4 September 2012


Laurie Glenn Norris, with Barbara Thompson. Haunted Girl: Esther Cox and the Great Amherst Mystery. Nimbus Publishing (Halifax N.S.), 2012.

On August 28th 1878, Esther Cox, an 18 year old girl living, along with three of her siblings, with her elder brother, her husband and their family in a rented house in Amherst, Nova Scotia, went out on a buggy ride with her boyfriend, Bob MacNeill.
Things did not go well, for she came home alone, crying, and next day it was found that Bob had left town.

A few days later, on September 9th, a box of fabric scraps under the bed she shared with her sister Jennie began to move of its own accord. This was the start of a series of events that would rapidly escalate into poltergeist activities, mysterious ailments affecting Esther, fires springing up all over the place and so on.

The affair seems to have rapidly developed into an ‘urban haunting’, with the attendant crowd of sightseers, a situation that a number of enterprising locals soon turned to their advantage. They were to be later joined by an aspiring actor, Walter Hubbell, whose first thought was to turn Esther into a vaudeville act. When this failed, as the mysterious phenomena failed to materialise on the public stage, became a lodger in the household, so he could observe the phenomena and write a book on them. He was rather more successful in that enterprise, and his Great Amherst Mystery published in 1888 was still being reprinted as late as 2009. After Hubbell left the scene, Esther was accused of theft from her then employers and spent a month in clink. This seemed to have a more salutary effect than the various nostrums, both medical and religious tried by others, and the poltergeist was never heard from again.

Author Laurie Norris and researcher Barbara Thompson are Nova Scotia historians, and they attempt to get behind the often exaggerated account set up by Hubbell, and to trace Esther’s subsequent fate. They place the story of Esther’s life in the social and cultural context of the society in which she lived, which amply bears out my contention that many alleged paranormal events and experiences can only be understood in terms of the total life history of the percipients. In Esther’s case this was as a child, whose mother had died soon after giving birth, had been partly raised by her grandparents, and then shipped off to brother.

They examine the various theories that were put forward at the time, ranging from Esther’s original belief that she was the victim of ‘mesmerism’ by MacNeill, her later ‘perception’ of a gang of persecuting spirits - perhaps suggested by outsiders - Hubbell’s belief in persecuting spirits or the local intelligentsia’s explanations in terms of ‘electricity’, about which, Norris notes, there was still an aura of the supernatural at this time.

Neither Norris nor Thompson look for explanations in terms of the paranormal, rather they look for them in distinctly psycho-social terms. Essentially, they argue, these were tricks, by Esther, Jennie and a widening group of people who gave the affair a helping hand. But these are not ‘mere’ tricks; while at one level they may have been a way in which bored young people amused themselves, at a deeper level they were products of Esther’s psychology. They suggest that having been the spoiled baby in her grandparents’ home, she is reduced to a spare part in her brothers, where her two little nephews are the new stars. The events offer her an escape route from her subordinate status, and this was part of a tradition by which young girls could gain attention and status.

There is also a much darker subtext, for her repertoire includes mysterious illnesses, self-harm and arson, symptoms of deep personal conflicts, a massive rage and pain. They suggest that she may have had deep underlying personality disorders, which though perhaps speculative when we know so little about her, certainly gels with the background of some ‘poltergeist personalities’ about which we no more, such as Beverley Allitt, Marianne Foyster, Tina Resch, ‘Mrs Forbes’ etc. Esther’s illnesses also raise the suspicion of Munchausen’s Syndrome, certainly present in the cases of Allitt and Forbes.
Norris and Thompson maintain a neutral stance on Esther’s claim (or claim made on her behalf) that on the night she went out with MacNeill he tried to rape her at gunpoint. Was that true, or just another attention seeking story? Given that MacNeill was later to become notorious for his vile temper ‘Devil MacNeill’ as he became known, the former is not impossible. MacNeill himself had been partially disabled as a result of botched treatment for a knee injury, and was probably in fairly constant pain that could have aggravated his temper.

Whatever the details, the nub of this story probably boils down to a rather abusive relationship between two damaged young people which ended badly, as it was probably always doomed to. Even though Bob was physically out of Esther’s life, he was still very much in her head, perhaps she abused herself because he told her she ‘deserved it’, and ‘made him do it’, classic abusers lines. She still loved him though, so might easily have persuaded herself that his abuse was due to ‘possession by an evil spirit’, that she herself was wicked and needed punishing, but doing this in a manner that allowed her to express her pain and rage and to be at the centre of attention at the same time.

This is an thorough examination of a complex ‘poltergeist’ experience, and should be studied by others writing in the field – Peter Rogerson.

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