SYDNEY: The people of Cape Breton and Northeastern Nova Scotia have a rich history that includes sharing tales best saved for a dark and spooky night.
Two of the island’s best experts on all things frightening are Jason Murphy and Doug Mombourquette, the lead investigators of “Haunts from the Cape,” a paranormal investigations group based out of Sydney. While the guys are situated on the eastern side of the island, the pair – along with other investigators in the group – is anxious to visit Richmond and Inverness counties, Port Hawkesbury, and other sites in the region.
“There are so many locations we want to get to,” Murphy said. “I’d like to start in Port Hawkesbury and work our way out from there. We might even try to get it going before next summer.
“There are some very cool spots over that way. One place I’m really curious about is a property between Mabou and Inverness where, apparently, there was an exorcism.”
Ghost hunting has evolved over the years, and now researchers like Murphy and Mombourquette record their findings with the help of technology. A spirit box is one of their primary tools. The device scans radio frequencies for unnatural voices. The box – or the Echo app for Smartphones – allows investigators to ask questions in a haunted location, and possibly, get a reply.
They also keep track of atmospheric changes in haunted locations with the help of K2 meters and temperature gauges. Paranormal investigators say changes in temperatures or electromagnetic fields can be a tell-tale sign of the supernatural.
With the help of a spirit box, the guys ran into a very unsettling instance at Black Brook Cemetery.
“There’s a legend about a witch that lived there and, apparently, she’s buried somewhere around Black Brook,” Murphy said. “Doug was on top of a hill there and he looked down at a little creek, and he said ‘what’s down there?’ A woman replied right away: ‘A witch.’”
Gathering evidence like that, said Murphy, is not uncommon. He added it’s difficult to explain how such a distinctive response came seconds after the question was asked.
“Something intelligent replied to a direct question,” he said. “It’s extremely cool when you get instances like that.”
Mombourquette mentioned another chilling instance at Black Brook Cemetery. He and another investigator were standing on a road running along the brook.
“There are a couple of children’s graves along there too,” he said. “I asked if any spirits knew nursery rhymes and would they like to sing along. I then sang, ‘twinkle twinkle little’ and a spirit replied with the word ‘star.’ I continued with ‘how I wonder what you’ and the same voice replied ‘are.’ We also had them counting along with us that night.”
Both investigators said looking for natural explanations is the first thing they do, when faced with a potential haunting. Indeed, said Mombourquette, some investigators are all too willing to jump to paranormal conclusions — and sometimes for monetary reasons.
“There are groups out there that will take advantage of people by manufacturing or faking paranormal activity in the client’s homes as a way to take their money,” he said. “Never trust a team that charges money for residential investigations.
Although they approach the subject of the paranormal critically, both investigators say they’ve seen enough over the years to conclude the supernatural is a real phenomenon. Their evidence can be found on YouTube by visiting the “Haunts of the Cape” channel. The group also runs an active Facebook group which welcomes new members.
While Mombourquette and Murphy might have some digital material to share, The Reporter recently did a deep dive of its own to collect stories of alleged local hauntings.
One well-documented case of the paranormal relates to an Antigonish County community, not far from the Guysborough County line. The full tale can be found in N. Carroll Macintyre’s book The Fire-Spook of Caledonia Mills, but the story is also related in Bill Jessome’s Maritime Mysteries.
According to the story, the family of Alexander “Black John” MacDonald faced a strange situation in the early 1920’s. Family members kept the ordeal to themselves for a long time, so it’s hard to say exactly when the trouble started.
What is known is that in the winter of 1922 the family began spotting mysterious fires throughout their home. It was at that point they were forced to ask their neighbours for help in watching out for fires.
Eventually, the former police chief of Pictou, Peter Owen Carroll, and a reporter from Halifax, Harold Whidden, heard of the case and decided to investigate. During the investigation, the reporter claimed to have been struck on the arm by something he couldn’t see.
The two investigators claimed the fires were started by an unknown force, and they offered a reward of $200 to anyone who could prove the fires “were caused by any agent other than the supernatural,” in Jessome’s words.
The case was also investigated by Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, a member of the American Society for Psychical Research, and Whidden accompanied the investigator.
One of the alleged ways to communicate with the spirit world is through the practice of automatic writing: an act of writing responses to questions without looking at what’s being written. Allegedly, spirits guide the writer’s hand and relate knowledge from the great beyond.
It was this technique that Prince and Whidden used to get to the bottom of what was happening.
During an automatic writing session, an unseen presence is said to have admitted to lighting the fires. The presence also owned up to striking Whidden, along with causing other headaches for the MacDonald family.
At the end of the investigation, Dr. Prince maintained one of the MacDonald children had set the fires in a state of temporary possession.
The farm where the incident occurred is no longer standing, though the general area of the property is known to locals. Jessome noted that visitors to the property ought to be hesitant in terms of claiming souvenirs.
“The author of The Fire-Spook of Caledonia Mills took an egg cup from the charred ruins,” Jessome wrote. “[He] placed the egg cup on the fireplace mantel of his summer home one holiday weekend and left. The only thing left standing in the morning was the chimney.”
Some slightly less detailed stories regard communities throughout Richmond and Inverness.
In The Cape Breton Book of the Night, edited by Ron Caplan, a story is told regarding Father Donald MacPherson, who served as the parish priest of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Port Hood.
In 1953, MacPherson had a young man working and staying at his glebe house. This young man was awoken by MacPherson at one in the morning, at which point the priest told the young man to come with him to the church.
The two men went to the building, and MacPherson retrieved the Blessed Sacrament. Shortly, the priest left to offer the last rites to someone who had fallen ill. The young man, never having been given an explanation of why he accompanied the priest, went back to bed.
The young man was later told why he was needed. It related to the devil standing in the way of the priest’s mission.
“The priest couldn’t get into the church that night,” he was told by a friend. “That priest tried three times to get in the door, and each time something pushed him back.”
Also from Inverness County, reports Darryl Walsh, author of Ghost Waters: Canada’s Haunted Seas and Shores, is an interesting bit of folk lore regarding Lake Ainslie. Walsh mentioned a lake monster might be hiding in the body of water.
“[It’s] described as being whale-like with a couple of humps,” Walsh wrote. “Estimates vary, but reports of three to six meters are common. It is described as being dark coloured and shy.”
Walsh went onto note that some believe the sightings are a result of a group of ells swimming in the lake.
In Bill Jessome’s More Maritime Mysteries, the well-known journalist details that Cape Breton might have residents of the non-human variety: namely, fairies.
Jessome stopped short of giving specific cases of fairy sightings, but he notes the tales are there to be discovered.
“You may be out in the countryside enjoying nature and hear voices but can’t see anyone,” Jessome wrote. “You may believe that you’re hearing things, but you’re not. You’re in little people country.”
Although the idea of fairies might be hard to swallow, it’s interesting to note Walsh also mentioned fairies in his writing — specifically, in relation to the community of Inverness.
“This area used to be called the Shean, which means ‘house of fairies,’” he tells readers of Ghosts of Nova Scotia. “Many people have seen the little people and some refuse to walk alone at night.”
Walsh reminds his readers that Richmond County and Port Hawkesbury are not without cases of high strangeness. In Ghosts of Nova Scotia, Walsh mentioned he’s heard tales of a haunted house on Philpott Street, known for hallway lights turning on and off and musty smells matched with the scent of sulphur or sweet perfume.
In Richmond County, the researcher mentions the French frigate St. Michel ran aground off Point Michaud, and those who go treasure hunting through the wreckage might be in for a terrible fate.
“…There were sightings of a soldier standing guard near the wreck, and he was believed by some to be an apparition of one of those who died and is still doing his duty.”