Graham pieces together facts of infamous local ‘spook’ story

Published on October 11, 2013

Pictou County author Monica Graham deftly tries her hand at explaining the unexplainable in Fire Spook: The Mysterious Nova Scotia Haunting (Nimbus, $15.95.)

By Rosalie MacEachern

For The News

Graham, with a journalistic, fact-collecting approach, painstakingly tries to piece together what happened when mysterious fires and other mischief drove a respectable family from its home near Caledonia Mills, close by the Antigonish-Guysborough county line in 1922. It is a story that exists in countless versions and under names ranging from Mary Ellen Spook, to the Caledonia Mills Spook, the Bochdan of Caledonia Mills to simply, Spook Farm. It is also a story that has come down through the generations, told in Gaelic and in English, in country farmhouses, public meeting rooms and university residences for almost a century. If ever the goings on at the farm could be explained, it is about 90 years too late, the story having grown too large and too nebulous to ever be pieced together.

But that does not stop Graham from assembling, in a well-organized narrative, what information still exists to fashion an interesting 120-page account of the occurrences at the farm and equally as interesting, the various efforts from across North America to explain them.

Graham is at her best in introducing Alec MacDonald, his wife Janet Cameron and their adopted daughter Mary Ellen MacDonald whose father was killed by a falling box of coal in the Drummond Colliery in Westville. Alec and Janet had a connection to the family, and as was often done in those days, they took one of the four children into their care. The MacDonalds were plagued, to a degree that can no longer be substantiated, by nuisance occurrences such as cows loosened from their stanchions and household items disappearing but in 1922 they were subjected to mysterious, relentless fires that ultimately drove them from their home.

Compelling, eye-witness accounts of the fires that plagued the family are recounted by Graham who goes on to explain how word of the strange occurrences spread, bringing reporters and investigators to the MacDonald property. The Chronicle Herald, relying on accounts from Antigonish reporter Harold Whidden, announced a campaign to solve the mystery. Pictou Detective Peachey Carroll, about whom Graham has written previously, and American parapsychologist Walter Prince both spent time at the farm in an attempt to explain the happenings. Peachey concluded the fires were not the work of human hands while Princeton said Mary Ellen was responsible.

Graham documents the MacDonalds’ lives after they left the farm and examines the various theories put forth to explain the forces that so disrupted them. Some of the theories, she acknowledges, are as equally unlikely as evil spirits at work but it is interesting to see how investigators formulated their theories by relying heavily on certain pieces of evidence or personal accounts while discounting others.

It seems that anyone who writes about this particular mystery is compelled to point fingers at new suspects, usually on the basis of questionable conclusions, as Carroll MacIntyre did in his 1985 book. Graham falls into the same trap when she suggests a neighbour, who was never implicated, may have been responsible for letting the MacDonalds’ cows loose. Some might consider it one step over the line in an otherwise very entertaining, well-written book. Read in the cold light of day, it is a fascinating look at the misery unexplained events and other people’s reactions to the events visited on a seemingly happy family. Read late on a stormy night, it is apt to be much more unsettling.