In our 2014 book ‘Australian Poltergeist‘ (Strange Nation), Tony Healy and I presented 52 Australian cases and attempted to rank them in terms of documentation and the quality of eyewitness testimony. By far the most impressive case in our files was a series of strange events that began in 1955 on a large property near Mayanup, West Australia, and then spread to three other farms in the state.
Few poltergeist events anywhere in the world are better documented. Bill and Ethel Hack, who owned the property, “Keninup”, where it all started, were interviewed many times during and after the episode, and Ethel kept a detailed record of events. Her journal formed the basis of The Mystery of the Mayanup Poltergeist (Hesperian Press, 2000) written by her daughter-in-law Helen Hack. That excellent book is the definitive account of the episode and every interested researcher should have a copy.
In September 1991, folklorists John Meredith and Peter Ellis interviewed Ethel Hack and her brother-in-law Doug Hack about the events. The interviews are now available through the National Library of Australia as part of the John Meredith Folklore collection. Meredith’s session with Ethel is particular interesting as she quotes directly from her 1961 journal notes, written only a few years after the events had ceased.
Ethel’s account is extraordinary and includes many common themes from the poltergeist literature. Stones that are strangely hot to the touch and which, on impact, do not roll but appear ‘stuck’ in place. Objects that move slowly through the air. Associated light phenomena. How many of these elements would have been widely known in rural West Australia in the mid 1950s?
The original interview has been lightly edited for clarity. My additional notes are marked.
Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this article contains images of deceased persons. Terms and annotations that reflect the attitude of the author or the period in which the item was written, may be considered inappropriate today.
Ethel Hack interviewed by John Meredith and Peter Ellis in the John Meredith folklore collection Recorded September 9, 1991.
John: …we’re now talking to Ethel Hack. And you’ll be talking about the moving stones out at Mayanup.
John: You’ll be reading from your notes there.
Ethel: Well, I’ll be checking up with the notes.
John: Could you tell me first how old you are, if you don’t mind?
John: And when did the phenomena start?
Ethel: May 17, 1955. [C: Ethel then commences quoting from her journal]. At about 10 p.m. I heard Gilbert Smith [C: an aboriginal worker on the property] trying to wake up my son and a neighbour’s boy who were both sleeping on the veranda. I concluded that he was wanting someone to help settle an argument in the native camp, so I went out and ordered him away. We’d had so much of it during the ten years he’d been in our employ. As a worker he had proved satisfactory and was far more reliable in caring for machinery than any of the other [aboriginal] men who’d drifted in looking for jobs. He was granted his citizenship rights without question and was then permitted to buy liquor, which meant that other [aboriginal people] used to congregate whenever possible at his quarters and indulge in drinking sprees. They invariably ended in brawls with someone coming to the boss for help.
The next day Gilbert told Mr. Hack that there must be a madman in the vicinity and they were too scared to stay by themselves in their quarters. When I had sent him away the night before, he had gone to another nearby camp and persuaded a second family to spend the night with him and his wife. Gilbert and Jean Smith had both heard a whistle, a low mournful sound sustained in the one key. At the same time the kangaroo dog chained up near the quarters barked and howled and plunged around in a frenzy until the chain broke and he disappeared with a yelp into the darkness. I had heard the dog from our house and wondered if foxes were about.
Then an old golf ball came through the open door of Gilbert’s house and an iron ring and some stones landed on the roof. The coloureds concluded that one of their own people had flogged the dog and was then coming to attack them, so Gilbert then came to get help. Although we did not believe his story, we knew that these people were genuinely scared, so Mr. Hack and the other white men who were then on our property, took turns in staying on guard each night with a gun near Gilbert’s place. Then the neighbours came to help as our men all told the same story of stones coming from all directions and we all concluded that a group of culprits was responsible.
Many of us saw lights just after dark, seeming more than 200 yards away and at times over half a mile distant. These seemed like a dull torchlight and would show for a second, go out and show a little further on. Immediately after a light was seen, stones would fall on the roof of Gilbert’s dwelling, no matter how far distant the light. The eerie whistle was heard by a number of people because as the days went by and the trouble continued, more and more visitors came to help solve the problem and catch the culprits, only to find nothing at all happening if they were unlucky or being witnesses to the phenomena if they were fortunate enough to strike a session.
Ethel: By 1957 our poltergeist phenomena had become well known and we’d had visits from various people interested in psychic research, newspaper reporters, people who had experienced similarity linking up all these happenings. Reading and studying everything we could lay hands on and following the advice given by a group of psychic research investigators from Perth, we tried to find a pattern underlying these disturbances. The publicity was unpleasant to us all, especially the coloured folks who are shy with strangers, but this same publicity brought so much contact with people connected with similar phenomena that the Smiths and their relatives became willing to help in recording these events. They had been most anxious to leave our property before, believing that they were living in a “Jannick” [C: a local aboriginal word for spirit or ghost] infested area.
We found that there was activity only if Jean Smith or her daughters were in the dwelling. If she was made angry, generally because of Gilbert’s drinking, the disturbances were stronger. When bad weather was approaching, either heavy rain, strong wind or thunder and lightning, the phenomena seemed to occur. In both 1955 and 56 when this activity started up, Jean must have been in the early stages of pregnancy. When similar phenomena occurred in a nearby camp, also proved to be genuine, the wife Molly, a niece of Jean’s, was also a few weeks pregnant. In both camps there were various children, including teenage girls. It often seemed that the whole area of country within a half mile radius must be allied with some strong force like electricity or magnetism. As well as the small torch-like lights reported earlier, many of us saw lights easily as big and bright as a car light, but throwing no beam.
One morning when Mr Hack and the men went to pick up stones and sticks off the crop, which was only just showing through the soil, they have found that all over an area of about one acre, in one high corner of the paddock, large clods of earth and pieces of wood had lifted and turned over. Rain had fallen during the night, but it ceased early, and in each case the hollows where the clods had been showed quite dry, also the exposed underside of the clods, but the rest of the ground was wet. There were no footprints of any sort showing on the wet soil until the men went to work in the paddock. This section had been one place where lights had been seen. On one occasion a group of visitors had motored to the road near the area as fast as they could, thinking to catch the culprit with the torch. Near Gilbert’s place I found many instances of stones having moved.
I went to that paddock and I saw that myself, because it was so interesting Bill came back to the house to fetch me, to have a look at it. Over this whole area, about as big as this whole building, everything was turned over and where it was turned over it was quite dry, as if a strong force had sort of swept over and upended everything. Only in that one area. And that, later on, is it still on because I’m sidetracking, just to tell you that a chap from Boyup Brook, one of those who can find things by having something in his hand, you know, well all sorts of things he could do, and he was one of those. See that’s another magic trick that’s not magic, it’s natural. He told me that that whole area answered strongly to uranium.
John: Ah yes, when he was divining.
Ethel: Yes, when he was trying to find out, to help us find out what did it all.
John: This is, you mentioned the word there, “Jannick”.
Ethel: Oh that’s, of course, that’s the native word for spirits. Well, can we carry on now with the phenomena? At the time when this phenomena was taking place, in a second camp situated on another hill not far from Smith’s place, one of the coloured boys employed at the time on harvest work came to Mr Hack with a story that we could not have believed, had we not by then read books on psychic phenomena.
This lad had never been to school and it was impossible for him to have read about it happening elsewhere. During the night he had felt a tremendous pull on his feet and it had woken him up. Then he realised that his small brother, sleeping on the ground beside him in a tent, was sliding head first past him. He grabbed the sleeping child and held him still. The pull ceased. The lad got up and went out of the camp tent and stirred up the fire outside. As the fire crackled up, his sister came out of the girls’ tent, telling her brother that her hair had pulled so hard that it had woken her up. They were both very afraid and this family shifted camp as soon as possible. This happened so we’d read of other things. Incidents of a feeling as if the hair was being pulled. That happened elsewhere.
Early evening seemed to be the time when activity was strong. On one occasion I had just got out of the car and saw a stone about six feet away from me, a few inches off the ground. It came straight at my ankle, hit it and dropped straight to the ground. Although we often saw things in flight and watched them land, we could never see anything leave the ground. A few seconds later, an onion coming from near Gilbert Smith’s dwelling, which I was approaching, made a beeline for a point just above my knee. It hit and fell to the ground, staying exactly where it landed. Yet the ground was hard and when I picked it up and dropped it, the onion rolled. That was another point of all these things. They’d drop and stop, as if something had just exploded there.
A little later I was standing just inside the three-sided shed, which stood close to the Smith’s quarters and served in an extra shelter for the bigger members of the family, or the relatives who frequently visited them. Jean Smith also cooked the food here in a camp oven on an open fire, set up for safety in an old petrol drum, opened out. She had been telling me that odd things, stick stones and a shoe, had seemed to come along the alleyway between the dwelling and the shed, so I was looking out to watch for something in that line. I felt a soft, heavy blow in the middle of my back and looked round to see a potato fall on the ground. Two more hit me in exactly the same place, feeling more like a blow from a small bag of flour than a hard object. Immediately behind me was a store cupboard rigged up out of kerosene boxes and I knew no one present had done it.
Although by this time I’d often seen objects moving, all.. rather slowly and others had been hit by them. I’d never been struck in the back before. When I picked them up and dropped them again from the same height, judging to be my waistline, the potatoes always bounced and rolled away. But when they’d hit me and fell, they stayed still just as they landed. So Jean said, “I’ve got no potatoes, I’ll put them in, I’ll cook them.” So she took them to the field and put them in the dish. When they landed, it seemed to me that some magnetic force just held them where they landed. That’s what it seemed to me to be. This seemed to be typical of all objects moving during periods of activity.
I once saw a bottle… we went up to the camp as often as we could because they were afraid. I was sympathetic with people that are afraid. So this particular afternoon I’d gone up, I knew Jean and Gilbert were away and the children had come off the school bus. I went up to be with them near the camp until their parents came back. I once saw a bottle turning slowly over and over and glinting in the bright sunshine of a fine afternoon, travel slowly from the direction of a rubbish dump at the back of Smith’s place and land on the iron roof. There it stayed, but if any of us tried to mimic the throw, the bottle would have to move quickly and on striking the roof would bounce, roll and smash.
On only one occasion we recorded one bottle smashed and a second rolling off the roof and breaking on the ground. This happened during a violent session lasting only ten minutes in which seven bottles, several half bricks and many stones fell on the roof. When this particular session started, there was only a girl of ten years minding the baby in the open shed. The rest of the family were at the farm shed 300 to 400 yards away where Mr Hack and Gilbert were working on some machinery. They all went quickly to the camp when the frightened child came running out and calling to them.
On two occasions I experienced a sudden puff of dust and ashes on my forehead and the front of my hair. The first time I was in the open kitchen shed casually conversing with Jean Smith, but the second time I was alone in their main dwelling, all the family being outside round the fire at the time. That group from Perth told me that to talk to Jean, that she was frightened of the men, that she would talk to me and for me to try to find out all about her, which I did. I used to go up and talk to her and ask her about her childhood and all that and trying to find out if she was a confused person or something, but the one that finished up confused was myself of course.
John: Yes, and that was funny that all of a sudden this dirt and stuff landing on your face.
Ethel: Yes, and you know nobody’s done it, they wouldn’t have done that to me. Another evening a neighbour called in on his way home from work to see if there was anything happening. We drove up the hill and there in the headlights we could all see tiny stones falling like showers of hail. This was at a spot a little distance from the camp. These showers were spasmodic, but were then falling on an area about the size of an average room.
One of the biggest surprises we had in the early stages of this disturbance when we were looking for some culprit to blame with no success was when Gilbert Smith came to Mr Hack with an urgent request from all the coloured people for permission to bring a witch doctor to help them. We had employed Gilbert for 10 years and on account of our sympathy towards these people had tried to study and understand them. We really thought we knew the [aboriginals], but we realised then what we only knew what they permitted us to know.
Although they were far enough away from the old aboriginal to have lost the art of tracking and knew very few native words, they still had their witch doctors, three of whom were living in the Great Southern area. So old Sammy was brought up from Mount Barker together with a young man who cared for him. This Sammy was the man, half Chinese, half aboriginal by the looks of him, who had found a lost child in the Mount Barker district by seeing him from the distance of half a mile in thick scrub.
Sammy told Mr Hack that had the searches been between him and the lost boy, he could not have seen him, but the way was clear so Sammy had the chance to prove his natural gift. He stayed with Smiths for a few days during which all was quiet and he told them that it must be caused by a spirit or Janak. After he returned to Mount Barker and the activity started up again, Sammy and the other witch doctors decided that the spirit must be that of Jean Smiths father, Mr Alf Eades, who was then a very sick old man at Kojonup. The spirit needed to be put back in the old man’s body, so they said, but was worrying Jean because she was the favourite child.
Mr Hack was present at the ceremony which took place in the native camp at Kojonup. Jean Smith watched carefully because she did not really believe all this. Her father roused himself to declare emphatically that his spirit was not doing this, but he was old and weak and slept most of the time. Mr Hack saw the younger witch doctor go a little distance away carrying a blanket. Jean’s keener eyes saw him in the evening gloom, run and dodge here and there after something small and white. He returned to the camp with the blanket rolled up in front of him, puffing, sweating and apparently holding the blanket with difficulty.
In the tent he and Sammy leaned over Mr Eades and opened the blanket… They had both felt that the performing of the ceremony would give the coloured people a sense of security and put their minds at rest which would probably result in a complete cessation of the phenomena. However, no sooner had the car door opened outside Smith’s dwelling and Jean started to get out of the car when the stones began again to fall on the roof. A few weeks afterwards Mr Eades passed away. The disturbance continued.
By May 1957 Smith had become very restless and wanted to leave. They got work elsewhere and said they were not being troubled anymore. They called in as they were driving past on June 8 and Mr Hack persuaded them to visit their old dwelling. As they drove up and opened the car door, one stone landed on the roof followed by a shower of small stones. Then came more showers of stones, one bottle of milk tin, a piece of bone and one stick.
I walked up and stood on one side of the house while all the others were round the other side. Looking up I saw a stick turning over and over and going slowly having apparently come from behind me. It dropped in front of the others. The Smith’s called again on August 10 when we had some of our own relations visiting us from Perth. We all went up to the abandoned camp and in a few minutes one bottle, various stones, one at a time, an empty matchbox and a cigarette butt were collected as they fell to the ground, some inside the hut, some out.
Then on June 26, 1958, when the Smiths were camped on the Mayanup race course where they had been for five weeks, a lemonade bottle suddenly landed on their water tank followed by sticks and stones. Gilbert eventually went to the nearest farmhouse and begged the owner to ring up for the police. They came out from Boyup Brook at 2.30am and stayed for some time. All was quiet then but there was further activity later so the Smiths moved away next day.
In March 1957, a similar disturbance was reported from Pumphrey, a small town in the Great Southern District. This continued for about a week and seemed to fade out. Once again, a coloured family camped on the property was beset and Mr. Hack paid a visit to the place to prepare his experiences with theirs. This family, the Ugles, are related to Jean Smith through her mother, Mrs. Alf Eades.
On September 26, 1957, poltergeist phenomena started up in a completely different area having nothing to do with coloured people. This was at Mr. George Dickson’s place near Boyup Brook. Here it seemed to be in evidence that Mr. Dickson’s son, Harvey, was near. We visited the Dicksons and had no doubt of the genuine nature of the disturbance. I saw small stones land on the roof of an underground tank, seemingly to come from a high point immediately opposite where a group of us stood together. Mr. Hack saw some of the odd things that happened in the dairy when a spade, a milking stool, a milk bucket and a straw broom all seemed to move after the boy had passed them and was at least a yard away from them. This activity faded out after 13 days, which period of time seems to be the most usual in poltergeist phenomena.
Many people have asked me if I was afraid. I doubt if the English language contains the words necessary to describe the feelings of confusion and terror which can grip the mind when confronted by this type of disturbance. When we thought at first that someone was deliberately frightening the Smiths, I was so angry that I was prepared to face any mad or drunken native because I’m anything but brave and know how awful it is to be scared. Although I can understand and respect other people’s belief in spirits, I could never accept this as an explanation.
The whole business is apparently so senseless, yet so similar, no matter where the report comes from, that it must be a pointer to something as yet undiscovered. Some tremendous force is indicated strong enough to cause, on one occasion, an explosive bang which shook the Smith dwelling, on another to shatter a cup standing on the kitchen table. The more one studies about psychic phenomena, the less terrifying it becomes because it seems to be a natural force linking, somehow, with people and things around them. It becomes more of a puzzle and a challenge. In a bit at the end of this story I’m writing, 1961, Jean Smith now has her twelfth child, born approximately a month ago.
Towards the end of January or early in February, Mr. W. Hack had occasion to visit the Smith camp near Boyup to deliver some meat which he’d promised Gilbert. It was dusk and as he drove up in the ute and slowed to a stop, a stone landed on the roof of the ute. During the next half hour at least three dozen stones landed on the ute or hit the camp and eerie whistling was heard. The whistles seemed to be coming from a height of about twelve feet in varying directions and one seemed to come from inside the tent. The whistles were all on the same note and lasted about two seconds.
The phenomena stopped in and Jean told Mr. Hack that it had occurred spasmodically for some time prior to that but neither she or Gilbert had mentioned it to anyone, not wanting notoriety. All the stones were small on this occasion, the largest being the size of a walnut, most of them being no bigger than peas. And what I haven’t got in this [journal] is that the stones were always warm when you picked them up, sometimes so hot you could hardly handle them.
And the one time I didn’t mention it either that I was standing outside the camp, not Smith’s, the other one [C: this would have been another small aboriginal camp around 600 metres from the Smith’s]. It was after school, at least school time, had gone up to our entrance and this is where there was a camp opposite and I went to speak to the Molly Krakouer [C: Molly was Jean Smith’s niece]. This is the camp near where they had that experience of the tents and the pulling of the hair. I was outside their camp and waiting to school bus and I was looking up into a clear grey sky, it was winter time, and it was as clear as clear. And I was thinking, what does cause this?
And as I looked into the sky, there was a tiny shape like a little pea, suddenly took shape and it became a stone and dropped on the roof of their dwelling. The little boy from inside heard it fall and came running out and clambered up on the roof and got it. It was a little stone and he gave it to me and it was very warm. I’d actually seen it taking place in the air and the movement seemed to be, you know when you look through a kaleidoscope and the things jerk into place? A few jerks and it was a stone. First of all I thought it was something coming, well first I thought it might be a bird flying, it all happened so quickly and your mind jumps about. I thought it was a bird in the distance coming this way but no, it was a stone [that] formed…
John: Well thank you very much Mrs Hack.
It was very fascinating, yes. It makes you think.
John: Doesn’t it?
Ethel: Yes, and the thing is to keep an open mind.