The surprising truth behind Canada’s most famous ghost story.
Today we’re going to go back in time nearly two centuries, to the Great Lakes region of Canada. What is today an expanse of flat, rectangular agricultural fields cleft by winding rivers was then a land of wild green abundance, and the white settlers were blending in with the native Ojibwe peoples. In 1829, the family of John McDonald had a picturesque two-story frame house in a Scottish settlement named Baldoon, near the town of Wallaceburg, Ontario. The story goes that the family suffered an extraordinary series of poltergeist attacks culminating in their house being burned to the ground; whereupon they moved in with their father nearby only to have the attacks continue unabated. While many Canadians today still consider the Baldoon Mystery to be their greatest ghost story, it leaves skeptical researchers an interesting problem on how to regard stories that are so old and so thinly documented.
The Baldoon story has been told and retold so many times over the centuries, and written up in so many histories by so many different authors, that there is considerable variance among the versions. But the gist of the tale is like this. Disturbances began plaguing the family in 1829, mainly consisting of small objects like lead bullets striking people harmlessly as if thrown by unseen hands. But the disturbances increased to a nearly constant bombardment, as described by Neil McDonald, John’s son, who wrote it up in his book:
The dishes of water would rise of their own accord from the table, the tongs and shovel bang against each other on the hearth, the chairs and tables fall over with a loud crash, and even that sober domestic creature, the kettle on the hearth, would toss off its lid, tip over on one side, and suddenly, as if seized by unseen hands, dash itself in a paroxysm of fury on the floor. An Indian knife, with a blade ten inches long, was violently dashed against the window frame and its blade stuck fast in the casement.
Neil wrote of many visitors who witnessed such incidents firsthand, and even included the statements offered by 26 family members, relatives, and neighbors who were there and were party to the strange events. But the worst was yet to come:
At last, one day the crisis came. Worn out with anxious watching, the unhappy man was becoming desperate, when flames burst from a dozen sources in his dwelling. No time to save his household goods; the fire razed his habitation to the ground. Not even his coat was saved, and he saw the home to which he had so lately led his happy bride, bouyant with future hope, strewed to the winds in ashes.
The family moved in with John McDonald’s father next door, but the events persisted. Neil wrote about the thrown objects as if they were nearly constant, especially the strange cases of objects like rocks and bullets being thrown in wet as if they’d just been taken from the river outside. Sometimes, the family would mark such stones and throw them back into the river, only to have them thrown back in later with the same markings; an event strange enough to safely exclude any mere human mischief as the cause.
The family moved out again, finding no refuge in a new temporary home, and so resolved to return and stay in a tent outside their own home. A number of authorities came to the house . . .