Every Halloween I look at an international mystery or folklore. This year, I’ll review a book by Laurie Glenn Norris and
Barbara Thompson titled Haunted Girl: Esther Cox and the Great Amherst Mystery. The book examines events surrounding one of the most famous poltergeist cases in Canadian history, which took place from 1878 to 1879. As the authors note, these events have been the subject of a 19th century non-fiction book, a novel, a mural, a play and a doll. At the core of this tradition is the biography of Esther Cox, who was an 18 year old when she claimed to experience a series of terrifying incidents, which included moving furniture, bodily wounds, and spectral writing on a bedroom wall.
Norris and Thompson place these events into the context of Nova Scotia at the time, and Esther Cox’s own troubled personal life. The work is scholarly, and the authors have investigated all aspects of Esther’s world in impressive detail. Still, the authors never wander from their focus on Esther herself, which makes for an engaging work. The book also benefits from a plethora of photographs, which allow us to visualize key actors and locations. Having written my own book on Canadian folklore (Dangerous Spirits, which is available in the US and in Canada) I can imagine the amount of time that these photographs must have required to locate.
In the end, the story of Esther Cox likely involved credulity, deceit, illness, self-hatred, desperation and exploitation. There are suggestions that the case may have also involved rape, although the truth is difficult to judge, and the evidence may be misleading. At its core, this is also a story about family, and what happens when one member feels excluded, or that their stories cannot be heard. What is striking is that Cox’s story was not unique. There are a host of poltergeist cases involving teenage girls in nineteenth century Canada (and beyond), most of whom had difficult family situations, and many of whom had been orphaned. Norris and Thompson’s work is a model for historical investigation, and a scholarly antidote to paranormal accounts. Based on a deep study of the source materials, the authors create a convincing explanation of events in the house. The book represents a masterful work of women’s history, which uses one life as a means to examine broader topics.
At its core, this is a history of a tragedy, and it is difficult to finish it without feeling compassion for Esther Cox, even though she was partially the author of her many misfortunes. It was perhaps telling that so many of the incidents involved violence, including cutting and stabbing, which was directed against Esther herself, as the authors note (p. 145). The authors continue her life story until her death in 1912, long after she left had left Amherst, although not the memory of her past. The book’s title is well-chosen, because the person who was most haunted by the long-ago events in the small house on Princess Street was Esther Cox, who found it difficult to escape the popular fascination with what took place in 1878. Indeed, the authors convincingly suggest that this story later inspired the story of a haunting in England (the Borley Rectory case), decades after Esther’s own story. In this way, a moment of crisis in the life of a troubled teenager had ripples that crossed the Atlantic. I strongly recommend this beautifully written and carefully researched book to anyone interested in women’s history, Atlantic Canada or folklore. If you want to read about a true Nova Scotian mystery, please read my blog post about the ghost ship called the Baltimore. This ship was found anchored with only a singly survivor, a mystery woman, after the entire crew disappeared. Happy Halloween everyone.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University