold Gerstmann, his wife, and his two sons. Barthold Gerstmann is described as a devout Lutheran, widely respected as a general practitioner despite being criticised for his use of herbal medicine in his practice. The two sons referred to are the writer of the diary, Florian Bertram, still a student at the time, and a younger son whose age is not given although he is obviously old enough to give detailed reports and be accepted as a witness by his father and brother. A daughter is also mentioned as the first person to become aware of the incidents, and many of the later occurrences were also witnessed by the family maid. A lot of spectators are said to have been in the neighbourhood and are described as ready victims to be taught small lessons by the poltergeist. Amongst these, there is an important witness, the parson Brügmann. A further source of information is a sketch of the house of the Gerstmann family, depicting Gerstmann’s reception rooms, library, laboratory, and what appears to be the family house.

So what happened? After a disturbance with the sound of thuds coming from the hen house, the case continued in a classical way with stone-thro wing. On the morning of 5 May, 1713, two roof tiles were thrown through the plum trees, landing on the herbs planted below. Immediately afterwards a stone was hurled through the window-pane of Gerstmann’s laboratory. The author of the diary witnessed these incidents since he was busy in the garden at the same time, but was unable to find anyone who could have thrown the stone. Returning from his investigations, and still believing them to be a childish prank, he encountered his brother, who then told him of two more damaged windows and two broken roof tiles. In the afternoon, the same brother, obeying his father’s orders, was watching the courtyards and streets in the vicinity of the roof when a vigorously-hurled stone smashed two tiles directly above his head. The stone-throwing continued until around 9 p.m. and no culprit could be discovered despite careful checks. The bombardment of stones and the breaking window-panes went on for 20 days. In total 760 stones and 147 broken panes were documented. The bombardment started originally outside

Figure 1. An Etching of the Gerstmann House [not available in order to save space]

the house but afterwards continued inside. Apparently all the stones came from the garden or the wall and were sometimes found to be mingled with clay and nails. When examined, they were occasionally found to be warm. The father described what he experienced as particularly extraordinary about these incidents: “We were not able to see the stones before they either broke through the window-pane and fell to the ground, or landed in the garden, or even when they fell on the pavement in front of the house. They could be gathered and identified. They hit nobody and were only thrown to damage something, destroying whatever object they hit” (Gerstmann, 1714, p. 109).

Space permits only a few of the enormous variety of extraordinary phenomena that occurred in Gerstmann’s house to be described here. In addition to causing damage, the poltergeist was active, exclusively during the day, in creating a series of funny and jocular incidents in Gerstmann’s house. These pranks often involved objects being moved and then found again in absurd places. On 16 May, the father, who was busily writing at his desk, watched an ink bottle made of glass coated with linen, break into pieces on the table with the ink spilling onto the ground. Two days later at approximately the same time, a piece of a melting-pot, broken a few days earlier, was removed by an invisible hand from the locked laboratory and thrown at a window at the front house breaking two window-panes. Next, at around 4 p.m., a pot in the kitchen was thrown on the ground and burst into pieces, an event witnessed by the writer of the diary, who was sitting in the front living-room. This was followed by three pairs of old shoes and a rotten rag (used for cleaning shoes and kept in a store room above the maid’s chamber) being hurled into the front sitting-room. When Florian Bertram threw them back up into the store room, they promptly turned up again. Finally, an old torn sack full of old feathers fell down from the same place in the front house, and was followed by a sound like laughter (p. 73).

As well as some classical features, there were some very original poltergeist activities in this case, as for instance the fixing of a piece of bacon rind on the little son’s back, the artful knotting of cones from fir trees on the handle of the door, and a chair being hung on a nail by the door. The latter was taken down by Gerstmann, only to be discovered shortly afterwards, hanging back at the same spot.

The following incidents are physically more abnormal; for instance, doors opening by themselves were frequently reported, or a heavy table standing by the window in the middle living-room was placed by itself in front of the door as if the ghost was trying to bar the entrance to the living-room (pp.92—93).

Further events focus on the toilet. A spectacular throwing of faeces takes place on 26 May, as the diary entry documents: “Between 9 and 10 o’clock the walls of the middle-sitting room are being dirtied by human muck as if covered by a coat of paint” (pp.138—139). More and more objects and persons are dirtied by muck until the incidents come to a peak on 20 May: “A black cat jumped out of the toilet, which on passing through the lid covered its paws with dirt, continued past my brother and then jumped on to the top of a wall with incredible speed. When I saw this, I quickly climbed on the wall, trying to follow the cat with a sword, but it vanished immediately” (pp. 90-91).

The black cat returns in another class of phenomena: that is, apparitions in the literal sense. A shadow was seen in Gerstmann’s house, as for instance the entry on May 15 indicates: “At 6 o’clock the oven, built of whole thick bricks and girdled with iron, was thoroughly pierced on one side, not by a stone but in a way unbeknown to me. My brother, however, having just entered the laboratory, fixed his eyes accidentally on the oven and claims to have seen a black shadow in the shape of a man, hovering around the oven and enlarging the opening with his fingers so that little stones fell on the ground” (pp. 44-45). On another occasion, this brother reported seeing a white shadow sitting on a bench with his knees bent and which vanished as soon as it was taken notice of (pp. 111-112). When two window panes were broken once again, the same boy claimed to have seen a bare reddish arm pushing the panes in with his thumbs so that pieces of glass flew towards him (pp. 141—142).

The tragicomedy in the house of the Gerstmann family lasted for 4 weeks. On 2 June 1713, the poltergeist took leave of the household in a very theatrical manner. The entry in the diary describes it as follows: “My brother saw a hovering shadow in the summer house, shouting six times the word: ‘End! End ! End today ! ‘ . . . Soon afterwards around 6 o’clock it shouted for the tenth time: ‘End! Bad End! Very bad end!’ Eventually my brother heard a rather fine voice calling: ‘Stinky end!’ through a gap in the kitchen door” (pp.145— 146).

A look at the list below compiled by Tizané (1951), a French police officer who had examined 100 cases between 1925 and 1950, makes it clear that the main features of poltergeist incidents at the beginning of the 18th century in Germany apply also to the Gerstmann case.

Tizane’s list of characteristics of poltergeist cases is presented in the order of abnormality (quoted in Bender, 1989 and 1974):-

• Bombardment. Often a house is made the target of missiles. Stones fall on the roof, break window-panes and end up inside. Incidents seldomly occur inside the house before such a bombardment has first taken place.

• Raps against doors, walls or furniture are to be heard, sometimes in one particular place, sometimes in all parts of the house.

• Doors, windows and even carefully closed wardrobes open by themselves.

• Objects are skilfully displaced or thrown, fragile ones do not break—even after a throw of several metres, whereas solid ones are often completely destroyed. A peculiar crackling sound and unusual noises are sometimes heard.

• The movement of objects does not follow a normal flight route. The objects move as if being transported, occasionally even following the contours of the furniture.

• On rare occasions strange objects do penetrate into closed rooms. When touched by witnesses they feel warm. Objects seem to materialise in the air.

What is remarkable about the Dortmund incident is Gerstmann’s handling of the case. His religious belief is so deep that he does not take any other action or precautions besides quoting certain words from the Bible and saying regular prayers for himself and his family in church. In the preface of his diary, he emphasises that he has refused every means of getting rid of the phenomena that has been offered to him, including exorcism (pp.5—6).

What effect did the case of Dortmund have on the public? Gerstmann writes: “I did not intend reporting this case and its adventurous ghost. Contempt from others and various lies and their consequences have however forced me to take up my sword” (preface, pp.4-5). Apparently there were a lot of spectators as Gerstmann speaks of “so many reliable witnesses — who could testify in public and will, if asked to do so” (preface, pp. 7-8). On the third day of the occurrences, a little stone fell on the hand of one of the witnesses who wanted to take it home with him to keep (pp.13—14). On the 18th and 19th day Gerstmann writes: “The suffering heaped upon itself; and the danger grew. The onlookers and our visitors, composed partly of fellow-sufferers and partly of enjoyers of this evil, and the judges advised us to clear the house and leave it to the ghost” (pp. 104-105). Gerstmann emphasises: “There are enough witnesses for it; a lot of people of high, medium and low rank have watched and listened to the bumping and throwing” (pp. 152-153).

One of the best witnesses is certainly the parson of Dortmund, Johan David Brügmann, who produced a 48-page report on the poltergeist entitled: Treatise and Reasonable Lesson: What Should be Thought of the External Effects of Ghosts in General and of the One in Dortmund in Particular? And What Should Be the Means of Dealing With Them ? (Supplement made on request by J. David Brügmann, parson of the church Saint Mary in Dortmund, Osnabruck. Edited by Michael Andreas Fuhrmann, librarian, 1714).

Brügmann published the report, as he points out himself, out of “his sense of responsibility on the basis of being a truthful witness to events he had experienced and the frequent visits he had made” (Brügmann, 1714, p. 3). And he wishes for all “those denying the apparition of an evil spirit to have been present in Dortmund in that certain house and to have watched the demonstration of stone-throwing: certainly they would have had trouble facing those stone-throws” (p. 4). Brügmann, however, does not give any specific details of events, but like Gerstmann, he discusses their possible causes. For Brügmann the question is: “What kind of a ghost was it in Dortmund and how could it throw stones and move other materials” (p. 23)? He lists five possible ‘verdicts’ on the case:—

1 The stone-throwing was entirely a natural event and nothing more than pranks of evil people—in other words fraud. Initially Brügmann was absolutely convinced of this point of view. With the support of most of the citizens, he reports that a “highly esteemed magistrate employed civil servants to detect the fraud”. However, “this opinion had to be given up since the evil manifested not only inside the house but within locked chambers. This cleared away all doubts” (p. 23).

2 In accordance with Roman Catholic belief a deceased soul was held responsible for the haunting event. This coincides with Brügmann’s interpretation of the Bible, according to which there are only two places for the deceased: Heaven or Hell. Since a soul cannot appear after death — he reasons—this must be the Devil’s fraud (pp.24-25), precisely as Tertullian, Chrysostomus and Thomas of Aquin would maintain.

3 A view that is supported by Paracelsus which sees man as consisting of body, soul, and spirit. After death it is only the body that is buried, while the soul goes to meet God or the Devil. The spirit, however, wanders about on earth like a shadow. For Brügmann, however, this view is just too ridiculous to deserve further discussion.

4 Witchcraft was responsible for the ghost apparition of Dortmund. According to this view, a witch is supposed to have made herself invisible in order to play tricks upon the family. Brügmann does not deny the existence of such evil people, but he thinks that they cannot overcome locked doors and believes that they would have been killed by the sword that had been used in vain in this case, “because their body is invisible to us, but yet it remains natural and can be fatally wounded” (p. 27).

5 “An evil spirit, a Satanic angel and ghost, or a goblin and poltergeist undertook such an adventure following a divine doom” (p. 27). For Brügmann this is the “most probable explanation”.

The five possible interpretations which are described here represent an overview of the belief systems that were used to provide a basis for understanding paranormal events at the beginning of the 18th century. The first two hypotheses concern fraud (by humans or by the devil) and raise the question of the authenticity of the phenomena. This question receives a negative answer in the sense that the phenomena are understood as not genuine but rather as having a deceptive nature. In contrast to this, the hypotheses 3 to 5 take the authenticity of the phenomena for granted. The issue of authenticity is difficult to resolve not only in historical cases but even in contemporary cases, where the spontaneity, the non-reproducibility and the elusiveness of the phenomena become the greatest barriers against the attempt to confirm the genuineness of such incidents. Concerning the Gerstmann case, given the technological limitations of that time, there can hardly be better evidence against the fraud hypothesis: here we have a detailed description of the incidents from three different perspectives, from an experienced physician, a student and a parson, and it is a case which was investigated by the municipal authorities and also involved many witnesses of varying educational backgrounds.


While the Gerstmann case offers us insight into typical features of the behaviour of the 18th-century domestic spirits, which are not so dissimilar from those of today, what more does the tradition of folklore tell us about the characteristics of poltergeists? First of all it is of note that the appearance of female figures is reported on only very rare occasions. Secondly, in terms of the classification and phenomenology of the period, a very different belief system was in operation compared with today. The poltergeist originally belongs to the largest family of domestic spirits or goblins, showing a similarity to dwarfs and even on occasion being compared to fiery dragons (Linhart, 1995, p. 40). The term ‘goblin’ has been known since the 13th century while the word ‘Poltergeist’ or ‘Rumpelgeist’ was first employed by Martin Luther at the beginning of the 16th century. According to Zedler’s Universal Lexikon (from the 18th century), goblins and poltergeists are identified with spectres, ghosts or monsters. Various etymologies clarify the character of this haunting domestic spirit. If ‘Kobold’/’goblin’ is considered to be the extended form of the radical root *kold, kolt, kolz, ‘poltern’, then we are reminded of the ‘Poltermännchen’ (literally ‘little noisy man’). If the word stems from the Greek word ‘kobalos’, we think of an intriguing jester. An etymological connection with the Gothic ‘kubawalds’ and ‘kubahulths’ would point at a caretaker or ‘house-holder’ (p.39). Further characteristics can be found in Dagmar Linhart’s work Hausgeister in Franken (Domestic spirits in Franken) (1995) which deals with the goblin as a variety of the poltergeist. According to the ethnologist Linhart, goblins are demonic superhuman beings which are normally and constantly to be found around the house (p. 39). They appear in a remarkable variety of shapes — as human beings or animals. They can remain invisible, attracting attention through noises and certain acts. Being relatively small, they are often given diminutive names like the poltergeist ‘Poppele’ which appeared in several villages on the Heuberge in the Jura of Baden-Wurttemberg (p. 43). Goblins laugh, giggle and make noises. In the castle of Schwarzfeld in the Harz mountains a ghost has been appearing for a long time howling and making noises (p. 65). Goblins may well be helpful, yet they are also hypersensitive, unpredictable and even occasionally cruel, like the famous ‘Hütchen’ (Kupffer, 1704; see Linhart, 1995, pp. 66-67) which was supposed to have stayed in the castle of Winzenburg near Hildesheim between 752 and 1606. It was reported to have cut the cook’s apprentice into pieces and cooked him because, being unnerved by the goblin’s constant pranks, he had thrown boiling water at it (11th century under the reign of Count Dietrich III). In Brandenburg, a goblin was said to have set fire to a house and afterwards refused to leave the vicinity, which was apparently typical for goblins of the time (Linhart, 1995, p. 51).

Initially goblins actually had a positive connotation since they were considered to be old household gods, spirits of the ancestors, revenants or elementals. As domestic spirits, they were usually well disposed towards the house and its owners, increasing their wealth or secretly helping around the house or with the animals. For instance, a similar good spirit, enjoying rapping and therefore being called ‘Klopfer’, used to live in the palace of Flugelau near Crailsheim in Wurttemberg (p. 64). In Weinheim/BergstraBe a ghost, denoted as ‘Weinklopfer’, was reported to have knocked on the wine barrels as a way of announcing a successful harvest (p. 56). A very well known ghost said to be proficient at rapping everywhere, called ‘Klopferle’, stayed in the castle of Grosssachsenheim in Baden-Wurttemberg (p. 64).

Indeed, one of the most interesting findings emerging from this work on historical cases is that as well as malicious poltergeists, there are, at least in the early literature, a remarkable number of benevolent ones. Such positive cases form a major part of traditional accounts to be found within the discipline of folklore. In parapsychology, this is as yet a virtually unresearched area and highlighting these cases may serve as a complement to the current researches on RSPK, which often concentrate on destructive aspects of poltergeist experiences.

Institut fur Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene Wilhelmstrafie 3A, D-79098 Freiburg i.Br., GERMANY


Primary sources are marked with an asterisk. A complete bibliography can be obtained from Dr Puhle at the above address.

Anonymous (ein nach Engelland reisender Passagier) (1719) Kurtze Untersuchung von Kobold . . . Rotterdam.

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Braunschweigischen Carolina vielmals erschienenen Gespenst. . . Braunschweig. Bauer, E. (1992) Die Welt des Paranormalen und ihre wissenschaftliche Erforschung. In

Resch, A. Aspekte der Paranormologie. Die Welt des A^ergewohnlichen. Innsbruck: A. Resch.

Bender, H. (1974) Modern poltergeist research. In Beloff, J. (ed.) New Directions in Parapsychology, 122-143.

Bender, H. (1989) Telepathie, Hellsehen und Psychokinese. Munchen: Piper. Blanck, F. A. (1853) Das Geisterklopfen in Bergzabern. Eine fortgesetzte Darstellung der Ereignisse mit der zwölfjahrigen Philippine Senger. . . Bergzabern: Druck und Eigenthum des Verfassers.

Brewster, D. (1833,) Briefe uber die natiirliche Magie an Sir Walter Scott. Aus dem

Englischen ubersetzt und mit Anmerkungen begleitet von Friedrich Wolff. Berlin: Enslin.

Brügmann, D. (1714) Schrifft- und Vernunfft-mässiger: Unterricht Was von denen ausserlichen Wirckungen der Gespensten insgemein und sonderlich des Dortmundischen insonderheit: zu halten sey? . . . Ossnabrück: M. A. Fuhrmann.

Erzstein (1777) Ertappter Briefwechsel von der Zauberey, Schropfers Kunsten, Nativitatsstellen, Sympathie, Gespenstern . . . Leipzig: Chr. G. Hilscher.

* Fleischer, M. J. M. (1750) M. Johann Michael Fleischers zuverlassige Nachricht von einem

Gespenst, Welches sich 1749 zu Schwartzbach in der Pfarr-Wohnung, Auch ausser derselben, durch Werffen, Singen, Schlagen und Erscheinung geaussert hat. Leipzig: F. Lanckischens Erben. Gauld, A. and Cornell, A. D. (1979) Poltergeists. London: Routledge & Regan Paul.

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Vorstellung Des Gespenstes Und Polter-Geistes… Leipzig & OBnabruck: M. A. Fuhrmann. Gorges, W. and Spehr, F. (1892) Der Klopfgeist zu Dibbesdorf. In Geschichten und Sagen

von Stadt und Land Braunschweig. Unpublished manuscript. Gorres, J. J. v. (1836) Christliche Mystik. Regensburg: Manz. Graf*** (1839-1840) Das Reich der Geister, nach den Ansichten, Beobachtungen und Erfahrungen aller Zeiten und Volker … (5 parts). Leipzig: Christian Ernst Kollmann. Grimm, J. (1986) Deutsche Mythologie (3 vols). Graz. *Haenell, H. G. (1722) Curieuse und wahrhaffte Nachricht oder Diarium, von einem Gespenst und Polter-Geist . . . Hamburg: Th. v. Wierings Erben. Heckner, F. (1884) Die Wahrheit. Culturbilder fuer gelahrte Herren sowie fuer allerlei gebildet Volk . . . Braunschweig: Selbstverlag.

* Heinisch, J. (1723) Das Zeugniss der reinen Wahrheit von den Sonder- und wunderbaren Würckungen eines insgemein sogenannten Kobolds . . . Jena: J. Meyers sel. Wittbe. Horst, G. C. (1821-1826) Zauber-Bibliothek (6 vols). Mainz: F. Kupferberg. Jaffe Bibliotheca Rerum Germanicum.

Kerner, J. (1840-1853) Magikon (5 vols). Stuttgart: Ebner & Seubert. Kiesewetter, C. (1891) Geschichte des neueren Occultismus. Leipzig: W. Friedrich.

Kupffer (1704) Der vielformige Hintzelmann . . . Leipzig. Linhart, D. (1995) Hausgeister in Franken. Dettelbach: Roll. Loeber, Ch. H. (1695) Kurtze und Warhafftige Erzehlung: von einem Gespenste . . . Rudolstadt: H. Urban.

Mannhart, W. (1896) Zauberglaube und Geheimwissen im Spiegel der Jahrhunderte. Leipzig.

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Nees van Esenbeck (1820) Entwicklungsgeschichte des magnetischen Schlafs und Traums. Bonn: Marcus.

Price, H. (1945) Poltergeist over England. London: Country Life. Reichard, E. K. (1781, 1788) Elias Caspar Reichards vermischte Beytrage … (2 vols). Helmstedt: J. H. Kuhnlin.

Rogo, D. S. (1979) The Poltergeist Experience. New York: Penguin Books.

Roll, W. G. (1974) The Poltergeist. New York: New American Library.

Schneider, W. (1882) Der neuere Geisterglaube . . . Paderborn: F. Schoningh.

Semler, D. J. S. (1781, 1782) Lebensbeschreibung von ihm selbst abgefasst (2 parts). Halle.

Sterne, C. (1862) Die Wahrsagung aus den Bewegungen lebloser Korper unter dem Einflusse der menschlichen Hand. (Daktylomantie). Weimar: B. Fr. Voigt.

Thurston, H. (1953) Ghosts and Poltergeists. London: Burns Gates.

Tizané, E. (1951) Sur la piste de l’homme inconnu. Paris.

Wallace, A. R. (transl. Wittig, G. C.; ed. Aksakow, A.) (1875) Eine Vertheidigung des modernen Spiritualismus, seiner Thatsachen und seiner Lehren. Leipzig: O. Mutze.

* Wegner, G. W. (1747) G. W. Wegners . . . Philosophische Abhandlung von Gespenstern Worinn zugleich eine kurtze Nachricht von dem Wustermarckischen Kobold gegeben wird … Berlin: Haude und Spener.

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