This episode of The Curse of Oak Island: Drilling Down serves as a recap of The Curse of Oak Island’s Season 3, Episode 11: Sword Play.
Looking Back on the ‘Roman Sword’
Matty Blake sits down with Craig Tester to talk about the ‘Roman sword’ debunked in Season 3, Episode 11 of The Curse of Oak Island. Tester expresses his disappointment at the evidence showing that the sword is a relatively modern creation, and states that it will likely remain in the Oak Island museum as a reminder that “you’ve got to follow the clues.”
Executive Producer Joe Lessard
Next, Blake meets with the executive producer of The Curse of Oak Island, Joe Lessard, along with Rick and Marty Lagina. It is revealed that “Marty occasionally will take over as director of shoot” due to his frustration with the degree to which filming cuts into treasure hunting time. However, the Lagina brothers acknowledge that their treasure hunting crew and Lessard’s film crew are all part of the same team.
The Lagina Family
Next, a pre-recorded video shows several Lagina family home movies from the 1950’s and ‘60’s, when Rick and Marty were kids growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The video is overlaid with a narration by Rick and Marty’s older and younger sisters, respectively: Marianne Gardiner and Therese Fernetti. Marianne and Therese also talk about their feelings regarding Rick and Marty’s treasure hunt and The Curse of Oak Island. One fraternal anecdote the Lagina sisters relate involves an incident in which Rick and Marty were both asked by their parents to mow the lawn. According to Rick’s version of the event, Rick did all the mowing while Marty “would kinda lay down on his back and look at the clouds.” After the video has finished playing, Blake asks Marty whether his version of the event is congruent with Rick’s. Marty concedes that Rick’s account is indeed accurate, adding “I was a dreamer, and he was a doer, and that just hasn’t really changed, you know.” He also states “I’ve come his way, I suppose, and he’s come mine.”
In the next scene, Matty Blake reminds us that the Oak Island mystery has, over the years, captured the interest of a number of world-famous famous celebrities, including John Wayne, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Errol Flynn. He then reveals that Ross Valory, the bassist for the rock band Journey, is another such high-profile Oak Island fan. A pre-recorded video shows Valory, who appears to possess an impressive knowledge of treasure hunting and Oak Island history, touring the island with Rick and Marty Lagina and his friend Pasqua. In the War Room, he discloses that one of his brothers has an uncanny knack for dousing, the controversial process by which Dan Blankenship first discovered Borehole 10-X, and agrees to ask him to help with the treasure hunt. When Marty expresses his skepticism towards dousing due to the mystery surrounding its mechanism, Dan Blankenship says “not everything in this world has a plausible explanation, Marty. Period. There are some things you just have to believe in.”
Ask Rick and Marty, Featuring Dave: Round 3
Back on the stage, Blake asks Rick, Marty, and Dave Blankenship several questions put forth by fans of The Curse of Oak Island.
One fan asks “What is preventing the excavation of the swamp…?” Rick explains that, due to provincial law, they are unable to dig in the swamp until they have a very specific “hard target”, which they currently lack.
The next question, directed at Dave, is “Would you do anything different if you could go back in time on Oak Island?” Dave replies that, if he could go back in time, he would keep better records. Rick, lamenting that he and the current Oak Island crew are guilty of the same mistake, ads that Oak Island Tours Inc. ought to hire an archivist.
Peter Fornetti’s Skepticism
Next, a pre-recorded video plays highlights of British Columbian engineers Mike and Shaun Herold’s visit to Oak Island in Season 3, Episode 11, during which the two men presented the late Laverne Johnson’s Oak Island theory.
Another video reveals that, in order to access the ‘X-marks-the-spot’ prescribed by Johnson, Rick had to clear a patch of forest with a chainsaw.
Another pre-recorded video shows Rick and Marty Lagina and their nephew Peter Fornetti perusing the museum in the Oak Island Visitors’ Centre. Peter expresses doubt that his uncles will find treasure on the island, saying “at some point in time, there might have been something here. There was a lot done to this island. I don’t know if there’s anything here now.” However, after Rick and Marty show him some of the metal items discovered in 10-X by Dan Blankenship, he suggests that his uncles had better dig up something to add to the collection.
Eelgrass Carbon Dating
In a final pre-recorded video, Craig Tester makes an intriguing revelation. He states that a sample of eelgrass discovered beneath Smith’s Cove, believed to have been part of the Smith’s Cove filter, was carbon dated from 1470-1650 with a 95% probability.
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Drilling Down on Sword Play- The Curse of Oak Island: Drilling Down; S1E3 was last modified: October 18th, 2018 by Hammerson Peters
Season 1, Episode 2: Drilling Down on Silence in the Dark
Harvey Morash and Michael Gerhartz’s Dive
Host Matty Blake sits down with Rick and Marty Lagina to discuss Harvey Morash and Michael Gerhartz’s unsuccessful attempt to dive to the bottom of Borehole 10-X. Rick expresses his frustration at the number of failed diving attempts, while Marty acknowledges the technical difficulties inherent in 10-X dives.
The talk quickly turns to veteran Oak Island treasure hunters and bitter rivals Dan Blankenship and Fred Nolan, whom Rick has given the epithet “the lions of Oak Island.” Rick maintains that the two men are more alike than they are different, citing their similar interests and goals and their passion in the Oak Island treasure hunt.
The three men briefly talk about the alleged ‘Roman sword’ introduced in Season 3, Episode 10, before returning to Morash and Gerhartz’s diving attempt in 10-X. Behind-the-scenes footage reveals that Morash, unable to communicate with the men and women on the surface, inexplicably disappeared into 10-X for more than half an hour, much to the distress of the Lagina brothers waiting anxiously on the surface. Marty explains to Blake that protocol was broken during the dive, although he does not assign blame to anyone in particular.
The Blankenship-Nolan Rivalry
Next, Bake reminds viewers of the long-time rivalry between treasure hunters Fred Nolan and Dan Blankenship, and of the tentative peace pact brokered by the Lagina brothers in Season 3, Episode 7. A pre-recorded video shows a conversation between Fred Nolan and Rick Lagina regarding the former’s discovery of Nolan’s Cross and the so-called “Head Stone” located at its centre.
After the video has finished playing, Blake interviews Dan Blankenship’s son Dave, asking him about the rivalry between Nolan and his father. Dave states that the rivalry was already well established by the time he arrived on Oak Island in 1974, and that it has “just gotten worse over the years.” He states that Dan and Fred are both very alike in their stubbornness, intelligence, and competitiveness, and does not really understand their inability to work together. He also reveals that Dan once “took a rifle after” Fred, and subsequently had it confiscated by the local RCMP. Dave goes on to declare his support for Rick and Marty’s efforts to “bury the hatchet” between the two veteran treasure hunters, but suspects that his father is none “too appreciative of it”.
Ask Rick and Marty, Featuring Dave: Round 2
The next scene shows Matty Blake sitting down with the Lagina brothers and Dave Blankenship. The Lagina brothers follow up on Dave’s interview by stating that, while there is certainly an altruistic motivation behind their attempt to heal the Blankenship-Nolan rivalry, they also hope a reconciliation between the two treasure hunters will give them access to areas of interest on the island. Following that, the four men briefly discuss Fred Nolan’s so-called “Old Well”, which they explored via drilling in Season 3, Episode 8.
A brief video plays in which Oak Island historian Charles Barkhouse talks about the guided tours he and a handful of volunteers conduct on Oak Island each summer, and The Curse of Oak Island’s positive effect on visitor attendance. Afterwards, Dave Blankenship and the Lagina brothers discuss the various benefits and drawbacks of the show’s popularity.
Next, Blake asks the three men a series of questions from the show’s fans. Marty answers the first question, which inquires as to why the Lagina brothers took so long to start exploring Oak Island following their purchase of it in 2007, by explaining that Oak Island treasure hunters are required to purchase a Treasure Trove licence in order to keep 90% of whatever treasure they happen to find (the other 10% going to the government of Nova Scotia), and that it took some time for them to acquire that licence. The second question asks how fans of the show can help with the treasure hunt. All three men agree that the best way to do this is to email Oak Island Tours Inc. their theories, and put an ‘X’ on the map. The third and final question, directed specifically towards Dave Blankenship, asks whether or not it is hard to believe that pre-1795 treasure hunters managed to construct an elaborate underground tunnel system beneath Oak Island without the aid of modern technology. Blankenship maintains that the notion is, in no way, incredible, citing the existence of a 14th Century coal mine located five miles off the coast of England in the Atlantic Ocean as evidence of men accomplishing a similar feat with more primitive technology.
Discussing the ‘Roman Sword’
The next scene is a pre-recorded video showing members of the Oak Island team examining and discussing the ‘Roman sword’ introduced in Season 3, Episode 10. Charles Barkhouse states that the sword is “supposedly” a ceremonial gladius, or short sword, “presented by the Emperor Commodus in honour of the secutor gladiators” sometime in the 2nd or 3rd Century A.D.
After the video is finished playing, it is revealed the Craig Tester has joined Blake, Blankenship, and the Lagina brothers at the table, and that he has brought the ‘Roman sword’ with him. Marty tells Blake that, although he is skeptical of the sword’s authenticity, he wants to believe in it and a potential Roman connection to Oak Island, as he and Rick, with their paternal Italian ancestry and their Croatian pedigree on their mother’s side, have Roman blood. Before the show ends, Craig Tester points out a number of anomalies in the sword that hint at modern tampering.
Early Offshore Mining- Sir George Bruce of Carnock
In this episode of Drilling Down, Dave Blankenship states that it is not at all unbelievable for treasure depositors to have constructed an elaborate tunnel system beneath Oak Island with primitive technology, referencing a 14th Century English coal mine dug five miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Perhaps the best examples of early sub-thalassic mines are the undersea coal mines designed by Scottish engineer Sir George Bruce of Carnock in the 16th and early 17th Centuries. The first of these is the Castlehill shaft, which exploited a coal seam than ran beneath Scotland’s River Forth. In order to ventilate the underwater mine, Bruce built an artificial island in the middle of the river and sank a shaft through it. Bruce’s underwater mine garnered much attention, and in 1617, King James VI of Scotland (aka James I of England) asked for a tour. When the King emerged from the shaft on the artificial island, surrounded by water, he accused Bruce of treason and attempted regicide. Only after Bruce pointed out a nearby rowing boat were the king’s fears allayed.
Drilling Down on Silence in the Dark- The Curse of Oak Island: Drilling Down; S1E2 was last modified: October 13th, 2018 by Hammerson Peters
The Season 6 premiere of The Curse of Oak Island is scheduled to air on the History Channel on November 13, 2018. In preparation for this, I’ve decided to put together some plot summaries and analyses of the various episodes of the show’s appendant series, The Curse of Oak Island: Drilling Down. Enjoy!
The Curse of Oak Island: Drilling Down
Season 1, Episode 1: Drilling Down on Columbus Day
This episode of The Curse of Oak Island: Drilling Down serves as a recap and analysis of The Curse of Oak Island’s Season 3, particularly Season 3, Episode 9: Columbus Day. It also presents another Oak Island theory involving Freemasons and the Chambers of Enoch.
Diving in 10-X
An off-stage audience applauds as Rick and Marty Lagina sit down with host Matty Blake to discuss Season 3, Episode 9 of The Curse of Oak Island, entitled Columbus Day. After quizzing the brothers on their feelings regarding their roles as leaders of the Oak Island treasure hunt, Blake asks them a number of questions about Harvey Morash and Michael Gerhartz’s upcoming diving operation in Borehole 10-X. Rick expresses the fear and frustration he feels while spectating all 10-X dives due to his complete lack of control. He also reveals that a diver does make it to the bottom of 10-X later that season.
Dave Blankenship’s Near-Death Experience
Next, in a pre-recorded interview, Dave Blankenship relates a near-death experience he suffered on March 31, 1986, while working as a construction steelworker. That day, at Dave’s jobsite, a contractor was tasked with unloading a 5-ton air compressor from a tractor-trailer. As Dave stood nearby, the boom of the crane being used to move the load snapped off, causing the air compressor to tumble down a nearby hill and the crane cable to wildly whip about. The cable caught Blankenship behind the knees and hurled him into the cab of the crane, located 46 feet away. As Dave smashed through the cab’s windshield, the strap on his hardhat pinched off his carotid artery, causing him to suffer a massive stroke. Miraculously, without receiving any significant medical treatment, Blankenship survived, albeit initially in a comatose state. In the interview, he states that the doctors “told mom and dad that I was going to be a vegetable and never get out of bed again. They forgot to tell me!” Shortly after a nurse noticed Dave’s fingertip twitch, the 36-year-old steelworker was admitted to rehab. Although the accident had robbed him of his ability to walk, talk, and perform all manner of basic functions, Dave quickly regained most of his faculties. However, due to nerve damage, the left side of his body remains numb to this day. Another side effect Dave attributes to the accident is his lack of verbal filter. In his words, “I hardly ever swore. Now I swear like a f***ing sailor… If it comes in my mind, it comes out my mouth.”
At the end of the video, Dave joins Rick and Marty on stage. Blake asks the Lagina brothers what it’s like to work with Blankenship. Marty praises Dave’s “refreshing” forthrightness and indomitable grit, calling him “the epitome of perseverance.” Rick echoes his brother’s sentiment, calling Dave a “straight shooter”.
Ask Rick and Marty, Featuring Dave: Episode 1
Next, Blake asks the three treasure hunters a number of questions fielded by fans of The Curse of Oak Island. The first question asks whether the treasure hunters have ever considered enlisting the services of a “spiritualist or some kind of psychic”. Marty replies that they have, in spite of the skepticism he personally harbours towards spiritualism and parapsychology. He acknowledges, however, that Dave Blankenship, whom he respects for his no-nonsense realism, along with Dave’s father, Dan, and another man, once observed a mysterious “ball of fire” materialize in the water off Oak Island and glide towards the shore- perhaps a manifestation of a local ghost ship known as the Young Teazer. Blake adds that other Nova Scotians, throughout the years, have also reported seeing strange lights on Oak Island.
Next, Blake asks the men if it is possible to glean any more information from the mysterious piece of parchment discovered in the Money Pit by the Oak Island Treasure Company in 1897. The Lagina brothers cryptically reveal that they have examined the parchment, and hope to conduct additional tests on it in the future.
Lastly, Blake asks, “What do you suppose you’ll be thinking about all this 30 years from now?” All three men answer that they would be thankful to be alive and “thinking” in 30 years, and agree that they hope to be celebrating a successful treasure hunt.
The FDR Connection
The next scene takes place in the Oak Island Visitors’ Centre Museum, where Charles Barkhouse lectures Jack Begley and Alex Lagina on former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Oak Island involvement. Barkhouse informs the men that FDR’s first treasure hunting endeavors took place in the Bay of Fundy, where his mother had a summer residence on Campobello Island. At the age of 14, he and a friend conducted a treasure hunting expedition on nearby Grand Manan Island, where, according to local legend, pirate Captain William Kidd buried treasure. Later, in 1909, Roosevelt invested in Harry Bowdoin’s Old Gold and Salvage Wrecking Company, an Oak Island treasure hunting syndicate, and retained an interest in the treasure hunt until his death in 1945.
FDR and the Enochian Chambers
Next, Blake interviews Rick, Marty, and William Henry, a Nashville-based writer who specializes in alternative history and esoteric mysteries. Henry, as it turns out, espouses the theory that the nine layers of oak logs reportedly discovered in the Money Pit represent the nine vaults of Enoch, an important figure in ancient Hebrew and Freemasonic lore (a variation of this theory was presented in Season 2, Episode 7).
Henry explains that, according to ancient Jewish scripture, Enoch was a “pre-Flood sage” who had a vision of the Deluge (the great flood described in the Book of Genesis), which would wipe out most of mankind. He also envisioned a series of nine underground vaults stacked upon one another in which he could inter some of mankind’s greatest treasures. In the lowest vault, he envisioned a triangular stone on which the ineffable Name of God was transcribed.
Henry goes on to tell of how a physicist, in the 1970’s, purportedly “contacted” Enoch through mediumistic channelling. Enoch revealed to this man that there were “twelve repositories spread around the planet”, each of them containing sacred artifacts. Oak Island’s Money Pit was once such repository, and Henry believes it contains the Holy Grail.
Upon being questioned by Marty, Henry explains that he believes Franklin D. Roosevelt discovered something of “immense significance” on Oak Island, “perhaps an insight, knowledge, maybe something tangible,” which fuelled his intense interested in the island and its treasure hunt. Henry also believes that whatever FDR found on the island prompted him to delve into mysticism and the occult, and to engage with leaders in these fields like Russian polymath Nicholas Roerich. Henry claims that Roosevelt convinced Roerich to undertake an expedition to Central Asia on his behalf, during which Roerich, perhaps, uncovered valuable information pertaining to Oak Island.
Stone Triangle Follow-Up
Next, Blake sits down with the Lagina brothers, Dave Blankenship, and Craig Tester. This time, he reminds the crew of Oak Island theorist Jeff Irving’s theory, introduced in Season 3, Episode 9, which holds that Oak Island’s treasure was interred by Italian navigator Christopher Columbus’ companion, Spanish Franciscan Friar Juan Perez, on the orders of Columbus. The four men briefly discuss Irving’s theory, the Spanish theory, the late Oak Island researcher Paul Wroclawski’s theory regarding a potential Portuguese/Oak Island connection, and historian Terry Deveau’s analysis of the Overton Stone, introduced in Season 3, Episode 3.
After the conversation, Blake brings up the underwater stone triangle examined in Season 3, Episode 9. Marty claims that, although the results of the sonar scan which initially brought the stone triangle to their attention was “fairly dramatic”, the stone appeared to be natural upon closer inspection, when he, his son Alex, and diver Tony Sampson dived on it. However, he states that Tony Sampson, on his own initiative, swam magnetic north of the stone triangle and discovered a larger stone triangle some distance away. These two triangles line up with the stone triangle which once stood on Oak Island’s South Shore Cove, and with the Money Pit beyond. Marty explains that the stones’ arrangement along a magnetic north-south line presents a problem, as magnetic north is constantly moving, and was almost certainly oriented in a different direction in the past, when the Oak Island treasure was buried. In other words, the stones’ collective alignment with magnetic north is likely no indication that they were placed there by man. However, Marty concedes that hiding a clue underwater would be a very clever way to conceal it.
William Henry’s Theory
William Henry is a Nashville-based author, investigative mythologist, and TV presenter who presents his own Oak Island theory in this episode of The Curse of Oak Island: Drilling Down, a theory which he elaborates upon in his 2000 book The A-tomic Christ: F.D.R.’s Search for the Secret Temple of the Christ Light.
Henry’s theory is based on an alternative history narrative. In order to contextualize it, we must come to a basic understanding of the accepted history he attempts to revise.
In their 2000 book American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace, politician John C. Culver and historian John Hyde briefly summarize the life of an eccentric Russian polymath named Nilolai Konstantinovich Rerikh, or Nicholas Roerich. Roerich was a painter, writer, archaeologist, explorer, peace politician, ballet costume designer, and philosopher who dabbled in hypnosis, Theosophy, and other Eastern spiritual practices. In 1918, following the Bolsheviks’ rise to power, Roerich left Russia and his immigrated to Finland. Shortly thereafter, he and his family immigrated to London, England, and after that to New York City.
In 1925, Roerich, his wife, his son, and six friends undertook what’s known as the ‘Roerich Asian Expedition’- a five-year trek through Central and South Asia. The goal of this expedition was to establish what Roerich called ‘The Sacred Union of the East’, a Buddhist Russian satellite state situated in the heart of Asia. Although Roerich’s expedition was ultimately unsuccessful, having failed to bring about the utopian ‘Sacred Union’ and resulting in the deaths of five crewmembers due to privation and exposure, Roerich’s remaining crew did end up trekking south to India, where they founded a research centre called the ‘Himalayan Research Institute.’
In 1929, Roerich returned to New York City, where he convinced a collection of patrons to build the 27-story Master Apartments. The first three floors of the Master Apartments, dubbed the Roerich Museum, the Master Institute of United Arts, and the Corona Mundi International Center of Art, respectively, served to house Roerich’s paintings, among other things.
That same year, future U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace met Roerich in the latter’s new museum. He was impressed by the man’s knowledge of Eastern mysticism, and immediately became his disciple. His subsequent correspondence with Roerich, in which the two men discussed a bizarre Roerichian breed of metaphysics, was, years later, derisively styled “The Guru Letters” by Wallace’s detractors.
In 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt started his first term as President of the United States, he appointed Henry A. Wallace as his Secretary of Agriculture. The following year- during the first of the three massive, dust-storm-induced droughts which characterized the so-called ‘Dirty Thirties’- Wallace set about organizing a U.S. Department of Agriculture expedition to Mongolia and northern China for the purpose of identifying and collecting grasses which prevent soil erosion. He tasked his “guru”, Nicholas Roerich, with leading the expedition.
Before the year was out, the U.S. Department of Agriculture mission was underway. While the expedition’s biologist and botanists went about their assigned work, however, Roerich, the expedition’s leader, spent his time searching for Shambhala, a mythical Tibetan kingdom alluded to in Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist texts.
In 1935, while Roerich and the U.S. Department of Agriculture team were still in China, a former discipline of Roerich’s approached Wallace and convinced him that his “guru” was a fraud. This revelation, coupled with Roerich’s politically embarrassing and diplomatically destructive antics, convinced Roerich and FDR to persuade the IRS to investigate the mystic’s taxes. The IRS found Roerich guilty of tax evasion and demanded that he return to the United States. Instead of returning to New York for prosecution, however, Roerich pursued a new life in India.
William Henry, the writer who appears in this episode of Drilling Down, has a different take on the story of Nicholas Roerich, Henry A. Wallace, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his book, he makes the case that Franklin D. Roosevent’s intense and enduring interest in the Oak Island treasure hunt stemmed from his belief that the island was somehow connected with the Holy Grail. In fact, Henry maintains, Oak Island was the repository of a collection of Grail-documents- “the secrets of the Holy Grail”- discovered by the Knights Templar in Jerusalem, in supposed tunnels located beneath the Al Aqsa Mosque (the site of the Order’s eponymous headquarters). He believes that the Templars brought these documents to Rosslyn, Scotland, following the disbandment of their Order in 1307. Later that century, the Scottish Sinclair family brought the documents across the Atlantic to Oak Island, where they buried them. Henry speculates that Roosevelt might have discovered some of these ancient documents on Oak Island, which steered him towards the “real location” of the Holy Grail: Shambhala.
Henry maintains that Nicholas Roerich was also interested in the Holy Grail, and that his first expedition to Asia in 1925 was actually a quest to find it. However, this ‘Holy Grail’, Henry maintains, was really the Chintamani Stone, a wish-fulfilling meteorite of Hindu and Buddhist mythology, considered by many to be the Eastern equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone (a legendary alchemical substance said to turn base metals into gold, and to completely heal the body of whoever consumes a piece of it). Henry believes that Roerich discovered the Chintamani Stone in Shambhala during his first Asian expedition, and left it where it was.
When Roosevelt started his first term as U.S. President in 1933, his Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, informed him of Roerich’s discovery of the ‘Holy Grail’. As Roerich’s findings regarding the Grail’s location were in accordance with his own, he tasked the Russian mystic with returning to Shambhala and retrieving the Chinamanti Stone for the military use of the United States. Roerich did as requested, travelling to Shambhala on the pretense of a U.S. Department of Agriculture mission, re-discovered the artifact, and brought it back to America, where it was instrumental in the creation of the atomic bomb… according to William Henry, at least.
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Drilling Down on Columbus Day- The Curse of Oak Island: Drilling Down; S1E1 was last modified: October 9th, 2018 by Hammerson Peters
Due to popular demand, and since the season is appropriate, I’ve decided to put together a third and final article on Canadian poltergeists (final for now, at least). If you’d like to read my first article on the Great Amherst Mystery or my latest piece on three Nova Scotian poltergeists, please check out the links in this sentence.
The Difference Between Ghosts and Poltergeists
The author of this article is painfully aware of the good-natured disdain with which a skeptic might read an essay purporting to explain the difference between ghosts and poltergeists- an exposition perhaps not dissimilar, in his or her mind, to an attempt by Winnie the Pooh to elucidate the difference between Heffalumps and Woozles. This author also hopes that such scorn might be tempered by the knowledge that the essay in question, which the next five paragraphs will comprise, is based not on some supposed insight into the nature of these alleged supernatural entities, but rather on the observation that ghost stories tend to fall into at least two different categories.
If you’ve ever read through a collection of regional ghost stories, you may have noticed certain trends that the stories generally tend to follow. For example, an unusual number of ghost stories take place in hotels, bars, and theatres. Tragic death is a common theme, and a setting with a long and colourful history is often a requisite.
The ghosts in most of these stories, of course, appear to be immaterial remnants of the dead. Often they only manifest as cold spots, “a presence”, or distinct scents. Other times, they will make audible footsteps, turn on the lights or the taps, or rearrange furniture. And every once in a while they will appear to people, either as reflections in glass or mirrors, etc., or as apparitions in various stages of detail and completeness.
Although they sometimes interact with the living, ghosts often do so in a manner suggesting that they are unaware that they are dead. They will go about their business as they did in life, giving people directions, lounging in their favourite chairs, and disappearing through doors that no longer exist. When they manifest, it is often to make some trivial remark, to ask someone to leave, or to simply make their presence known.
Poltergeists, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. Unlike ghost stories, which often take place in settings with old and turbulent histories, poltergeist stories are just as likely to take place in an 8-year-old condo as they are in an 800-year-old castle. Poltergeist stories typically consist of loud, obnoxious, and unexplainable noises coupled with the motion of inanimate objects absent of some discernable outside force, suggesting the actions of an invisible prankster bent on mischief and troublemaking. These stories almost always take place in residential settings, and one almost invariable concomitant to them is the presence of a young lady around whom the activity seems to concentrate.
To those of you who have read my previous articles on the subject and already know all of this, I apologize for the repetitiveness. Without further ado, here are a few more great Canadian poltergeist stories. Enjoy!
The Haunting of Barbe Hallay
Canada’s oldest recorded poltergeist activity took place in 1661 in Beauport, Quebec. Today, Beauport is a borough of Quebec City. Back in 1661, however, when Quebec City was a much smaller settlement of less than 3,000 souls, Beauport was a separate village located a short ride through the woods from what was then the capital of New France.
The story of this haunting begins in the year 1660, when a ship filled with French colonists pulled into the Port of Quebec. One of the passengers aboard this vessel was a miller named Daniel Vuil- a former Huguenot, or French Protestant, who apparently converted to Catholicism (the religion of majority in New France) during the voyage. Another passenger was a 15-year-old girl named Barbe Hallay.
During the voyage from France, Vuil had asked Hallay’s parents for permission to marry their daughter. Believing the former Huguenot to be morally destitute, however, the parents refused, much to Vuil’s irritation. In a contemporary letter to her son, Mother Marie Guyart (better known today as Saint Marie of the Incarnation; a widow-turned-Ursuline nun who headed the Ursuline Monastery of Quebec) wrote (in French):
“This appeared on the occasion of a gentleman who had passed from France at the same time as our lord Bishop, and to whom his excellency had caused the heresy to be abjured, because he was Huguenot. This man wanted to marry a girl who had passed with her father and mother in the same vessel, saying that she had been promised him; because he was a man of bad morals, he was never wanted to listen.”
When they reached Quebec, Daniel Vuil and Barbe Hallay went their separate ways, the former re-establishing himself as a miller in Beauport and the latter finding employment as a maid in the manor of a local lord named Giffart.
In 1661, strange things began to take place in the Giffart manor. Phantom flutes began to play to the beat of an invisible drum. Stones began to fall from the manor’s walls and fly about the place with incredible velocity, miraculously failing to injure anyone in the household. It soon became clear that this strange activity seemed to revolve around 16-year-old Barbe Hallay.
Instead of accusing the girl of witchcraft as their New English counterparts would later do to some of their own women in Salem, Massachusetts, the French colonists accused Daniel Vuil of sorcery. They claimed that the miller had cast spells on Miss Hallay in order to corrupt her so that she might be more inclined to accept his marriage proposal. This accusation was based solely upon Barbe Hallay’s allegation that, at night, she was often tormented by spirits that were only visible to her. These spirits appeared to her as men, women, children, animals, and hellish spectres, and would sometimes speak through her in a voice that was not her own. Foremost among these phantoms was a spirit bearing the likeness of Daniel Vuil.
In the year following his immigration to New France, Vuil had done a poor job of ingratiating himself with his fellow colonists. He had reverted back to his original Protestant faith, thereby committing a grave sin in the eyes of his Catholic compatriots. To make matters worse, he had been caught selling brandy to local Algonquin Indians in exchange for furs- at that time, a serious offence in New France. When Barbe Hallay accused him of sorcery, Francois de Laval, the Bishop of Quebec, ordered that Vuil be arrested and imprisoned in the capital. After a trial, the Huguenot was sentenced to death, and on October 7, 1661, Daniel Vuil was executed via arquebus- a matchlock musket common in the 17th Century. To this day, historians are divided on whether the miller was executed for his apostasy, for selling liquor to the natives, or for the crime of sorcery- none of which warranted the death penalty in New France at the time.
As for Barbe Hallay, she was locked in the Hotel-Dieu de Quebec, a hospital in Quebec City run by nuns. There, she was entrusted to the care of Mother Catherine de Saint-Augustine, a French nun venerated today by the Catholic Church. Mother Catherine knew a thing or two about hauntings; by the time of Hallay’s arrival at the Hotel-Dieu, the nun had purportedly been the victim of demon
attacks for nearly a decade.
Mother Catherine quickly diagnosed Barbe Hallay with a case of demonic possession. For two long years, she prayed for the girl. Hallay’s demons are said to have physically attacked the nun for this, leaving her with cuts and bruises. When their assaults failed to dissuade her from her task, the demons adopted other methods by which to put an end to her ministry. According to Jesuit missionary Paul Ragueneau, who wrote Mother Catherine’s biography in 1671:
“Those unhappy demons, unable to intimidate her with all their threats, tried to surprise [her] by changing themselves into angels of light, in order to delude her.
This ruse failed as well. Finally, through what Mother Catherine claimed to be the intercession of the spirit of Father Jean de Brebeuf (a French Jesuit missionary who was martyred on the shores of Georgian Bay by Iroquois warriors in 1649), Barbe Hallay was cured of her affliction.
In 1889, a simple farmer named George Henry Dagg lived with his family in a cottage on the Ottawa River about eleven kilometres from the town of Shawville, Quebec. His household consisted of his wife, Susan; his 5-year-old daughter, Mary; his 2-year-old son, Johnny; and his 11-year-old adopted daughter, Dinah Burden McLean.
Dinah McLean was a poor orphan from Glasgow, Scotland, whom the Dagg family had adopted through the Child Immigration Scheme, a program developed by philanthropist to address poverty in Great Britain. George and Susan Dagg had decided to welcome Dinah into their family not only out of charity, but also with the expectation that they would have a little extra help around the farm. As it turned out, they got more than they bargained for.
On September 15, 1889, George Dagg gave his wife a $5 bill and a $2 bill and asked her to tuck them away in a bedroom drawer. Susan did as her husband requested.
The following day, George was approached by an orphan boy named Dean, whom he had hired to do chores around the farm. Dean gave the farmer a $5 bill, which he claimed he had found on the kitchen floor. Upon close inspection, George determined that the bill was the same one he had given his wife the previous day.
Suspicious, Dagg checked the drawer in which his wife had secreted the bills. As he suspected, the $5 was missing. Even more disconcerting, however, was the fact that the $2 bill seemed to be missing as well. The 35-year-old farmer rounded on Dean and accused him of stealing the money. Indignant, the boy stoutly proclaimed his innocence. George Dagg was unconvinced. He stormed over to the children’s bedroom and threw back the quilt on Dean’s bed, revealing the tiny face of Frederick Hamilton-Templeton-Blackwood, Earl of Dufferin and Governor General of Canada, staring pensively into the distance, surmounted on a white banknote. Sure enough, it appeared that Dean had hidden the missing $2 bill between his bedsheets. After administering a harsh tongue-lashing to the suspected thief, George snatched up the bill and returned it to the drawer.
In the days following the incident, strange things began to take place on the Dagg farm. Milk buckets were emptied, butter disappeared from jars, and human waste from the outhouse began to appear in the house, smeared across the kitchen floor. George Dagg believed the pranks to be the work of young Dean, who was perhaps angry at having been caught stealing. Accordingly, he had the boy arrested, taken before the Shawville magistrate, and locked up in the local jail.
The malicious pranks continued to take place on the Dagg farm in Dean’s absence, proving the orphan’s innocence beyond a doubt. At George’s recommendation, Dean was released. Understandably, the boy did not return to the farm.
Following Dean’s release, George Dagg asked his parents, who lived on their own farm two miles away, to stay with his family for a few days while he went out to thresh his wheat from the harvest. The elderly couple agreed. No sooner had they settled in, however, than a rock came sailing through a window from outside, shattering the glass. John Dagg, George’s father, stole outside the farmhouse and hid behind a stump, determined to catch the culprit red-handed. As he watched and waited for any sign of movement, another window pane exploded. Try as he might, John Dagg could find no sign of the vandal.
The old farmer decided to change his position. He crept over to the barn, removed a wall board from inside, and peered out at the farmhouse through the gap. As he watched, more windows in the house began to explode, seemingly on their own.
“Father,” called Susan Dagg, “you may as well come in. The glass is still breaking.”
Over the next few days, more extraordinary occurrences began to take place. Fires began to break out spontaneously in the Dagg home. Dishes were mysteriously smashed and water buckets were emptied. On one occasion, the elusive tormentor splashed a pitcher of cold water into Susan’s face. Another time, 5-year-old Mary opened the front door, only to be struck square in the chest by a large flying stone which strangely failed to harm her.
Although every member of the Dagg family suffered from the mysterious manifestations, it soon became clear that 11-year-old Dinah McLean was the main object of the prankster’s amusement. One day, she screamed that somebody was pulling her hair. When Susan rushed to her aid, she found that Dinah’s braid had been almost completely severed, as if it had been sawn through with a knife.
On another occasion, while George’s mother, Mary Dagg, was cleaning the children’s bedroom, Dinah shrieked, “Oh, Grandmother, see the big black thing pulling off the bedclothes!” The old lady looked where Dinah was pointing and could see no such black thing. What she did see were the bedsheets floating in midair, as if held up by invisible hands.
“Where is it, Dinah?” the grandmother asked.
“Why, don’t you see him?” cried Dinah in a panic. “He is jumping over the bedstead.”
Old Mary Dagg pressed a bullwhip into Dinah’s hand. “Strike him, child,” she ordered. “Take courage, and strike him hard.”
With her grandmother urging her on, Dinah McLean swung at the shadow which only she could see. The commotion drew the attention of a neighbouring farmer named Arthur Smart who, upon witnessing the spectacle, added his own encouragement to that of old Mrs. Dagg. “Lay it on him, Dinah!” he hollered.
After one particularly vicious blow, everyone in the room, including a young boy who accompanied Smart, heard a strident squeal like that of a pig. Once the horrible sound died out, Dinah claimed that the black figure had vanished.
Despite the thrashing it received, or perhaps because of it, the mysterious entity began to pester the Dagg family with renewed vigour. Beds were torn apart by invisible hands. Rocking chairs oscillated with wild abandon. Harmonicas played by themselves. Visitors were pelted with potatoes. One day, a sheet of paper was found pinned to the wall bearing the message: “You gave me fifteen cuts”.
Eventually, the farmers decided to seek the services of a local clergyman named Reverend Horner. Horner paid a visit to the farmhouse and, in an effort to exercise the demon, opened up his prayer book and began to read passages from sacred scripture. While he read, the book from which he was reading vanished from his hand. A subsequent search found the book in the oven. Shaken to the core, the minister sank to his knees and prayed for half an hour that God might “life [His] heavy hand” from the house.
Despite Reverend Horner’s entreaties, the uncanny manifestations continued. Determined to put an end to the mischief, George Dagg made a 170-kilometre journey southeast into Ontario to consult a famous folk healer reputed to have the “Second Sight”; known locally as the Witch of Plum Hollow. After a long séance in her tiny cottage, the wizened old lady assured the farmer that his manifestations were the result of black magic practiced by a neighbouring widow and her two children. The object of their incantations was Dinah McLean.
The only neighbour fitting this description was a widow named Mrs. Wallace, who lived in her late husband’s farmhouse with her two children. George Dagg could see of no reason why the Wallace family would harbour ill will against Dinah. When he confronted her, Mrs. Wallace denied that she had ever dabbled in the dark arts and paid a visit to the Dagg home to prove that she had no grudge against the Scottish orphan.
By the end of October, the story of Dagg’s Demon, as it was popularly referred to, had piqued the interest of regional journalists. Reporters who made the long carriage ride out to the Dagg farm to interview the family and their neighbours learned that the manifestations were common knowledge to the people of Shawville, Quebec, and had been witnessed by many people. One local named James Quinn related his own strange experience at the Dagg house to a newspaperman, who quoted him as saying:
“I had a halter in my hand… and before going into the house I laid the halter on the doorstep. After chatting with the family a few minutes, I went outside and found that my halter was gone. I thought someone had hidden it for a joke, but after appealing to the people who were there and getting a declaration from them that they had not seen it, I gave my halter up for lost. As I was standing in front of the house discussing my loss with Mrs. John Dagg, Mrs. George Dagg, and Miss Mary Smart, we suddenly heard a slight noise in the air, and the halter fell down in our midst.”
In early October, 1889, the manifestations graduated to a new and terrifying level. One day, 5-year-old Mary claimed that she saw a man with hooves and the head of a bull standing in the front doorway. On another occasion, Mary caught this same Minotaur-like figure pouring sugar into the oven. “Want to come to Hell with me?” the creature asked her with a ghoulish grin. Dinah also claimed to have seen this frightening figure, as well as a giant black dog with red eyes which lurked outside the farmhouse.
Although the adults of the Dagg family were unable to see the unearthly apparitions, they were able to hear the entity, which spoke in the rough, gravelly voice of an old man. The language it used was rude and obscene, especially when directed at Dinah.
In November, an accomplished impressionist painter and sometime journalist named Percy Woodcock travelled from home in Brockville, Ontario, to the Dagg farm in the hopes of documenting the manifestations. He arrived at the farm on Saturday, November 14, 1889. Shortly after his arrival, he met with Dinah, who informed him that her family’s ethereal tormentor had just spoken to her near the shed. Woodcock accompanied Dinah to the place.
“Are you there, Mister?” Dinah called once they reached the shed. To Woodcock’s astonishment, a gruff male voice growled: “I am the Devil. I’ll have you in my clutches! Get out of here or I’ll break your neck.”
After recovering from his shock, Woodcock bravely admonished the voice, exhorting it against using such foul language in the presence of a child. In response, the voice issued a torrent of curses. At Woodcock’s insistence, the invisible entity picked up a pencil and scribbled on a piece of paper that the artist provided, spelling out more obscenities.
For five hours, Woodcock verbally tilted with the disembodied voice, shaming it for its vulgarity and imploring it to be more civil. Through hours of ruthless grilling, he and other members of the Dagg family who joined him managed to extract from the voice a confession that the principal purpose for its mischief was its own amusement. It claimed that it never intended to hurt any of the family members, and only lit fires in the daytime, when they could be easily discovered and extinguished. At one point, the voice also declared that it was actually the spirit of an 80-year-old man who had died twenty years prior. The voice whispered its name to both John and George Dagg, but swore them to secrecy on pain of horrible death. The father and son did not test the entity’s threat.
Sometime during the course of the conversation, it occurred to Percy Woodcock that the extraordinary phenomenon might be the result of some incredibly talented ventriloquism on Dinah’s part. In order to test this, he had Dinah fill her mouth with water. Despite this, the voice continued to mock him and curse at him as loudly and clearly as ever.
During this five-hour dialogue, much of which took place inside the Dagg’s farmhouse, the mysterious voice echoed the proclamation of the Witch of Plum Hollow, declaring that it had been summoned by Mrs. Wallace and her children. It further claimed that the Wallace children, on their mother’s orders, had buried a book of spells in a nearby swamp. When Mrs. Wallace heard of the accusations the voice had made against her and her children, she brought her family out to the Dagg farm and berated the voice for lying. Her fearless children similarly sassed the entity.
Eventually, in response to repeated entreaties by Percy Woodcock, the voice agreed to leave the Dagg family in peace after midnight the following day. Word of this announcement circulated throughout Shawville, and by Sunday evening, more than fifty locals had congregated at the Dagg farm.
One of the bystanders who had come to see Dagg’s Demon off was a Baptist minister named Reverend Bell. As soon as Bell arrived at the farm, the mysterious voice piped up, calling into question Bell’s fitness as a religious minister. Terrified, Bell began to read passages of scripture, which the voice recited along with him. When the Reverend began to pray aloud for protection against evil spirits, the voice became enraged, demanding to know on what authority the minister decreed it an evil spirit. With that, Reverend Bell fled the farm.
Following Bell’s departure, the voice claimed that it was actually an angel. In order to prove this to the bystanders, it revealed a secret which one man’s daughter had told him on her deathbed. That accomplished, it proceeded to sing a hymn in a sweet, angelic soprano completely different from the deep, coarse voice it had been using. Its new voice was purportedly so beautiful that it reduced many local women to tears.
Finally, at around 3:00 in the morning, the voice bid its audience farewell. Before it ceased, it promised to visit Dinah McLean and Mary and Johnny Dagg the following morning. Before the crowd dispersed, Percy Woodcock convinced seventeen gentlemen well respected in the community to sign an affidavit confirming all that they had witnessed.
The following morning, while Percy Woodcock was preparing to leave, Dinah McLean and the two littlest Dagg children ran to the farmhouse and told their parents that they had just seen a beautiful old man with long white hair clad in shining white garments. After saying kind words to Johnny, the man raised his arms and disappeared into the sky in a flash of fire.
In the wake of its departure, the nature of Dagg’s Demon was hotly contested not only locally, but also in major newspapers in both Canada and the United States. Many believed that Dagg’s Demon was a hoax perpetrated by Dinah McLean, whom they maintained must be an extraordinarily talented ventriloquist. Others, including many members of the Dagg family, believed that the manifestations were the work of the Devil. Whatever the case, the strange entity never returned to pester the Dagg family again.
And what of Dinah Maclean? Following the departure of their Demon, George and Susan Dagg shipped their adopted daughter off to the Fairknowe Orphan’s Home in Brockville, Ontario. The details of her life following her discharge from the orphanage remain a mystery.
The Poltergeist of Prince Edward Island
From late January to late February, 1910, newspapers across the eastern United States and the American Midwest published variations of an article detailing the strange case of Chinene, a 20-year-old woman who lived with her brothers on a farm in the tiny Acadian settlement of New Zealand, Prince Edward Island.
According to the article, these strange occurrences were precipitated by an announcement by Chinene’s eldest brother that he intended to marry a certain young woman in the neighbourhood. Chinene, who was not particularly fond of her brother’s new fiancé, burst into a fit of rage, declaring that she “would as soon have a devil in the family as that girl”.
That very night, after all in the household had gone to bed, strange noises sounded throughout the farmhouse. The sound was akin to the rolling of distant thunder. It rose in a steady crescendo until it resembled the sound of a boxer pounding away on a speed bag, before slowing dying out again. All of a sudden, Chinene started shrieking in her bedroom. Her brothers rushed to her assistance, afraid that she was being murdered.
When the brothers opened the door to their sister’s bedroom, they found Chinene floating in midair several feet above her bed, babbling almost incoherently and using words that she would never use in ordinary conversation. The brothers watched in astonishment as their sister slowly floated back into her bed and slipped into a deep slumber.
The following morning, the brothers asked Chinene about what had occurred the previous night. To their amazement, their sister remembered nothing of the incident. Afraid that they might be delusional, the brothers thenceforth kept the incident to themselves.
Night after night, more strange occurrences took place in the farmhouse. Word of the mysterious manifestations reached local farmers, and soon Chinene and her brothers found themselves hosting scores of locals who came to witness the strange phenomena.
Many people from New Zealand, Prince Edward Island, witnessed things at the farmhouse that they could not explain. Chinene would sometimes slip into traces in which she apparently developed clairvoyant powers. In this state, she could accurately guess the number of coins in people’s hands and recite the contents of letters folded up in people’s pockets.
Soon, mysterious fires began to break out in neighbouring barns. In addition to causing tremendous property damage, these infernos killed a large number of livestock. The victims of these arson attacks blamed the fires on Chinene, prompting her brothers to search desperately for a cure for their sister’s ailment.
First, Chinene’s brothers called in a local doctor. When the doctor’s ministrations proved ineffective, the brothers sought the assistance of a priest named Father Walker, who lived in the nearby village of Rollo Bay. Father Walker’s prayers similarly seemed to have little effect on Chinene’s condition.
Eventually, the brothers managed to convince a well-known Charlottetown physician named Dr. Peter Conroy, considered by many to be the foremost physician in the province, to examine their sister. When Dr. Conroy was unable to affect a cure, he theorized that Chinene, as a result of the jealousy she felt towards her prospective sister-in-law, had somehow unconsciously developed the ability to hypnotize those around her and impregnate their minds with delusions.
Following Dr. Conroy’s fruitless efforts to cure Chinene of her malady, the young woman was hauled away to the Falconer Insane Asylum in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Her fate remains a mystery to this day.
The Haunting of Barbe Hallay
Sorcery in New France, by Andre Pelchat, in the December 2015 issue of the magazine Canada’s History
Witchcraft in New France in the Seventeenth Century: The Social Aspect, by Jonathan L. Pearl in the Winter 1977 issue of the journal Historical Reflections
Le Meunier, La Domestique et L’Hospitaliere: Entre Magie, Possession, et Obsession en Nouvelle-France (2010), by Vincent Gregoire
Are You Sure There Are No Ghosts? by R.S. Lambert in the December 1, 1953 issue of McLean’s magazine
Ghostly Pranks Well Attested: Strange Persecution of a Canadian Family by a Thing Without Form or Name, in the January 12, 1890 issue of the New York Herald, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
Dagg’s Demon, by Paul Cropper and Tony Healy, in the September 2016 issue of Fortean Times
The Poltergeist of Prince Edward Island
Possessed by a Devil: Remarkable Case of Young Woman in Prince Edward Island, in the February 20, 1910 issue of the Washington Post, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
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Poltergeists in Canada: Part III was last modified: October 3rd, 2018 by Hammerson Peters
Last Friday, I published an article on the Great Amherst Mystery– the story of Canada’s most famous poltergeist. As I mentioned in that article, poltergeist activity, according to spiritualists, is characterized by loud, inexplicable knocking sounds; the motion of household objects absent of some discernible force; and the presence of a person- usually a teenage girl- around which these activities seem to revolve.
The mystery of Amherst, Nova Scotia, is but one among dozens of cases of alleged Canadian poltergeist activity. From Vancouver to St. John’s, and from the 17th Century up to the present day, households all over the country have played host to this mysterious activity, attributable to boisterous ghosts, teenage pranksters, or accidental adolescent telekinesis, depending on who you talk to. Such stories are sufficiently numerous to fill a book, and maybe one day, if this author feels up to the task, such a tome will grace the shelves of our bookshop. For now, however, here are a few more Nova Scotian poltergeist stories, each of which curiously take places in the month of December. Enjoy!
The Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills
In 2010, American horror novelist Stephen King wrote Full Dark, No Stars, an anthology comprised of four novellas. One of these novellas, entitled “1922”, tells the fictional story of a Nebraska farmer who experienced paranormal activity on his family farm in the year 1922.
It has been said that truth is stranger fiction. This idiom rings true when one compares the eerie plot of 1922 with an even more chilling real-life case of supposed paranormal activity which took place that same year on a remote Nova Scotian homestead far from the arid plains of Nebraska. This farm was owned by an elderly couple named Alexander and Janet MacDonald, who lived there with their 15-year-old adopted daughter, Mary Ellen. The MacDonald homestead was located near Caledonia Mills, a rural community comprised almost entirely of Catholic Highland Scots, situated in northeastern Nova Scotia about 20 minutes southeast of the town of Antigonish. In 1922, this otherwise unremarkable farmhouse was the site of alleged poltergeist activity which made headlines all over Canada and the United States.
The activity began in December 1921. One cold winter morning, old Alex MacDonald, while tending to his animals, found that someone had set his horses and cattle loose from their stalls sometime in the night. Mere minutes after he guided the last horse back into its stall, all the animals inexplicably escaped again.
Several days later, MacDonald awoke to learn that the horses and cattle had switched places. On another occasion, he discovered that some nocturnal agent had bobbed his horses’ tails, or twisted the horsehairs into elaborate braids.
Alexander MacDonald quickly grew weary of the pranks. Eventually, he asked some of his neighbours to assist him in catching the culprit red-handed. Unfortunately, these well-meaning Nova Scotian farmers fared little better than McDonald, although they did witness a number of mysterious manifestations. One farmer saw a strange blue light emanating from MacDonald’s barn one night. Another noticed that household objects seemed to vanish before reappearing in other sections of the estate. Two neighbours even claimed to have observed a hand waving a white cloth from the second-story window of MacDonald’s farmhouse at a time when no residents were in that part of the house. It quickly became clear to Alex and his neighbours that something very strange was going on at the MacDonald farm.
Soon, Macdonald’s mysterious tormentor began lighting fires on his property. This arsonous activity intensified until, on January 6, 1922, Alex MacDonald and six of his neighbours spent the day combatting both a ferocious blizzard and a whopping thirty eight fires which erupted mysteriously in and around his farmhouse. Fearing for his family’s safety, Alex asked his neighbour, Leo McGillivray, if he and his wife and adopted daughter might stay at his farmhouse until the mystery was solved- a request which McGillivray happily granted. In the ensuing weeks, the elderly Alex slogged over three miles of snow-covered dirt road twice a day to feed his livestock.
News travels fast in small towns, and soon the story of the poltergeist of Caledonia Mills reached the ears of regional newspapermen. On January 16, 1922, a reporter named Harold B. Whidden, who worked for the Halifax Herald, was dispatched to the MacDonald farm and charged with writing a few pieces on the activity. Whidden dutifully interviewed Alexander, Janet, and Mary Ellen, as well as several neighbours, and included their startling testimonies in a number of articles. He also visited the abandoned MacDonald farmhouse and saw that it indeed bore evidence of many fires.
Shortly after the conclusion of his first visit, Harold Whidden made a second trip out to the MacDonald farm, this time intending to stay in the farmhouse for three nights. He was accompanied on this outing by Alexander MacDonald and Detective P.O. “Peachy” Carroll- a county policeman from the nearby town of Pictou, Nova Scotia.
The men’s first day of investigation was uneventful. On their second night, however, both Whidden and Carroll heard strange noises unlike anything they had ever heard before which seemed to emanate from the upper floor of the farmhouse. As Whidden listened to the sounds, his eyes glued to the ceiling, he felt a hard slap on his arm, noticeable through several layers of thick clothing.
“Did you just slap me?” he asked Carroll.
The policeman shook his head and claimed that he, too, had similarly felt a pressure on his arm.
Immediately, the two men had the distinct impression that someone else was in the room with them. After twenty hair-raising minutes, the strange presence left the house. Bewildered, Whidden and Carroll roused Alex MacDonald, who was dozing nearby. As it turned out, MacDonald had slept through the whole ordeal and hadn’t heard or felt a thing.
Following that incident, Whidden decided to cut his investigation short and book a hotel room in Antigonish, where he documented his experience in number of pieces for the Halifax Herald. His articles stirred the fires of public curiosity, and soon various authorities on the supernatural, including celebrated Scottish writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were invited to assess the situation for themselves.
The only authority to accept the challenge was Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, an esteemed parapsychologist from New York City. In March 1922, Prince, accompanied by Harold Whidden, Leo McGillivray, and a Haligonian (i.e. a resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia) named Dan MacRitchie, paid a visit to the MacDonald estate and began to conduct his own investigation into the alleged poltergeist activity. Many of the local Nova Scotians who encountered Prince during his visit perceived him as an arrogant and egotistical Yankee; their low opinion of him is reflected in a number of contemporary newspaper articles.
Prince began his inspection by recording the nature and location of various items in the farmhouse, examining the scorch marks on the walls, and interviewing the MacDonalds and their neighbours. Early on in the investigation, the parapsychologist, on a whim, asked Whidden and MacRitchie to take part in an experiment. He placed a sheet of paper before each of them, provided both of them with a pencil, and asked them to hold the pencils in their hands passively over the paper. Then, Prince invited any spirit in the house to use these pencils to communicate with them if they so desired. In accordance with the expectations (or lack thereof) of all three of the men, nothing happened.
On Friday, March 10, Whidden was called away to Antigonish. Before he left the farmhouse, some strange urging prompted him to ask Prince to perform the pencil experiment with him again. The parapsychologist obliged. This time, something incredible happened. Some mysterious force seemed to take possession of Whidden’s writing hand and began to scribble on the page, producing what is known to parapsychologists as “automatic writing”. As Whidden put it in a later reminiscence:
“Suddenly, I felt a prickly sensation in the end of some of the fingers of my right hand, which increased. The hand then became numb. Before I realized what was happening, the pencil began to move slowly, without any effort or intention on my part.”
For two hours, Whidden scribbled in this manner, going through many sheets of paper which Prince provided. At first, he produced nothing but circles and slanted lines. Then his scribblings began to take on a more intelligent shape, and in no time he was spelling out messages in a handwriting that was not his own. Although the exact content of these message has never been released to the public, Whidden later claimed that the scribblings asserted that the acts of arson and other mischief at the MacDonald farm were committed by spirits. Whidden also claimed that there were other, more profound messages as well, regarding which he wrote:
“Most of the written statements were of the utmost significance and not a few of them were of an entirely personal character. For that reason the greater part of the contents of the strange manuscript will probably never be divulged.
“In one place, for example, it seemed as if my sister, who passed away on August 13th, 1912, was sending me a message.
“One sentence in the writing which followed was:
“‘People must realize that those who have passed beyond are ever present. God is merciful. God is good. He is just.’
“And later: ‘Spirits do visit the Earth after death.’
“The whole message was fully of kindly expression and sympathy. There was no sign of malice or enmity in it. It wrote that it would trouble the Macdonalds [sic] no more, and that it would never appear to them.”
Later on, Whidden wrote:
“This may all seem incredible to some people, but every word of it is true. In fact, I have merely given the readers the skim of it: for the very best of reasons, the cream will never be written. I still have every sheet of paper upon which the message was written and will preserve them as the most valuable documents in my possession.”
To the best of this author’s knowledge, the whereabouts of these documents are currently unknown.
After six days on the farm, Walter Prince wrapped up his investigation and published his findings in the 1922 issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. Many false reports regarding the nature of his conclusions were published in newspapers all over North America, pulling their information from interviews with him and members of the MacDonald family which Prince claimed never took place. A read through Prince’s original report, however, reveals that the parapsychologist believed that 15-year-old Mary Ellen was responsible for the fires in the MacDonald farmhouse, and that she had set these fires in a dissociated state, under the influence of some supernatural entity which thrived off her energy. He claimed that Mary Ellen was unaware of her actions and thus was not culpable for them.
Prince further theorized that the same entity which directed the actions of Mary Ellen was also responsible for many other strange activities which took place around the farmhouse, including the phenomena which Harold Whidden and Detective Carroll experienced during their own independent investigation. Regarding Whidden’s automatic writing incident (the existence of which, some newspapers erroneously reported, Prince denied entirely), Prince admitted that he was uncertain whether Whidden’s hand was guided by the same aforementioned entity or his own subconscious mind.
Three months after Prince’s investigation, the MacDonald family moved back into their farmhouse. To their relief, they enjoyed a pleasant summer devoid of any strange activity. Then, in October, mysterious fires began to appear on the property once again. This time, regional authorities blamed Mary Ellen for the activity and hauled her off to the Nova Scotia Home for the Insane, an asylum in Dartmouth. Following her release, Mary Ellen married and moved to Ontario, where she lived to a ripe old age.
Not long after Mary Ellen was institutionalized, Alexander and Janet MacDonald abandoned their farm, unwilling to live on it any long and unable to sell it. With no one to maintain it, the farmhouse slowly fell into disrepair.
Today, there is little to distinguish the old MacDonald estate from any other patch of land in the county of Antigonish. Local legend has it that the land is cursed, and that anyone who removes anything from the area, be it a fragment of shingle or a pebble, invites the “Fire Spook” of Caledonia Mills into their own home. Indeed, one woman who defied the curse in the spring of 1971, retrieving an egg cup from the ruins of the MacDonald farmhouse, lost her own farmhouse to a mysterious inferno which consumed the place while she was away in her city home in Antigonish.
The House on Bible Hill
Across the Salmon River from Truro, Nova Scotia, sits a little village called Bible Hill. Inhabited since the mid-18th Century, Bible Hill is certainly old enough to warrant a ghost or two. If the village had any supernatural residents in the past, however, they were inconspicuous houseguests… that is, until December, 1941.
That fateful month, something inexplicable happened in the home of Mrs. Lucy Langille and Mrs. Rachel Hull- sisters who lived with Lucy’s 16-year-old son, Arnold; and Rachel’s 12-year-old daughter, June; in a house on Bible Hill’s Farnham Road. As Lucy explained in a later interview:
“We were just sitting there when the closet door opened and a pair of shoes walked out across the floor… with no feet in them.”
In the weeks following that bizarre incident, strange things began to take place in the Langille home. Stove lids rattled on their own. Cutlery leaped across rooms. Clocks floated through the air. And on one occasion, a visiting neighbour was inhospitably assailed with a flying fireplace poker hurled by some invisible javelineer.
At that time, Lucy and Rachel’s husbands, like many other Nova Scotian men of fighting age, were across the Atlantic, assisting the British Army in the defence of the United Kingdom. With no one else to turn to, the two ladies confided in their neighbours. Good, hard-headed Nova Scotians that they were, the Langille’s friends refused to believe the ladies’ incredible story without proof. Accordingly, Lucy and Rachel invited them into their home so that they could see for themselves the sort of trouble they had to put up with on a daily basis.
One evening in the spring of 1942, a handful of Bible Hill residents, including a few skeptical reporters, accepted the sisters’ invitation and gathered in the Langille home. The lights were turned off, since ghosts, in the words of one contemporary newspaper article, “like termites and burglars, can’t stand light.” Equipped with flashlights, the neighbours placed themselves in strategic positions throughout the house, determined to expose any monkey business.
All of a sudden, a creaking sound broke the silence.
“What’s that?” one neighbour asked.
“It’s the ghost, rocking in the other room,” Lucy replied.
Snapping their flashlights on, the neighbours rushed into the room. Sure enough, the rocking chair was oscillating vigorously, as if its occupant had abandoned it in a hurry. The room was empty, however, and there were no routes by which a potential trickster might have escaped unnoticed.
“I know what happened,” said one of the neighbours. “Somebody made it rock by pulling a black thread or horsehairs tied together, from a hole in the wall. Look for a thread.” A subsequent investigation failed to turn up any such item.
Another neighbour suggested that the chair might have been moved by a magnet in the floor, provided it had iron attached to its rockers. A subsequent examination proved that the wooden chair was absent of any metal.
Still, the neighbours were unconvinced. They dared the ghost to rock the chair again, in their presence. Sure enough, the chair began to rock.
At a loss, the neighbours decided to reconvene in the kitchen, where they asked the ghost to join them. All of a sudden, they heard a scraping noise on a shelf. Immediately, flashlights concentrated on the sound, which proved to have come from a milk bottle which slid from one end of the shelf to the other.
Before the neighbours had a chance to investigate the incident, a window blind suddenly rolled up on its own. Immediately after that, a table flipped over with a loud crash. Then a kitchen drawer opened and silverware began to levitate. When the neighbours shone their flashlights on the drawer, the spoons, knives, and forks fell to the floor. No sooner had quiet returned to the house than a tin lunchbox leapt from a hook on the wall to clatter on the floor ten feet away.
The neighbours returned to their own homes convinced that something strange indeed had taken up residence in the house on Farnham Road.
Several evenings later, two photographers named George H. Hanebury and Earl Talbot- along with John Murphy, the editor of the Truro Daily News– paid a visit to the house and asked the sisters if they might conduct an investigation of their own. The sisters obliged.
That night, the photographers set up several cameras in the Langille kitchen. During the subsequent investigation, the visitors were bombarded with flying cutlery which stuck into the walls, one of the knives quivering a short distance from a newsman’s head. Unfortunately, the photographers were not quick enough to capture the culprit on camera.
Sometime later, a clothes iron on top of the stove began to rattle. The three men whipped their heads around just in time to see 12-year-old June Hull backing away from the stove, as if in terror. This time, the photographers were prepared. Bulbs flashed and shutters clicked. It seemed that the newsmen had caught the poltergeist of Bible Hill in the act.
Sure enough, when they developed the photos in the darkroom later that night, the photographers found themselves staring at the image of a human hand reaching for the iron. Some took this as clear evidence that little June Hull was behind the strange activity, and had deliberately and successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of her family members and neighbours. Others opined that the hand in the photo belonged to an adult, and couldn’t possibly have been June’s. Whatever the case, the iron rattling was the last trick the poltergeist of Bible Hill ever pulled.
The Christmas Ghost of Eastern Passage
In the Western mind, Christmas Eve has a strong association with mystery, magic, and miracles. According to the Gospel of Luke, for example, angels appeared to Syrian shepherds on the very first Christmas Eve to announce the coming of the Messiah. There is an ancient European folk legend which holds that animals gain the ability to speak at the stroke of midnight on this sacred evening so as to celebrate the birth of Christ. And, of course, there is the story of St. Nick and his eight flying reindeer.
From Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, most stories involving supernatural activity on Christmas Eve are tales of hope and joy. For one Nova Scotian family, however, their own Yuletide ghost story turned out to be the stuff of nightmares.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, 1943, and something indeed was stirring in the home of Louis and Ethel Hilchie, who lived with their children in a cottage in Eastern Passage, a peaceful suburb of Halifax. That night, the Hilchie home resounded with three deep, hollow, and completely unexpected knocks which shattered the evening’s tranquility. To the children’s disappointment, a thorough investigation conducted by Mr. Hilchie proved that the mysterious sounds were neither the result of reindeer landing on the roof nor evidence of a certain jolly gentleman’s attempt to invade their home by way of the chimney. Try as he might, Louis Hilchie was unable to ascertain the source of the knocks.
Following that fateful evening, strange things began to take place in the Hilchie house. In addition to loud knocks occurring at random, household objects began to move as if on their own accord. One day, the family washing machine walked its way across the floor. On another occasion, the table at which Ethel Hilchie sat with three of her children overturned seemingly on its own. Once, a pillow hurled itself down the stairs. Another time, Louis and Ethel’s teenage daughter, Catherine, while heating a frying pan over the stove, watched an egg jump into the skillet as though propelled by unseen hands.
By New Years’ Eve, Mrs. Hilchie was at her wit’s end. In early 1944, she called both the Halifax Regional Police and the Mail-Star, a local newspaper (a precursor to Halifax’s Chronicle Herald), and implored them to assist in getting to the bottom of the mystery. Although the police were no more successful in their attempt to identify the elusive culprit than Louis had been, the Mail-Star reporters witnessed some eerie manifestations of their own. One journalist gazed, mouth agape, as a pair of scissors lying on a shelf trembled, shook, opened, and closed on their own. Another reporter, while interviewing Ethel, watched a kettle of boiling water intended for the teapot pick itself off the stove and crash to the floor. These same newspapermen, during their visit, saw a steaming bowl of soup levitate and tip into Catherine’s lap; watched a box of soap flakes fly down a flight of stairs; and witnessed an alarm clock take flight from a dresser.
The violence of these manifestations seemed to increase with time. The poltergeist graduated from tossing pillows to hurling hammers down the stairs. One evening, Ethel Hilchie descended these same stairs when something grasped the heel of her slipper and wrenched it off. Several days later, the same thing happened. This time, however, Ethel fell down the stairs, fracturing one of her ankle bones in the process.
Interestingly, animals seemed to sense the strange power that lurked within the Hilchie home. For several weeks, a stray dog took to sitting at the Hilchie’s front step and howling at the door.
In the spring of 1944, a researcher named Dr. Thomas L. Garrett, president and founder of the Garrett Foundation for Psychological Research, paid a visit to the Hilchie home at the behest of the American Weekly Magazine, a supplement to the San Francisco Examiner. Garrett was the veteran of many a paranormal investigation, and had revealed many hoaxes in the past.
During his visit, Garrett interviewed Louis, Ethel, and the children at length, pausing once when a teapot flew off a hook in the kitchen to whiz by the head of the Hilchies’ eldest girl, 21-year-old Gladys. Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that the strange activity was not fraudulent, and seemed to revolve around teenaged Catherine (incidentally, a day prior to his arrival, Catherine claimed to have seen the face of a strange-looking man with bushy hair peering at her through a window). As Garrett put it in an article for the aforementioned magazine:
“Investigation revealed that all the mysterious manifestations appeared to have taken place in the presence, and the unknown-to-herself cooperation, of Catherine.”
Regarding his comment on Catherine’s unwitting complicity in the manifestations, Garrett flirted with the notion that Catherine, along with other adolescents around whom poltergeist activity revolves, projected invisible, “‘psychic’, semi-flexible rods” from her body which, “being struck sharply on floor, table, chair, or other body, cause the raps or knocks.” Later on in his article, Garrett admitted that “the theory of the psychic rods, accepted as it is by many psychic investigators, requires further substantiation.”
The Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills
Ghost Stories of Canada (2000), by John Robert Colombo and Jillian Hulme Gilliland
Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills, in the December 9, 2013 issue of PhantomsAndMonsters.com
The ‘Poltergeist Case’ Investigated by Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, in the June 3, 1922 issue of Light: A Journal of Spiritual Progress & Psychical Research
My Experiences as the MacDonald Homestead (1922), by H. B. Whidden
An Investigation of Poltergeist and Other Phenomena Near Antigonish, by Walter F. Prince, in the 1922 issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research
The House on Bible Hill
The Haunting of the Langille House, in the March 18, 1942 issue of the Winnipeg Evening Tribune
News Cameramen Catch ‘Ghost’ Flatiron-Handed, in the March 20, 1942 issue of the Winnipeg Evening Tribune
An article in the Mary 31, 1942 issue of the American Weekly Magazine, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
Parade: The Grin and Bare It Section of the May 1, 1942 issue of Maclean’s magazine
The Christmas Ghost of Eastern Passage
An article in the March 5, 1944 issue of the American Weekly Magazine, by Dr. Thomas L. Garrett, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
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More Canadian Poltergeists was last modified: October 3rd, 2018 by Hammerson Peters
Do you believe in ghosts? According to a 2006 poll conducted by Canadian research company Ipsos-Reid, nearly half of Canadians do, and with good reason. Findings from the same study indicate that nearly one in five Canadians, back in 2006, believed to have personally “been in the presence of a ghost” at least once in their life.
If you are among the other half of level-headed Canucks dubious of the existence of the supernatural, take it from a former skeptic who writes for Mysteries of Canada and, as a consequence, reads about these sorts of things all the time: there is no question that millions of people, from the dawn of recorded history to the present-day, have genuinely experienced phenomena for which our current understanding of reality cannot account. Throughout the course of history, various cultures from all across the globe have attempted to make sense of these experiences. Nearly all of them have drawn the same startling conclusion: that we share the world with a variety of non-material entities.
Since the early Victorian Era, spiritualists, as students of the paranormal are known, have attempted to compartmentalize the various supposed denizens of the supernatural world, much like biologists have attempted to classify the subjects of the various kingdoms of the natural world. Although their taxonomic system is neither as sophisticated nor as universal as that developed by their scientific counterparts, spiritualists have nonetheless managed to extract from folklore, sacred scripture, and countless anecdotal accounts an array of definable supernatural species, many of them containing their own internal hierarchies.
For example, there are angels and demons- servants of God and the Devil, respectively. There are ghosts and spirits- the disembodied souls of the dead, trapped in limbo between this world and the next. There are “elementals”- ancient, primitive entities associated with particular forces of nature. And then there are poltergeists.
According to spiritualists, poltergeist activity shares many things in common with regular, run-of-the-mill ghost activity, constituting inexplicable noises, the spontaneous movement of inanimate objects, and other physical disturbances for which there are no rational explanations. Houses haunted by poltergeists will have their walls rapped on loudly by invisible knuckles; doors will open and slam by themselves; plates and cutlery will hurl themselves across rooms; people will be pinched, slapped, or tripped by unseen hands.
Although these phenomena have also been associated with ghosts, there are several characteristics which distinguish poltergeist activity from regular hauntings. The first is the location in which they take place. While ghosts have been seen and experienced in all manner of locales, from hotels to bars to theatres, poltergeist activity is usually confined to domestic premises.
Another difference between ghosts and poltergeists is their perceived motivation. Many people who claim to have seen ghosts receive the impression that the spirit they encountered simply wanted to make its presence known to them. People who claim to have experienced poltergeist activity, on the other hand, often describe antics implying a mischievous intent, as if the poltergeist had been doing its utmost to irritate them.
Lastly, and perhaps most intriguingly, poltergeist activity tends to revolve around certain individuals who, almost invariably, happen to be teenage girls. The activity will only occur in a house when the girl is present. When the girl leaves, the activity tends to leave with her.
What Are Poltergeists?
There have been many ideas put forth purporting to explain the nature of the poltergeist. One of these theories corresponds with the etymology of the subject in question; the word “poltergeist” is a portmanteau of the German words “polter”, meaning “to crash about”, and “geist”, meaning “ghost”. Proponents of this theory believe that the poltergeist is a type of mischievous supernatural entity- either a rambunctious ghost or demon or some unique variety of troublesome spirit- which feeds off the energy of troubled teenagers. In the words of British psychic researcher Harry Price, a poltergeist is:
“…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.”
Others believe that the poltergeist is the result of a hoax perpetrated by angsty teenage girls for the purpose of causing mischief or attracting attention to themselves. According to professional skeptic Joe Nickell:
“In the typical poltergeist outbreak, small objects are hurled through the air by unseen forces, furniture is overturned, or other disturbances occur- usually just what could be accomplished by a juvenile trickster determined to plague credulous adults.”
One wild theory espoused by many parapsychologists (i.e. students of extrasensory phenomena) holds that poltergeist activity is neither the work of supernatural entities nor the product of pubescent pranksters, but rather constitutes acts of telekinesis unconsciously perpetrated by the moody teenagers around which they revolve. According to this theory, certain teenage girls possess a mysterious type of energy generated by the furious hormonal hurricane which characterizes female adolescence. In times of stress or emotional turmoil, these young women unwittingly use this energy to remotely slam doors and hurl inanimate objects, a la “Star Wars” or “Stranger Things”. As one writer for the American Weekly Magazine put it in 1942:
“…it is believed that some youngsters, mostly girls, have at a certain age, unconscious power to ‘levitate’ objects. This power, which they seem to lose in a few years, is not necessarily supernatural. It may be an entirely natural one, though at present, not understood at all.”
Whatever its derivation, poltergeist activity is a surprisingly common occurrence in the Western world, and Canada is no exception. Over the years, a number of alleged poltergeists have pulled their stunts all across the Great White North, from Halifax to Vancouver. Some of the stories of those who have witnessed such events defy belief and strain credulity, and would be easy to dismiss out of hand were it not for the reliability and multiplicity of the witnesses. I’d be happy to cover more of these Canadian poltergeist cases if you, dear reader, would like to read about them (if you would, please let me know in the comments below!), but for now, here is a description of the most famous Canadian poltergeist case of all: the Great Amherst Mystery.
The Great Amherst Mystery
If you drive 40 minutes southeast of Moncton, New Brunswick, you’ll come to the beautiful little town of Amherst, Nova Scotia, perched upon the shores of the Bay of Fundy. Back in 1878, a cozy, well-kept cottage in this quaint Victorian village was rocked by the activity of Canada’s most famous poltergeist which, as a result of its subsequent publicity, acquired the nickname “The Great Amherst Mystery”.
The activity in this case revolved around a 14-year-old girl named Esther Cox. At that time, Esther lived in the aforementioned cottage with her eldest sister, Olive, who ran the household; Olive’s hard-working husband, Daniel Teed, who owned the cottage; Olive and Dan’s two young boys, Willie and George, aged 5 and 1, respectively; Dan’s brother, John; Esther and Olive’s brother, William; and the Cox siblings’ 22-year-old sister, Jane.
Esther Cox was said to be a strange girl, exceptionally moody and unusually fond of pickles. She had been a tiny baby, weighing only five pounds at nine months. Her mother died when she was three weeks old, and her father subsequently remarried and moved to Maine, leaving her in the care of her grandmother. Under her grandmother’s influence, Esther grew up to be an oddly serious and old-fashioned girl.
On the character of Esther Cox, one acquaintance wrote:
“Esther’s disposition is naturally mild and gentle. She can at times, however, be very self-willed, and is bound to have her own way when her mind is made up. If asked to do anything she does not feel like doing she becomes very sulky and has to be humored at times to keep peace in the family. However, all things considered, she is a good little girl and has always borne a good reputation, in every sense of the word.”
One afternoon in the summer of 1878, a young man named Bob McNeal- a subordinate coworker of Daniel Teed’s to whom Esther took a fancy- invited Esther to take a ride with him in his carriage. McNeal drove Esther to a wooded area in the country, withdrew a revolver from his pocket, and ordered the girl to get out of the carriage, evidently harbouring ignoble designs. Esther refused, and was saved at the last moment when the noise of an approaching buggy rumbled in the distance. Wheeling the carriage around, McNeal brought Esther back to the Teed cottage, where she cried herself to sleep.
In the ensuing days, Esther’s distress was evident to her family members. Olive and company assumed that Esther and Bob McNeal had simply quarreled on their outing and, not being particularly fond of Bob, and glad of his absence from the cottage (for several months preceding the incident, Bob had been a regular visitor), decided not to press the matter.
On the eve of September 4, 1878, Esther and her sister Jane, who shared a bed and bedroom, were just settling down for the night when Jane felt what she thought to be a mouse crawling inside her mattress. Frightened, the girls lit the lamp and searched for the mouse, but were unable to find it. Later that night, the sisters heard rustling beneath the bed and determined that it was coming from a cardboard box filled with pieces of patchwork. When they dragged the box out into the middle of the room, it jumped a foot in the air and landed on its side. The girls screamed for Dan, who came to their rescue, heard their incredible story, laughed and remarked that they must have been dreaming, and pushed the box back under the bed before heading back to sleep.
The following evening, Esther, who had gone to bed early on account of a fever, sprang from her bed in the middle of the night and cried, “Wake up, Jane! I’m dying!”
Jane woke up, lit the lamp and, to her horror, found that her sister’s face was blood red, her eyes bulging in terror as she trembled in her nightgown. Jane called for assistance and was soon joined by Dan and Olive, her brother William, and Dan’s brother John. Not knowing what else to do, Olive helped her younger sister get back into bed, whereupon all the colour drained from Esther’s face.
In a choking voice, Esther declared, “I am swelling up and shall certainly burst, I know I shall.”
Indeed, Esther’s hands and feet were alarmingly swollen. Her complexion now was deathly pale, where moments earlier it had been beet red, and her skin was burning with fever, where moments earlier it had been icy cold.
While Esther, her body steadily swelling, writhed in pain on the bed, a tremendous sound like a clap of thunder sounded in the room. Shortly thereafter, three loud cracks sounded beneath the bed, and Esther suddenly went limp, her appearance having returned to normal. When they satisfied themselves that Esther was not dead but had somehow spontaneously fallen asleep, her bewildered family members eventually returned to their own beds.
The following morning, Esther seemed reasonably well, although her appetite was greatly diminished. Her family members, being unable to explain the bizarre incident of the previous night, decided to keep the matter to themselves.
Four nights later, Esther had a similar attack. This time, all of the bedsheets flew off of her and her sister and landed in a corner of the room as if they had been ripped off by invisible hands. Jane, who had been awake to witness the spectacle, fainted from fright.
Hearing Esther’s screams, Olive, Dan, William, and John rushed into the bedroom. Seeing the bedsheets lying in the corner of the room, Olive gathered them together and placed them over her ailing sisters. Almost immediately, the sheets flew back into the corner of the room in the same manner as before. Before anyone had time to react, the pillow upon which Esther’s head lay hurtled through the air and struck John Teed in the face. Not knowing what else to do, all of the family members (aside from John, who fled the room in fear) sat on the edge of the bed in order to keep the sheets from flying off again. After a succession of incredibly loud knocks sounded from beneath the bed, Esther’s swelling subsided and she fell into a peaceful sleep.
The following day, the family decided to call the local doctor. When Dan Teed informed the physician of what had transpired, the doctor laughed and assured him that no such nonsense would occur while he stayed in the house, which he intended to do that night until 1:00 in the morning.
The doctor arrive at the Teed house at 10:00 that evening. He immediately examined Esther, who had already been in bed for an hour, and deduced that she had suffered a tremendous shock of some kind. As he spoke, Esther’s pillow moved laterally until only one corner was tucked beneath the girl’s head. The doctor watched in amazement as the pillow returned to its former position without any external assistance.
“Did you all see that?” the doctor exclaimed. “It went back again!”
“So it did,” replied John Teed, “but if it moves out again, it will not go back, for I intend to hold onto it, even if it did bang me over the head last night.”
No sooner had he said this than the pillow moved laterally again, as if to challenge the young man. Though John gripped it with all his might, the pillow subsequently slid back under Esther’s head as if it had encountered no resistance at all. John’s hair stood on end.
Shortly thereafter, loud knocks sounded from beneath the bed. Although the doctor examined the area from which the sounds had originated, he was unable to determine their source. He proceeded to walk about the room, and the knocking followed him, sounding from the floor beneath him.
After about a minute of knocking, the bedsheets once again flew into a corner of the room. Immediately, a scratching sound emanated from the wall behind the bed. When everyone in the room looked to ascertain the source of the noise, they saw that a disturbing message had been carved into the wall:
“Esther Cox, you are mine to kill.”
For three weeks, the strange activity increased in both frequency and intensity. Esther’s invisible tormentor pelted her with objects like potatoes and wooden planks, often in the presence of her family members, and made violent banging noises all throughout the house. The doctor, who prescribed morphine to Esther in order to calm her shattered nerves, went outside during one of these banging sessions and noted that, from the street, it sounded as if someone was standing on the cottage roof and pounding on the shingles with a sledgehammer.
One night in late September, during another knocking session, Esther had a seizure in her bed and became cold and rigid. In this alarming state, she told her family members, who were in the room with her, about the traumatic incident which had occurred between her and Bob McNeal- an incident of which none of them yet had any knowledge. When Esther recovered, her family members told her what she had said. Although Esther had no recollection of making the confession, she tearfully admitted that the story was true.
Shortly after this incident, Jane observed that the mysterious knocking often seemed to correspond with things that they said, as if the invisible agent that made the sounds could hear and understand them. Dan decided to test this theory and asked the mysterious force to knock once for every person in the room. Sure enough, the entity responded with the correct number of raps, each of which were violent enough to shake the entire house.
Over the next three weeks, the family developed a method by which to communicate with the mysterious entity, which harassed them at random. In response to their closed-ended questions, the presence would knock once for a negative answer, thrice for an answer in the affirmative, and give two knocks when in doubt about a reply.
Throughout October, the Teed house was visited by several clergymen of different denominations who had heard of the strange activity and hoped to see it with their own eyes. A well-educated Baptist minister came away from the house convinced that neither Esther nor her family members were responsible for the manifestations. Instead, he theorized that the shock resultant of the Bob McNeal incident turned Esther into a sort of electric battery, and that Esther emitted invisible flashes of lightning which caused small thunderclaps. Another man of the cloth, this one a Wesleyan Methodist preacher, witnessed a number of manifestations at the Teed home. The most startling of these involved cold water in a bucket which, while standing on the kitchen table, began to bubble and froth as if it were boiling.
By the end of the month, folks were flocking to the Teed family home from all over the Maritimes, eager to witness the manifestations. Some came away believing the whole thing to be a hoax. Others thought that Esther was somehow hypnotizing people in order to make them see and hear what she wanted them to. Most, however, left with the unsettling conviction that the manifestations were genuine.
The manifestations continued with casual frequency until December, whereupon Esther Cox contracted diphtheria. During the two weeks it took for her to recover from her illness, the manifestations ceased entirely. Upon her recovery, Esther made a trip to Sackville, New Brunswick, to visit another of her sisters who was married. During the two weeks she spent in Sackville, neither her sister’s house nor the Teed home experienced any strange activity.
Upon Esther’s return to the Teed cottage, she and Jane began sleeping in a different room, hoping that this might put a stop to the affair. Instead, the activity got even worse. In addition to producing loud noises and hurling objects around the house, the entity began dropping lit matches from the ceiling of Ester and Jane’s bedroom at night- a phenomena which all of the family members witnessed. On one occasion, while Dan, Olive, Jane, and Esther were in attendance, one of Esther’s dresses, which had been hanging from a nail on the door, rolled up by itself, travelled underneath the bed, and burst into flames. On another occasion, while Olive and Esther were alone in the house making butter, a fire started in the cellar. Unable to extinguish the inferno themselves, the women went out into the street and frantically called for help. A stranger whom they had never seen before ran to their rescue and smothered the fire with a mat from the dining room. Without waiting to be thanked, the man walked out the door and up the street, never to be seen by the family again.
In the ensuing weeks, the “ghost” began to speak to Esther, although only she could hear it. Then, one cold winter night, while the family was lounging in the parlour, Esther suddenly rose to her feet, a look of horror on her face, and pointed with a trembling hand to a corner of the room.
“Look there!” she croaked. “Look there! Can’t you see it? My God, it is the ghost! Don’t you all see him?”
The other family members did not. The ghost proceeded to speak to Esther, telling her that it would burn the house down unless she left that night. Although none of the other family members could hear the ghost, Dan Teed did not want to take any chances and asked a neighbour, who had expressed a great interest in the manifestations, if he and his wife would take in his misfortunate sister-in-law. The couple agreed, and Esther moved into the neighbours’ home that night.
Several weeks went by without incident. It seemed that Esther had finally ditched her invisible tormentor. Then one day, while she was scrubbing the floor in her new home, the brush she was using disappeared from her hand. She told the lady of the house what had happened, and she, the matron, and the lady’s daughter subsequently searched for the brush in vain. As soon as they decided to abandon the search, the brush fell from the ceiling, grazing Esther’s head.
Discounting this incident, six weeks went by without any major mischief. Then mysterious fires began to appear in the house, and the man of the house, not willing to run the risk of having his house incinerated, asked Esther to spend her days in the pub that he owned. Esther’s peevish appendage apparently followed her to this new location, and all manner of incredible manifestations soon began to take place in the pub, much to the amazement of the patrons. In one of the more notable of these incidents, a small pocket knife belonging to the neighbour’s son drove itself into Esther’s back. When the knife was removed and given back to the little boy, it flew through the air again and inserted itself into the same wound.
In the spring of 1879, Esther travelled to Saint John, New Brunswick, at the invitation of a certain military officer. During her three-week stay in the city, Esther was visited by a party of scientifically-minded gentlemen who developed a new method of communicating with Esther’s poltergeist. After asking the entity a question, they would recite the alphabet and wait for the thing to knock at the appropriate letter, repeating this procedure until the entire answer was spelled out. By this method, the poltergeist identified itself to them as “Bob Nickle”, and claimed that it had once worked a shoemaker. To the men’s astonishment, other spirits also began to make themselves known. One ghost identified herself as “Maggie Fisher”, while another called himself “Peter Cox”, and claimed that he was a relative of Esther’s who died about forty years prior. Later on, three more mild-mannered spirits made their presence known, identifying themselves as Mary Fisher (who said she was Maggie’s sister), Jane Nickle, and Eliza McNeal.
After a peaceful eight-week stay with a particular family who lived in the Nova Scotian countryside, Esther Cox returned to Amherst. The manifestations resumed immediately, as powerful as ever. At this point, an enterprising American actor named Walter Hubbell, who had just finished a theatrical tour in Newfoundland, moved in with the Teed family as a paying boarder in the hopes of documenting the manifestations (it is from Hubbell’s subsequent writings that most of the details of the ‘Great Amherst Mystery’, as he styled it, are known). Over the course of six weeks, Hubbell was pelted with inanimate objects, saw household items vanish and reappear as if dropped from the ceiling, watched objects levitate and translocate, and witnessed several fires break out spontaneously. All the antics had an air of mischief, as if the poltergeists were doing their best to annoy the guest and the family. Hubbell noted that the ghosts refrained from their devilry on the Sabbath.
Convinced that Esther was incapable of conducting the pranks herself, Hubbell began to converse with the poltergeists using the same technique the Teeds had developed. The ghosts accurately told him the time on his watch and guessed how many coins he had in his pocket. Hubbell then asked the spirits the following questions, which they answered with knocks:
Question: “Have you all lived on the earth?”
Question: “Have you seen God?”
Question: “Are you in Heaven?”
Question: “Are you in Hell?”
Question: “Have you seen the Devil?”
Answer: An emphatic “Yes”.
On June 28, 1878, the Teed house resounded to the sound of a trumpet. The strident noise continued throughout the day until, in the evening, a small silver trumpet fell from the ceiling into one of the rooms. Neither Hubbell nor any members of the Teed family had any idea where the trumpet came from. Although Hubbell later declared his intention to donate the instrument to a museum, the fate of this object, to the best of this author’s knowledge, remains a mystery to this day.
The manifestations increased in scope and intensity until, that summer, it was decided that Esther Cox had to leave the Teed home for everyone’s sake. After embarking on a brief speaking tour with Walter Hubbell, during which she was heckled by audience members who believed her to be a fraud, Esther Cox went to live in the home of a friend of the Teed family. Shortly after her arrival, the family’s barn burned down and Esther was accused of arson. She was subsequently sentenced to four months in prison, but was released after one month on account of good behavior. After her release, Esther married a man who had come to visit her during her imprisonment. Following her marriage, the poltergeist activity stopped for good.
What do you think, Canucks? Was the Great Amherst Mystery an elaborate hoax, or is there some truth to the tale of Esther Cox and the poltergeist of Amherst, Nova Scotia? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Article in the May 31, 1942 issue of the American Weekly Magazine, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
The Haunted House: A True Ghost Story (1879), by Walter Hubbell
Are You Sure There Are No Ghosts? By R.S. Lambert in the December 1, 1953 issue of Maclean’s magazine
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The Great Amherst Mystery: Canada’s Most Famous Poltergeist was last modified: September 25th, 2018 by Hammerson Peters
If you’ve ever made the road trip from Vancouver to Prince George, British Columbia, chances are that you’ve driven through the village of Ashcroft, located about an hour west of Kamloops in one of the most arid regions in all of Canada.
In addition to its 1,500 residents, Ashcroft is home to a number of chilling ghost stories. One of these tales tells of the frightening spectre of a Chinese woman whom travelers sometimes encounter at night on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway just south of town. Another Chinese ghost, this one the spirit of a friendly cook, is said to haunt (and occasionally bake ghostly bread in) Hat Creek House- a historic stagecoach hotel situated 20 minutes north of Ashcroft on the Cariboo Highway.
Of all the historic buildings located in and around Ashcroft, few have more ghost stories attached to them than the Sundance Guest Ranch, a dude ranch situated about ten minutes south of town off the Highland Valley Road.
The Phantom Prospectors
According to Stan Rowe- a nonagenarian, former Calgarian, and Sundance’s long-time owner- two of his former employees encountered a pair of phantoms one evening in 1978. That night, the two young ladies, both of whom worked as cooks in the ranch kitchen, headed out for a walk. The path they took was an old trail that skirted some of the desert hills ubiquitous in that part of the country- at that time, likely dark silhouettes in the twilight.
Suddenly, one of the women stopped dead in her tracks.
“Who are those men?” she asked, staring ahead down the trail.
“What men?” the other lady replied, following her co-worker’s gaze. All she could see in the gathering dusk was prairie grass, sagebrush, a few lodgepole pines, and a barbwire fence. To her, the trail ahead appeared empty and lifeless.
“Those two! Can’t you see them?” She giggled. “They look like they’re ready for a costume party.”
The lady proceeded to describe the men’s appearance to her companion who, for some reason, was having a hard time seeing them. Both were dressed in heavy boots, long canvas overcoats, and wide-brimmed hats that cast shadows over their bearded faces.
As she was speaking, the men turned off the trail, walked straight through the barbwire fence, and vanished into thin air.
The two women, the story goes, returned to the Sundance Ranch to relay the frightening tale to fellow staff members before catching the next bus to Vancouver.
Stan Rowe suspects that the strange apparitions that his employee saw that night in 1978 may have been the spirits of prospectors who came to Ashcroft more than a century earlier in search of fortune and adventure- participants in an event known today as the Cariboo Gold Rush. In order to make sense of Rowe’s theory, we’ll need a little backstory.
Trails to the Cariboo
Back in 1857, when British Columbia was an agglomeration of fur trading districts and British colonies, gold was discovered near the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers not far from present-day Lytton, BC (an hour’s drive southwest of Ashcroft). Immediately, veterans of the California Gold Rush of 1849, many of whom had settled in San Francisco, flocked to the new diggings and began to pan the creeks of the Fraser Canyon in what is now known as the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. This event prompted the British Crown to consolidate many of its holdings in western North America into the Colony of British Columbia, a precursor to the province that we know and love today.
During the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, most prospectors made their way to the goldfields of the Fraser Canyon by one of two routes. The first route was the Fraser River itself- a waterway which was notoriously difficult to navigate. The second was the Douglas Road, an old Hudson’s Bay Company trail beginning in Port Douglas, BC, and ending in the settlement of Coyoosh Flat (present-day Lillooet); which British Columbia’s first governor, Sir James Douglas, reconstructed in 1858.
Of the thousands of prospectors who poured into the Fraser Canyon in the 1850s, only a few found gold of any significance. Many disenchanted gold seekers returned to California, while others, still hoping to strike it rich, pushed on into the interior.
In the 1860’s, some of these enterprising prospectors discovered gold in the Cariboo Plateau of south-central British Columbia. These discoveries launched the Cariboo Gold Rush, in which thousands of prospectors (chiefly of British, Canadian, and Chinese extraction) streamed into the British Columbian interior by way of the West Coast.
There were two main routes by which prospectors initially reached the Cariboo Goldfields. The first was a rugged and treacherous mule path called the River Trail, which wound through valleys and canyon bottoms, often running along cliff sides. The second was a rough freight wagon trail called the Old Cariboo Road, built by American contractor Gustavus Blin Wright in 1862. An extension of the Douglas Road, the Old Cariboo Road connected Coyoosh Flat (the terminus of the Douglas Road) with the settlement of Alexandria, nestled deep in Cariboo Country. Much of the road followed an old HBC thoroughfare called the Hudson’s Bay Brigade Trail. One of the more colourful stories to come out of the Old Cariboo Road involves a prospector named Frank Laumeister, who packed his supplies over the trail using Bactrian camels from the United States Camel Corps.
Shortly after the construction of the Old Cariboo Road, Sir James Douglas declared his intention to construct another freight wagon road which would comprise a new first leg on the journey to Cariboo Country; a thoroughfare which would make the less efficient Douglas Road obsolete. This road would begin in Yale, go through the Fraser Canyon, head up the Thompson River (a major tributary of the Fraser) and further up the Bonaparte River (a tributary of the Thompson) to the town of Clinton, a station on the Old Cariboo Road. The Royal Engineers of the British Army completed this project in 1865, constructing what is known today as the Cariboo Road.
The Birth of Ashcroft, BC
In 1862, before the construction of the Cariboo Road had commenced, two young, adventurous, upper class, Cambridge-educated English brothers named Clement and Henry Cornwall (the former being the future Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia) took a steamer to Victoria, BC. Like thousands of other adventurers, they crossed over to the mainland to the town of New Westminster (present-day Vancouver, BC), headed up the Fraser River, and trekked over the Douglas Road to Coyoosh Flat.
At Coyoosh Flat, the Cornwall brothers encountered a number of dejected prospectors who were returning emptyhanded from the Cariboo goldfields. After hearing their woes, the brothers reasoned that they would have better luck catering to the needs of prospectors than searching for gold themselves. Instead of following the crowd north, the Cornwall boys decided to venture off the beaten track and search for a good piece of land on which to set up shop.
After encountering several wild camels that Laumeister had turned loose- an incident which terrified their horses- the Cornwall brothers came to what Clement described in his diary as “a desirable looking flat watered by 2 streams with a fine surrounding range for cattle.” This area was located a short distance from the Thompson River, the Bonaparte River, and the so-called “River Trail”. Better yet, it lay along the proposed route of the Cariboo Trail. The brothers knew they had found a perfect location on which to settle, and so they travelled down the Thompson to Lytton, where they purchased the land from the regional magistrate.
Hiring former prospectors and local Shuswap Indians as labourers, the Cornwall brothers established a farm, a sawmill, a gristmill, a cattle ranch, and a roadhouse on their property, the latter which they named Ashcroft Manor after their birthplace in Gloucestershire, England. Following the construction of the Cariboo Trail, the Ashcroft Manor positively thrived, evolving into a favourite stopping place on the road to the Cariboo diggings and a sort of Mecca for British Columbia’s English gentry. By the late 1860s, Ashcroft Manor was famous for its foxhound kennels, its coyote hunting parties (which were modeled after the traditional British fox hunt), and its horse racing competitions, and was said to serve the finest liquor east of Victoria.
In 1884, the Canadian Pacific Railway was built across the Thompson River not far from the Ashcroft Manor. Almost overnight, the village of Ashcroft sprang up around the Cornwall brothers’ property. Due to the proximity of the railway, Ashcroft soon eclipsed Yale as the gateway to the Cariboo. Several years later, during the Klondike Gold Rush, Ashcroft served as the trail head of an all-Canadian route to the Yukon goldfields.
Considering Ashcroft’s beginnings, is it possible that the ghostly men whom Stan Rowe’s employee encountered in 1978 were the spirits of prospectors once destined for the Cariboo goldfields? Maybe they were the shades of bygone guests of the Ashcroft Manor. Or perhaps they were the ghosts of Clement and Henry Cornwall themselves.
The Ghostly Indian Girl
Another ghost story connected with the Sundance Ranch has its roots in a roundup conducted in the 1980’s or early ‘90s in which eighteen guests of the Sundance Ranch were invited to run cattle to a northerly pasture.
“We’d been rounding up cattle when a big downpour rolled in,” Stan Rowe told a reporter. Seeking shelter from the rain, the riders headed for a Sundance barn located several miles away.
When they finally reached the safety of the barn, all but one guest was accounted for. A short time later, this tardy patron, a sober-minded businessman, caught up with the party, a strange expression on his face.
“What kept you?” Rowe asked.
The businessman removed his Stetson to scratch his scalp. “This Indian girl,” he said. He proceeded to tell Rowe and the other guests about a Shuswap girl he encountered after being separated from the main group. The girl was dressed in a buckskin gown and was holding a string of trout. She had asked the businessman if he knew the way to the main trail, and invited him to have dinner with her.
Before the businessman could reply, a bolt of lightning obliterated a nearby tree. Thoroughly spooked, his horse bucked him off and galloped towards a nearby copse. The man raced after his horse, and by the time returned, the Indian girl was gone.
Rowe informed the bewildered businessman that, according to local legend, the ghost of a 19th Century Indian woman whose husband had drowned while fishing was said to haunt the area. Some believe that if you accept her dinner invitation, you won’t return.
Lightning Storms and Indian Ghosts
Curiously, the tale of the businessman’s encounter is not the only Canadian anecdote involving lightning strikes and vanishing Indian ghosts. Nearly a century prior, Cecil Denny, an officer of the original North West Mounted Police, claimed to have had a similar experience in a thicket near Fort Macleod, Alberta.
One afternoon in the summer of 1875, while fishing on the Oldman River, Denny found himself caught in a rainstorm. After tying his boat up to a cottonwood, he heard the faint sound of an Indians singing to the beat of a drum. Hoping to shelter himself from the storm, he made his way towards the sound.
After stumbling through the rain, Denny came to a clearing in a thicket in which he found a cluster of Indian teepees. Immediately, the Mountie knew that something was amiss. Although the wind was howling violently, it seemed to have no effect on the teepees nor the Indians who moved about them. The fires within the teepees shone through their openings with an eerie brightness.
All of a sudden, a lightning bolt struck a nearby tree. When the Mountie recovered his senses, the Indian village had disappeared.
Considering the tales of Cecil Denny and the guest of the Sundance Ranch, it is interesting to note that people who claim to have encountered ghosts often report an accompanying chill or a sensation of being suddenly sapped of energy. Some of those who have studied such encounters have theorized that ghosts might require energy in order to make themselves known. Lightning, which features in both of the aforementioned ghost stories, is believed to contain a whopping 5 billion joules per bolt- more than enough energy, one would think, to achieve such a purpose.
Ranch Near Abandoned Supply Trail Is Rich With History- And Spirits; in the May22, 1994 issue of the New Haven Register; courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
Ghosts II: More True Stories From British Columbia (1997), by Robert C. Belyk
The Story of the Ghost of the Chinese Cook, by Esther Darlington MacDonald in the October 15, 2914 issue of the Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal
Ashcroft House on the Cariboo Road, in the March 15, 2013 issue of the BC Gold Rush Press: Stories of the Fraser River & Cariboo Gold Rush
The Early Years of Ashcroft Manor; by Edward Philip Johnson; Summer 1970
Ashcroft; by John R. Stuart; in the March 4, 2015 issue of The Canadian Encyclopedia
Yes, b’y, there are few places in Canada richer in local folklore than the eastern shores of Newfoundland. The town of Torbay, for example, on the east coast of the Avalon Peninsula, is said to be haunted by a stygian hellhound with glowing red eyes- a Maritime counterpart to the legendary ‘black dog’ of the British Isles. Bell Island, in Conception Bay, is believed by some to be home to a phantom hag, a haunted mine, and a band of malevolent faeries. And St. John’s Harbour, according to the journal of 16th/17th Century English colonist Sir Richard Whitbourne, was once the domain of a mermaid. Such a rich folkloric tradition ought to be expected in the eastern half of this most storied of provinces, first to be discovered by Old World explorers and last to join the Canadian Confederation. After all, the history of eastern Newfoundland is as colourful as the motley facades that characterize St. John’s “Jellybean Row”.
The Rock’s west coast, on the other hand, is another story entirely. For centuries, Newfoundland’s western shores comprised a vast no-man’s land- a dark, desolate terra incognita devoid of any semblance of permanent settlement. Archaeological evidence (or lack thereof) indicates that the Dark Age Viking explorers who established a colony on the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula at the turn of the last millennia likely steered their longships clear of the Strait of Belle Isle- the gateway to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which separates western Newfoundland from the Labrador Peninsula. 16th Century Basque whalers and cod fishermen who plied their trade in Red Bay, on the southeastern shores of Labrador, avoided lingering in the area anywhere north of Channel-Port aux Basques. Even the local Mi’kmaq and Beothuk First Nations appear to have largely shunned Newfoundland’s west coast prior to the advent of the fur trade. Although Breton explorer Jacques Cartier mapped the region in 1534, as did British Captain James Cook in 1767, the western shores of Newfoundland (sometimes called the ‘French Shore’ on account of France’s right to fish there from 1783-1904) remained sparsely populated until the mid-19th Century.
In spite of its shadowy past, the west coast of Newfoundland, with its tiny fishing communities, retains its own unique brand of folklore. Give a “bayman” a bottle of Screech and he might tell you the tale of the ghost ship of Bonne Bay- a phantom schooner which appears from time to time with shining lights and nary a soul aboard… before vanishing into thin air. Lark Harbour, tucked away in the Bay of Islands, is rumoured to be haunted by the spirits of a shipwrecked crew whose ghostly cries carry on the wind during storms. And then there is the tale of Shellbird Island and its mysterious treasure, the most famous regional folktale of all.
The Old Man in the Mountain
If you travel up the Bay of Islands from Lark Harbour, past the city of Corner Brook and up the Humber River, you’ll come to a small ait, or river island, known as Shellbird Island. This isle is overlooked by a 40-foot-tall cliff bearing a snarl of crags which bear close resemblance to the weathered countenance of an old bearded sailor- a natural landmark which locals fondly refer to as the Old Man in the Mountain.
Legend has it that the Old Man in the Mountain is privy to a centuries-old secret, namely the location of a treasure which lies buried on Shellbird Island. There are a number of different stories which purport to explain the origin of this mysterious treasure. One involves a Spanish galleon laden with Peruvian silver and Inca gold which foundered off the coast of Newfoundland during a storm. Another revolves around Eric Cobham and Maria Lindsey- a semi-mythical, 18th Century, Bonnie-and-Clyde-like Maritime pirate couple. But the most popular tale, first told many years ago by an ancient Nova Scotian sailor to a resident of the Bay of Islands, features a notorious “arch-pirate” of the Atlantic by the name of Peter Easton.
Captain Peter Easton
Although not nearly as well-known as many of his Caribbean contemporaries, Peter Easton, a Newfoundland-based buccaneer, was perhaps the most materially successful pirate to ever sail the high seas.
Little is known of Easton’s early life, although it is believed he was born around 1570 in England. He evidently established himself as a proficient mariner, as in 1602, Elizabeth I, Queen of England, commissioned him with protecting the English fishing fleet in Newfoundland. At that time, England and Spain were engaged in what is now known as the Anglo-Spanish War. Although the English Navy under the late Sir Francis Drake had effectively repelled the Spanish Armada at the Battle of Gravelines back in 1588, the Spanish Navy remained a formidable force, and the crews of Spanish galleons would do their best capture or sink any English vessels they encountered on the Atlantic.
For a year, Peter Easton performed his duty as a licenced privateer, capturing or sinking any Spanish or Basque vessels he believed posed a threat to Newfoundland’s English fishing fleet. In the spring of 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died and was succeeded by her first cousin once removed, King James I. The king immediately brokered a peace with Spain, ending the 19-year-long Anglo-Spanish War, and in doing so, revoked the licences of all English privateers. Rather than pursue a new legitimate career in England, Easton and his crew decided to continue doing that at which they excelled: looting Spanish vessels. And thus, Peter Easton became a pirate.
No longer beholden to English law, Easton proved to be a ruthless captain, routinely killing or jettisoned fellow shipmates with whom he took issue. Ruling over his crew with an iron fist, the ex-privateer led his pirates on raids all across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, preying on Spanish treasure galleons, Barbary corsairs, and even English merchant vessels, terrorizing sailors from Morocco to the Caribbean. At one point, he even took his business to the Bristol Channel, the inlet which separates Wales from England’s South West Peninsula. Right under the nose of King James I, Peter Easton and his pirates extorted protection money from English seamen before finally being driven back to Newfoundland by Sir Henry Mainwaring, a Captain of the Royal Navy who would later go on to become a fellow Newfoundland-based pirate.
In around 1611, Peter Easton and his crew established a fort at Harbour Grace, one of North America’s oldest towns, situated on Newfoundland’s Conception Bay on the Avalon Peninsula. In 1612, while Easton himself was in the Caribbean, a company of French Basques fishermen captured the fort. When Peter Easton and his crew returned from their voyage, the Basques sailed out to meet them. In the ensuing battle, which took place in the waters off Harbour Grace Island, Easton and his pirates defeated the Basque fleet, incurring forty seven casualties in the process. The bodies of Easton’s pirates were buried on Newfoundland near Harbour Grace, their cemetery comprising one of the only known pirate graveyards in North America.
Later that year, Peter Easton captured an English vessel off Ferryland, Newfoundland, another of his favourite haunts. The captain of this captured ship was none other than Sir Richard Whitbourne, the colonist who claimed to have encountered the aforementioned mermaid of St. John’s Harbour two years prior, and who also happened to be a representative of the English Crown. Easton tried in vain to convince Whitbourne to join him and his pirates, of which there were now about fifteen hundred. Instead, Whitbourne offered to seek clemency for Easton and his crew at the court of King James, and was allowed to do so after 11 weeks of imprisonment.
Following his release, Whitbourne returned to England, where he learned that the king had already issued a pardon to Easton and his men. Before he could convey this information to Easton, however, the so-called “arch-pirate” and five hundred of his buccaneers sailed to the Azores islands off the coast of Portugal, where they captured three Spanish galleons packed with Bolivian silver- a truly enormous prize.
Peter Easton retired from the pirate life in around 1614. He settled in the village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera, where he married, acquired a palace, bought the title “Marquis of Savoy”, and lived like a king until his death in around 1620.
According to legend, one variety of seagoing vessels that Peter Easton and his crew preyed upon while headquartered in Newfoundland were fur-bearing French merchant ships fresh from the ports of Quebec City and Montreal. During one such plundering operation, Easton and his men were spotted by a massive French man-of-war.
Painfully cognisant of the superior firepower of the French warship, Easton and his crew fled north to Newfoundland. They were pursued by the French marines. In an effort to evade the larger vessel, the pirates sailed up Newfoundland’s west coast, into the Bay of Islands, and further up the Humber River.
In the hold of Easton’s ship were three chests filled with gold- the spoils of a previous raid. Loathe to allow the gold to fall into the hands of the French, Easton ordered his first mate to bury it in a safe location nearby. Accompanied by another pirate, the first mate headed further up the Humber in a smaller boat with the three chests and a pair of shovels.
Several miles upriver, the first mate spotted the Old Man in the Mountain- the face of an aged sailor naturally graven into the cliff side. Hoping to use the landmark as a marker, the mate decided to bury the treasure on what is now known as Shellbird Island, the river isle upon which the Old Man gazed. With the help of his companion, he began digging three different pits on the island into which the treasure chests were to be interred.
In those days, the legend says, it was customary for pirates to bury a fresh corpse along with their loot so that the spirit of the dead man might guard the treasure until their return. In accordance with this custom, the first mate waited until all three holes were dug before drawing his flintlock and dispatching his hapless companion. The accomplished, the mate proceeded to bury the three chests, one of them with the dead man, and conceal the locations of the deposits before getting back into his boat and rowing downstream.
As fate would have it, the first mate never made it back to the ship. At a particularly turbulent section of the Humber known as Devil’s Dancing Pool, he capsized his rowboat and drowned, taking the secret of the treasure’s location with him to his watery grave.
Legend has it that Shellbird Island has yielded two of her three treasure chests. One was purportedly discovered by a group of treasure hunters in the late 1800s, her contents shared in secret. Another was dug up around 1934. As for the third chest, local lore maintains that it still lies somewhere beneath Shellbird Island, promising untold riches to any treasure hunter determined enough to find it and brave enough to defy the ghost of the pirate that guards it.
Newfoundland Ghosts Linger; by John Lacy; in the Monday, September 1, 1975 issue of the Hartford Courant; courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
Ghost Stories of Newfoundland and Labrador (2010), by Edward Butts
The West Coast of Newfoundland; by Bill Crant (April 29, 2000) and Terry Piercey (August 2002); provided by Newfoundland’s Grand Banks Site
The Forgotten Bay: A Historical Survey of the Settlement of Lark Habour and York Harbour in the Outer Bay of Islands, Newfoundland (July 1997), by Stuart L. Harvey
Pirate Gold! The Man in the Mountain & Corner Brook’s Treasure Island; by Dale Jarvis; in August 18, 2016 issue of NLUnexplained.ca
No Colony for Old Men: Peter Easton in Conception Bay; in the June 1, 2017 issue of ConceptionBayMuseum.Wordpress.com
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The Treasure of Shellbird Island was last modified: September 17th, 2018 by Hammerson Peters
Every day, freighters passing through the Cabot Strait- the waterway between Newfoundland and Cape Breton, which separates the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the greater Atlantic Ocean- float by a bleak, windswept isle known as Rocher aux Oiseaux, or Bird Rock. This five-acre islet is an outlying member of the Magdalen Islands, a hook-shaped archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence which, despite being closer to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, actually belongs to the province of Quebec.
In the summer, Bird Rock- along with its northwesterly sister, a nearby cluster of sea rocks called Rocher aux Margaux (which bears the name that Jacques Cartier gave to Bird Rock in June 1534; “margaux” being the 16th Century French word for gannets), or the Little Bird Rocks- is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Back in 1917, the island and its surrounding waters was designated the Bird Rocks Bird Sanctuary, making it the oldest migratory bird sanctuary in Canada. Today, in the height of summer, nearly every nook and cranny of its 30-metre-tall red sandstone cliffs is occupied by some variety of migratory seabird, from petrels to gulls to razor-billed auks. In addition to being a refuge for some of the North Atlantic’s most threatened avian species, ornithologists estimate that Bird Rock annually hosts up to 47,000 Northern gannets- nearly a quarter of this species’ population in North America.
One writer who visited the isle in the summer of 1932 recalled an incident which serves to illustrate the completeness of the dominion which Bird Rock’s feathered denizens hold over the place in the summer months:
“Suddenly, a great swarm of gannets took wing with a rumble like a thunderstorm. An enormous white cloud of them, hundreds of yards in extent, swooped overhead. It had the odd effect of a snowstorm suspended in mid-air. So dense were they that a battery of machine guns would have had no effect.”
Every autumn, Bird Rock’s eponymous avian occupants migrate south to warmer climes, leaving Rocher aux Oiseaux silent and desolate. The strident squawks which characterized the spring and summer are replaced by the softer yet equally-incessant crashing of the waves against the island’s circumferential cliffs, and the pervasive stench of bird droppings which hung heavily on the summer air gives way to an equally-heavy winter mist, punctuated by the occasional ghostly wail of a foghorn. In this gloomier state, Bird Rock seems more accordant with its morbid history and the shroud of superstition that surrounds it. For atop grassy plateau of Rocher aux Oiseaux, so say the seafaring folk of the Magdalen Islands, dwells a terrible curse.
Since the earliest years of New France, Bird Rock and rest of the Magdalen Islands posed a deadly hazard to the crews of European sailing ships entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Atlantic Ocean. Vessels sailing through the Strait of Cabot at night, or in heavy fog, ran the risk of smashing to matchwood against the merciless cliffs of the Magdalens, and throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, hundreds of ships met their ends in this manner. Passengers and crewmembers aboard these ill-fated vessels who managed to avoid the one-way trip to Davy Jones’ Locker climbed atop the islands and anxiously awaited their rescue, often in vain. Today, most Madelinots, as inhabitants of the Magdalen Islands are called, are descendants of these shipwreck survivors, and many of the islands’ oldest buildings are constructed from timber salvaged from the ships she claimed.
In 1827, a Captain of the Royal Navy named Edward Boxer wrote the following to the Grand Admiral of Maritime Britain:
“I have found a great need for lighthouses in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. On this sea, navigation is so dangerous because of strong and irregular currents, and there is not a single lighthouse in all the Gulf. It is truly lamentable to find so many shipwrecks at different places on the coast… the number of lost lives is very large and certainly incalculable…”
It would be over four decades before Boxer’s recommendation was acted upon. In 1860, John Page, the Chief
Engineer for the Province of Canada’s Department of Public Works, proposed the erection of a lighthouse on Rocher aux Oiseaux, as Bird Rock was the closest of the Magdalen Islands to the Laurentian Channel- the underwater valley which follows the natural route through the Cabot Strait. In 1869, the fledgling Dominion of Canada decided to follow Page’s advice. That year, contractors sailed out to the island and set about constructing a 15.2-metre-tall wooden lighthouse on its plateau, somehow managing to haul their supplies up and over the Rock’s 30-metre walls. Finally, in 1870, Peter Mitchell, a Father of Confederation who served as the Dominion’s Minister of Marine and Fisheries, reported:
“I feel much pleasure in stating that at Bird Rocks, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence- the most difficult place in the Dominion on which to erect a lighthouse, owing to the surf which continually breaks around it, and the danger of approaching it and effecting a landing thereon- the effects of the Department have been entirely successful in erecting a lighthouse and buildings in connection therewith.”
The story of the early years of the Bird Rock Lighthouse is shrouded in mystery. According to legend, the lighthouse’s first keeper was a Frenchman named Jacques Guitte. After tending the lonely lighthouse for two years, “solitude,” as a contemporary newspaper article put it, “preyed so upon his mind that he went insane.”
Before being hauled away to an asylum, Guitte is said to have uttered the following prophecy:
“No man will keep this lighthouse for more than ten years without meeting misfortune.”
None but the local Acadians of the Magdalen Islands thought there was any chance that Guitte’s prediction might come true.
Peter Whalen and his Son
Guitte’s successor, a man named George Preston, did not tend the Bird Rock Lighthouse long enough to put his predecessor’s prediction to the test. After only a few months on Rocher aux Oiseaux, Preston was removed from his position- according to some versions of the story, in a straightjacket- on the premise that he was mentally infirm.
Preston was immediately succeeded by Peter (or perhaps Patrick; not to be confused with the alleged assassin of a similar name who was hanged four years prior at the Ottawa Jail gallows) Whalen, who moved to the island with his wife and son in 1873. That same year, government workers installed a cannon on the island, which was to be fired at regular intervals during heavy fog in order to warn ships to steer clear of Bird Rock and the Magdalen Islands.
For seven long years, the Whalen family dutifully served as the keepers of the Bird Rock Lighthouse. Then, one day in early April, 1880, Peter Whalen, the former’s son, and an assistant lighthouse keeper named Thomas Thivierge went hunting for harp seals, one of the few pastimes that their occupation afforded them. To the dismay of Mrs. Whalen, who was left to tend the lighthouse in the men’s absence, the three men failed to return that night.
The following day, Thomas Thivierge, sopping wet and chilled to the bone, stumbled onto Bird Rock and staggered towards the lighthouse. Through chattering teeth, he informed a distraught Mrs. Whalen that her husband and son had perished the previous night. While the men were out on the water hunting for seals, a storm had blown in quite unexpectedly and tossed the three of them onto an ice flow. Unable to return to their boat before dark, the men decided to spend the night on the ice. Before dawn, Peter Whalen and his son had froze to death.
The Tragedy of 1881
Peter Whalen and his family were succeeded by Charles Chiasson, a local Madelinot from the nearby island of Havre-aux-Maisons. In 1880, Chiasson, his wife, and his son Cyrice moved onto Bird Rock. They would not last two years.
In the summer of 1881, a friend of the Chiasson family named Paul Chenell came to Bird Rock for a visit. He was accompanied by his ten-year-old daughter Sarah and a man named Jean Turbide- a relative of the assistant keeper, Telesphore Turbide.
August 23, 1881, was a particularly foggy day on Bird Rock, and Charles Chiasson was obliged to fire the fog cannon. As this was the first occasion he had to use the device since his guests’ arrival, Chiasson invited Paul, Sarah, and Jean to watch the procedure.
Chiasson’s usual custom when preparing the fog cannon was to load the gun with powder retrieved from a barrel kept in a storage shed. For some reason, however, on this particular occasion, the powder barrel stood a short distance from away the cannon with its lid open. Without thinking to move the keg back to the shed and out of harm’s way, Chiasson decided to fire the cannon.
When Chiasson lit the fuse, a spark landed in the powder keg and a tremendous explosion rocked the island. Chiasson and his son, Cyrice, who had assisted with the procedure, were killed instantly. Paul Chenell was severely wounded, and succumbed to his injuries several hours later. Jean and Telesphore Turbide escaped with minor injuries despite Jean’s having been blown off a cliff and into the sea by the blast’s shockwave, and young Sarah Chenell, though frightened half to death, was physically unharmed.
The Tenure of Telesphore Turbide
Following the death of Charles Chiasson, assistant keeper Telesphore Turbide was put in charge of the Bird Rock Lighthouse. In 1887, he oversaw the construction of a new, six-sided, 11.9-metre-tall wooden tower.
By the summer of 1891, Turbide had manned Rocher aux Oiseaux for nearly a decade- far long than any previous keeper. It seemed that he was well on his way to beating the curse of Bird Rock. If he managed to serve until August 23rd, the tenth anniversary of Chiasson’s death, without serious mishap, Guitte’s chilling prophecy would prove nothing more than the deluded ravings of a madman.
On June 24, 1891, two months before this deadline, the island decided to exact its toll on the hapless keeper. It was a foggy day, and Telesphore Turbide was obliged to fire the cannon. The lighthouse keeper poured a charge of powder down the barrel, tamped it down, and lit the cannon’s fuse. Mysteriously, the cannon failed to fire. Thinking that he may have done a poor job tamping the powder, Turbide inserted the cannon’s ramrod back into the muzzle. At that moment,
the cannon suddenly discharged, hurling the keeper twenty-five feet across the plateau and blowing off most of his right hand. A shell-shocked Turbide doctored his mangled hand as best he could, flagged down a passing ship, and went to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for medical treatment.
Following his recovery, Telesphore Turbide returned to his post at Bird Rock, where he would serve for another five years. In 1895, he managed to convince Canada’s Department of Marine and Fisheries to replace the dangerous fog cannon with a safer cotton powder cartridge gun.
Turbide’s third and final brush with the island’s curse took place in September 1896. One day, while receiving a shipment of supplies from the mainland, the crane used to haul the cargo onto the island’s plateau fell on top of him, crushing his legs. Not daring to defy the curse any longer, Turbide resigned from his position and was granted a lifetime annual allowance of $180 by the Canadian government. In total, Telesphore Turbide served an incredible fifteen years as head lighthouse keeper of Rocher aux Oiseaux- longer than any keeper before or since.
Arsene Turbide and the Tragedy of 1897
Following Telesphore Turbide’s resignation, a man named Pierre Bourque was appointed as the next keeper of the Bird Rock Lighthouse. As Bourque was unable to take the position until spring, it was arranged for Telesphore’s cousin, Arsene Turbide, to man the lighthouse that winter.
In March 1897, shortly before Bourque’s scheduled arrival, Arsene Turbide, 17-year-old Charles Turbide (Telesphore’s son), and assistant keeper Damien Cormier decided to go seal hunting. Their fate was eerily similar to that of Peter Whalen and his party, who froze to death on an ice floe seventeen years prior.
Like their ill-fated predecessors, the three men were beset by an unexpected storm. Charles Turbide and Damien Cormier did not survive the night.
Miraculously, Arsene Turbide managed to make his way across sixty miles of sea ice to the fishing community of Bay St. Lawrence, Nova Scotia, on Cape Breton Island- a journey which he accomplished in three days. Turbide was taken to a hospital, where he expressed deep concern for the wife of Damien Cormier, who was alone on Bird Rock. A government icebreaker was subsequently dispatched to rescue Cormier’s widow.
Arsene Turbide died in bed fifteen days after arriving at Bay St. Lawrence.
Pierre and Wilfrid Bourque
In May 1897, two months after the tragedy, Pierre Bourque took up his post at Bird Rock as scheduled. Almost immediately, he was plagued by misfortune. After only a few weeks, his assistant keeper, a man named Hippolyte Melanson, injured himself severely while firing the fog cartridge gun. Following the accident, Melanson was replaced by Bourque’s son Wilfrid.
In 1905, after eight years of service, Pierre decided to relinquish his position as head lighthouse keeper to Wilfrid. The younger Bourque, whose wife and children moved onto the island with him, made it his mission to improve conditions on Bird Rock. In 1906, he replaced the fog cartridge cannon with a far safer three-inch diaphone fog signal. In 1908, he reinforced the lighthouse with concrete and raised its height to 15.2 metres. That same year, he asked the Department of Marine and Fisheries to extend a telegraph line to Bird Rock. His request was denied.
On March 11, 1912, after tending the Bird Rock Lighthouse for seven years, Wilfrid Bourque grabbed his shotgun and headed out to hunt some seals he spotted in an opening in the ice not far from the island. When Bourque failed to return, his wife sent assistant keeper Daniel Turbide (a relative of Telephore and Arsene) and her nephew, Elphege Bourque, to search for him. The two men found Bourque’s lifeless body standing upright in the water near the edge of the ice. Bourque’s poor widow was forced to both perform her motherly duties and tend the lighthouse in her husband’s stead for ten days while waiting for relief.
Wilfrid Bourque was succeeded by his nephew, Elphege- now a seasoned lighthouse veteran.
While serving under his uncle, Elphege had grown weary of the simple unperishable fare that was part and parcel of lighthouse life. One day, he decided to bring a milk cow to the island. With considerable difficulty, the keeper managed to transport the animal to the Rock and hoist it up onto the plateau. Shortly thereafter, Elphege had his second encounter with the curse of Rocher aux Oiseaux; after only six weeks, his cow went insane and jumped over a cliff to its death.
Elphege managed to tend the lighthouse at Bird Rock for ten quiet years, enduring no greater tragedy than the loss of his milk cow. It seemed as if the curse had finally left Rocher aux Oiseaux for good.
Suddenly, as if to make up for its decade of indolence, the jinx of Bird Rock reared its ugly head once again and lashed out at its tenants with a nigh unprecedented ferocity.
In the fall of 1922, Elphege Bourque decided to take a vacation. He left the lighthouse in the charge of his brother Albin and assistants Philias Richard and Octave Langford. Shortly after Albin arrived on the island to relieve his brother, all three men became deathly ill, apparently having consumed rainwater contaminated with diseased bird droppings. The men managed to flag down a ship destined for Charlottetown, but by that time it was too late. Albin died en route to Prince Edward Island, Richard died shortly thereafter, and Langford became paralyzed for life from the waist down.
The End of the Curse
Following the death of his brother, Elphege Bourque left Bird Rock, never to return. Lighthouse duties were immediately assumed by a family of Acadians by the name Arsenault.
The first Arsenault to man the Bird Rock Lighthouse was J. Montague Arsenault. Montague served as head keeper for fifteen years, soundly belying Guitte’s prediction. After the successful five-year tenure of a man named J. Marc Richard, another Arsenault named Alfred A. took up his predecessor’s mantle. One writer who visited Rocher aux Oiseaux in 1950 wrote:
“When Alfred Arsenaut [sic] had finished telling me the story of Bird Rock, I asked him if he worried about the prophecy. He shrugged.
“As I looked at Arsenaut’s [sic] quiet, sturdy face I had the sudden thought: ‘This quiet man can defeat the prophecy!’ Only time will tell.”
Sure enough, Alfred Arsenault served a mercifully uneventful twelve years as head keeper of the Bird Rock Lighthouse before retiring in 1955.
Aside from a lightning-induced fire which reduced some of the service buildings to ashes in 1955, when the lighthouse was under the care of Alfred’s relative Elzear Arsenault, Bird Rock never again subjected its residents to another catastrophe. Following Elzear’s resignation in 1959, eleven different keepers successfully manned the lighthouse of Rocher aux Oiseaux, none of them serving for more than four years.
In 1967, the lighthouse was replaced by a new 31-foot hexagonal concrete tower, and in 1988, the tower was automated, leaving Bird Rock for the birds. Today, the lighthouse of Rocher aux Oiseaux operates on its own, as if manned by ghostly keepers. Its eerie desolation serves as a chilling reminder of the deadly curse which haunted its inhabitants for more than fifty years.
Haunted Island: Strange Legend Clings to Lonely Bird Rock; by Richard Harrington; in the November 19, 1950 issue of the Washington Post’s supplement magazine Parade; courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
Bird Rock; by Beverley Owen; in the January 1, 1933 issue of Maclean’s magazine
The Mysterious Magdalens; by Beverley Owen; in the December 1, 1932 issue of Maclean’s magazine
The Cursed Lightstation of Rocher aux Oiseaux: A Malicious Prank of Nature; by Jeremy D’Entremont; in the May 2004 issue of the Lighthouse Digest Magazine
Rocher aux Oiseaux (Bird Rock) Lighthouse, on LighthouseFriends.com
Magdalen Islands Shipwrecks, by Rupert Taylor in the August 14, 2017 issue of OwlCation.com
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The Cursed Lighthouse of Bird Rock was last modified: September 17th, 2018 by Hammerson Peters
Near the southern border of Northwestern Ontario, about three kilometres northwest of the tiny town of Atikokan, lies a body of water known as Steep Rock Lake. In 1950, this remote woodland retreat, nestled in the heart of what locals proudly refer to as the “Canoeing Capital of Canada”, was the setting of a bizarre story that has intrigued ufologists (as students of the UFO phenomenon are known) for nearly seventy years.
The Town of Steep Rock
Back in 1938, an Ontario prospector named Julian Cross discovered that Steep Rock Lake lay atop a rich deposit of hematite- a type of iron ore. During WWII, when the Allied forces were in desperate need of steel, the river that fed the lake was diverted and much of the original Steep Rock Lake was drained (the river’s diversion created a web of new floodwater channels, which included a new Steep Rock Lake). That accomplished, miners set to work blasting and extracting the much-needed iron ore, transforming the former lake bed into a vast open-pit quarry known as the Steep Rock Iron Mine.
From the 1940s until the Steep Rock Iron Mine’s dissolution in 1980, a boomtown called Steep Rock thrived just outside the quarry a short distance from the town of Atikokan. For much of this time, a monthly newspaper called the Steep Rock Echo, edited by the Mine’s Chief Chemist, B.J. Eyton, serviced the citizens of this transient mining town.
In September 1950, the Echo ran with a story entitled “Flying Saucer Base?” This story was submitted by an anonymous Mine employee whom Eyton described as “a thoroughly reliable citizen”.
“We have refrained from reporting this before,” the anonymous author began, “as people make so much fun of one who reports these things. However, all the bally-hoo about ‘flying saucers’ has passed, and people perhaps have time to think more calmly. Attached is what my wife and I saw in the dusk of the evening of July 2, 1950.”
The writer went on to describe how he and his wife, on this particular evening, were out fishing on Sawbill Bay, a body of water opposite the quarry from Steep Rock Lake (today, Sawbill Bay is known as Marmion Lake). After spending some time on the water, they paddled their canoe into a sheltered cove and pulled their craft up onto the beach.
“We had our snack and a thermos of tea,” the Mine employee wrote, “and were talking about getting home, as it would be dark by the time we landed, when we felt the air vibrate. My first thought was blasting, as it was like a mine blast that pushes the air; my next thought was that it couldn’t be, as we were too far away.”
Curious as to the source of the shockwave, the man climbed to the top of a nearby rock so that he could get a better view of the lake. To his surprise, he found himself staring at large, shiny, saucer-like object resting on the water’s surface about a quarter of a mile away. Its edge was studded with round, black-edged “ports”, each of them spaced about four feet apart from one another.
Careful not to alarm her, the man motioned for his wife to join him on top of the rock. The couple watched with fear and fascination as a hatch on the top of the saucer opened up and ten small strange-looking creatures crawled out onto the roof.
“These figures I estimated to be roughly 3 ft. 6 ins. to 4 feet high and all were the same size,” the man wrote. “All were dressed the same, with a shiny metallic substance over the chest, while the legs and arms were of a darker material. It was impossible to see their faces- if they had any- it looked like blank surface to me.”
As the creatures went about their mysterious business, an antenna-like object rose up from the middle of the saucer until it reached a height of about eight feet. The antenna was capped with a hoop-like ring which rotated slowly from side to side, not unlike a periscope. To their horror, the couple realized that the ring appeared to be focusing on their location.
“We instinctively ducked at that moment…” the man wrote. “We believe to this day that we were shielded from the ray or whatever it was [by] the wall of rock we ducked behind.”
After some time had elapsed, the couple risked another peek at the saucer and its curious crew. They noticed that one of the creatures was apparently drawing in lake water with a bright green open-ended hose and discharging an equal quantity of water out the other end.
The couple retreated to safety again before deciding to take one final gander.
“The next time we looked,” the man wrote, “everything had disappeared from the surface of the machine and it was about 8 feet in the air, with a red-and-blue tinged-with-gold colour shining on the surface of the water… It tilted to about a 45o angle, there was a rush of wind (like the wind before a storm), a flash of yellow, red-blue and it was gone, heading northward, but faster than the eye could follow.”
Shaken to the core, the couple returned home and vowed to never visit that part of the lake again. Try as he might, however, the man could not get the image of the saucer out of his mind. Eventually, he decided to tell one of his friends about the incident. Intrigued, his friend agreed to accompany him to the cove at Sawbill Bay on the pretext of fishing, hoping to see the saucer for himself. The men brought cameras with them on this excursion, determined to capture the mysterious craft on film if it ever returned.
Unfortunately, the craft failed to appear. Undaunted, the friends made two more trips to the cove, each of which proved similarly fruitless. Eventually, they decided that they might have more luck rowing quietly along the shore. When that failed, they decided to cut across the Bay using the canoe’s outboard motor.
“It all happened in split seconds,” the man wrote. “There was the ‘Saucer’ in the same spot. I swung the boat into the wind, my friend made a dive for his camera, and I for mine, while trying to hold the boat into the wind. My hand was so stiff from the cold and holding the steering control that I couldn’t even feel the camera. My friend was trying to stand up, and in the excitement hold on while the boat bobbed up and down. The result was neither of us even had a chance of a picture. All my friend could keep repeating was, ‘Well by George at least I’ve seen it!’”
The anonymous storyteller finished his narrative by explaining that during this second encounter, he and his friend observed the little creatures performing the same operation with the green hose that he and his wife had witnessed on July 2. Apparently, the creatures discovered that they were being watched, as they hastily climbed into their saucer, which subsequently departed at tremendous speed.
At the end of his article, the man implied that the creature in charge of the hose operation did not make it into the craft in time, and tumbled into the lake when the saucer took off.
Intriguingly, following the publication of this story, the editor of the Steep Rock Echo received letters from citizens who claimed to have also had strange experiences at Sawbill Bay. One writer related that when he was leaving the lake one evening at dusk, he “heard a sound like the noise a flock of ducks make, and at the same time saw what [he] thought was a shooting-star flash across the bay.” The following week, while fishing in one of Sawbill’s coves, he discovered a number of dead fish floating in a patch of water that bore a curious greenish hue.
Another man came forward with an almost identical story. He informed the editor that, while returning home from the floodwaters at dusk, he saw what he thought to be a meteor streak down in the direction of Sawbill Bay and disappear. He also mentioned that the water in one of the inlets in upper Sawbill Bay had a strange, almost fluorescent green tinge, and that he was unable to catch any fish in that inlet despite that he had no trouble catching fish anywhere else in the lake.
Some letters to the editor were less charitable. One reader wrote, “Are you sure it was tea your correspondent was drinking, and not something stronger?”
The article was reprinted in the October 1950 issue of The Steep Rock Echo. In this edition, editor B.J. Eyton commented, in regards to the article:
“I cannot verify the story one way or the other. It was written by a senior employee of the mine. However, about that time flying saucers were seen by a number of people in this locality… Men in groups working in the mine at Steep Rock saw them at night, and many residents of the town of Atikokan gave eyewitness accounts of the saucers. They were seen in different localities all the way from here to the Lakehead cities of Fort William and Port Arthur 140 miles away. One was flashed b Canadian National Railways station operators all along the line until it reached here. Then it turned back again. There was not the slightest doubt in the minds of the eyewitnesses that what they had seen were flying saucers.”
Since the Steep Rock Echo was a relatively obscure newspaper, the story of the flying saucer of Sawbill Bay was, for many years, largely confined to the memories of the citizens of Steep Rock and Atikokan. Then, in the 1960’s, a popular American writer and radio broadcaster named Frank Edwards got wind of the story, likely having read a reprinting of it in the February-March issue of the magazine Fate, and resurrected it on his radio program and in his 1966 book Flying Saucers- Serious Business. Other ufologists followed Edwards’ lead and began including the Steep Rock story in their own books and articles. In a few short years, the tale of the Steep Rock saucer and its mysterious crewmen transformed from a dim rural Canadian legend into a tabloid sensation with an international audience.
In the winter of 1974, Canadian UFO researcher Robert T. Badgley wrote a letter to the president of Steep Rock Iron Mines in which he inquired about the flying saucer story. The president informed Badgley that the story was written by a Mine executive named Gordon Edwards (no relation to Frank), and that it was completely fictitious. According to the president, Edwards wrote the story for the amusement of his colleagues and the citizens of the remote towns of Steep Rock and Atikokan, and to mock contemporary accounts of encounters with little green men that appeared in newspapers from time to time. Edwards and others privy to the hoax were delighted and amused when larger media outlets picked up the story and popularized it.
For better of for worse, Badgley’s work has remained nearly as obscure as the story it addressed prior to its adoption by Frank Edwards. Despite its debunking, the tale of the little green men of Steep Rock Lake has failed to die, and continues to be presented as fact in books and articles to this very day. Even Atikokan’s historical authorities remained ignorant of the story’s true nature for decades after Badgley’s revelation. In a letter to American Fortean researcher Gary Mangiacopra, dated February 6, 1992, a representative of the Atikokan Centennial Museum wrote, in reference to the aforementioned articles:
“When I first read these articles myself, I asked a few locals about it. Apparently there were numerous other sightings of different happening [sic] in the area. However, this particular incident was the only one documented to my knowledge.”
Despite the efforts of serious ufologists to set the record straight, the tale of the little green men of Steep Rock Lake remains to this day one of Ontario’s great urban legends.
Flying Saucer Base?; written anonymously by Gordon Edwards; in the September 1950 issue of the Steep Rock Echo; courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
Correspondence between Gary S. Mangiacopra and the Atikokan Centennial Museum & Historical Park; dated February 6, 1992, and February 25, 1992; courtesy of Gary S. Mangiacopra
Steep Rock Flying Saucer, in the February-March 1952 issue of the magazine Fate, courtesy of Gary Mangiacopra
UFOs Over Canada: Personal Accounts of Sightings and Close Encounters (1996), John Robert Colombo
July 2, 1950, Steep Rock Lake, Ontario, Canada, A Man and His Wife; by Patrick Gross; in January 21, 2007 issue of Ufology.PatrickGross.org
Image of flying saucer and little green men courtesy of FrimfuFilms
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The Little Green Men of Steep Rock Lake was last modified: September 8th, 2018 by Hammerson Peters