Restless Oklahoma: What is Going on in Dewey Public Schools?

 

Gross-Tinz, Germany, 1892: a ten-year-old girl develops a tremor in her right hand, which quickly escalates to full-body seizures. Soon after, 19 other students are similarly afflicted. Doctors are stumped as to the cause.

Montreal, 1894: at a ladies’ seminary, sixty students suffer mysterious seizures with no known medical cause.

Bellevue, Louisiana, 1939: a girl develops a twitch in her leg while at a high school dance. Soon after, all of her friends are similarly afflicted. Again, health professionals are confounded.

Blackburn, England, 1965: 85 students at a girls’ school are overcome with fainting spells. No illnesses were discovered and no pollutants or toxins were found in their food or the environment.

North Carolina, 2002: Ten girls–mostly cheerleaders–attending a rural high school experience seizures and other inexplicable symptoms lasting for five months.

LeRoy, New York, 2011-2012: 12 high school girls suddenly develop ticks and other symptoms similar to Tourette’s. Investigations are carried out, and even Erin Brochovich’s team is called in to test the ground water and other possible environmental causes. Once again, no physical explanation can be found. The girls are all diagnosed with conversion disorder, a mental disorder in which stress and anxiety manifests as symptoms of a physiological illness.

What do all of these things have in common, apart from having similar symptoms with no known cause? Each of them is considered a classic example of mass hysteria. While examples of mass hysteria date back to the middle ages and at one time were thought to be the result of witchcraft, and is even blamed for the infamous Salem Witch Trials, it seems that in modern times, these cases more often than not occur amongst populations of young women and teenage girls, usually in some type of school setting.

Such incidents served as the basis for the film The Falling, which is a fictional account of mass hysteria spreading through an English girls’ school in the 1960s, inspired primarily by the Blackburn case of 1965. The more recent case in New York was covered in the documentary, The Town that Caught Tourette’s.

The more current and politically correct term for this type of event is “mass psychogenic illness.” According to Time article covering the New York case, such an illness is ” thought to be triggered by stress or emotional distress, in response, for example, to reports of a chemical exposure, toxin or virus.” Symptoms can vary, and have included not only those described above but also uncontrollable dancing or laughter, and even fits of meowing like a cat. They’re believed to be spread “by way of humans’ often unconscious social mimicry of one another’s behavior,” according to Time.

That certainly fits in with the Blackburn incident, which is thought to have been triggered by the combination of anxiety over a recent polio outbreak and an incident from the day before it all started in which 20 people fainted from exhaustion during a three-hour long parade through the town.

All of which brings us to…

Dewey, Oklahoma, 2017: a “rash of student health issues” among middle school and high school students have been reported from the beginning of the fall semester. Although school officials aren’t identifying specific students or releasing information as to the specific symptoms of the illness, one concerned mother allowed the local news to film her teenage daughter, who has been experiencing mysterious seizures and trouble walking and talking, and other students are said to be experiencing similar symptoms. Investigations into the cause of the symptoms are ongoing, but so far officials haven’t been able to identify either a contagion or toxins to which the students could have been exposed. The school recently released an official statement saying that several of the students have been officially diagnosed with conversion disorder, but many of the parents involved are not having it.

Here is a recent story on the case from KOTV News in Tulsa, complete with video of the above mentioned girl and her mysterious symptoms. It’s worth noting that the comments are full of theories ranging from mold to the flu vaccine to Gardasil, with no one willing to accept the diagnosis of conversion disorder.

So what in the world is going on with this little Northeastern Oklahoma town? Is this another case of mass psychogenic illness? It certainly appears that way. But if so, then what could have triggered it? Is this just the culmination of anxiety from the onslaught of terrible things that have been in the news over the last few months? Goodness knows these kids have plenty to be stressed out about. Of course, many of the parents aren’t accepting the conversion disorder diagnosis and are consulting medical professionals to get to the bottom of this. So maybe a medical or environmental cause will eventually turn up. But considering the similarities between this case and prior incidents cited above… I’m not going to hold my breath.

Restless Oklahoma: Spook Light Road

Tri-State Spook Light publication.

Way up in the corner of Northeastern Oklahoma, not far from the Missouri border, lies a stretch of dirt road that is pretty unremarkable except for one thing: it’s the site of an eerie, unexplained phenomenon described by locals as the “spook light.” This mysterious ball of bright light can be seen on just about any given clear night. It appears to float above the trees, moving slowly, changing directions at random, and also changing in size and intensity. You can see it in action in the following news report:

Sightings of the light go all the way back to the early 1800s, and in that time nobody has been able to come up with a solid explanation, although everyone from locals to paranormal experts to scientists to the Army Corp of Engineers have tried. Theories that it’s merely reflected vehicle lights have been thoroughly debunked (especially given that sightings of the light pre-date both vehicles and electric lights), as has the theory that it’s some sort of natural gas ignition, a la a will-o-the-wisp.

Other, more paranormal explanations have also been put forward, the foremost of which is legend involving a young Quapaw Indian couple who eloped after the maiden’s father refused to allow the marriage. Her father sent a hunting party to track them down, but when they were close to being captured, they jumped into the Spring River, hand-in-hand, and were swept away to their deaths. According to the legend, the light appeared in the night sky soon afterwards.

Another legend involves a miner whose wife and child disappeared after Indians attacked his cabin while he was away from home. The light is said to be his wandering spirit hunting for his lost family. And a slightly more grisly story says that an Osage chief was decapitated nearby and wanders to and fro with a lantern seeking his lost head.

So far, the most likely–or at least the most plausible scientific–explanation put forth is that the light is the result of electrical charges in the atmosphere relating to the New Madrid fault line that runs through the area, although this theory is by no means conclusive.

Whatever the light is, and whatever is causing it, one thing is for sure–it’s definitely spooky. So much so that the four-mile stretch of road it hovers over, officially designated East 50 Road, is affectionately known by locals as “The Devil’s Promenade,” which is also the title of my short story about two young women who set out to witness the light for themselves–to disastrous results. That story can be found in the Midnight Snacks collection.

What do you think the light is? What’s your favorite explanation? And have you witnessed the Spook Light for yourself? If so, share your story in the comments!

Restless Oklahoma: Tulsa’s Hex House

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Archive photo © Tulsa World

Suspicious deaths, basement-dwelling slaves, fraudulent activity and mysterious midnight burials — these are just a few of the sordid goings-on inside a stately-looking brick duplex in early 1940s Tulsa, which served as inspiration for one of today’s top annual Halloween haunted house attractions.

The true story is about as crazy as it gets.

Carolann Smith, a seemingly mild-mannered woman of 51, lived in the duplex with two other women, Virginia Evans and Wiletta Horner, both in their early 30s at the time. It might not seem so strange for a middle-aged matron to share a duplex with two younger women. But what is strange is the apparent hold Smith had over the two.

See, Evans and Horner didn’t live in the other half of the duplex. They made their home in the house’s basement, living in rags and sleeping on orange crates, while Smith herself occupied the rest of the house and lived in luxury, “buying expensive perfume, a $250 silverware set, a Packard car, 46 pairs of shoes, 18 pairs of gloves, 26 hats and enough makeup and beauty supplies ‘to stock a drugstore’,” according to the Tulsa World. She was able to afford this largely due to the fact that Evans and Horner, both of whom had steady jobs, signed all of their paychecks over to Smith. When all of this came to light, the women claimed that Smith had “mesmerized” them into becoming her slaves, earning Smith the nickname “She-Svengali.” Upon searching the house, authorities later found several books on magnetism and the power of the mind, as well as on magic and witchcraft.

After finally being discovered and rescued, the women told authorities that Smith had starved and beaten them for “religious purification” purposes. News coverage at the time also hinted at details pointing to a “sex angle” that was apparently deemed too lurid to report in full.

But that’s not all. Smith also managed to bilk Evans’ father out of $17,000 by convincing him that she was providing nursing care for the young woman. She also somehow convinced the federal government to give her a wartime ration book in the name of her pet bulldog, Bon Bon–one of two dogs later discovered occupying coffins that were dug up after neighbors reported witnessing a suspicious moonlight burial in Smith’s back yard.

And that’s still not all. The bulk of Smith’s income actually came from life insurance policies taken out on her husband, father and even her maid — each of whom conveniently died after naming Smith the beneficiary.

Was Smith a serial killer, a Svengali-like mesmerist wielding her occult powers to control her victims, or was she simply a con artist? Apparently no evidence was found to support the former, despite the convenient timing of the insurance payouts. For all of her apparent misdeeds, Smith was only convicted on charges of inducing Evans and Horner to falsely testify against a neighbor she apparently didn’t like, and also charged for mail fraud over the war rations. For this, she served only a single year in prison.

No one’s sure what became of Smith after she served her short sentence, and not much else is known because the file kept on the house by the city library was since stolen. As for the Hex House itself, it was demolished in the 1970s and eventually the site became a parking lot. The basement where Evans and Horner were enslaved, however, reportedly still remains beneath the black top, and both the rock foundation and the original front steps can still be seen around the lot.

The parking lot doesn’t get a lot of use these days, but when it was in regular use there were anecdotal reports of car lights coming on by themselves. Whether or not the location is actually haunted, there’s no doubt that the Hex House left an indelible mark on Tulsa and its history.