Investigating the Antigonish Fire Spook Haunting

by JoHarrington

A poltergeist seemed intent upon burning down the MacDonald Farm in Caledonia Mills, Nova Scotia. The scientific community sought urgent explanations.

In the dead of winter 1922, farmer Alex MacDonald, his wife Janet and fifteen year old foster daughter Mary Ellen fled their home.

He had to walk a mile and a half, twice each day, to care for his livestock. The terrible weather made the trek hard going. But he dared not return overnight. There was something malevolent and deadly haunting the farmhouse, raising fires faster than he could put them out.

In desperation, MacDonald turned to the police. He didn't know what else to do; and nor did they.

The Press Reaction to the MacDonald Farm Poltergeist

Not every writer took the family seriously. Those that did smelled a sensational story here, and the public clamored for more.

Image: Harold WhiddenThe MacDonald family had abandoned their farmhouse on January 12th 1922. It didn't take long for the story to get out.

By January 16th, it was being discussed 100 miles away in Halifax, where reporter Harold B. Whidden (pictured) thought it newsworthy enough to visit Caledonia Mills.

He interviewed Leo McGillivray, who had been there on the night of the most disturbances, and with whom the MacDonalds were now living.

Public reaction to Whidden's editorial was so favorable, that he quickly organized a return trip. This time he resolved to actually stay in the haunted Antigonish farmhouse.

In order to legitimize the investigation further, the journalist called upon his newspaper's main contact in the provincial police force.  Detective P.O. Carroll was persuaded to come along too. Used to examining a crime scene, the officer's point of view was judged to be critical.

In the meantime, the Nova Scotia poltergeist was being reported in newspapers as far away as Utah. It was treated lightly there, with the Ogden Standard Examiner going as far as to suggest that the only spirits in the MacDonald farmhouse were poured in 'little brown jugs'.

Before the ghost of Antigonish story ran its course, it was appearing in print in newspapers across the world.  But the scoop was still in Halifax, where Whidden and Carroll were preparing for their vigil at the property.

The Antigonish Poltergeist Attacks

Whidden and Carroll maintained the truth of their story, even when public opinion later shifted away from a supernatural origin for the phenomena.

Image: Detective P.O. CarrollThere's little doubt that Harold Whidden arrived primarily for the story. The popularity of his earlier article had ensured his return. No shame was attached to that. It was his job.

But he emerged from the MacDonald Homestead as a believer. So shaken, that he was willing to finance, from his own pocket, a $100 reward for anyone who could successfully explain what he had experienced there.

Alongside him, Detective Carroll (pictured) probably had more to lose, in terms of his reputation, by opting for a supernatural explanation.

But he also declared his belief that a ghost was in the homestead.

The pair arrived in Caledonia Mills in early February. Making contact with the McGillivrays again, they were introduced to the MacDonald family.  It was agreed that seventy-year-old Alex MacDonald would accompany them to his home. He stayed with them for as long as they kept the vigil.

Initially the idea was to be there for three days and nights. It actually turned into two.

The MacDonald Homestead was icy cold. Fire damage had gutted much of the furnishings and rendered the range unusable. Whidden, MacDonald and Carroll instead piled on layers of clothing and survived the frozen winter conditions that way.

It wasn't until the second night that anything strange occurred.  Whidden told how he was sitting in a chair, with Carroll occupying a second chair to his left.  Farmer MacDonald merely lay on the floor. The laws of Gaelic hospitality saw him refusing anything else.

Above their heads came 'strange sounds', which neither Carroll nor Whidden could place. The noises were quickly joined by footsteps, as if someone was pacing in the bedchamber.

The two men waited, listening in the full knowledge that nobody was up there. The homestead was deserted but for the trio in the living room. A glance at MacDonald showed that he'd fallen asleep.

All was quiet, when Whidden felt the blow. It seemed like something had punched him hard in the left forearm. Startled, he stared at Carroll, who had not budged an inch.  The detective appeared perplexed at phenomena of his own. Something had apparently just pulled at his own left arm.

The sensations felt by both men were strong enough to have cut through (in Whidden's case) 'two shirts, an inside coat, a heavy sweater, a fur-lined overcoat and a new horse-rug'.

Whidden woke Alex MacDonald and asked the farmer if he'd hit him. MacDonald was naturally confused. He'd been asleep.

Whidden knew this. He would have seen the farmer the second that he stirred, as the old man wasn't far away. The reporter stated that he had to ask for the sake of exhausting all reasonable possibilities. But they all knew it wasn't that. Low level panic was galvanizing his tongue into asking ridiculous questions.

For the next 'fifteen to twenty minutes', Whidden became convinced that a 'strange presence' was in the house. He sat tense and expectant, waiting for it to show itself or for the violence to escalate.

It was there! It was watching them! It was with them!  But after the aforementioned time had passed, it was like a switch had been flicked on Whidden's sensibilities. He no longer felt that the entity was there. Finally he could relax.

Neither MacDonald nor Carroll experienced that tingling anticipation at all.  Weeks later, a paranormal investigator would test Whidden's psychic ability, and find it stronger than most.

Books about Poltergeists and Other Dangerous Hauntings

Top Paranormal Investigator Arrives from New York

The ghost of Antigonish was high-profile enough to attract the attention of prominent scientist Dr Prince. His conclusions were viewed as the final word.

Image: Dr Walter Franklin PriceThere is no doubt that Dr Walter Franklin Prince PhD intimidated and irritated the Nova Scotians in equal measure.

As a leading member of the American Institute of Scientific Research and the Executive Officer of the Boston Society for Psychic Research, Prince had been approached to investigate the happenings at the MacDonald Homestead. He arrived during the last week in February 1922 and stayed until mid-March.

But he hadn't even stepped foot in Canada before he was already alienating his escort. Whidden had already traveled out to meet him. He noted that the academic seemed more pre-occupied by how he was going to keep warm, than the details of the case itself.

In fact, Prince had already made up his mind what the results of his investigation would be. Mary Ellen MacDonald was only fifteen. Adolescents attracted poltergeists. All Prince had to do was prove it.

Once installed at the farmhouse in Caledonia Mills, Prince immediately demanded privacy. He spent the entire of the first day arranging the bed chamber, so that it may afford him comfortable accommodation.

No-one was allowed into the property. Not even the MacDonalds. He took it as understood that he would work without interruption, and that no-one would come close without an invitation.

This high-handed attitude impressed nobody, least of all Whidden, who wanted more stories.

But first, there were other scientists who wanted their say in the press. The story was so big, that they all got it too.

Books on the Paranormal by Dr Walter Franklin Prince

Marconi's Radio Waves Blamed for Ghosts and Fire

Boston lecturer Edward O'Brien had a very different take on matters. The biologist and author pointed the finger firmly at a local radio mast.

Image: Glace Bay Radio StationToday it's a rare scientist who would countenance for a second the possibility of paranormal activity.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the distinction between the natural and the supernatural was not so clear cut. Even Tesla experimented with contacting the Other Side.The haunting at Antigonish was debated in some of the highest academic circles.

However, even in this climate, there were scientists who were scathing about the whole field of paranormal investigation. One of them was Edward O'Brien. He had a rational explanation for it all, and a simple solution to making the fires stop: move the MacDonald farmhouse.

Speaking from St. Francis Xavier University, O'Brien noted that the whole Caledonia Mills valley was swamped with radio energy. The waves were emitting from large masts positioned at Wellsleet, Massachusetts, and Glace Bay, New York.

When atmospheric conditions were just right, then rogue radio waves could spark fires anywhere.

The widely publicized theory draw Marconi immediately into the fray. He assured the public that radio energy could not cause infernos. There was no way that his radio stations were to blame.

Nobody seemed too convinced. After all, Marconi would say that, wouldn't he?  He was trying to get his masts established everywhere!

Still there were those who challenged O'Brien on the finer points.  What about the reporter and police officer, who'd been slapped?  O'Brien responded that they had been sitting in conditions of minus 25 degrees. The mind plays tricks at such low temperatures.

Whidden had probably slapped himself, as an instinctual reaction to freezing half to death. He just hadn't recognized the command as originating in his own brain, for all the same reasons.

And the cattle being freed from their chains? O'Brien accused the MacDonald's teenage foster daughter. She must have done it for a laugh.

Nobody asked how she'd acquired such strength and speed. After all, it took just five seconds from the farmer leaving the barn to his entire herd stampeding free. Nor did they ask why the cows were so afraid of the girl who milked them every morning.

For that sector of society who grasped for rational explanations, no matter how far they strained credibility, the answers were clear. It was radio waves, hypothermia and Mary Ellen MacDonald. The end.

Read about Scientific Experiments and the Paranormal

It's a controversial subject, but that doesn't mean that scientists haven't experimented with ghosts and other supernatural phenomena.

Dr Walter Franklin Prince on the Antigonish Haunting

He'd already stated that Mary Ellen MacDonald was the focus of poltergeist activity. Yet his final conclusions said nothing of the sort.

Image: TorchOn March 16th 1922, Dr Prince made public his much anticipated report on the MacDonald Homestead haunting.

In all, he had spent nearly three weeks in the Antigonish area. Five days and six nights of which were within the farmhouse itself. He'd examined the terrain and all evidence with a fine-tooth comb. His methodology sometimes scientific and sometimes esoteric.

On several occasions, individuals or groups had been sent for to help him with his experiments.  Three times, that had included the MacDonalds themselves, whose presence was hoped to trigger the phenomena.

Whidden was allowed to attend too. In early March, he was lying down in the front room, when that tingling sensation returned. As far as he was concerned, he'd immediately fallen into a stupor and couldn't remember a thing that followed.

But Prince, Dan McGillivray and all three MacDonalds witnessed him walk as a man possessed towards the table. Demanding a pencil, he began furiously scribbling upon provided bits of paper for two hours. He was possessed by the poltergeist. His writing confessed to causing all phenomena.

Prince seemed to agree. Which made it all the more startling when his report disdained it all.

The fires, Prince claimed, had all been set by a human being. Wads of cotton had been set alight and stuffed into position, or thrown into high places. He'd also found a bottle of odorless flammable liquid, secreted upon a beam. The burn damage showed an average height, which could be reached by someone placing the cotton.

It was five foot exactly. The height of Mary Ellen MacDonald.

He did temper it slightly by admitting that the girl could have been possessed, or else done it while sleep walking and therefore utterly unaware of her actions.

Prince offered a nod towards his distant colleague Edward O'Brien.  But stated that the Marconi masts could not be at fault, unless radio waves were sentient enough to know when the house was occupied.

As for Whidden and Carroll, they had been extremely cold and half-asleep. They either slapped themselves, or each other, or else hallucinated it all.

Prince never addressed the issue of the incidents involving the cattle and horses. Though others expressing their opinion on his report opined that those could all have been pranks.

Investigations into Fires and the Forensics of Arson

These books will teach you more than you ever wished to know about how fire damage can provide clues into the cause of the blaze.

The Second Mary Ellen MacDonald from Missoula

Had the fire-bug struck in another state years before? The press were keen to report as much!

Image: CandleWith all the publicity surrounding the case, word reached Dr. Thaddeus L. Bolton of Temple University, Philadelphia.

He recalled an earlier investigation, this time in Missoula, Missouri, involving a girl named Mary Ellen MacDonald. She had been nine years old at the time and her father was called Alexander. The case concerned strange rapping, which had attracted speculation about the supernatural.

After Dr Bolton had led a seance in the house, the whole building mysteriously burned down.

The press had definitely turned against Mary Ellen MacDonald by this time. Dr Prince's conclusions were generally accepted without question. This was a sensational new claim, which was written about in terms which made it clear that Antigonish's Mary Ellen had been a serial arsonist since birth.

Nobody seemed particularly interested in the fact that the Nova Scotia MacDonalds had never lived in Missouri, nor indeed the USA. Mary Ellen in Missouri would have been eighteen years old, not fifteen; and her father should have been forty-five not seventy.

It wasn't a match, but most readers never learned that.

Antigonish Backlash Against Anti-Mary Ellen Sentiment

The scientific community, and large sections of the general public, may have been appeased, but the people of Nova Scotia were not.

Image: Sherlock HolmesReporters heading into the area - particularly around Antigonish - were liable to hear Prince's conclusions dismissed as 'absurd'. Not least because Mary Ellen hadn't always been in the house when the fires were sparked.

There was a campaign initiated to bring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from Britain. It was thought that the author of Sherlock Holmes, known for his interest in Spiritualism and the paranormal, would surely find some answers.

However, the writer declined their invitation.

Slightly more helpful was an interview with Mary Ellen MacDonald. The family had refused to talk with any journalists (leading Whidden previously to get his information from the McGillivrays), but they broke their silence now.

In a widely syndicated text, Mary Ellen defended herself passionately. She accused Dr Prince of 'fibbing', going on, “I never set any fires. I never untied the cattle in the barns. I never plaited the tails of the horses. I would have been afraid to. First they said I had a sweetheart who did it, now they say I did it. It’s all lies, I tell you. I don’t care who Dr. Prince is. He ought to be ashamed of himself.”

For a moment, it seemed like public opinion around the globe might inch back towards the fifteen year old.

But Dr Prince labelled the interview as just another fake, stating that the Mary Ellen that he'd met wouldn't have been able to say all that. She could barely string a sentence together. 

The man from New York seemed far more credible than the teenager from Nova Scotia. Scathing international journalists continued to side with him, repeating the 'evidence' of the Missouri Mary Ellen for good measure.

Only in Antigonish did the people really defend their own, and there because the supernatural tale just kept on growing.

Art Prints of Ghostly Dogs in Myth and Legend

In my native Britain, supernatural black dogs haunt our folk-tales across the breadth of the Isles. Including Scotland, where many Antigonish people claimed ancestry.

The Antigonish Ghosts: Black Dogs and an Exorcism

Celtic tradition has a lot to fear from the gigantic black dogs, which came to take the dying to the Afterlife.

Image: Black DogIt was recalled locally that the phenomena actually began before Mary Ellen had even come to live with her relatives.

Years previously, Alex's mother had been cared for in the MacDonald Homestead. She had complained frequently about seeing an uncanny black dog around the farm.

She had even awoken in the middle of the night to find it staring at her from the foot of the bed.

All her Scottish ancestry identified the monstrous hound. It was the Cù Sìth, a harbinger of death, akin to the Welsh Cwn Annwn.

Old Mrs MacDonald was remembered as a bit of a tyrant. She'd lingered a long time in her last illness and driven her daughter-in-law Janet to distraction. Frustrated by the endless criticism, Janet had once screamed at the old woman, "I hope that you're dead by morning and the Devil comes to take you!"

At that very instant, the Cù Sìth had entered the house, witnessed by both women, and walked around it before leaving. The senior Mrs MacDonald was indeed dead by morning. Had Janet inadvertently cursed her home and family? Or was her mother-in-law's ghost fire-starting in revenge?

It was a widely held notion around Caledonia Mills and one which prompted the MacDonald family to seek spiritual aid.

It's quite telling that the Bishop of Antigonish sent a couple of priests to the farmhouse. They stayed for several days, cleansing the property, but never made the results of their activities public.

A local reporter from the Casket newspaper, and another investigator, followed them in. But their vigil encountered nothing untoward.  Only now did the MacDonald family feel safe returning to their home.

Unfortunately their presence immediately disturbed the slumbering fire spook again.

Read More about Monstrous Canines in British Legends

The Cwn Annwn are mentioned in this Wizzley article about Cymric fatal heralds. They and Cù Sìth are just two of the preternatural dogs in the British Isles.
Gigantic white dogs, screeching hags taking to the air, rogue candles lighting the darkness and owls outside your window, all part of dying if you're Welsh.

Asylum for Mary Ellen Fire Spook

It was the nick-name that she was given in unsympathetic newspapers. It was a version believed by the authorities.

Image: Mary Ellen MacDonaldThe family had been back just months, when the phenomena began again. For much of the summer, all had seemed well, but October brought more fires.

They began as suddenly and incomprehensibly as before.

Word quickly spread through Caledonia Mills, and the wider Antigonish district, that the Fire Spook was back. But if the MacDonalds thought that sympathy and press interest were to follow, they were quickly disappointed.

It wasn't the local sheriff, but officers much higher up in the chain, who turned up at the Caledonia Mills farm. Nor were they here for a simple investigation. They had come for Mary Ellen.  Alex and Janet desperately fought to keep their foster daughter. Janet MacDonald had to be forcibly pulled away from holding her.

There was to be no trial. Mary Ellen MacDonald was sectioned without a by-your-leave.

She was escorted to the Nova Scotia Home for the Insane, in Dartmouth, where the sixteen year old began her long stint in solitary confinement. It was thought too dangerous to expose her to the other inmates. She might set fire to things, in order to show off.

If the other patients were to be kept in the dark, then the general public were not. Within days, the asylum's Superintendent Lawler was giving statements to the New York press. She was, he told them, a 'common or garden variety of the moron family and not a particularly interesting moron at that.'  An arsonist with the mind of a four year old child.

The news was read with some shock back in Antigonish, where she had been known as a good and rather normal girl.

Nevertheless the fires stopped. For those inclined to believe Dr Prince's version of events, this was condemnation enough.

Mary Ellen MacDonald is pictured above. She spent the rest of her life in the asylum.

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Updated: 09/12/2014, JoHarrington
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George D. Wright on 10/04/2017

When did this girl Die , I am quite sure she moved to Ontario and lived out her life there but not exactly sure when she died (I think it was in the 1980s but not sure.)

JoHarrington on 11/03/2013

That is a very good point. Ok, scrap that one.

frankbeswick on 11/03/2013

If the gas were natural it would still be coming out and would be measurable now

JoHarrington on 11/03/2013

Frank - I did wonder about the flammable liquid too. I should imagine that every home has one. In fact, as I'm typing, I have a cigarette lighter sitting about three inches from my keyboard. That counts. A few feet away, there's a bottle of whisky. Over there is some bottles of lighter fluid. Under my sink there are no end of flammable liquids - bleach etc. So if random fires started here, would any and all of them condemn me as the culprit?

I agree with your assessment of Prince and his ilk. He arrived with a theory, which he set out to prove. When that was untenable, he changed his theory and looked for evidence of that instead. That's not science. Science looks at the evidence, THEN arrives at a conclusion, if possible.

JoHarrington on 11/03/2013

WordChazer: I ran this past a Physicist. He confirmed that fire can get trapped in ranges and pipes, then spit out later. So now we just have to get past the part where Alex took the whole thing apart and the fires still came.

I like your thinking about gas. There wasn't any in the house, nor electricity, as everything was done via the range. But what if the gas was natural? Coming out of the ground.

frankbeswick on 11/02/2013

Prince was a classic debunker, who explains away phenomena that do not fit into his world view rather than genuinely explain them. For example, he says that there was a bottle of inflammable liquid at the girl's height, and uses the fact to conclude that it must be a fact that she used it to set the fire, despite his having no evidence for his assertion.

Debunkers set opinion as facts, for example that the girl set the fire, as I noted in the previous paragraph. Then they belittle witnesses who have observed realities that their limited and superficial world view cannot understand. This technique is applied consistently through the whole range of embarassing phenomena and then dishonestly trumpeted as a scientific explanation. Prince's technique degenerates by having to write off the testimony of those who disagree with him as lies, which adds to its intellectual discreditability.

Sadly this sort of pseudo-scientific drivel is common in academia.

The key point here is that there is a difference between explaining and explaining away; the former is epistemologically credible, the latter is not. A genuine phenomenological approach is to address the phenomena with an open mind without prejudice, which is what Prince did not do. It is wonderful to know that acadamics nowadays wouold appoach situations like this with an open mind!

Guest on 11/02/2013

Lots of unknowns around fire and the causes of it. Paranormal teenagers, rogue sparks, these days gas explosions and other malfunctioning electrical equipment. It's still, as it was in the Medieval period, the big scary prospect for human beings.

JoHarrington on 10/30/2013

Yes. I don't think it was Mary Ellen, because some of the fires started when she wasn't there. I'd love Liam to take a look at this. I think the range was somehow retaining fire and occasionally spitting it out.

Paul on 10/30/2013

So is that what you think it was then - some sort of fire trapping physics phenomenon?

JoHarrington on 10/23/2013

I've got the feeling that the answer was in Physics. Perhaps something trapping fire and occasionally spitting it out from the range.

Mary Ellen wasn't always there when the fires kicked off, which suggests that it wasn't always her.

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