WORMWOOD FILES: "The Haunting of Esther Cox"

By Dr. Abner Mality

In the annals of the paranormal, there are some incidents that are notorious even beyond the usual weirdness of ghosts and the supernatural. One of these would certainly be "The Great Amherst Haunting", which is known as Canada's most famous paranormal incident. A non-descript young girl, Esther Cox, was plagued and tormented by ghostly afflictions of remarkable fury. More than a hundred years later, the Cox case remains a controversial and well-substantiated example of a person haunted by a vicious poltergeist.

I think you humanoids would agree that Esther would be a fine subject for an edition of Wormwood Files. I will not disappoint my public! Stand by for a tale more intense than any recent Hollywood paranormal shocker!

Esther's ordeal began in 1878 in the pleasant Nova Scotian town of Amherst...one of the last places one would imagine an outbreak of hellish phenomena would occur. At that time, she was 19 years old and in every respect seemed to be a plain, even drab young girl. She stayed in a rented house on Princess Street with a large brood of relatives. The de facto masters of the house were Esther's sister Olive and Olive's husband Daniel Teed. Olive and Daniel's two young children stayed with the family as well as Jennie and William, sister and brother to Esther and Olive as well as Daniel Teed's brother John. Quarters were tight, as you might expect, especially since the Teeds would also take in boarders to help pay the rent.

Esther's life before the haunting seemed to be unremarkable...with one notable exception. She made the acquaintance of a shady character named Bob MacNeal. MacNeal made advances towards Esther which she rebuffed. MacNeal then apparently either tried to rape the girl or physically beat her. Esther managed to fend MacNeal off and avoid being molested, suffering only a few minor bruises. But it was not long after this distasteful incident that the real horror began for Esther Cox..

As all terrible things seem to do, the haunting began in an innocuous way. The Teed house erupted in an uproar one night when the screams of Esther and Jennie brought everybody to the bedroom they shared. The girls had seen some object moving underneath the covers of their bed. Esther was convinced a mouse was in the bed, but Jennie was not so sure. The room was thoroughly searched but no mouse or any other animal was found. Things quieted down and the girls fell into an undisturbed sleep.

The next night, the house was again disturbed by screams from the two girls. This time they claimed that a box of fabric underneath their bed was haunted and producing loud bangs. When the nervous girls brought the box out into the open, it  seemed to leap into the air of its own accord. None of the adults who rushed into the room saw anything out of the ordinary and again the house on Princess Street settled into quiet.

The third consecutive night brought a new kind of horror, one that the other tenants could not chalk up to excited young girls letting their imagination get the better of them.  Esther went to bed early that evening, claiming she felt feverish. After 10 in the evening, she woke up in agony, screaming "What's happening to me? I'm dying!" What happened next surpassed the worst excesses of any horror movie...before the eyes of Jennie and Olive, Esther's skin began to stretch and bloat, becoming beet red and fiery hot to the touch. Esther could no longer speak and seemed to be choking to death. Just when it seemed she would split open from the grotesque swelling, four huge noises like claps of thunder seemed to come from under the bed and the bloating began to subside. Esther fell into a deep slumber that she did not waken from for almost a day.

Now the Amherst Haunting was under way in earnest and events would only become stranger and more dangerous from there. Word began to spread throughout the vicinity that something odd was happening in the Teed residence. Daniel Teed asked a local physician named Dr. Carritte to examine the girl and see what the physical cause of the events was. Carritte was to become a strong outside witness to some of the most uncanny events.

Four nights after the attack on Esther, Dr. Carritte and the rest of the family experienced another supernatural assault on the young girl. As Carritte was examining Esther, the loud "thunderclaps" again rang out and the pillow beneath Esther's head moved with no visible impetus. Clothes and bedsheets were thrown about the room and then, in one of the most frightening episodes, Esther and the doctor saw large letters appearing on the wall of the bedroom. The ghostly words could not be any more plain in their hostile intent. They said: ESTHER COX, YOU ARE MINE TO KILL

At this point, one might wonder why anybody would bother to stay in such a malevolently haunted house. But Esther and the Teeds tried to remain for a while. Dr. Carritte continued to try and support the family, but found himself unable to help Esther. The girl was literally being tortured by some evil spirit. She was slapped across the face by invisible hands, pins flew into Esther's cheeks and in another shocking attack, a pocket knife was  torn out of the hands of a visiting neighbor and was flung into Esther's back. Lit matches fell out of the ceiling of Esther's room and landed on her bed. Carritte wrote in his journal "I am certain I could not have believed such apparent miracles had I not witnessed them myself".

The Cox case was now gathering notoriety across Canada and even in the United States and Europe. The Teed house had a sort of circus atmosphere, as curious strangers, reporters and investigators visited on a daily, almost hourly basis. Many of these visitors swore affidavits that the odd phenomena in the house were true. Some were skeptical and came to try and prove that the whole incident was a hoax conjured up by Esther and the Teed Family. One such visitor was Walter Hubbell, a man who would have a profound part to play in the whole Amherst drama.

Hubbell was a fairly renowned actor in Canada with an interest in the unusual and eccentric. Hearing of the Cox case, he visited Amherst with the intention of proving the whole matter a hoax conjured up by the Teed family. He went to the trouble of actually renting a room in the Teed house so he could examine the matter first hand. What Hubbell saw in the house dramatically changed his view of the incident. After several days of hearing inexplicable noises, seeing objects fly across space and observing the obvious torment that Esther was going through, he became convinced that the haunting was authentic.

Hubbell wrote a book about the haunting called "The Great Amherst Mystery" where he provided the sworn affidavits of 16 witnesses to the bizarre occurences in addition to his own testimony. The book remains the best source of information on the Amherst Haunting to this day. We'll come back to Hubbell and the book in a bit.

Meantime, the spectral attacks on Esther and the other Teeds continued unabated. Esther could not even find relief in church. She visited a nearby Baptist church in hopes of relief, but as she sat in the back of the church, loud rapping and muffled booms mysteriously appeared. Defeated, the girl returned home,

Knowing that she was bringing much misery to her family, Esther tried moving out to see if that would change anything. She first moved into a neighbor's home and at
first, the phenomena eased. But it wasn't long before odd noises and levitating objects dogged her steps. Despite the ominous warning that earlier appeared on her bedroom walls, the really aggressive manifestations began to taper off. Esther was no longer having knives and pins thrown into her, but the invisible assailant was still making her miserable. She found lodging at a nearby farm under the condition that she could help with chores there.

There was no relief for Esther here, either. Within one month, the barn mysteriously burned to the ground and Esther was arrested for arson. The farmer did not believe that poltergeists set the fire and had Esther brought before a judge. She was sentenced to four months for arson, but the sentence was commuted to just one month. Esther served the month and it seems that the spirit that tormented her had had enough. There were no weird incidents during the imprisonment.

The worst had now passed. Returning to the Teed house, with all eyes upon her, there were only a few phantom knockings and rappings to be heard. A year after her release, all forms of haunting had ceased. She and the Teeds were free at last. Esther went on to have a fairly normal life, marrying twice, before passing away at the age of 53 in 1912.

Walter Hubbell released the first edition of his book about the Esther Cox incident in 1879, entitled "The Haunted House: A True Ghost Story". He later expanded and edited the book in 1888, changing the name to "The Great Amherst Mystery: A True Narrative Of The Super Natural". Hubbell's writing style tended to the florid and this has made many people suspcious of his version of events. However, the time line he establishes was corroborated by many others and 16 sworn affidavits accompanied the book. More than 100 years on, there are those who think Hubbell embellished things to make for a juicier story.

A look at newspapers and magazines of the time shows how much publicity the Cox case gathered. There were many passionate debates about what was going on in Amherst, with some accusing Esther, the Teed family and almost every resident of Amherst of being in on a big hoax while others strongly defended it as almost irrefutable proof of the supernatural.

A hoax is not impossible but very improbable. It would certainly take more than just Esther herself to pull off something on such a scale, for such a long period of time. Also, she was physically abused by the poltergeist attacks, sometimes to the point of having knives and pins thrust into her. It is also not impossible that a mentally unstable person would "mutilate" themselves for publicity. In Esther's case, though, many others swore to the events occuring in the Teed house. Members of her immediate family might be suspected of collaborating with her, but would Dr. Carritte, a highly respected physician, also be in on it? As well as many strangers and reporters?

Eliminating a hoax, what then was the force that assaulted Esther Cox? The entity (or entities) never identified themselves. It was never suggested that it was the ghost of a former tenant. The Teed house was not known to be located on "haunted ground". Many believed the entity could have been a demon. But Esther never showed any signs of "possession". Although she was tormented and terrified by the events, her mind was always her own. No supernatural force "spoke" through her.

One very interesting theory is that the "poltergeist" was actually a telekinetic manifestation of Esther's own subconscious. The haunting began after her near rape at the hands of Bob MacNeal. Esther was an admittedly awkward adolescent forced to deal with a kind of psychic and sexual trauma. Did this ignite some kind of latent telekinetic power within her...a primal force in her mind that lashed out in self-loathing at herself and others near her? Many cases of poltergeist activity have taken place in the vicinity of disturbed children. Perhaps Esther herself was the unwitting creator of her torment...a mental illness given violent physical form by immense psychic power. After Esther's stay in prison, perhaps her inner demons decided that she had suffered enough and that portion of her mind simply "shut down".

That remains speculation, though. The truth of the Amherst Haunting will never precisely be known. But one thing is a certainty and that is that is was one of the most notorious and well-documented poltergeist incidents in history.

This is Dr. Abner Mality, turning out the lights.