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The Great Amherst Mystery

Categories: Modern Hauntings
Scary Books: The Book Of Dreams And Ghosts
: Andrew Lang

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.


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


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.


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