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The Antigonish Poltergeist: Ghostly attacks and strange fires.

Updated on April 15, 2013

This is an interesting case which seems to have the fingerprints of the Cosmic Joker who gave us the Brentford Griffin and Crop Circles. The case involves poltergeists, dissenting investigators and a strange coincidence.

The account here is based on the article by Theo Paijmans in Fortean Times for December 2009 where you can find the references in detail but proposes a few theories which must be speculative given the time since the events occurred. I do not have access to the original materials and there are a number of questions in my mind about the details of the case

What happened

Around Mid January 1922 the Farm of Alexander McDonald in Antigonish, Nova Scotia acquired a poltergeist. Iniiitally the house was plagued by mysterious fires forcing the family to move out. The poltergeist also manifested itself over the whole area of Antigonish. According to the Racine Journal-News of 15th March 1922 and the Olean Evening Herald of 16th March it braided the tails of cows, chased horses till they were lathered with sweat, started fires, bewitched cattle, ate large quantities of stored food and plagued the house with rattling and tapping.

MacDonald and a local police officer called Carrol claimed to have been slapped in the face by an unseen presence, as were a second police officer, Ms 'Peachie' Macdonald, and a reporter Harold Whidden, during a night time visit to the house.

The events split naturally into events within the house: The fires, rattling and tapping and the face slapping, and events outside the house.

Investigators disagree

The first thorough investigation was by Author and Scientist J. O'Brien who concluded the phenomena were the result of a “Strong Wireless Current” between two large radio stations in the area which ran through the valley where the farm stood. He then decided the Adopted Daugher of the MacDonalds, 15 year old Mary Ellen – described as having the mind of a child of four, was the cause of the incidents and had braided the tails of cows and horses thinking it was good fun. He also predicted a second investigator. Dr Walter Franklin Prince would come to the same conclusion.

The next investigator, Dr Prince, was Director of the American Institute for Science Research and had been asked to help by the reporter the ghost had slapped in the face. Price spent three nights in the place then delivered a report which concluded, by examining the locations where the fires started that the fires were started by a person no taller than Mary Ellen and that Mary Ellen had started the fires, braided the animals tails and shifted the farm stock while in an altered state of consciousness, possibly brought about by a discarnate intelligence. The slaps experienced by Whidden and Carroll “were probably of a supernormal character” but not necessarily the work of a spirit. He attributed it to “ A psycho-physiological cause which is perfectly natural though inperfectly normal”, which I note is a very strange form of wording that Paijmans interprets as hinting that the victims may either have slapped each other or imagined being slapped. He also ruled out the wireless current theory.

Arthur Conan Doyle agreed with Princes Theories but felt that Mary Ellen was merely the medium of a ghost, probably that of a mischievous boy and also noted that the case was almost a duplicate of an earlier case in Amherst, Nova Scotia. He concluded that Mary Ellen exuded a power that was used by something malevolent or mischievous.

Provisional Conclusions

It seems likely that Mary Ellen was responsible for at least some incidents, though detailed evidence of times of the incidents in the wider area might eliminate her from consideration for these but would almost certainly be impossible to obtain, even at the time. Prince said that she was in an altered state of consciousness, which could have been sleepwalking, and Prince and Doyle entertained the possibility that she was the medium of a ghost. To me this sounds like hinting at the possibility she was possessed. Doyle also noted that the case duplicated the Earlier Amherst case.

The wireless theory of O'Brien is consistent with the modern findings that high levels of electromagnetic fields can result in poltergeist like activity and these may have played a part in the phenomena. Princes dismissal of the theory however is understandable as Radio was a new technology at the time.

Speculative explanations include that Mary Ellen set the fires while seleepwalking and unconsciously choreographed the phenomena using the energy supplied by the radio current and that the radio current and her intellectual impairment allowed a roaming spirit, perhaps the one involved in the Amherst case, to manifest as a poltergeist and to use Mary Ellen's body as a tool for setting the fires, since the area did not have enough energy to let it manifest independently. Nevertheless it seems a satisfactory theory will never be found.

A few months later Mary Ellen was apparently caught by provincial officials trying to start a fire and committed to an asylum. Eventually she married and moved to Ontairo where she died in her seventies


In 1913 a similar  but totally unconnected case occurred in Missoula, Canada where a farm owned by an unrelated Alex MacDonald with an adopted daughter Mary Ellen. The reported phenomena however were limited to  a series of knockings from the room next to that where their Mary Ellen slept. The knockings seem to have been produced by Mary Ellen.  A few months later their farm burned down. Maybe there really was a poltergeist there. 

Another coincidence is that Dr Princes house also had a Poltergeist that rocked beds, produced raps and imitated  the sound of a man with  one leg shorter than another: They found a man with such feature had died there 15 years earlier. Dr Princes 15 year old daugher was also described as psychic, raising the possibility that Mary Ellen was psychic but unable to control her powers. 

The (w)rap

The Cosmic joker has been at work causing problems for two almost identical families. It would be interesting to know if there was a poltergeist 'flap' in the area at the time. The events appear to have been produced by Mary Ellen but two investigators considered the possibility of some form of possession, akin to channelling.

Was there a flap of hauntings in the area?

Was Mary Ellen Possessed?

Were there unusual electric phenomena in the area?

I think we will never know.


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    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Yes, Electromagnetic fields may explain some poltergeist cases, though probably not those from say medieval times.

      I have a feeling the Poltergeist phenomenon is multiple phenomena with similar characteristics

    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Yes, Electromagnetic fields may explain some poltergeist cases, though probably not those from say medieval times.

      I have a feeling the Poltergeist phenomenon is multiple phenomena with similar characteristics

    • profile image

      Punit 6 years ago

      it is surprising wikipedia does not include more than a mention of electromagnetic fields on the page about Poltergeists