Author: Laurie Glenn Norris With Barbara Thompson
“Haunted Girl – Esther Cox & the Great Amherst Mystery” is a recent addition to Nimbus & Vagrant Publishing’s long list of Eastern Canadian paranormal & folklore focused literature. The authors, Laurie Glenn Norris & Barbara Thompson, go to great lengths to provide a biographical narrative that is not only historically accurate, but pleasantly neutral and objective. In stark contrast to other books about Esther Cox, no potential stone is left unturned as to the possible causation of the alleged phenomena – providing the reader with a unbridled look into the life of a 19th Century girl living in very unusual circumstances. “The Haunted Girl – Esther Cox & the Great Amherst Mystery” is as much a biography of Esther Cox’s life as it is a much needed retrospective case study of the phenomenal events that surrounded her from 1878 – 1879.
Unlike most literature in this vein, the expectation should not be set that this is just a simple facsimile of William Hubbell’s novelization of the events that had plagued Esther Cox and the residents of 6 Princess Street, nor is it a simple retelling of folklore leaning on the side of superstition. It is, in fact, a surprisingly well-researched biography that not only provokes critical thinking, but also leads readers to question some of the same points the authors do, well before extensive reflection in later chapters.
The book first sets the stage by recounting what daily life was like in Amherst during Esther’s life: what relationships had developed between local officials and the town’s people, who Esther Cox was, as well as the events leading up to “The Great Amherst Mystery”.
Once the setting is established, the reader is immersed into each event as recounted by those who witnessed or documented Esther’s story. In early chapters, the authors are mindful not to interpret the events, but to report them as they were alleged to have transpired. The story itself is an arduous reconstruction from diary entries, conflicting articles from newspapers, and witness testimony.
The reader is next introduced to Walter Hubbell, the author of “The Great Amherst Mystery”, who claimed to be interested only in documenting and authenticating the phenomena surrounding Esther. Considering his actual contributions to unravelling the mystery and his tendency to sensationalize, the reader begins to wonder if his motives were not actually self-serving. A great deal of time is spent deconstructing his work and cross-referencing with multiple sources throughout the book.
The authors make a very astute observation about the media climate at the time, which remains true even today. They go to great lengths to explain the polarization of competing newspapers based on their interpretations of the events occurring at 6 Princess Street. Each newspaper is described as having taken drastically different stances. When one newspaper would run a story sensationalizing or glamorizing events, another would reel it back into the realm of science, while yet another would depict those writing about or participating in the public dialogue as frauds. Regardless of the authenticity of the events, the reader begins to see how Esther found herself under the microscope of early Canadians, and perhaps, unintentionally became an international celebrity.
Approximately halfway through the book the reader is shown many contrasting interpretations of the events surrounding Esther Cox, and is given some insight into her state of mind, as well as the many expectations placed upon her. The authors then delve into the proliferation of spiritualism (how Esther would have been familiar with the movement) and the many forms of Mediumship that came in its wake. Many comparisons are drawn between similar cases such as the Fox Sisters, Angelique Cottin, the Salem Witch Trials, and Borley Rectory (to name a few).
Whether readers are researchers, historians, folklore enthusiasts, or paranormal enthusiasts, “Haunted Girl – Esther Cox & the Great Amherst Mystery” opens up a century-old case of alleged poltergeist phenomena and could be considered the definitive guide to understanding “The Great Amherst Mystery”. While we may never know what actually happened to Esther Cox, “Haunted Girl – Esther Cox & the Great Amherst Mystery” is a great start. Not only does it set the precedent for researchers and enthusiasts alike, it is an excellent contribution to Canadiana.