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The Great Amherst Mystery






On 13th February, 1888, Mr. Walter Hubbell, an actor by profession,
"being duly sworn" before a Notary Public in New York, testified to
the following story:--

In 1879 he was acting with a strolling company, and came to Amherst,
in Nova Scotia. Here he heard of a haunted house, known to the local
newspapers as "The Great Amherst Mystery". Having previously
succeeded in exposing the frauds of spiritualism Mr. Hubbell
determined to investigate the affair of Amherst. The haunted house
was inhabited by Daniel Teed, the respected foreman in a large shoe
factory. Under his roof were Mrs. Teed, "as good a woman as ever
lived"; little Willie, a baby boy; and Mrs. Teed's two sisters,
Jennie, a very pretty girl, and Esther, remarkable for large grey
eyes, pretty little hands and feet, and candour of expression. A
brother of Teed's and a brother of Mrs. Cox made up the family. They
were well off, and lived comfortably in a detached cottage of two
storys. It began when Jennie and Esther were in bed one night.
Esther jumped up, saying that there was a mouse in the bed. Next
night, a green band-box began to make a rustling noise, and then rose
a foot in the air, several times. On the following night Esther felt
unwell, and "was a swelling wisibly before the werry eyes" of her
alarmed family. Reports like thunder peeled through her chamber,
under a serene sky. Next day Esther could only eat "a small piece of
bread and butter, and a large green pickle". She recovered slightly,
in spite of the pickle, but, four nights later, all her and her
sister's bed-clothes flew off, and settled down in a remote corner.
At Jennie's screams, the family rushed in, and found Esther "fearfully
swollen". Mrs. Teed replaced the bed-clothes, which flew off again,
the pillow striking John Teed in the face. Mr. Teed then left the
room, observing, in a somewhat unscientific spirit, that "he had had
enough of it". The others, with a kindness which did them credit, sat
on the edges of the bed, and repressed the desire of the sheets and
blankets to fly away. The bed, however, sent forth peels like
thunder, when Esther suddenly fell into a peaceful sleep.

Next evening Dr. Carritte arrived, and the bolster flew at his head,
_and then went back again under Esther's_. While paralysed by this
phenomenon, unprecedented in his practice, the doctor heard a metal
point scribbling on the wall. Examining the place whence the sound
proceeded, he discovered this inscription:--

Esther Cox! You are mine
to kill.

Mr. Hubbell has verified the inscription, and often, later, recognised
the hand, in writings which "came out of the air and fell at our
feet". Bits of plaster now gyrated in the room, accompanied by peels
of local thunder. The doctor admitted that his diagnosis was at
fault. Next day he visited his patient when potatoes flew at him. He
exhibited a powerful sedative, but pounding noises began on the roofs
and were audible at a distance of 200 yards, as the doctor himself
told Mr. Hubbell.

The clergy now investigated the circumstances, which they attributed
to electricity. "Even the most exclusive class" frequented Mr. Teed's
house, till December, when Esther had an attack of diphtheria. On
recovering she went on to visit friends in Sackville, New Brunswick,
where nothing unusual occurred. On her return the phenomena broke
forth afresh, and Esther heard a voice proclaim that the house would
be set on fire. Lighted matches then fell from the ceiling, but the
family extinguished them. The ghost then set a dress on fire,
apparently as by spontaneous combustion, and this kind of thing
continued. The heads of the local fire-brigade suspected Esther of
these attempts at arson, and Dr. Nathan Tupper suggested that she
should be flogged. So Mr. Teed removed Esther to the house of a Mr.
White.

In about a month "all," as Mrs. Nickleby's lover said, "was gas and
gaiters". The furniture either flew about, or broke into flames.
Worse, certain pieces of iron placed as an experiment on Esther's lap
"became too hot to be handled with comfort," and then flew away.

Mr. Hubbell himself now came on the scene, and, not detecting
imposture, thought that "there was money in it". He determined to
"run" Esther as a powerful attraction, he lecturing, and Esther
sitting on the platform.

It did not pay. The audience hurled things at Mr. Hubbell, and these
were the only volatile objects. Mr. Hubbell therefore brought Esther
back to her family at Amherst, where, in Esther's absence, his
umbrella and a large carving knife flew at him with every appearance
of malevolence. A great arm-chair next charged at him like a bull,
and to say that Mr. Hubbell was awed "would indeed seem an inadequate
expression of my feelings". The ghosts then thrice undressed little
Willie in public, in derision of his tears and outcries. Fire-raising
followed, and that would be a hard heart which could read the tale
unmoved. Here it is, in the simple eloquence of Mr. Hubbell:--

"This was my first experience with Bob, the demon, as a fire-fiend;
and I say, candidly, that until I had had that experience I never
fully realised 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 the 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 possible
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
all were strict members of church, prayed, sang hymns and read the
Bible. Poor Mrs. Teed!"

On Mr. Hubbell's remarking that the cat was not tormented, "she was
instantly lifted from the floor to a height of five feet, and then
dropped on Esther's back. . . . I never saw any cat more frightened;
she ran out into the front yard, where she remained for the balance
(rest) of the day." On 27th June "a trumpet was heard in the house
all day".

The Rev. R. A. Temple now prayed with Esther, and tried a little
amateur exorcism, including the use of slips of paper, inscribed with
Habakkuk ii. 3. The ghosts cared no more than Voltaire for ce coquin
d'Habacuc.

Things came to such a pass, matches simply raining all round, that Mr.
Teed's landlord, a Mr. Bliss, evicted Esther. She went to a Mr. Van
Amburgh's, and Mr. Teed's cottage was in peace.

Some weeks later Esther was arrested for incendiarism in a barn, was
sentenced to four months' imprisonment, but was soon released in
deference to public opinion. She married, had a family; and ceased to
be a mystery.

This story is narrated with an amiable simplicity, and is backed, more
or less, by extracts from Amherst and other local newspapers. On
making inquiries, I found that opinion was divided. Some held that
Esther was a mere impostor and fire-raiser; from other sources I
obtained curious tales of the eccentric flight of objects in her
neighbourhood. It is only certain that Esther's case is identical
with Madame Shchapoff's, and experts in hysteria may tell us whether
that malady ever takes the form of setting fire to the patient's
wardrobe, and to things in general. {239a}

After these modern cases of disturbances, we may look at a few old, or
even ancient examples. It will be observed that the symptoms are
always of the same type, whatever the date or country. The first is
Gaelic, of last century.

DONALD BAN AND THE BOCAN {239b}

It is fully a hundred years ago since there died in Lochaber a man
named Donald Ban, sometimes called "the son of Angus," but more
frequently known as Donald Ban of the Bocan. This surname was derived
from the troubles caused to him by a bocan--a goblin--many of whose
doings are preserved in tradition.

Donald drew his origin from the honourable house of Keppoch, and was
the last of the hunters of Macvic-Ronald. His home was at Mounessee,
and later at Inverlaire in Glenspean, and his wife belonged to the
MacGregors of Rannoch. He went out with the Prince, and was present
at the battle of Culloden. He fled from the field, and took refuge in
a mountain shieling, having two guns with him, but only one of them
was loaded. A company of soldiers came upon him there, and although
Donald escaped by a back window, taking the empty gun with him by
mistake, he was wounded in the leg by a shot from his pursuers. The
soldiers took him then, and conveyed him to Inverness, where he was
thrown into prison to await his trial. While he was in prison he had
a dream; he saw himself sitting and drinking with Alastair MacCholla,
and Donald MacRonald Vor. The latter was the man of whom it was said
that he had two hearts; he was taken prisoner at Falkirk and executed
at Carlisle. Donald was more fortunate than his friend, and was
finally set free.

It was after this that the bocan began to trouble him; and although
Donald never revealed to any man the secret of who the bocan was (if
indeed he knew it himself), yet there were some who professed to know
that it was a "gillie" of Donald's who was killed at Culloden. Their
reason for believing this was that on one occasion the man in question
had given away more to a poor neighbour than Donald was pleased to
spare. Donald found fault with him, and in the quarrel that followed
the man said, "I will be avenged for this, alive or dead".

It was on the hill that Donald first met with the bocan, but he soon
came to closer quarters, and haunted the house in a most annoying
fashion. He injured the members of the household, and destroyed all
the food, being especially given to dirtying the butter (a thing quite
superfluous, according to Captain Burt's description of Highland
butter). On one occasion a certain Ronald of Aberardair was a guest
in Donald's house, and Donald's wife said, "Though I put butter on the
table for you tonight, it will just be dirtied". "I will go with you
to the butter-keg," said Ronald, "with my dirk in my hand, and hold my
bonnet over the keg, and he will not dirty it this night." So the two
went together to fetch the butter, but it was dirtied just as usual.

Things were worse during the night and they could get no sleep for the
stones and clods that came flying about the house. "The bocan was
throwing things out of the walls, and they would hear them rattling at
the head of Donald's bed." The minister came (Mr. John Mor MacDougall
was his name) and slept a night or two in the house, but the bocan
kept away so long as he was there. Another visitor, Angus MacAlister
Ban, whose grandson told the tale, had more experience of the bocan's
reality. "Something seized his two big toes, and he could not get
free any more than if he had been caught by the smith's tongs. It was
the bocan, but he did nothing more to him." Some of the clergy, too,
as well as laymen of every rank, were witnesses to the pranks which
the spirit carried on, but not even Donald himself ever saw him in any
shape whatever. So famous did the affair become that Donald was
nearly ruined by entertaining all the curious strangers who came to
see the facts for themselves.

In the end Donald resolved to change his abode, to see whether he
could in that way escape from the visitations. He took all his
possessions with him except a harrow, which was left beside the wall
of the house, but before the party had gone far on the road the harrow
was seen coming after them. "Stop, stop," said Donald; "if the harrow
is coming after us, we may just as well go back again." The mystery
of the harrow is not explained, but Donald did return to his home, and
made no further attempt to escape from his troubles in this way.

If the bocan had a spite at Donald, he was still worse disposed
towards his wife, the MacGregor woman. On the night on which he last
made his presence felt, he went on the roof of the house and cried,
"Are you asleep, Donald Ban?" "Not just now," said Donald. "Put out
that long grey tether, the MacGregor wife," said he. "I don't think
I'll do that tonight," said Donald. "Come out yourself, then," said
the bocan, "and leave your bonnet." The good-wife, thinking that the
bocan was outside and would not hear her, whispered in Donald's ear as
he was rising, "Won't you ask him when the Prince will come?" The
words, however, were hardly out of her mouth when the bocan answered
her with, "Didn't you get enough of him before, you grey tether?"

Another account says that at this last visit of the bocan, he was
saying that various other spirits were along with him. Donald's wife
said to her husband: "I should think that if they were along with him
they would speak to us"; but the bocan answered, "They are no more
able to speak than the sole of your foot". He then summoned Donald
outside as above. "I will come," said Donald, "and thanks be to the
Good Being that you have asked me." Donald was taking his dirk with
him as he went out, but the bocan said, "leave your dirk inside,
Donald, and your knife as well".

Donald then went outside, and the bocan led him on through rivers and
a birch-wood for about three miles, till they came to the river Fert.
There the bocan pointed out to Donald a hole in which he had hidden
some plough-irons while he was alive. Donald proceeded to take them
out, and while doing so the two eyes of the bocan were causing him
greater fear than anything else he ever heard or saw. When he had got
the irons out of the hole, they went back to Mounessie together, and
parted that night at the house of Donald Ban.

Donald, whether naturally or by reason of his ghostly visitant, was a
religious man, and commemorated his troubles in some verses which bear
the name of "The Hymn of Donald Ban of the Bocan". In these he speaks
of the common belief that he had done something to deserve all this
annoyance, and makes mention of the "stones and clods" which flew
about his house in the night time. Otherwise the hymn is mainly
composed of religious sentiments, but its connection with the story
makes it interesting, and the following is a literal translation of
it.





Next: The Hymn Of Donald Ban

Previous: Haunted Mrs Chang



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