The Macomb poltergeist case study

The Macomb poltergeist is one of the most famous poltergeist cases in American history. It took place in Macomb, Illinois in 1948. In this case, a disturbed teenager named Wanet McNeil was forced to live with her father after her parent's bitter divorce. The girl and her father moved to an uncle's farm, just west of Macomb. Wanet was very unhappy with the situation and her emotions were high. In the weeks that followed, Wanet managed to start fires all over her uncle's farm with nothing other than the power of her mind. She had no idea that she was causing the phenomena.

The fires began on August 7 on the farm of Charles Willey. They began as small brown spots which appeared on the wallpaper in the house. The spots would appear and then mysteriously burst into flames. This continued to happen day after day and neighbors came to help keep watch and put out fires as they appeared. Pans and buckets of water were left all over the house and when a spot would appear, it would be quickly drenched. Still, the mysterious fires sprang up in front of the startled witnesses and volunteers began standing by with hoses to put out the blazes. The fire chief from Macomb, Fred Wilson, was called in to investigate and he had the family strip all of the wallpaper from every wall in the house. Dozens of witnesses then watched as brown spots appeared on the bare plaster and then burst into flames.

During the week of August 7, fires appeared on the front porch, ignited the curtains in every room, and even engulfed an entire bed. The National Fire Underwriters Laboratory investigated and reported that the wallpaper had been coated with flour paste and no bug repellant was present which might have contained a flammable compound. They had no explanation for what they had seen.

In addition to a number of insurance investigators, the Illinois State Deputy Fire Marshal, John Burgard, also came to the farm.

In the week that followed, over 200 fires broke out, an average of 29 per day. On Saturday, August 14, the fires raged out of control and finally consumed the entire house. Willey drove posts into the ground and made a shelter for his family with a tarpaulin, while McNeil moved himself and his children into the garage. The next day, the barn went up in flames.

On Tuesday, several fires broke out in the milkhouse, which was being used as a dining room. On Thursday, there were two more blazes and a pile of newspaper was found to be smoldering in the chicken house. Later that day, the farm’s second barn burned down in less than an hour.

The family fled to a nearby vacant house, but the fires continued. That same day, the United States Air Force got involved in the mystery. They suggested the fires might be caused by some sort of directed radiation, but had no other explanation for what was going on.

By this time, the farm was swarming with spectators, investigators, and reporters. Over 1000 people came to the farm on August 22! The suggested explanations ranged from fly spray, to radio waves, to underground gas pockets.... with everything else being ruled out, the officials turned to the possibility of arson.

While they had no explanation for the fires that suddenly appeared in front of reliable witnesses, with no possible natural cause, they did realize the puzzle had to be solved... and quickly. On August 30, officials announced the case to be closed. The arsonist, according to officials, was Wanet, a slight, 13-year-old, who apparently possessed some pretty incredible skills.... and an unlimited supply of matches! Supposedly, no one had been looking when she started all of the fires by herself, using ordinary kitchen matches.

Deputy Fire Marshal Burgard and State’s Attorney Keith Scott had taken Wanet aside for a little talk and after "an hour’s intensive questioning," she had allegedly confessed. Her reasons? Apparently, she was unhappy; didn’t like the farm; wanted to see her mother; and didn’t have any pretty clothes. Forgotten were the witnesses who had seen the brown spots appear, spread and then turn into fires, while Wanet was nowhere to be seen. Also forgotten were the fires that had appeared on the ceilings, which could not have been set with ordinary kitchen matches.

This explanation pleased the authorities but not all of the reporters who were present seemed convinced.... and the hundreds of paranormal investigators who have examined the case over the years haven’t been either. One columnist from Peoria, who had covered the case since the beginning, stated frankly that he did not believe the girl’s so-called "confession". And neither did noted researcher Vincent Gaddis in his landmark book, “Mysterious Fires and Lights“, who was convinced the case was a perfect example of poltergeist phenomena.

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