The Case of Carole Compton
The case of Carole Compton, the 'nanny they called a witch' as the newspapers dubbed her, is now considered by many in the light of poltergeist activity, and a kind of uncontrolled psychic or mediumistic ability, rather than having any connection with witchcraft.
Carole worked in three different homes, and over a period of 23 days, five fires and various other poltergeist phenomena broke out in the houses. The evidence for her arrest was circumstantial, and the Italian authorities were profoundly embarrassed when Carole was brought to trial amid claims that she was a witch with the supernatural power to start fires by intention alone (known as pyrokinesis).
In May 1982 twenty-year-old Scottish girl Carole Compton went to work in Italy to be with the Italian man she had fallen in love with in her home town of Ayr. She found a job as a nanny in Rome caring for the children of the wealthy Ricci family, while her boyfriend was doing his military service. For the first few days all went smoothly, then one day a small religious picture fell off the wall and smashed on the floor while Carole was walking past it. The superstitious maid of the house, Rosa, made Carole cross herself and hurridly said a short prayer.
Superstition and Witchcraft Accusations
At the end of July, 1982, Carole obtained another nanny job with the Tonti family, who had previously employed another Scottish girl, and went to stay with them in their grandparents house on the island of Elba. The superstitious grandmother took an immediate dislike to Carole. After a few days there was a fire in a mattress. The wiring and electrical points in the bedroom were checked, but the family couldn't find anything wrong. Later that day a little statue fell to the ground when no-one was near it. The next morning Carole was woken up by a loud noise and saw a silver cake-stand lying on its side on the floor; this was followed minutes later by a vase made of blue glass falling to the floor and smashing itself to pieces. The vase had been standing on a small table next to the television set, well out of Carole's reach. From then on the grandmother took a violent dislike to Carole, muttering the word strega ('witch') behind her back.
Poltergeist type activity continued when Carole heard a faint scratching, crackling sound in the house, but couldn't tell where it was coming from. This was followed by another fire in the cot mattress of her three-year-old charge, Agnese. This was enough for the grandmother who accused her of starting the fires and persuaded the family to call the police.
When the police arrived they immediately took Carole away, handcuffed, to a prison at Livorno. She had no idea what was happening. She was interrogated and put in prison for attempted murder, as under the Italian legal system a person can be imprisoned (sometimes for years) without being charged. Although she was not charged with witchcraft, this formed the basis of the accusations against her, and in prison she was avoided because of the witchcraft rumours which had begun to circulate. News of the case was now spreading, mainly due to various Italian papers branding Carole a 'witch' and a 'sorceress'. In Britain, too, the case cause sensational headlines such as 'THE GIRL THEY CALL A WITCH'. However, the media coverage did provide some help, raising money to pay for Carole's lawyer and for her mother to travel to Italy.
Carole's case was attracting some interest from the parapsychology community as well. Paranormal experts Guy Lyon Playfair and Dr. Hugh Pincott offered to help Carole through her lawyer Sergio Minervini, as the incidents in her case reminded them of certain poltergeist cases. She was also visited in prison by the foremost authority on poltergeist phenomena, Dr. Hans Bender. However, Carole wanted to avoid the idea that anything 'paranormal' was involved. She didn't believe she had any psychic abilities and couldn't understand how she could be an inconscious focus for the phenomena.
Carole was finally brought to trial in December 1983, after 16 months in prison. At the trial she was made to sit inside a huge steel cage. Although Compton had no motive, and she had never been caught or seen starting the fires, and denied having done so, the Prosecution maintained she was a liar and demanded a sentence of seven years imprisonment.
During the trial it was revealed that forensic experts had tried to recreate the pattern of the fires without success, and one forensic scientist testified that a burnt mattress could never have been set alight in the way claimed, as it had unaccountably burned downwards, rather than up. Exhaustive scientific tests came up with no scrap of proof of inflammatory substances or anything else. Teodoro Comploi, Chief fire officer from Ortisi, where some of fires had occurred, stated 'I've been a fireman for thirty-eight years, but I've never seen fires like those before.' A Professor Vitolo gave evidence, stating that he was sure the fires were not caused by a naked flame, but by intense heat.
In the end, Carole was found not guilty of attempted murder, but guilty on two charges of arson, and one of attempted arson. She received a sentence of two and a half-years imprisonment, but because of the time she had already spent in prison, the sentence was suspended and she was free to go.
In 1990 she published a book about her ordeal Superstition: The True Story of The Nanny They Called A Witch, which included evidence from experts who suggested she was the unwitting victim of a poltergeist. She is now married with a family and living in West Yorkshire.
In 2003 a film Superstition, starrring Charlotte Rampling and Sienna Guillory, and based on Carole's story was released. Despite one or two interesting moments, however, it suffered from a basic lack of understanding of poltergeist and related phenomena and offered precious few insights into the case.
Professor Hans Bender, and many others, believed that Carole's case could be explained in terms of Psycho-Kinetic (Pk) exteriorization, in other words a poltergeist attack. There are many parallel cases to support this. At the time of Carole's case there were reports about a sixteen-year-old Italian boy called Benedetto Supino, who was supposed to make fuse boxes explode and newspapers catch fire whenever he was near.
Generally fires during poltergeist activity have been widely reported since the earliest cases (see the Fire Starters article on this site for some 19th century examples).. Whilst investigating the famous Enfield (London) poltergeist case in 1977, Maurice Grosse visited another home in Holloway where poltergeist activity had been reported. Firemen had been called seven times to the council flat belonging to a couple, without children, where spontaneous fires involving a dishcloth, a bedspread, a sweater, and a pile of newspapers, had broken out. A box of matches that had been scorched did not catch fire. There was also a burn mark found on a wall, with a melted plastic beaker next to it. Bedcushions were also flying through the air and fruit lifting itself from the bowl. The fires had erupted many times. but the firemen found no explanation, one fireman told Grosse 'In my six years' experience I've never seen anything like it.'
It was soon after this visit that the first fires broke out at Enfield. Smoke was seen to come from a cupboard; inside, a box of matches was found charred, but as in the Holloway case, the matches had not burned. Pieces of paper, clothes and money were also found burned.
In 1970, in Suzano, São Paulo, Brazil, a total of sixteen fires broke out spontaneously in a family home. Mattresses, a sofa, clothing inside a wardrobe and the wardrobe itself were burnt. Some of the activity was witnessed at first hand by the local police chief and his forensic expert. The chief described how a mattress began to smoulder in front of his eyes, noticing that it seemed to be burning from the inside. In 1979, in the Pyrenees village of Séron, an incredible ninety-eight fires broke out during August. Nobody could determine how they started, one eyewitness stated that all the fires appeared to start with a small burn mark on a bed or piece of clothing which would then burst into flames. As in the Carole Compton case, two young people were jailed, tried and convicted on insubstantial evidence, regardless of motive or witnesses. They were subsequently pardoned or freed.
Witchcraft Fires in Sicily
From January to April 2004, in Canneto di Caronia, Sicily, spontaneous fires broke out in about 20 houses. Fridges, cookers, televisions, washing machines and mobile telephones burst into flames spontaneously even after the electricity to the village was cut off. After investigating the possibility of an electromagnetic disturbance caused by a natural phenomenon, officials still remained at a loss to explain the cause of the events. Old superstitions were aroused and there were fears that supernatural powers and witchcraft were to blame, and Father Gabriel Amorth, the Vatican’s expert on exorcisms, affirmed that the Roman Catholic Church was considering the possibility of demonic intervention.
It seems that nothing has been learned in the twenty-two years since the case of Carole Compton.
Sources & Further Reading
Spencer, John & Anne. The Poltergeist Phenomenon. London, Headline. 1997, p112-3.
Compton, Carole (with Gerald Cole). Superstition. The True Story of the Nanny They called a Witch. London, Ebury Press.1990.
Hat-tip to my Sorella Songofthesea for drawing my attention to this. Bacioni!
« Okay, that's it.