Thursday, 23 April 2015

The 'Brother Doli' Poltergeist Case


The ‘Brother Doli’ Poltergeist Case


I recently came across the website of ‘Psychic Science’, subtitled ‘Explore psychic abilities & the paranormal with Michael Daniels PhD’.  On it is a page devoted to ‘Notable Modern Poltergeist Cases’ (modern being after 1960).  Most of these are obvious, if a highly selective assortment: Sauchie, Enfield, Rosenheim, Matthew Manning, plus a few less-well known cases, a couple investigated by William Roll, one from Brazil.  The final one is ‘The Brother Doli Case (1997-2002)’, which was investigated by none other than Michael Daniels himself.  He wrote it up in some detail, heavily illustrated, in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 2002.

The events took place near Mold, North Wales, at the home of David and Rose-Mary Gower.  Living with them was their adopted son John-Paul, born in 1985, who had Down’s Syndrome.  As the ‘Notable Modern Poltergeist Cases’ entry describes it, the phenomena consisted of a variety of aspects:

‘Large numbers of stains and carvings of images and Welsh words, generally of a religious nature, inside and outside the house. Intrusions of Welsh religious words in emails, computer files and printed documents. Noises. Strange smells. Temperature fluctuations. Pools of water. Electrical disturbances. Object  displacements, disappearances and reappearances. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary and of a monk. Photographic anomalies. Scratching of skin. No throwing of objects was reported.’

This doesn’t really do the phenomena justice, but gives a flavour.  ‘Brother Doli (Adolphus) was a nickname given by the family to whatever was causing the events, though the Gowers’ youngest daughter claimed to see the apparition of a young monk, Rose-Mary herself saw a monk-like figure, and a message (we are not told what it said) was found on a notepad signed ‘Doli’.  Following Daniels’ JSPR paper, the Gowers themselves had an article, ‘The 'Brother Doli' Case: Family Perspectives’.  This is unusual, but we rarely hear directly from the witnesses themselves in articles written for academic publications.  Having the two articles next to each other might however raise a question in the reader’s mind about Daniels’ independence.  He feels less like an investigator than an agent.

I was somewhat unimpressed with the case, feeling that it did not stand up to careful scrutiny, and after comparing what Daniels had written with Rose-Mary Gower’s various internet writings on the subject, wrote a letter to the SPR’s Journal which was published in the April 2003 number.  I reprint it here in full, complete with the web references that were in my letter as submitted to the editor but omitted when it appeared in the Journal.


To the Editor

‘Michael Daniels, together with Rose-Mary and David Gower, whose house Dr Daniels investigated for the “Brother Doli Case” (October issue), spend thirty-two pages describing an investigation which seems to evaporate the closer one looks.  Indeed, the discussion rehearses most of the objections which a critic would want to make so clearly that one wonders whether what is left warrants the expenditure of such a large quantity of SPR resources.

‘What is missing is an analysis of the pronouncements by Rose-Mary Gower in her Internet writings.  The alarm bells should sound at David Gower’s remark that the details have evolved to make them into a better (more dramatic?) story, and that “Rose-Mary, like her media contacts, enjoys a good tale”.  This is a key element which Michael Daniels does not address, but which can be appreciated by comparing this account to those found on the Internet.  It can be seen that each is tailored to the appropriate audience.

‘For example a reference to John-Paul seeing Brother Doli patting Aslan, the family’s dead Alsatian dog, in the garden [1], is omitted from the Journal report.  The stone dated 1610 is here said to look new, and the age of the original building unknown, but in her Internet writings Rose-Mary claims that the house dates from the seventeenth century: “We live in a 17th Century farmhouse near Mold in North Wales UK” [2]; “David, my husband, Down’s Syndrome son John-Paul and I moved into Penyffordd Farm, circa 1610, just outside Treuddyn, in February 1997” [3].  Her description of smiley faces appearing on the walls “suggesting that the monk is a happy little spook!” [4] also fails to obtain a mention in the Journal report.

‘Rose-Mary does say that the most likely explanation of the phenomena is a hoax (not by her, of course), but this apparent candour seems to be undermined by the account of the flowers changing into wasps.  Interpretation of the case is a choice between the paranormal and a hoax perpetrated by her alone or in collusion, possibly forming a framework in which mundane occurrences are interpreted as paranormal by others.  One source of evidence, the possessions of visitors which had Welsh words engraved (or embossed, depending on the source) on them, does not appear to have been subject to scrutiny.  These items are not mentioned again, and Michael Daniels has not interviewed anyone outside the immediate family.

‘In short, Dr Daniels lists a number of reasons why this case should not be taken seriously, but is less clear about why it should.  The Gowers are active self-publicists, and this article appears to be one more element in their endeavours, with the added bonus of being written by someone else and appearing in a scholarly journal – hence its sobriety compared to the others that are aimed at a wider audience.  This manipulation fatally damages the case’s credibility.’

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/northeast/guides/weird/ghosts/ghostmonk.shtml
[2] http://www.ghoststudy.com/ghost_story_welsh.html
[3] http://www.moldweb.co.uk/monk.htm
[4] http://www.moldweb.co.uk/monk_update.htm


The reference to the flowers changing into wasps was an incident recounted in passing on p.195 that I thought should have carried more weight:

‘The next series of phenomena began in August 1997 when Rose-Mary reports that a strange transformation occurred in the kitchen when she was clearing out a vase of dried blue flowers. Having placed the flowers on the floor while she stepped briefly outside, Rose-Mary returned to find that the blue petals had changed into a large group of dead and dying half-drowned wasps.’

The suggestion is that she was alone when this happened (the presence of someone else should have been recorded) and it seems that therefore a hoax by somebody else, or misperception by her, could be ruled out in this instance.  The choice is between such a transformation occurring without (living) human intervention or Rose-Mary making it up.  If the latter, it casts doubt on the rest of her testimony.

I had several reservations that I did not include in the letter, but my major one concerned the possible role of other members of the family.  Apart from John-Paul the children remained shadowy presences in the article.  Though the three daughters were interviewed, no information about them is provided.  It is implied that they were infrequent visitors, yet David Gower says that his early, albeit later discarded, suspicion was that ‘his grown-up children’ were hoaxing the phenomena, implying that they were often in the house.  Relatives, friends and acquaintances were said to have witnessed events, but information given to Daniels was channelled through the Gowers, mainly Rose-Mary.  David seems to have been fairly disengaged from the business.

Dr Daniels was given the right of reply to my letter in the same issue, and it is worth examining in detail as it is a good indication of his attitude to weighing evidence.  He divides my points into four categories:

1) Daniels’ article does not address Rose-Mary’s various accounts that I claimed were ‘tailored to the appropriate audience’;

2) He had not interviewed anyone outside the family whose possessions had been affected;

3) The case’s credibility is too slight to warrant such lengthy treatment in JSPR;

4) The Gowers are ‘self-publicists’ whose activities are encouraged by coverage in a scholarly journal.

He then responds at double the length of my letter.  To begin with he states that the article ‘provides the reader with addresses of all the main web sites that have featured accounts of the phenomena at the Gowers' home’, which would be good, except that he continues: ‘It is true that I do not critically compare these various accounts’, and that is because some contain inaccuracies by other hands than Rose-Mary – which implies that journalists were making certain things up.  Yet the Gowers did not seem bothered enough to correct the record when they saw these errors, surprising given their readiness to put pen to paper.  Did John-Paul see the ghost of ‘Brother Doli’ patting the dead dog Aslan or did he not?  If so, that would seem to be an important element of the case and Daniels should have included it.  If the incident had been made up by a third party, how did that happen?  It doesn’t sound the sort of thing to come out of thin air.  In sum, Daniels airily waves away discrepancies with ‘In my opinion it serves no particular purpose to analyse these accounts’, but fails to say why he then included web links to articles that were considered untrustworthy.  Any errors by Rose-Mary he thought could be attributed to normal lapses in memory, as can be found with any witness.

But then he goes on to admit: ‘As was indicated by David Gower in his commentary, and as evidenced by some of the Internet accounts, Rose-Mary does tend to embroider and dramatise her narrations in an attempt to make a good story.’  That’s putting it mildly!  What David had said (expanding on the snippet I included in my letter) is:

‘…we [he and Rose-Mary] differ on the importance of detailed accuracy and chronological precision in reporting them. I think the accounts have changed in narrative detail as events have been re-told to successive friends and acquaintances to make better stories. Rose-Mary, like her media contacts, enjoys a good tale and has made the name 'Brother Doli' part of family folklore. I, too, readily participate in such family fun…’

Is this a problem for Daniels?  Not really, because it might still not necessarily be a hoax, rather ‘the personality and behaviour of someone who wished, for whatever reason, to publicise a case believed to be genuine.’  So why ‘embroider’ (which strikes me as a euphemistic word)?  Is the case not good enough to stand on the facts that it needs to be ‘embroidered’, and the investigator doesn’t feel it worth his while to compare the various accounts to ascertain what may have happened and what didn’t?  By the time Daniels got round to interviewing Rose-Mary, how could he tell what was real from what was inserted to make a good yarn?

The reference to ‘media contacts’ is particularly revealing.  Mary-Rose was clearly happy to get as much publicity as possible with a story that, rogue journalists notwithstanding, could easily change in the retelling.  Daniels notes in his article that the story had been covered by HTV Wales' Weird Wales series and various other television and radio programmes, including This Morning, Kilroy, and twice on John Peel's Radio 4 show Home Truths.  Rose-Mary was clearly keen to get as much publicity as possible and as her husband acknowledged, accuracy was not her primary concern.

At least Daniels concurs that the case is weakened by the lack of independent witnesses: one might feel, in light of the difficulty in getting a reliable account from Rose-Mary, fatally.  He did not interview people whose belongings were engraved or embossed, but anyway ‘I doubt that this would add anything of great significance.’  They were important enough to include in the article, now they don’t seem to count for anything.  As for the article’s length, I think Daniels believes I should thank him for it because ‘ironically’ the degree of detail convinced me that the case is flawed, yet a shorter report would have given the case more credibility ‘thus furthering the Gowers' alleged publicist agenda to an even greater extent.’  The logic escapes me, given that I can’t see how less detail would have allowed the case to appear more credible.  It was going to be weak whatever the length.

Anyway, Daniels thinks that even if it all turned out to be a hoax, that is fine, because it can help future researchers determine ways hoaxing operates more effectively in order to distinguish genuine phenomena from frauds, making the life of the hoaxer harder.  In what way researchers could make this distinction on the basis of an article like his is not spelled out, nor why the enthusiastic hoaxer would necessarily decide hoaxing was not worthwhile when receiving attention from researchers.  He also alludes to the file drawer effect, the suppression of negative results leading to ‘over-confidence in the reality and extent of psychical phenomena’.  Daniels thinks this applies to the evaluation of spontaneous phenomena as well as laboratory experiments, but it is difficult to see how the discarding of reports such as this one would affect the evaluation of other cases, or by what method the effect could be determined statistically.

Daniels’ final point is that if such accounts were not published, then researchers would not bother to investigate them, or would be biased in favour of a paranormal explanation if that meant that they stood a better chance of publication.  It’s an interesting point, though the archives are full of reports that are thorough (arguably more thorough than this one) but unpublished.  To be fair to Daniels, he does not conclude definitively in his article that the phenomena were genuine, contenting himself by saying that they are ‘extraordinary’ but ‘highly ambiguous’, with no degree of certainty possible.  His Psychic Science website entry goes further, giving it only one star (out of a possible five) plus the comment ‘Paranormal activity is conceivable but unlikely’, which raises the obvious question, what in Dr Daniels’ opinion makes it a ‘notable modern poltergeist case’?

In his rejoinder to my letter he assumes that I concluded that the case ‘indicates an elaborate hoax’, which he thinks understandable and a distinct possibility, but not the only explanation available.  Oddly I agree with him.  It is possible that there was a genuine poltergeist at work in the Gowers’ home, albeit the details were ‘improved’ over time.  Where I depart from him is in finding his report a useful analysis as it is impossible to know what to trust in it.  The oddest aspect of the entire business may be that sceptics Richard Wiseman and Caroline Watt chose to reprint his Journal article in an Ashgate anthology on parapsychology, unless this was part of a cunning plan to undermine the discipline’s credibility when it all makes perfect sense.


References

Daniels, M. (2002) The ‘Brother Doli’ case: Investigation of Apparent Poltergeist-type Manifestations in North Wales. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 66.4, No. 869, 193-221.  (Reprinted in R. Wiseman and C. Watt (eds.) (2005). Parapsychology (The International Library of Psychology). Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing.)

Gower, R-M and Gower D. (2002) ‘The 'Brother Doli' Case: Family Perspectives’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 66.4, No. 869, 222-4.

Ruffles, T. (2003) Letter, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 67.2, No. 871, 158; Michael Daniels’ reply: 159-60.



Update 15 July 2015

I have engaged in a brief email correspondence with Michael Levy, owner of Penyffordd Farm since August 2012 when the Gowers moved out.  He has indicated that he is happy for me to share his thoughts here.  It is fair to say that he too has reservations about the Brother Doli business: he says in part (13 July):

‘Naturally we were made aware of the ghostly "goings on" at this address by the estate agent and a few bemused neighbours.  I also read much of the stuff that was returned following some googling.  Nonetheless, this did not sway our view of this place and we happily moved in.

‘To date, there has been a grand total of zero unexplained, ghostly, spooky, haunting, para/sub/ab/normal, “monky” business here.  No happy faces appearing on walls (I think that is because the huge damp problem has now been sorted out).  No apparitions, no mysterious engravings or staining on surfaces.  The cross that Rosemary Gower has referred to on the fireplace lintel has not re-appeared following a good sanding and rebuilding of our hearth.  Ornaments stay put…  So far, neither I nor any friend or family member has spotted the Virgin Mary….  My email and internet traffic is untainted by the alleged web-wise ghost….

He concludes, ‘things are all normal here’.  In a subsequent email (14 July) he adds that he met Rose-Mary and David once, when they popped round to introduce themselves after the move but – to put it diplomatically – he found her claims unconvincing.

Dr Daniels has added to his website summary the information that Rose-Mary wrote on an internet forum in April 2014, so quite some time after they had left, that phenomena ceased abruptly in January 2008.  Perhaps ‘Brother Doli’ found peace at last, or some psychokinetic energy created by family interactions dissipated with changed circumstances.  Or perhaps Rose-Mary just got bored with the ‘tale’ once the media had moved on and killed Doli off.  Whatever the cause, that things are normal in the house these days is good news for the Levy family, if a loss to psychical research; phenomena occurring in the Gowers’ absence would definitely make it worth investigating once more.  In the meantime, despite its inclusion on Dr Daniels’ website as a notable case, Brother Doli has not entered the poltergeist canon, no doubt reflecting general unease about its credibility.