MacDonald Farm Poltergeist: The Other Antigonish Ghost

by JoHarrington

In 1922, a high profile paranormal case in Nova Scotia saw a family fleeing for their lives, scientists cat-calling in the press and a young woman sectioned for life.

At the time, the story was a sensation. Even the local police department took it seriously, after an unseen entity attacked an officer.

But not everybody found a supernatural origin in the random fires and violence. When a prominent scientist blamed the recently installed radio mast, Marconi himself was forced to defend his apparatus.

At the end of it all, a teenage girl was vilified so badly that she was forced into an asylum. Her condemnation based more on the evidence of a paranormal investigator than the evidence of a psychiatrist.

To this day, the events remain largely unexplained.

Antigonish; The Man Who Wasn't There

Just a word to correct a common misconception about this world famous poem.

Antigonish, or The Man Who Wasn't There, is often erroneously believed to refer to the MacDonald Poltergeist case. That's hardly surprising. The words and the location fit perfectly.

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away...

However, Hughes Mearns wrote his verses in 1899, as part of an English project at Harvard University. The celebrated MacDonald case didn't even begin until the winter of 1921. Mearns was talking about another ghost of Antigonish, also popularly discussed in the contemporary press.

Strange Happenings on Ol' MacDonald's Farm

The homestead was in Caledonia Mills, Antigonish, in Nova Scotia, Canada. It all started in the winter of 1921.

Image: MacDonald Farm in AntigonishOn a working farm, things get moved around. With family and farmhands around, there are ample opportunities for equipment to not be where it's expected to be.

Even so, there was something uncanny about the frequency, speed and distance by which things traveled at the MacDonald Homestead. Enough to give Alexander MacDonald pause and no doubt make him question his sanity.

But such things can be easily explained away.

Less so the plaited braids now adorning the tails of all his cattle. That wasn't a moment of inattention to his belongings. This was tangible. This required someone to have entered the barn, where his herd were lodged for winter, and systematically weave those bovine lengths of hair. Who would have the time?  Let alone doing it without being spotted by anyone else.

Naturally all the workers denied culpability. It would have been a great prank, but they were innocent. Alex's wife and fifteen year old foster daughter also denied responsibility.

They all did the same when he awoke one morning to find that the horses and cattle had swopped living quarters in the night. The cows were all packed dangerously into the stables, while the horses couldn't quite believe their luck at the room.

At least they would, if they weren't so skittish. Every animal on the farm appeared to be afraid. 

Alex MacDonald still put it all down to some elaborate practical joke, though it was frustrating not to know who was behind it. Even more so as he couldn't work out how they'd done it, without the noise waking them all.

Yet it seemed that this was just the prelude. It was about to get much worse.

The Location of the MacDonald Farm Poltergeist Haunting

Beyond a Joke: The Farm Phenomena Worsens

The events thus far were bizarre, but they could still be dismissed as pranks. This one could not.

Image: Cow in WinterAs the winter deepened, Alex MacDonald found that the instances of his cattle being bothered increased exponentially. They weren't merely moved into the stables now, they were set loose.

Several occurrences of the farmer and his hands rushing to secure terrified cows ensued.

Each time, the creatures were deeply alarmed. Their hides were cased in sweat, even when they were located close to the barn. They were trembling with their eyes rolling in fear.

It was unsettling and it needed to stop. If MacDonald couldn't catch the culprit, then he'd just have to make it more difficult for them.

All morning, he and his farmhands worked in the barn. Heavy stakes were hammered hard into the earthen floor. Each cow was attached to them with thick chains. At the end of their labors, the men watched the animals for a while. They were secure.

It was dinnertime. They emerged from the barn en route to the farmhouse, where a meal was being prepared.  But they'd only gone a few steps before a loud and anxious cacophony started in the building behind them.

As they turned, the barn door burst open and the frightened cattle stampeded out into the yard. They were all simultaneously and completely free. It was impossible and now even the farmer was prepared to countenance a preternatural cause.

The Antigonish Fire Spook Makes an Appearance

Until now the phenomena had been confined to the farm itself. Suddenly it leapt into the house itself with dangerous results.

Image: Chair FireJust before dawn, on January 6th 1921, Alex MacDonald came downstairs to begin his morning routine. This included setting a fire in the range, so that it was hot by the time Janet MacDonald followed to cook breakfast.

The MacDonald Homestead was only a tiny building by Canadian standards. It consisted of a large main room, with a tiny ell at the back serving as a kitchen. Upstairs was the single bedchamber, in which the couple and their teenage ward, Mary Ellen, all slept.

It was small enough that, even in winter, the kitchen range could heat the entire dwelling. But the fire in that had been banked before bed. It had been cold for six hours.

Which didn't explain why there were burning cinders on top of the range.

Alex MacDonald looked up and his shocked gaze found the glowing ceiling. It looked like the wooden boards had been fully ablaze above the range, but they were down to embers now.  He barely had time to puzzle over it, before a whooshing sound and sudden heat rose up behind him.

The farmer swung around. An upholstered chair, on the other side of the main room and around nine feet from the smouldering ceiling, was engulfed in an inferno.

Alex grabbed it and rushed outside to throw it into the snow.

Satisfied that the chair was extinguished, he turned back to the doorway, in time to see another glow starting. The couch, in yet another corner, was on fire. This too was dragged into the snowdrifts, and he stood breathlessly awaiting the next.

But it was over for now. The three fires had triangulated around his house, but no-one had been downstairs to set them.

The family spent the whole day trying to rationalize what had occurred. By evening, they decided to let the range fire fully go out, so that it could be taken to pieces.  Alex minutely examined every component, looking for blockages or any faulty, and incendiary, part. He found nothing untoward.

However, their nerves were already shot enough. Alex ensured that there was no possible way for fires to spark. The range was left completely cold.

It wasn't enough.

More Unexplained Fires at the Antigonish Farmhouse

There may have been no way that flames could spontaneously ignite in the MacDonald homestead. But nobody told the fire that.

Image: FireIn the early hours of January 7th 1921, Janet MacDonald awoke to the scent of burning. She nudged her husband, who claimed not to be able to smell a thing.

She urged him to go and see.

He reasoned that there was no way that the farmhouse could be on fire. He explained how the range worked and talked her through how he'd disabled it. He'd made a thorough check that nothing was alight, anywhere in their home, which could possibly ignite flames.

Janet clarified that she really thought that her husband should investigate; and kept on clarifying it, until Alex got out of bed and went downstairs.

The boards around the kitchen chimney were ablaze. Alex rushed to extinguish them, which he was easily able to do. Then he doused the whole area in icy water and watched to ensure that the fire was fully out.

Shaken to the core, he made to return upstairs to report back. But he'd only taken one step on the staircase, when the sodden, dripping chimney boards were suddenly aflame again.

The next night, it was the stovepipe which was on fire. Minutes after that was put out, the whole ceiling was blazing. In all, five separate fires were dealt with during that long Sunday night. Exhausted, Alex met the dawn of Monday bewildered and shocked, having had no sleep at all.

Fortunately nothing happened that day at all.  He was able to get some rest.

All Hell Breaks Loose at the Caledonia Mills Farm

Even with six on hand to watch every corner, the homestead seemed in constant danger of being burned to the ground.

Image: Winter blazeOn Tuesday, the weather broke.  Until now, the snow had been so heavy, that nobody had been able to get close to the farm. The family inside had been quite isolated.

Finally, the Heavens opened and rain turned the deep drifts to slurry. This proved opportune when, late in the afternoon, the wallpaper of the living room burst into flames.

While the MacDonalds were still extinguishing it, the boards above the kitchen range ignited too. Alex pried them from the wall and they were hurled out into the downpour. Janet noted that cotton appeared attached to the back. It was this which was steadily burning.

Alex had hurried back inside. Smoke alerted him to yet another fire, this time upstairs in the bed chambers.  A pile of rags, put aside for housework, now formed a mini-bonfire on the floor.

There was no doubt in any of their minds now. Something malevolent was haunting them, and the Fire Spook wanted them dead.

Despite the inclement weather (and because the rain had allowed their passage), Janet took Mary Ellen to get help. It took them a while to traverse the lanes to the home of their nearest neighbors, two brothers named Leo and Dan McGillivray.

Hearing the hysterical story of the ladies, the men immediately agreed to return with them. They stopped at the house of another neighbor along the way.  Duncan MacDonald joined the party heading back to the MacDonald farmstead.

They arrived to find Alex exhausted, shivering and shocked. He was seventy years old, and he'd had to deal with another three fires, on top of those experienced by his wife and foster daughter.

During the course of the night, the six of them reacted to and extinguished another thirty blazes. Some seemed downright improbable, for example the dishcloth which caught fire while soaking in a bowl of water. Others unlikely, such as paper curling into flame on an otherwise bare table, or wallpaper alighting from behind hung picture frames.

The most dramatic came in the early hours.  Leo McGillivray was resting on a chair, when he witnessed a blue-white glow flare up from through an open doorway. He darted towards it to find the whole of a window shutter on fire.  He put it out with his bare hands.

The MacDonald Family Flee from the Antigonish Ghost

Convinced that their pyromaniac poltergeist wouldn't rest until it saw them dead, the family had no choice but to run.

Image: Fire Spook of AntigonishBy morning, it was obvious that the MacDonalds could no longer stay in their home. Fire and smoke damage permeated all, and there was always the risk of more random blazes.

But above and beyond all, they were scared. God-fearing and terrified that something demonic was in their house. It felt evil. The atmosphere was thick with tension and the waiting for the next catastrophe.

The McGillivray brothers offered hospitality and the MacDonalds jumped at the change to take it.

Twice a day, Alex MacDonald returned to care for his stock, who were now utterly undisturbed. Each time, he was amazed to find the house still standing. It seemed the fires had ceased at the moment of their flight.

Nevertheless, it was a desperate situation. His family was too afraid to return, but they couldn't presume upon the goodwill of the McGillivrays forever.

Alex MacDonald did the only thing that he could think of to do. He reported the ghost of Antigonish to the police and awaited advice.

It kick-started an investigation, which was almost as dramatic as the case it sought to resolve.  But that's another story.

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

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Updated: 10/15/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 10/21/2013

Wow! That's some serious poltergeist activity experienced by your kids there. It is difficult to think of another explanation, which doesn't involve a whole Hollywood special effects team on the case. Remotes don't just fly through the air.

dustytoes on 10/20/2013

I do believe most of these types of stories, and it's very frightening. I really feel for this family. As you've said, they really had no where to go. It was winter - in Canada! And it was not as if they could climb into a heated car and drive away. What about their livestock, which was their livelihood?
Over the summer three of my children stayed in the Biltmore Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island after attending a wedding there. They experienced bizarre and unexplained happenings all throughout the night, such as tv's turning on by themselves, tv remotes flying through the air, a glass shattering, a big, heavy ice bucket smashing against the wall, and more. They requested a change of rooms, but couldn't get one, and were treated as if they were nuts. All of them were terrified and came home exhausted after being kept up most of the night by a poltergeist.. what else could it have been? To my knowledge this hotel does not allow paranormal investigation, but it's certainly needed.
I look forward to your next follow-up story.

JoHarrington on 10/14/2013

Where could they go? In the end, they had to presume upon the hospitality of a neighour. It was freely given but highly inconvenient. Their farm and livelihood were there.

I did attempt to lure our equivalent of Mythbusters here (i.e. Audioworm). But he hasn't commented thus far. :D

Ember on 10/13/2013

I am a little baffled by how everyone reacted. I think after the first several fires I would have, you know, left. Regardless of why I thought the fires might've been happening.

Weirdness. It's too bad the mythbusters don't look at this sort of thing, it would have been interesting.

JoHarrington on 10/13/2013

Thank you very much. Glad you enjoyed it! I'm currently writing a follow up to this, about how people reacted and explained it at the time. Nearly finished!

AbbyFitz on 10/12/2013

Great article! I love the weird and unexplained but true stories!

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