Joseph Glanvill was an Oxford-educated philosopher and clergyman, best known for his 1681 treatise on the supernatural, Saducismus Triumphatus: or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions.
Among its numerous tales of 17th century ghosts, witchcraft and demons, the book includes the spooky tale of ‘The Drummer of Tedworth’, thought to be one of the earliest reports of poltergeist activity. In Glanvill’s version of the story, John Mompesson, a landowner in the town of Tedworth, brought a lawsuit for extortion against a local drummer. After he had won the suit and confiscated the drummer’s instrument, Mompesson’s house was plagued by inexplicable drumming and thumping noises, strange lights, scratching, and unpleasant smells. These disturbances continued for many months, escalating until the children’s bedsteads would shake and levitate into the air by themselves, and objects were thrown violently around the room by unseen hands.
Mompesson’s plight quickly gained notoriety and many people came to visit the house and witness these strange occurrences for themselves. For most of this period, the drummer had been locked up in Gloucester jail and could not have been responsible without recourse to the supernatural, so it was assumed that he must have used witchcraft to summon a mischievous spirit, or poltergeist, to haunt the landowner’s home.
In the tale of the phantom drummer, we can see the prototype for many aspects of the modern poltergeist story, from banging doors and scratching nails to levitating beds. Glanvill’s book itself was a major influence on Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, written in 1693 to justify the Salem witch trials.
For an in-depth study of contemporary sources for the tale, see:
Hunter, Michael (2005) New light on the ‘Drummer of Tedworth’: conflicting narratives of witchcraft in Restoration England. London: Birkbeck ePrints. Available at: http://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/archive/00000250