THE PLAGUE OF MOLD-- REVISITED

by

Alan "Cuz" McCann and Michael A. Frizzell

[
This article was originally published in The INFO Journal, Issue # 63, June, 1991]

Once upon a Thursday dreary, while I pondered bored and weary . . .I began to read Strange World [i] by Frank Edwards. As many Forteans will recall, about 30 years ago writer and pioneer radio announcer Frank Edwards entertained millions of readers with his Strange series of books. Frank had a knack for turning reports of bizarre persons, places, and things into compelling image-laden anecdotes, which the general public very much enjoyed. Edwards often presented his stories as selected short subjects interjected with humorous quips that were always interesting and never laborious to read.

Leafing through Strange World, relishing one story after another, I came upon an account which captured my attention. The story was called "The Plague of Mold" and, for readers who may be unfamiliar with this earthy tale, may be paraphrased as follows:

In Elkin, North Carolina, during the summer of 1961, Mr. and Mrs. Grady Norman purchased some linoleum floor covering from a neighbor [ii] who was moving from the area and laid it down throughout two rooms in their home. Within a short time, they began to suffer from acute respiratory problems bearing symptoms similar to hay fever. After realizing that their physical maladies were greater while in the two rooms in which the linoleum had been placed, the Normans discovered a velvety layer of gray-green mold growing under the floor covering.

They immediately pulled up the linoleum, scrubbed the floors with cleansers, and then shellacked them. Within two days the mold grew back, apparently with a vengeance. It now appeared on woodwork, furniture, walls, clothing, and even books. Handling or moving the moldy objects would produce a cloud of spores resulting in "fits of coughing" and "itching and burning" to the skin. As they waged the war, the Normans attempted to defend themselves from the mold with all the accoutrements that modern housekeeping would allow. A variety of detergents and disinfectants were tried, but they were all ineffective. After learning that the Norman home was infected with such a persistent fungus authorities of the Surry County Health Department warned that no one should enter the house. Health officials found that a solution of carbolic acid was the only defense against the creeping parasite, though this drastic remedy proved to be almost as damaging to furnishings as the mold itself. Nearly resigning themselves to defeat, the Normans were forced to set up housekeeping in an old bus while Health Department authorities reconnoitered the peculiar situation.

While I have had no personal experience even remotely similar to the Normans', theirs was a plight that intrigued me and seemed familiar -- in an archetypal sense. Mold is a curious life form. In a way, it seems almost shadowy and sinister, being repulsive and fascinating at the same time. For mold to overtake some long-ignored morsel in the refrigerator is one thing, but to ravage an entire household?

With a theme befitting a Stephen King novel the very idea seemed incredible, as this case appeared to be the only one of its kind in the realm of Fortean literature. I began to wonder if the experience really occurred as Edwards had described it and, if so, if any of the principal witnesses would still be willing (or able) to verify the grotesque event. Though a good story, Edwards did not disclose the fate of either the Normans or their blighted house. Good old Frank left his readers dangling.

I decided to locate the Normans and get their version of the story. After making a few long distance phone calls I managed to find Mrs. Betty Stone (pseudonym) [iii] , a daughter of Grady Norman (now deceased). After convincing Mrs. Stone that I was not some dangerous nut but merely a harmless anomaly addict, she began to freely discuss her strange experiences with the plague of mold.

Reflecting that she was a teenager at the time, Mrs. Stone said that for a short time her parents continued their attempts to rid the house of the menacing fungus while living in the cramped quarters of the bus. Betty went to live with and care for a chronically ill neighbor with whom her family had been very close. Mrs. Stone remembered that a chemist from New Jersey (presumably summoned by Surry County health authorities) developed some type of fungicide, which prevented the mold from further ruining their clothes. The preparation proved effective, however, only when items could be completely submerged and washed in it. Betty also recalled that a closer examination of the mold showed that it was actually of two different types.

The fungus was identified as consisting of both a "penicillin mold" and an "aspergillus mold". According to investigators at that time, the latter form was far more abundant. References on molds and fungi subdivide the genuses of Penicillium and Aspergillus into a number of species. The Penicillium species are usually considered beneficial (due chiefly to P. Chrysogenum --the source of penicillin) because of various commercial and pharmaceutical applications. The species P. camemberti and P. roqueforti impart unique flavors and colors to the Camembert and Roquefort cheeses. [iv]

On the other hand, several species of Aspergillus are not only bothersome but also quite dangerous to man. [v] Certain Aspergillus species are known to cause infections, lung disease, and even cancer. [vi] In fact, the species A. flavus (a mold occasionally found on raw peanuts) can produce an exceedingly potent carcinogen that is ranked with the most virulent substances on earth.

  Cultured Mold on media

In late 1961, now overwhelmed by the mold's tenacity, Betty's parents gave up the struggle, salvaged what little they could from the house, and put the property up for sale. Amazingly, the Normans had been rendered homeless by a musty, primitive plant that had somehow overstepped Nature's system of checks and balances and gone amuck!

Sometime in 1962 the Normans sold the house and a small adjacent parcel of land to a local resident. The Normans used the proceeds of this sale to buy a new home (which, fortunately, was not troubled by mold). The buyer of the 70 year-old Norman house (which was also Grady Norman's birthplace) apparently began to clean the place, but he suddenly abandoned the project and for reasons unknown left the house vacant.

For the next 28 years the house stood empty as the property grew wild. During the spring of 1989 the owner sold the property to a third party who, in July of 1990, bulldozed the house and cleared the land. Today the Norman farm remains bare acreage, the fate of which is yet to be determined.

Betty Stone told the Enigma Project's Mike Frizzell that several years after the Normans sold their farm, both Mr. and Mrs. Norman developed emphysema. She added that while her father was a smoker, whose habit probably predisposed him to the ailment, her mother had never used tobacco. Though it might be tempting to argue the potential dangers of "second hand" smoke in this instance, one wonders what insidious role the mold may have played in the medical conditions of Grady Norman and his wife. Sadly, Betty's mother died of heart failure in 1966 and her father of emphysema eleven years later.

From time to time skeptics have criticized Frank Edwards' works for being embellishments or distortions of the truth. We are happy to report that after sending a copy of Strange World to Mrs. Stone, she informed us that Frank's account of the event was very accurate. With this fact in mind, we are by no means extending carte blanche on the truthfulness of all Frank Edwards' stories. Nonetheless, we must give credit where credit is due.

The next time we find ourselves skimming "over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore," we should not forget that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

END

Michael A. Frizzell, director of the Enigma Project in Maryland, is a past member of the INFO Board of Directors and a frequent contributor to The INFO Journal. Alan McCann, also an INFO board member, works with Mr. Frizzell on the Enigma Project.

 

[i] Frank Edwards, Strange World (NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1964).

[ii] Mrs. Stone told us that this man moved to Virginia but liquidated many of his furnishings, including the linoleum, before leaving. Betty Stone does not know if this man was ever troubled by mold, but she said that the small house (actually a converted outbuilding) that he left behind was never again occupied.

[iii] Mrs. Stone's real name and address are on file with the Enigma Project.

[iv] Walter H. Muller, Botany. A Functional Approach (NY: Macmillan, 1979), p.400.

[v] Muller, p.399.

[vi] Leanor D. Haley, McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Vol.2 (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1987), p. 110.

2000 M.A. Frizzell, All Right Reserved