On a cool but sunny March morning in 1944, schoolteacher Pauline Rebel was preparing the one-room Wild Plum School House, 20 miles south of Richardton, North Dakota, for the arrival of her eight students. It appeared to be a day like any other, but after the students arrived, strange things began to happen.
At first, lumps of coal began to hop around in the coal bucket, like Mexican jumping beans, higher and higher until the coal bounced off the walls. An invisible force moved books and other items around the room. Then, the coal began to burn, and the curtains and a bookcase caught fire. Two girls screamed that they saw a ghostly black-hooded man outside the school-house. Miss Rebel had no choice but to cancel school and call the authorities.
The superintendent of schools brought in the state fire marshal to look for a source of the fires, and they sent samples of coal to the University of North Dakota for analysis. They made arrangements with the FBI to analyze the coal, the coal bucket, and a dictionary from the bookshelf for anything that could explain the supernatural events at the Wild Plum School.
The tale of the haunted schoolhouse made national news. The fearful stories of the haunted coal and the hooded man ran in papers across the U.S., and on this date, TIME Magazine's science section told the story.
Shortly before the story appeared in TIME, however, the source of the haunting had been discovered. Pauline Rebel's students came forward and admitted that they had engineered the haunting. Miss Rebel had very poor eyesight, even with glasses, and the students had started pranking the nearsighted teacher in January. Because they didn't get caught, the students escalated the pranks until they were hiding matches in the coal bucket and between pages of books on the bookshelf, and poking things with yardsticks to make it look like a ghost did it. Now that state officials and possibly the FBI were involved, the students decided to admit their hijinks.
TIME Magazine ran a retraction in the May 1st issue, but even though the truth is known, books published today still tell the story of the haunted Wild Plum Schoolhouse as though it was a true unsolved mystery.
Dakota Datebook written by Derek Dahlsad.
"Jitterbug Coal Case Puzzles School Officers" – Ellensburg (WA) Daily Record, 4/13/1944
"Science: Witchery in North Dakota" – TIME Magazine, 4/24/1944
"Education: Why Hop Ye So?" – TIME Magazine, 5/1/1944
"Hexed" School Case Blows Up" – The (Spokane, WA) Spokesman-Review , 4/19/1944