The Baldoon Mystery
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:
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:
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: Robert Barker, a local school teacher who was persuaded in the reality of the paranormal and performed fruitless exorcisms on the house; L. McDougal and John McNeil, who stayed in the house and kept having to put out fires, literally; British Army captain Lewis Bennett, who came to solve the mystery but left with nothing other than his own bullets taken away, soaked in the river, and thrown back at him; and a native witch doctor, who had no luck at resolving the problem.
The troubles were finally resolved, however, according to Neil McDonald's and most other versions of the story. The McDonalds were taken on an 80-mile ride — which itself was full of otherworldly terrors — to meet a teenage girl who was said to have "second sight". Neil described:
The girl seemed to know a myriad of details about the McDonalds, in particular, that they had had a land dispute with some unpleasant neighbors, mainly an old woman who lived in a "long, low, log house". She also knew that a stray goose had been in McDonald's flock, with a black head and with a single black feather in each wing. The girl advised John McDonald to form a silver bullet and shoot the goose, and all their troubles would be solved.
McDonald did exactly as he was advised, although his shot was imperfect, and he only winged the goose with his silver bullet. Tracking it to finish the job, he soon found himself outside the long, low, log house.
And so ended the Baldoon Mystery, which has since taken its place in Canada's libraries of legend in the fields of hauntings, poltergeists, shape shifters, and witchcraft. Now of course, any good piece of folklore is well enough to be left alone as folklore, but what if we want to learn more? What if we want to know what really happened? What if Neil McDonald's narrative is so thoroughly referenced with 26 statements from respectable people that we can't just leave it as folklore, but rather, we decide we want to track down the truth of what actually happened in those years starting in 1829?
One of the first things we can do is look at the date of Neil's book, 1871, initially serialized in the Wallaceburg newspaper by W. Colwell — 42 years after the events. Neil had been born in 1824, as best as we know, and so had only been 5 years old at the time. More than half of the 26 people whose statements Neil published claimed to have personally witnessed the events; unless they'd all been very young as well, with only scant recollections, it seems really unlikely that so many of them would have still been alive for Neil to have interviewed them. So from where could Neil have gotten his source information for his highly detailed account?
Writing in Fortean Times, researchers Christopher Laursen and Paul Cropper managed to unearth a single publication from the very year the events actually did take place, 1829, giving Neil a concrete foundation upon which to craft his book. An uncredited author wrote in the Detroit Gazette newspaper a single short column. It gave no names, and gave only an outline of the events (very much the same as described by Neil), but stopped short of the quest to find the teenage girl and the silver bullet winging the witch. However, this entire article was only 360 words. If it was Neil's source of information, 99% of his book had to have been made up.
Only one other known publication preceded Neil's serialization, and that's the account of Peter Jones, an Ojibwe native converted to Christianity and educated, who wrote the 1861 book History of the Ojebway Indians. Jones also never named the McDonald family either. He told an abbreviated version of the same story, but from the perspective of the Ojibwe, who were certain that the disturbances were caused by forest fairies. Jones said he visited the house himself, but saw nothing unusual. However, in his book, he had a single character that, years later, was split into three separate men by Neil: the witch doctor whose exorcism was unsuccessful, and the father of the teenage girl, were both rolled into the third character of John Troyer, a "country doctor" who was into witchcraft. Troyer, according to Jones' book, tried to get rid of the fairies by running around firing silver bullets, until he was stopped by authorities and forced to return home.
So, from these two almost uselessly brief accounts — no doubt combined with family folklore passed down by word of mouth — Neil McDonald created the richly detailed history of the Baldoon Mystery, inventing new characters, and adding major story elements.
And there was was still one more Jenga block to be removed from the structure of Neil's narrative. In Neil's book, the final eyewitness account he gave was that of a Mr. L. A. McDougal. This was one of the longest and most detailed, but made no mention of the silver bullets or the teenage girl; though it did confirm elements like the thrown objects and the broken windows and rocks on the floor. By McDougal's detailed narrative, running around and being involved in the events, he must have at least been a young man at the time. But in 1894, a full 65 years after the event, a reporter from the Toronto Globe tracked him down and interviewed him. The reporter asked McDougal what he thought of Neil's book, and he said quite succinctly, "Most of it was lies."
We don't have any record of when McDougal died, but it was 1905, eleven years after the Toronto Globe interview — by which time he almost certainly would have passed — that the edition of Neil's book that exists today was published. McDougal, who clearly thought very little of the veracity of Neil's book, was dead by the time that his lengthy, confirming narrative finally appeared, tacked on as the final chapter in the print book.
It seems clear that some local event did prompt the local Ojibwe population and Scottish immigrants to pass the word that something strange involving thrown objects happened in 1829. But as for the ghost story that exists today — with marked rocks returning from the river, a magical goose, a psychic child, a shape-shifting witch, tormented witnesses, spontaneous fires, and the involvement of the author's own family — we have little reason to suspect it was anything more than the result of Neil McDonald's colorful pulp-fiction imagination.
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