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Haunted Girl: Esther Cox and the Great Amherst Mystery

From the publisher’s website: In 1878 eighteen-year-old Esther Cox arrived in Amherst, Nova Scotia, to live with her sister’s family. Shortly after Esther moved in, the story goes, the house was plagued by unexplained occurrences—something (or someone) knocked on the walls, hid household items, moved furniture around, and set fires. Esther herself was subject to mysterious fevers, prodding and, on one occasion, stabbing. These occurrences followed her when she went to stay with other families in the area. Eventually she was charged with robbery and spent a month in jail, after which the haunting ceased.

Was Esther the victim of paranormal powers or the troubled mind behind a series of elaborate hoaxes? At the time of her alleged haunting, the plausibility of Esther Cox’s claims were hotly debated in newspapers and by fellow Amherst residents. In the hundred years since her death, Esther’s story has been retold numerous times and she remains to this day the town’s most famous historical figure.

Includes 30 photos of key locations in Amherst related to the story as well as Esther's family members.

Please see publisher’s website for further details:

First Author: 
Laurie Glenn Norris
Secondary Author(s): 
Barbara Thompson
Reviewed for SPR by: 
Tom Ruffles
SPR Review: 

The publication of Haunted Girl is well timed as it marks the centenary of Esther Cox’s death on 8 November 1912, aged 52.  The story of the mysterious events that befell her in 1878/9 has entered the canons of psychical research as a prime example of a hostile entity that makes its victim’s life a misery, Esther and her family being plagued for months on end and Esther herself suffering considerable pain and discomfort.  Author Laurie Glenn Norris and local historian Barbara Thompson have delved deeply into the standard account to try to establish what really happened, to discuss what Esther was like, and to paint a picture of the life she led in the small community of Amherst, Nova Scotia, in the 1870s.

The setting was a crowded two-story cottage occupied by Esther, her sister Olive, Olive’s husband Daniel Teed, the Teeds’ two young sons Willie and George, Esther’s sister Jennie (with whom she shared a bed) and brother William, and Daniel’s brother John.  Daniel was the foreman in a local shoe factory.  Things began quietly, as they often do.  One night Esther screamed and jumped out of bed, saying that there was a mouse under the bedclothes.  Finding that there wasn’t, she and Jennie went back to sleep.  However, the following night they saw a pasteboard box filled with fabric patches moving backwards and forwards, but on inspection they found it empty.  The next night things escalated, with Esther crying out that she was dying.  To Jennie’s horror, Esther’s body seemed to have swelled, her face red, eyes bulging and hair on end.  Attracted by the commotion, the rest of the family rushed in to be met by loud booms that shook the house, while Esther’s body returned to normal.

Incidents followed at a furious pace.  Bedclothes moved, pillows flew about, Esther experienced swelling and twitching of her limbs, her skin became red hot.  She was attacked by needles and pins, was stabbed, cut, slapped and scratched.  Rumblings and bangs were heard around the house.  On several occasions a bucket of cold water on the kitchen table bubbled like boiling water, though it remained cool. Spikes placed on Esther’s lap became too hot to handle, then were thrown a considerable distance.  Some events occurred when Esther was not in proximity, such as the occasion when three men entered the cellar and one received a blow to the forehead.  The householders found that they were able to communicate using the by-then tried and tested mechanism of asking questions and receiving knocks in response.  Famously, one evening as they watched Esther, family members heard a scratching sound and saw the words ““Esther Cox you are mine to kill” in large letters scored in the plaster.

Esther claimed that the entity was threatening to burn the house down.  The family did not take the threat seriously until lighted matches began falling from out of the air onto her bed, and one of Esther’s dresses was rolled up, stuffed under her bed, and set on fire.  Naturally there was suspicion that Esther, rather than a pyromaniacal ghost, was the arsonist, especially when the fires became more serious.  On one occasion a fire in a bucket of cedar shavings in the basement nearly blazed out of control.

Not surprisingly, the goings-on attracted crowds of gawpers to the extent that the police had to restore order.  Esther received widespread coverage in local and regional newspapers, becoming a celebrity.  Sympathy for her plight was not unreserved, and opinions were divided on its cause.  There was a feeling among some that electricity rather than the supernatural was at the heart of the matter, accounting for the sounds of thunder, while others thought that Esther was producing the events, and chastisement would bring a swift resolution.

Given the chaos centred around Esther she was occasionally sent away, which gave the family temporary relief until she returned.  Unsurprisingly, even though Esther had been in Olive’s sight when the fire in the basement began, the landlord, concerned that his house would be destroyed, told the Teeds that Esther had to leave.  She eventually went to work on a nearby farm where the activities continued, culminating in the barn burning down along with another owned by a local lawyer.  Esther was found guilty of the theft of some clothes belonging to her employer (though not convicted of arson), spent a month in jail, and the phenomena ceased.

The second major character in the story was not a member of Esther’s family, nor even a resident of Amherst, but one Walter Hubbell, a jobbing actor who heard about the case and saw a way to make a fast buck.  When a half-baked scheme to tour with Esther as an exhibit failed through audience hostility at the lack of anything occurring on stage (staring at Esther while Hubbell lectured proving insufficiently entertaining), Hubbell did the next best thing by boarding at the Teeds’ house and rushing out a best-selling book about her.

Hubbell’s book went through a number of expansions, and its popularity means that our perceptions of what happened at Amherst are filtered through his account.  The first edition, published quickly in 1879, was called The Haunted House: A True Ghost Story, which gives an idea of how he wished to depict the story.  The title page declares that it concerns “The young Girl who is possessed of Devils, and has become known throughout the entire Dominion as THE GREAT AMHERST MYSTERY.  Of the three explanations that he says have been offered by experts, he thinks devils a more likely explanation than electricity or mesmerism.

His treatment of the two sisters is interesting.  Jennie, whom he calls Jane, and mentions before Esther, is referred to as a “belle”, “quite a beauty”.  He is less flattering about Esther, ”a queer girl”, effectively describes her as short and fat, and suggests that she is lazy, “self-willed” and  “sulky”.  Despite being a slim volume of fewer than 60 pages, the presentation is leisurely, with invented dialogue, and it is half over before we reach the Mystery.  The overwhelming impression is of a rather dull lifestyle, ripe for the manufacture of a bit of excitement.

Hubbell expanded the book in 1888, altering the title to The Great Amherst Mystery: A True Narrative of the Supernatural.  This was more workmanlike than its predecessor.  He stresses that his theatrical experience has given him knowledge of effects and impostures, and he is not subject to hypnotic or mesmeric influences, just in case the reader wonders if Esther had pulled the wool over his eyes.  He claims he went as a sceptic, and paints the Teeds as honest guileless rustics, in the depiction of whom he displays his bent for verse:

“A cosy cottage free from every strife,

Was home indeed with honest Daniel's wife.”

By cosy he means extremely cramped.  He must have thought that his earlier depiction of Esther was too negative as he has removed the suggestion in his description that she is lazy; now she is “very fond of housework.”  However, she is still 'homely' compared to Jennie.  Despite the book’s increased length the personal details of the family are abbreviated compared to the 1879 edition.  Their domestic situation still comes across as monotonous though.

Hubbell has changed his mind somewhat on the cause, devils giving way to an evil ghost.  His theory is that there are parallel worlds inhabited by the living and the dead, each as material as the other to its own inhabitants, with “vital magnetism” on both sides, the escape of which into the atmosphere renders contact possible.  The parallel existence suggests that we are as much ghosts to those in the other realm as they are to us.  He has no doubt that the Amherst events were genuine; Esther’s system was in an “abnormal state”, hence her suffering.

“Abnormal state” because there was a possible sexual assault by a friend, Bob McNeill (spelled McNeal by Hubbell) just days before the phenomena began, when she went for a night-time buggy ride with Bob and returned home in a distressed state.  Hubbell thought that Bob was the root because he was “obsessed”, his actions governed by an evil ghost which left him, transferred to Esther, created mayhem, then reattached to him permanently.  Bob seems to have been a thoroughly unpleasant character, because Hubbell records that “he had a very cruel disposition, and when a boy, had been known to skin cats alive, and allow them to run about and suffer in that condition until death came to their relief.”

Hubbell’s book purports to be an intimate portrait of the Teed/Cox milieu, but at times he is betrayed by his prose:  At one point Esther went to live at a neighbour’s, after claiming that she could see the ghost (though nobody else could).  She declares in melodramatic tones (though this has surely been heightened for effect – there are slight differences between the 1879 and 1888 versions of her speech, neither quite what one might expect from a semi-literate teenager) that she has to leave the Teeds’ immediately:

‘“Look there! Look there! My God, it is the ghost! Don't you all see him, too? There he stands! See, his eyes are glaring; and he laughs, and says I must leave this house to-night, or he will kindle a fire in the loft under the roof and burn us all to death. Oh! what shall I do ? Where shall I go? The ground is covered with snow, and yet I must not remain here, for he will do what he threatens; he always does. If I were dead—” Then she fell to the floor, in an agony of grief and fear, weeping aloud for a moment, and then all was still.’ (1888)

The style was undoubtedly successful, because in 1916, after Esther’s death, Hubbell brought out a further expansion, the title page proclaiming it the tenth edition and the fifty-fifth thousand.  This was the same text as the 1888 edition, padded out with correspondence and testimonies.  Hubbell must have made quite a sum out of Esther, but Norris and Thompson describe her living in poverty in later life, taking in laundry, which suggests that she never saw any money from Hubbell’s best-seller.

There were two significant additions to the literature on Esther Cox prior to Norris and Thompson’s book.  Hereward Carrington visited Esther in 1907 and included a chapter on her in his Personal Experiences in Spiritualism (1913).  He was inclined to think that Esther was innocent of hoaxing as she was the chief sufferer, underestimating the lengths to which some individuals will go to in their efforts to be the centre of attention.  He had a long conversation with Olive who stuck by Hubbell’s account, and Carrington found this convincing as well, on the grounds that the family would have been more likely to confess to a hoax as time passed, especially as Esther was then living in Massachusetts.

A further interpretation was provided by Walter Franklin Prince, who took a different tack.  He published an article in the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research in August 1919, ‘A Critical Study of the Great Amherst Mystery’, in which he reviewed the evidence.  He was critical of Hubbell’s approach, particularly the vagueness of the witness accounts (with which verdict Norris and Thompson agree), and the elaboration of Hubbell’s original record in the various editions of his book.  Prince concluded that Esther was responsible, not consciously but in a dissociated state as a result of her “psychological abnormality”, the shock of her traumatic experience with Bob having caused a secondary personality to split off.

What is one to make of all this?  At the time opinion was divided between those who believed that Esther was the victim of a malevolent spirit and those who took it for granted that she was being wicked.  Clearly hoaxing is a distinct possibility for much of what occurred.  When she was away, or ill with diphtheria, the ghosts were quiet, and when she moved to a new place it took a couple of weeks for things to start up, perhaps, as Norris and Thompson suggest, while she got the lie of the land.  In other instances we are forced to choose between a hoax by Esther, possibly in collaboration with Jennie and even some of the other siblings; or a paranormal explanation, albeit mixed with exaggeration and misperception in the telling.

Norris and Thompson concentrate on personality issues that make hoaxing more likely.  They suggest that she suffered from an anxiety disorder.  A close relationship between Esther and her grandmother, with whom she lived when she was small, gave way to a home in which her nephews were the focus and she was peripheral.  Esther said that she had spoken to her dead mother while in trance, so perhaps she had issues to work through regarding bereavement and fear of abandonment.  Her life was centred on unskilled chores in a crowded house, with step-siblings perhaps generating hormonal tension, and her relative unattractiveness compared to Jennie may have caused jealousy.  A combination of such factors could have resulted in attention-seeking behaviour.  Norris and Thompson note that when Esther discovered automatic writing, some of the sentences were “wicked” and ”profane”, the sort of thing a bored teenager might cook up to get a reaction.

Esther may have been acting out trauma resulting from sexual abuse, or alternatively from frustration.  It is possibly not a coincidence that her sister Nellie married and moved out of the overcrowded Teed household only a few days before the events began.   Some of the secondary literature assumes she was raped by Bob, though according to the account in Hubbell, he pulled a pistol on her but heard someone coming and took her home at a furious pace in the pouring rain.  We only have Esther’s word for any of this though.  Perhaps she consented, or he completed the deed by force, and she was ashamed, or he could have rebuffed her advances.  The whole thing could have been a fiction.

To add to the Amherst Mystery’s significance, Norris and Thompson highlight the link between Amherst and Borley, as Lionel Foyster spent a couple of years as rector at Sackville, just a few miles from Amherst.  Eric J. Dingwall, Kathleen M. Goldney, and Trevor H. Hall, in their important paper ‘The Haunting of Borley Rectory: A Critical Survey of the Evidence, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume 51, 1956 (pp.79-81), provide a table which lists nineteen points of comparison between Esther Cox and Marianne Foyster, as well as noting the use of ‘Teed’ as a pseudonym in Lionel’s manuscript ‘Fifteen Months in a Haunted House’.

Norris and Thompson have done psychical research a great service in their re-examination of the Amherst Mystery and its possible causes (though in reaching a verdict of hoaxing they do not consider the, admittedly unlikely, possibility of recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, even though Esther would seem a typical poltergeist focus), and in supplying details on the family members, their complicated histories, and what happened to them afterwards.  Haunted Girl puts Hubbell’s account(s) in perspective, and allows the reader to cast a fresh eye on this absorbing case.

Reference Information: 
Haunted Girl. Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2012. ISBN: 9781551099071