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, Dec-Feb of 1921-22. Attracting a great deal of notoriety in newspapers throughout Canada and the United States, the case was investigated, gratis, 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. 1
Uncertainties in published accounts
Reconstructing the sequence of reported events from old newspaper accounts has proven to nearly impossible, as a great deal of journalistic “liberty” was taken by various N. American newspapers prior to the publication of Dr. Prince’s official report. From paper to paper, ostensible “reports” on the incident are found to be fraught with contradictions or outright falsifications. As Dr. Prince wrote, in a footnote to his final report:
I shall probably never again undertake an investigation under the auspices of a newspaper….I had no expectation that this case….would be followed, in a fashion, day by day in nearly every newspaper in the United States and Canada, nor were any of the party in our five days’ solitude aware….that newspapers abroad were printing cabled data. On emerging, it was found that no less than three long accounts had been spread abroad purporting to have been written by one of the party who had never sent out a line, besides a forged interview with me and one with Mary Ellen, attributing to her sentences which she could not have formulated to save her life. A variety of sayings and acts were ascribed to me widely at variance with the truth. The very precautions which were taken to provide that only authorized statements should go out by a responsible channel stimulated certain reporters to violate the ethics of their calling by substituting guesses and sheer inventions for the facts that they could not legitimately procure. 2
We must, therefore, rely on Dr. Prince’s report, based upon thorough examination of the forensic evidence, as the primary source of objective information on the nature and origin of the spontaneous fires. Accounts of other alleged phenomena investigated by Prince were either based solely on anecdotal accounts or incorporate subjective elements introduced by Dr. Prince himself.
Witnesses to reported events
- Alex McDonald, farmer, homeowner
- Mrs. McDonald, Alex’s wife
- The McDonalds’ adoptive daughter, Mary Ellen
- The McDonalds’ Neighbors Dan and Leo McGillivray
- The McDonalds’ Neighbor Duncan McDonald
- Newspaper Reporter Walt Whidden
- Private Investigator Mr. Carroll
Molestation of Livestock
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. Â 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. 4
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.
Strange Sounds and Tactile Sensations
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.” 5
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. 6Â 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. 7
Walter Prince’s Investigation and Conclusions
Dr. Prince and a small group of colleagues stayed in the McDonald house from March 7- March 11. By his request, Prince spent the final night, March 12, alone in the house. No poltergeist-like phenomena were observed throughout the entire period. Regarding the failure to observe any such manifestations, Prince wrote:
I and my colleagues stayed in the MacDonald house from Tuesday afternoon, March 7th, to Monday morning, March 13th. six nights and upwards of five days, except that the last night I alone, pursuant to my wishes, occupied it. During this period nothing of the A class [fires, molestation of cattle, etc.] happened, as everyone interested was forewarned might very likely be the case, and as was the case when Messrs. Whidden and Carroll were there two nights, subsequent to the removal of the MacDonald family. Nor would the mere fact that the phenomena did not recur prove or disprove any particular theory of their causation at the time they did occur. Genuine psychical events are more or less sporadic. 8
Princes summary conclusions were:
The fires were set by human hands [Mary Ellen, to be specific], but almost certainly without guilt, probably in an altered state of consciousness and possibly influenced by a discarnate agency. The sounds and tactual sensations experienced by Messrs. Whidden and Carroll were probably supernormal experiences due to causes which psychical research has not yet determined. The automatic writing of Mr.Whidden was an absolutely valid psychological fact which possibly, though not yet probably, transcends the purely psychological, and if so, would be in harmony with the suggestion that the girl was temporarily obsessed. I have, as yet, no convictions on the last point one way or the other, but I am glad to add this case to the data under consideration. One final word: Many statements and acts have been attributed to me in certain papers, and thence have become widely disseminated, which have no foundation. There have even appeared purported interviews with me which never took place. 9
Local Skepticism Regarding Dr. Prince’s conclusions.
Even though Dr. Prince had not ruled out a “discarnate intelligence” (i.e., spirit possession) as the cause underlying Mary Ellen McDonald’s propensity for starting fires, his report was nevertheless met with a great deal of skepticism throughout Nova Scotia 10 and abroad, to the point where a bogus interview with Mary Ellen and her parents found its way into numerous papers, not only in Canada, but in the United States as well. 11Â Prince made note of this in his report, stressing that this alleged “interview” attributed to her “sentences she could not have formulated to save her life.” 12According to Prince (and to other sources 13, Mary Ellen, although of 16 years chronologically, was a child of four years, mentally. Whether this can be taken as completely accurate for an era when most mental illness was lumped under the designation “hysteria” or “neuroses” and when those with developmental disorders were often referred to simply as “morons, is open to debate; the only thing with know with a degree of certainty is that Mary Ellen suffered from some manner of mental and/or developmental disorder.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Supports Prince’s conclusions
Doyle expressed his opinion that Mary was the medium of the ghost, which was probably the spirit of “some naughty boy, whom not death even death could cure of his mischievousness.”
Mary Ellen McDonald Committed to Insane Asylum
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.
- Walter Price, “An Investigation of Poltergeist and Other Phenomena Near Antigonish,” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 16 (New York: ASPR, 1922) pp. 422-437. ↩
- ibid. p. 437 ↩
- “Scientist to Solve Canuck Ghost House,”Â Daily Globe, Ironwood, Michigan, 7 March, 1922 ↩
- “Walter Price, “An Investigation of Poltergeist and Other Phenomena Near Antigonish,” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 16 (New York: ASPR, 1922) p. 428 ↩
- Harold Whidden, “My Experiences at the McDonald Household,” 1922.Â http://www.parl.ns.ca/maryellenspook/article.asp Accessed 2 June 2010 ↩
- ibid. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Walter Price, “An Investigation of Poltergeist and Other Phenomena Near Antigonish,”Â Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 16 (New York: ASPR, 1922) p. 424 ↩
- ibid. p. 440 ↩
- “Antigonish Folk Refuse to Credit Ghost Solution,” Bakersfield Californian, 16 March 1922 ↩
- “Mary Ellen, of Antigonish Fame, Says Doctor is Fibber,” Decatur Review, Decatur Illinois, 2 April 1922 ↩
- “Antigonish Ghost Real, Declares Boyle,Â Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 15 April 1922 ↩
- “Girl Who Roused World by Ghost Hoax in Asylum,”Â Syracuse Herald, Syracuse , New York, 23 October 1922 ↩