The Ultimate Poltergeist – Pumphreys 1957

In my earlier posts on the incredible poltergeist outbreak that started in 1955 on a property near Mayanup in West Australia, I featured interviews with property owners Ethel & Douglas Hack. In Tony Healy and my book Australian Poltergeist, we covered the case in greater detail.

This post features material from our book on another short, but intense, poltergeist episode from the same area that commenced in 1957. Tony was the author and I think he did a fantastic job. Note the clear connection to the Mayanup falls.

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.

Whether it had to clone itself, bifurcate, or enlist a franchisee from the spirit world to accomplish what it did is anybody’s guess, but on 15 March 1957, not content with harassing the residents of “Keninup” and “Lynford Hill”, the Jannick extended its creepy reach 150 kilometres north to a farm near Pumphreys Bridge. 

On that 2500-acre property, ‘Carabin’, owned by 64-year-old Alan Donaldson, it once again focused on two Aboriginal families. Twenty-two-year-old Cyril Penny and his young wife Lorna had a two-year-old baby; Kevin and Alma Ugle also had a young family. They were itinerant workers so, unlike the Smiths and Krakouers, they had no permanent quarters. When at “Carabin” they lived in tents, although Mr. Penny and his wife sometimes used a galvanised iron and canvas shack.

Terrified: Cyril Penny and family.

At the time of the first stone falls their camp was situated in an open area backed by a sparsely timbered hill. As there seemed to be nowhere for hoaxers to hide, they became quite frightened. Although the Pumphrey “rain of terror” was brief (it lasted only seven days) and consisted only of stone falls it was every bit as remarkable as the Mayanup episode. Alan Donaldson and his sons Brian and Ian, who quickly responded to their workers’ pleas for assistance, often saw stones raining down, apparently out of thin air, onto about an acre of ground around the Aborigines’ camp.

Alan Donaldson with stones that fell on his farm in 1955

At first it was only pea-sized pebbles, but as time went by larger and larger stones fell. Although they were never discerned high in the air, they were easy enough to focus on as they passed through the trees. As at Mayanup, some slowly “floated” down, landing with an unnatural, dull thump – a “dead fall”, as Brian Donaldson put it – and most did not roll on landing. On the rare occasions people were struck, the impact was too soft to cause even the slightest injury. 

Alan Donaldson and sons at the campsite

Although most of the stones fell at dusk or later, the terrain was so lacking in cover that the Donaldsons, like their employees, considered hoaxing virtually out of the question. Some stones, in any case, fell in broad daylight, and thorough searches revealed no suspicious tracks. 

A careful experiment dispelled any lingering doubts. Twenty-year-old Ian, his brother Brian, 26, a neighbour and a couple of the Aborigines entered one of the tents, lashed the entrance shut and covered the floor with clean chaff bags.

Brian and Ian Donaldson and other men in a tent at the camp

There they watched, fascinated, as a succession of stones passed straight through the canvas roof without damaging it in any way. Eventually, the entire floor was covered with them. The Aborigines had, in fact, mentioned previous stone falls inside the tents, but until they experienced the phenomenon themselves the Donaldsons couldn’t credit the story.

Witnessing the impossible: Mrs Alma Ugle and her daughter Sandra, farmers Brian and Ian Donaldson and Mrs Lorna Penny with Rhonda inside the tent

They ran but couldn’t hide 

After three nights of terror, the Aborigines decided they’d had enough, so on the night of 18 March, they moved camp to a creek kilometres away. Their effort was rewarded by a few hours’ peace, but by the early hours of the 19th the polt had zeroed-in on them again. When Ian Donaldson visited the new camp just after dawn, they were again being showered with stones. Resignedly, they packed up once again and moved back to “Carabin” – where they were duly greeted by a pebbly barrage. Before long there was another instance of stones falling inside a tent. As Brian Donaldson watched incredulously, the stones thudded gently onto a rug on which two Aboriginal toddlers lay sleeping.

Koolangka (children) Rhonda Penny and Kenny Ugle sleeping inside the tent. The stones to the right of the lamp mysteriously fell there without leaving holes in the tent

Journalists and sightseers 

Word of the new poltergeist event spread very quickly and within a couple of days scores of sightseers descended on “Carabin”. One evening, Brian Donaldson recalled, 60 or 70 people congregated at the Aboriginal camp to watch the show. Several reporters, some of whom had already covered the Mayanup events, also arrived and seemed inclined to believe the phenomenon was genuinely supernatural. 

A crowd stands outsides Cyril Penny’s tent at Pumphreys

West Australian journalist observed that the topography and vegetation around the camp would have made it very difficult for hoaxers to conceal themselves, and Tony Taylor of the Sunday Telegraph, who stayed for four days, witnessed several uncanny events. 

“I was slightly frightened and very perplexed”, he wrote, “when eight stones dropped with soft thumps near me”. Another missed his photographer’s head by a fraction of an inch. “There is no possibility”, Taylor insisted, “that this freak affair is a hoax.” Rob Lenton of the Weekend Mail also saw stones falling and observed that, given the lack of cover and the lay of the land, any “crackpot prankster” would have to possess “the superhuman ability to throw stones … up to 100 yards with uncanny accuracy at a target he can’t see.”

Cyril Penny’s camp at Pumphreys

The Southern Districts officer of the Natives Affairs Branch, Mr. C.R. Webster, who had heard of similar happenings while in India, also visited “Carabin”. After witnessing a couple of stone falls he was convinced they were truly supernatural. 

A dubious story 

Although the journalists saw no evidence of hoaxing, Athol Douglas, who’d been sent to the site by the Western Australian Museum, was loudly sceptical. 

While it is unclear whether Mr. Douglas, an entomologist, actually witnessed any stone falls, he lost no time in branding as liars not only the Donaldsons, their employees and neighbours, but also the journalists who’d reported seeing paranormal phenomena. He went on to claim that, after using a compass to establish the direction from which the stones had come, he’d discovered a footprint and then extracted a confession of hoaxing from an unnamed “friend of Cyril Penny”. 

A man points to a stone that fell at the camp

Apart from the blanket accusation of lying, he offered no explanation for the slow descent of many stones or for the stone falls that occurred inside the tents and his discovery of a solitary footprint in an area where plenty of people had been wandering around seems entirely unremarkable. 

The camp at Pumphreys

Call us hardened old sceptics if you will, but we, like Helen Hack, the Pennys, the Ugles, the Donaldsons and just about everyone else, find Mr. Douglas’s story pretty lame. We think he was simply determined, in defiance of all the evidence, to “explain away” a problem that offended his scientific sensibilities. 

A better story 

To us, the conclusions of Jack Coulter, a Perth-based crime reporter, seem a lot more reasonable. Mr. Coulter, who spent three days in the area, was initially very sceptical.

“The general theory”, he said, “was that these stones were … being flicked or thrown by [the] Aborigines … but that was pretty quickly dispelled … because [they] were obviously in considerable fear”. Coulter was also very impressed by Alan Donaldson, “a very practical man … a successful farmer … an infantry officer in World War One … he wasn’t the sort of chap to be fooled by anything.” 

Jack Coulter, crime reporter

Any remaining doubts vanished as Coulter watched his cameraman, Max Holtern, gather all of the Aboriginal people together for a group shot. He and Holtern were the only outsiders on the property at the time, yet, as Coulter stood there, “with an unobstructed view of about half a mile” and with all the indigenous people lined up in front of him, “… four stones actually fell around us.” 

Coulter noted that when those stones and others struck the ground it was with an unnaturally soft “plop”. Any that landed on a tin roof did so “with just a dull thud”. Having served for four years as an artillery officer during World War Two, he “… was well versed in the science of ballistics and the trajectory of projectiles, but the way these stones were, for want of a better word, appearing, entirely confounded all those … ideas. They [seemed] to be dropping vertically, they were not dropping heavily … I was quite convinced they were, in some peculiar way, dropping out of the sky.”

In 2007, JAG Films (Western Australia) released a brilliant documentary on the WA stone-falls, ‘Spirit Stones‘. The producers did an incredible job locating witnesses to the original episode, including Jack Coulter, who is interviewed in the short clip below.

Inspector Sunter investigates 

While Coulter was still at the property a senior policeman arrived to investigate. Inspector Keith ‘Slom’ Sunter was a very experienced officer “who knew the bush, knew the Aborigines and was a straight down the middle, hard-nosed cop”. Although he didn’t see any stone falls himself, he became firmly convinced they did occur. 

According to a report he sent to the Acting Commissioner of Police on 19 March, Sunter, like Coulter, had been very favourably impressed not only by Alan Donaldson, “a well respected citizen, a Justice of the Peace, and a man of some substance” but also by “all the other persons … people of intelligence … who have witnessed these happenings …” 

Cyril Penny (rear) and other Aboriginal men in a tent at the Pumphreys camp

As well as quizzing the Donaldsons and their employees, Sunter interviewed several neighbours who’d been struck by falling stones. A Mrs. Garrigal, who was hit on the chest, told him that the impact was very gentle: it was as if she’d been struck by a cork. Mr. Quartermaine, a farmer, received a similar, oddly gentle impact to his neck. Their testimony was particularly interesting because when they (and two companions) were at the camp being showered with stones, the Donaldsons were attending a sale in town and all the Aborigines were working on a fence line two miles away. 

Apparently because of that incident, Inspector Sunter began to favour the theory that the stone falls were not linked to any particular person or persons, but were “apparently due to some geological disturbance … this could have been occurring for some time past and has only just been discovered owing to the natives having camped in the immediate vicinity. The number of small stones in the area … would give one the impression that this is so.” As good a theory as any, perhaps, given what Sunter had learned at “Carabin” – but one that would have been revealed as inadequate had he extended his investigation to include the two Mayanup properties. 

In conclusion, Inspector Sunter endorsed the accuracy of Jack Coulter’s version of the events. 

Canberra Times, 19 March 1957

Mr. Jinx 

At Pumphrey, as at Mayanup, it seemed obvious the polt was concerned almost entirely with the Aboriginal people. Whereas hundreds of stones fell around and inside their camp, only a few fell on the nearby Donaldson residence. Significantly, all of those fell at about 9.30 pm on 18 March – when Lorna Penny and Alma Ugle were visiting the homestead. 

Because he was related to the Smiths (he was Jean’s nephew) and because he’d visited Mayanup during the polt activity, Cyril Penny concluded that the Jannick had latched onto him there and hitched a ride back to Pumphrey. As we will see, there is every reason to believe he was right. In any case, because most of the phenomena at “Carabin” seemed to be focused on his family, Cyril became convinced that he was jinxed. So he and Lorna packed up once again, and on March 20th Alan Donaldson trucked them to a new camp at Williams, 40 kilometres to the south. 

The stones, however, continued to fall at “Carabin” and Kevin Ugle, now convinced it was he who was jinxed, drove down to Narrogin to plead for help from an Aboriginal marbar….

For the rest of the amazing Pumphreys case, check out ‘Australian Poltergeist‘.

Kevin Ugle circles a stone that fell at Pumphreys

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