Those Haunted Rocking Chairs
August 14, 2015
Whether the product of imagination or other causes, ghostly phenomena are frequently reported as story elements that folklorists term motifs. Among common examples are the ghost at the bedside, phantom footsteps, a mysteriously moving door, an inexplicable light in a window, and so on (as I explain in my 1995 book Entities (pp. 44–53).
Among such familiar motifs is the haunted rocking chair. At historic Liberty Hall in Frankfort, Kentucky, for example, a rocker was reportedly seen on occasion “going back and forth by itself.” Among the several possible explanations for such an occurrence is moving air. In his book ESP, Seers & Psychics: What the Occult Really Is (1970, 169), magician Milbourne Christopher writes: “The strangest air-induced action I have seen was when a child’s rocking chair moved back and forth by itself, until the slightly opened window directly behind it was closed. The chair was on an uncarpeted floor, and there was a heavy wind at the time.”
I had occasion to investigate the haunted rocker phenomenon myself during one of my countless on-site investigations of haunted houses (and haunted castles, forts, inns, ships, graveyards, etc., etc.). I was at the historic Brown-Pusey House in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Although I had heard of the rocker’s spooky movements from a credible local source, I was surprised when the house’s long-time receptionist told me she had never heard of it. Indeed, she called attention to the fact that her desk was directly below the room where the rocker had been situated, and insisted that she would surely have heard it had it been moving.
As it happened, the rocker was no longer located in that room, but when I entered the chamber I immediately perceived the likely cause of the reported event: the floor was so rickety that simply walking upon it caused even a dresser mirror to shake noticeably. But why had the receptionist not heard the rocker’s movement? I feel sure that sound had been overridden by the footsteps of those walking there, and—since their presence was known to the lady below—she thought nothing of those noises. Corroboratively, so far as we know the rocker never moved of its own accord, hence the receptionist’s having been unaware of it.
On one occasion I was startled to see an antique rocking chair suddenly become animated right before my eyes. This occurred at White Hall, the central Kentucky home of Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810–1903), the politician and abolitionist. It took me a moment to realize the cause: A tour guide who had just walked by—without seeming to touch it—had actually whacked one of its runners inadvertently with the hoop of her antebellum skirt.
Of course, there are other possible explanations for “haunted” rockers, including a resident house cat or other pet, an overactive imagination, and other potential sources of “ghostly” activity. Here are two more instances I have come upon over the years.
One is reported at the former home of famous First Lady Dolley Madison (1768–1849), who lived there during her latter years. After her death, men who were leaving the (then nearby) Washington Club at night sometimes saw her ghost on the porch “gently rocking in her favorite chair in shadows highlighted by the glow of the moon” (John Alexander: Ghosts: Washington Revisited, 1998, 25.) Of course the wind could have moved the rocker and imagination done the rest—if there were indeed a rocker on the porch. (The original porch, on the west side of the house—located at Madison and H Streets NW—is now gone but a different porch was built on a different side; see photo I made in 2009.) Otherwise, such sightings, if they occurred at all, could have been started by one club member, somewhat inebriated on leaving, perceiving motion in the highlighted shadows.
Finally, there is this account from the Springfield, Illinois, home of Abraham Lincoln—only one of numerous places the sixteenth president is reputed to haunt, and that I have visited. According to Adam Selzer (Ghosts of Lincoln, 2015, 257), over the years, visitors to Mary Todd Lincoln’s bedroom occasionally witnessed a chair rocking on its own. However, curator Susan Haake reports that a security guard since admitted on retiring that she had rigged the chair with fishing line to effect the ghostly movement!
#1 Bill (Guest) on Sunday August 23, 2015 at 6:59am
Nickell this reminds me, have you covered the “chair of death” at Baleroy Mansion, I can’t seem to find any skeptical coverage of this, only credulous paranormal books.
Also there appears to be no skeptical evaluation of the medium Rudi Schneider. I would love to see a piece covered on the Schneider brothers one day in the Skeptical Inquirer by yourself. The brothers are usually passed off in spiritualist literature as having proven psychokinesis but there is evidence suggestive of fraud. It really needs looking into in depth by an expert such as yourself.
Lastly I can’t find any rational or skeptical coverage on the Ourang Medan. It is a ghost ship but it could well be a hoax. Thanks for all your good research. A British fan here of your work.