Poltergeists in Canada: Part III
Due to popular demand, and since the season is appropriate, I’ve decided to put together a third and final article on Canadian poltergeists (final for now, at least). If you’d like to read my first article on the Great Amherst Mystery or my latest piece on three Nova Scotian poltergeists, please check out the links in this sentence.
The Difference Between Ghosts and Poltergeists
The author of this article is painfully aware of the good-natured disdain with which a skeptic might read an essay purporting to explain the difference between ghosts and poltergeists- an exposition perhaps not dissimilar, in his or her mind, to an attempt by Winnie the Pooh to elucidate the difference between Heffalumps and Woozles. This author also hopes that such scorn might be tempered by the knowledge that the essay in question, which the next five paragraphs will comprise, is based not on some supposed insight into the nature of these alleged supernatural entities, but rather on the observation that ghost stories tend to fall into at least two different categories.
If you’ve ever read through a collection of regional ghost stories, you may have noticed certain trends that the stories generally tend to follow. For example, an unusual number of ghost stories take place in hotels, bars, and theatres. Tragic death is a common theme, and a setting with a long and colourful history is often a requisite.
The ghosts in most of these stories, of course, appear to be immaterial remnants of the dead. Often they only manifest as cold spots, “a presence”, or distinct scents. Other times, they will make audible footsteps, turn on the lights or the taps, or rearrange furniture. And every once in a while they will appear to people, either as reflections in glass or mirrors, etc., or as apparitions in various stages of detail and completeness.
Although they sometimes interact with the living, ghosts often do so in a manner suggesting that they are unaware that they are dead. They will go about their business as they did in life, giving people directions, lounging in their favourite chairs, and disappearing through doors that no longer exist. When they manifest, it is often to make some trivial remark, to ask someone to leave, or to simply make their presence known.
Poltergeists, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. Unlike ghost stories, which often take place in settings with old and turbulent histories, poltergeist stories are just as likely to take place in an 8-year-old condo as they are in an 800-year-old castle. Poltergeist stories typically consist of loud, obnoxious, and unexplainable noises coupled with the motion of inanimate objects absent of some discernable outside force, suggesting the actions of an invisible prankster bent on mischief and troublemaking. These stories almost always take place in residential settings, and one almost invariable concomitant to them is the presence of a young lady around whom the activity seems to concentrate.
To those of you who have read my previous articles on the subject and already know all of this, I apologize for the repetitiveness. Without further ado, here are a few more great Canadian poltergeist stories. Enjoy!
The Haunting of Barbe Hallay
Canada’s oldest recorded poltergeist activity took place in 1661 in Beauport, Quebec. Today, Beauport is a borough of Quebec City. Back in 1661, however, when Quebec City was a much smaller settlement of less than 3,000 souls, Beauport was a separate village located a short ride through the woods from what was then the capital of New France.
The story of this haunting begins in the year 1660, when a ship filled with French colonists pulled into the Port of Quebec. One of the passengers aboard this vessel was a miller named Daniel Vuil- a former Huguenot, or French Protestant, who apparently converted to Catholicism (the religion of majority in New France) during the voyage. Another passenger was a 15-year-old girl named Barbe Hallay.
During the voyage from France, Vuil had asked Hallay’s parents for permission to marry their daughter. Believing the former Huguenot to be morally destitute, however, the parents refused, much to Vuil’s irritation. In a contemporary letter to her son, Mother Marie Guyart (better known today as Saint Marie of the Incarnation; a widow-turned-Ursuline nun who headed the Ursuline Monastery of Quebec) wrote (in French):
“This appeared on the occasion of a gentleman who had passed from France at the same time as our lord Bishop, and to whom his excellency had caused the heresy to be abjured, because he was Huguenot. This man wanted to marry a girl who had passed with her father and mother in the same vessel, saying that she had been promised him; because he was a man of bad morals, he was never wanted to listen.”
When they reached Quebec, Daniel Vuil and Barbe Hallay went their separate ways, the former re-establishing himself as a miller in Beauport and the latter finding employment as a maid in the manor of a local lord named Giffart.
In 1661, strange things began to take place in the Giffart manor. Phantom flutes began to play to the beat of an invisible drum. Stones began to fall from the manor’s walls and fly about the place with incredible velocity, miraculously failing to injure anyone in the household. It soon became clear that this strange activity seemed to revolve around 16-year-old Barbe Hallay.
Instead of accusing the girl of witchcraft as their New English counterparts would later do to some of their own women in Salem, Massachusetts, the French colonists accused Daniel Vuil of sorcery. They claimed that the miller had cast spells on Miss Hallay in order to corrupt her so that she might be more inclined to accept his marriage proposal. This accusation was based solely upon Barbe Hallay’s allegation that, at night, she was often tormented by spirits that were only visible to her. These spirits appeared to her as men, women, children, animals, and hellish spectres, and would sometimes speak through her in a voice that was not her own. Foremost among these phantoms was a spirit bearing the likeness of Daniel Vuil.
In the year following his immigration to New France, Vuil had done a poor job of ingratiating himself with his fellow colonists. He had reverted back to his original Protestant faith, thereby committing a grave sin in the eyes of his Catholic compatriots. To make matters worse, he had been caught selling brandy to local Algonquin Indians in exchange for furs- at that time, a serious offence in New France. When Barbe Hallay accused him of sorcery, Francois de Laval, the Bishop of Quebec, ordered that Vuil be arrested and imprisoned in the capital. After a trial, the Huguenot was sentenced to death, and on October 7, 1661, Daniel Vuil was executed via arquebus- a matchlock musket common in the 17th Century. To this day, historians are divided on whether the miller was executed for his apostasy, for selling liquor to the natives, or for the crime of sorcery- none of which warranted the death penalty in New France at the time.
As for Barbe Hallay, she was locked in the Hotel-Dieu de Quebec, a hospital in Quebec City run by nuns. There, she was entrusted to the care of Mother Catherine de Saint-Augustine, a French nun venerated today by the Catholic Church. Mother Catherine knew a thing or two about hauntings; by the time of Hallay’s arrival at the Hotel-Dieu, the nun had purportedly been the victim of demon
attacks for nearly a decade.
Mother Catherine quickly diagnosed Barbe Hallay with a case of demonic possession. For two long years, she prayed for the girl. Hallay’s demons are said to have physically attacked the nun for this, leaving her with cuts and bruises. When their assaults failed to dissuade her from her task, the demons adopted other methods by which to put an end to her ministry. According to Jesuit missionary Paul Ragueneau, who wrote Mother Catherine’s biography in 1671:
“Those unhappy demons, unable to intimidate her with all their threats, tried to surprise [her] by changing themselves into angels of light, in order to delude her.
This ruse failed as well. Finally, through what Mother Catherine claimed to be the intercession of the spirit of Father Jean de Brebeuf (a French Jesuit missionary who was martyred on the shores of Georgian Bay by Iroquois warriors in 1649), Barbe Hallay was cured of her affliction.
In 1889, a simple farmer named George Henry Dagg lived with his family in a cottage on the Ottawa River about eleven kilometres from the town of Shawville, Quebec. His household consisted of his wife, Susan; his 5-year-old daughter, Mary; his 2-year-old son, Johnny; and his 11-year-old adopted daughter, Dinah Burden McLean.
Dinah McLean was a poor orphan from Glasgow, Scotland, whom the Dagg family had adopted through the Child Immigration Scheme, a program developed by philanthropist to address poverty in Great Britain. George and Susan Dagg had decided to welcome Dinah into their family not only out of charity, but also with the expectation that they would have a little extra help around the farm. As it turned out, they got more than they bargained for.
On September 15, 1889, George Dagg gave his wife a $5 bill and a $2 bill and asked her to tuck them away in a bedroom drawer. Susan did as her husband requested.
The following day, George was approached by an orphan boy named Dean, whom he had hired to do chores around the farm. Dean gave the farmer a $5 bill, which he claimed he had found on the kitchen floor. Upon close inspection, George determined that the bill was the same one he had given his wife the previous day.
Suspicious, Dagg checked the drawer in which his wife had secreted the bills. As he suspected, the $5 was missing. Even more disconcerting, however, was the fact that the $2 bill seemed to be missing as well. The 35-year-old farmer rounded on Dean and accused him of stealing the money. Indignant, the boy stoutly proclaimed his innocence. George Dagg was unconvinced. He stormed over to the children’s bedroom and threw back the quilt on Dean’s bed, revealing the tiny face of Frederick Hamilton-Templeton-Blackwood, Earl of Dufferin and Governor General of Canada, staring pensively into the distance, surmounted on a white banknote. Sure enough, it appeared that Dean had hidden the missing $2 bill between his bedsheets. After administering a harsh tongue-lashing to the suspected thief, George snatched up the bill and returned it to the drawer.
In the days following the incident, strange things began to take place on the Dagg farm. Milk buckets were emptied, butter disappeared from jars, and human waste from the outhouse began to appear in the house, smeared across the kitchen floor. George Dagg believed the pranks to be the work of young Dean, who was perhaps angry at having been caught stealing. Accordingly, he had the boy arrested, taken before the Shawville magistrate, and locked up in the local jail.
The malicious pranks continued to take place on the Dagg farm in Dean’s absence, proving the orphan’s innocence beyond a doubt. At George’s recommendation, Dean was released. Understandably, the boy did not return to the farm.
Following Dean’s release, George Dagg asked his parents, who lived on their own farm two miles away, to stay with his family for a few days while he went out to thresh his wheat from the harvest. The elderly couple agreed. No sooner had they settled in, however, than a rock came sailing through a window from outside, shattering the glass. John Dagg, George’s father, stole outside the farmhouse and hid behind a stump, determined to catch the culprit red-handed. As he watched and waited for any sign of movement, another window pane exploded. Try as he might, John Dagg could find no sign of the vandal.
The old farmer decided to change his position. He crept over to the barn, removed a wall board from inside, and peered out at the farmhouse through the gap. As he watched, more windows in the house began to explode, seemingly on their own.
“Father,” called Susan Dagg, “you may as well come in. The glass is still breaking.”
Over the next few days, more extraordinary occurrences began to take place. Fires began to break out spontaneously in the Dagg home. Dishes were mysteriously smashed and water buckets were emptied. On one occasion, the elusive tormentor splashed a pitcher of cold water into Susan’s face. Another time, 5-year-old Mary opened the front door, only to be struck square in the chest by a large flying stone which strangely failed to harm her.
Although every member of the Dagg family suffered from the mysterious manifestations, it soon became clear that 11-year-old Dinah McLean was the main object of the prankster’s amusement. One day, she screamed that somebody was pulling her hair. When Susan rushed to her aid, she found that Dinah’s braid had been almost completely severed, as if it had been sawn through with a knife.
On another occasion, while George’s mother, Mary Dagg, was cleaning the children’s bedroom, Dinah shrieked, “Oh, Grandmother, see the big black thing pulling off the bedclothes!” The old lady looked where Dinah was pointing and could see no such black thing. What she did see were the bedsheets floating in midair, as if held up by invisible hands.
“Where is it, Dinah?” the grandmother asked.
“Why, don’t you see him?” cried Dinah in a panic. “He is jumping over the bedstead.”
Old Mary Dagg pressed a bullwhip into Dinah’s hand. “Strike him, child,” she ordered. “Take courage, and strike him hard.”
With her grandmother urging her on, Dinah McLean swung at the shadow which only she could see. The commotion drew the attention of a neighbouring farmer named Arthur Smart who, upon witnessing the spectacle, added his own encouragement to that of old Mrs. Dagg. “Lay it on him, Dinah!” he hollered.
After one particularly vicious blow, everyone in the room, including a young boy who accompanied Smart, heard a strident squeal like that of a pig. Once the horrible sound died out, Dinah claimed that the black figure had vanished.
Despite the thrashing it received, or perhaps because of it, the mysterious entity began to pester the Dagg family with renewed vigour. Beds were torn apart by invisible hands. Rocking chairs oscillated with wild abandon. Harmonicas played by themselves. Visitors were pelted with potatoes. One day, a sheet of paper was found pinned to the wall bearing the message: “You gave me fifteen cuts”.
Eventually, the farmers decided to seek the services of a local clergyman named Reverend Horner. Horner paid a visit to the farmhouse and, in an effort to exercise the demon, opened up his prayer book and began to read passages from sacred scripture. While he read, the book from which he was reading vanished from his hand. A subsequent search found the book in the oven. Shaken to the core, the minister sank to his knees and prayed for half an hour that God might “life [His] heavy hand” from the house.
Despite Reverend Horner’s entreaties, the uncanny manifestations continued. Determined to put an end to the mischief, George Dagg made a 170-kilometre journey southeast into Ontario to consult a famous folk healer reputed to have the “Second Sight”; known locally as the Witch of Plum Hollow. After a long séance in her tiny cottage, the wizened old lady assured the farmer that his manifestations were the result of black magic practiced by a neighbouring widow and her two children. The object of their incantations was Dinah McLean.
The only neighbour fitting this description was a widow named Mrs. Wallace, who lived in her late husband’s farmhouse with her two children. George Dagg could see of no reason why the Wallace family would harbour ill will against Dinah. When he confronted her, Mrs. Wallace denied that she had ever dabbled in the dark arts and paid a visit to the Dagg home to prove that she had no grudge against the Scottish orphan.
By the end of October, the story of Dagg’s Demon, as it was popularly referred to, had piqued the interest of regional journalists. Reporters who made the long carriage ride out to the Dagg farm to interview the family and their neighbours learned that the manifestations were common knowledge to the people of Shawville, Quebec, and had been witnessed by many people. One local named James Quinn related his own strange experience at the Dagg house to a newspaperman, who quoted him as saying:
“I had a halter in my hand… and before going into the house I laid the halter on the doorstep. After chatting with the family a few minutes, I went outside and found that my halter was gone. I thought someone had hidden it for a joke, but after appealing to the people who were there and getting a declaration from them that they had not seen it, I gave my halter up for lost. As I was standing in front of the house discussing my loss with Mrs. John Dagg, Mrs. George Dagg, and Miss Mary Smart, we suddenly heard a slight noise in the air, and the halter fell down in our midst.”
In early October, 1889, the manifestations graduated to a new and terrifying level. One day, 5-year-old Mary claimed that she saw a man with hooves and the head of a bull standing in the front doorway. On another occasion, Mary caught this same Minotaur-like figure pouring sugar into the oven. “Want to come to Hell with me?” the creature asked her with a ghoulish grin. Dinah also claimed to have seen this frightening figure, as well as a giant black dog with red eyes which lurked outside the farmhouse.
Although the adults of the Dagg family were unable to see the unearthly apparitions, they were able to hear the entity, which spoke in the rough, gravelly voice of an old man. The language it used was rude and obscene, especially when directed at Dinah.
In November, an accomplished impressionist painter and sometime journalist named Percy Woodcock travelled from home in Brockville, Ontario, to the Dagg farm in the hopes of documenting the manifestations. He arrived at the farm on Saturday, November 14, 1889. Shortly after his arrival, he met with Dinah, who informed him that her family’s ethereal tormentor had just spoken to her near the shed. Woodcock accompanied Dinah to the place.
“Are you there, Mister?” Dinah called once they reached the shed. To Woodcock’s astonishment, a gruff male voice growled: “I am the Devil. I’ll have you in my clutches! Get out of here or I’ll break your neck.”
After recovering from his shock, Woodcock bravely admonished the voice, exhorting it against using such foul language in the presence of a child. In response, the voice issued a torrent of curses. At Woodcock’s insistence, the invisible entity picked up a pencil and scribbled on a piece of paper that the artist provided, spelling out more obscenities.
For five hours, Woodcock verbally tilted with the disembodied voice, shaming it for its vulgarity and imploring it to be more civil. Through hours of ruthless grilling, he and other members of the Dagg family who joined him managed to extract from the voice a confession that the principal purpose for its mischief was its own amusement. It claimed that it never intended to hurt any of the family members, and only lit fires in the daytime, when they could be easily discovered and extinguished. At one point, the voice also declared that it was actually the spirit of an 80-year-old man who had died twenty years prior. The voice whispered its name to both John and George Dagg, but swore them to secrecy on pain of horrible death. The father and son did not test the entity’s threat.
Sometime during the course of the conversation, it occurred to Percy Woodcock that the extraordinary phenomenon might be the result of some incredibly talented ventriloquism on Dinah’s part. In order to test this, he had Dinah fill her mouth with water. Despite this, the voice continued to mock him and curse at him as loudly and clearly as ever.
During this five-hour dialogue, much of which took place inside the Dagg’s farmhouse, the mysterious voice echoed the proclamation of the Witch of Plum Hollow, declaring that it had been summoned by Mrs. Wallace and her children. It further claimed that the Wallace children, on their mother’s orders, had buried a book of spells in a nearby swamp. When Mrs. Wallace heard of the accusations the voice had made against her and her children, she brought her family out to the Dagg farm and berated the voice for lying. Her fearless children similarly sassed the entity.
Eventually, in response to repeated entreaties by Percy Woodcock, the voice agreed to leave the Dagg family in peace after midnight the following day. Word of this announcement circulated throughout Shawville, and by Sunday evening, more than fifty locals had congregated at the Dagg farm.
One of the bystanders who had come to see Dagg’s Demon off was a Baptist minister named Reverend Bell. As soon as Bell arrived at the farm, the mysterious voice piped up, calling into question Bell’s fitness as a religious minister. Terrified, Bell began to read passages of scripture, which the voice recited along with him. When the Reverend began to pray aloud for protection against evil spirits, the voice became enraged, demanding to know on what authority the minister decreed it an evil spirit. With that, Reverend Bell fled the farm.
Following Bell’s departure, the voice claimed that it was actually an angel. In order to prove this to the bystanders, it revealed a secret which one man’s daughter had told him on her deathbed. That accomplished, it proceeded to sing a hymn in a sweet, angelic soprano completely different from the deep, coarse voice it had been using. Its new voice was purportedly so beautiful that it reduced many local women to tears.
Finally, at around 3:00 in the morning, the voice bid its audience farewell. Before it ceased, it promised to visit Dinah McLean and Mary and Johnny Dagg the following morning. Before the crowd dispersed, Percy Woodcock convinced seventeen gentlemen well respected in the community to sign an affidavit confirming all that they had witnessed.
The following morning, while Percy Woodcock was preparing to leave, Dinah McLean and the two littlest Dagg children ran to the farmhouse and told their parents that they had just seen a beautiful old man with long white hair clad in shining white garments. After saying kind words to Johnny, the man raised his arms and disappeared into the sky in a flash of fire.
In the wake of its departure, the nature of Dagg’s Demon was hotly contested not only locally, but also in major newspapers in both Canada and the United States. Many believed that Dagg’s Demon was a hoax perpetrated by Dinah McLean, whom they maintained must be an extraordinarily talented ventriloquist. Others, including many members of the Dagg family, believed that the manifestations were the work of the Devil. Whatever the case, the strange entity never returned to pester the Dagg family again.
And what of Dinah Maclean? Following the departure of their Demon, George and Susan Dagg shipped their adopted daughter off to the Fairknowe Orphan’s Home in Brockville, Ontario. The details of her life following her discharge from the orphanage remain a mystery.
The Poltergeist of Prince Edward Island
From late January to late February, 1910, newspapers across the eastern United States and the American Midwest published variations of an article detailing the strange case of Chinene, a 20-year-old woman who lived with her brothers on a farm in the tiny Acadian settlement of New Zealand, Prince Edward Island.
According to the article, these strange occurrences were precipitated by an announcement by Chinene’s eldest brother that he intended to marry a certain young woman in the neighbourhood. Chinene, who was not particularly fond of her brother’s new fiancé, burst into a fit of rage, declaring that she “would as soon have a devil in the family as that girl”.
That very night, after all in the household had gone to bed, strange noises sounded throughout the farmhouse. The sound was akin to the rolling of distant thunder. It rose in a steady crescendo until it resembled the sound of a boxer pounding away on a speed bag, before slowing dying out again. All of a sudden, Chinene started shrieking in her bedroom. Her brothers rushed to her assistance, afraid that she was being murdered.
When the brothers opened the door to their sister’s bedroom, they found Chinene floating in midair several feet above her bed, babbling almost incoherently and using words that she would never use in ordinary conversation. The brothers watched in astonishment as their sister slowly floated back into her bed and slipped into a deep slumber.
The following morning, the brothers asked Chinene about what had occurred the previous night. To their amazement, their sister remembered nothing of the incident. Afraid that they might be delusional, the brothers thenceforth kept the incident to themselves.
Night after night, more strange occurrences took place in the farmhouse. Word of the mysterious manifestations reached local farmers, and soon Chinene and her brothers found themselves hosting scores of locals who came to witness the strange phenomena.
Many people from New Zealand, Prince Edward Island, witnessed things at the farmhouse that they could not explain. Chinene would sometimes slip into traces in which she apparently developed clairvoyant powers. In this state, she could accurately guess the number of coins in people’s hands and recite the contents of letters folded up in people’s pockets.
Soon, mysterious fires began to break out in neighbouring barns. In addition to causing tremendous property damage, these infernos killed a large number of livestock. The victims of these arson attacks blamed the fires on Chinene, prompting her brothers to search desperately for a cure for their sister’s ailment.
First, Chinene’s brothers called in a local doctor. When the doctor’s ministrations proved ineffective, the brothers sought the assistance of a priest named Father Walker, who lived in the nearby village of Rollo Bay. Father Walker’s prayers similarly seemed to have little effect on Chinene’s condition.
Eventually, the brothers managed to convince a well-known Charlottetown physician named Dr. Peter Conroy, considered by many to be the foremost physician in the province, to examine their sister. When Dr. Conroy was unable to affect a cure, he theorized that Chinene, as a result of the jealousy she felt towards her prospective sister-in-law, had somehow unconsciously developed the ability to hypnotize those around her and impregnate their minds with delusions.
Following Dr. Conroy’s fruitless efforts to cure Chinene of her malady, the young woman was hauled away to the Falconer Insane Asylum in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Her fate remains a mystery to this day.
The Haunting of Barbe Hallay
- Sorcery in New France, by Andre Pelchat, in the December 2015 issue of the magazine Canada’s History
- Witchcraft in New France in the Seventeenth Century: The Social Aspect, by Jonathan L. Pearl in the Winter 1977 issue of the journal Historical Reflections
- Le Meunier, La Domestique et L’Hospitaliere: Entre Magie, Possession, et Obsession en Nouvelle-France (2010), by Vincent Gregoire
- Are You Sure There Are No Ghosts? by R.S. Lambert in the December 1, 1953 issue of McLean’s magazine
- Ghostly Pranks Well Attested: Strange Persecution of a Canadian Family by a Thing Without Form or Name, in the January 12, 1890 issue of the New York Herald, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
- Dagg’s Demon, by Paul Cropper and Tony Healy, in the September 2016 issue of Fortean Times
The Poltergeist of Prince Edward Island
- Possessed by a Devil: Remarkable Case of Young Woman in Prince Edward Island, in the February 20, 1910 issue of the Washington Post, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
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