Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Great Amherst Mystery by Andrew Lang 1897


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On 13th February, 1888, Mr. Walter Hubbell, an actor by profession, "being duly sworn" before a Notary Public in New York, testified to the following story:—

In 1879 he was acting with a strolling company, and came to Amherst, in Nova Scotia. Here he heard of a haunted house, known to the local newspapers as "The Great Amherst Mystery". Having previously succeeded in exposing the frauds of spiritualism Mr. Hubbell determined to investigate the affair of Amherst. The haunted house was inhabited by Daniel Teed, the respected foreman in a large shoe factory. Under his roof were Mrs. Teed, "as good a woman as ever lived"; little Willie, a baby boy; and Mrs. Teed's two sisters, Jennie, a very pretty girl, and Esther, remarkable for large grey eyes, pretty little hands and feet, and candour of expression. A brother of Teed's and a brother of Mrs. Cox made up the family. They were well off, and lived comfortably in a detached cottage of two storys.

It began when Jennie and Esther were in bed one night. Esther jumped up, saying that there was a mouse in the bed. Next night, a green band-box began to make a rustling noise, and then rose a foot in the air, several times. On the following night Esther felt unwell, and "was a swelling wisibly before the werry eyes" of her alarmed family. Reports like thunder peeled through her chamber, under a serene sky. Next day Esther could only eat "a small piece of bread and butter, and a large green pickle". She recovered slightly, in spite of the pickle, but, four nights later, all her and her sister's bed-clothes flew off, and settled down in a remote corner. At Jennie's screams, the family rushed in, and found Esther "fearfully swollen". Mrs. Teed replaced the bed-clothes, which flew off again, the pillow striking John Teed in the face. Mr. Teed then left the room, observing, in a somewhat unscientific spirit, that "he had had enough of it". The others, with a kindness which did them credit, sat on the edges of the bed, and repressed the desire of the sheets and blankets to fly away. The bed, however, sent forth peels like thunder, when Esther suddenly fell into a peaceful sleep.

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Next evening Dr. Carritte arrived, and the bolster flew at his head, and then went back again under Esther's. While paralysed by this phenomenon, unprecedented in his practice, the doctor heard a metal point scribbling on the wall. Examining the place whence the sound proceeded, he discovered this inscription :—

Esther Cox! You are
mine to kill.

Mr. Hubbell has verified the inscription, and often, later, recognised the hand, in writings which "came out of the air and fell at our feet". Bits of plaster now gyrated in the room, accompanied by peels of local thunder. The doctor admitted that his diagnosis was at fault. Next day he visited his patient when potatoes flew at him. He exhibited a powerful sedative, but pounding noises began on the roofs and were audible at a distance of 200 yards, as the doctor himself told Mr. Hubbell.

The clergy now investigated the circumstances, which they attributed to electricity. "Even the most exclusive class" frequented Mr. Teed's house, till December, when Esther had an attack of diphtheria. On recovering she went on to visit friends in Sackville, New Brunswick, where nothing unusual occurred. On her return the phenomena broke forth afresh, and Esther heard a voice proclaim that the house would be set on fire. Lighted matches then fell from the ceiling, but the family extinguished them. The ghost then set a dress on fire, apparently as by spontaneous combustion, and this kind of thing continued. The heads of the local fire-brigade suspected Esther of these attempts at arson, and Dr. Nathan Tupper suggested that she should be flogged. So Mr. Teed removed Esther to the house of a Mr. White.

In about a month "all," as Mrs. Nickleby's lover said, "was gas and gaiters". The furniture either flew about, or broke into flames. Worse, certain pieces of iron placed as an experiment on Esther's lap "became too hot to be handled with comfort," and then flew away.

Mr. Hubbell himself now came on the scene, and, not detecting imposture, thought that "there was money in it". He determined to "run" Esther as a powerful attraction, he lecturing, and Esther sitting on the platform.

It did not pay. The audience hurled things at Mr. Hubbell, and these were the only volatile objects. Mr. Hubbell therefore brought Esther back to her family at Amherst, where, in Esther's absence, his umbrella and a large carving knife flew at him with every appearance of malevolence. A great arm-chair next charged at him like a bull, and to say that Mr. Hubbell was awed "would indeed seem an inadequate expression of my feelings". The ghosts then thrice undressed little Willie in public, in derision of his tears and outcries. Fire-raising followed, and that would be a hard heart which could read the tale unmoved. Here it is, in the simple eloquence of Mr. Hubbell:—

"This was my first experience with Bob, the demon, as a fire-fiend; and I say, candidly, that until I had had that experience I never fully realised what an awful calamity it was to have an invisible monster, somewhere within the atmosphere, going from place to place about the house, gathering up old newspapers into a bundle and hiding it in the basket of soiled linen or in a closet, then go and steal matches out of the match-box in the kitchen or somebody's pocket, as he did out of mine, and after kindling a fire in the bundle, tell Esther that he had started a fire, but would not tell where; or perhaps not tell her at all, in which case the first intimation we would have was the smell of the smoke pouring through the house, and then the most intense excitement, everybody running with buckets of water. I say it was the most truly awful calamity that could possible befall any family, infidel or Christian, that could be conceived in the mind of man or ghost.

"And how much more terrible did it seem in this little cottage, where all were strict members of church, prayed, sang hymns and read the Bible. Poor Mrs. Teed!"

On Mr. Hubbell's remarking that the cat was not tormented, "she was instantly lifted from the floor to a height of five feet, and then dropped on Esther's back. ... I never saw any cat more frightened; she ran out into the front yard, where she remained for the balance (rest) of the day." On 27th June "a trumpet was heard in the house all day".

The Rev. R. A. Temple now prayed with Esther, and tried a little amateur exorcism, including the use of slips of paper, inscribed with Habakkuk ii. 3. The ghosts cared no more than Voltaire for ce coquin d'Habacuc.

Things came to such a pass, matches simply raining all round, that Mr. Teed's landlord, a Mr. Bliss, evicted Esther. She went to a Mr. Van Amburgh's, and Mr. Teed's cottage was in peace.

Some weeks later Esther was arrested for incendiarism in a barn, was sentenced to four months' imprisonment, but was soon released in deference to public opinion. She married, had a family; and ceased to be a mystery.

This story is narrated with an amiable simplicity, and is backed, more or less, by extracts from Amherst and other local newspapers. On making inquiries, I found that opinion was divided. Some held that Esther was a mere impostor and fire-raiser; from other sources I obtained curious tales of the eccentric flight of objects in her neighbourhood. It is only certain that Esther's case is identical with Madame Shchapoffs, and experts in hysteria may tell us whether that malady ever takes the form of setting fire to the patient's wardrobe, and to things in general.

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