Comments on a Recent Skeptical Revisitation of the Columbus Poltergeist Case
In a December 1, 2022 entry (with accompanying YouTube video) that he posted to his "Ghosts in the Machine" blog on the Skeptical Inquirer website, Kenny Biddle (2022) made an effort to re-examine some of the more high-profile disturbances reported as part of the Columbus Poltergeist case that was investigated in 1984 by the PRF's first research director, the late William Roll, whose 2004 book Unleashed was devoted to giving a full account of the case (Roll & Storey, 2004). Although his effort to look for more conventional ways to alternately explain some of the "poltergeist" disturbances reported around 14-year-old Tina Resch might be seen as commendable, there are a number of issues with Biddle's re-examination that limit the conclusions he reaches from it, and this commentary is meant to highlight those issues in detail. Each of these issues is addressed below in roughly the order they appear in Biddle's YouTube video, with the approximate minute & second (min:sec) noted before each one:
3:48 - Biddle mentions the instances described by electrician Bruce Claggett of light switches seeming to flip up and down by themselves, even after Claggett had secured them down with Scotch tape. At 4:08, Biddle states that after taping down the switches, Claggett "...walked away, and they [i.e., Claggett and other witnesses] would come back and find the tape was missing..." This wording seems to imply that after taping them down, Claggett left the switches completely unattended in every instance, which was not the case. As Roll describes in his book (Roll & Storey, 2004, Ch. 5), there were several instances in which Claggett remained in the same room where some of the taped switches were located, with Tina being in his view when the switches were flipped. And in other instances, Claggett kept Tina beside him when securing the switches. These would not have allowed Tina the opportunity to surreptitiously peel off the tape, hide it under her shirt, and switch the light on, as Biddle suggests (4:48). And though Biddle emphasizes and downplays the use of Scotch tape to secure down the switches, he does not mention that in some instances Claggett had used Band-Aid bandages as well, which are stickier (so as to securely adhere to the skin) and can take more effort to remove.
THE FLYING PHONE
7:41 - A clip from the segment on the Columbus case that was featured on the TV show Unsolved Mysteries on May 19, 1993 is shown where Columbus Dispatch photographer Fred Shannon states that the phone went into motion when he looked away, and Biddle implies from this that while Shannon wasn't looking, Tina pulled a trick. But Biddle fails to mention the testimony of Dispatch reporter Mike Harden, who, as Roll notes in his book, "...was facing Tina when the phone took off. In his report, Mike said he saw the phone in motion without it being aided in any way by Tina" (Roll & Storey, 2004, p. 179).
11:42 - Biddle mentions a claim that Tina "...made a noise to signal that the phone was going [into motion]," though he does not cite a specific source for this until later (14:49), when he reveals that this claim comes from magician James Randi, who did not make first-hand observations of the reported phenomena because Mrs. Resch did not give him permission to enter the family home (which Biddle mentions, almost in passing at 41:01; more on this matter in the "Summation" section below).
12:27 to 13:25 - Biddle's first test demonstration with his female volunteer involves the use of cuing and suggestion (when he mentions "we're going to pull this across" at 12:46), which would leave his volunteer open to reacting by expectation. She is also told how to react, and it is unknown whether she had any background familiarity with the case. This would imply that her reaction is not a natural one. Moreover, close examination of the well-known Shannon photo in question (Frame 25, shown as the cover image for this blog entry) would seem to indicate that Tina had jumped backward and pulled her arms back in a dodging motion, not threw them upward, as Biddle's volunteer does. This may alternately explain why the phone cord did not drape itself over and get entangled in Tina's arms.
14:43 (& 16:42) - Biddle largely relies on the claims made by Randi, who again did not make any first-hand observations of the reported phenomena. Randi's claims seemed to be based solely on second- (or even third-) hand reports from other reporters. In Ch. 16 of his book, Roll also points out the serious issues with various claims that Randi (1985) made in his Skeptical Inquirer article about the case. Lastly, one should note that for some unknown reason, Randi did not ever follow up on his evaluation of the case by publishing the second part of his article, in which he proposed to look closer at the witness reports given by Fred Shannon and Bruce Claggett, among other evidence (see Randi, 1985, p. 235). Arguably, this all raises serious question about Randi's credibility in reporting on this case.
15:20 to 16:06 - Biddle's second test demonstration with his wife involves his wife already having the phone in her hand in each instance. Neither Harden nor Shannon stated that they saw Tina holding or grabbing the phone at any time. And as mentioned above, Harden stated that he was facing Tina when the phone moved, so it is quite possible that he would have seen her holding or grabbing it. Biddle does not test the condition where his wife's arms are set fully down on her lap, and the phone is completely secure and at rest in its base on the shelf next to her.
SLIDING KITCHEN CHAIRS
24:04 - Biddle mentions the statement by reporter Drew Hadwell (his name is misspelled in the news story text) that he was sitting at the kitchen table with Tina when three of the table chairs slid out. Biddle's third test demonstration recreates this using a table covered with a tablecloth, which is presumably used to help conceal the movement of his legs. But a photograph taken of Tina sitting at the kitchen table (which appears as the first image shown in the inset between pp. 150 & 151 of Roll's book) indicates that the kitchen table in the Resch home did not have a tablecloth over it - the bare wood surface is showing. It is also unclear whether the chair legs of the Resch kitchen table were all set in rather tight proximity to each other, as they were for Biddle's test setup.
18:33 - Biddle mentions the crowded nature of the home during the nearly eight-hour media coverage period. But he fails to mention that this may have been the likely motivator for Tina's instance of imitative fraud: Many of the reporters were insistent on staying in the Resch home until they witnessed a disturbance, and though she tried to be hospitable, Mrs. Resch eventually grew more displeased about their overstaying their welcome in the home, and so Tina purposely pulled the lamp over in order to satisfy them, so that they would finally leave (Roll & Storey, 2004, pp. 97 - 98).
KLEENEX BOX STICKS THE LANDING
30:46 - Biddle claims the tissue box flew a distance of four feet, which (from the text he is consulting on p. 81 of Roll's book) does not appear to be accurate. The text states that four feet was the distance the box was from Tina, not the distance the box flew (which is not precisely stated). Biddle seems to be assuming that this is the distance the box moved (following from the further assumption that Tina had thrown it).
Also, in order for his fourth test demonstration to work, Biddle has to further assume that the tissue box lands in, and gets stuck on, a dried sticky substance lingering on the table surface. We don't know whether such a condition existed at the time.
32:14 - Biddle states that "...there's lots of reports of eggs flying across the room and hitting walls, and actually coming out of the refrigerator by themselves," but it's inaccurate to say "lots." The event was localized to the kitchen (and did not extend to the living room), and only involved a few clustered reports (Roll & Storey, 2004, p. 63).
33:31 - To his credit, Biddle does acknowledge that his test demonstrations are dependent on a number of speculations and unverified assumptions he makes about the conditions found in the Resch home during the events in question. And so it is important to recognize that while his demonstrations do show how some of the reported phenomena can be possibly faked through trickery, the extent to which they accurately reflect the actual conditions, and thus can fully explain these phenomena, remains largely unclear. This, along with Biddle's admitted limitation that CSICOP/CSI had to rely solely on secondary sources in their investigation (41:04) rather than first-hand observations, would arguably render his assertion of "...not only do we know about it, but we can figure out what went on, and we can recreate the events pretty close to what was going on - if not exactly - what had happened in that house" (41:25, emphasis added) as not being very well supported.
40:50 - Biddle laments the inability of Randi and two scientists from Case Western University to try and investigate the Columbus case on behalf of CSICOP/CSI because they were denied entry into the family home by Mrs. Resch. But something Biddle does not point out - which is pointed out in the March 14, 1984 Columbus Dispatch article that Biddle briefly displays on the screen at 40:59, and which even Randi (1985, p. 223) himself admitted - is that the CSICOP team wasn't fully barred from entering the home; Mrs. Resch was willing two admit the two scientists, but they refused to enter without Randi. So it's not entirely accurate for Biddle to claim that "they weren't allowed to investigate." The two scientists still could have, but chose not to.
42:03 - Biddle makes a sweeping "straw man" judgment about Roll's capability as a field investigator on the basis of only ONE case - he does not scrutinize any of the many others that Roll did, and the fact that Roll did uncover deliberate fraud in a number of them. While he did see the book on magic (and was suspicious of it, as noted in the text), Roll did not consider trickery in certain instances because Tina was not close to, and in easy reach of, the object when it moved (as in the teacup incident - see Roll & Storey, 2004, pp. 128 - 129); or she was being closely observed in an unfamiliar environment (as in the events at Spring Creek Institute - see Roll & Storey, 2004, Chs. 17 & 18; Stewart et al., 1987). Roll was not a gullible investigator, by any means, and it is irresponsible of Biddle to characterize him that way, without knowing and scrutinizing all of the details.
47:06 - Biddle makes some errors about Roll and the study of Tina at Spring Creek Institute: Spring Creek was not "his" [i.e., Roll's] lab - it was an independent research facility not owned by the PRF or directed by Roll. And so it was not Roll's decision to not film Tina - he did not "decide against it," as Biddle claims. Quite the opposite: he was all for it. But Steve Baumann (who was working at Spring Creek), following ethical research guidelines, said that they could not film Tina without her informed consent (which would've required revealing the presence of the camera to her - knowledge that likely would've altered her behavior). Roll makes this clear not only in his book, but also in the Parapsychology Foundation "Perspectives Lecture" he gave in 1998. In referring to the Spring Creek study, he stated in that lecture:
I brought a [video] camera and focused it on a table where we had target objects. And concealed the camera in a piece of laboratory equipment; it was very cleverly concealed. And [I] expected to use it. But my colleague, who was in charge of the laboratory, said: "No, we can't do that; it's unethical." And I hit him - I had to [the latter said by Roll in jest]. (Roll, 1998).
If Biddle doesn't understand why this happened (since he bluntly characterizes it as "dumb"), then he clearly doesn't understand proper research ethics with regard to human participants taking part in research studies. And a responsible investigator should know that ethics in research studies is no laughing matter - that's why we have institutional review boards (IRBs) to protect participants' rights nowadays.
Biddle also doesn’t address any of the more controlled observations that were made of Tina at Spring Creek (Baumann et al., 1986; Roll & Storey, 2004, Chs. 17 & 18; Stewart et al., 1987), which are arguably the most interesting and crucial parts of the case, and the ones that skeptics do not seem to ever mention (much less address). These observations (as well as those conducted with another poltergeist agent in a laboratory setting) are conveniently summarized in an Adobe PDF article found at this link:
By not addressing the Spring Creek observations, Biddle overlooks a big part of the available data (or simply ignores it, since it is described in Roll’s book, which he read).
From this, it might be seen that Biddle's re-examination of this case is very one-sided and should be taken with some caution.
Baumann, S., Stewart, J. L., & Roll, W. G. (1986). Preliminary results from the use of two novel detectors for psychokinesis. In D. H. Weiner & D. I. Radin (Eds.) Research in Parapsychology 1985 (pp. 59 - 62). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
Biddle, K. (2022, December 1). Revisiting the Columbus Poltergeist. https://skepticalinquirer.org/exclusive/revisiting-the-columbus-poltergeist
Randi, J. (1985, Spring). The Columbus Poltergeist case: Part I - Flying phones, photos, and fakery. The Skeptical Inquirer, pp. 221 - 235.
Roll, W. G. (1998). Psychic Connections. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1CKV88NCZU?t=3101
Roll, W., & Storey, V. (2004). Unleashed - Of Poltergeists and Murder: The Curious Story of Tina Resch. New York: Paraview Pocket Books.
Stewart, J. L., Roll, W. G., & Baumann, S. (1987). Hypnotic suggestion and RSPK. In D. H. Weiner & R. D. Nelson (Eds.) Research in Parapsychology 1986 (pp. 30 - 35). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.