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Why suspected paranormal activity at a WWII-era North Dakota one-room school reached the FBI

Officials called it "the most baffling and mysterious fire cases" in the state's history. Who or what was responsible?

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"Strange happenings" at the Wild Plum one-room school in Stark County, ND were shared with the FBI in 1944. (This photo was taken in 1942 at an unidentified Stark County country school.)
John Vachon/Library of Congress
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In April of 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was named supreme Allied commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces and already had his hands full planning the D-Day invasion two months later.

Meanwhile in North Dakota, officials were also dealing with a daunting affair –“the most baffling and mysterious fire cases” in the state’s history. Before it was over, investigators would be speculating whether a one-room schoolhouse in Stark County might be possessed by the devil or terrorized by an evil masked man.

It was dubbed “The Case of the Jitterbug Coal” and it had fire marshals, teachers, scientists and government officials puzzled and frightened for weeks.

Listen to this story on Tracy's 'Back Then' podcast

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A photo of a country school in Stark County, N.D. in 1942. This might be the Wild Plum school where, two years later, the school would be shut down because of possible supernatural activity.
John Vachon/Library or Congress

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A ‘bewitched’ school?

The Wild Plum school is located near Plum Creek, 20 miles south of the small town of Richardton, North Dakota. At the start of the 1943-44 school year, eight students from early elementary to high school age were enrolled at Wild Plum.

Students spent their school day sitting at small wooden desks in the tiny room as lessons were learned and boxed lunches were eaten, all under the watchful eye of teacher Pauline Rebel.

But what she saw on March 28, 1944, was unlike anything she had seen before. Mrs. Rebel said as she started to give her students an arithmetic test, she and her students witnessed a pail of lignite coal near the stove begin to stir restlessly without any apparent cause.

A story from The Forum from April 13, 1944, picks up the story from there:

“Then things began to happen. Lumps of coal started popping out of the pail like Mexican jumping beans striking the walls and bounding back into the room.”

One student was slightly injured when he was struck in the head. The coal pail tipped over and lumps of lignite caught fire. Window blinds started smoldering, charred, and fell to the floor. A bookcase caught fire and a Webster’s Dictionary lying on a table began to smoke and burst into flames.

The incident troubled Stark County Superintendent of Schools R.L. Swenson so much that he called the state fire marshal to report a series of “strange happenings” at Wild Plum, which had led residents to believe the schoolhouse to be “bewitched.”

North Dakota Fire Marshal Charles Schultz says when officials arrived on the scene, the coal was still reacting to “mysterious forces.”

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One-room school houses, like this one in Stark County, N.D. in 1942 were heated by lignite coal.
John Vachon/Library of Congress

Schwartz sent the coal to Dickinson State Teacher’s College as well as the University of North Dakota for analysis. Chemists at both schools found no reason the coal should spontaneously ignite, so after two weeks Schwartz sent the coal to the FBI in Washington, to see if any light could be shed on the case.

“We are as much in the dark as when the investigation started,” he said.

Samuel Gordon, the curator of minerals at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, speculated that given Wild Plum’s location in the Badlands, the coal might have gotten mixed up with ‘fool’s gold’ which might have caused the combustion. But still, there were no definitive answers.

A 'mysterious masked man'

While some in the community speculated a supernatural cause for the jitterbug coal, an interview with the teacher, Mrs. Rebel, led investigators to question whether it was the doing of a ‘mysterious masked man’ who may have been trying to intimidate her.

Rebel said in mid-January she started to find obscene and threatening notes pinned to the door of the school. Special Assistant State Attorney General W. James Austin told The Forum he couldn’t release what the notes said because of the ongoing investigation, but he confirmed there were at least a dozen “crudely written” notes and that one of them threatened Mrs. Rebel to “leave or be shot.”

In an April 15 story from The Forum, Rebel, (who the paper referred to as the “pretty, 22-year-old, blonde schoolmarm”) said she was more concerned about the notes than the supernatural goings on.

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Teachers, like this one in Stark County, N.D. in 1942, were responsible for teaching children of all ages.
John Vachon/Library of Congress

“I am bothered by the 15 notes threatening my life,” she said. “I’ve only taught here seven months and I never expected anything like this.”

Rebel told authorities she believed the notes might have been left by a mysterious man who once showed up at the school.

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Shortly before the day when the coal flew around the room and set the classroom on fire, students reported seeing a six-foot-tall masked man kicking at the front door of the school. When Rebel came to the door to investigate, he had apparently fled.

Could he have been responsible for the notes and the jumping coal?

Then things began to happen. Lumps of coal started popping out of the pail like Mexican jumping beans striking the walls and bounding back into the room.
Fargo Forum - April 13, 1944

Parents have a theory

By April 16, more than two weeks after the initial jitterbug coal incident, nearly all of Wild Plum’s pupils “flatly refused" to go near the now-closed school building and said that they’d never return even if the school reopened.

That didn’t fly with many parents. While some were genuinely scared to send their children to school, others were skeptical. According to The Forum, “the children's insistence that the schoolhouse is bewitched is in direct opposition to the religious beliefs of their solid, substantial, Catholic, Russian-German parents.”

In fact, many of the "solid, substantial" moms and dads came right out and said they believed the incident was a “startingly successful hoax."

Perhaps parents know their children best. Indeed, it was all a hoax carried about by the students themselves.

How did they do it?

The news came out on April 18. “The Case of the Jitterbug Coal” was solved. It was a hoax.

As The Forum declared of the lignite: “It didn’t leap. It was thrown.”

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"The Case of the Jitterbug Coal" dominated headlines in April of 1944.
Tracy Briggs

Four students confessed their role in the hoax to State Fire Marshal Schwartz and Special Assistant Attorney General Austin, telling them they were playing a trick on their teacher and parents.

So how did they do it?

They said there was no masked man. They made him up and faked the sound of him trying to kick down the door by stomping their feet under their desks when the teacher wasn’t looking.

The obscene and threatening notes pinned to the door of the school were actually written by two girls, one 12, the other 15.

The students were able to tip over the coal bucket using long rulers and pointers. Earlier, some of them had stuck lumps of coal into their pockets which they then lit on fire using matches they also had tucked into their clothing. When the near-sighted Mrs. Rebel wasn’t looking, the students threw the lit coal toward the windows, bookshelf, and dictionary setting them all on fire.

Austin said the students didn’t really have a motive for their pranks. They just found their teacher gullible and once the hoax was underway, it kind of took on a life of its own.

By the end, they might have even wanted to believe the exciting tale of paranormal happenings and a dangerous masked man.

They “apparently, lived the mystery in their imagination,” Austin said.

When the investigation was wrapped up, the case was sent to juvenile authorities to review possible punishment for the four young suspects. Records have not been found that indicate what happened to the offenders.

Austin said one of the most astonishing aspects of the case was how the students involved, aged 11 to 15, stuck to their story and even managed to fool the lie detector tests performed on them.

“It was this apparent sincerity on their part in describing the happenings at the school that at first led us to search for an adult hoaxer,” Austin said.

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A teacher and students in a Stark County school in 1942. Students at Stark County's Wild Plum School in 1944 played a trick on their teacher because they thought she was gullible.
John Vachon/Library of Congress

Lessons to be learned from 'The Case of the Jitterbug Coal?'

First, when older people claim how well-behaved they were in school, they shouldn’t always be believed.

Second, when a teacher starts to give a math test, be on the lookout for flying flaming objects.

Finally, you can never underestimate what children will do to get out of going to school.


STEP BACK IN TIME WITH TRACY BRIGGS

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Tracy Briggs, "Back Then with Tracy Briggs" columnist.
The Forum

Hi, I'm Tracy Briggs. Thanks for reading my column! I love going "Back Then" every week with stories about interesting people, places and things from our past. Check out a few below. If you have an idea for a story, email me at tracy.briggs@forumcomm.com.

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