BELIEVE in ghosts? Well, that depends on what kind. I don’t believe in the old-time spooks that haunt graveyards, drag clanking chains along castle battlements, or ride about headless on horseback. No, those fellows are quite out of date, fit only for Halloween pranksters. But I do believe—to paraphrase Hamlet—that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our science. I believe our laws of physics are imperfect; that there are things happening around us that are inexplicable in our present state of knowledge; and that it is the duty of science to investigate these facts and either explain them away or enlarge its own boundaries to include them.
The fashion in ghosts began to change about seventy years ago when the British Society for Psychical Research was formed by a few open-minded scientists to undertake an organized probe into ghostland.
Unfortunately the human senses are fallible, while human capacity for fraud and credulity seem almost unlimited. The physical phenomena in general including apparitions and hauntings, inexplicable lights and noises, movements of objects —are not yet accepted by most scientists. However even in this field psychical research has accumulated a substantial body of evidence, some of which cannot be attributed to fraud or hallucination, yet are not in accordance with existing scientific laws.
The type of physical ghost that looks most promising from the research point of view is the poltergeist. This word, derived from German, means simply “noisy spirit.” It covers all that class of hauntings where physical disturbances occur; such as noises, fires, lights, showers of water or stones, throwing and breakage of objects.
The definition of a poltergeist given by the late Harry Price, founder of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation, is the best I know. He calls it “an invisible, intangible, malicious and noisy entity that is able, by laws yet unknown to our physicists, to extract energy from living persons (often the young) and to direct intelligently this stolen power.”
In the majority of cases the phenomenon centres around an individual, usually a young person who is sick or emotionally disturbed.
The poltergeist can fairly claim to be the oldest, the most widespread and the most consistent of all types of ghost. He is found in fairy tales and in ancient literature. He intrudes into the lives of saints and mystics. He crops up in countries as far apart in distance and culture as Iceland, India, China, Britain, France and Brazil. Travelers have found him at work among African Negroes and American Indians. And everywhere the poltergeist’s method of operation is recognizably the same.
Poltergeists do not confine their activities to the older countries and cultures. They abound on the North American continent. The American Society for Psychical Research has investigated numerous poltergeists in the United States and some in Canada, without as a rule finding evidence of fraud or credulity. In fact, Canada is rich in poltergeists. I have traced examples in every province, some of which have become world famous.
I have collected records of more than twenty-five cases from Halifax to Vancouver. Among them are the possession of a young girl by a foul-mouthed demon at Clarendon, Que., in 1889; the window-smashing epidemic that occurred on the Manser farm at Crosshill, Ont., in 1879; the antics of a ghostly firebug at Woodstock, N.B., in 1887, and at Caledon Mills near Antigonish, N.S., in 1921; the explosions of plaster in three Forest Hill Village houses in suburban Toronto in 1947, and the roofhammerings of a Chilliwack, B.C., poltergeist in 1951.
My own interest in the subject originated in a personal experience of a poltergeistic disturbance in my family circle. It was a typical case of repressed adolescence, producing sudden and mysterious disintegration of objects such as vases and statuettes, close to but not touched by the person concerned. In cases of this sort one ounce of direct evidence is worth a pound of hearsay. I cannot accept fraud as an explanation of what I saw and heard.
But I imagine quite a few people would be satisfied only if they too met a real poltergeist. To these — in lighter but not disrespectful vein I offer the following recipe, of which the ingredients are all Canadian:
Wait until you and your wife are well on in years. Then acquire a more or less tumble-down farmhouse in a remote part of Ontario or the Maritimes. Adopt a female adolescent orphan with a poor health record or a neurotic disposition. Then wait and see what happens to your furniture, walls, windows, linen, barns and cattle! This is what cookbooks call a “well-tried recipe.” It contains the ingredients which have been found in most recorded poltergeist cases in this country.
In the 1890s two teen-age poltergeistic girls, one at Clarendon, and the other at Thorah, Ont., were found to have graduated from the same orphanage at Belleville, Ont., where perhaps they had had the opportunity of comparing techniques!
For our earliest Canadian poltergeist we must go as far back as 1661 in Quebec. An Ursuline nun, Mother Mary of the Incarnation, in a letter describes the arrest of a Huguenot miller who caused esprits follets—hobgoblins—to infest the home of his sweetheart, causing loud noises and flute and drum music to be heard there, and stones to be detached from the wall and thrown about. The girl was sent to a convent and the man thrown into jail, but as he had an alibi; and would confess to nothing, a charge of sorcery laid against him was dropped.
Mother Mary’s brief account is particularly interesting because the phenomena she describes, especially the ; noises and the stone-throwing, follow! the typical poltergeist pattern yet she had no idea that a typical pattern was ever to appear in the poltergeist stories of later generations. This is even more so in the case of Ontario’s biggest poltergeist story, the Baldoon Haunting, of 1829-31.
Baldoon, on the Ecarte River near Wallaceburg, was settled by Lord Selkirk’s Highlanders, poor, proud and deeply religious folk who knew nothing about ghosts except from what old-country tales they could remember. The story centred on the largest farm in the neighborhood, owned by John T. McDonald, and is known in considerable detail only because Neil McDonald, the farmer’s young son, was endowed with a taste for sleuthing and some talent for writing. He collected the testimony of twenty-six persons in a pamphlet which has been a local best-seller ever since.
John McDonald and his wife had heard queer noises—sometimes like thunder, sometimes like footsteps—in their house for months before the main trouble started. They told no one outside the family but that fall, a large party of girls holding a straw-plaiting bee in McDonald’s barn were terrified when the beams of the loft above their heads began tumbling down in their midst. Strangely enough, no one was hurt, but the girls, panic-stricken, ran into the McDonald farmhouse. While they were discussing the strange happening, a shower of bullets drilled through the farm windows from outside—but once more no one was hit. The bullets fell harmlessly to the floor inside. Angus McDougald, a young passer-by, attracted by the girls’ shrieks, ran in and examined the holes and bullets. He naturally suspected a practical joke on the part of some malicious prankster.
But a closer look made the problem more complex. “Look at these holes,” cried Angus, “drilled through the glass as neat and clean as if made by gunfire. And now see those pellets, lying on the floor under the sills inside the room. If they were spent when they hit the glass, they’d have shattered the whole pane. But if they were fired from close range, they ought to have gone across the room and hit the far wall. I can’t make it out!”
Baldoon was flat and treeless, with no satisfactory cover for a marksman, but the bullets kept on coming into the McDonald home day after day, even when everyone was on the alert to catch the culprit.
They came in through every window, on every side, until not a pane of glass was left whole. Glass being scarce, John nailed strong inch-thick boards across the broken windows. Still the mysterious missiles continued to come, but with one remarkable difference. Whereas the bullets had perforated small round holes in the glass, they passed through the boards without making a mark in the tough wood.
After a week or two stones began to take the place of bullets. Crowds of sight-seers gathered every afternoon to witness the phenomena.
Neil Campbell picked up a pebble that hit him and threw it in the nearby Ecarte River. In a few moments a stone of the same shape and size came hack into the house, but wet and muddy. A Methodist preacher, the Rev. A. Brown, then picked up several balls, marked them, and pitched them in the river. Some of the marked balls soon returned through the window, wet. Eight witnesses gave separate written descriptions of this occurrence.
There was other strange activity in the house. Beds and chairs shifted, even when people sat or lay on them. Pots and kettles, tools, logs and foodstuffs flew about the rooms. Visitors and domestic animals received their share of attention, being variously plagued by the “noisy spirits.”
The morale of the McDonald household became badly affected. John McDonald made frantic efforts to end the reign of terror, calling to his aid every device known to the times. Exorcisms conducted by local ministers were rudely interrupted with stone-throwing. An Indian medicine man who promised to frighten away the evil spirits thought better of it and took to his heels. A United States schoolteacher, Robert Barker, who fancied himself as an amateur ghost-layer, came over from Bay County, Michigan. He nailed a horseshoe over the front door and proclaimed a ban on the trouble-making spirits. Unluckily for him the Windsor police investigated and arrested Barker for pretense of witchcraft. He languished in Windsor jail for six months before the case against him was dismissed—on the grounds that he had taken no fee for his services!
In the summer of 1830 the manifestations took a new and sinister turn. An epidemic of small fires broke out in the haunted farmhouse. According to Neil McDonald, “little balls of fire began to float in the air and, settling in various parts of the house, set it on fire. The backlog from the hearth would be dashed into the middle of the room, scattering sparks in all directions. Closets which no one could reach without passing through the main sitting room were found to he receptacles for small bonfires set by unseen hands. Up to fifty outbreaks of fire in a single day were recorded.
John McDonald put a ban on all cooking and heating in his house. But the fires then spread to his barns, full of newly harvested wheat. Many Baldoonians volunteered to act as fire-watchers day and night. Early one morning Angus McDougald, rowing down the river in a boat with two friends, saw flames curling up from the McDonald house. Before they could reach the bank, the whole place was ablaze, and the family barely escaped with their lives.
Now a clue was offered which seemed to bring the McDonald haunting into even closer harmony with other poltergeist hauntings. Generous neighbors and relations offered to take in the refugees, and John, sick and in low spirits, was forced to divide his family. He and his wife went to lodge in a friend’s house; his three children were taken in by his father, Daniel.
There was another member of the household, Jane, a relative whom John had taken in to help with the children and the housework and give his wife company. Jane was an attractive, lively and amusing girl of about fifteen. No one had any reason to connect her with the manifestations, but it was noticed that she seemed much less worried about them than anyone else. The others even spoke of her as “a little ray of sunshine” that cheered them up in their misery. After the burning of the farmhouse, Jane went with the three children to their grandfather’s house.
The manifestations ceased to worry John and his wife, but they followed Jane and began to plague Daniel McDonald’s household. By extreme vigilance Daniel escaped having his home burned down. He soon returned the children to their parents, and the reunited family had to camp in an improvised shelter made of old sails in the garden of their charred dwelling. Even there the fires and other disturbances continued.
Neighbors told John he was the victim of spells cast by a witch. A visiting Methodist elder recommended Dr. John Troyer of Long Point, eighty miles from Bakloon. Troyer, one of the first medical practitioners in Ontario, belonged to the mystical sect of Tunkers or Dunkers, who held that the universe was peopled with invisible spirits, good and bad, who influenced the lives of human beings. Troyer not only believed in witches, but considered it his special mission to exterminate them. He kept an iron witch-trap by his bedside, and taught his daughter crystal-gazing with a piece of moonstone she had picked up in the fields.
John McDonald and the Methodist elder rode across eighty miles of swamp and forest to Dr. Troyer. His daughter obliged them with a crystal reading which warned McDonald (correctly) that another fire was breaking out in his last barn; at the same time she gave him a recipe for ending the trouble.
You are being secretly persecuted by a witch who has transformed herself into an animal,” she said. “You must"' find this animal and shoot it with a silver bullet.”
John thought hard, and remembered a stray wild goose that he had seen about his farm. Miss Troyer assured him this must be the witch. Dr. Troyer obligingly accompanied John back to Baldoon and helped him to cast the silver bullet. They found the wild goose swimming in a farm pond and John fired at it and broke its wing. It flew off into some reeds and disappeared.
It only remained to identify the witch. John had the idea it must be an old woman who with her sons occupied a neighboring farm. Some years previously she had quarrelled with him. When he visited her the day after shooting the goose he found she was nursing an injured arm. This, to him, was proof of Miss Troyer’s assertion.
The doctor maintained that there would be one more effort to annoy McDonald; and there was. On Sunday morning the whole family, including Jane, went to Daniel McDonald’s for a prayer meeting. On the way home they were joined by Angus McDougald. At the farmhouse gate, Jane ran ahead to open the front door, gave a shriek, and called Angus.
“A curious sight met my view,” reported young McDougald. “Every article of furniture in the house was piled up in a kind of windrow, which extended cornerwise across the room. A space of a couple of feet was left in the centre of the pile, and the family Bible was opened and turned down on the floor.”
The Ghost’s Last Fling
Old Dr. Troyer, when told what had happened, said this would be the last of the hauntings—and so it turned out. The furniture-piling was the “last fling of the ghost” and Baldoon went free of disturbances from that time forth.
The good doctor, of course, returned to his home in triumph, with much enhanced reputation as a witch doctor. He lived twelve more years, died at eighty-nine, and was buried, in his own orchard at Long Point. As for the McDonalds, they sank back into relieved obscurity.
Baldoon has some striking points of comparison with the Amherst Mystery of fifty years later, Canada’s most famous ghost story and a classic poltergeist case. Our main source of information about it besides copious contemporary newspaper reports—is a little book written by Walter Hubbell, an enterprising actor.
The trouble began late in the summer of 1878 in a neat yellow cottage at the corner of Princess and Church Streets in Amherst, Nova Scotia. Here lived Daniel Teed, foreman of the Amherst Shoe Factory, his wife, Olive, their two little boys aged five and one, and two unmarried sisters of Mrs. Teed, Jane and Esther Cox, aged twenty-two and eighteen respectively. 'There were also two boarders, John Teed, a brother of Daniel, and William Cox, a brother of Jane and Esther. Both were also employed at the Shoe Factory under Daniel Teed.
Esther Cox had a handsome admirer, Bob McNeal, who also worked at the factory; but Daniel Teed disapproved of him because he was “unsteady.”
On August 28, after supper, Bob took Esther out for a buggy-ride. Long after dark Esther returned, disheveled, soaked to the skin and distraught. Not till a month later did she reveal that Bob had assaulted her in a fit of emotion, threatened her with a pistol, then driven her back home and departed without a word. He vanished from Amherst and was not seen in the distances again. Price kept the real drama supervision from Esther and Jane, who slept together had gone to bed early and the elder sister scolded the younger for harping on her scamp admirer. Then Jane blew out the lamp. Suddenly Esther squealed and jumped out of bed.
“There’s a mouse under the bedclothes! I heard it move.”
They found no mouse, but the straw inside their mattress was shifting about and rustling, as if it harbored life. However, there was no further disturbance that night.
Next night, they heard something moving under their bed. The noise came from a box filled with patchwork pieces. They took this box out and stood it in the middle of the room. It suddenly jumped about a foot in the air and fell over on its side. Jane righted the box, and it jumped again. The girls screamed in fright, Daniel Teed came in, kicked the box back under the bed and told them to shutup. The family treated the girls’ story as a silly joke.
The third night, September 6, Esther complained of a headache and fever and retired early. Soon after Jane followed her, Esther sprang out of bed and cried out: “Wake up, Jane! I’m dying!”
On lighting the lamp, Jane discovered Esther’s face was red as a beet, her eyes popping, her hair standing on end, her muscles rigid. Jane called for help. Olive and Daniel came in, followed by the two boarders. They pushed Esther back into bed.
She cried out that she was bursting, and Daniel, looking at her, had to admit something was happening.
Her whole body seemed to grow in size, she became burning hot to touch and she screamed with her teeth as if in a fit. Suddenly. ad report, like a clap of thunder, was heard, followed by three more reports that seemed to come from under the bed. Then they noticed Esther. The swelling had disappeared, deflated like a punctured football. She had resumed her normal appearance and was fast asleep.
On September 9 Esther had another attack. This time the bedclothes flew off the bed by themselves into the far corner of the room. Esther was found swollen up, running a fever as before.
I have electric currents running through my body!” she yelled.
The family replaced the bedclothes which again flew off into a corner. Next a pillow under Esther’s head jumped up and hit John Teed in the face. He left the room saying he had had enough of this deviltry.
While the rest of the family sat around Esther’s bed holding the clothes down on her, another series of pistol-shot bangs was heard, whereupon she deflated, relaxed and slept again.
Daniel Teed now fetched a Dr. Caritte. The doctor diagnosed Esther’s trouble as hysteria or shock, and injected her with morphia, whereupon the noises broke out again, louder and more frequent than before. Thinking they might be due to some external agency, the doctor went out into the yard in front of the cottage and stood there in the moonlight, listening. Not a soul was about. But he could still hear the noises, as if someone was sitting on the roof pounding the shingles with a sledge-hammer.
The doctor’s visit let the cat out of the bag so far as Amherstians were concerned. Passers-by and sight-seers reported hearing the noises, which became incessant during the next three weeks. Then a new stage of the troubles began. Esther had a cataleptic fit and, in a state of trance, revealed the full story of Bob McNeal’s attempted assault. Her confession was interspersed with outbursts of loud rapping from the walls.
Dr. Caritte now began to ask the “spirit” questions, laying down a code of raps which would provide the answers. One rap meant “No”; two raps “No answer” or “Doubtful”; three raps “Yes.” The spirit answered correctly a number of simple factual questions, then revealed himself as “Bob Nickle,” a malicious agency determined to haunt and plague poor Esther.
Caritte said he was at a loss to explain the manifestations. The local clergymen were ready with theories which, however, contradicted one another. One minister called Esther a mesmerist or a fraud. Another defended her as a divinely afflicted “human electric battery.” A third came along to offer spiritual consolation, and was rewarded by seeing a strange occurrence. A bucket of cold water on the kitchen table appeared to boil in Esther’s presence.
Manifestations on the Menu
The manifestations stopped for some weeks while Esther was ill with diphtheria and during her convalescence at a relative’s home in Sackville. But they started again soon after her return to Amherst, and took on a more alarming form. Mappings announced that the ghost “Bob Nickle” would set the house on fire. Next day a rain of lighted matches fell from the ceiling of the living room, where the family was sitting. No harm was done, but other mysterious fires broke out in piles of linen and under beds. When the local fire marshal heard of this, he was indignant.
“It’s that darn girl done it,” he pronounced. “She’ll burn half Amherst down yet!”
John White, a bold but philanthropic neighbor of the Teeds, offered Esther a job in a restaurant he owned. To insulate his place against Esther’s “electrical discharges,” he insisted she wear thin glass soles inside her shoes but these she soon discarded because they “hurt her corns.”
The manifestations followed Esther into White’s restaurant. The door of a large kitchen stove refused to stay shut in her presence, and finally flew off its hinges. Metal objects in the building were attracted to Esther as if by a magnet. Three large iron spikes, laid in her lap by curious visitors, grew too hot to hold, and jumped onto the floor.
John White quickly tired of Esther and sent her back home. Daniel Teed had had enough too. He dispatched her on a round of visits to out-of-town relatives and friends.
Just before midsummer 1879 Esther was back home, apparently cured. But at this unlucky moment a new phase of her career opened up. On Saturday, June 21, the Teeds took in, as paying guest, an itinerant actor and vaudeville artist named Walter Hubbell who had just finished a theatrical tour of Newfoundland.
If we may believe Hubbell’s narrative, his first day at the Teeds was exciting. He had hardly deposited his umbrella in a corner of the living room before it was thrown by invisible hands over his head. This was followed by a large carving knife, which appeared to project itself at him over Esther’s head.
“It’s the ghosts,” explained Esther. “They don’t like you, Mr. Hubbell.”
Over the week end the action became fast and furious. A sugar bowl vanished, then fell from the ceiling. A potted plant and a can of water rose from their places in the bay window and kitchen respectively and were set down side by side on the parlor floor. An inkstand and two bottles flew at Hubbell, a fire broke out upstairs, and the parlor chairs piled together in a heap and fell over with a crash when no one was near. Hubbell claimed he had seen a chair follow Esther downstairs from her bedroom, while the only other person in the house, Mrs. Teed, was in the kitchen.
Convinced now that “ghosts” were at work, Hubbell suggested that Esther give a public demonstration of her “gifts.” He hired a hall and invited the people of Amherst to buy tickets. But the experiment was a fiasco. Crowds filled the hall and Esther duly appeared—but the “ghosts” took a night off, and the audience insisted on getting its money back.
This was a disappointment for Hubbell, but for Daniel Teed it was the end.
Esther was sent on a visit to the Van Amberghs, a family that lived three miles outside town, while Hubbell retired to Saint John, to put together his copious notes and publish a book about the strange doings at Amherst.
That November he wrote to the Teeds enquiring after Esther’s health, and had a reply from Jane which gave him a sad shock.
“She is in jail,” wrote Jane, “and has to stay there for four months. Oh, Mr. Hubbell, it is hard for her, but still harder for me. I cannot hold my head up when I go out.”
After her stay with the Van Ambergh’s, Esther had taken a post as domestic help on a nearby farm owned by people named Davidson. Soon the Van Amberghs missed various articles of clothing, which turned up in the Davidson barn. Esther was accused of taking them there, but before the theft could be proved, the barn took fire and burned to the ground. Esther, the last person seen near the place, was prosecuted for arson and convicted.
Hubbell’s book came out the same year, went into ten editions and sold fifty-five thousand copies. Later two well known American psychical investigators, Hereward Carrington and Dr. Walter Prince, published studies of the case. The latter’s appraisal of Esther Cox was that she was psychoneurotic with a “submerged secondary personality” which was responsible for the crafty performance of all the various antics called “manifestations.” He believed that Esther, in her normal personality, was not aware of what her alternate and abnormal personality was doing.
A case like this, in which the judgment is conflicting, prompts the query —Are there any really genuine poltergeist cases? Apart from my own personal experience, I would cite as the most reliable positive example, a case investigated thoroughly in 1926 by the late Harry Price, who, incidentally, was author of the standard study on British poltergeists. He brought over to England from Vienna a thirteenyear-old Rumanian girl, Eleanore Zugun, who had already created a furore in her own country and in Austria as an “agent” of poltergeistie disturbances. Price kept her under personal supervision for three weeks in his laboratory in London and witnessed phenomena that included raps on furniture, movement and displacement of objects without visible human agency, sudden appearance of stigmatic marks and weals on Eleanore’s arms and body. He reported that his tests, made under ideal scientific conditions, proved beyond a doubt that the stigmatic markings appeared spontaneously, and that small objects were undoubtedly moved without physical contact. Later, Eleanore’s curious powers left her and she grew up to normal womanhood and became a hairdresser in Rumania.
I believe, as do many other normally sceptical persons who have studied them, that poltergeists offer a serious challenge to science. Are the phenomena merely produced by exceptionally skilful fraudulent manipulation on the part of repressed and prankish youngsters? Or do they involve genuine manifestations which violate the laws of physics as we know them? This brings us back to our original question
Do we believe in ghosts? Only science can supply the answer.