The three men made their way down the lonely trail that skirted the fields outside of Machiasport, Maine. These hills were wide open and bare, but the trees in the distance belied a deep forest toward the west and if they listened intently, they might have heard the waves in Machias Bay. It was dusk and the last light of the setting sun burned a bright red gash across last grey light of day. One of the three was a skeptic, certain that the events which had been occurring for the past six years were nothing more than an elaborate hoax played out to fool the locals into believing that it was possible to speak with the dead. His mission was to stop this foolish dependence on chicanery and parlor tricks and get the people back to believing properly about the living and the dead. The other two had seen the spirit before, had even had conversations with it, but that had been in the confines of the cellar of Captain Blaisdel and his family. They knew it was real. They were there as witnesses. Besides, this meeting was something else entirely and none of the three knew how this rendezvous with the dead would turn out.
The year was 1806. For the past six years, a ghost had been speaking from beyond the grave to hundreds of locals in the Machiasport area. This was a good fifty years before the Fox girls of Hydesville, New York began hearing rappings in their house and started the American Spiritualist Movement which still lingers in our modern world as the NSAC (National Spiritualist Association of Churches). Situated on the edge of the new country, this out-of-the-way Maine hamlet would serve as the locale for the largest mass witnessing of a ghost in American history. Reverend Cummings, the skeptic on his was to the rendezvous with the ghost, claimed that he had his doubts. What would happen on the edge of that barren field that night would change his world forever and help him prepare a view of life after death that took the world by storm when the Fox girls popularized the idea of communicating with the dead more than half a century later.
The Machiasport Ghost been called ‘America’s First Ghost,’ but that would be stretching the truth. Certainly the new world had its share of hauntings long before 1799. Native Americans have passed down their stories of spirits by the oral tradition for centuries. Folklorists can call upon hundreds of stories of hauntings and specters from each of the original thirteen colonies. But the difference between these hauntings and the Machiasport haunting is that they were old and based upon memory alone, with few witnesses. The appearance the ghost of the woman in the cellar of the Maschiasport home could be dated and witnessed by dozens of living people. Also, the ghost appeared at a time when science and the value of impartial observation was beginning to become valued over time-honored belief and superstition. The other difference between this haunting and the others that came before it was that this ghost wanted to talk and well over two hundred people claimed to have heard her spoken words. Over a hundred also claimed to have seen her while she spoke. Stranger still, many in the crowd knew her while she was alive. It was like she had never died.
If you’ve ever spent time alone in a house, you may recall that there are moments when you can swear you’ve heard a voice. You can’t really make out the words and if you live in the city, it’s easy to write it off as a conversation between two people walking outside as they pass your house. If you live in the country, however, it’s harder to find an explanation for the sound. The experience can leave you with goosebumps and a sudden urge to get in the car and go for a long, long ride. Many people who claim to live in a haunted house describe the experience of hearing the mumbled sound of someone talking, but it’s faint and indistinct and comes and goes quickly. Most people go about their business and try not to ponder the cause.
Such was the case for Captain Abner Blaisdel and his family at their house at Machiasport in the year 1799. Blaisdel was a respected member of the community and a regular churchgoer. He wasn’t one to fall for gimmicks and foolhardy ideas. But that didn’t stop him and his family from being the one place in the community where the spirit decided to take up residence and begin talking.
At first the voice was quiet and almost not there. They weren’t enough to spook the Captain and his family, merely enough to inconvenience them.The sounds and noises went on for months and then, on the cold day of January 2, 1800, the voice suddenly gained a more sophisticated manner of speaking. They could distinctly hear words now. Stranger still, the sound seemed to be coming from their cellar. The voice sounded like a woman. With stout heart, Captain Blaisdel entered the cellar and listened. When he had heard enough, he asked the disembodied voice who she was.
“I’m the dead wife of Captain George Butler, born Nelly Hooper,” replied the voice, which has been described as “shrill, but mild and pleasant.” Nelly Butler had indeed died a few years earlier at the tender age of twenty-one.
Captain Blaisdel was not a medium, yet he was able to clearly speak to someone who obviously wasn’t physically there with him in the cellar. He knew both of the men whose names were mentioned by the spirit and he also knew that neither of them would appreciate the idea that their dead beloved Nelly was back among them and able to talk. Her father, Dennis Hooper, only lived six miles down the road. Her widow, George, lived nearby, as well. The voice requested an audience with the two men and asked Captain Blaisdel to send for them forthwith. When asked why she was in the cellar and not in the house above, the voice explained that “I don’t want to frighten the children.”
There are not many instances of the sudden appearances of spirits who can simply speak to the living without some kind of intercession. Today when such ideas are contemplated, one thinks of this kind of communication as impossible, or at least impossible without mediums, ouiji boards, trances and seances. Yet here was an instance of a simple man having a conversation with a dead woman he might have passed on the street merely a few years before. He reluctantly did as the spirit asked and sent for the two men. When they arrived, he sheepishly explained why he had summoned them in the dead of winter. Abner Blaisdel communicated to the pair that they had been hearing things for about six months and only recently had the sounds turned into a full-bodied human voice. Father and son-in-law listened with what one can only imagine was trepidation and suspicion. But there was only one way to prove the otherwise stalwart Captain Blaisdel wrong and set this matter to rest: they would go into the cellar and have a chat with their Nelly…or not. If they heard nothing, that would be the end of that.
When they emerged from the cellar, they were pale and wide-eyed. After asking the disembodied voice a series of questions that only Nelly Butler could have answered, they were convinced that this was indeed her spirit come back to commune with the living. She knew the answer to every question. Later, her father would write,”I believe it was her voice.”
A few days later Abner’s son came into the house visibly shaken, claiming that on the way home he had seen a woman in white floating above the fields. Things escalated when, the following day, the voice in the cellar loudly accosted the son asking him why he hadn’t said hello to her when he saw her.
In such a small community it didn’t take long for word to get around that Captain Blaisdel had a ghost in his cellar who could talk to you. As the weather turned warmer and over the course of the next few years, scores of people visited the Blaisdel house and walked down the steps into the cellar to listen to Nelly Butler. What did she talk about? She spoke of redemption, of righteousness, and she also gave predictions. She prophesied that her widower would marry a Blaisdel and that they would have a child soon after. She spoke of family matters to people who she had known in life and gave advice. She predicted correctly the death of at least three local people. She took questions from the people and claimed to be neither a demon nor a witch. She is quoted to have said to a group of visitors, “Although my body is consumed and turned to dust, my soul is as much alive as before I left my body.” She wasn’t there to scare them but to guide them. For a ghost, she seemed quite pleasant. People would crowd into the cellar and sing hymns pray, and call to the spirit to appear and the eventually she would take form, indistinct at first, but eventually they saw her and she would move about and among them. It was a religious experience for those involved, a deeply spiritual moment that impressed upon everyone in attendance that there was life after death: they did not need to doubt.
Then, in May of 1800, in front of at least twenty witnesses, she took a step forward from wherever she resided and appeared, materializing in front of the crowd. She was wearing a ‘shining white garment’. One of those present wrote, “At first the apparition was a mere mass of light, then it grew into a personal form, about as tall as myself…the glow of the apparition had a constant tremulous motion. At last the personal form became shapeless, expanded every way and then vanished in a moment.”
She made a request that her child be reburied with new rites, which was done. Those in attendance at the re-interment of the body claimed that she appeared to them at the graveside to share in the moment. But this apparently wasn’t her unfinished business. Word of the ghost spread quickly and her reputation grew.
But such association with the dead would not stand forever. The local townsfolk were becoming used to Nelly’s presence, many even visiting her on a regular basis like they might call upon an old friend. There was one person in the town, however, who was determined that this was an elaborate hoax and he was bound and determined to prove it. The Reverend Abraham Cummings did not believe in ghosts. As far as we was concerned, the spirits of the dead didn’t linger. They went to perdition or paradise and could not choose to stay. As far as he was concerned, the only living person who had ever died and returned to tell about it was quite familiar to him . The locals didn’t need Nelly to prove the existence of a life after death when they had the Son of God. Cummings was an educated man, a graduate of Brown University in Providence, and a man who believed in progress instead of superstition. It was time to end this nonsense once and for all. As an educated man, he would use the light of reason to shine in that dark cellar and end this series of events.
He began by interviewing his parishioners, at least twenty-seven of them, each one certain of the veracity of her existence. They all told the same story – a spirit had returned from the edge of life to tell them truths and guide them. That didn’t deter him. The time had come to take on this spirit head on. Though he had avoided meeting with Nelly because agreeing to do so would simply prove her existence to his parishioners, he set up a meeting of sorts, away from the cellar and the prying eyes of the public. He asked her father and a friend to accompany him on a walk. Captain Blaisdel asked Nelly’s spirit to meet the Reverend in the open, in a field near the house but away from the road. She agreed to the personal interview.
In his book Unbidden Guests, author William Oliver Stevens writes of the meeting. He gathered his information from Reverend Cummings own writings. He writes, “About twelve rods ahead of [Rev. Cummings] there was a slight knoll…[where] he could see a group of white rocks…showing dimly against the dark turf…Two or three minutes later…one of those…white rocks had risen off the ground, and had now taken the shape of a globe of light with a rosy tinge. As he went toward it, he kept an eye on it for fear it might disappear, but he had not gone more than five paces when the glowing mass flashed right to where he was [and] resolved itself into the shape of a woman, but small, the size of a child of seven. He thought, “You are not tall enough for the woman who has been appearing among us.” Immediately, the figure expanded to normal size…and now she appeared glorious, with rays of light shining from her head all about, and reaching to the ground.”
This was the last time anyone saw or heard from the spirit of Nelly Butler. Apparently her connection with a man of God was enough to finish her business. But it was only the beginning for Reverend Abraham Cummings. From that moment on, he was transformed. The greatest skeptic had become the greatest believer. Here was definite proof that life continued after death. This ghostly appearance only served to fuel the fire of the good reverend’s devotion to the precepts of the Christian religion. He left the Machiasport area and traveled widely, preaching about the life of the world to come as evidenced by the visitation that he had witnessed. He recorded the incident in the book he published in 1826, entitled, Immortality Proved by the Testimony of Sense: In which is contemplated the doctrine of spectres and the existence of a particular spectre addressed to the candor of this enlightened age.
When we consider that by the date of the publication of his book, America would soon be immersed in Spiritualism and the idea of speaking with the dead would enter the mainstream. The Reverend Cummings was recalling a set of events that gave credence to this rather radical set of paranormal ideas that was taking America by storm. IS it possible that the Fox girls might have read his pamphlets? Spiritualist Churches rose up seemingly overnight and with the loss of so much life in the coming years as a result of the American Civil War, the stage was set for an entire nation of grieving people to seek communication with their dearly departed loved ones.
Later, in 1888, the founders of the Spiritualist Movement itself would reject the idea of spiritualism, claiming that it had all started as a hoax with an apple tied to a string making raps on the floor. The Fox sisters eschewed their previous claims, calling the modern movement “an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.” Though the sisters died soon after in abject poverty, the idea of mediumship and speaking to the dead gave them a comfortable income over the years. Motivated and managed by their older sister, they turned their ruse into a regular enterprise. Even though they claimed that the entire idea of spiritualism was a hoax, that didn’t stop the Spiritualist movement from continuing to grow. Vestiges of it still live on today.
But what about the Machiasport haunting? No one made any money as a result of it, though it gave the Reverend Cummings a reason to continue his life’s work with more vigor for years to come. What makes the Machiasport Haunting important in the history of American paranormal studies is its early date and the number of witnesses who wrote about and claimed to have seen and spoken with the dead woman known to the world as Nelly Butler. No other haunting has had so many witnesses. Also, the mood of this haunting was enlightening rather than frightening, which is singularly rare and seems to compare only to such events as the appearance of the Virgin Mary in Catholic circles. We can even make the claim that this was the first documented haunting in the history of the United States.
Because these events took place in an earlier time, modern people might tend to think of them as slightly foolish, perhaps even as a kind of parlor fiction designed to entertain listeners on long, dark nights by the fireside. Whatever people heard and saw in that cellar in Machiasport in the year 1800 and beyond, they believed it was a ghost. These weren’t people prone to flights of fancy. These people were the epitome of the Yankee hands-on, problem-solving spirit, practical in every way. If the appearance of Nelly Butler’s spirit was a fabrication created by the Blaisdel family, they must have been among the greatest charlatans ever to walk the earth, or beyond. The questions remain: was this a ghost or a demonic intruder? Was this hope from Heaven or was this a lie perpetrated to lure believers into a false hope? How could such things be?
We will never know.
Citro, Joseph A.
Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors. Shelburne, VT: Chapters Pub., 1996. Print.
America’s First Ghost
Bangor Daily News: “Is Maine Home to America’s First Documented Haunting?”, Oct 31, 2015