; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Monday, December 09, 2013

Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills

The “Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills,” also known as the “Antigonish Haunting,” was a reported poltergeist haunting which took place at the farm of Alex McDonald in Caledonia Mills, Antigonish County, Nova Scotia, during Dec-Feb of 1921-22. The paranormal activity was so disturbing that McDonald fled his farm in January 1922, together with his wife and their adopted daughter Mary Ellen. The final straw came when upwards of 30 small fires erupted in the house during the course of a single day. Shortly after the family fled, Halifax Herald reporter Harold Whidden and provincial police Detective Carroll spent two nights in the main house. Both men experienced strange phenomena, including being slapped on the arm and face. At that point, no member of the MacDonald family was home.

Aside from setting the fires that earned its nickname, the MacDonald poltergeist had a reputation for moving cattle and farm equipment, and even occasionally braiding the horses’ tails. Attracting a great deal of notoriety in newspapers throughout Canada and the United States, the case was investigated by Dr. Walter Prince of the American Psychical Association at the request of W.H. Dennis, owner of several Halifax newspapers. Dr. Prince’s final report, An Investigation of Poltergeist and Other Phenomena Near Antigonish was published in March of 1922 in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.

Contemporary accounts suggest that Dr. Prince was viewed as oddly eccentric by the local press covering the haunting. Prince’s priorities do seem a bit strange in the retelling. During the train ride to Antigonish, he seemed more focused on ensuring he wouldn’t be cold at the farm, and he obtained permission from the Halifax police to bring a revolver with him to the investigation. Once there, he spend much of the first night setting himself up in a private bedroom, with strict instructions that one was to disturb him there at any time throughout the multi-day investigation.

Prince seemed certain from the beginning that the phenomena was caused by a poltergeist emanating from Mary Ellen MacDonald, who was 15 years old at the time. Prince believed that Mary Ellen had a “sweetheart,” whom he wished to interview, although it’s not clear whether that ever took place. In the end, no independent witnesses experienced any paranormal activity during the investigation, even though the MacDonald family members were brought back to the farm at various points to attempt to trigger the ghost. Prince returned to New York, where he reported unexplained rapping noises in his office for several weeks after completing the investigation. In his final report, Prince attributed the phenomenon to Mary Ellen, whom he claimed set the fires and performed other pranks under some sort of altered sense of consciousness, possibly under the direction of an otherworldly being. Mary Ellen, claimed Prince, wasn’t aware of her actions and was thus not culpable.

Prior to the fires, a number of odd events reportedly took place in the McDonald barn. The livestock would be found with their tails braided, moved into different stalls, and on more than one occasion were reportedly found locked outside the barn in a state of considerable agitation. Precisely how long before the outbreak of the fires these events occurred is uncertain; one newspaper source states that the first incident of cattle molestation occurred six years prior, and then again in the spring previous to the winter of 1921-22. 3 Dr. Prince makes no mention of the dates, but the context surrounding his discussion seems to suggest that Prince believed these events took place in December of 1921.

Undoubtedly the most interesting and sinister aspect of the account were the fires, which on January 6 began to erupt throughout the farmhouse, seemingly without the aid of any human agency. Various sources differ on the exact number of fires that occurred between January 6th to the 12th, and Dr. Prince simply states that “there were a large number of fires during this period.

On the night of the 10-11, at their wits end, Mrs. McDonald and Mary Ellen went to seek help from Leo and Dan McGillvray, and Duncan McDonald, their nearest neighbors. Upon returning with the men, their neighbors were to witness a prolonged and frightening spectacle: numerous fires broke out that night. This was too much for the McDonalds, and on the 12th of January they left the house to stay with the McGillvrays; Alex McDonald thereafter visited the farm twice daily to care for his stock. No poltergeist activity was observed throughout the duration of their lengthy stay with the McGillvrays.

In February, nearly a month after the McDonald’s left their home, a newspaper reporter, Walt Whidden of the Halifax Herald, and provincial detective, R.O. Carroll traveled from Halifax to Caledonia Mills and stayed in the house from February 15-17. Nothing occurred the first night, but on the second night, both men claimed to have heard strange sounds, and each to have been “slapped” upon the arm. Alexander McDonald was sharing the bedroom with the two men at the time, but was nearly asleep and did not hear the sounds or experience anything like a “slap.”

These were the only reported incidents involving aural phenomena and tactile sensations.

Undertaken at the behest of Dr. Prince during the course of his investigation Mr. Whidden appeared to enter a trancelike state and produce writing under a volition other this own. The writing occurred in only one of several different trials. Whidden later penned a pamphlet simply entitled “My Experiences at the McDonald Homestead” describing this experience, as well as his and Carroll’s prior experience while spending the night in the McDonald house with Detective Carroll and Alex McDonald. The contents of the alleged spirit messages were to “confirm” that the spontaneous fires were caused by spirits, that “spirits do visit the earth after death,” and that God has endowed such spirits with a limitless lifespan.

After Dr. Prince’s departure and the publication of his final report, the McDonald family returned to the homestead. To what degree Alex McDonald and his wife suspected that their adoptive daughter was the source of the fires is unclear; in any case, the fire spook seems to have quieted down after the family returned home. Spring and the balance of summer 1922 passed uneventfully. However, in the month of September, the fires started up again. Prompt investigation by the authorities led to Mary Ellen being apprehended as she attempted to set a fire in the barn, early in the autumn of 1922. She was remanded to the Nova Scotia Hospital for the Insane at Dartmouth, and was there promptly placed in solitary confinement.

H.B. Whidden's full account can be found at "My Experiences at the MacDonald Homestead"

Walter Price, “An Investigation of Poltergeist and Other Phenomena Near Antigonish,” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 16
Folklore of Nova Scotia
Harold Whidden, “My Experiences at the McDonald Household,” 1922
The fire-spook of Caledonia Mills
Decatur Review, Decatur Illinois, 2 April 1922
Ogden Standard Examiner, Ogden, Utah, 25 February 1922
Faces and places: Travel and tales in Nova Scotia's Antigonish and Guysborough Counties
Bakersfield Californian, 16 March 1922
Ghost Stories of Canada