On August 27, 1963, two Pennsylvania coal miners were rescued after two weeks of being trapped underground. The pair would soon relate how, confined in the pitch black, they had witnessed humanoid figures, bathed in strange light, and saw a door that opened onto marble steps leading to a great celestial city with angels playing harps. Pope John XXIII, who had died just ten weeks before, smiled down upon the two.
Skeptics of these supposedly miraculous “visions” branded them “delusions” and “hallucinations,” but defenders of the claims observed that “both men had independently corroborated the other’s story” (Furek 2015, 128). As one of the two stated, “They now tell me these were hallucinations but the crazy thing is that Davey [the other miner] would see the same things I did” (Throne quoted in Furek 2015, 129). Even when both were interviewed separately, they still related in detail the very same story (Budd 2013). How could this be? Were the visions indeed proof of heaven, evidence of life after death, or at least substantiation of near-death experiences? If not, then how do we explain these reported claims of the inexplicable?
The remarkable story of the trapped miners and their “supernatural” visions began on Tuesday, August 13, 1963, at the village of Sheppton, Pennsylvania, with the collapse of the roof of the anthracite coal mine operating there. The cave-in was triggered when a cable hoisting a heavily loaded coal buggy snapped, sending the vehicle careening downward and ripping out support beams. Three miners—David Fellin, Louis Bova, and Henry “Hank” Throne—were trapped. Fellin and Throne had been on the opposite side of the railway tracks from Bova, who was only heard from briefly. Subsequently, the others lost all contact with him, and his body was never recovered.
Soon, the two survivors’ lights gave out, leaving them in that absolute darkness occasionally experienced by miners and underground workers. (As a young spelunker, I once had my carbide light go out at an inopportune moment when climbing down a well-like shaft! [Nickell 2017a, 12].) Being trapped would be awful in itself; being trapped in utter darkness would be nearly unbearable.
The two were also cold, and during their ordeal they slept face to face with their arms around each other. They would sleep fitfully until again awakened by the cold. Dave Fellin took care of the younger Hank Throne, who developed a symbiotic relationship with his more mature and experienced partner. Throne would come to believe that Fellin saved his life (Furek 2015, 37, 43–44, 84).
Meanwhile, authorities above ground put aside their initial skepticism and brought in specialized drilling equipment. They began with two boreholes, six inches wide, and used them to determine if the men were still alive. After six days that proved successful: the drill broke through the roof of the men’s dark chamber, and a shout down the borehole yielded a response! The trapped men soon received water, food, and medication. A microphone was lowered, and amplifiers permitted the two to talk with family members. A hospital tent was set up and manned by a U.S. Navy physician.
Now, an even more massive drill would be used to enlarge the small borehole. It was provided by billionaire Howard Hughes and flown to a nearby airport by a Navy plane, then transported to the site on a flatbed trailer in a convoy of other vehicles and Pennsylvania state troopers.
The special rig began drilling on August 20, and it ended on August 27. The borehole, just 17.5 inches in diameter, proved more jagged than intended, so, when each man donned his specially prepared harness-and-coveralls outfit, he was coated with axle grease to assist him in sliding through the long, narrow hole. Fellin insisted that the younger and more emotional Throne be lifted out first. Then the wench drew him up the more than 300 feet to freedom—an excruciating and claustrophobic experience (Furek 2015, 55–81).
Following their arduous and dramatic rescue, Dave Fellin and Hank Throne told their remarkable story to medical survival experts as well as to a spellbound public. Of special interest, and controversy, were the claims of supernatural involvement—prompted by the remarkable visions the trapped men had witnessed.
They recollected the humanoids who were dressed in space suits with lights on their helmets. Revealingly, the two miners felt strangely wonderful and seemed to be in a dream state, like traveling through a hall of mirrors. Throne yelled to one figure, “Show me some light over here! Over here!” Fellin saw him too, he said, “but the shape of the man got smaller and smaller as we crawled toward him and then he was gone altogether” (quoted in Furek 2015, 121–122).
Author Furek (2015, 122) asks sensibly, “Was it but an illusion; a stairwell never to be touched or walked upon? Was it the stark denial of reality, an abdication of the laws of nature? Were these revelations a confabulation of a traumatized mind?”
Seemingly, defeat, hopelessness, and fear—an unrelenting primal fear—had set in, turning into a deadening phenomenon termed “miner’s psychosis,” when reality gives way to mind-altering terror (Furek 2015, 39). Symptoms of psychosis include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others do not).
My longtime fellow investigator and best friend, the late psychologist Robert A. Baker, observed that hallucinations “can occur in people who are subjected to abnormal environmental conditions such as prolonged sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, starvation, and severe stress, as well as fatigue and grief” (Baker and Nickell 1992, 18–19). Even “normal people can also hallucinate without being judged psychotic,” he noted (Baker 1996, 229). In a wide-ranging discussion of hallucinations and delusions, Baker (1992, 281, 286–87) noted that expectation—indeed “the self-fulfilling prophecy mechanism”—perpetuates delusional beliefs. Moreover, he added, “We sometimes use our imaginations to create events that are self-serving and then we proceed to forget they are imaginary since the self-deception now serves us so well.”
We can see that the case of the two trapped miners at Sheppton demonstrates the application of those principles. As Baker (1992, 270–71) observed, “Meeting with hallucinated entities occurs in circumstances of extreme stress”—just the condition the miners were experiencing. Moreover, their reported fantasy beings and scenes are reminiscent of the visionary effects of so-called near-death experiences (NDEs). The miners, like near-death experiencers generally, were not actually near death; rather they were surely suffering additionally from oxygen deprivation, which can cause hallucinations (Ebbern et al. 1996, 31). States Furek (2015, 29), the two “were choking on polluted air unfit for human beings.”
Seeming to confirm the hallucination hypothesis is the fact that the miners’ visions comprised little more than the rather hackneyed images of Christian iconography: a doorway onto heaven (Revelation 4:1), heaven seen as a great Golden City, and apparitions of the deceased Pope John XXIII, as well as of angels and children playing harps (Furek 2015, 76, 122, 123, 156, 164).
The image of the Pope suggests a Catholic view, and indeed David Fellin was a Roman Catholic. Christian imagery would have been stored deep in his subconscious, and belief in the reality of visions was a mainstay of his faith.
Hank Throne, on the other hand, was not especially religious, and he did not know who Pope John XXIII was or that he was deceased. So how did the two men reportedly see the very same visions at the same time? Paranormal editor Deena West Budd concluded, “As both parties were interviewed separately, yet reported the same story, I tend to believe it was NOT a hallucination” (Budd 2013). Other sources confirmed that “both men had independently corroborated the other’s story” (Furek 2015, 128).
An article in Fate magazine emphasized that the visionary phenomenon was both “continuous” and “collective,” and one “unmatched in the annals of psychic research.” The writer had independently interviewed each man without the knowledge of the other, and he felt strongly that the two had not spent time “putting their views into agreement.” David Fellin had himself told the Fate writer:
Pope John and the cross was there all the time. But these other things kept jumping across. First there was these men with lights and after awhile the steps would come. … It was real. Both of us were seeing it and we knew they was live people. We know that. (quoted in Schmeer 1965, 28–29)
So how was this possible?
We can begin an answer by considering a phenomenon known as folíe à deux, a French term meaning the “folly of two.”1 What can happen with supposedly shared visions is that the more dominant personality—highly imaginative and convinced of the reality of his hallucination—causes the less dominant one, through the power of suggestion, to imagine that which is being described to him (Baker and Nickell 1992, 129). Voila! A shared vision.
(I once encountered a good example of this phenomenon at the supposedly haunted Buford’s Tavern in Virginia—central to the famous Beale Treasure legend. The owner and his wife had had the striking experience of together witnessing a ghost on the stairs. However, they were lying in bed, in a state between being fully awake and asleep, one known to produce hallucinated sounds and images. As they began to exchange impressions in their suggestible condition, they soon were sharing a dreamlike occurrence—first, creaking sounds described as like someone walking on the stairs, then the image of a figure soon imagined to be the fictitious Thomas Jefferson Beale. The incident had occurred many years before, but the man, now a widower, recalled the details so clearly to me that I could understand it as an obvious case of folíe à deux [Nickell 2017b].)
There is evidence that this is what actually happened with the two trapped miners. As noted earlier, Fellin was by far the more dominant personality—older, more experienced, and more confident. Furek (2015,62) states:
Fellin was the acknowledged leader. … Four decades of experience, information and possible strategies gave him an inner peace and confidence. Fellin was steady as a rock, and Hank Throne recognized that … , acknowledged that Fellin possessed more character and resilience than he could ever dream of … . He knew that his only chance of survival was by following Fellin’s lead.
It was obviously Fellin who initiated the visions. Only he could mention and describe Pope John XXIII, because Throne had known nothing of him. Fellin was the driving force, even having had out-of-body experiences in which he seemingly rose above the mine to supposedly look down upon the rescuers. This happened to him many times, while Throne experienced that phenomenon a single time (Furek 2015, 133).
There is also evidence that the visionary images were not viewed identically. For example, a cross seen with the first appearance of the Pope was described quite differently by the two: Fellin’s cross had squared ends and its transverse beam curved upward at each end, whereas Throne’s cross had rounded ends and the transverse beam curved up on one end and down on the other (Schmeer 1965, 33–34). These discrepancies are consistent with one man initiating the vision and the other picturing details of what he “saw” in his own imagination.
As another example, their descriptions of the marble stairs also varied considerably. Fellin said the marble steps were some ten to twelve feet wide and continued far up until they went out of sight. Throne, however, described them as only “three to four people wide” and recalled them as numbering just twelve to fourteen. Yet again, while both men agreed that three humanoid beings came to them with a tablet or plaque showing they would survive their ordeal, their descriptions of this plaque were quite different. In Fellin’s version, the plaque was rectangular and about eight by eleven inches, whereas Throne said it was triangular, nearly heart-shaped, and was approximately sixteen inches long by twenty-four inches wide (Schmeer 1965, 34–35).
These and other mismatches are telling. They reveal that while the main forms and actions are in general agreement, just as they could be expected to be (the result of one person relating what he perceived to another), the details—while specifically noted—are quite different, consistent with each man imagining them for himself.
Taken together, the different bits of evidence demonstrate that the men’s visionary experiences were, understandably, almost certainly hallucinations, delusions, and imaginings, shared through suggestion so that eventually they became more or less standardized between the two trapped miners. This probability is both plausible and corroborated by evidence, whereas the alternate explanation—that the described visions were actual supernatural occurrences—loses out to the principle of Occam’s razor, the scientific rule of thumb that suggests the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is to be preferred. (Positing the supernatural requires assumptions not founded in science.)
This is not an unscholarly “debunking” attitude but rather an investigative one. I remain confident that an investigation leading to explanation is the best approach. If something can be effectively explained, any needed debunking will take care of itself.
1. If more people are involved, the phenomenon can be called folíe à trois, quatre, cinq, etc., as needed.
- Baker, Robert A. 1992. Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions from Within. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
- ———. 1996. Mind Games: Are We Obsessed with Therapy? Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Baker, Robert A., and Joe Nickell. 1992. Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Budd, Deena West. 2013. Trapped miners meet the paranormal. BellaOnline. The Voice of Women. Cited in Furek 2015, 124.
- Ebbern, Hayden, Sean Mulligan, and Barry L. Beyerstein. 1996. Maria’s near-death experience: Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Skeptical Inquirer 20(4) (July/August): 27–33.
- Furek, Maxim W. 2015. Sheppton: The Myth, Miracle & Music. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace. This is the major source of information on the entire Sheppton story.
- Nickell, Joe. 2017a. Murder by darkness. Skeptical Inquirer 41(4) (July/August): 12–13.
- ———. 2017b. Is the Beale treasure haunted? Investigative Briefs (blog) (December 8).
- Schmeer, Bill. 1965. The entombed miners’ staircase to heaven. Fate (March): 23–37.