Mary Ellen Fire Spook - An Antigonish Haunting



Farm house on top of hill


The story begins at the home of Alexander and Mary MacDonald and their 16 year-old adopted daughter Mary-Ellen, a small farm house in the small community of Caledonia Mills, Antigonish NS.

In January of 1922, a fire started in part of their house. Oddly it was not near their fireplace or wood stove. Once extinguished another erupted in an empty room at the other end of the home. The family was totally puzzled. Other fires materialized mysteriously. Wet towels and the patches of wallpaper would burst into flames. 

It did not take the family long to realize that there was something unnatural occurring. With the help of their neighbors they began to guard the house, hoping to catch an intruding arsonist. Fires continued to appear out of nowhere, but no arsonist was ever caught. In total there were 30 unexplained fires.

Prior to the fires, a number of odd events reportedly took place in the McDonald barn. They would find ashes in the store milk, livestock would be found with their tails braided, moved into different stalls, and on more than one occasion were reportedly found locked outside the barn in a state of considerable agitation.

Soon the family was persuaded to leave the home while the local authorities investigated. When word of the mysteries got out reporters arrived to get the scoop. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was invited to investigate.


Once the family moved out of the house, journalists and would-be paranormal investigators moved in. 

Detective Carroll and Harold Whidden 
Some of the most notable accounts include those of Harold Whidden, a reporter from the Halifax Herald, and police detective Peachey Carroll, who spent two nights in the house. During this time they both experienced several odd events, including the feeling of being slapped on the arm and face by phantom hands.  Detective Carroll who had more to lose when it came to his reputation also openly admitted that the farm was haunted.  











One of the people invited to investigate this strange occurrence was Walter Franklin Prince, research officer for the American Society for Psychical Research. He accepted the invitation and traveled to Caledonia Mills to investigate this case. In the cases he investigated Dr. Prince’s findings were always considered the “final word”, because of his high standing.

Harold Whidden who had initially brought the case to the world’s attention accompanied Prince during part of his investigation, which lasted 3 weeks from late February to mid March. He spent six of these days at the farm.

Dr. Waltor Prince
Dr. Walter F. Prince

Whidden noted that Prince went about his investigation in odd ways. He seemed more concerned about the cold than the haunting.

He spent the first day he arrived in arranging a comfortable room for himself. He demanded privacy. He insisted that no one could stay at the farm with him during his investigation without an invitation including the MacDonald family--which left a sour impression.

He did invite the MacDonald family at one point hoping they would trigger the activity. He also included Whidden who while in the farmhouse felt the same sensation he had during his own investigation with Detective Carroll. 

At one point Dr. Prince, Dan Gillivray-- a neighbor of the MacDonalds and the three MacDonald’s all witnessed Whidden walk across the room appearing to be in a trance. He demanded a pencil and scribbled on bits of paper for over 2 hours.

He seemed to be possessed by the poltergeist that wrote a confession he had set the fires. Right after, Prince agreed with this conclusion. Before he arrived he had already made up his mind. He believed the activity was a poltergeist that was attached to the MacDonald’s 16-year old foster daughter, Mary Ellen, but when he presented his findings, they were a complete turnabout from what he first proclaimed. 

Prince concluded that the mysterious fires and alleged poltergeist phenomena were caused by Mary-Ellen in a dissociated state. Prince had discovered inflammable liquid and noted that "the fires were undoubtedly set by human hands, judging by the unmistakable signs left in the house. The burns are never found on the wall paper higher than the reach of a person five feet tall, which is the height of [the] girl in the family." 

In a statement, Mary Ellen defended herself passionately. She accused Dr. Prince of “fibbing.” She stated: 

“I have never set fires. I have never untied the cattle in the barns. I never plaited the tails of the horses. I would have been afraid to. First they claimed I had a boyfriend--a sweetheart--who did it now they say I did it. I tell you I don’t care who Dr. Prince is. He ought to be ashamed of himself.” 



Shortly after this interview Dr. Prince labeled it just another fake, stating the Mary Ellen he’d met would not have been able to make this statement for she had “the mind of a four year old.” However, to those who knew Mary Ellen, she was a teen of normal intelligence that was known to have a bright smile and a happy disposition.

He tempered his report by stating that she was probably possessed or sleepwalking when these fires were set--so she was most likely unaware of her actions. As for Whidden’s and Carroll’s previous experiences in the house he stated they were extremely cold and probably just hallucinating. 

He also denied seeing Whidden do the automatic writing, and never directly addressed the strange phenomenon with the cattle and horses, like fact that the MacDonald livestock always escaped within seconds of the farmer securing them. Or that many of the fires started when no one was in the farmhouse. Dr. Prince did, however, report unexplained rapping noises in his office back in New York for several weeks after he had completed his investigation into the Caledonia Mills “Spook Farm.” 

The MacDonald family moved back to the farm just months afterward, and all was calm through the summer, but by the following October the fires started as suddenly and incomprehensibly as before.

Word spread quickly the Fire Spook was back, and the Newspapers now dubbed the teenage girl, Mary Ellen Fire Spook. 

This time, there was no sympathy for the family, and Police officers, who were not local, showed up at the farm. They had come for Mary Ellen. According to some accounts, she was placed in the Nova Scotia Home for the Insane located in Dartmouth she was even confined for many years. 

Mary Ellen sitting in chair
Mary-Ellen MacDonald


H.B. Whidden was so troubled by his experiences that he never published them in his lifetime, though they have since been released by his family.
 
Harold Whidden
H.B.Whidden

“In describing this experience, as well as his and Carroll’s prior experience while spending the night in the McDonald house with Detective Carroll and Alex McDonald. The contents of the alleged spirit messages were to “confirm” that the spontaneous fires were caused by spirits that “spirits do visit the earth after death,” and that God has endowed such spirits with a limitless lifespan”. 

Whidden's full account can be found at "My Experiences at the MacDonald Homestead" 



 There is another spooky story that should not be left out of the Antigonish paranormal storybook. The story of Mary Ellen Spooks has many variations, but all involve some form of arson occurring at Caledonia Mills farm, located in Antigonish County. Legend has it that there was a man who was seeking shelter late at night, and so sought help from the owners of the farm. They denied him a place, thus he cursed their adopted daughter and disappeared. In the following years, Mary Ellen would be known to go into trances, with odd things happening while she was charmed. Sometimes the animals would go into a craze while she was in this demeanor, other times her father would go downstairs to see a fire lit where there wasn’t one before. The culmination of this story is a plethora of house and barn fires that only ended when Mary Ellen moved away from the farm. Many of the fires were known to start where there was no oven or pit, meaning no chance of an accidental flame erupting. 

Arsonist or not, the Caledonia Mills legend persists. Even today, long after the farm and house have disappeared, people say that if you take home any item from the property, your house will burn down. 


Sources:
townofantigonish.ca
wikipedia.org
Harold Whidden, “My Experiences at the McDonald Household,” 1922
The Fire spook of caledonia Mills
Folklore of Nova Scotia 
xaverian.ca  

If you know of any other stories from this area, or have a story of your own that you would like to share, we would love to hear from you! 




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