In April 1921, the small farming community of Guyra was rocked, literally, by an apparent stone-throwing spirit and series of other unusual happenings. Along with the ghostly attacks, an elderly woman, with a potato in each hand, vanished into thin air, a young girl was shot in the head by her kid brother, the town’s Police Sergeant was ordered far away “for a rest” and the town was visited by a close personal friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
This week, weirdaustralia explores the events that bedevilled Guyra, but captivated the nation, as witnessed by those who reported them.
Tremendous thumpings…no human agency involved
The ghostly activity began around 8 April when the Bowen family experienced “tremendous thumpings” on the walls of their tiny four-roomed weatherboard cottage, located about half a mile outside Guyra on the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales. Soon, these unexplained banging sounds would be accompanied by more destructive showers of stones raining down upon the house. After initial investigations by the Bowens, there appeared to be “no human agency” involved in the wall banging and stone throwing.
These apparently supernatural attacks appeared to revolve around the Bowen’s daughter Minnie, described rather unflatteringly in a 1954 Sydney Morning Herald article as “a thin, dark, little girl with an impassive face” and academically as “not clever, and backward for her age at school”.
Wherever young Minnie went within the house, those “tremendous thumpings” would accompany her. Stones would crash through her bedroom window and land on her bed. As the attacks increased, soon every window in the house was broken. Not surprisingly, the family was left bewildered. Calling on their neighbours for help, word about the haunting quickly spread and the locals came to the family’s defence.
“Night after night, the men of the township threw a double cordon round the cottage. Night after night, the stone-throwing and the thunderous rapping on the walls continued.”
The Sydney Morning Herald revisited the Guyra Ghost mystery in a feature published on 9 March 1954 titled: A Staff Correspondent Recalls The Unsolved Riddle Of Guyra’s Ghost. The article included the following account:
“On the night of April 15 Minnie sat in a well-lighted bedroom, watched by two police officers and a number of other people. Outside ‘in weak moonlight’, 50 men patrolled the silent fields.
“About nine o’clock the silence was shattered by a loud knock on the bedroom wall, followed by two further thumps. Their force was such that the entire building shook. The women inside the house were white with fear, but Minnie remained impassive.
“A Mr Davies, who was interested in spiritualism, suggested to the child that she should ask a question, and she immediately said, ‘Is that you, May?’ naming her half-sister who had died some months before.
“Observers heard nothing, but Minnie claimed later that May had said to her, ‘Tell mother I am in heaven, and quite happy. Tell her it was her prayers which got me here, and I will look after her for the rest of my life.’”
It appears the spirit of May had a strange way of “caring” for her mother. The article continued:
“There were no further disturbances that night. But two days later the Bowen family returned from the fields to find that heavy shutters and battens, nailed over broken windows, had been smashed and piled on the verandah.
“A few nights later, when the outside of the house was illumined by a spotlight, two large stones struck a wall against which a policeman was standing.”
These constant supernatural attacks soon took their toll on everyone in the town. The local Police Sergeant, who had kept vigil at the Bowen’s house over many nights, experiencing the constant onslaught of flying stones and loud banging, soon cracked under the strain. He was sent far away from the town by his superiors “for a rest”.
It may not have only been the supernatural stone throwing and banging that took their toll on the Sergeant’s nerves, however. The town seemed to be suffering a run of bad luck.
Elderly woman vanishes into thin air
Just days before the vindictive Guyra Ghost began its reign of terror, the townspeople of Guyra had been baffled by another mystery, the unexplained disappearance of an 87-year-old Irishwoman, Mrs Doran.
On 5 April, a farm worker had reported seeing Mrs Doran “walking across the fields with a potato in each hand. She topped a rise and was gone”.
Even after search parties had thoroughly scoured the entire district looking for the elderly woman, no trace of her was ever found. Mrs Doran and her two potatoes had seemingly vanished into thin air.
With the disappearance of poor Mrs Doran and the continuing stone-throwing attacks, it was little wonder the nerves of everyone in Guyra were frayed. And the town’s apparent run of bad luck was set to continue.
Young girl shot in head by kid brother
Nobody in Guyra now felt safe without a weapon and it was reported that “the women of the district began to sleep with guns within easy reach of their hands”.
Just how a gun is supposed to protect one from unseen supernatural forces remains unclear, however.
Unfortunately, this sudden reliance on firearms for protection led to near-tragedy. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in Guyra Mystery. Stone Throwing Continues on 30 April that:
“A revolver left handy on a bedroom table in a tradesman’s house near the railway station, in case the ghost walked in, was picked up by a little boy of five years. He evidently thought it was a toy pistol, and fired it. The bullet entered the skull of his sister, aged 6, and, owing to its dangerous position, cannot be removed.”
Thankfully, the girl survived the accidental shooting.
Was the haunting hoaxed?
Were the people of Guyra simply letting their imaginations get the better of them?
After interrogating young Minnie, a breakthrough in the perplexing case was announced by the police. They declared they had a full admission that the Guyra Ghost was a hoax.
“They [the police] suspected that some of the people among the volunteers, who kept a vigil around the house, were ‘sympathetic’ in relation to ghosts…In conjunction with an admission by a young member of the Bowen household — a girl named Minnie — that she had done a little atone throwing on her own account…”
So, was it now case closed on the Guyra Ghost? Were those volunteers “sympathetic in relation to ghosts” hurling a few rocks at the house during the night?
Could a young girl described as being “not clever, and backward for her age at school” instigate an elaborate hoax that fooled her family, her neighbours and, for a time, the police? Or, was she simply telling the police what they wanted to hear in her admission.
The people of Guyra remained unconvinced. “They do not regard the child’s confession of having thrown a few little stones as a solution of the matter.”
Unfortunately for the Bowens, the stone throwing continued despite the police having cracked the case. Mr Bowen reported that the house was again struck by a number of stones during the night. Minnie was inside the house at the time. Mr Bowen “immediately rushed outside with his gun and fired several shots in the direction whence he thought they had come.”
The Guyra Ghost goes to Glen Innes with Minnie
Following further outbreaks of stone throwing and wall banging, in May Minnie’s parents, at their wits’ end, shipped her off to her Gran’s house 60 kilometres away in Glen Innes.
While this solution brought relief to the people of Guyra, it was now Glen Innes’ problem. On 11 May The Sydney Morning Herald reported in Guyra Stone-Thrower Shifts Quarters. Operations At Glen Innes, that:
“The Guyra ghost has removed his venue from Mr Bowen’s house to that of Minnie’s grandmother (Mrs Shelton), who resides in Church Street, Glen Innes…
“…Shortly after the last night noises were heard like stones bumping on walls, the neighbours made inquiries, and the police were sent for…
“…Constable Stewart was sent along to investigate, when he and several others who had arrived were walking round the house a stone hit the window of Alf Shelton’s bedroom, breaking a pane of glass and becoming entangled in the curtain. This stone was of ordinary white metal, and was similar to many others on the footpath in front of the house. The constable kept a close watch, with Minnie inside the house, and while there heard four or five distinct sounds resembling knocks against iron at a distance, but he was not sure whether they emanated from inside or outside. He came to the conclusion that the girl was responsible, and declined to stay any length of time.”
It appears Constable Stewart was very keen to get out of that house as soon as he could.
“After his departure the inmates of the house and the neighbours outside were emphatic in their statements that they heard many noises up till midnight as of stones hitting the walls or the roof.”
It appears that the paranormal activity faded as suddenly as it had started. After a short stay with her Gran in Glen Innes, Minnie’s parents took her back home, and the activity soon “faded away”.
Dead sister’s spirit or poltergeist?
The events that took place in Guyra and Glen Innes over several months in 1921 seem less likely to be the doings of the spirit of a dead girl but more the result of poltergeist activity. After all, nobody witnessed any apparition, and apart from Minnie, nobody heard any disembodied voices. And one suspects that perhaps Minnie was simply telling people what they wanted to hear when she recounted her apparent conversation with her dead half-sister.
On 22 April, The Sydney Morning Herald explored this possibility in Guyra Mystery. Attributed To Poltergeist – Recorded Cases:
“One of the many people attracted to during the last few days by the uncanny happenings there was Mr. H. J. Moors…”
Mr Moors was a businessman with interests in the South Pacific. He was also fascinated with psychic phenomena and was a close personal friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was made aware of the case after reading an article in The Sunday Times.
After spending time talking with Minnie, police and locals involved in the events, Mr Moors was convinced that the supernatural events “were not the product of trickery, or the ghost of Minnie’s half-sister May, but the result of poltergeist activity”.
Today, investigator Paul Cropper, who is writing a book on the subject, agrees with Mr Moors’ assessment of the case. “The Guyra Ghost is possibly Australia’s best known case of a poltergeist…”
“It’s a fascinating case, and it contains almost all of the characteristics of these kinds of cases worldwide,” he told the Guyra Argus. “My own feeling is that the Guyra haunting was the real thing, and that young Minnie was unconsciously the focus – and possibly the source – of some genuinely strange events”.