By Nicole Baker ~
The Great Amherst Mystery by Walter Hubbell recounts his personal experience of what has been purported to be one of the most widely witnessed poltergeist phenomena in history. Hubbell observed these events and the family in their home from June 1879 through August 1879. Hubbell believed he was an authority on the “illusive effects” that stage performers like himself would use to entertain and trick audience members into believing performed magic acts. With a background in professional acting, he believed he would be able to decipher any trickery afoot or deception tactics being used in the widely reported Amherst haunting and expose the mystery to be a fraudulent act put on by the afflicted family.
Truth, it has been said, is often stranger than fiction. What I have written is the truth, and not fiction, and it is very strange. —Walter Hubbell, 1888
On the afternoon of August 28, 1878, nineteen-year-old Esther Cox went out driving with Bob McNeal, a local young man. During their drive, Bob suddenly pulled the buggy over in a remote area and pointed a revolver at Esther, commanding her to get out of the buggy. Unsure of what nefarious plans Bob had in store for her, Esther was terrified and refused. Esther’s refusal made him increasingly irate, but luckily she was saved by the sounds of another wagon approaching in the distance. Fearing being caught, Bob put away the revolver and drove Esther back home. Locals described Bob as cruel, and even went so far as to say he would skin cats alive and watch them run about in pain for amusement. He was said to have left Amherst shortly after the incident but was still alive in 1879.
Within a month after this frightening attack, mysterious events at the Teed cottage in Amherst, Nova Scotia began to occur. While several ghostly entities would be identified throughout Esther’s coming ordeal, it is worth mentioning that the chief ghost, sharing several traits in common with Esther’s attacker, would come to be known as Bob. During the three months Walter Hubble spent observing these events, he was unable to come to any firm conclusions in his attempt to supplant the supernatural explanations with more mundane reasoning. Hubbell’s theory was that the “astral body” of Bob McNeal had been tormenting Esther at the behest of the demon called Bob Nickle. Hubbell believed that after the attack, the demon attached itself to Esther instead and was the most active spirit.
Esther Cox lived in a small house with her married sister Olive and Olive’s husband, Daniel Teed, along with their two young sons Willie and George. Esther’s sister Jennie and brother John and Daniel’s brother, also named John, lived with them as well.
The nearly year-long haunting of Esther included a wide range of activities including objects disappearing and reappearing in other locations, spontaneous fires, disembodied voices, and unexplainable physical ailments. The voices would eventually identify themselves as Maggie Fisher, her sister Mary Fisher, Peter Cox, Jane Nickle, Eliza McNeal, and Bob Nickle. Relating one of these attacks, Jennie described her sister Esther as appearing with “her short hair almost standing on end, her face blood-red and her eyes looking as if they would start from their sockets, while her hands were grasping the back of a chair so tightly that her finger-nails sank into the soft wood”. Esther’s account was that she was so swollen, she felt like she would burst, and her skin had become incredibly hot.
When a local doctor named Dr. Carritte was called to the Teed cottage several days later to examine Esther’s strange symptoms, he diagnosed her with nervous excitement and prescribed her a sedative to help treat it. In his account Walter Hubbell reports that Dr. Carritte attempted this medical intervention for Esther Cox with strange effect:
He informed me that on one occasion he had given her one ounce of bromide of potassium, one pint of brandy and heavy doses of morphia and laudanum on the same night, without the slightest effect on her system… He stated, on this same evening, that all the medicine was neutralized by the ghosts.
In December of that year, Esther was diagnosed with diphtheria and during this time, all paranormal activity ceased. However, once she returned home, small fires began to start around the house, including one in the cellar. All family members, including Esther, were visible and accounted for when the fire started. Shortly after the fire, a ghost appeared to Esther and insisted that if she did not leave the house that very night, he would set the loft on fire and burn them all to death. The family knew that Esther had to leave, and they were able to find temporary shelter for her at John White’s home.
Both the Teed cottage and the White home experienced a lull in ghost activity. But soon the previous pattern began to repeat. First, the ghosts began to make contact with Esther in the White home. Then the fires started. In fear of losing his home to a fire, John White convinced Esther to accompany him to work at the dining-saloon. Still, the ghost followed her and showed off his abilities to many guests and strangers. At one point, a knife belonging to John’s son was taken from his hands and instantly stabbed Esther in the back, twice. Afterwards, the knife was locked away in the cash register at White’s dining-saloon.
After this escalation of events, Esther moved around several times, back to the Teed home and then to the homes of neighbors, but ghosts followed wherever she went. Each time the events began to spiral out of control with fires or violent actions, and Esther would be asked to leave in order to prevent irreparable damage or other serious consequences.
Neighbors, friends, and townspeople alike witnessed these strange happenings around Esther Cox, and they were widely reported in the local news. The Amherst Gazette published several accounts by locals, including that the loud sounds could be “heard by people in the street as they passed the house”.
In August 1879, Walter Hubbell saw Esther for the last time, leaving Amherst with the mystery unsolved. Sometime later, he wrote to Esther’s family to discover her fate and learned that Esther had been implicated in a barn fire in Amherst later that year. Because of her location in relation to the barn and outbuildings, which were totally destroyed by the fire, Esther was arrested and eventually convicted and sentenced to four months in jail for arson. She was released after a month and did not experience further poltergeist activity. By 1882, she seemed to have finally moved on from the hauntings, was married, and had a son. The ghosts no longer bothered her from this point on.
Walter Hubbell had arrived in Amherst committed to disproving the haunting as a hoax because of his personal experience with individuals fraudulently claiming to be in touch with the spiritual world. However, he reports in the end that he came to believe that ghosts were, indeed, real:
From what I saw and heard in the haunted house, I have been led to infer that the ghosts of the dead live in a world similar to ours, and that it is to them just as material as our world is to us.
Despite this testimony on ghosts, Hubbell remained critical of people claiming to be spiritual mediums, claiming that less than 5% had ever seen a ghost or had a message from one.
Nicole Baker is a Reference Librarian in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.
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