In 1878, Esther Cox, an ordinary eighteen year old girl, was beset by “manifestations” including knocking, rapping, throwing objects, and starting fires. Esther believed she was the victim of mesmerism, while the local doctor had no explanation.
Soon the local papers were reporting on the events. Esther became a local celebrity with people coming from all over to witness these manifestations, including an American stage actor named Walter Hubbell. Hubbell declared that he would prove Esther a fraud but became one of her biggest supporters. Hubbell had the brilliant idea of exhibiting Esther around Nova Scotia. When this was a disaster, he set out to write a book about the “haunting” (as he believed it).
After Hubbell went off to find himself fame and fortune, Esther went back to her life as a domestic servant. The manifestations followed her to her new abode and caused trouble anew. When the dust settled, Esther found herself in jail. The judge did not believe ghosts had stolen her employers’ property or burned down two barns. Strangely enough, the manifestations stopped after Esther served her sentence. Esther disappeared into obscurity.
When I started reading Haunted Girl, I was ready to accept that Esther was a master manipulator who enjoyed conning people. By the end of the book, I was both sympathetic and a little bit sad. Esther was a lonely girl with a hard life. Abandoned by her father and foisted on relatives, Esther had very few opportunities to better herself. Even marriage was beyond her after she was unceremoniously dumped by the man she’d been seeing. Like the author, I can see the answer to the mystery as mischief gone out of control along with a desire for attention.
Laurie Glenn Norris lays out the facts of the story plainly for the reader. She includes quotes from newspaper articles and eye witness accounts. There is an obvious voice missing from the narrative: Esther herself. People (men) spoke for Esther: her brother-in-law, doctor, clergyman, Walter Hubbell, and others. What I find most telling is how during all of the 15 months the events took place not one person even took a photo of the girl. It’s like she didn’t exist outside the manifestations. What does it says about the state of women lives at that time that not even becoming a “celebrated medium” gave a female a voice of her own?
Several books have been written about Esther since she died. Her story is a source of fascination whether you believe she was tormented by spirits or committed a hoax. Laurie Glenn Norris provides historical and social context to the story and I appreciated her female point of view. I’d recommend Haunted Girl: Esther Cox & the Great Amherst Mystery to anyone curious about spiritualism in the 19th century.
If you are interested in Walter Hubbell’s point of view, his book The Haunted House is available on Project Gutenberg for free. Take it with a grain of salt since Hubbell had the most to gain from Esther’s story and his experiences are somewhat suspect.
Thanks to Nimbus Publishing for the review copy.