Haunted History

Many of Canada's historic sites are reputed to be haunted by ghosts.

Written by Nelle Oosterom and James Careless; illustrated by GMB Chomichuk

Posted September 15, 2015

From helpful bellhops, to burning brides, to things that go bump in the night, places of historic interest are often linked to spine-tingling tales of the supernatural. Old hotels, heritage homes, long-running businesses, and other storied sites are as likely as not to be “haunted” — or so it is claimed. Today almost every Canadian city has at least one ghost tour operator who does a thriving business scaring people out of their wits.

Curiosity about odd and unexplainable happenings is not new. In the 1920s interest in spiritualism — communicating with the dead — reached a peak, with séances held in the drawing rooms of respectable citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. In Winnipeg, for example, Dr. Thomas Hamilton and his wife Lillian conducted séances attended by such luminaries as Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But skeptics such as magician Harry Houdini dismissed the spiritualism craze, saying the mediums were taking advantage of peoples’ grief over the loss of life in the trenches of the First World War.

Ghost sightings have had a long history in all human cultures. Believers have generally understood them to be the deceased. Others have looked to science for explanations. Back in 1813, Scottish physician John Ferriar wrote An Essay Towards a Theory of Apparitions which argued that ghosts were actually optical illusions. Another physician, Alexandre Jacques François Brière de Boismont, wrote a book in 1845 that explained them as hallucinations. Other explanations include waking dreams, ball lighting, geomagnetic fields, trapped psychic energy, and even carbon monoxide poisoning.

Whatever their reality, ghosts make for good stories and there are numerous books on the topic. Noted Canadian author and anthologist John Robert Colombo has published a number of ghost story compilations but cautions that there is no proof of their existence.

“Reports of ghostly activities do not necessarily tell us anything at all about the life after death (the so-called survival hypothesis), but they do reveal a great deal about human nature, social expectation, our hopes and fears, and our history,” Colombo writes. “My feeling is that ghosts are good for us because they encourage us to think about the nature of belief and disbelief, about evidence and proof, and about fate and destiny, etc.”

The full version of this article appeared in the October-November 2015 issue of Canada’s History magazine. 

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