America has been cursed with poltergeist cases over the years and for the most part, activity associated with such cases includes knocking and pounding sounds, disturbance of stationary objects, doors slamming shut and usually violent, physical actions by sometimes heavy objects. While we have already determined that "intelligent" spirits can certainly cause such things to happen, the cases that we have chosen to focus on in this series are cases that involve what is likely human "agents" for the strange activity.
In such cases, the activity is caused by a person in the household, usually an adolescent, and despite some misconceptions about the cases, this person can often be either male or female. This young person is believed to be unconsciously manipulating the items in the house by "psychokinesis", the power to move things using energy generated in the mind. Most of these disturbances are short-lived because the conditions that cause them to occur often pass quickly. The living person, or "agent" as they are called, subconsciously vents their repressed anger or frustration in way that science has yet to explain.
Perhaps the most famous poltergeist-like case in America took place in Macomb, Illinois in 1948. The case became so well known that it appeared in almost every newspaper in the nation, often on the front page. But what sets this case apart from the others that we have been investigating in this series is the fact that the "force" in this case did not move physical objects around ---- but rather caused them to burst into flames!
In 1948, a disturbed teenager named Wanet McNeill 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. Soon those emotions took a most dangerous course. 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 kinetic energy in her body caused an eruption of power that ignited combustible material all over the house.
The mysterious fires began on August 7 at the farm of Charles Willey. He resided outside of Macomb with his wife, his brother-in-law and Wanet’s father, Arthur McNeil, McNeil’s two children, Arthur Jr., age 8 and Wanet, 13. McNeil had recently divorced and had gotten custody of the children. His former wife was now living in Bloomington, Illinois, where Wanet desperately wanted to be.
The fires began as small brown spots that appeared on the wallpaper of the house. Seconds after they appeared, they would burst into flames. This began to happen day after day and neighbors came to help keep watch and to dowse the small fires with water. Pans and buckets were placed all over the house in preparation. Still, the fires materialized in front of the startled witnesses. Volunteers began standing by with hoses and buckets of water 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. More small blazes even spread to the ceiling.
"The whole thing is so screwy and fantastic that I’m ashamed to talk about it," Wilson said. "Yet we have at least a dozen reputable witnesses that say they saw brown spots smolder suddenly on the walls and ceilings of the home 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 (a flame retardant) and that no flammable compound, such as insect repellant, was present. They had no explanation for the fires they witnessed.
In addition to insurance investigators, the Illinois State Fire Marshal, John Burgard, also visited the farm. "Nobody has ever seen anything like this," he announced to the press, "but I saw it with my own eyes".
That week, over two hundred fires broke out and on August 14 finally consumed the entire house. Willey drove posts into the ground and made a shelter for he and his wife while McNeil moved his children into the garage. The next day, the barn went up in flames, followed by the milk house (being used as a dining room) on Tuesday. On Thursday, two fires were discovered in the chicken house and that same afternoon, the farm’s second barn burned down in less than an hour. A company that sold fire extinguishers was on hand with equipment, but it did little good. An employee of the company stated that "it was the most intense heat that I’ve ever felt."
The family escaped to a nearby vacant house but the fires continued. The United States Air Force even got involved in the mystery. They suggested that the fires could be caused by some sort of directed radiation (presumably from the Russians!) but could offer no further assistance.
By this time, the farm was swarming with spectators, investigators, and reporters. Over one thousand people came to the farm on August 22! Theorists and curiosity-seekers posed their own theories and explanations. They ran the gamut from fly spray to radio waves, underground gas pockets, flying saucers and more. The authorities had a more down-to- earth explanation in mind. They suspected arson. They realized that they could not solve the riddle as to how fires could appear before the eyes of reliable witnesses, but things were getting out of hand on the Willey farm. An explanation needed to be discovered, and quickly!
On August 30, the mystery was announced solved. The arsonist, according to officials, was Wanet. They claimed that she was starting the fires with kitchen matches when no one was looking, ignoring the witness reports of fires that sprang up from nowhere, including on the ceiling. Apparently, this slight thirteen-year-old girl possessed some pretty amazing skills, along with a seemingly endless supply of matches!
Fire Marshal Burgard and a State’s Attorney named Keith Scott had taken Wanet aside for an hour’s worth of "intense questioning". After that, she had allegedly confessed. She stated that she was unhappy, didn’t like the farm, wanted to see her mother and most telling, that she didn’t have pretty clothes. The mystery was solved! This was in spite of the fact that witnesses to the fires had seen them appear on walls, floors and even on ceilings, all when Wanet was not even in the room.
This explanation pleased the authorities but not all of the reporters who were present seemed convinced. The hundreds of paranormal investigators who have examined the case over the years have not been reassured either. One columnist from a Peoria newspaper, who had covered the case from the beginning, stated quite frankly that he did not believe the so-called "confession". Neither did noted researcher Vincent Gaddis, who wrote about the case in his landmark book "Mysterious Fires and Lights". He was convinced the case was a perfect example of poltergeist phenomena.
What really happened on the Willey Farm? We will probably never know because the story just went away after that. Wanet was turned over to her grandmother. The insurance company paid Willey for the damage done to his home and farm. The reporters all had closure for their stories and the general public was given a solution that could not have possibly been the truth. But that’s often the case, isn’t it?
Sources & Bibliography:
Gaddis, William - Mysterious Fires & Lights (1967)
Hauck, Dennis William - Haunted Places: National Directory (1996)
Scott, Beth & Michael Norman - Haunted Heartland (1986)
Personal Interviews and Correspondence
(C) Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.