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Electric People

02/07/02 12:00AM By Joe Citro

In the early Triassic period, back when I was in college, I dated a young woman who never wore a watch. It wasn't an issue of poverty - I knew that. More likely it was an expression of her free and bohemian spirit... or so I thought.

It all came clear on her birthday when -- in a rare demonstration of generosity -- I presented her with a brand new Timex right off the rack at Woolworth's.

"I can't wear a watch," she told me.

Figuring she meant such concessions to conformity were against her principles, I asked "Jeez, why not?"

"I just can't," she said, and she went on to prove it. She dutifully placed it on her wrist and within a few minutes it had stopped. She removed it, and -- just like a good Timex -- it kept on ticking. But on her wrist it stopped dead every time.

The same was true for pocket-watches and battery-powered timepieces. I was convinced: this woman really couldn't wear a watch. There was something about her metabolism that was just contrary to the concept of personalized time. She figured it was something electrical -- or electromagnetic -- that kept her and time at a distance.

Since then I have heard of similar cases, some far worse.

A while ago I reported on an "Electric Lady" from Orford, New Hampshire, who -- for no apparent reason -- became charged with electricity. Somehow she was able to send brilliant sparks -- some up to one-and-a-half inches long -- shooting from her fingers. Anyone nearby received an unforgettable jolt. The local physician examined her only to be zapped by her electric charms. Many corroborating witnesses observed the phenomenon, including scientists from Dartmouth College. Everyone was absolutely baffled and perhaps a little terrified. That was back in 1837 when neither science nor religion could explain how such charges were generated.

Flash forward to February of 1920. The Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. Something weird was happening at the prison there that might shed hazy light on the mystery of electrical people.

Thirty-four inmates contracted botulism after eating canned salmon. Luckily, there were no fatalities, but during their recovery the men exhibited some pretty bizarre symptoms.

It began when one inmate tried to flick away a crumpled piece of paper -- but the paper refused to leave his hand. Other men found they were similarly magnetized.

The prison doctor, Julius B. Ransom, discovered all thirty-four botulism sufferers displayed peculiar phenomena: papers would dance around them or jump up and cling to their bodies. Compass needles spun crazily in their presence. Watches stopped. And steel tapes suspended nearby undulated like snakes for no observable reason. Unbelievably, some of the men seemed to glow in the dark.

Dr. Ransom found that an individual's capacity to produce electricity varied with the severity of his illness. As the men recovered, the charge diminished. When fully recovered the power switched off.

It is beyond the scope of this short commentary to speculate about what all this means.

We know, of course, that human beings generate electricity. Tiny electrical charges produce signals from cell to cell in the brain. These impulses can be measured scientifically.

Perhaps certain people -- either spontaneously or amplified by specific contagions such as botulism - can generate low amperage current that can affect the environment.

Perhaps somewhere in here there's a partial explanation for ghosts, poltergeists, and young women who cannot wear watches.

This is Joe Citro.

--Joe Citro is a novelist and native Vermonter who lives in Burlington; you can reach him at ghoststories@vpr.net. His most recent novel is Lake Monsters, about a search for the Lake Champlain monster.


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