Poltergeist Scribbler: The Bizarre Case of Matthew Manning

Joe Nickell

What has been called “one of the most extraordinary outbreaks of poltergeist phenomena” of the twentieth century began with an English schoolboy, aged eleven and a half years, Matthew Manning (Harrison 1994, 9).

Like many other disturbances labeled poltergeist (from poltern “noisy” and geist “spirit”), the events began with rapping sounds, objects thrown about, heavy furniture moved, objects disappearing (but sometimes reappearing in other rooms), and so on. The activities not only centered around Matthew and his home at Queen’s House, Linton, Cambridge, but they followed him to boarding school. Many of today’s paranormal believers suggest the phenomenon, once attributed to the devil, is caused by psychokinetic (“mind-over-matter”) energy from pubescent children with repressed hostilities (Guiley 2000, 293–295). However, proper investigation typically shows the effects are simply due to the mischief of clever children. I have therefore termed the phenomenon the poltergeist-faking syndrome (Nickell 2012, 325–331; Bartholomew and Nickell 2015, 129, 136–137).

The phenomena at Queen’s House that began in February 1967 soon waned but then were renewed more violently beginning at Easter 1971 and continuing through the summer. On July 31 a new phenomenon appeared and continued for a week. The effect, shown in photographs (Harrison 1994, 70–72) is remarkable.

Figure 1. Matthew Manning’s bedroom walls were covered with over 600 historical “signatures.”

Signatures on the Walls

Covering the walls of Matthew’s bedroom—from floor to ceiling—appeared over six hundred signatures of deceased persons, most bearing dates spanning six centuries (Figure 1). By August 6, they had largely ceased, but there were occasional later additions. Among the writings were seven “poetic aphorisms” that were signed “Robert Webbe.” A significant number of the dated signatures are those of Webbe family members—former tenants of the house—or others connected to it in some way, including persons who resided in the vicinity or in nearby villages. Admits Harrison (1994, 10), however, “It would be impossibly difficult and time-consuming to try to identify them all.”

The writings were supposedly produced by “discarnate entities” using pencils that were left lying on a table. These writings were never seen being done—unlike Matthew’s later automatic writings and drawings (to be discussed presently) that were frequently observed as he produced them (Beloff 1994, 5). In my experience, a spiritualistic phenomenon that appears shy about being witnessed is most likely faked. And the idea that a ghost—which necessarily lacks a brain—could grip a pencil, let alone engage in writing, is ludicrous.

Dr. Vernon Harrison—described as a handwriting expert and professional photographer—took photos of the wall writings before they were painted over, and then studied them. Although he found problems here and there, he convinced himself that the writings “were examples of direct writing by some entity or entities,” but he was careful to add, “I do not insist on it” (Harrison 1994, 39). John Beloff of the Society for Psychical Research (which published Harrison’s lengthy report) thought the behavior that deliberate hoaxing would have required “is so bizarre that the case would at least force us to question our assumptions regarding the limits of human perversity” (1994, 5–6).

Matthew would have been the obvious, and perhaps only, suspect for hoaxing. Since the signatures that covered the bedroom walls like graffiti came as part of a “poltergeist” outbreak, the prankster may have been looking for attention. In fact, we learn:

Matthew had been working on local history as part of a school project, so some of the names must have been familiar to him. “Webbe” said that he had noticed his good work and decided to help him by providing him with “half a thousand” names of his “friends, allies and family.” (Harrison 1994, 10)

Handwriting Examination

I was determined to make my own examination of the photographed wall writings. (I have had training in forensic writing examination [Handwriting 2008], authored textbooks in the field [Nickell 1990; 1996; 1999; 2009], and worked on many famous cases. These include the alleged diary of Jack the Ripper, the manuscript of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, the purported original of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the identification card of Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk.) I studied the wall writings at length.

Unfortunately, the “spirit” scripts have the characteristics of having been slowly drawn rather than naturally written. They exhibit unnatural evenness in pressure, reveal tremor from hesitancy, show occasional kinked lines betraying uncertainty of movement, and demonstrate blunt beginning and ending strokes. (See Nickell 1996, 65–72.) These are traits associated with imitative writings, such as forgeries, yet these are not the most serious faults.

Most of the “signatures” cannot really be called that because—as in the case of “Robert Webbe”—there are no known examples of either signature or handwriting for comparison (Harrison 1994, 11). The same is true of most of the other writings. Thus, if Matthew Manning, say, were secretly making them, he would not have to reproduce an actual signature, but merely write in a variety of amateurishly created styles—rather like a mimic speaking different made-up voices.

A signature purporting to be that of a well-known historical figure, “Oliver Cromwell 1643” (Harrison 1994, 76), not only fails to have any resemblance to genuine signatures of Cromwell (cf. Rawlins 1978, 24, 25, 55), but it even has some wrong (non-Cromwellian) letter forms. Moreover, it is in the same hand as that of some of the other bogus scripts—mostly variations of the hand of “Robert Webbe,” as Harrison admits (1994, 16, 19), some of them “ornamented.”

Then there is the evidence that the individual who actually wrote the scripts failed to understand the handwriting of the periods in question. Thus, even though he offers writings dated in the sixteenth century for example, he shows no knowledge of the common English Secretary Hand that evolved in the late fifteenth century and continued well into the seventeenth (Nickell 1990, 122–124, 202–203). Apart from the handwriting per se, there are anachronisms, such as “Robert Webbe’s” use of ye (for the article the) that had become effectively obsolete long before Webbe’s death in 1736. Harrison (1994, 11) admits the use may have been intended to give, spuriously, a ye olde antique air to the writing, and I am convinced that that is so. Another example is a copy of an excerpt from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript. The copyist did not even understand the letter forms, let alone comprehend what the text said. (See Harrison 1994, 26, 86.)

Automatic Writings

Soon, Matthew Manning had discovered that he could produce “automatic” writing. In this activity, spirits allegedly guide the hand of the “entranced” medium to produce writings, drawings, or other expressions. If not deliberately faked, such activities are attributed to persons producing the effects while in a dissociative state. (Dissociation is the unconscious process in which a group of mental activities are separated from the main stream of consciousness and so function as a separate unit.) (Nickell 2012, 204–205, 347; Mühl 1963)

Figure 2. Genuine signature of psychical researcher Frederick W.H. Myers (top) is shown with Matthew Manning’s automatically written one, which is obviously bogus.

As with the “signatures,” there are serious problems with the “automatic” writings of Manning. In the case of a message purportedly from psychical researcher Frederic W. H. Myers (1843–1901), not only does the script bear no resemblance to Myers’s handwriting, even lacking his nineteenth-century features (like the lower-case “p” with tall ascender), but the “F” of the signature is even the wrong form (printed rather than cursive). Indeed, all of the “Myers” text is very similar to the print-writing of Manning himself. Moreover (trumping the rationalization that Manning’s hand was asserting itself while being guided), what should have been “Frederic W. H. Myers” is actually rendered as “Frederick Myers.” (Figure 2; see Harrison 1994, 33–34, 91–93.)

There are similar problems with other writings. Bertrand Russell, the atheist philosopher, supposedly writes in acknowledgment that, indeed, one does not die at death. Spiritualists such as Manning are always trying to posthumously convert nonbelievers, but this shrewd attempt fails because, once again, the writing is spurious: for example, the signature includes the wrong forms of the letters B and r. (See Harrison 1994, 89; cf. Rawlins 1978, 198.)

Again, the writing of “Millicent Webbe” is bogus. Although there is no known specimen for comparison, it has a welter of internal inconsistencies, such as multiple variants of pseudo-antique forms. Also, it is signed once with its three letters e in Roman form, and again with one Roman and two Greek forms (Harrison 1994, 28, 87).

Automatic Drawings

In producing both automatic writings and drawings, Matthew Manning follows in the footsteps of others with multiple automatism skills, notably Rosemary Brown. She first claimed to receive dictations of writing from spirits of the dead (such as Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, and George Bernard Shaw), then, prompted by an injury to pass time at her piano, began to receive compositions from noted composers such as Bach, Chopin, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff. Brown gave more than 400 public performances of her “channeled” music. While some saw her as indeed exhibiting the various composers’ styles, others more critical regarded her as only a mimic (Guiley 2000, 27).

Manning’s automatic drawings appeared to be works by Aubrey Beardsley, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso—among others. Purportedly, the spirits of the great artists would visit Manning while he was in a trance. He told the San Francisco Examiner that an expert from Sotheby’s in London had said a “Picasso” he had done looked so much like an original that Sotheby’s would have authenticated it had they not been informed it was a “Manning.” However, noted psychical investigator James Randi wrote to Sotheby’s, receiving the reply that the claim was “absolutely not true.” The official stated that the drawings allegedly done by “spirits of various artists” were all produced by a single hand, and while clever, were obviously forgeries of known works (Gordon 1987, 101).

Consider one example of alleged Manning automatism that Harrison (1994, 43) terms “the pièce de résistance.” It is ostensibly a decorative pen-and-ink work by master Art Nouveau illustrator Beardsley (1872–1898), although “received” through Matthew Manning. In fact, the drawing is a composite of two forgeries of Beardsley from a published book of the artist’s works! (Harrison 1994, 44). But even this evidence does not dissuade the credulous Harrison.

Overall Assessment

Matthew Manning began as the focus of “poltergeist” activity that morphed into the phenomenon of spirit inscriptions appearing all over his bedroom walls that in turn led to his becoming an automatic writer and drawer. He has also claimed to be a psychokinetic metal bender—though his efforts cannot be distinguished from magic tricks (Booth 1986, 57). And he has claimed to apport objects (i.e., cause them to magically appear), communicate telepathically, astrally project himself into the past, and predict the future (Guiley 2000, 27). By the 1990s, he was also calling himself a healer (Harrison 1994, 8). In fact, he has many of the traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality (Nickell 2012, 347–348).

Manning’s purported psychic abilities were tested in 1972 for a proposed BBC broadcast. Researchers asked him to provide information—using automatic writing—about a set of small objects as well as information about the authors of some letters (each in a sealed envelope). The information Manning provided was essentially erroneous, and the planned broadcast was canceled. Later it was observed that all but one of the eight extant automatic messages had been written “clearly in variations of one hand” (that of “Robert Webbe”). The other began in an obviously disguised hand that slowly evolved into a semblance of the others, revealing that the writer was unable to keep up the disguise (Harrison 1994, 24–25).

Manning was also tested by physicist John Taylor (1980, 83) and colleague Eduardo Balanovski as to his abilities in remote viewing (the alleged power of seeing things at a distance by clairvoyance or out-of-body travel). The researchers judged the results to be “completely unsuccessful.”

In brief, the evidence does not show Matthew Manning—self-proclaimed wonderworker and jack-of-all-trades occultist—to have the paranormal powers he professes. But he keeps trying to convince us otherwise.


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Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and “Investigative Files” Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC’s Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.