The Great Amherst Mystery: Canada’s Most Famous Poltergeist
Canada’s Most Famous Poltergeist
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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