The Great Amherst Mystery was a notorious case of reported poltergeist activity in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada between 1878 and 1879. It was the subject of an investigation by Walter Hubbell, an actor with an interest in psychic phenomena, who kept what he claimed was a diary of events in the house, later expanded into a popular book.
The Amherst Mystery centred around Esther Cox, who lived in a small house with her married sister Olive Teed, Olive’s husband Daniel, and their two young children. A brother and sister of Esther and Olive also lived in the house, as did Daniel’s brother John Teed.
According to Hubbell’s account, events began at the end of August 1878, after Esther Cox, then aged 18, was subjected to an attempted sexual assault by a male friend. This left her in great distress, and shortly after this the physical phenomena began. There were knockings, bangings and rustlings in the night, and Esther herself began to suffer seizures, in which her body visibly swelled and she was feverish and chilled by turns. Then objects in the house took flight.
The frightened family called in a doctor. During his visit, bedclothes moved, scratching noises were heard, and the words “Esther Cox, you are mine to kill” appeared on the wall by the head of Esther’s bed. The following day the doctor administered sedatives to Esther to calm her and help her sleep, whereupon more noises and flying objects manifested themselves. Attempts to communicate with the “spirit” resulted in tapped responses to questions.
The phenomena continued for some months, and became well known locally. Visitors to the cottage, including clergymen, heard banging and knocking and witnessed moving objects, often when Esther herself was under close observation. In December Esther fell ill with diphtheria. No phenomena were observed during the two weeks she spent in bed, nor during the time she spent recuperating afterwards at the home of a married sister in Sackville, New Brunswick. However, when she returned to Amherst the mysterious events began again, this time involving the outbreak of fires in various places in the house. Esther herself now claimed to see the “ghost,” which threatened to burn the house down unless she left.
In January 1879 Esther moved in with another local family, but the manifestations around her continued and were witnessed by many people, some of whom conversed with the “ghost” by questioning and rapped answers. Some were curious and sympathetic; others believed Esther herself to be responsible for the phenomena, and she met with some hostility locally. Esther was frequently slapped, pricked and scratched by the “ghost,” and on one occasion was stabbed in the back with a clasp knife. Interest in the case grew as the news spread, and in late March Esther spent some time in Saint John, New Brunswick, where she was investigated by some local gentlemen with an interest in science. By now, several distinct “spirits” were apparently associated with Esther and communicating with onlookers via knocks and rappings. “Bob Nickle,” the original “ghost,” claimed to have been a shoemaker in life, and others identified themselves as “Peter Cox,” a relative of Esther’s, and “Maggie Fisher.” After the visit to Saint John, Esther spent some time with the Van Amberghs, friends with a peaceful farm near Amherst and then returned to the Teeds’ cottage in the summer of 1879, whereupon the phenomena broke out again. It was at this point that Walter Hubbell arrived, attracted by the publicity surrounding the case, and moved into the Teed cottage as a lodger to investigate the phenomena.
Hubbell spent some weeks with Esther and her family, and reported having personally witnessed flying and moving objects, fires, and objects appearing from nowhere, and claimed that he saw phenomena occur even when Esther herself was in full view and obviously unconnected with them. He also claimed to have witnessed attacks on Esther with pins and other sharp objects, and to have seen her in several of her fits of extreme swelling and pain. He communicated with the various named “spirits” by rapping, and listed three others: “Mary Fisher,” “Jane Nickle” and “Eliza McNeal,” who were also manifesting themselves as part of events.
With Hubbell’s professional help, Esther Cox embarked on a speaking tour, attracting audiences who paid to see her and hear her story. However, she met with some hostile reactions and, after she was heckled one night and a disturbance broke out, the attempt was abandoned. She returned to Amherst once more, working for a man named Arthur Davison, but after his barn burned down he accused her of arson, and was convicted and sentenced to four months in prison, although she was released after only one. After this, the phenomena gradually ceased for good. Esther Cox subsequently married twice, having a son by both of her husbands. She moved to Brockton, Massachusetts with her second husband and died on 8 November 1912.
Hubbell’s book was published in 1888 and proved popular, selling at least 55,000 copies. The Amherst case was also investigated by the British paranormal researcher Hereward Carrington, who took statements from surviving witnesses of the events in 1907 and published them, along with a detailed account of the case, in 1913. Other researchers looked at the case more critically than Hubbell: in particular, Dr Walter F. Prince in the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research (Vol XIII, 1919) made a detailed case for trickery by Esther Cox while in a dissociative state.
It has been suggested that certain aspects of the alleged paranormal events at Borley Rectory, sometimes dubbed “the most haunted house in England,” may be linked to the Amherst case. The experiences of the Foyster family there in the early 1930s – in particular claims that writing appeared mysteriously on the wall – resemble events in the Teed household. Rev. Foyster had previously lived at Sackville, New Brunswick, and may well have been aware of the case of Esther Cox.