The year was 1878 and the place was Princess Street in Amherst, a town in north central Nova Scotia where the province borders New Brunswick. Esther Cox, 19 years old, lived in a small rented house with her married sister Olive Teed, her husband Daniel Teed, and their two young children. The crowded little cottage was also home to Esther's siblings, Jennie and William, as well as Daniel's brother, John.
Suddenly, into the tedium of this ordinary home, horror struck. But not from some paranormal force, rather from an all-too-human monster: Esther was nearly raped by an acquaintance named Bob MacNeal, a shoemaker with a disdainful reputation of which Esther had been unaware. Although she escaped the attack with minor injuries, the violence against her seemed somehow to open a door to further attacks - this time from an unseen entity or entities. And the Amherst poltergeist mystery began.
Although the house was crowded with the Teeds and their extended family, it wasn't unusual for households to take in boarders to help pay the rent. Walter Hubbell, a sometime actor, was a boarder at the Teed residence when the first stirrings of supernatural phenomena took place, and he recorded them in this book, The Great Amherst Mystery. One night, screams of fright brought all of the adults of the house rushing to the room where sisters Esther and Jennie shared a bed. The girls had seen the formation of something moving under their covers as they were about to go to sleep for the night; Esther thought it was a mouse. A search turned up nothing. The girls returned to bed and the house quieted for the night.
The following night, more screams disturbed the family. Esther and Jennie excitedly claimed that they had heard strange noises coming from a box of fabric scraps that was kept under the bed. When they brought the box out to the center of the room, it leapt into the air of its own accord and landed on its side. No sooner had the girls nervously righted the box when it jumped into the air again, eliciting the screams from the young women.
Up to this point, the events could have been attributed to the active imaginations of the two girls, especially given Esther's recent, harrowing experience at the hands of Bob MacNeal. But the third night would provide evidence to all in the Teed house that something far out of the ordinary was happening with Esther Cox. That night, Esther excused herself to bed early, complaining that she felt feverish. At about 10 p.m., soon after Jennie joined her in bed, Esther jumped up from the bed to the center of the room, tearing at her nightclothes and screaming, "My God! What is happening to me? I'm dying!"
Jennie lit a lamp and looked at her sister, horrified to see that her skin was bright red and seemed to be swelling unnaturally. Olive rushed into the room and assisted Jennie in getting their sister back in bed as she now seemed to be choking and struggling to breathe. The other adults watched in disbelief as Esther's entire body, which was remarkably hot to the touch, swelled and reddened. Esther's eyes bulged and she cried in pain, fearing she was literally going to burst through her stretched skin. Then from beneath Esther's bed came a deafening bang - like a clap of thunder - that shook the room. Three more loud reports exploded from under the bed, after which Esther's swelling subsided and she fell into a deep, deep sleep.
Four nights later, these terrifying events repeated themselves - Esther's unexplained swelling and torture ended only by the thunderous noises from under the bed. At a loss to cope with this unearthly ordeal, Daniel asked a local doctor, Dr. Carritte, to examine Esther. And he was witness to some of the most frightening events of all.
Attending at Esther's bedside, he watched in astonishment as her pillow moved beneath her head, untouched by any hands. He heard the loud bangs from beneath the bed, but could find no cause for them. He saw her bedclothes thrown across the room by unseen hands. Then the doctor heard a scratching noise, like a metal tool scraping into plaster. Dr. Carritte looked to the wall above Esther's bed and saw letters nearly a foot high etching themselves into the wall. When it was done, it had spelled out: ESTHER COX YOU ARE MINE TO KILL. A jagged clump of plaster then tore off the wall, flew across the room and landed and the doctor's feet. After two hours, the house fell quiet.
Dr. Carritte - out of courage, compassion or curiosity - returned the next day and bore witness to more unexplained manifestations. Potatoes hurled themselves across rooms... the deafening noises now seemed to be coming from the roof of the house, yet when the doctor investigated, there was no apparent cause. Of these events, years later he would write to a colleague: "Honestly skeptical persons were on all occasions soon convinced that there was no fraud or deception in the case. Were I to publish the case in the medical journals, as you suggest, I doubt if it would be believed by physicians generally. I am certain I could not have believed such apparent miracles had I not witnessed them."
The doctor could, of course, do nothing to help Esther or settle the disturbances at the Teed home. The haunting continued and, in fact, became more destructive and threatening:
• unexplained fires erupted around the house.
• knives and forks were thrown by some entity, sticking violently into woodwork.
• lit matches materialized out of thin air and dropped onto beds.
• furniture moved about by itself, flipping over or slamming into walls.
• loud slaps were heard, followed by the appearance of red finger marks on Esther's face.
• sewing pins appeared from nowhere and were jabbed into Esther's face.
• a pocketknife was ripped from the hand of a neighborhood boy and stabbed into Esther's back.
Poor, tormented Esther tried several times to escape the devilish entity, but it followed wherever she went. One Sunday, Esther attended a Baptist church service and sat in one of the rear pews. Once the service had begun, knockings and rappings echoed throughout the church, seeming to come from the front of the church. The noises grew louder and louder, drowning out the minister's sermon. Knowing she was the cause, Esther left the building and the noises stopped.
She even tried to spare her family from the malevolent haunting. At first she moved to a neighbor's house, but the poltergeist followed and she was forced to return home. The Teed's landlord, fearing the destructive nature of the phenomena, wanted to evict the family. Again taking responsibility for the events, Esther moved herself out instead, finding work at a nearby farm. When the farm's barn burned to the ground, however, the farmer had Esther arrested for arson, for which she was convicted to a four-month sentence.
Fortunately, Esther served only one month in jail and was released. The short sentence may have at first seemed like a low-point to the much-troubled Esther, but it did have its upside. After she was freed from jail, the poltergeist activity seemed to just fade away. There were minor instances for a short time, and then the haunting stopped completely.
Esther later married, twice, and died in 1912 at the age of 53. Walter Hubbell published his book, The Great Amherst Mystery, after her death, and it included an affidavit signed by 16 witnesses of the horrific events at Amherst.
The site "Ghosts of Eastern Canada" relates this part of the story:
"Desperate to find the source of the problem, Miss Cox tried automatic writing and consulted spiritualists. The primary ghost claimed, in automatic writing, to be Miss Maggie Fisher. Miss Fisher had attended the same school as Miss Cox, but had died around 1867, before graduating. Miss Cox had not known Miss Fisher, but was aware that they'd been in school together.
"Other ghosts came forward during this time, announcing themselves as: Bob Nickle, age 60, also a shoemaker like Bob MacNeal who'd attacked Miss Cox. Another was Mary Fisher, sister of Maggie Fisher. Other ghosts included Peter Teed, John Nickle, and Eliza MacNeal. The number of ghosts and ‘coincidences' among names and professions reduces the credibility of this part of the story."