The Amherst Haunting is a classic case of a late 19th-century Poltergeist in Amherst, Nova Scotia that was so meanspirited that it directed its nasty activities not only toward its young victim, but to all other persons who tried to help her. Even the family cat did not go unscathed.
The troublesome spirit, which gave itself the name “Bob” when leaving written messages on walls, confounded observers with strange, frightening noises and happenings, and even started fires. The case began in 1878 and attracted the notice of the public; people often gathered at the house in such great numbers that the police had to be summoned.
The victims were the Teed family of Amherst, headed by Daniel Teed, a foreman in a shoe factory, and including his wife, Olive, and their two young sons; Olive’s two sisters, Jennie, 22 years old, and Esther, 19 years old; Olive’s brother, William; and Daniel’s brother, John. They lived in a crowded two-story cottage.
The family’s travails began one night when Esther jumped out of the bed she shared with Jennie and screamed that there was a mouse in it. Finding no such thing, the two went back to sleep. The next night, they heard rustling sounds in a bandbox which was rising and falling in the air. An examination by the frightened women revealed an empty box.
On the following night, the spirit turned ugly, setting the tone for its future activities. Esther, who had gone to bed feeling ill, suddenly awoke and declared that she was dying. Her cries alarmed family members, who rushed into her room, whereupon they were greeted with a hideous sight. Esther’s short hair was almost standing on end, her face was blood-red and her eyes popping. Two family members proclaimed her mad, but their accusations turned to concern as Esther’s body swelled to nearly double its normal size. Esther’s pitiful cries of pain were accompanied by booming sounds of rolling thunder— although there was not a cloud to be seen in the sky.
Esther’s swelling subsided, but four nights later when she and Jennie were once again asleep, their bedclothes were suddenly torn away and thrown into a heap in the corner of the room. Again, frightened family members rushed into the girls’ room, saw a swollen Esther and heard the rolling thunder. Jennie replaced the bedclothes, only to have a pillow fly off the bed and strike John Teed in the face. John fled the room, but the others remained, sitting on the bedclothes to hold them fast while Esther fell back to sleep.
The next day the family called the local physician, Dr. Carritte, to check Esther. He became the poltergeist’s next victim. While examining Esther, the bolster beneath her head rose up and violently hit him on the head before returning to its former spot. The astonished doctor took a few moments to restore his equilibrium and sat down in a chair. He heard a metallic scratching sound coming from the wall behind him. Turning to see its source, he saw written upon the wall, “Esther Cox! You are mine to kill.” At the same time, the doctor heard peals of thunder and saw pieces of plaster fall from the ceiling and swirl around the room.
To the terrified Dr. Carritte’s credit, he returned the next day to examine his patient. As he was bending over Esther, he was hit with a barrage of potatoes which sent him flying across the room. Nevertheless, the doctor continued his ministrations by giving Esther a sedative. She fell fitfully asleep; meanwhile, the doctor heard loud, pounding sounds coming from the ceiling.
The next day, Esther complained of feeling as though electricity were passing through her body. Dr. Carritte administered more sedatives in the evening. As he put her to bed, loud Rapping sounded, as though someone were pounding on the roof of the house. Dr. Carritte went outside, where strong moonlight enabled him to see that no one was upon the roof. Yet, when he returned inside, the family said that while he had been out, it had sounded as though someone were pounding on the roof with a sledgehammer. The poundings repeated intermittently, but eventually they went on all day long and were heard by passersby. The noises were written up in the local Gazette newspaper and other papers throughout Canada.
About three weeks after Dr. Carritte’s initial visit, Jennie stated that she thought the ghost could hear and see everything the family did. Immediately, three clear reports were heard in response. Further questions put to the spirit were answered with loud reports: one knock for a negative answer and three knocks for an affirmative one. The family began to converse with the unseen spirit.
Word had now begun to spread throughout the community about these happenings. The clergy became interested, but they attributed the phenomena to the newly commercialized electricity rather than to supernatural or diabolical agents. A well-known Baptist clergyman, Rev. Dr. Edwin Clay, began to visit regularly. Rev. Clay agreed with Dr. Carritte that Esther was not producing the noises herself. He opined that her nerves had received some sort of electric shock, thus turning her into a living battery. He believed that her body was emitting tiny flashes of lightning, and the noises were actually small claps of thunder. This theory proved to be popular, and Rev. Clay began to give numerous lectures on it, always defending Esther against any accusations of fraud. The publicity caused throngs of people to gather outside the Teed cottage daily.
Rev. Clay quit visiting Esther when she contracted diphtheria months later. When she recovered, she left the Teed home to stay temporarily with a married sister in New Brunswick. For the first time, peace and quiet descended on the cottage.
But when Esther returned home, so did the spirit, with an even greater desire for destruction and disruption. One night, Esther told Jennie that she could hear a voice saying that it would burn the house down. The voice also stated that it had once lived on earth, had died, and now was only a ghost.
The girls called in family members to relay the message, and while all were laughing at the preposterousness of such a thing happening, lighted matches began falling from the ceiling onto Esther’s bed. Communication with the spirit was then initiated, and when asked if it would really set the house afire, it answered in the affirmative. As apparent proof, one of Esther’s dresses, hanging on a nail on the wall, was rolled up by invisible hands, stuffed beneath the bed and lighted afire. Daniel Teed pulled the dress out and snuffed the fire before it could do serious damage.
“Bob” set Olive Teed’s skirts on fire and allegedly set several small fires in different parts of the house, which again caused more fright than damage. During one fire emanating from a bucket of cedar shavings in the basement, Esther ran into the street screaming for help and neighbours came to her aid. The local fire department, however, suspected arson, perhaps by Esther. However, she was within view of Olive when the fire started and could not have been responsible.
Members of the public suggested that Esther should be flogged in order to beat the evil out of her. Instead, Daniel Teed sent her to the house of a Mr. White for safety. But the spirit apparently was having too much fun and continued setting fires in her absence.
Around this time, Walter Hubbell, an actor in a strolling company based in Amherst, became interested in the case as a possible moneymaker. He decided to exhibit Esther on a platform in the hopes that the ghost would thrill the audience with strange activities. Unfortunately, the spirit wasn’t interested in working on cue and irate spectators hissed and booed the couple off the stage, demanding the return of their money.
Esther returned to live in the Teed home, accompanied by the undaunted Hubbell, who moved into the house to learn more about the spirit. His efforts were rewarded by assaults upon him by his umbrella and by a large carving knife that flew briskly through the air in his direction. Being young and nimble, he was able to duck in time, only to see a huge armchair come marching across the room toward him.
Hoping to put an end to the family’s torment, the local clergyman, Rev. R.A. Temple, held a meeting of prayer and exorcism in the house. When the reverend asked the spirit to speak, it responded with loud trumpet-playing. The reverend fled the house, but the spirit became enamored of its own playing and continued to blast on the instrument. The musical finale was accompanied by a display of lighted matches.
Mischief continued to plague other members of the household. George Cox, Esther’s brother, was humiliated when he was mysteriously undressed three times in public. One day Walter Hubbell observed that the cat was the only resident that had not been tormented. The cat instantly was levitated about five feet into the air and set down upon Esther’s shoulders. The terrified animal ran out of the house, where it remained for the rest of the day.
The fire-starting also continued. Hubbell, who in 1888 wrote his account of the case, “The Great Amherst Mystery,” described his first encounter with the spirit’s fire tricks:
. . . I say, candidly, that until I had had that experience I never fully realized what an awful calamity it was to have an invisible monster, somewhere within the atmosphere, going from place to place about the house, gathering up old newspapers into a bundle and hiding it in the basket of soiled linen or in a closet, then go and steal matches out of the match-box in the kitchen, or somebody’s pocket, as he did out of mine; and after kindling a fire in the bundle, tell Esther that he had started a fire, but would not tell where; or perhaps not tell her at all, in which case the first intimation we would have was the smell of smoke pouring through the house, and then the most intense excitement, everybody running with buckets of water. I say it was the most truly awful calamity that could possibly befall any family, infidel or Christian, that could be conceived in the mind of man or ghost. And how much more terrible did it seem in this little cottage, where we were all strict members of the church, prayed, sang hymns, and read the Bible. Poor Mrs. Teed!
Finally, the landlord of the Teed home, Mr. Bliss, distressed at the potential for damage to his cottage, requested that Esther leave his property. Reluctantly, the family agreed to let Esther go to the home of a Mr. Van Amburgh. The Teed home then once again returned to normal.
The hapless Esther was to be harassed by the spirit one last time. “Bob” followed her into a barn and set it afire. She was arrested for arson and sentenced to four months’ imprisonment, but appeals from persons who knew her sad history led to her release. The story ended happily, however, as Esther ultimately married and was finally rid of the ghost.
Members of the Teed family were convinced that the events were indeed caused by the evil ghost of a man who had decided to torment Esther. Some of the local townsfolk believed Esther had perpetrated everything. Wrote Hubbell, “Dr. Nathan Tupper, who had never witnessed a single manifestation, suggested that if a strong raw-hide whip were laid across Esther’s bare shoulders by a powerful arm, the tricks of the girl would cease at once.” Dr. Carritte believed in the ghost, as did Hubbell. The case was never solved.
In considering the case in light of modern theories of the origin and nature of poltergeists, it is likely that Esther was the unwitting focus of psychokinetic energy, which caused the phenomena and was due to repressed emotions. She was within the age range of common poltergeist disturbances believed to be caused by human agents. She may have suffered repressed hostility and tension, perhaps from living in very close quarters with a large family. She also may have suffered repressed sexual feelings. The fact that the disturbance stopped, first when she left the crowded Teed household for temporary stays elsewhere, and finally to marry and have her own household, support this explanation.
- Canning, John, ed. 50 Great Ghost Stories. New York: Bonanza Books, 1988. First published 1971.
- Cohen, Daniel. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1984.
- Sitwell, Sacheverell. Poltergeists: Fact or Fancy. New York: Dorset Press, 1988. First published 1959.