When you’re an author of fantasy and horror, and you live in a small town like Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, it’s inevitable that you get requests like the one I recently received from our library director, Jessica:
“I have a spooky question for you.”
She presented me with a badly-faded microfiche printout (see above) of a news story from 1909, about a psychic boy, Henry James Brophy, right here in Mount Horeb. It turned up in an old box at the library, put there and forgotten who knows how long ago. And the story included the picture of an old-style house. Jessica wanted to know if it was what I jokingly called “the murder house,” an abandoned home I’ve been passing for ten years when I walk my kids to school (and which must have a good story of its own).
It wasn’t, but I was intrigued nonetheless. Mount Horeb is wonderful, warm, and welcoming: the last place you’d expect a psychic boy to turn up, and if one did, the last place you’d expect it to be either hidden or forgotten. More than likely, if the house still existed (and it might: my own house is over 100 years old), it would have turned into local lore: “Oh, yah, that’s where that boy lived who could make things fly around, doncha know.”
The microfiche was so faded it was almost unreadable, yet I could make out just enough to set the hook in me:
“… the nine-day wonder of the town has already outlived its proverbial span…”
“… a child that would be noticed in a crowd because of a certain flower-like beauty…”
“…the boy’s grandfather became nearly distracted with terror…”
And then there were the odd details:
“… pieces of soap seemed particularly sensitive to the diabolic influence…”
“…the house had been equipped with electric lights and telephones and it was thought perhaps the house had become ‘electrified,’ causing the disturbances…”
The whole story, in fact, is over 2,200 words long, quite lengthy for a front-page newspaper article. Clearly the author (listed only as “staff correspondent”) had leeway to put in as much detail as he or she wanted.
Since reading it would be a difficult and slow process, deciphering both the faded text and the idiomatic language of the time, I volunteered to transcribe the article as I went so that there would be an easily readable copy (you can read my transcription here). And as soon as I sat down to begin, I found an obvious clue that put the whole thing in a new perspective.
The story of Henry James Brophy appeared in the Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal on April 1, 1909. April Fool’s Day.
Ah, well. I went ahead and transcribed it, finding a fascinatingly detailed story that someone had put a lot of work into, whether it was true or not. By the time I finished, I admired this “staff correspondent” as a writer, if not a journalist.
Now, as a former journalist myself, I knew not to accept anything at face value. Yes, this was probably an elaborate April Fool’s joke, but you never know. So I poked around some more.
There were stories in the Waterloo, Iowa paper The Courier, dated June 11, 1909, and the Washington, D.C.(!) Evening Star on May 16, but both merely rehashed that original story, in some cases reprinting passages verbatim. The thing that kept me going was a follow-up story on April 2 in the Wisconsin State Journal, interviewing skeptical figures from the University of Wisconsin. Why do a follow-up to an April Fool’s joke?
So I visited the Mount Horeb Historical Society, and found out they had a whole file on this, as well as pictures of the house and the alleged psychic boy. It confirmed that the story was no April Fool’s joke, and certainly some people in Mount Horeb believed something supernatural was afoot (there were, of course, plenty who believed it was all a sham).
In 1978, Madison’s Capital Times published a legitimate follow-up on October 26 (just in time for Halloween); reporter Gary Peterson tracked down witnesses to the original events. Many were already dead, but a few provided memories, such as these elderly siblings:
“It was all a fake…he [Henry Brophy] used to take a spool of thread and roll it down the stairs.”–Josie Evans
“His nickname was Spoolix.”–Jake Evans
Or Jan Krogen, who said, “We started keeping a log and it got us kind of spooked. […] The strange coincidences and things that happened all let up after a year.”
In 1980, Michael Norman and the late Beth Scott included the story in their first edition of Haunted Wisconsin. They retold the story, but provided nothing new; like so many others, they seemed to draw their information entirely from that initial April 1, 1909 story and its April 2 follow-up.
So apparently something did happen in 1909, and made enough of an impression that people recalled it 70 years later. Was it genuine psychic phenomena? As with so many alleged psychic events, there’s simply no way to know. Stories like this live on because they’re unusual and unique, and any attempt to explain them away, however well-intentioned, is often resisted because it means that there’s a little less wonder in the world.
Let me know in the comments if you’re interested in reading the text of the original article; if enough people are, I’ll post it.