Now for something different. Everyone thinks Amityville Horror was the first published “true to life” ghost story out there. But it was not. And we know from those that lived in the house that much of the book was bullroar, but I don’t want to start that argument here. I had never heard of the “The Great Amherst Mystery” – but it’s a thing. “A Haunted House” by Walter Hubbell is about what happened in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada between 1878 and 1879. It is a well known case, and as you can’t really spoil a ghost story (I mean, we all know where they go, don’t we?) I will warn you that I discuss the entire book. Ending and all. Here is the link to Goodreads.
The book starts out like a story. It introduces the inhabitants of the house – the principal owners being Daniel and Olive Teed. Daniel is a foreman at the shoe factory. Olive lives in the 1800’s, so she stays at home and does housework. They have two children and rent the other 3 rooms to their adult siblings. Olive’s two sisters rent one room, her brother, another. The third is let, on and off, to Daniel’s brother when he isn’t farming. Middle sister Jane is a great beauty, and then there is Esther. Our author is quick to tell us that she has many excellent qualities and is well loved. She is also willful, spoiled, won’t do chores until repeatedly asked and likes to get her way. So, if you are keeping track, that is six adult humans and two very young children living in what is referred to as a “four bedroom cottage.”
(Please take note: this is the gun I am putting on the mantelpiece. Any fans of Chekhov, or unfortunates dragged kicking and screaming into a drama class, or writers who have read books on playwriting and plot know what that means.)
Almost everything that happens is centered around Esther. In the book, the author tells us that Esther’s beau, Bob McNeal came to take her driving. Once he pulled in a little wood, he stopped the horses, jumped out of the buggy and pointed a gun at her, telling her to get out of the buggy or he’ll shoot her. Before she can respond, the roll of another buggy approaching can be heard. Bob leaped back in and drove at top speed back to her house. I thought this was a little weird, and read some more online to see if I could get more info on Bob and Esther’s relationship. Apparently, the dry commentary above is how you say that someone was almost sexually assaulted. I guess that was what he was dragging her out into the woods for, at least according to Wikipedia.
Shortly after, the alleged paranormal activity begins. The first thing happens with both sisters in bed. They feel movement in their mattress. On leaping out of bed, with the requisite screaming, they are convinced it is just a mouse, and it can’t very well get out of the mattress. So the girls go back to bed. (They made ‘em different back then – both mattresses and girls.) Immediately after, they hear loud noises beneath their bed. It seems to be a sewing box jumping up and hitting the underside of the bed. They pull it out and it leaps in the air and falls over. They right it. It does the same thing again. They call their sister and brother in to see the phenomena, but Dan Teed completely dismisses them. I guess the box quit jumping finally. The next night, Esther leaps out of bed and swears she is dying. She looks ill and haggard and begins to swell. Her hands, fingers, face, neck, legs, all of her body starts to swell. She screams and writhes in pain and the family can do nothing to help her. Cracks like thunder fill the room, but the sky is clear. After the last thunderclap, Esther’s swelling subsides, and she falls asleep.
This happens several times. A doctor is called in, and according to the author, the doctor witnesses the swelling, hears the thunderclaps inside the house (so do the neighbors outside the house) and sees the words “Esther Cox you are mine to kill” appear over her bed. Bedclothes are torn off the bed. Potatoes are thrown at the family. Then poundings start inside the walls, on the roof and the ceiling. The entity will answer questions by knocking: once for yes, twice if it is undecided and three times for no. Things continue like this, and then the fires start.
Small fires are kindled down in the kindling box. Lit matches appear out of nowhere and fall on the coverlet. Now Esther can see and hear the ghost. It tells her it is going to burn the house down. The family can no longer bear it, and have to send her out of the house. But where? The neighbors, friends, doctors and pastors have come to see the wild occurrences. Everyone knows what is going on and that it is centered around Esther. A kind friend, John White, who was interested in the phenomena is willing to let her stay with himself and his wife. She goes to his pub to work during the day and at first, all is well. Then the knocking and the fires start up again. John White claims that the heavy stove door opened by itself – and it was essential that door stay shut. He propped it closed with an axe handle. He claims to have seen the entire door unhinge from the oven and fly up into the air, dislodging the axe handle and fall to the floor – not once, but twice.
At some point, Esther went to New Brunswick for “men of science” to investigate her. The author does not go into detail about this, but the manifestations followed and were too happy to answer questions and tell their names. He’s very vague. I assume he’s not claiming the ghosts manifested so everyone can see them. All this information must have come from Esther, but he doesn’t tell us how. Before coming home, she stopped to stay with some friends in the woods. Allegedly, the manifestations stopped while she was there.
It is sometime after this the author pays a visit. He has come to debunk the goings on. He is quickly converted. Sitting in full view of Esther, he sees furniture move, violently, across the room. Small objects are thrown at him. He claims to see pins come out of nowhere and stab her. Things disappear off the table, or out of the sink, only to fall from the ceiling later. It’s a wild string of unbelievable phenomena that continues, in front of everyone. The ghost can tell people what is in their pockets, down to the coins, handkerchiefs, etc. People come over to watch the crazy show. It sounds impossible, right?
That is what I thought. I have seen some debunking of poltergeist phenomena. One boy in the 80’s claimed a spirit was destroying things in the house – but when a camera was set up to catch this, the boy himself was simply standing behind people, throwing things across the room when no one was watching. And the repetition of some of the ghost’s tricks – like dropping things from the ceiling, and the pounding on the walls: could someone, a confederate, perhaps, have been up in the attic, dropping things through trap doors, or between gaps in the slats, and pounding on the ceiling? Bob McNeal supposedly disappeared after his assault on Esther. But did he? I think the answer is in the culmination of the story. (Spoiler alert! I’m picking up my gun and taking aim.) Esther ended up moving out with those folks in the woods. The phenomena stopped. I have to wonder if that wasn’t the point of the whole charade.