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Bertha Sybert, 1938
Neighbors and newspaper writers came to the Sybert home to watch the phenomenon of Bertha on the bed.
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Bertha Sybert, circled, poses with classmates two years after her bed bounced her uncontrollably. Bertha Sybert died in 1986, at age 57.
The noise was like "a rat gnawing at a piece of wood." The shaking was so violent that big men stationed themselves on all four corners of the bed to try to keep it still. Meanwhile, the nine-year-old girl causing all this ruckus lay perfectly still. It was the winter of '38 in the Virginia mountains. Just what was it that affected Bertha Sybert?
Bertha Sybert smiles an eternally sweet smile from the front row of her Sand Springs, Va. school picture amid restless classmates. Her delicate features encased in soft, chestnut waves easily mark her as the prettiest girl in her class. Indeed, the smile must have been well rehearsed, having been captured by the cameras of curious reporters just two years earlier who were attracted to her mountain home by intriguing rumors of bedevilment, witchery, and apparitions that reportedly plagued the nine-year-old.
A boy stands a few feet away, also in the front row, his hands jovially cocked on his hips, and an amused smile playing on his face. It is difficult to imagine this little boy frozen in fear as he stands in Bertha Sybert's home one wintry night in 1938, watching reason part ways with reality. Some six decades later, Miner is considered "good people" in Lee County, Va., a jocular soul with a down-to-earth manner that makes one a believer when he recounts what he witnessed as "something no human being had control over."
Miner, a retired manager of Powell Valley Electric Cooperative in Jonesville, was loosely linked to Bertha by the marriage of his uncle into the Sybert family. Miner, his father, and his uncle were among the first to witness the ghostly happenings in the Syberts' Wallens Creek home.
In a bedroom papered in newsprint in a simple mountain cabin Bertha climbed into the bed for visitors, who would then gaze open-mouthed at the fascinating spectacle before them as the ghostly bouncing began.
"Once she got into the bed it would begin," Miner says "with a noise just like a rat gnawing at a piece of wood, and it would seem to come from where the leg of the headboard sat on the floor. Then it would move . . . over until it got straight behind her head, wherever she was in the bed." The noise, Miner recalls, resembled "that you could make with a block of wood on a washboard." Miner also remembers his father saying that he could place his hand on the bed and "feel the vibrations of this anywhere [because] it was a very high level of noise." The activity would begin, Miner says, when everyone had become completely quiet:
" . . . The bed started just gently shaking. It became more violent and these big men got on all four corners of that bed, and in the center the bed would leave the slats and slap back down. Remember all this time, she's laying there, perfectly still. I couldn't tell that she moved a muscle. I was scared, because I knew it was impossible for her to [contribute] to what was happening."
Members of the community who visited Bertha's home during the months of the strange bouncing spoke in hushed tones of more unexplained episodes. A withered hand was said to have appeared just above Bertha's head as she lay on her bed. Wallpaper reportedly peeled itself off the wall. A lady who resided with the Syberts confided to Miner that interior doors had flown open with enough force to knock the wooden "button" hinges to the floor. Doors leading outside, she said, were fastened with locks which also mysteriously opened by themselves. Bertha's sheets were said to eerily withdraw from the touch of onlookers. Raymond Miner told reporters that a chair in which Bertha sat had walked around the room in his home.
"We thought Bertha would be safe over at my house," Miner declared, "but she weren't."
Bertha complained that the apparition, which she described as a "white, fuzzy thing" that she saw on only one occasion, not only tossed her about as she attempted to sleep, but also pulled her hair. The torment became so great that she would cry at the thought of attempting to sleep. The press, which soon caught wind of the Syberts' strange visitor, dubbed her "Bouncing Bertha." Grandma Jane Sybert, who attributed the whole thing to "witchery," allowed inquisitive visitors into the cabin in which she had lived since 1888. But after a month's worth of wintry mountain mud had been tracked into their home, Robert Sybert decided to bar spectators.
According to news accounts, Bertha was taken to the home of Raymond Miner to avoid the plague of people who swarmed the Sybert cabin. As Bertha was put to bed, Minor began to play hymns on his guitar. The bed reportedly started to shake in time to the music. "Raymond changed to ragtime," Robert Sybert told reporters, "and the bed bounced faster than ever."
News of "witchery" and "ghosts" in the Sybert home radiated throughout the state and beyond. United Press reported that in January of 1939 Bertha left the cabin to see her first motion picture in the town of Jonesville. According to the report, Bertha was afforded more stares than the movie, so the theater manager had Bertha to take the stage and recite an eight-line poem.
Letters appeared from all over the United States. A promoter by the name of Virgil Wacks took Bertha to Pineville, Ky., for public appearances where he is said to have unsuccessfully attempted to re-create the bouncing phenomenon for show. Either the apparition refused to perform, or Bertha's attempts at re-creating the events were not realistic enough to sway the skeptical.
Publications such as The Spartanburg Herald and American Weekly, Inc. tracked the events as they unfolded on Wallens Creek until two professors decided to investigate. Dr. Axel Brett and Dr. George Haslerud, professors of philosophy and psychology from the University of Tennessee, visited the cabin to conduct their own investigations into the bouncing. At first, Dr. Brett described his findings as "peculiar," but refused to offer further comment. Finally, in the interest of unyielding science, the doctors deduced that the bouncing was probably the result of "noticeable contractions" of Bertha's stomach and thigh muscles.
Miner chuckles at this explanation, calling it "ridiculously unrealistic," based on what he and many others saw in 1938. He concedes that after about three months when Bertha began to attract the attention of tourists and promoters who would exploit the "poltergeist" that haunted her, the bouncing was very likely manufactured. But Miner described the Sybert family as "simple mountain people who wouldn't dream up far-fetched ideas to make money." In fact, eyewitnesses remain who are still so shaken by the memory that they prefer not to discuss it.
As for the little mountain girl whose smile did not betray the terror that plagued her for three months and rattled the nation, she chose to shelve the memory, as well. Bertha married, raised a family, and later suffered from crippling arthritis until her death in Surry County, Va., in 1986 at the age of 57. Her story still lingers on the lips of folks in Lee County, who can only speculate about the source of what occurred. The legend of Bouncing Bertha remains a good "haint" tale to share by the hearth.
Ralph Miner is still baffled by the memory of the bouncing bed. Although he never bought the scientists' theory, he still admits he cannot explain how the bed of a 60-pound child moved so violently on its own. His only theory is that "there was something there that was beyond this world."
Sheriff R.F. Giles and the county commissioners, in light of news reports and demanding citizens who wanted to know the truth, conducted their own investigation into what was happening up on Wallens Creek back in 1938. Judge Baiey (who was not a judge at all) offered his testimony to the board of supervisors. Simply stated, what Baiey told the board sums up what Miner and other witnesses maintain to this day.
"I saw the bed bouncing," he said. "And it ain't no hoax."