The Sybert Witch and a Bouncing Bed
Reports flooded national headlines in December of 1938. The Sybert family lived along Wallen’s Creek in Powell Mountain. Their 3-room cabin was located in Lee County, Virginia. Their situation even baffled two esteemed psychologists from the University of Tennessee.
The family reported scratching noises had started the previous month. The noise escalated into a bumping and scratching. Finally, Bertha Sybert’s bed violently bounced at night. Spectators came daily, but no one could figure out what force prompted the bed’s movement. To make matters worse, Bertha would erupt in fits of what her father called, “ghost language.” For example, she could sometimes make the bed start when she said, “Sake-sake big.” No one could decipher the strange tongue.
Bertha was 9 years of age and shared the bed with her 71-year-old grandmother, who called the noises both “ghosts” and “witchery.” The grandmother first believed it was people in the community trying to frighten her, or laugh at her expense.
The incident repeated every night for months. They placed the girl in different beds throughout the house, but there was no relief. Every bed moved after she got in it. Bertha’s father, Robert Sybert, even moved the family to a neighbor’s house for a night. Unfortunately, the bouncing and the noises followed. He placed a bible under the bed one night and, for that night, everyone slept soundly. They tried to appease the “ghost” with music, but that didn’t help. It bounced as much to gospel music as it did to ragtime.
Her usual bed had a wooden-frame and a thin mattress. She weighed 60 pounds at the time of the events. The bed shook with such violence spectators could stand on the other side of the room and watch it. Four sizable coalminers came and each took a corner. They physically held the bed, but even they couldn’t stop its movement.
Countless theories were developed as more witnesses came, and ironically, the most humorous is the one accepted as the logical “explanation.” This small, 9-year-old child flexed her stomach and thigh muscles to make the bed move. Of course, this theory also meant her stomach and thigh muscles alone could overpower four burly coalminers. It was also strange that, rather than study such bizarrely developed muscles to find the source of their strength, doctors dropped the family’s case as quickly as they could.
The bedsprings were blamed for the scratching sounds. The visiting professionals also grew suspicious because she popped her chewing gum while the bed bounced; apparently, the act of a child chewing gum had an ulterior purpose.
Like the Bell Witch haunting, where the family witnessed strange animals before the haunting began, Bertha admitted to seeing a small white animal before the chaos began, but it disappeared when she noticed it.
Public sentiment towards the child changed fairly rapidly. Attentions went from a family needing help to a mean-spirited or spoiled child seeking attention. Many theories are still given today, from the onset of puberty, to some sexual justification for the activity. At the end of 1938, newspapers and magazines nationwide proclaimed this little girl had been “putting on” the entire time.
Eventually, the noises stopped and Bertha went on to live a normal life. Many people today speculate about the events and some, who were there, remain so unsettled they still won’t speak of it.
The most likely reason we don’t hear of such events any longer is the fact that when they occur, similar responses are found today. There was an overwhelming eagerness to lay all blame on the child, or the Sybert family, and rationalize what was probably no more rational than the Bell Witch or the Clip Wizard. It’s provocative that, for such logically minded professionals, no one questioned how a 60-pound child could perform such physically laborious feats, with no outward indication of the necessary strength.
What really caused the bouncing bed? We’ll likely never know.