In a small Ballard apartment, Cleveland Tony Harmon’s past has finally caught up with him. Now he’s ready to tell his story.
Fifty-six years ago, Harmon says he was unknowingly swept up in a poltergeist phenomena — a Virginia boy living in a house that became the center of some inexplicable events straight out of a horror movie: Flying books, a levitating mattress, cups and saucers sailing by to crash and shatter.
And, yes, you can discount it all, as stories about the paranormal often are.
But the thing is, there were some credible witnesses and media accounts. Over several days in September 1962 in the seaside city of Portsmouth, what happened to Harmon and his family was covered by The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, The Associated Press and other publications. A reporter who covered the events declared he was reassessing his disbelief in the supernatural.
Harmon now is 70, and he’s had a rough-and-tumble life that that brought him some two decades ago to the Pacific Northwest. He was homeless for a time before finding a place at the Cheryl Chow Court for seniors in Ballard.
What finally has Harmon talking about his past is a woman named Mary Brett, 73, of Dade City, Florida. She also grew up in Portsmouth, and was a teen when the inexplicable events took place in her hometown.
Now retired from a job as a health-care recruiter for hospitals and agencies, Brett decided to dig into the events from her childhood and track down Harmon. “I had so many questions,” she says. It became a passion that took up the past four years.
She found relatives of Harmon, looked up his school records, looked up newspaper stories on microfiche, ads in newspapers, researched in libraries and even paid for a background search.
Brett finally got lucky when she posted on a Facebook page about Portsmouth history asking if anybody knew of Harmon’s whereabouts. Someone on that Facebook page told her that Harmon himself was on Facebook.
On July 2017, Harmon posted on his Facebook page, “I will always carry around with me until the day that I die the true story …”
Brett and Harmon began talking by phone and mailing to each other. She thinks his story should be told beyond his 12 Facebook friends.
And so here we are.
In September 1962, when he was 13, Harmon was living with his great-great-grandparents, Annie and Charlie Daughtery, in a single-story rental home. He remembers the first incident.
“I was coming home from school. Some guys were chasing me, probably because I had girls hanging around me all the time,” says Harmon. “I ran up the stairs on the porch. The screen door was open and I dropped my books on the floor. I could smell grandma cooking in the back, fresh apple pie.”
“The books flew over the top of my head. My grandma said, ‘What are you doin’, throwing books all over!’ I said, ‘I didn’t throw them!’ She thought I was fibbing and sat me in the corner.”
Then, the next afternoon.
“I was sitting on the floor in the living room, and grandfather and grandma had their pipes. They both smoked those corncob pipes.
“They had the tobacco can sitting up on the mantel to keep me from getting after it. I was sitting there, wondering where I can get tobacco, when the can flipped over, rolled on the floor. My grandma was stunned. There was no explanation. I didn’t know what I had done. It excited me, made my heart pound.”
The events continued and became talked about in the neighborhood.
Helen V. Davis, 91, lived across the street from the Daughterys. She still lives in Portsmouth.
She and another neighbor were walking home from the church.
“Something needs to be done,” Davis, who was interviewed by The Seattle Times, remembers the neighbor telling her. “Things are being thrown out into the street. We walked over. The grandfather was so glad we came over. He had not slept in two nights.”
Davis says she saw, “Salt and pepper shakers and some glass, jumped up and dropped on the floor. The rocking chair in one of the rooms started rocking while we were standing there.”
Joseph V. Phillips was The Virginian-Pilot reporter who went to check out the reports.
His front-page article the next day began, “I didn’t believe in ghosts — until Saturday. I went to a house at 949 Florida Ave. and got goose pimples while dodging flying household objects that crashed to bits on the floor … I didn’t believe this nonsense until Saturday. Now, I’m not so sure. I saw weird things happen, but I don’t know what caused them.”
Phillips has died, but the photographer on the story, William Abourjilie, 83, of Virginia Beach, also clearly remembers that day.
“Basically, we were inside the house, walking down the hall, and stuff hit the wall and broke. A dish, a glass,” he recently told The Times.
He and Phillips looked into the room where the stuff was coming from.
“There wasn’t anyone in there. There was one window and it was closed,” Abourjilie remembers. “We couldn’t find any explanation.”
The story that Sunday further spread the publicity, and on that day, Portsmouth police cordoned off the street.
“Police estimated that as many as 10,000 people went to Florida Avenue Sunday to take a look at the Daughtery house. In the afternoon, cars were arriving in the suburb at a rate of 600 an hour,” The Virginian-Pilot reported.
Harmon and his great-great-grandparents moved in with relatives. They never returned to the rental home.
Harmon still believes he was responsible for the flying objects, although he doesn’t understand how — or why. After the events of that September, while staying with relatives, Harmon says, he decided to move a pencil that was on a table. “I put it right at the edge,” he says.
He says about these powers he had, “I stopped it. I knew right then and there I was doing no more.”
Harmon was interviewed by William G. Roll, a well-known parapsychologist with Duke University’s Parapsychology Labs.
Roll spent a few days on his investigation and concluded, “The only thing that can be said with assurance is that there is nothing in the house itself to cause the phenomena,” the newspaper reported. “The things only happened when the house was occupied.”
Roll believed that a poltergeist — literally translated from German as a “knocking spirit” — was caused by psychokinesis, an unproven psychic ability that allows individuals to move objects by the mind.
Harmon remembers that sometime later, “I remember sitting at a table and across was three guys wearing suits. I was looking at a card, ink cards with drawings with, asking what do these look like? They was waving something in my face, like a gold chain, back and forth.”
Brett believes that Harmon was being tested for causing the poltergeist activity.
She says that Harmon exhibited one explanation for a poltergeist — that of an adolescent who had experienced profound trauma.
Although there is no corroboration other than Harmon’s statements, he tells of being beaten and sexually abused by his stepdad, which is why his mother took him to stay with his great-great grandparents. He tells of the stepdad beating his mom.
The background and newspaper clips from The Virginian-Pilot were forwarded by The Times to Neil Dagnall, a “reader” at Manchester Metropolitan University in England (the equivalent of an associate professor), whose expertise is in the psychology of paranormal beliefs.
Explanations for poltergeist reports range from a kind of mass hallucination to hoaxes, he says. And then there are the few cases that get looked at and looked at, and there is no explanation, Dagnall says.
He says the poltergeist report in Portsmouth may be another such case.
After the events of 1962, Harmon’s life was one troubled step after another: juvenile correctional facility. Foster care. A stint in prison for forgery and use of stolen credit cards. Several moves around the West Coast before ending up addicted to crack and living in a homeless camp in Woodinville. In March 2009, Harmon was charged with a felony domestic violence and spent eight months in jail.
Harmon says he’s been clean and sober for seven years.
What to make of his story?
He says, “I did everything that was done in that house. I didn’t know about poltergeist at the time. I believe my life was destined to do that stuff.”