It’s been almost 200 years since stories of poltergeists and flying objects gripped southern Lambton County, but those unexplained events continue to fascinate today’s researchers.
Historians Rick Fehr and Christopher Laursen recently described the wealth of material written about the John Taylor McDonald farm in Sombra Township, and much of it can be found at the Lambton County archives, they said.
The unseen forces that terrorized the McDonald family for two years are exceptionally well documented, said Laursen, who has studied poltergeists for 15 years.
The Baldoon Mystery, as it’s known, is consistent with poltergeist phenomena reported in modern times, he said.
McDonald and his family were among Lambton’s first European settlers, having arrived from Scotland in 1804 to colonize the Baldoon Settlement.
The community was founded largely on swampland, and malaria wiped out many early inhabitants. Others despaired over the poor farming conditions and left. But John McDonald stayed with his wife and young family to try to make a go of it.
In 1829, trouble of a different sort began. The McDonald women were working in a barn when three poles from the roof inexplicably fell to the ground, narrowly missing them. They ran away terrified.
Soon, unexplained noises were a common occurrence. Lying in their beds, the family would repeatedly hear the sound of men marching to battle in the kitchen. The baby’s cradle rocked violently, and couldn’t be stopped even with the effort of three men.
Rocks and bullets frequently flew through windows, as witnessed by numerous visitors to the house. The family marked the rocks and threw them in the river, only to have the same rocks come back through the glass minutes later.
In frustration, McDonald boarded up the windows, but the rocks flew through the boards.
Fires would ignite without explanation, sometimes as many as 12 at a time.
It became clear that someone or something wanted the family to leave. So they moved to a relative’s home nearby, but the hauntings followed them there.
As news of the strange events spread people came to see for themselves. Some gave eyewitness accounts that survive to this day.
Neil McDonald, one of John’s children, provided the most detailed account, having lived through it as a boy. He waited for his father to die 30 years later, then interviewed 26 witnesses and wrote a book. Five people said they witnessed the flying stones, marked them, and saw them return through the window soaking wet.
The McDonalds tried numerous times to stop the activity. A local priest performed an exorcism, which only made matters worse. A St. Clair Township head master named Robert Barker, who dabbled in the occult, volunteered to investigate. But he was convicted of pretending to practice witchcraft and sentenced to a year in jail. He won on appeal and was released.
Then, in 1830, the incidents abruptly stopped.
As the story goes, a frustrated John McDonald contacted a “reader” in Long Point who told him to shoot a silver bullet at a black goose on his property.
There was talk of an old woman, a shapeshifter, with a grudge against the family. McDonald shot the goose and the following day he saw an old woman with her arm in a sling.
The Baldoon Mystery has been called Canada’s most famous ghost story. Laursen said dismissing it as fake is difficult because of the many eyewitness accounts, newspaper articles, and books written about it.
“It’s such a rich story,” said Fehr, adding witchcraft was commonly blamed for strange activities in the 19th century.
Laursen and Fehr were the guest presenters at an April 7 online event to celebrate Archives Awareness Month. Throughout April, Lambton County Archives is featuring daily themes relevant to the archival world, including behind the scenes tours of the vault and more stories in its collection.
Details can be found at lambtonarchives.ca, @LambtonCountyArchives on Facebook, or @HeritageLambton on Twitter.