Jan. 16, 2022 One hundred years ago today, tales of ghostly fires at a tiny community south of Antigonish reached the ears of the local Halifax Herald reporter.
“Do you want a story?” Harold Whidden, a First World War veteran and business man, queried of his editor.
And so, the story of a fire-setting spook on a remote Nova Scotia hilltop became fodder for the international press – not to mention the subject of gossip, speculation, and outright lies. The subsistence farm that was home to Alex and Janet MacDonald and their daughter Mary Ellen actually became an attraction for sightseers from near and far.
The fires – at least 38 of them – actually took place on the night of Jan. 11, 1922 – a Wednesday. They appeared to light themselves, appearing on walls, bedclothes, towels, paper and even in the puddles of water that were sloshed over the weird blue flames in the attempt to extinguish them. Friends and neighbours helped with firefighting and the MacDonalds’ subsequent relocation to a rented house nearby, in the same village of Caledonia Mills.
To a war-weary world, a province traumatized a few years earlier by an explosion that destroyed a large part of its capital city of Halifax, and a population ravaged by the so-called “Spanish flu,” the possibility of spiritual interference in ordinary lives attracted an almost ghoulish fascination.
Theories revolved around exactly which ghost set the fires – a poltergeist in possession of Mary Ellen, bochdans (the Gaelic word for ghosts) that included that of Janet’s late mother taking revenge for something or other, or vampires, or the undead. Alternately, they were the work of pranksters, an insurance scammer, or the result of a natural phenomena such as swamp gas. A Nova Scotia detective, an American psychical researcher, photographers and reporters, and hordes of the curious made their way to the otherwise quiet hamlet to investigate.
To this day, the cause of the fires remains a mystery. The “spook farm” (if one can find it, the buildings are long-gone, and it is private property) is still a destination for thrill-seekers and psychic researchers. Merely visiting the site, passing by on the road, or taking away something as small as a pebble is still said to cause one bad luck.
I wrote a book about it all, called Fire Spook, The Mysterious Nova Scotia Haunting (Nimbus 2013 – there may be still some available. Contact me via this webpage, as I have a few on hand).
Don’t ask me what happened back in 1922, though I theorize that the fires and attention that followed were a confluence of many factors, not least being a public yearning for distraction.
It’s too bad it was at the expense of the MacDonalds, a rural family just trying to get along in a world that was as difficult for them as it was for everyone else. I think of them every winter, when a January thaw is followed by a snowstorm like the blizzard that just socked Nova Scotia hard.