Hunting season at the Pump House

Photo by Chris Lacroix.

On Saturday, ghost hunter Robert Bess and the Foundation for Paranormal Research (FPR) put on quite a spectacle at the Pump House, Richmond’s beautiful stone castle on the Kanawha Canal.  In a press release dated February 21, FPR advertised the event as such:

“The foundation’s founder Robert Bess, along with his technical containment team, will demonstrate the real existence of ghosts and other worldly entities by actual capture and containment of real ghosts using the foundation’s inventions and techniques. An explanation of the equipment, the theories, and practical applications etc will be given before the event. The environment will be fully lit and fully visible. This is a rare opportunity for skeptics and non-committed believers, etc.”

According to FPR, the main “attraction” would be the Parabot, Bess’s invention which claims the ability to actually catch ghosts.

Over 100 people showed up and crowded the enormous room on the first floor of the Pump House, waiting expectantly in the dark.  The apparatus in the center of the room — presumably the Parabot — was a box large enough to hold a person, with a Tesla coil located inside and another Tesla coil behind the box. A Jacob’s ladder was affixed to the top of the structure, and green neon lights ran down the length and dotted the bottom of the box. The Parabot’s double front doors were wide open.

Photo by Chris Lacroix.

Onlookers were unable to understand Mr. Bess’s brief introduction because of the echo-y, unfocused sound in the cavernous room.  Unsure of Bess’s objectives or how the equipment worked, we watched as the lights were dimmed and attentions focused on the large box in the center of the room. Loud, didgeridoo-laden music and strobe lights were cued.

Over the next hour or so, Bess and his associates pumped a smoke machine into and around the Parabot, while the Tesla coils snapped rhythmically and produced tiny bursts of lightning-like electricity. Twice an alarm sounded, and the doors to the Parabot were closed.  There were excited shouts from Bess and his crew, and then the doors were re-opened and the smoke-pumping continued.

Photo by Johnny Hugel.

Paranormal investigation is a field in which it’s difficult to separate the “serious” from the “silly,” and I think that ultimately both types can be equally pointless.  Judging from the press release and the theatrical nature of the ghost hunt itself, Bess and FPR seem to be more into attention-grabbing publicity stunts than the collection of any real data. According to FPR’s website, they were able to draw some conclusions from what appeared to be nothing:

“The 3 Mile Lock Experiment took place filmed live by NBC with over 145 witnesses testified to the experiments unvailing results. 2 very identifiable entities were capture and contained with in the chambers force fields,then shortly released.”

I’m not sure if by “unvailing” they mean “unfailing” or “unavailing,” but either way if we are to judge FPR by the coherence of their website, they’re already in big trouble. And neither I nor the roughly 15 people I talked to after the event saw anything identifiable being captured.

Here are the only conclusions I was able to come to from the experiment:

  • I still have no idea what the Parabot is technically supposed to perform.
  • Tesla coils are cool, and those snapping noises they make are strangely satisfying.
  • A Jacob’s ladder, though its only real purpose is to demonstrate electrical properties, looks cool and should be affixed to the top of all scientific inventions.
  • Apparently all you need to “catch” a ghost are: plexiglass, neon lights, electrical supplies, didgeridoo music, a smoke machine, and plenty of fog juice.

Yet if we’re judging this event just on entertainment merit, Mr. Bess and his crew receive good marks.

Photo by Johnny Hugel.

The event also brought a lot of people out to a forgotten Richmond landmark, which is never a bad thing. For those of us who explored the Pump House while we were there, the potential of that huge, empty building was our real excitement for the day. It looks like a lot of work is going on to clear out and restore the stone structure, and some hasty-looking displays have already been set up to provide a basic level of information to the wandering public. As attendees enjoyed the sunny, expansive dance floor, conversations about future parties and dances and weddings floated up to the rafters

Full of merry voices again, the Pump House seems to have come full circle. Even if there is still a ghost (or two) inside.

Photo by Chris Lacroix.

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Great breakdown Tess. I was there (I think Hugel caught me on the dance floor checking my camera, in an above photo) and agree with your assesment on the circus atmosphere. I don’t have a problem with searching for ghosts in what ever way you have to do it (like I’d know how), but it seemed so cliche. If anyone is interested, check my website for what I saw at the Pump House.

  2. Ooh, I was there too, nearly the whole time (we left shortly before 12, the scheduled end time). It was frustrating not to be able to hear the man describe what was happening, and while the morning was very entertaining, we didn’t see anything get captured either.

    I was also delighted to explore the Pump House and spend much time upstairs in the ballroom in the sun which was a welcome opposite to the damp, cold, dark area below. It was so nice to look over the railing at the river and the railroad tracks and wonder about all the history that had happened at that very spot.

  3. I would very much like to talk to any actual eyewitnesses to this event on our radio show tonight, March 14th. Please conact me at, I would love a live review of the experiment for our Paranormal Talk Radio Show heard on 100.3 FM KTLK in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Please contact me ASAP.

  4. thetruthfullone on said:

    First, if anyone was looking for casper,they should have gone home.2nd, understanding the concept.The turmoil inside the box was amazing! Something was in there. As Mr. Bess explained, there were too many ghosts in the chamber to get just one apperation.The continous changing of the clock was wild!. We were allowed to go down and see what was filmed by his tech, there must have been hundreds of orbs inside that thing.The first containment was awsume as well.This man needs to be on the radio. Fear he doesn’t have.

  5. john koury III,F.R.C.,G.D on said:

    I am a paranormal researcher myself as well as a person identified probably by too much education,(a bad thing?). In analysis of Bess’s experiment and only this one, the theory is sound. In the SCOLE experiment it was determined to a large extent that “spirits” are merely energy as it can not be crested nor destroyed, just changed from one form into another. With this theory in mind, a “spirit” or entity that needs energy or may contain “intelligence” would need to collect energy from the surrounding area which is already charged, some places more than others. A unit such as the one used in the experiment would be exactlty what an entity would be attracted to , however the containment or capture of anything for scientific or other purposes is deplorable! i have seen this man in other circumstances and although his theories are sound, and as seen is a very talented builder of intricate devices its presentation and theatrics that is the main goal. if the theory produces results, great but the notoriety is seemingly the “entity: that is being captured. It does make sense that things were captured; even what their goal as stated may have been attained, but as in numerous similar experiments during the past century culminating in the Scole experiment, have shown that there is no way to contain the type of energy he is seeking, yet. if it could have been done, I believe TESLA would have done it already. I do give Robert much luck because just as was said in a previous post, he is bringing new life into old places that otherwise would be forgotten, or turned into condominiums. Preserving history is what I have found to be an unexpected result of Ghost Hunting in general, otherwise lost to newer generations. Please excuse the typos as i am driving. Remember, i said i was educated, not smart. I do look forward to more Houdini like theatrics from this organization, and that is said in a positive manner.

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