Marcus LiBrizzi and Dennis Boyd (editors). The Nelly Butler Hauntings: A Documentary History. Library of Early Maine Literature, University of Maine at Machias, 2010.
This is where we came in. Reading the story of the Butler hauntings in William Oliver Steven’s Strange Guests (Allen and Unwin, 1949) back in 1968 was one of my steps on the road to the “new ufology”. I wrote about it in my first ever article in the long forgotten DIGAP Review and in my article Sun Maiden, in MUFOB back in 1971.
In this book LiBrizzi and Boyd reproduce Abraham Cummings original book Immortality Proved by the Testimony of Sense in which is Considered the Doctrine of Spirits and the Existence of a Particular Spirit, first published in 1826 and republished in 1859. To this they add and introduction and notes.
The story concerns three New England families, the Hoopers, the Butlers and the Blaisdels. At some point in 1795/6 George Goodwin Butler (1771-1826) married Eleanor (Nellie) Hooper (b1776) and on 13 June 1797 she died along with her new born baby. Just one of those sad things that were routine in the days before antibiotics.
However by the end of 1799 something odd was happening in the home of Abner Blaisdel, another farmer and veteran of the Revolutionary War. His 15 year old daughter Lydia was lying ill with some sort of fever, and strange noises and rappings began to be heard in the cellar. By Christmas they were hearing a voice, claiming to be the late Nelly Hooper Butler and demanding that Lydia marry her widower George. At the turn of the year (probably celebrated as the turn of the century), Lydia and her father made a long walk to George Butler’s home, apparently accompanied by Nellie in the form of a luminous spectre. After a lot of to and froing George and Lydia were married on the evening of 28 May 1800, only for the ghostly Eleanor to kindly tell Lydia that she is going to follow in her own footsteps and die in childbirth.
After some absence, the spectre returned in August, this time with old time religion on her mind. It seems to be at this period that spooky Nelly began to really appear, addressing large crowds on religious topics, being seen outside the cellar. On the night of 8-9 August more than thirty people were ranked up in the cellar while the spectre passed back and forth among them several times. Then on the night of the 13/14 August it walked a mile, along with a group of 48 people. The ghost interfered in several people’s lives, seeming to act in an arbitrary fashion. One of its last demands was for “her” baby to be exhumed and buried closer to her.
In March 1801 as “promised” by the spectre, Lydia died in childbirth, as did her child. Soon after her death George put all her possessions on a boat, set it on fire and sent it out to sea. This act enraged Abner Blaisdel. The feud between the two men would, years later, divide the church of which both were members.
The thing had a kind of provisional existence, some people saw nothing, others just a luminous mass and still others “a personal form”, sometimes dressed as in life, at other times in a winding sheet and sometimes with the child in her arms. The same for hearing, some heard distinct words, others just a mumble and others nothing at all. It was insubstantial; George Butler put his hand on it and found it would go through it. Otherwise it was a very strange ghost, one that announced its presence by appointment.
Reading these stories, as back in 1968, it is impossible not to assume that if all of this had taken place in Roman Catholic cultural context it would have been interpreted as a Marian apparition, and when seen with the baby as an apparition of Virgin and Child. The strange message “I am not to be trifled with” repeated three times over and then “peace” three times over, or the luminescence which lit up the surroundings and Cummings' own alleged encounter several years after Lydia’s death with a globe that became a woman the size of a child and then grew to be fully grown “her head…the representation of the sun” all seem to have their parallels in religious visions.
Local people seem to have divided into three camps, those who thought that the spectre was indeed the returned Nellie Butler, those who thought it was a demon in disguise, perhaps conjured up by Lydia to ensnare George Butler, and those who thought the whole thing a very human imposture.
For the modern audience the story has some problems, one is that Cummings is the only real source, and he was writing more than twenty years after the events, most of which he had not personally experienced. As far as we know there are no contemporaneous primary sources, nothing in the secular or religious press, no use of the story in political quips. To add to problems Cummings own work is divided up into six letters, a set of depositions and eye-witness testimony from opponents (i.e. those who thought the whole thing demonic) and proponents, missing (and it is a pity that the editors did not remedy this) the placing of all the accounts in a clear chronological order.
However, despite that caveat, this book is a must for anyone interested in Fortean and Paranormal topics.
What to make of all this. I suspect that we would need to know a lot more about the people involved, their religion, politics, cultural background and resources before we could start to make anything but provisional assessments. Here are just some ideas.
The connection between the spectre and the BVM is closer than is obvious at first thought; they are products of similar backgrounds in which traditional society is being challenged by secularist forces. In 1800 the new country of the USA was passing through the first (and perhaps the worst) of its culture wars. It is presidential election year and the country has become divided into the “conservative” Federalists and “liberal” Democrat=Republicans, led respectively by President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. Tom Paine and the illuminati threat were standard parts of Federalist propaganda against the “atheist” (actually Deist) Jefferson, often portrayed as a local version of Robespierre. Cummings is clearly on the side of the Federalists.
In 1826, when the book is published, the situation is rather similar, another Adams is in the White House, the nominally Democrat-Republican but quasi-Federalist John Quincy Adams, and he is being challenged by another radical, “impious” outsider Andrew Jackson, whom much of New England pretty well despised and hated. This presumably meant that it was still apposite to publish, now that Butler’s death had made that possible.
So Nelly is being used as a cultural conservator, like the BVM, she defends traditional values, she performs that role, but she is also the interfering earth mother. She is more down to earth than any heavenly host. She really does not belong in the deep habitat, she manifests primarily in a cellar, a liminal zone, neither fully part of, nor outside the habitable realm of the home. It also is the underground, chthonic realm of the earth spirits, a kind of artificial cave.
Nellie herself is clearly outside the settled realm of Christian angels and demons, she is an ambivalent trickster figure, healer and destroyer, guardian of life and death. Her interfering nature, petulance and arbitrary nature, suggest she is something far older than Christianity, perhaps she is meant to be the Queen of Elfame, or perhaps a first American fertility goddess.
Lydia is clearly seen in a similar “wild “light. It is significant that George, after giving her the conventional Christian funeral, sends her grave goods out to sea on a burning boat in a Viking like ceremony. It would be interesting to know if this was a practice of the local First Americans, one of whom, perhaps an ancestor, was buried in the Butler plot. That this is some sort of pagan ceremony seems far more likely that the assumed explanation that it was some sort of exorcism.
We will probably never know what it was about the life and death of the real Nellie Butler, that drove her so deep into the local imagination and gave rise to these extraordinary visionary experiences and their strange archaic themes, to the point they almost, but not quiet, created a new religion. Other visions were to do that in the years to come. -- Peter Rogerson